Two days after a controversial call cost the Green Bay Packers a win, the NFL and the referees' union are reportedly nearing an end to a lockout that put replacement officials on the field since the start of the season.
According to several reports, the NFL and the union are close to a new deal that would allow the league's regular officials to return to work, possibly as early as this weekend. ESPN reported Wednesday that "an agreement in principle is at hand," and The New York Times reported that the sides "were closing in" on a way to end the impasse. ESPN cited unidentified sources from both sides; the Times cited a person briefed on the negotiations.
The NFL declined to confirm that a deal was imminent.
"Until somebody tells me differently, it's not really changed," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Still, even the suggestion that regular refs could be back as early as Sunday was greeted with welcoming words.
"If it's final and they are, I'm sure a lot of people will be happy -- and I'll be one of those guys, too," Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson said on a conference call with reporters from Detroit in advance of the upcoming Vikings-Lions game.
NFL agent David Canter tweeted: "Welcome back real refs. Just remember when you blow a call you'll get no sympathy.”
A person briefed on the negotiations told The Associated Press that talks between the league and its officials resumed Wednesday morning after a short break following a 14-hour meeting that started Tuesday. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the discussions were not made public.
The debate over the use of replacement officials has raged since the start of the season, and boiled over after the final play of the Packers-Seahawks game. A last-second scrum in the end zone was ruled a game-winning touchdown by Seahawks receiver Golden Tate. But Packers players, their fans and much of the football-watching public saw an interception by Green Bay's M.D. Jennings.
"Would you let a Toyota dealership work on your brand new Rolls-Royce? That doesn't work right, does it," Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh said Wednesday. "Our brand is so big, it's so important to a lot of people. There's no way you can have guys that don't have experience at that level.”
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay's quarterback and the reigning league MVP, used his weekly radio show Tuesday as a platform to lash out at the NFL and question its priorities. However, New England quarterback Tom Brady said he would rather focus on the game and not worry about officiating.
The NFLRA, whose members were locked out in June, wants improved salaries, retirement benefits and other logistical issues. The NFL is proposing a pension freeze and a higher 401(k) match; the union is balking because of the greater risk to the nest egg that comes with the loss of a defined benefit.
And as speculation swirled that a deal was close on Wednesday, the players' association urged caution.
"Having done this before, everyone needs to wait until the ink is dry," NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith tweeted.
The replacement officials previously worked mostly in lower-division college ranks, such as Division III, and in minor professional organizations like the Arena League.
Despite several field fiascos, not everyone is necessarily pointing fingers at the replacements.
"Someone made a good point this morning that maybe we shouldn't be blaming the refs, but blaming the league, the owners, I don't know who it is," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Maybe it's not just the officials. We're putting them in tough situations and it can't be easy.”
In Cincinnati, coach Marvin Lewis urged the Bengals in a team meeting to not fixate on the replacement-ref issue.
"I told our guys to shut up," Lewis said. "It's none of your business. You have no influence on it. You don't need to worry about it. Just play football.”
Even if a deal was at hand, it was still uncertain how it would affect the weekend's games.
"Your loud voices r heard about getting Refs back," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay wrote on Twitter. "We're desperately trying 2 get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall.”