- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was in the middle of sharing details on the NFL's eight-year agreement with regular officials when he shifted course to address the team's fans.
"I want to speak to the fans who are frustrated, as I personally was, and I know a number of the owners were," Kraft said Thursday of the standoff that resulted in replacement officials working the first three weeks of the regular season and ignited into a full-blown firestorm after the Seattle Seahawks' controversial victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.
"We really did think we had this deal done, and it's unfortunate we didn't. In the end, when you want to do something right in the long term, you have to face these hard issues, which we did. I think this is a minor blip and now we move on and we have a great long-term setup here."
Kraft said he was surprised that an agreement wasn't reached earlier, mainly because there was a point before the regular season started when he believed it was completed. When it wasn't, the league had to hire replacement officials as a backup plan.
"I think these replacement officials were under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. Obviously, they were green and weren't as experienced and as good as the [regular officials]," he said. "We wish it had never come to that, but I think it's turned out to be a win-win and we're really happy."
Kraft detailed what were some of the big sticking points from his perspective.
"I think a lot of people think the main issue was over money, but the money is really peanuts in the whole deal. The hardest issue was the right to have full-time employees [as officials] and still keep the commissioner's ability to discipline and decide things," he said, noting that ultimately was part of the final agreement.
Because of that ability to develop full-time referees in support of the current crop who are part-time employees, Kraft believes the officiating has the potential to improve in years to come.
Asked what he viewed as the turning point toward the agreement, Kraft said there was motivation on both sides.
"I think for the officials, they get paid in the preseason like it's regular season. They missed seven games, which is 35 percent of their income for the year. I think the majority of officials wanted to come back. I know we wanted them back, we had a deal ready to be done, so I think it was a combination of that and then also the games and the scrutiny," he said.
"The regular refs are great and it just shows how hard a job they have, but to do a deal, you need both sides comfortable doing it. It's like a player who says, 'I want to be on the 49ers for life, I want to be on the Patriots for life.' They need to manage their agent and set boundaries. It's the same thing here, where you have over 120 referees and they have a professional negotiator who is not part of the game long-term. It makes it hard to negotiate and balance a lot. I think [commissioner] Roger [Goodell] did a heck of a job bringing it together. I'm happy it's behind us and I think everyone is going to benefit long-term."
As for how concerned he was about the quality of NFL games with replacement officials, Kraft, who on Thursday was named as a nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he stresses quality in all of his businesses.
"We know having the regular refs back was important and I think Commissioner Goodell understood that, but there are costs and benefits to everything," he said. "It was a balance and I think it all turned out fine. I think we appreciate the refs and I think they appreciate being back to work. I know I'm excited that we have an opportunity to develop a bench of full-time refs, too."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Thursday the NFL has a "great long-term setup" with its referees, who are set to return to work in Week 4.