If the hit that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe put on Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Cribbs during Baltimore's 23-16 Thursday night win happened with replacement officials in charge, there almost certainly would have been more of the chippiness, outright fights, and general anarchy common during that three-week period in which the NFL let a bunch of camp counselors officiate the game it claims to value.
But, since the crew of actual refs, led by Gene Steratore, was on the case, all that happened was that Cribbs got his bell rung something fierce. He took a Sam Koch punt at his own 26-yard line with 5:18 left in the first quarter. Cribbs headed up the right sideline, got 14 yards upfield, and then ... well, this happened.
Fortunately, Cribbs was not seriously hurt on the play. Even more fortunately, the Browns organization decided to keep Cribbs out of the rest of the game, demonstrating a new level of possible concussion awareness from a team that hasn't always had it.
Ellerbe did hit Cribbs with his helmet, but it's unclear what else he could have done -- the linebacker was in position to make the tackle, Cribbs lowered his head just before the moment of impact happened, and there's only so much you can take care of with reaction time. After the hit, Cribbs' helmet popped off and his head hit the ground violently and frighteningly. He was on the ground for a time, but he was able to leave the field with assistance.
Baltimore's James Ihedigbo and Cleveland's Johnson Bademosi did start a scrum, and both players were immediately hit with offsetting personal foul calls.
And instead of going at each other further after that, the players on the field took a knee for Cribbs when he was still on the ground.
You can bet that Steratore's presence on the field, and that of his crew, made a difference in that regard. There was no messing around as there so often was when replacement refs, who were generally incapable of handling those kinds of situations, tried to break things up like fourth-grade substitute teachers.
"When it comes down to it, we are a fraternity," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said after the game. "And the refs, they maintain our camaraderie between the players because they don't let us have that extracurricular stuff between the whistles."
"It has a lot to do with the refs, and it has a lot to do with us as players," Ihedigbo said. "There's more to this game than playing football. Anytime a guy goes down on the field that's the last thing you want. It's scary. So we all got down and prayed for him, and we believed it helped."
Ellerbe, who laid the hit and recovered the subsequent fumble, was just glad that Cribbs was able to get up and off the field.
"You ain't really trying to go out there and try to hurt somebody," he said. "It's a part of the game, but you never do it intentionally. I thought he had just fumbled the ball; I didn't know he went to sleep."
One thing's for sure -- anyone who watched or played in that game was awakened to the fact that officials trained over years and decades are much better at keeping games under control than underqualified replacements trained in a few months.
All, that is, except NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Commish believes -- or says he believes -- that the replacements didn't add any danger to the game.
"I do not believe that this put any greater risk to player health and safety," Goodell said during a Thursday morning conference call with the media. "There is no data to back that up. We obviously have all kinds of backup systems that exist when you are using either replacement or regular officials such as film review, where we evaluate intensively every play of every game. From time to time, plays are missed where we think calls should have been made and discipline can follow — even when the call is not made on the field. Discipline can follow that can be in the form of a fine or suspension. So that happens. But these officials were trained for three months with a very intensive focus on making sure that player health and safety was their first priority."
In one game back, the real refs were able to prove Goodell wrong.
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