BOARDMAN, Ohio During the height of the replacement referee chaos Monday night, ESPN brought in an expert who joined announcers Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden to help clarify the mess that had just exploded on the field.
That voice of authority and reason? Former NFL referee Gerry Austin, who for a few weeks in September 2007 was archenemy No. 1 for 49ers fans.
Austin made a surprising call on what appeared to be a long reception by tight end Vernon Davis as the 49ers were clawing their way back into a game in Pittsburgh. After a lengthy review, Austin ruled the play an incompletion, and his explanation after the game, a 49ers loss, was even more baffling.
Austin said Davis needed to have two feet down and that Davis had only one foot and "a second toe" down when he was hit by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. The 49ers were irate.
Said then-head coach Mike Nolan after the game: "I offered him my sunglasses because they're prescription."
The replacement refs' greatest achievement was making everyone fans, players, coaches, media, former presidents, etc. forget that the real refs used to be public enemy No. 1.
Ed Hochuli was hailed as a hero this week for organizing and running officiating boot camps to help ensure the real refs would be sharp when the lockout ended.
This is the same Hochuli who botched a critical fumble call in a Broncos-Chargers game in 2008 and whose name still causes the blood pressure of Chargers fans to ratchet up a few notches whenever it's uttered.
The 49ers don't have to go back too far to find calls that, while not outright game killers like Monday night's bungled rulings, certainly affected contests.
There was the ticky-tacky chop-block call on Frank Gore on Thanksgiving that wiped out a 75-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn in Baltimore.
And the quick whistle that negated a fumble recovery by linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the NFC Championship Game. If it had been ruled a turnover, the 49ers would have taken over at New York's 20-yard line with two minutes to play, the score tied and the league's best kicker on the San Francisco sideline.
That's not to say the real refs are as bad as the replacement refs. They're not not even close.
But human error is inherent in the game, and the real refs will make mistakes, too. In fact, there might be a rash of them this weekend because Hochuli's tutorials notwithstanding the locked-out officials didn't have the benefit of a preseason.
More than anything, the brief but turbulent reign of the replacement refs shows how good the regular refs have been. It also shows how mind-bogglingly fast the NFL game is and how much blown calls are magnified when there are 10 camera angles and everyone watching at home has a high-definition television.
And it wasn't just bad judgment by the replacements. It was a breakdown on mundane things such as where to place the ball, when to reset the game clock and how to handle coaches' challenges.
Those are aspects of the game we rarely consider but when done poorly can make a game unwatchable.
In the end, we're like one half of a longtime married couple who complains about his/her spouse, separates for a while, dates a series of losers and then comes running back, hat in hand.
Are the real refs perfect? No. But they are better way better than the alternative.
Welcome back, NFL officials. Never leave us again.