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NewsBeckham bends league’s tolerance in rough play: A look at the non-ejection and suspension of OBJ

Beckham bends league’s tolerance in rough play: A look at the non-ejection and suspension of OBJ

Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was taken completely out of his element when he faced off against the secondary of the Carolina Panthers. Early on, Beckham’s physicality spilled over into post-play action which resulted in three unnecessary roughness penalties. On Sunday, we said that Beckham was flirting with an ejection, and really should have been by the third quarter. The league took action on Monday to suspend Beckham for the Week 16 game against the Vikings:

Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants has been suspended without pay for next Sunday night’s game against the Minnesota Vikings for multiple violations of safety-related playing rules in yesterday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.

Beckham was penalized three times for unnecessary roughness, including a late helmet-to-helmet hit against a defenseless player in which Beckham left his feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, lowered his helmet and initiated forcible contact with his helmet, and forcibly struck the defenseless player’s head.  This “blindside block” was particularly flagrant because Beckham, with a 10-yard running start, had an unobstructed path to his opponent, the position of the opponent was not impacted by any other player, and the contact with the head/neck was avoidable. 

Although the crew has taken heat for their decision not to eject, it is not quite as simple at field level as it is from the view on television.

Because preventative officiating will do everything possible to keep a player in the game, ejections for a collective body of evidence very rarely occur. Officials try not to “inject” themselves into the game and rely on “talk-to’s” to calm the situation. Problem is, the crew sets a high bar of tolerance for rough play, and if the players don’t get control of themselves, the game can get out of hand.

Of course, this would have been a solid ejection in any other sport, but the situation is incomparable. The NFL — rightly or wrongly — has determined that the threshold of ejection is much higher, simply based the premise that a single game is 5 times more consequential than an NBA or NHL game and 10 times more than baseball. Ejections are rare occurrences in the NFL, and it frequently happens when a bright line in the rules has been breached.

An automatic ejection occurs if a player commits unnecessary physical contact or aggression towards an official; uses a removed helmet as a weapon; possesses a foreign object that is a safety hazard; or fights by swinging a closed fist, kneeing, or kicking. Everything else is subjective. Any flagrant personal foul can result in disqualification, but it is always a matter of interpretation.

When OBJ should have been DQ’d

However, out of all the activity between Beckham and Panthers safeties Josh Norman and Cortland Finnegan, only one play that occurred at the 3:16 mark of the third quarter that should have had Beckham tossed, which is cited by the league in the suspension announcement.

Beckham zipped in from several yards away to deliver a helmet-to-helmet hit on Norman at the conclusion of the play, described aptly by Fox commentator Troy Aikman as being “earholed.” Beckham drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, which was offset by Norman’s retaliation. Beckham’s hit can easily be categorized as flagrant, resulting in an ejection. So why wasn’t he tossed right then?

First-year side judge Jonah Monroe and second-year umpire Bryan Neale appear to be the only two who threw flags on the play — there may be more out of frame. Monroe and Neale seem to have the best vantage points of the contact from behind and in front, respectively. However, to rule on flagrancy, it is required that at least one of the officials has a view of the entire action. In this case, there was a tackle of the runner in progress, so there are enough moving parts for the two covering officials to defer on a flagrant call. Both officials are not far removed from working NCAA games, where the threshold for ejection is less forgiving than the NFL. In college and high school a player is automatically ejected if they commit two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in one game. The Beckham hit in the NCAA would have led to an immediate targeting ejection.

McAulay’s role

Referee Terry McAulay does not have any role in these calls, generally, unless he is throwing a flag for an infraction in his zone. While he may ask if an ejection is warranted, he is not in the position to overrule the officials. McAulay does have an obligation to address both head coaches, which he reportedly did in the second quarter, to get their players under control. Usually the flags come out if that approach doesn’t work, as was the case when Beckham was immediately flagged for grabbing Norman’s leg after the two disengaged after a play. Under normal circumstances, the two would be separated without a flag. McAulay’s discussion with coaches Tom Coughlin and Ron Rivera seemed to work, as a stretch of about 28 clock minutes were essentially incident free in the second and third quarters.

Typically, the referee will use the next television break to sort the issue out with both benches. When tempers re-ignited with 3½ minutes remaining in the third, it appeared that the crew was working toward the end of the drive to issue a second directive. By doing so, the crew did momentarily lose control of the game by waiting until the end of the drive. However, they clearly regained control at the end of that drive for the remainder of the game.

Without having a clear disqualification, based on the factors discussed, the crew had managed the game well by keeping two large chunks of the game under control. When control slipped away, they were able to re-establish order, and keep the players in the game.

Special treatment?

This is frequently discussed whether certain players get an extra cushion before they are ejected. For instance, in 2012 we questioned if the quarterback position is given such deference when the Panthers own Cam Newton contacted referee Jerome Boger. Newton was flagged, but not ejected. (The last known ejection of a quarterback happened to Trent Dilfer in 1995.) In this case, Newton did check a box on the automatic ejection list, Beckham had not.

This still circles back to officials injecting themselves into the game. Any ejection is an enormous setback for a team, regardless of whether it’s a lineman or the flashy receiver. If an ejection can be avoided, the officials will do so. They mustapply it consistently to all positions.

Taunting

Bottom line, the Panthers baited Beckham and he took the bait — hook, line and sinker. He must play with more self control.

Could the officials have flagged the Panthers for taunting? Yes, if the officials heard it. Players are masters in picking their spots for baiting. They can whisper in the ear hole of an opponent in the pile, sidle up to the player, speak in a normal voice and call him vile names. The official can see the sidle but most often not hear the taunts. The league is looking into inappropriate comments about sexual orientation by the Panthers — while not in excuse of the retaliatory actions of Beckham, they are separately actionable under the league’s sportsmanship directive which doesn’t use the trash-talk excuse for spouting slurs.

The suspension

Update, 12/23: Beckham’s one-game suspension was upheld. Norman was fined twice: $8,681 (face mask) and $17,363 (striking an opponent in the head/neck area). Norman’s appeal is pending, as the suspension appeal was expedited.

If what is past is prologue, Beckham would likely have his suspension reversed to a heavy fine. This has happened previously, where a heavier punishment for an on-field incident is reduced on appeal (such as when safety Brandon Meriweather had a two-game suspension in 2013 reduced to one game). In this case, Beckham does not have any serious transgressions in his personnel file — he was fined for throwing a punch on one play against the Bills, but that situation was quite tame in comparison — so the precedent seems to lean towards a lifted suspension.

However, Beckham’s appeal may fall short for two reasons. Already mired in a public-image deficit last season, the league was thoroughly embarrassed when the final plays of the Super Bowl in February were highlighted moreso by a brawl and the first ejection in Super Bowl history, and not the game-saving interception. In its videos on rules changes and points of emphasis to the players, the tolerance for fighting was specifically mentioned.

Beckham also may lose his appeal because of the violence of the key play — the earholing shot. The league’s press release lays the case bare by stating, with our emphasis, “this ‘blindside block’ was particularly flagrant because Beckham, with a 10-yard running start, had an unobstructed path to his opponent.” The precedent for an override for a violent offense happened on a flagrant fair-catch interference foul against Panthers cornerback Dante Wesley in 2009. In this case, the hit apparently knocked punt returner Clifton Smith unconscious, and effectively lead to the end the returner’s NFL career. Wesley was served a one-game suspension which was upheld upon appeal.

Beckham’s appeal will be heard Dec. 23 by Derrick Brooks or James Thrash — former players selected by the NFL and the players union to rule on appeals of cases involving on-field conduct.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)
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