As they took the field at M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night, referee Gene Steratore and his crew doffed their caps to acknowledge a standing ovation — the crowd welcoming them back as saviors in stripes.
The love lasted little more than a half before the home fans grew grumpy while the Ravens struggled — partially due to some yellow flags — to a 23-16 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns.
Then these saviors heard familiar jeers. Let’s consider that progress.
“Pressure is a wonderful thing,” Steratore said of his crew’s return — the season debut of "real" NFL officials after their lockout ended early Thursday morning.
“It’s not a stressful pressure. It’s just pressure. In order to do what we do, it’s something that we all embrace. I think as the levels increase, we almost get a little more calm.”
The officials, members of the NFL Referees Association, had been locked out since June after their agreement with the league expired. The NFL and the NFLRA came to an agreement after several hurdles — from pensions to the league’s ability to hire full-time refs that would work for the league year-round — were hammered out.
Officiating mistakes will still take place, no doubt, but the return of regulars hopefully will avoid a repeat of Monday’s fiasco in Seattle involving replacement refs.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters earlier Thursday the outrage that followed the Seahawks win helped spur a settlement.
“Our main objective is to be unnoticed,” Steratore said.
That wasn’t the case in the closing minutes, as there was a similar Hail Mary — two, in fact — at the end of this game. Rookie Browns QB Brandon Weeden conducted one of his most stellar drives as a pro as he marched 57 yards in 42 seconds with no timeouts, which set the Browns up at the Ravens’ 33-yard-line with 23 seconds left in regulation.
A spike and two incomplete passes later, Weeden was down to fourth down with 10 seconds left on the clock. His next pass also fell incomplete, but then came a flag on Ravens defensive lineman Paul Kruger for unsportsmanlike conduct after he shoved Browns lineman Joe Thomas.
That gave the Browns a new set of downs on the 18 with two seconds left.
“I was getting held really bad,” Kruger said. “I was using my arms to get off him and he flopped like (former NBA player) Vlade Divac and they called it. The guy clear across the field called it.
“I think everything went well (with the referees). Seems like every game we had some controversial call. That was the only penalty I would say was completely out of line.”
Beyond adding some more excitement to the game, it didn’t end up hurting the Ravens (3-1), as Weeden’s next pass sailed out the back of the end zone. The Browns fell to 0-4.
“I didn’t agree with every call,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I would love to know what happened on that last one there that gave them the extra play.”
Still, overall Harbaugh called the officiating "excellent."
Ravens safety Bernard Pollard didn’t totally concur. He was called for an unnecessary-roughness penalty that drew the ire of the home fans in the third quarter for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns receiver Benjamin Watson.
“It wasn’t helmet to helmet,” Pollard said. “We’re playing football. I can’t go out there thinking. I thought on the next tackle and (a Browns player) came across the middle and I missed him.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur took responsibility for his 15-yard penalty in the fourth quarter after he was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct after Weeden was called for intentional grounding. The result was a 2nd-and-36, although the Browns still turned it into a 52-yard field goal by Phil Dawson.
“It was on me,” Shurmur said. “I can’t do that. … It’s an emotional game and I have to make sure that I keep my emotions in check. I think that’s fair to say.”
That game, like any other, had some calls either side could quibble about, but at least Steratore didn’t mispronounce the penalized team’s city. Steratore lent Shurmur an ear during a TV timeout in the second quarter after Browns special-teamer Johnson Bademosi was called for fair-catch interference.
Steratore also explained why there wasn’t a dead ball when Browns punt returner Josh Cribbs lost his helmet (and the ball) on vicious hit in the first quarter. Cribbs lay on the turf for a few minutes before he was helped off. He walked off under his own power, but did not return, and Shurmur did not have an update for reporters after the game.
The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field that the Ravens recovered the fumble was upheld.
It’s just part of the job for Steratore. Lately, he’s been dealing with other trash — or rather helping people deal with waste — at the janitorial supply store he owns with his brother and fellow NFL official Tony Steratore outside of Pittsburgh.
“As a professional official, at this point, you’ve had a career that’s lasted (so) long (that) you’ve never been home back-to-back weekends for 30 years,” Gene Steratore said. “It just feels completely different. It’s not something I can actually remember.”
Despite the typical nitpicking that goes on, this nation’s fans (and many of the NFL’s players and coaches) hope not to remember the first three weeks of this season.