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Bill Polian explains why NFL needs to change player ejection rule

Bill Polian explains why the NFL should strongly consider an update to the NFL player ejection rule.

With the NFL’s annual meeting scheduled for next week in Boca Raton, Fla., the league’s competition committee again comes to the forefront. This year’s headline rule-change proposal, which has the strong backing of commissioner Roger Goodell, would make ejections automatic after a player draws two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in a game. Goodell first proposed changing to some kind of red-card ejection standard in his state of the league address at the Super Bowl last month.

The rule change was prompted by the ugly scenes that took place in the Carolina-New York Giants game in Week 15, involving Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman, as well as the dangerous violence that broke out late in the Steelers-Bengals wild-card playoff game.

There will essentially be three different types of unsportsmanlike calls that will result in ejection under the proposal, which must be approved by at least 24 of the league’s 32 owners to gain passage.

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The competition committee has honed in on the following acts as eligible for ejection if a player has two violations in the same game:

• Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking an opponent, even if no contact is made.

• Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or league representatives.

• Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

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The league says there were 75 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called last season, up from an annual average of about 50. But competition committee chairman Rich McKay said in a Thursday afternoon conference call with the media that only two players would have been ejected last season under the current rule proposal.

The NFL opted to not make its game-ejection rule proposal broader—to cover the committing of multiple personal fouls such as unnecessary roughness or roughing the quarterback—believing the league’s current rules are sufficient in terms of discipline in those cases.

“We definitely talked about [personal fouls],” McKay said. “We feel like we have disciplinary ways to deal with the personal foul side. We have a system of fining, we have ways to suspend,” McKay said. “We talked about two facemasks, if a guy just grazed a facemask twice would we want that to be an ejection, and the answer was no.”

Before the league announced its latest rule proposals, I spoke Thursday with Hall of Fame inductee Bill Polian—the longtime NFL club executive and former member of the league’s competition committee—about the move to player ejections and its potential complications.

“Don’t forget this has to be voted on by the owners and the coaches, particularly the defensive-minded coaches who tend to weigh in heavily on these things at the league meetings,” Polian said Thursday morning. “So it’s probably still a little bit of a moving target.”

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​Polian has been in favor of such a rule, maintaining all along it needed to be aimed at well-defined explicit acts, and doesn’t require game officials to make a tricky series of judgment calls that puts them in the position of picking and choosing who gets thrown out of the game. In the 2015 season, just four players were ejected.

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“The officials are there to call the game,” Polian said. “They’re not there to worry about who may or may not be in the game. And when you’re automatically ejecting, you’re putting them in the middle of that situation. And that’s not good.” 

But the competition committee was wise to narrow the scope of its automatic ejection guidelines, realizing that such unintended consequences such as elevating the impact of two facemask calls by the same player would prove to be an over-reaction to its in-game conduct problems of 2015.

As part of its proposal, the committee made it a point of emphasis to also remind game officials that it is still up to their discretion to eject a player on a first offense, if the foul is deemed to be flagrant enough.

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“I could make the argument that that particular issue [the Beckham-Norman situation] should have been handled under the old rule, since every official has the right to eject,” Polian said. “Don’t forget, [in 1999] when Zeus [former Browns offensive tackle Orlando Brown] got hit in the eye when the referee [Jeff Triplette] threw the flag and inadvertently hit Zeus, he was ejected—Zeus was—for unsportsmanlike conduct [because he retaliated and shoved Triplette to the ground].

“And they should have ejected players in this case. And listen, I’m not criticizing [referee] Terry McAulay. I think he’s a really great official. But they should have ejected both [Beckham and Norman], in reality. They don’t need to have a new rule to do that. And really, you could have gotten Beckham for deliberate attempt to injury, spearing Norman with his helmet. There was a menu of things.”

Momentum for this rule change began when Goodell threw his weight behind the idea of a two-strike ejection policy of some sort, because when the commissioner lobbies for something, it usually gets taken very seriously by the competition committee, as Polian well knows from his years on the committee.

“As I said back in [February], there’s reason to consider it,” Polian said. “You don’t want what occurred in the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game to become something that’s business as usual. Nor even the Beckham-Norman situation. That’s not what the game’s supposed to be. No question about that. That deserves very serious consideration.”

In other NFL rules proposals:

• As expected, the NFL’s new longer point-after try has been ruled a first-year success and officially welcomed to stick around. That’s the gist of the competition committee’s proposal to make the 15-yard line the permanent line of scrimmage for the PAT, after moving it from the two-yard line in early 2015. The 33-yard point-after did add a degree of excitement to the game last season, and the hope is that more coaches find the courage to go for two-point conversions more often going forward. C’mon, guys, channel your inner Mike Tomlin!

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• In another non-surprise, the catch rule isn’t having any off-season work done to it. Though the league formed an important-looking committee to study it after the season, the consensus is that the safety of the receiver when he’s in a defenseless position carried the day and no changes to the rule were proposed. The competition committee decided that everyone needs more education when it comes to the rule’s three-part process of the catch, and we can only hope that CBS officiating maven Mike Carey will be put in charge of that.

• Another idea that makes too much sense to happen, allowing all plays to be subject to replay review challenges, stands little chance once again of gaining traction. The Bills proposed the notion this year, probably because Bill Belichick and the Patriots were tired of doing so for naught. But there’s no sense that it will get a serious review by the owners, because any proposal put forth that doesn’t come out of the influential competition committee usually dies a lonely death at the annual meeting. Baltimore also proposed increasing the list of reviewable plays and is asking that teams receive three replay challenges per game. 

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• ​If you like kickoff returns, you’re increasingly out of luck because the league is trying to take another step to reduce their frequency. The competition committee has proposed moving the ball to the 25 for touchbacks that occur after a free kick. That extra five yards should result in more touchbacks, fewer kickoff returns, and hopefully increased player safety.

• Lastly, if there are any chop block aficionados out there, say your final farewells, because it looks pretty certain that the league will rule them illegal in any form. Not that all fans even knew they were still legal, from the looks of my timeline today on Twitter. The competition committee has whittled away at the chop block—it doesn’t even sound legal, does it?—for years, but is finally ready to pull the plug completely in the name of player safety.