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Refs ready ?to earn? their stripes

For the first time in, well, ever, NFL referees are popular.

"This might be their one week of glory," Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler said, "because next week everybody's going to be on them again."

After 65 preseason games and 48 regular-season games, the NFL finally did away with those aggravating replacement officials by ending its lockout against the NFL Referees Association.

Bona-fide NFL officials were back on the job for Thursday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens and, after ratifying their tentative eight-year agreement with the league Saturday, will return in full force for this weekend's schedule.

No longer will NFL games be decided by slapdash crews from arena football, the NAIA, Division III, high schools or even the Lingerie Football League.

John Parry, one of the NFL's most respected referees, will be the lead official for the Bills' game Sunday against the New England Patriots in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The agreement came after a rollicking weekend in which Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $50,000 for angrily grabbing a replacement official, a bewildering touchdown call gave the Seattle Seahawks a last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers on national television and President Obama tweeted a plea to end the work stoppage.

The lockout's root issue dealt with pensions. NFL officials technically are part-time employees, but they reportedly will make an average of $149,000 this year and receive raises that will raise their average pay to $205,000 by 2019 under the agreement.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans Thursday.

"Obviously when you go through something like this, it's painful for everybody," Goodell said on a conference call. "Most importantly, it's painful for fans. We're sorry to have to put fans through that. Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term."

The Bills dodged any major officiating controversies, although defensive end Mario Williams took heat for complaining about missed calls in the season opener.

"I'm done talking about the officials," Williams said Thursday. "I just hope they do a better job than the other ones."

Authenticity is a key issue. While regular-season games officiated by the replacements will count in the standings every bit as much as the remaining games, impostors blowing the whistles made some games feel like shams.

The games were longer. There were substantially more coaches challenges. Replacement officials had trouble controlling players.

"You won't have a lot of the extra pushing and the stuff that happens at the whistle or after the whistle," Bills safety and NFL Players Association representative George Wilson said. "These refs are experienced and have the respect factor from the guys."

The NFLPA on Wednesday released a statement that suggested replacement officials were a detriment to player safety.

"These guys are the best at what they do," Chandler said of the returning officials. "From an outsider's view of the NFL it makes the league more legitimate.

"You have all the top-notch players and coaches and stadiums and then you had these officials that aren't up to that standard. Now, everybody on the field is the best."

Genuine NFL referees restore ?credibility to a multibillion-dollar industry in which jobs – and fortunes – can be decided on the outcome of a single play.

It's possible the Packers could miss out on the playoffs because of Monday night's fiasco. It's possible the Seahawks could get in rather than another NFC team.

"People can be fired for not making the playoffs by one game," Bills receiver Donald Jones said. "It's really a bad situation."

But don't count Jones among those who are thrilled with the genuine officials just yet.

They will be returning to the field without any preseason games. They will be rusty and perhaps not quite in game shape, while the players on the field will be flying around in regular-season form.

"It's just like when we first come back," Jones said. "It takes us some time to catch up to the speed of the game. I hope once they get back that they're on point. They can mess up this week just like the other guys were."