No one is complaining that the refs cost the Cleveland Browns the game. That mere fact is a major victory for the NFL and the seven-man crew led by referee Gene Steratore, who brought official harmony back to the nation's most popular league.
Cheered from the moment they walked onto the field and given a standing ovation, the men in stripes ran a smooth and efficient game Thursday night 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," Steratore said. "It was a very special feeling."
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Sure, there were calls that made both sides unhappy. Browns coach Pat Shurmur drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing an intentional grounding call, and Ravens left tackle Michael Oher could be heard raising all kinds of beef about a holding call.
But, overall, the officials kept the game in control, curtailing the chippy play and choppy pace — not to mention the inconsistent calls — that had marred the three weeks of games with replacement officials.
"It was great to have those guys back," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "It looked like they knew what they were doing."
An agreement to end the lockout was reached late Wednesday after marathon negotiations, two days after a "Monday Night Football" finish brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide.
That game ended when a 24-yard desperation pass on the last play was ruled a touchdown — even though replays appeared to show it should have been an interception — giving the Seattle Seahawks a disputed 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The stage was set for something eerily similar Thursday. A fourth-down unnecessary roughness penalty on Baltimore's Paul Kruger — a good call, given the way he shoved Cleveland's Joe Thomas after the whistle — gave the Browns one final play from the 18-yard line.
But Brandon Weeden's 18-yard pass sailed high as time expired. No controversial ending this time.
"I thought they handled (the game) great," Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. "I had all the confidence in the world that this was going to be officiated in the right way."
The newfound love for the refs was evident all evening.
About an hour before kickoff, they made their first appearance on the field and heard cheers from the early arrivals. A few minutes later, Steratore was shaking hands with Shurmur near midfield and getting a hug from Ravens face-of-the-franchise Ray Lewis at the 30-yard line.
Later, when the crew returned, they received a standing ovation and doffed their caps to the crowd. One fan held up a sign that read: "Finally! We get to yell at real refs! Welcome back!"
"It was very chaotic with the replacement refs," said Karen Riley, a 44-year-old fan wearing a Rice jersey. "They couldn't control the players on either side. There were bad calls, constantly, and in some cases refs making different calls at the same time."
When Steratore then turned on his microphone to greet the captains for the pre-game coin toss, the crowd heard him say: "Good evening, men. It's good to be back."
The stadium erupted in a roar.
"You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name," Steratore, a 10-year league veteran, told The Associated Press about an hour before kickoff. "This will be a little different, but I don't expect it to last too long. And that's the goal — is that we can let them get through that portion of this. It's happy to be back, it's happy to be appreciated. But then as soon as the game starts, it's happy to disappear again and let the entertainers entertain."
The deal to end the lockout is only tentative — it must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members in a vote scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Dallas — but both sides nevertheless went forward with the plan to have the regulars back for Thursday's game.
So Steratore hustled to Baltimore, making the 3½-hour drive Thursday morning from his home in the Pittsburgh area. He's usually in place the day before a game, but none of his regular pregame meetings had to be changed because the Browns-Ravens game was at night.
"We've had a few weeks to actually realize that this was the first September that I was home for multiple Saturdays and Sundays for almost 30 years of my life, continuously. ... It just feels completely different," Steratore said. "To be away from something that is involved with this level of professional sport, just to come back and feel that again, it doesn't take long to realize why you were missing it as much as you were missing it."
Steratore, who is a basketball official in the Big East Conference among others, also was fully aware he would be jeered the first time his crew made a questionable call — just like always.
"Without a question," he said. "I've been yelled at by my own children many times, so this won't be any different."
Sure enough, the same fans that cheered the coin toss let out a full chorus of boos when line judge Jeff Seeman tossed his yellow flag some 20 yards to whistle Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard for a personal foul in the third quarter. Replays showed it was a good call: Pollard led with his helmet to make contact with a defenseless receiver, costing the Ravens 15 yards in a drive that led to a field goal for the Browns.
Steratore's crew nearly made a misstep in the first quarter, incorrectly spotting the ball by 2 yards after a misapplication of the rules following a holding call on the Browns. But two members of the crew caught the mistake and notified the referee before the next snap. A brief huddle ensued, and the ball was moved to its correct spot.
The crew made it clear it wouldn't tolerate the extra shoving and yelling after the whistle that had been frequently permitted by the replacements. Offsetting personal fouls were called on Cleveland's Johnson Bademosi and Baltimore's James Ihedigbo for extracurricular roughness on a punt return in the first quarter.
Then there was Shurmur's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Replays appeared to validate the grounding call he was trying to contest, and the coach took responsibility for his loss of temper.
"I can't do that," Shurmur said. "It's an emotional game, and I got to make sure I keep my emotions in check."
There were 18 penalties called in the game, mostly the familiar calls for holding and false start. There were two rare — and indisputable — whistles for fair catch interference on punt returns, and a hands-to-the-face call on Baltimore's Kelechi Osemele was so obvious that it drew three flags.
The league's new agreement with the officials runs for eight years. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the ending of the Seahawks-Packers game "may have pushed the parties further along" in the talks.
"Obviously when you go through something like this it is painful for everybody," Goodell said. "Most importantly, it is painful for our fans. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game."
The dispute even made its way to the campaign trail, with President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, calling Thursday "a great day for America."
"The president's very pleased that the two sides have come together," Carney said.