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.
From the ESPN report:
The NFL and the NFL Referees Association made enough progress in negotiations Tuesday night that the possibility of the locked-out officials returning in time to work this week's games has been discussed, according to sources on both sides.
An agreement in principle is at hand, according to one source familiar to talks, although NFL owners have postured with a "no more compromise" stance.
Although league sources said it would take a week to get the locked-out officials on the field, the NFLRA says its 121 referees have been trained on the new rules implemented last season, have already passed physicals or are prepared to pass physicals immediately. New official game uniforms designed by Nike are "hardly an obstacle," according to a source.
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," running back Adrian Peterson said on a conference call 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 the talks between the league and its officials resumed Wednesday after a short break after going a 14-hour meeting that started Tuesday. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the discussions were not made public and would not characterize the talks.
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.
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.
Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the dispute, tweeting Tuesday that "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon."
Even a deal was reached 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."
AP Sports Writers Richard Rosenblatt, Larry Lage and Michael Marot contributed to this report.