As the NFL prepares to implement the new yellow card rule that will eject players automatically if they commit a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, the broader goal seems to be making the concept of ejection something officials don’t completely disregard. The league nevertheless realizes that the officials prefer not to be responsible for running players off the field.
“That’s a historic mindset of a game official,” NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino said during a visit this week to PFT Live at the league meetings in Boca Raton. “We play 16 games, unlike other sports where there are 80 games or 160 games, and so each one of these, throwing a player out really can swing the balance one way or the other. So our game officials, we just have to continue to work with them that they have that power, and we’ll support them when they exert that power. I think if they know that then they’ll do it when necessary. We don’t want to see a huge spike of ejections, we want it to be there as something we could use when necessary and it doesn’t happen very often but we just have to do it when it warrants it.”
Still, as former NFL official and supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos said during Friday’s PFT Live, game officials remain reluctant to make those decisions in real time, given the potential consequences to the game — and given the absence of replay review for such situations. It arguably makes more sense to defer to the league office for the imposition of discipline in a more objective manner, especially since players have a vehicle for appealing fines and suspensions. Players have no way to appeal ejections.
The league nevertheless remains intent on nudging the officials toward ejecting players for extracurricular conduct directed at opponents, officials, etc.
“It’s really about sportsmanship and we’ve been emphasizing sportsmanship,” Blandino said. “It feels like the last eight or nine years and we haven’t been able to move the needle and fouls continued to climb. This puts more teeth into it, [Rams coach] Jeff Fisher made some great comments during the meeting just to that fact. We need something with more teeth, this provides us that, it’s really something where the player has a choice either to engage or walk away. This isn’t in the heat of the moment trying to make a football play and my aiming point is just a little too high. We feel this will give us another deterrent to get away from the behavior that we just don’t want to see on the field.”
Maybe it will. Or maybe it won’t. By carving out a narrow set of violations that place a player on a two-strike path to the locker room, officials actually may be even more inclined not to eject for one egregious act, opting instead to follow the two-step path. The league hopes that the yellow-card concept will make the officials more willing to whip out the proverbial red card.
With the new approach passed only for one year, the experimental period gives the league office, the Competition Committee, and at least 24 of the 32 teams more time to figure out whether to keep the new rule, revert to a system based on fines and suspensions meted out after the fact, or adopt some other alternative — like a penalty-box concept.