NEW YORK -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tells fans "you deserve better" than games worked by replacement officials.
In an open letter released by the league Friday, a day after the regular officials returned to the field, Goodell says: "I regret we were not able to secure an agreement sooner in the process and avoid the unfortunate distractions to the game."
The officials were locked out in June with the two sides unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Replacements were used for three weeks to increasing criticism from players, coaches and fans. The dispute reached deafening levels when a missed call cost the Green Bay Packers a win against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night.
Goodell tells fans the new contract will improve officiating and commends the replacements for their dedication.
NFL officials started arriving Friday at a Dallas-area hotel to discuss and vote on an agreement reached with the league late Wednesday. Some planned to fly directly to their assigned cities for Sunday's game.
The deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members.
Some said they thought Monday night's Packers-Seahawks game, which ended in chaos after a call in the end zone gave the Seahawks the winning touchdown instead of a Packers interception, provided the final push toward a settlement. Many fans and commentators -- and players in the league -- thought the call was botched.
Monday night's call brought the three-week furor over replacement officials to a fevered pitch.
"It's all history now," head linesman Tom Stabile said. "For us, it was a benefit. It may have been the straw that broke the camel's back."
Line judge Jeff Bergman said he could see the play coming as he watched at home. He noticed that players were starting to take advantage of replacement officials struggling to keep control of the game.
"The last play of the game was something that was going to happen sooner or later," Bergman said. "It gave us and the league an opportunity to get together and hammer out a deal that was going to get hammered out anyway."
Referee Ed Hochuli, who led weekly tests and conference calls for officials to stay sharp during the lockout, declined to say whether the replacements made the right call.
"You really don't want to see that," Hochuli said. "You don't want to see the controversy. You don't want to see teams lose games that they shouldn't have lost, if indeed that's what happened. We're not making a judgment on that."
After three weeks of games marred by mistakes, the regular refs said they were heartened by the support they've received from fans, players and coaches -- even if they don't expect it to last very long now that they're back.
"You're not really beloved by the public. You're tolerated. And to see that type of reception that our guys got last night was really heartwarming," said Bergman, who will head to Green Bay for Sunday's game, one week after Packers players ripped the replacements for calling Monday's disputed play a touchdown.
"After the euphoria of the moment wears off, probably sometime early in the second quarter, it'll be back to regular NFL football mode," Bergman said. "Players will be questioning our judgment, our ancestry. Coaches will be screaming at us. And it'll be life as back to normal on Sundays."
One crew returned to work Thursday night. Cheered from the moment they walked onto the field, the men in stripes ran a smooth and efficient game as the NFL's lockout of officials came to an end with the Baltimore Ravens' 23-16 win over the Browns.
"To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up," referee Gene Steratore said. "It was a very special feeling."