Cheers as NFL refs return: 'It's good to be back'

By Joseph White

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27 2012 7:02 p.m. MDT

"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.

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