The NFL reached an eight-year agreement with the NFL Referees Association on Wednesday night to end the lockout, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the refs will be back on the field starting Thursday night.
The new collective bargaining agreement is the longest between the league and game officials in NFL history.
"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating," Goodell said in a statement released by the league. "This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating.
"We look forward to having the finest officials in sports back on the field, and I want to give a special thanks to NFL fans for their passion. Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs."
Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout so officials can work Thursday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens (8 p.m. ET on NFL Network). Officials will vote on the agreement Friday and Saturday in Dallas, and a clinic for them will be held after the vote.
The outcome in the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks game on Monday night wasn't considered the "tipping point," but it did accelerate the push from both sides to get a deal done "for the good of the game," a source directly involved in the negotiations told NFL Network's Steve Wyche on Thursday morning.
Although a lot of owners were involved in talks, the source told Wyche that those directly involved were: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank , Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs), John Mara (New York Giants), Bob McNair (Houston Texans), Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers) and Art Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers).
One owner told NFL.com and NFL Network reporter Albert Breer that because of the progress made in negotiations over last weekend, "my opinion is that it would have been done this week even if Monday night didn't happen."
NFL referee Ed Hochuli told NFL.com's Jeff Darlington that he's ready to work a game this weekend. The officials expect to ratify the deal Saturday morning, Hochuli said.
"But all 121 guys and I are very glad we're back," Hochuli said. "We are ready. We missed preseason, and there's nothing we can do about missing on-field practice. But we've worked very, very hard over the last several months. We've taken 18 extensive rules tests, watched hours and hours of video every week. We've worked very hard to be prepared. I think we're ready."
When asked how many curls he did when he heard the rumors that a deal might be getting done today, the famously muscular Hochuli said, "As soon as I heard the rumors, I got down on the floor and started doing pushups."
The league released the following terms of the agreement:
» The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season (or until the official earns 20 years of service). The defined benefit plan then will be frozen.
» Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement, which will have two elements: an annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official that will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019, and a partial match on any additional contribution that an official makes to his 401(k) account.
» Apart from their benefit package, the game officials' compensation will increase from an average of $149,000 per year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.
» Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option of hiring a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year-round, including on the field.
» The NFL will have the option to retain additional officials for training and development purposes and can assign those additional officials to work NFL games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the NFL.
The NFL used replacement referees for the first three weeks of the season, triggering a wave of outrage that culminated Monday night with the Green Bay Packers' loss on a chaotic final play at Seattle.
"We appreciate the effort that the replacement refs gave during such a difficult time," Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour wrote in a text message to NFL.com and NFL Network's Steve Wyche. "We look forward to getting back on the field with the PROFESSIONALS that we entrust will restore faith in our players, coaches and most importantly, our fans."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.