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.
"Very elated to be back," he said. "It feels like being back home."
Steratore, who is a basketball official in the Big East Conference among others, also was fully aware he would be jeered the first time he makes 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 toss 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.
Less clear was Seeman's fourth-quarter holding call on Ravens left tackle Michael Oher, who was restrained by a teammate while vociferously protesting his innocence. Replays appeared to show Oher had a valid case for himself.
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, and Shurmur was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after an intentional grounding call against Weeden in the fourth quarter.
Again, replays appeared to validate the grounding call, and Shurmur took responsibility for his loss of temper.
"I can't do that," the coach said. "It's an emotional game, and I got to make sure I keep my emotions in check."
Steratore had to make a trip to the replay monitor for the same play to review a turnover in the first half. The replays clearly showed that Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs had fumbled, so Steratore confirmed the ruling on the field. Cribbs had his helmet knocked off and was injured on the play, creating the game's only lengthy delay.
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.
Steratore and his crew set up shop in the designated "Officials Locker Room" in the bowels of the stadium. He emerged about 2½ hours before kickoff to talk briefly to a stadium official about the wireless on-field microphone the referee wears. He later held a regular pregame meeting with stadium crew, telling them to "make sure we run this thing as smoothly" as they had in his previous visits to Baltimore.
The lockout ended after marathon negotiations produced an eight-year agreement to end the lockout that began in June. However, for the Packers, Redskins, Lions and other teams who voiced their displeasure with calls that might have swayed games, the agreement doesn't change their records.
The commissioner said he watched Monday night's frenetic Packers-Seahawks finish at home.
"You never want to see a game end like that," he said.
The new agreement will improve officiating in the future, Goodell asserted, reducing mistakes like those made Monday and making the strains of the last three weeks worthwhile.
Goodell acknowledged "you're always worried" about the perception of the league.
"Obviously, this has gotten a lot of attention," he said. "It hasn't been positive, and it's something that you have to fight through and get to the long term. ... We always are going to have to work harder to make sure we get people's trust and confidence in us."
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.
AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen and AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York, AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington, and AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in Baltimore, Larry Lage in Allen Park, Mich., Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP