Referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran, donned his No. 114 and strode onto the field to cheers Thursday night for the game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, signalling once and for all that the real officials are back.
"You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name," Steratore 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."
Steratore and a veteran seven-man crew worked the first game of Week 4 after three weeks of replacement officials. For a change, everyone on all sides was happy to see the familiar faces in stripes.
"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."
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, two days after a disputed touchdown catch on the last play of "Monday Night Football" brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide. The Seattle Seahawks were awarded the score — and a 14-12 win — over the Green Bay Packers, a result that Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged "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 per cent 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 3 1/2-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 pre-game 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 also was fully aware he would be booed 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."
Steratore and his crew set up shop in the designated "Officials Locker Room" in the bowels of the stadium. He emerged about 2 1/2 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.
Steratore then walked down the tunnel and onto the field, pacing the sidelines with little fanfare because he was still wearing his coat and tie.
The lockout was ended after marathon negotiations produced an eight-year agreement to end the lockout that began in June.
"Those guys might mess up every now and then, but we can live with that happening with professional guys out there," Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson said.
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 chaotic 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 agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. Goodell said the NFL's offer to increase the deal's length from five to eight years spurred some concessions from the officials.
The tentative pact calls for their salaries to increase from an average of US$149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years' service.
The defined benefit plan will then be frozen. Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement.
Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year round, including on the field. The NFL also will be able to retain additional officials for training and development and can assign those officials to work games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the league.
The NFL players' union, which had protested that using replacements jeopardized health and safety, heartily welcomed back the regular officials.
"Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees," its statement said.
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, and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Allen Park, Mich., Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.Suggest a correction