BALTIMORE -- NFL referee Gene Steratore summed up the feeling of most fans, players and coaches around the league during the coin toss before Thursday's game between the Ravens and Browns. "It's good to be back," Steratore said, with his microphone on. The fans packed into M&T Bank Stadium applauded loudly, as Cleveland called heads, ushering in the return of the regular referees. This wasn't the first ovation the officials received Thursday night. When the crew walked onto the field for pregame warmups about an hour before kickoff, fans that arrived early cheered loudly for Steratore and his crew. Steratore then greeted both coaches, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Pat Shurmur or the Browns. A combined 70 years of NFL experience among the game officials occupied the field, which contrasts considerably with the replacement referees, which mostly consisted of referees that hadn't officiated a game higher than the NCAA Division II level. Before pregame warmups concluded, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis walked up to Steratore and offered a warm exchange before both embraced in a hug. Safety Ed Reed followed suit, welcoming Steratore after Lewis walked away. Thursday night's game between the Ravens and the Browns marked the first time a regular referee crew officiated an NFL game this season. The NFL Referees Association and the NFL reached an eight-year labor agreement, which resulted in retirement benefits for new hires and all officials beginning in 2017, a pay increase that will reach $205,000 per season by 2019 and an option for the NFL to hire officials to work on a full-time basis. The NFL's period with replacement officials reached a controversial crescendo Monday night in Seattle when side judge Lance Easley declared what appeared to be an interception from Packers safety M.D. Jennings a touchdown by Seahawks receiver Golden Tate. This call, which was reviewed and upheld with no time remaining on the clock, gave Seattle a 14-12 victory. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans for the controversy that has surrounded the league over the past three weeks. "In the short-term, that is difficult, and we are sorry for our fans that had to go through that or other people that had to be carried through that period of time," Goodell said. "But it is unfortunately part of getting to a long-term agreement that makes sense. Both parties worked hard over the last three weeks -- intensively, to the point of exhaustion -- in getting this resolved for the good of the game. I appreciate the officials doing that, I appreciate the owners doing that and I appreciate both negotiating teams. It was intensive and it was a lot of hard work." The first penalty Steratore and his crew called Thursday night was illegal contact on the Browns at the 12:19 mark of the first quarter, which drew more loud applause from the M&T Bank Stadium crowd. One Ravens fans, pleased that the regular referees were back, held up a sign in appreciation: "Finally! We get to yell at the real refs. Welcome back."
- Gene Steratore