With Commissioner Roger Goodell at the table, the NFL and referees' union pressed toward a settlement Wednesday to end a three-month lockout that triggered a wave of frustration and anger over replacement officials and threatened to disrupt the rest of the season.
Two days after a controversial call cost the Green Bay Packers a win, both sides were said to be nearing a deal and several reports put regular officials back at work perhaps as early as Sunday.
ESPN reported that "an agreement in principle is at hand." The New York Times said the sides "were closing in" on a new agreement.
The NFL declined to confirm that a tentative contract was imminent.
The union wanted improved salaries, retirement benefits and other logistical issues for the mostly part-time referees. The NFL has proposed a pension freeze and a higher 401(k) match.
"Until somebody tells me differently, it's not really changed," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Talks resumed Wednesday morning and continued at league headquarters in New York past 10:30 p.m., EDT. The sides held a marathon session Tuesday — also attended by Goodell, who was present at four meetings last week as well.
"We want to go back to work but it has to be the right deal for 121 guys," NFL field judge Boris Cheek said. "We have to be patient and let this work itself out."
Some coaches, including Miami's Joe Philbin and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, instructed players not to speak publicly on the issue, especially after a barrage of comments that accompanied Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, which the Packers lost 14-12 on a missed call.
Fines against two coaches for incidents involving the replacements were handed out Wednesday.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was docked $50,000 for trying to grab an official's arm Sunday to ask for an explanation of a call after his team lost at Baltimore Sunday. And Washington assistant Kyle Shanahan was tagged for $25,000 for what the league called "abuse of officials" in the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. Two other coaches, Denver's John Fox and assistant Jack Del Rio, were fined Monday for incidents involving the replacements.
"I accept the discipline and I apologize for the incident," Belichick said.
But many players indicated the replacement-ref issues were too significant to ignore.
"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. "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."
The replacement officials previously worked mostly in lower-division college ranks, such as Division III, and in minor professional organizations like the Arena League.
"I hate to say it," Carolina's Steve Smith said, "but if you are going to have these refs in a Super Bowl it's going to cost somebody a game.
Continue reading this story on the...