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Deal still not imminent, but Hochuli has refs ready when time comes

Ed Hochuli is perhaps the most famous of the National Football League's 121 regular officials, and if a new contract with the locked-out officials gets done within the next 24 hours, American football fans will owe him a debt of thanks -- because the prep work of Hochuli will be a key for the real refs to hit the ground running, starting with Sunday's 13 NFL games.

A deal, however, is not imminent, according to one official who got an email from NFL Referees Association negotiator Scott Green early this afternoon. "He said we're making progress but not close to a deal right now,'' the official said.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported earlier today that the two sides were on the verge of an agreement that would end the stalemate that has put ill-suited replacement officials on the field for the first three weeks of the season. One league source said shortly after noon today that it was doubtful the pension part of the labor deal had been finalized, and he hadn't heard that a deal was imminent. But with a compensation specialist on hand Tuesday and today for the talks -- a usual precursor to a deal, another league source said -- the biggest question remaining seemed to be: Could a deal be ratified in time for the regular officials to ride in on their white horse and work 13 of the 14 games this weekend, excluding Thursday's game?

The answer is yes -- if a deal gets done by late Thursday. Here's how, said one officiating source with knowledge of the NFL Referees Association's plan:

• The officials must meet to ratify any proposal accepted by the NFLRA's board of directors, which includes referees Scott Green and Jeff Triplette. If a deal gets done midday Thursday, the officials would meet in Dallas on Friday and vote on the proposal. "They want to go back to work pretty bad,'' said the officiating source. "If they go to Dallas, they'd be voting for the deal."

• The officials could then fly to their respective games Saturday morning and have their regularly scheduled crew meetings, complete with game tape study, Saturday afternoon.

• The league likely would not demand they go through any preseason training, because the NFL is so anxious for the nightmare of the replacements to be over.

The NFL will have Hochuli to thank for the training sessions the NFL has not been able to run because he has run some of his own.

Every Tuesday night, the veteran official with the Popeye arms has been holding rules-related conference calls with all officials. Average attendance on the calls, I'm told, is between 90 and 110 per week. Hochuli, the officiating sources says, gives all officials a test each week, similar to one they might get from the NFL during a regular week of preparations, and then goes over the results on the phone with the officials.

"That's one of the reasons why the officials will be up to date and ready to go,'' the officiating source said. "Ed grabbed the bull by the horns and made sure that whenever this thing ended, the regular officials would be ready to go back to work immediately.''

As for terms of the new deal, it's likely the NFL will get some but not all of what it wanted with a taxi squad of developmental officials. One source said that was accomplished by guaranteeing the officials the same pool of money they would get even if some of them are replaced during the season for performance or health reasons.

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