In a span of 15 days, three NFL players were ejected from games for throwing punches.
None of them threw a punch.
And even if they had, here's something you should know: Punching does not carry a mandatory ejection under NFL rules.
So what exactly is going on here? Why are NFL officials apparently hyperfocused on an issue that is hardly new in the context of football?
While the NFL prioritizes sportsmanship every year, the specific act of punching is not among the points of emphasis the league publicized earlier this summer. But as former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira noted in August, it seems clear that punching and/or fighting has been placed high atop the early-season initiatives. It appears the NFL has even expanded the scope of a punch beyond what we would normally assume.
That helps explain why referee John Parry ejected Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane in the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 17-9 victory at Lambeau Field on Sunday. It also provides some level of account for why referee Ed Hochuli disqualified two players -- Chicago Bears defensive lineman Jaye Howard and Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Quinton Spain -- for a tussle they had in Week 3 of the preseason. In their announcements, both Hochuli and Parry specified "throwing a punch" as the reason for the ejections.
Replays revealed that Howard and Spain threw only open-handed slaps at each other. Lane could be seen shoving his left arm into the chest of Packers receiver Davante Adams, after Adams had grabbed and twisted Lane's face mask, but that was the apparent extent of Lane's aggression. Not even Adams could remember an actual punch thrown, saying that all he could recall was "a lot of hand fighting going on."
Let's be clear on how the NFL treats punching in its rulebook, the document that all players and coaches use to understand how to navigate the game.
Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1(a) lists throwing a punch or a forearm as among the acts that can trigger the league's multiple-foul automatic-ejection rule. In other words, if a player is penalized twice in a game for throwing a punch or forearm, he is to be automatically ejected.
Lane, Spain and Howard were all ejected after a single penalty, however. Why? The rules give the referee power to eject in circumstances that are deemed "flagrant." For these purposes, flagrant is defined as a violation of rules that is "extremely objectionable, conspicuous, unnecessary, avoidable or gratuitous."
The definition gives officials a fair degree of subjective latitude to interpret as they see fit. In recent history, they have used that option conservatively. In fact, commissioner Roger Goodell initiated the auto-ejection rule in 2016 partly because referees had proved to be too shy about using the ejection tool as a means of controlling a game.
Before that rule raised the total number of ejections to 13 last season, NFL referees had averaged 7.2 ejections per season from 2010 to '15. The very early going in 2017 suggests at least some of them will consider anything resembling a thrown forearm or fist -- closed or open -- to be flagrant as a means of deterrence against more significant altercations.
If it continues, this will be a significant shift in the degree to which the NFL attempts to fence in aggression and, if nothing else, merits an alternative explanation from referees making the final call. It could also spark an especially critical turn in the competitiveness of a game.
Sunday, the Seahawks were left to play against one of the NFL's top quarterbacks without one of their top cover men in the defensive backfield. Lane played only eight of a possible 82 snaps during a game in which Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 311 yards. The message to players seems clear: If you so much as engage in a scuffle with an opponent, you are running a reasonable risk of an early trip to the showers.