By TIM REYNOLDS / AP Sports Writer
With Commissioner Roger Goodell at the table, the NFL and referees' union pressed toward a settlement Wednesday to end a three-month lockout that triggered a wave of frustration and anger over replacement officials and threatened to disrupt the rest of the season.
Two days after a controversial call cost the Green Bay Packers a win, both sides were said to be nearing a deal and several reports put regular officials back at work perhaps as early as Sunday.
ESPN reported that "an agreement in principle is at hand." The New York Times said the sides "were closing in" on a new agreement.
The NFL declined to confirm that a tentative contract was imminent.
The union wants improved salaries, retirement benefits and other logistical issues for the mostly part-time referees. The NFL has proposed a pension freeze and a higher 401(k) match.
"Until somebody tells me differently, it's not really changed," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Talks resumed Wednesday morning and continued past 6 p.m. following a 14-hour meeting that started Tuesday. Goodell attended that session as well as four meetings last week.
"We want to go back to work but it has to be the right deal for 121 guys," NFL field judge Boris Cheek said. "We have to be patient and let this work itself out."
Some coaches, including Miami's Joe Philbin and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, instructed players not to speak publicly on the issue, especially after a barrage of comments that accompanied Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, which the Packers lost 14-12 on a missed call.
Fines against two coaches for incidents involving the replacements were handed out Wednesday.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was docked $50,000 for trying to grab an official's arm Sunday to ask for an explanation of a call after his team lost at Baltimore Sunday. And Washington assistant Kyle Shanahan was tagged for $25,000 for what the league called "abuse of officials" in the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. Two other coaches, Denver's John Fox and assistant Jack Del Rio, were fined Monday for incidents involving the replacements.
"I accept the discipline and I apologize for the incident," Belichick said.
But many players indicated the replacement-ref issues were too significant to ignore.
"Would you let a Toyota dealership work on your brand new Rolls-Royce? That doesn't work right, does it," Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "Our brand is so big, it's so important to a lot of people. There's no way you can have guys that don't have experience at that level."
The replacement officials previously worked mostly in lower-division college ranks, such as Division III, and in minor professional organizations like the Arena League.
"I hate to say it," Carolina's Steve Smith said, "but if you are going to have these refs in a Super Bowl it's going to cost somebody a game.
"I'll probably get in trouble for this, but you have to have competent people," he said. "And if you're incompetent, get them out of there."
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford didn't mince words about the regular refs -- "We need them back."
"I hope it happens soon," he said. "I just don't think it's fair to the fans, I don't think it's fair to us as players to go out there and have to deal with that week in and week out. I really hope that they're as close as they say they are."
Despite several field fiascos -- like Dallas' Kevin Ogletree getting tripped in the end zone by an official's thrown cap -- not everyone is necessarily pointing fingers at the replacements.
"Maybe we shouldn't be blaming the refs, but blaming the league, the owners, I don't know who it is," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Maybe it's not just the officials. We're putting them in tough situations and it can't be easy."
Even Cheek, the NFL field judge, said the replacement refs are in a difficult position -- though noted the end-of-game call in Seattle, at least in his in eyes, should have been easy to get right.
"It's like expecting a high schooler to keep pace with Ray Lewis," Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said. "It's not fair to expect them to do that. I think you saw that through no real fault or lack of effort, they were just put in a position where they couldn't really succeed."
Even if a deal is at hand, it was still uncertain how it would affect the weekend's games. Week 4 opens Thursday night with the Cleveland Browns at the Ravens.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thought it might take a while before things return to normal, even with the regular refs.
"It's going to be hard for officials to come back since not doing a game since last December, a lot of them, and all of a sudden they're doing a game. I think it's going to be a tough transition either way. You want things to get settled. You want the best people to be out there, the guys who've been doing it a lot of years."
Bills coach Chan Gailey had a simple solution for all the recent angst.
"The biggest thing, if you get a big enough lead, it won't come down to a call," he said. "Go get big leads and it won't be an issue."