Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
It took a month too long, but NFL order has been restored.
It's about time.
With the overtime bargaining sessions to strike a labor deal early Thursday morning that brings back the 121 officials locked out since June, pro football's season resumes without a complete asterisk.
This won't reverse that ridiculous outcome in Seattle on Monday night, when the Green Bay Packers were robbed of a victory by replacement officials --- with an assist from the non-replacement league supervisor at the game -- who ruled an apparent game-sealing interception as a game-winning touchdown.
But at least the Packers have 13 games with the pro officials to make amends.
And the bogus call in Seattle turned out to be a good thing in the grander scheme: It fueled the intense, widespread backlash that provided the impetus for finalizing a deal.
Kicked to the curb is the collection of undoubtedly well-meaning replacements who largely proved to be in way over their heads in jumping to the NFL from Division III and high school levels ... and even the Lingerie Football League.
It seems surreal that the site for the first game back for regular officials, between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, is M&T Bank Stadium -- where one of the most outrageous snapshots of games with the replacement zebras occurred: An irate Bill Belichick chased and grabbed an official after the New England Patriots lost to the Ravens on Sunday night.
But if that bit of irony had to happen to get the regulars back, so be it.
Both sides claimed a measure of victory in settling the three-month with an eight-year deal that runs through 2019. The NFL got the officials union to agree to expanding the number of officials, to deepen the pool of of officials for long-term development. And the league got an agreement to hire some full-time officials.
The officials got an increase in annual average pay, from $149,000 in 2011 to $205,000 by 2019. And officials also managed to keep their defined pension benefit through 2016, although beginning in 2017 retirement benefits will be made through a 401(k) plan that will include an annual contribution and partial match from the NFL.
Otherwise, big winners are clearly identified all over the place.
Players win. Coaches win. NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell win. Competition wins.
Most importantly, fans who have supported the USA's most popular sport to the point that the NFL will generate more than $9.5 billion this year (and counting) win.
This is one major step for restoring integrity.
Whew. One of the most sordid chapters in the league's 93-year history is over. It was three-plus regular-season weeks (plus a tension-filled preseason) of faux officiating that not only stained the NFL's product and its well-honed image, but also risked the safety and ultimate livelihood of the players.
The real officials -- from recognizable referees Ed Hochuli and Mike Carey to unknown side judges such as Jimmy DeBell and Keith Parham -- have never been loved like this.
Without the best officials -- who advanced to the NFL level through exceptional performance, solid training, proven experience and rigorous vetting -- the games too often became comedies of errors.
On a widespread level, the substandard officiating was painted in inconsistency.
In some cases, obvious calls such as flagrant blows to the head of quarterbacks and other defenseless players, to excessive contact downfield were missed. So many subtle calls, such as infractions occurring on the line, were missed, too.
Then the inconsistency was compounded by absurdity. Sometimes, replacement officials awarded extra yards by erroneously spotting the football after penalties. Other times, they simply didn't know the rules.
And at times they were either too gullible or too ignorant in the heat of the moment to realize they were being played, such as case when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh managed to squeeze two extra instant-replay reviews -- and timeouts -- during Sunday's game at Minnesota.
The poor officiating left the NFL's credibility battered and bruised.
Yet the damage won't be permanent. As solid TV ratings through the first three weeks indicated, the controversial officiating didn't weaken the appetite for fans to tune in.
Now when they watch, they will see the real yellow flags fly.
The best of the best zebras are back.
by Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY