Welcome back refs; it's been too long

Our three-weeks-too-long national nightmare is over, and now that America's most popular sports league will no longer be officiated by men who should have been wearing Ghostface masks, most of us want to scream with joy.

The labor staredown that reached a boiling point last Sunday night and became a bona-fide public relations inferno after Monday night's Fail Mary (not sure who came up with that, but bless his/her soul) in Seattle has finally come to an end. Not since the 1970s have stripes been so universally popular.

In the end, the NFL and its locked-out officials compromised on the major issues, which is what usually happens when high-stakes business disputes get resolved. I'm not so sure the NFL owners would have blinked had last Sunday's games not been so blatantly butchered by the replacement refs – and there's no way this would have been settled so quickly had the Packers-Seahawks ending not joined the annals of outrageous sports injustices.

Put it this way: If you think the timing of this deal is coincidental, you probably also believe that Golden Tate didn't intentionally push Sam Shields to the turf before his faux catch – and that zebras can fly.

Actually, some zebras do have magical powers, now that the skill, fortitude and neutrality required to officiate football at the highest level have been realized by the masses. The tentativeness and hesitation displayed by the replacements went well beyond getting talked into calls by players and coaches or giving extra challenges to Jim Harbaugh. That lack of competence was, I believe, a factor in the judgment of excruciatingly close, game-deciding, final-play calls on Sunday and Monday nights.

[Dan Wetzel: NFL does right thing and gives into public pressure]

The fact that both of those calls went to the home team (Baltimore and Seattle), I'm convinced, was consistent with the overmatched and overwhelmed psyche of the replacement refs. While I'm not suggesting that anything insidious took place in either game -- at least, until I find some Facebook profiles of the officials in question in Ravens or Seahawks gear, like that Saints-loving scab who got pulled off a New Orleans game the previous weekend -- I do believe that human nature may well have played a subconscious role.

I was on the field in Seattle when the game was decided, as you may have heard, and take it from me: Repossessing that touchdown from the Seahawks and awarding the Packers victory in front of nearly 70,000 charged-up fans would not have been an act for the meek. If you were in that situation, and your pulse rate was in danger of soaring to Space Needlesque heights, it's quite possible your survival instincts would dictate that you decide to signal touchdown without realizing whether your thought process was affected.

It was a bad night to be on the road, and unfortunately for the Packers, I believe they took one for the team on Monday – the team being sports fans, the players on the other 31 NFL franchises and everyone who is offended by substandard decision-making. The Packers' misfortune underscored what was already becoming clear to the masses: Being an official at football's highest level isn't easy, and we should have been cherishing those authentic zebras more than we knew.

Now, we will, at least for a little while. I love the fact that the regular officials will be back for Thursday night's game between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore – and not just because I've been saying all along that the league's public proclamations that it would take at least a week post-settlement to get them up to speed and back on the field was pure, negotiation-fueled garbage.

Think about it: If you're a fan or an NFL owner, would you rather have the regular refs on a Thursday morning flight to Baltimore and cabbing straight from BWI to M&T Bank Stadium, or the glorified Footlocker employees who reffed the Packers-Seahawks game? You make the call. If you're at an NFL stadium this Thursday, Sunday or Monday, and you feel compelled to welcome back the regular officials with a hearty ovation, do it with conviction, for you never knew how much you missed them. None of us did, which is precisely the point.

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I'm not saying that the regular officials never blew calls, and I'm realistic enough to know that those cheers will turn to derisive jeers the second a questionable decision goes against the home team. However, for the most part, the regulars are able to follow the game at an insanely fast pace, stifle their allegiances, stay attuned to the rules interpretations designed to enhance player safety and rule decisively without bowing to the pressure of overbearing coaches, intimidating athletes or liquored-up crowds. If they have a relatively sweet deal as part-time employees, it is not unwarranted, given how much money the NFL is generating on a recurring and accelerating basis.

The settlement comes three weeks too late, but we'll take it: If all goes well, the Packers will either make the playoffs or miss the postseason by more than one game, and the Seahawks won't sneak into the playoffs at another team's expense (either getting in easily or getting left out entirely), and the replacement officials can go back to their NAIA fields and poker tournaments and lingerie leagues and tell their grandchildren about that crazy stretch in September of 2012 when a labor dispute thrust them into the national consciousness.

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The rest of us can get back to watching professional football as it ought to be – and with a better understanding of how integral authentic zebras are to the NFL's natural habitat.

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