For a moment last night, the real excitement on television and in Baltimore was not the Browns coming in to take on the Ravens, but rather the return of the regular officials. The first NFLRA crew to officiate a game this season was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd, and a lot of warm smiles across the United States, including one from me. Each official that worked the game last night tipped their caps to the crowd, something that you wouldn’t normally expect to see at an NFL game.
Referee Gene Steratore had a stoic, though noticeably, warm demeanor about him, but you could tell that underneath that professional exterior he was like a boy at Christmas. It was in the air; there was an electricity before pre-game that transcended the game itself, as everyone who loves the game of football in America came to realize how much we needed the professional referees; as the old adage goes, “you don’t realize how important something is until it’s gone.” The atmosphere returned to normal, however when Steratore administered the coin toss. His words, “Good evening, men. It’s good to be back,” seemed to bring everything back into focus; it was not about him, his crew, the NFLRA. It was about giving the fans, on whom the NFL, NFLRA, and NFLPA are wholly dependent upon, the best possible product they could. Steratore, and his crew, restored order to a universe that had been thrown into chaos.
The best moments in the game, to me, is one that may surprise you. It was when the refs made a call against Baltimore (the home team), the crowd booed, and the commentators said that it was the right call; when they threw a flag against Cleveland, the crowd roared, and the commentators didn’t immediately question the call. After that, the only thing that mattered was the stunning resiliency of the Cleveland Browns, who forced the Ravens to play a full sixty minutes of football.
Even though the NFLRA hasn’t completely ratified the new agreement (that won’t be until Friday and Saturday), I can say for the first time in a while that I feel happy where the game is, because law and order has been restored. Coaches cannot badger these guys, simple rules cannot confound these guys, and I have little doubt that the regular refs are in far better shape, both physically and mentally, to tackle (no pun intended) the issues of the games that lay ahead.
The difference between the replacement refs and the regular refs isn’t necessarily limited to just their knowledge of the game, it’s their control of it. The regular refs wouldn’t get lost and bogged down in the nitty gritty of the game; they stay above it, and that is what I enjoyed watching the game last night: I watched a football game, not a bunch of officials.