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NFL officials receive loud cheers in first night back

Instead of receiving the usual jeers that go with their profession, NFL referee Gene Steratore and his crew were treated like conquering heroes Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Steratore was greeted by fans with a standing ovation prior to the Ravens' game against the Cleveland Browns less than a day after the league and the NFL Referees Association hammered out a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement.

A veteran official from Washington, Pa., who doubles as an NCAA basketball official, Steratore tipped his cap to the crowd in recognition of the applause.

"It's good to be back," Steratore said before the coin toss. "Let's have a great night."

Afterward, Steratore said it was a special game for him and his crew after the NFL officially ended the lockout of the regular officials.

"The emotional kind of overtook all of us for a second there," said Steratore, who owns a sanitation supplies business in Pennsylvania. "We know what this is. We know how special this, and we have always taken such pleasure in being a part of this whole thing and having it go smoothly without being recognized. When you're actually recognized, it was a little different feeling. So, you have a moment."

The fans weren't the only ones happy to see the officials back.

One by one, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed, running back Ray Rice and coach John Harbaugh hugged Steratore before kickoff.

After enduring botched calls from replacement officials with backgrounds in the Lingerie Football League and lower-level college football, the regular referees' are experiencing a popularity that is momentarily off the charts.

"Everybody knows Gene Steratore, he's a celebrity," Ravens veteran center Matt Birk said. "Obviously, they did a good job. The game was clean."

A sign in the stands read: "Now, the girls field hockey teams can get their refs back." Another fan was dressed like a referee, drawing laughs as he showed that his yellow flag remained in his pocket.

"It's a blessing to have them back," former NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin said on the field before kickoff. "Our refs are great. I worried so much about the replacement refs. That guy was smelling deodorant Monday night in Seattle and cost the Packers the game. The regular refs are pros. These guys are used to the scrutiny and know what they're doing."

Cameras captured every move made by Steratore and his six-man crew of umpire Bill Schuster, head linesman Wayne Mackie, line judge Jeff Seaman, field judge Bob Waggoner, side judge Jimmy DeBell and back judge Greg Steed.

"Coming in on the bus, we go in the tunnel and they got media all over the place watching them," said Ray Anderson, NFL senior vice president of football operations . "It was almost like coming into a rock-star venue. They don't want any attention. They just want to do their job. It was a hard-fought negotiation and we're delighted to have the refs back."

That sentiment is shared by fans, players, coaches and the league after a Monday night debacle where the Seahawks got a controversial win over the Green Bay Packers as replacement referees bungled a touchdown call and missed an obvious offensive pass interference penalty on Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate.

"Yes, I'm going to give the refs a big hand," said Prea Proctor, 29, of Baltimore. "Everybody should appreciate that they're back."

Frank Wooke, 60, of Bel Air, said he will only cut the regular officials slack for so long as they knock off the rust.

"Once the game gets going, they go back to being a referee," Wooke said. "They'll make some wrong calls, and they'll get booed."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that the Monday night episode wasn't the final impetus for halting the labor dispute.

"It might have pushed the parties further along, but we were in intense negotiations," Goodell said. "We weren't going to shut down football. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it's something you have to do to make sure you get the right type of agreement for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game.

"You never want to see a game end like that. We always are going to have to work harder to make sure we get people's trust and confidence in us."

While the Packers-Seahawks controversy led to a lot of debate, Goodell said any controversial play is unfortunate.

"Mistakes do happen," Goodell said. "It's not realistic to think officiating will be perfect. There are controversial calls and people see them differently. That's the beauty of sports. [Replacement officials] kept the game going. I don't believe it created a greater risk to player safety."

Beverly Veever, a Ravens fan from the Eastern Shore, wasn't in a forgiving mood about the shaky replacement officials.

"I'm disappointed because the league let it go on," she said. "We pay a lot of money to go to the games and the NFL let down the fans."

Unlike replacement refs verbally abused by coaches and players like overwhelmed substitute teachers, Steratore and his crew drew respect.

"For those replacement refs, it was like going from Pop Warner to the big leagues," Rice said. "They were good. We got to play. They took care of business. I don't think they missed too many. We talked to them with respect. You see these guys on Sundays and you give them a level of respect. When you get used to seeing guys, the respect goes up."'

Added Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo: "Real refs are back. Sweet! Don't expect them to be brilliant the first few weeks. Still an upgrade."

The game seemed to flow better with fewer interruptions and more confidence from the players, coaches and fans in the officials' judgment.

"The biggest thing is I think the game probably went a little bit smoother and a little bit more seamless and things like that, moved along a little bit," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Calls were made and everything went a little bit smoother."

"Those guys are pros," Harbaugh said. "These guys are really good. The communication was good. I didn't agree with every call. They were excellent. I think we're all kind of on the same page from a consistency standpoint."

The new deal calls for referees' salaries to increase from $149,000 per year in 2011 to $173,000 by 2013 and up to $205,000 by 2019.

The deal has to still be ratified by the NFLRA membership as officials will meet Friday and Saturday in Dallas to vote. Once that happens, a clinic is expected to take place to review rule changes and trends.

"I'm really going to miss the replacement officials," former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said sarcastically. "I was starting to get very close to them. I hope they're not too scarred. People don't understand how tough it is to referee an NFL game with the lunatics playing the game.

"For about a minute, everything will be fine. All it takes is one bad call and then we're all back to normal again, but these guys know what they're doing."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

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