2016 rule changes
Player safety and sportsmanship have always been a high priority, but now there is one more tangible way that the NFL will attempt to enforce this on the field. In 2016, players will not only have to worry about fines, but ejection if they commit two unsportsmanlike fouls of certain varieties. This is a one-year trial that will be re-evaluated after the 2016 season.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press conference (video) that this was a rule that “brought teeth” to the emphasis on sportsmanship. It was in part as a public response to the last season’s AFC Wild Card game between the Bengals and Steelers. John Parry’s crew administered a number of personal foul and unsportsmanlike penalties in this tension-charged contest, including altercations involving both a coach and a player. Josh Norman and Odell Beckham scuffled in the same season, resulting in each player receiving multiple penalties, a fine for Norman, and a one-game suspension for Beckham.
Interestingly enough, the new rule would not come into effect in either of these situations. The new rule states that any two of the following will result in an automatic disqualification:
(a) Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking an opponent, even though contact is not made
(b) Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League
(c) Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.
… Violations of (b) will be penalized if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent. These acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.
… Violations of (c) will be penalized if any of the acts occur anywhere on the field. These acts include, but are not limited to: throat slash; machine-gun salute; sexually-suggestive gestures; prolonged gyrations; or stomping on a team logo.
Of course, if any act is deemed flagrant by the official, the player can be ejected based on only one act. For instance, a closed-fist punch that makes contact will be an ejection as unnecessary roughness.
In special unruly cases, a player can continue to be flagged for more unsportsmanlike fouls than the two needed for ejection. In 2007, Warren Sapp was unsportsmanlike enough to accrue four fouls in the same dead-ball period (video). A player under the new rule would be disqualified from participating further, but this would not prevent him from being repeatedly penalized (and potentially fined or suspended).
What is not included under the new rule?
The acts stated in the list fall under the umbrella of unsportsmanlike conduct, but not just any two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls will constitute an automatic ejection. Both acts committed must be within these 3 categories to result in automatic disqualification. There are many other fouls that could be called unsportsmanlike conduct that would not count towards the player’s disqualification. This includes a successive timeout attempting to freeze a kicker, two successive delay of game penalties during the same down, using substitution to confuse opponents, or even an excessive celebration penalty. An excessive celebration is not the same foul as “taunting” (under (c) in the rule above). Celebrations can easily become baiting or taunting acts or words, but an excessive celebration without any act of taunting will not count towards the player’s two unsportsmanlike fouls toward disqualification.
Personal fouls (such as a facemask, clipping, illegal crackback block, horse-collar tackle, or nonflagrant hit on a defenseless player) are also not included in this new rule. If a player pulls a ball carrier down by the facemask and later in the game is called for taunting, they remain in the game. Unnecessary roughness fouls are personal fouls — not unsportsmanlike conduct — and are not being included in the specific fouls that would lead to disqualification. (Flagrant personal fouls or roughness fouls are subject to immediate ejection as they always have been.)
This is where the rule fails to help in the Odell Beckham-Josh Norman case: Beckham received three unnecessary roughness fouls; Norman received two. Neither player committed acts that fall in the list outlined by the new rule. In the Wild Card game that appeared to be such a disaster, no single player received more than one unsportsmanlike conduct foul of any kind. Therefore, as ugly as the sportsmanship in that game was, this new rule would do nothing to calm a similar storm.
Goodell, in his comments in the press video, spoke about creating a way to enforce the philosophies of sportsmanship and safe play. These “teeth” of enforcement may indeed be the beginning of a trend to deal more seriously with player behavior, even at the expense of a player no longer participating in a game (something that historically, the NFL has shown to hold as a high priority).
Practically speaking, there haven’t been that many cases in the past where this rule would come into effect. In 2015, only one player would have been ejected under this rule (see the comments for clarification). Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo accumulated two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the span of a game. In the fourth quarter of the Titans game in Week 9 against the Saints, Orakpo was flagged twice in the same dead ball period for arguing a roughing-the-passer call that went against the Titans. Because they were enforced as half-distance penalties, the two unsportsmanlike fouls only combined for a total of 5 yards.
Support for the automatic disqualification has been limited among coaches. Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report said that coaches fear a situation where a player on their team (who either has one unsportsmanlike already or or is known to be volatile) is baited by a designated agitator on the other team. They suspect that once a player gets an unsportsmanlike foul, we could see an increase in unsporting acts hoping for retaliation.
In the same vein, the rule potentially throws a wrench into the mind of an official when he reaches for the second unsportsmanlike flag. Without a limit, there would be no secondary consequences to worry about for dropping the flag. Could this prevent the official from penalizing a minor, yet completely legitimate foul, because he does not think the player should be disqualified following that act? Although this should not be the deciding factor in the official holding or throwing his flag, it may be a complication in the thought process.
There is some discord on the new rule beyond the coaches. The owners were going to reject this rule change at their annual meeting. The rule was then passed at the 2016 owner’s meeting, apparently when a compromise to limit the rule to one year was offered.
Richard Sherman also voiced his disapproval of the change, saying that it shows that Goodell can’t understand what it’s like to be in a player’s shoes. “I think it’s foolish,” Sherman said. “But it sounds like something somebody who’s never played the game would say, something they would suggest, because he doesn’t understand, he’s just a face, he’s just a suit. He’s never set foot on the field and understood how you can get a personal foul.”
From an official’s standpoint, the rule removes some discretion in the realm of disqualification. With this explicit rule, it reduces an official’s ability to manage the game using their methods of preventative officiating.
As with the new touchback rule, this rule can be extended at the 2017 owners meeting if two-thirds of owners agree. Otherwise, it is automatically withdrawn from the rulebook.