When referee Gene Steratore turned on his microphone at midfield to greet the captains for the pregame coin toss Thursday night in Baltimore, the crowd could hear him say: “Good evening, men. It’s good to be back.”
And with that, the fans roared.
That act likely will be played out in stadiums across the NFL on Sunday, as the traditional officials retake their positions on the field and the much-maligned replacement officials faded to black.
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. The new/old officials predictably were 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.”
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 edged 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.”.
The league’s experiment with replacement officials ended on “Monday Night Football” in controversy. A touchdown was awarded even though replays appeared to show it should have been an interception. From then on, the posturing was done. The sides got down to serious negotiating with Thursday night’s return the result.
“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 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, it received a standing ovation, and the officials doffed their caps to the crowd. One fan held up a sign that read: “Finally! We get to yell at real refs! Welcome back!”