NFL referees ejecting players at near-record pace in 2016

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.

Early in the third quarter Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland Browns quarterback Charlie Whitehurst -- yes, Whitehurst, long story, Browns, yadda yadda -- threw a 13-yard pass to receiver Terrelle Pryor. The play ended on the near sideline. As players huddled, they noticed a flag from the far side: New England Patriots cornerback Cyrus Jones had been called for unsportsmanlike conduct and was ejected.

Referee Bill Vinovich later told a pool reporter that Jones threw a punch at Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins and connected. The play was a stark reminder that referees this season are using their discretion more frequently to eject players from games. And notably, most of the decisions are not a direct result of commissioner Roger Goodell's new rule requiring an automatic ejection after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Jones was the fourth player ejected from a game in five weeks of play, matching the NFL's total for the entire 2015 season. Only one of those players, New York Giants center Weston Richburg, has been ejected as a result of the new rule. The other three were disqualified via judgment calls from referees who have been steered toward increased implementation by the NFL's competition committee.

Four ejections in 76 games isn't an overwhelming total, of course, but it's important to consider them in the context of the NFL's previous reluctance to use the option at all. At its current pace, the league will establish at least a 15-year high for ejections in a single season. (ESPN Stats & Information penalty data goes back only to the 2001 season, and the Elias Sports Bureau could not provide an official single-season record.)

Historically, the NFL has considered ejections a discipline of last resort given their impact on a 16-game season. The potential effect on the outcome of a game is far more significant in the NFL than it is in baseball (162 games) or the NBA or NHL (82), for instance.

The chart gives you a sense of how the NFL has administered ejections since the start of the decade. The total of 13 in 2014 was inflated in part by a large brawl between the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams that led to four ejections. The disqualifications this season have, for the most part, been plays that have not appeared exceptional to broadcasters or live television viewers.

Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Eugene Sims was ejected in Week 3 for an altercation during an extra-point attempt. Like Jones' punch, it wasn't visible on the broadcast video or clear on coaches' film. Sims told reporters that he got caught retaliating to an act but wouldn't provide specifics.

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald's post-play ejection was visible in Week 1, a tantrum highlighted by ripping off the helmet of San Francisco 49ers receiver Quinton Patton. While regrettable, it was certainly not unprecedented. But the NFL rulebook gives officials the "discretion to judge a foul to be flagrant and disqualify the player" regardless of whether he has received a warning or a previous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

(Richburg was ejected in Week 3 for what appeared to be a pair of taunting penalties, as outlined in the rule adopted for this season.)

So what's happening here? Ejection totals are almost certainly wrapped up in the larger emphasis to address sportsmanship in 2016. As senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said last week, "sportsmanship and player safety are really the two top priorities in the game today." And whenever the NFL places an emphasis on a particular part of its game, the officiating associated with it usually tightens early in the season to set a tone.

We won't be able to assess the initiative until after the season, but for all the fun we've had mocking the "No Fun League," I see no issue with more liberal implementation of ejections. I argued in January that a dormant rule can't possibly serve as a viable deterrent for the worst kinds of player behavior. Now there should be no question.

Want to get a player's attention? Take him off the field. The NFL has shifted a tool once used only for the occasional emergency into mainstream use.

Texans find new ways to avoid touchbacks

How committed are the Houston Texans to subverting the NFL's touchback rule? On Sunday, they twice used linebacker Brian Peters to kick off and ensure that the ball would be returned.

Peters sent his first kick a yard deep into the end zone. The other landed at the Minnesota Vikings' 8-yard line. Cordarrelle Patterson, who entered the game averaging an NFL-high 32.0 yards per return, took Peters' pair of kicks back for modest 17- and 16-yard gains, respectively.

Coach Bill O'Brien said Peters "gives us a good chance to cover the kick," confirming the Texans as the NFL team most devoted to the strategy of kicking short and avoiding touchbacks at the 25-yard line.

This season, the Texans have kicked a league-low 43.5 percent of their kickoffs into the end zone and have only one touchback. (The league averages after Sunday's games are 79.1 percent of kicks into the end zone and 14.3 touchbacks.) It's clear that O'Brien, more than any other coach, wants no part of gifting opponents the extra 5 yards the NFL tacked onto touchbacks in a one-year experiment this season.

Opponents have returned 87 percent of the Texans' kickoffs this season (20 of 23), but it's difficult to argue with the results. Texans opponents have the third-lowest average start of drives after kickoffs, at the 23.1 yard-line. As the kids like to say: Go hard or go home.

A looooong delay in Oakland

We got a pretty, pretty, pretty good illustration of how complex NFL rules can be during the fourth quarter of the Oakland Raiders' 34-31 victory over the San Diego Chargers. A single play took, by my count, eight minutes and 36 seconds of real time to sort out -- while also producing one of the more memorable and self-deprecating referee announcements in recent memory.

It all began when Raiders quarterback Derek Carr appeared to complete a 7-yard touchdown pass to receiver Amari Cooper in the back of the end zone with 12:54 to play. Close observers immediately knew something was up: Back judge Dino Paganelli wasn't wearing his hat, the signal that a receiver went out of bounds.

Paganelli ruled the pass incomplete because Cooper had gone out of the back of the end zone before making the catch. But he also threw his flag for pass interference against Chargers safety Dexter McCoil, whom Paganelli determined had pushed Cooper out. The replay, of course, clearly showed that Cooper caught the ball, touched both feet in the end zone and maintained possession throughout the process.

So why wasn't this play a touchdown?

Gene Steratore and his crew spent a highly unusual three minutes and 23 seconds huddled to discuss the details contained therein. By rule, Cooper was allowed to come back in bounds and catch the pass -- as long as he re-established himself with both feet in bounds prior to the ball arriving. Steratore ruled he did not, so the catch was not legal.

"After a brief conversation," Steratore announced with a smile, the Raiders would be given a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

But wait.

Whether Cooper re-established himself is reviewable, and Raiders coach Jack Del Rio threw his red flag.

Nearly four minutes later, a span that included a TV timeout, Steratore returned with a 30-second explanation.

In part, he said: "Although the receiver was knocked out of bounds with the football in the air, which is a foul for pass interference, he still must get two feet back in bounds to re-establish as an eligible receiver. The receiver that was knocked out by foul only gets one foot back in bounds. Therefore, the pass is incomplete."

This was the correct call, and it makes sense in both rule and spirit. You don't want receivers getting open by running out of bounds and then popping back in to make a catch. It's called a "boundary" for a reason.

A nearly nine-minute delay between plays is far from ideal. But as always when it comes to administering a game, I would much rather have officials talk through it until they've reached certainty rather than rushing through and missing a detail. Unfortunately, it is an all-but-unavoidable consequence of the NFL's deep labyrinth of rules.