BALTIMORE -- The locked-out officials returned for their first game Thursday night and were treated like celebrities.
Cameras followed their every move, from the time they walked into the stadium. Players approached the officials to shake their hands. In what was a first for referee Gene Steratore, the officials were greeted with a standing ovation by fans when they walked onto the field. Overwhelmed by emotion, the officials tipped their caps to the crowd.
"We have always taken such pleasure in having [the game] go smoothly without being recognized," Steratore said. "When you're actually recognized, it was a little different feeling, to be honest with you. So you have a moment like that."
For all the hoopla surrounding their return, the officials restored order to the game once the opening kickoff was in the air. No full-blown fights. No questionable spotting of the ball. No head-scratching ruling at the end of the game. It felt like a real NFL game because the real NFL refs were back.
It wasn't like the replacement officials were forgotten. In what felt like a flashback, Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden threw a potential game-tying touchdown pass to the end zone in the final seconds of the game. Unlike Monday night's controversial finish, the referees didn't have to make any key call because the throw sailed out of the back of the end zone.
For the first three weeks of the regular season, fans, coaches and players showed their frustration over the blown calls by the replacement officials. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco sounded off that their mistakes were hurting the "integrity" of the game.
One fan held a sign that read: "Finally, we get to yell at the real refs. Welcome back." Another waved a banner that said: "Now the girls field hockey team can get their refs back."
The NFL and the officials came to agreement Wednesday and the referees received their assignment at midnight, which was 20 hours before kickoff. At the coin toss, Steratore said, "Good evening, men. It's good to be back."
"These guys are pros," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "These guys are really good. [But] I didn't agree with every call."
The regular officials sent the message that they weren't going to be pushed around. After the first sign of a scuffle following a punt return in the the first quarter, the officials took control of the situation. Unlike the replacement refs, this experienced crew was able to break up the players before any fights escalated.
Then, in the fourth quarter, following an intentional grounding call on Weeden, the officials called a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on Browns coach Pat Shurmur when he was out on the field arguing.
On having the regular refs back, Shurmur said after the game, "I thought they handled it great. I had all the confidence in the world that this was going to be officiated the right way."
The first test came on the fumble by Browns returner Josh Cribbs. Steratore had to review the replay to make sure Cribbs lost possession of the ball with his helmet partially on. The play is dead when the helmet is completely off.
Then, on the final drive of the game, the officials gave the Browns one final chance from the 18-yard line when they flagged Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger for an unnecessary-roughness penalty on fourth down. That was also the right call because Kruger shoved Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas after the whistle.
"We are in the National Football League and people are probably going to watch games because it's a pretty darn good sport," Flacco said. "I kind of had the opinion that we were saying that the product on the field didn't really matter. It was, 'People were going to watch it anyway.' And I don't think that's the right attitude."
Flacco added, "I think the product on the field is very important and those guys [the officials] are a part of it. They help it go seamlessly and go smooth. There's going to be calls that we complain about with them. But we have to live with that. I think we'll all be happy from now on the way the rest of the season goes."