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Taunting penalties spike as officials set tone for season

A regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that impacted the week of NFL play -- with help from ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke among other resources. (Here's an analysis of the play that injured New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.)

Taunting penalties have spiked in the early part of the NFL's 2016 season, and on Sunday the trend might have cost the Cleveland Browns a game.

NFL officials have called 10 taunting penalties in the year's first 31 games, twice as many as they compiled in the first two weeks of the 2015 season (five). For context, consider that a total of 24 taunting penalties were called for all 17 weeks of the 2015 season combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (Editor's note: The total number of 2016 taunting penalties has been updated since this column was first published.)

That should be no surprise given the new rule commissioner Roger Goodell pushed through that requires an automatic ejection for any player who commits two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in one game. Taunting appears to be the primary target, and at least for now, officials have what I'll call TSS: Taunting Sensitivity Syndrome.

Trailing 25-20, the Browns appeared to have advanced to the Ravens' 10-yard line with 20 seconds remaining after a 20-yard pass to receiver Terrelle Pryor. It appeared Pryor tried to flip the ball to side judge Allen Baynes after getting off the ground, but the ball hit Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb's helmet.

Head linesman Wayne Mackie threw the flag for taunting, believing Pryor had intended to hit Webb. The penalty wiped out the gain and effectively pushed the Browns beyond a reasonable opportunity for a game-winning score.

Pryor wouldn't say what his intent was, but it would have been an exceptionally foolish decision given the game's circumstances. Regardless, my suggestion is to get used to these types of calls while officials try to set the tone for the rest of the season.

Referees as medical responders

A starting quarterback rises slowly and stumbles to the huddle, his team perched at midfield as the fourth quarter nears in a three-point game. A defensive tackle, in the middle of a productive night, slams head-first into an opposing ball carrier in a tight battle between division rivals.

For most of the NFL's 96-year history, those stories would have ended predictably and dangerously: The player would have continued participating. Competitive considerations would have outweighed concern about a potential head injury.

So it's worth noting that in Week 2 of the 2016 season, referees walked both players – Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson -- off the field and to the sideline for mandatory concussion tests. Those simple decisions, made absent of any investment in the outcome of the game, are a key part of the NFL's heightened efforts to empower neutral third parties in the protocol and minimize the competitive tug on medical decision-making.

The league has hired independent neurologists to work both sidelines during games, and two medical spotters sit in the press box to scan the field for concussion symptoms. The idea, which makes perfect sense, is to grant authority to trained medical professionals who are independent of the teams and thus have no stake in who wins.

But as we found out in Week 1, their communication process can be inefficient and play can continue before anyone has a chance to act. The NFL, in fact, is investigating why play was not stopped for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the fourth quarter on Sept. 8 after he was decked by a hit to the helmet in a game that ended in a 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Amid that backdrop, and days after the NFL announced a $100 million pledge for a new initiative aimed at head injuries, referee Ed Hochuli sent an important message. He stopped play with one minute, 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter Thursday night after Taylor was slow to rise from a sack. The Bills were trailing 27-24 and Taylor vigorously protested the decision, a reaction ingrained in the personality of most football players. But Hochuli utilized a rarely-seen authority to kick him off the field until he was tested.

Taylor missed two plays while being checked by a Bills team physician and the independent neurologist assigned to the team's sideline. He was cleared to return for a third-down play.

Referee Walt Anderson, meanwhile, ordered Johnson off the field Sunday night during a game in which he would sack Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers once and hit him three other times. Like Taylor, Johnson returned to the game after a series of tests as well.

On-field officials are not trained medical professions, but they are the closest neutral parties to the action and are in better position than the neurologists or spotters to notice a player who might be in distress. They have always been a part of the concussion protocol, and it should be no surprise that they intensified their efforts after the Newton incident.

You could argue that removing Tyrod Taylor or Tom Johnson from a game isn't the same as ordering the reigning NFL MVP to the sideline. You could also bemoan that two players who were not concussed were forced to leave the field.

But a concussion test can't be reserved only for players who are knocked out or staggering on the field. This is one case where it is better to be safe than sorry, and it is just a matter of time before the outcome of a game is impacted when a member of the concussion protocol -- with the referee as the first line of defense -- removes a key player from action against his will and personal judgment.

That might not sound like a fun way to decide a game, but it must exist as a genuine possibility to make the NFL's concussion protocol credible and legitimate. Players don't always know when they are concussed, and the chaos of an NFL sideline can inhibit medical spotting. The referee must be an active participant in the protocol as well.

Why James Starks on fourth down?

Packers coach Mike McCarthy made an unconventional decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 Sunday night, rather than attempt a 31-yard field goal, with his team trailing 10-7 at the 5:04 mark of the third quarter. The play failed, and because the Packers lost by three points, the sequence of events surfaced as one of the game's pivotal moments.

Analytics slightly favored a field goal at that point. Burke's win-probability model suggests that kicking would have improved the Packers' chances to win by 0.5 percent. That's not much, and in truth, an offense quarterbacked by Rodgers should have a better than typical chance to convert a fourth down. The Packers were also working on a 10-play drive (plus two wiped out by penalty) that could reasonably be assumed to have worn down the Vikings defense.

To me, the issues were more play selection and personnel usage. McCarthy chose a running play to gain two tough yards against a defense that held Packers running backs to 53 yards on 19 carries. He also handed it to backup James Starks, rather than bulldozing starter Eddie Lacy, for reasons that he did not explain.

No one would have argued with a field goal attempt at that point, including those who use analytics to help make decisions. But the Packers outsmarted themselves by sending their backup tailback into the heart of a defense that was stopping the run all night.

'Clear and obvious' in replay

The Pittsburgh Steelers sealed a 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals after recovering what referee Pete Morelli ruled to be a fumble with 1:50 remaining.

Replay officials reviewed the play, as they do for all turnovers, and Bengals fans no doubt thought receiver Tyler Boyd's right knee touched the ground before the ball got loose. But this is where the NFL's replay standard tends to confuse people.

As senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Sunday night, calls are overturned only when it is "clear and obvious" that a mistake has been made. It's quite possible that Boyd should have been ruled down. But of the two replays available, the ball was obscured in one and Boyd's knee was obscured in the other. Blandino needed to see a clear shot of Boyd's knee down with the ball still in possession, and the CBS broadcast provided neither.

This standard produces frustrating moments, but the NFL wants to ensure the vast majority of calls remain in the hands of on-field officials rather than technology. Replay reviews are considered a safety net for major gaffes, not a chance to re-officiate each important call.