The real refs are back, and, while Steelers players say they discovered a new appreciation for them after watching their replacements try to call games, that won't stop linebacker Larry Foote from treating them any differently.
"It's an emotional game," Foote said after hearing the lockout was over. "I'm always yelling at the officials -- old, new, replacement."
Yet he welcomes the return of the professionals because he saw what happened during the preseason and the three regular-season games with the replacements.
"They are the best at what they do, no doubt about that. We can clearly see that. Without those guys, the play is a lot slower, some bad calls. They can see it, their eyes are trained for it and they're prepared and have the time for it."
Offensive left guard Willie Colon said players carping on the real officials should take a different turn after they saw the poor officiating that went on without them.
"It's one of those things where they got a lot of crap before because we always thought they were bad refs. Now to really see what bad looks like, we're appreciative of them.
"I think I'm more worried about the integrity of the [NFL] shield, honestly. There's a brand of football everyone expects to see, especially with the players, let alone with the refs. Anytime that's not displayed, it's just bad, so I'm glad they're getting back to work."
Ryan Clark, the Steelers union player representative, said having the real refs back is "good for the league" but cautioned that it won't mean the end of controversial calls.
"It's going to be really funny when they make their game-changing calls or a call that decides the game negatively or positively. The thing we can't forget, no matter what we feel about the replacement officials, the other officials aren't perfect, either. They're going to make mistakes, and we have to understand that.
"But it's exciting to have them back, get the guys who have been doing it for years out there again."
Appreciate them? Nah, Clark said.
"We still won't appreciate them. They call pass interference on me, I'm still not going to like it. They call unnecessary roughness, I'm not going to like it.
"But you are excited to see maybe, hopefully, the flow of the games get back. I think there definitely will be a rapport between the coaches and the referees, and some of the players and the referees because you've seen these guys. Some of those guys have been to Latrobe. So for us, there will be that familiarity that comes back, so it will be good for the whole league."
What Clark expects to return with the veteran refs is consistency.
"I think we kind of missed that consistency. Those [replacements] tried their best to do a good job, but just not having the experience of doing it on this level -- you'd see some calls made and then you'd see the next play looks just like it and that call wasn't made. So, it's that consistency and understanding of what's being called."
Colon knew moving from right tackle to left guard would require adjustments, but he wasn't aware of how difficult one aspect of his new position would be.
"I understand a lot of our run game involves the left guard as far as pulling, clearing holes, getting into the second level," Colon said. "I haven't been on my screws as far as that. I'm learning. Pulling is a little bit tougher than I expected. I know I'm capable of it, I can do it. It's just matter of us firing on all cylinders.
"I'm never going to make excuses. I know I'm athletic and talented enough to do it. I just have to do it a lot, and the repetition is going to get me there. I have to be more detailed about what I'm doing, and it's going to work out."
Colon and the offensive line wanted to help forge a better running game than they have. The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL with just 195 yards rushing. Their 2.6-yard average per carry is nearly 2 full yards lower than their season average of 4.4 in 2011.
"Up front we take lot of pride," Colon said. "We're frustrated with our running game because we know we're a lot better than what we've been showing. We didn't run the ball last Sunday because we were killing them in the passing game. There's going to be a point for us... when the running game comes alive."
Tight end Weslye Saunders is not eligible to return until Oct. 8, one week later than the Steelers originally believed. The NFL suspended Saunders for the first four games for using a banned substance. The Steelers believed it was four weeks, which would have included the open week.
First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM