BALTIMORE - On a rainy night in Maryland, referees were introduced to much elation and fanfare, then, on cue, they faded into the background.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns took center stage at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens winning 23-16. The seminal moment? Cary Williams' third-quarter interception of Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, returned 63 yards for a touchdown, four days after Williams was picked on by the New England Patriots' Tom Brady.
Thursday was no Monday. The NFL bid farewell to replacement officials with a deal struck Wednesday between the referees association and the league, three weeks into the regular season and two days after the "Fail Mary" in Seattle, which cost the Green Bay Packers a victory.
In the first game since the replacement crisis reached critical mass, head referee Gene Steratore's crew walked out to a standing ovation.
The players were obviously relieved to be back in the comfort zones they have with veteran officials.
"It's just nice not to have to worry about the calls, to know things are in control," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said.
Pitta wasn't the least bit surprised by the fans' booming welcome. "We expected it. We thought they'd run out of the tunnel with us," he joked.
The reality: They could've done it, and nobody would have batted an eye.
"Tonight is a thank you that they're back," said Joe Murphy, Ravens fan and retired fire dispatch supervisor from Baltimore.
Murphy's seats are behind the west end zone, and he had a clear view of the Ravens' game-winning field goal over the top of a goal post Sunday against the Patriots.
He wasn't as confident as the replacements were that it was good.
"I was right in front of that goal post, and I didn't think it was good," Murphy said. "But I have to give the replacement refs credit to come in here and do it, knowing that they were in way over their heads. It gives you more of an appreciation for what the regular refs do."
So you'll take it easy on them, right?
After the honeymoon period, there were boos for the regular officials when things went against Baltimore. But they were squashed by the quick-acting crew, as were numerous skirmishes that flared up. But the scars of the replacements remain.
Ravens fans still take issue with a fourth-quarter pass-interference penalty called on wide receiver Jacoby Jones in Week 2, wiping away a touchdown catch in a narrow loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Then there was Monday's interception that wasn't.
"The ramifications are unbelievable," Murphy said. "This could cost the Packers down the road home-field advantage â?? and that's if they pick up the pace and start playing well."
But the NFL wasn't about to lose Murphy or fellow tailgater Becky Scaletta as fans.
"You understand how these things happen," Scaletta said. "If it had lasted a few more weeks and there was a sense of complacency about it, that would have made me angry, that no one was working toward a resolution, but I never got that feeling."
While Scaletta watched Thursday's game in person, U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Martin planned to watch from Kuwait. The Baltimore native was stressed by the bad calls.
"It was kind of frustrating to watch such poor officiating in the NFL of all things," he said via e-mail. "These were games that might not matter at the present, but come Week 12, that could make or break a team's hopes."
He's grateful order was restored.
"They won't decide games by how many bad calls were made (hopefully)," Martin wrote.
by Robert Klemko