When referee Gene Steratore brought the captains to midfield for the pregame coin toss before the Ravens faced the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night, he greeted the players saying, Good evening, men. Its good to be back.
That elicited a loud cheer from the crowd, which had greeted Steratore and the rest of his seven-man crew with a standing ovation when they first took the field.
It might have been the first standing ovation ever given to an officiating crew, but the fans were clearly showing their appreciation for the return of the regular NFL officials, who had been locked out of the first three games of the season in a labor dispute.
I think this was a little bit different in the sense that we were actually recognized and part of the story before the game, which is not something were used to, Steratore said. Its not something that we look to do.
To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up, he added. It was a very special feeling.
Once the game began, Steratore and his crew maintained control and the flow of the game in a way that the replacement officials struggled to do throughout their brief tenure.
It was smooth, Ravens center Matt Birk said. Thats what these guys do. Theyre NFL refs because theyre the best.
The honeymoon ended, to a degree, when Bernard Pollard was called for unnecessary roughness in the third quarter, drawing a shower of boos. Another unnecessary roughness penalty, on Paul Kruger for shoving Browns tackle Joe Thomas, gave the Browns an extra play at the end of the game.
But on confusing plays, Steratore called crew members together and decisively made rulings. The ball was spotted correctly. Penalty yardage was properly assessed. All those things failed to happen consistently with the replacement officials.
Im glad we got to the point where (the lockout) was settled, because the game, as we saw, was suffering, linebacker Ray Lewis said.
The Ravens were whistled for 11 penalties for 100 yards, but youd hardly know it listening to coach John Harbaugh afterward.
Good to have em back, Harbaugh said. These guys are pros. These guys are really good. The communication was good. Didnt agree with every call. They were excellent. Gene Steratore does a great job communicating. The guys on our sideline did a great job.
Added running back Ray Rice: Nobodys perfect, but obviously the way the game was called, we have the integrity of the game back.