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The NFL and locked-out referees have made progress in contract negotiations, a source close to the referees' union said on Wednesday, as hopes rise the two sides can strike a deal in time for officials to be back on the field for this weekend's games.
An agreement would come amid mounting criticism of the National Football League after a widely panned touchdown call by replacement referees gave the Seattle Seahawks a victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday.
The furor appears to have given fresh impetus to talks that on Tuesday had direct input from team owners for the first time, according to the source close to the NFL Referees Association.
The source told Reuters an agreement had been reached on the contentious issue involving the league's proposal to create a pool of backup referees.
But while there has also been movement on the thorny matter of change to the referees' pension plans, the source said "economic gaps" remained and agreement had yet to be reached on how to grandfather in any new plan.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed talks continued on Wednesday between the two sides, but he declined to comment on how the negotiations were progressing.
The NFLRA could not be reached for comment.
NFLRA referees have been locked out since June after failing to reach agreement with the league and club owners over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Most of the replacements have been drawn from the lower ranks of college and high school football and semi-professional leagues and have struggled with the complex rules for NFL games.
After three weeks of games with replacement referees, outraged fans and players have ratcheted up complaints about the lockout, with much of the blame focused on the NFL and its management.
An opinion column in The New York Times by Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, called on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign.
"He has failed in the first responsibility of any league commissioner, which is to safeguard the integrity and credibility of the game," wrote Williamson.
The confusion on the field has led to a noticeable drop in discipline from players and coaches. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was fined $50,000 by the league on Wednesday for grabbing an official by the arm at the end of his team's loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
Players weighed in on the issue, with Cleveland Browns return specialist Josh Cribbs contrasting the league's behavior with its tight regulations of player conduct.
"It makes me angry because we're asked to do so much - pull our socks up, can't wear this, got do this," Cribbs told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"There are so many rules have to be upheld to. And who upholds the rules for them? Who holds the NFL accountable to maintain the integrity of the game?"
A more light-hearted take came from Green Bay, where channel NBC26 presented a bungling "Replacement Weather Guy," who forecast the weather would reach lows of minus-200 degrees F and highs of 346 degrees in Wisconsin.
In the Monday night game, Seattle beat Green Bay with a long "Hail Mary" pass on the final play. The replacement referees took more than 10 minutes to rule which team came down with the ball, and the NFL also said the next day that the crew missed an offensive pass interference that should have negated the play.
Despite fan complaints the inconsistent officiating was hurting the quality of play and the league's credibility, there has been no fall-off in gate attendance or TV viewership.
The Monday night matchup on Walt Disney Co cable network ESPN grabbed 16.2 million viewers, the most-watched program of the night, according to ratings tracker Nielsen.
Through the first three weeks of the season, "Monday Night Football" is averaging 13.4 million viewers, about even with last season, ESPN said.
(Additional reporting by Frank Pingue and Lisa Richwine.; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney)