The NFL has its work cut out this week to address a pair of ugly brawls that were officiated much differently but could still lead to multiple suspensions. Let's try to make sense of what happened in Jacksonville and New Orleans, in a span of less than an hour, and project the likeliest scenarios for what will happen next.
The "fight" in Jacksonville was, in truth, an attack by Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green on Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Referee Brad Allen ejected both players, much deserved for Green and surprising in Ramsey's case, and the Bengals should brace for Green to be suspended.
Meanwhile, referee Bill Vinovich was decidedly more lenient in sorting out a melee that began when Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston -- on the bench with a shoulder injury -- poked the helmet of New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. As Lattimore retaliated, Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans flattened him from behind.
The only penalty enforced was unnecessary roughness against Evans. Former NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted that he would have supported an ejection for Evans. Had that happened, I don't think Evans would be in danger of a suspension. The NFL often views an ejection as a mini-suspension. Because Evans was allowed to continue playing, it's possible the league will feel compelled to suspend him as a makeup of sorts.
Entering Sunday's games, three players had committed acts this season that earned them ejections. Only one of them, Oakland Raiders tailback Marshawn Lynch, was suspended afterward. (Lynch had been ejected for leaving the bench area and making contact with an official. He was then suspended for one game.)
Of course, it's not unheard of for a player to come to the (angry) defense of a quarterback. Evans' hit on Lattimore was a terrible idea, but it has precedent in league annals. What we saw from Green against Ramsey, however, was a level of violence that we rarely see in pro football.
It's true that Ramsey appeared to start the fight, shoving Green hard enough after the play to knock him to the ground. But then Green approached Ramsey from behind and, by surprise, put him in a chokehold. Ramsey was largely defenseless as Green flipped him like an MMA fighter and pummeled him with at least two punches that connected. Jaguars safety Barry Church called it a "coward move."
Here's a question: If you saw that happen on the street or in a bar, would you expect the police to get involved? That is one of many considerations the NFL will take into account while reviewing this play, and it would not be at all surprising if they suspend Green to make clear that the level of violence he exhibited has no place, even during an inherently vicious game.
For his part, Green apologized for his actions but made clear that he drew a line with Ramsey.
"When you start trying to take cheap shots when I’m not looking and stuff like that," he told reporters, "then that’s when I’ve got to defend myself and I’m not going to back down from anybody."
Ramsey, of course, was not exactly an innocent bystander. The shove was unnecessary and clearly triggered Green, but was it worth an ejection? Absolutely not.
Did something happen during the ensuing melee that merited an ejection? I saw nothing on the video, admittedly through a mass of bodies, to suggest that Ramsey did anything other than absorb blows. If he threw a punch, I didn't see it. We obviously can't hear what is said at field level during a game, so it's possible that Allen's crew heard Ramsey committing unsportsmanlike conduct by baiting or taunting Green.
NFL rules call for a player to be ejected if he commits a "flagrant" act, defined as "extremely objectionable, conspicuous, unnecessary, avoidable or gratuitous." So did Ramsey flagrantly bait or taunt Green? Again, we couldn't hear it if he did. Nothing that we saw, through his actions or body language, seemed to rise to that level. We'll soon see whether Allen or the NFL have a more detailed explanation.
Update: Allen told a pool reporter that Ramsey was ejected as the "instigator" of the fight. That is a judgment call; there is no rule requiring the disqualification of a player who instigates an event that leads to the ejection of another player.
The NFL has made it a high priority to control and discourage post-play fighting. Sunday provided two opportunities to back up its effort. Allen complied in Jacksonville -- and then some -- and we'll see if the NFL makes up for Vinovich's leniency in New Orleans.
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Katherine Terrell and Michael DiRocco contributed to this report.