BALTIMORE (AP) — The final pass of the game sailed out of the end zone, saving the regular refs from the same type of call that brought the replacements to the height of unpopularity just three days earlier.
Referee Gene Steratore and his crew didn't have to decide which player came down with the ball, and fans and players aren't going to spend Friday going ballistic that their team was robbed. From the pregame cheers to the final whistle, it was overall a good return for the NFL's veteran men in stripes, who ran a mostly smooth and efficient game Thursday night as the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns 23-16.
"It was great to have those guys back," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "It looked like they knew what they were doing."
Yes, the real refs are back. Official harmony is restored to the NFL.
The league's experiment with replacement officials ended on "Monday Night Football" when a 24-yard desperation pass on the last play was ruled a touchdown — even though replays appeared to show it should been an interception — giving the Seattle Seahawks a disputed 14-12 win over the Green Bay Packers.
The stage was set for something similar Thursday. An 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 chance from the 18-yard line.
But Brandon Weeden's 18-yard pass sailed high as time expired. "Too much juice," he said. 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 officiated in the right way."
The love for the officials was evident all evening. About an hour before kickoff, they walked 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!"
"The other refs just made dumb calls," said Jessie Riley, a 15-year-old fan wearing an Ed Reed jersey. "I couldn't stand them. Now we won't get robbed; everything will be fair — hopefully."
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.
Steratore and his seven-man crew donned their familiar stripes for the first game of Week 4 after three weeks of replacement officials created moments of chaos throughout the league. They were inevitably serenaded with a hearty round of boos for one call that went against the home team, but there were no headline-making gaffes.
"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."
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended when an agreement was reached late Wednesday, two days after the Monday night finish brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged 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 deal 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.
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