You knew that NFL fans would be happy to see the real NFL officials back on the field after three weeks of replacement ref-induced silliness, but the response given to referee Gene Steratore and his seven-man crew as they entered Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium for Thursday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns was exceptional, to say the least.
Steratore got a standing ovation from the crowd when he went through his microphone check, and his crew could not conceal their glee as they walked around the field as if they were extras in a production of "Spartacus." Steratore got manly hugs from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and linebacker Ray Lewis as the game was about to start. And when Steratore called his first penalty of the season, an illegal contact call on Browns defensive back Sheldon Brown on the 10th play of the game, he was wearing a cake-eating grin.
It's clear that the real refs were happier than anyone about the eight-year collective bargaining agreement that the NFL and NFL Referees Association hammered out late Wednesday night.
Of course, these good feelings will go away as soon as the real refs blow a few calls, as they will inevitably do, but one does wonder if seeing people from the Lingerie League and Frontier Conference trying to handle the speed of the NFL game will give people a more lasting appreciation of just how hard this job is.
The Ravens should be overjoyed to see the real refs back -- through the first three weeks, Baltimore was the fifth-most penalized team in the NFL, and were on a pace to tie a franchise record with 139 penalties in a season. In addition, the Ravens have found great success with the no-huddle offense this season, and the long delays caused by replacement officials trying to figure out what they're supposed to be doing certainly impacted things. Teams were essentially receiving extra timeouts in games, and for quick-strike offenses like Baltimore's, that's not good news.
"We understand more of what the refs are going through," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said, adding that he might give one or more officials a "bear hug." "As far as the time they've spent in the league, the hours they've put in watching film, understanding what they need to do and how they need to do it. The crews that they have, these guys work together for a reason.
"I think we appreciate it that much more."
Again, we'll see how long that goes.