- Associated Press - Thursday, September 27, 2012

BALTIMORE (AP) - Referee Gene Steratore turned on his microphone to greet the captains of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens for the pre-game coin toss.

“Good evening, men,” Steratore said. “It’s good to be back.”

The stadium erupted in a roar.

Yes, the real refs are back. Official harmony is restored to the NFL.

Steratore and his seven-man crew donned their familiar stripes for the first game of Week 4 after three weeks of replacement officials created moments of chaos throughout the league. The officials ran a mostly smooth and efficient game Thursday night _ and were inevitably serenaded with a hearty round of boos for one call that went against the home team _ but there were no headline-making gaffes in the Ravens‘ 23-16 win over the Browns.

Intriguingly, the first game with the regular officials ended with a similar manner as the last game with the replacements. A 24-yard desperation pass on the last play gave the Seattle Seahawks a disputed 14-12 win over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, while Brandon Weeden’s 18-yard pass sailed out of the end zone _ with no controversy _ as time expired Thursday.

“You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name,” Steratore, a 10-year league veteran, 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.”

Everyone on all sides was happy to see the familiar faces they usually love to hate, and the welcome-back love began early. About an hour before kickoff, the officials walked on the field and heard cheers from the early arrivals. A few minutes later, Steratore was shaking hands with Browns coach Pat Shurmur near midfield and getting a hug from Ravens face-of-the-franchise Ray Lewis at the 30-yard line.

Later, when the crew returned, they walked on the field they received a standing ovation and doffed their caps to the crowd. One fan held up a sign that read: “Finally! We get to yell at real refs! Welcome back!”

“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 the “Monday Night Football” finish brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the Seahawks-Packers game “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 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 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 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.”

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