The end of the owner-imposed lockout will close one of the most embarrassing chapters in NFL history, a chapter that turned into a national joke at the conclusion of Monday night's marquee game between the Packers and Seahawks. As loop after loop of the last-second blown call flashed across our television sets, the league had no choice but to get back to the bargaining table and cross the settlement finish line.
Wednesday turned out to be that day, though it was a rocky one. Glimmers of hope spiked and dipped throughout the day, but when early reports of imminent settlement were replaced by a seeming reality of continued stalemate, the conversation continued to flash back to Monday night, when replacement officials cost the Packers - the Super Bowl champions just two seasons ago who now are 1-2 - a game.
As this season rolled into its first-quarter finale, players were still talking about the debacle in Seattle, when replacement officials gave a winning Hail Mary touchdown to Seattle rather than an interception to Green Bay. Players were still talking about continuing to operate at the highest level of their profession while being judged by the lowest-level referees, a situation they all tried to ignore, but knew had to be resolved.
"Obviously," Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said after practice, and before the deal was struck. "We know that we need those guys out there. Enough light has been shed on the (replacement) officials. We understand that they've been put in a tough position, so I don't want to hammer the point because those are grown men with jobs who are put in a position and doing the best that they can. Now the league is meeting with the representatives from NFL officials. We'll leave it in their hands; it's obvious they're working toward something and we'll just be with that."
With established officials now in place, the conversation can turn away from officiating and more to the games. Because until commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he speaks for were willing to fix this thing, the focus of the NFL was moving too far away from on-field action and too far toward bad calls and bad decisions.
Oh we'd still watch - a Wednesday email from the NFL offices blared about record-setting local television ratings in all 30 markets - but the games had taken on an air of anticipatory dread. We were all waiting for the next car crash, hoping it wouldn't happen, yet afraid of missing it all the same. The players felt it, and they didn't like it.
"Sunday night game, the world's watching, and all eyes are going to be on (the officials), which is unfortunate," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said before the agreement. "Normally, in a game like this, eyes are going to be on Eli (Manning) or (Michael) Vick or (Victor) Cruz or JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) or whoever - those are the people that normally the fans are going to watch. Not Sunday night. They're going to be paying attention to the calls. They're going to be paying attention to how we react to the calls and things like that."
The integrity of the game was most definitely at stake. Every time a player bullied an official into calling a hold or flagging pass interference, the game was compromised. And indeed, that was happening.
"I think it's getting out of control a little bit because nobody respects the replacements. Guys are giving them a hard time," Giants tight end Martellus Bennett said. "If Larry Fitzgerald comes up to you and you're a replacement and he goes, 'Hey he's holding me every time,' they're probably going to look at it like, 'Hey, that's Larry Fitzgerald.' That's just the way it is. Everything works better for stars in America.
"No, it's not good for the game. The whole idea of not having regular refs out there wasn't good for the game."
No, it wasn't.