NFL officials have several tools to try and maintain order and prevent the game from degenerating into a fight. The biggest tool, short of throwing a flag, is preventative officiating. Officials don’t want to throw flags and throw people out a ball games, so they use their people skills to help diffuse action.
If those preventative officiating techniques don’t work, the referee will go to each sideline and ask the head coach to help the officials to keep the game under control.
If the unsportsmanlike acts continue and there are gray area late hits, the officials will flag the action, even if the fans think it is a “ticky tack” foul. This is an unpleasant part of officiating, but the officials hope the flags (and the lost 15 yards) will shock the players into playing within the rules.
But sometimes, like what we saw during the Week 11 Thursday Night Football game, there is an unfortunate incident that leaves everybody stunned. A violent, unsportsmanlike act explodes and everyone on the field is filled with hate and revenge. What do the officials do then?
First, the referee speaks to both captains and coaches. The referee will report to each coach who is ejected, other fouls, and the penalty enforcement. The referee will advise the coaches and players that the game will continue with sportsmanship. And, any further personal fouls and other flagrant acts will be dealt with harshly.
The officials are then hypervigilant. You’ll see covering officials rushing toward players that are close to each other as the play ends. They will give extra toots on the whistle, jump in between players and encourage them to get ready for the next play. If there is an extra shove or a taunting word, the official will throw the flag, even if the action under normal situations is a “talk to.” Official must regain and maintain control of the game.
Thanks to expanded replay rules over the past few years, instant replay can help make sure the right players are penalized and ejected, if appropriate.
The goal of the officiating crew is to get through the rest of the game without further violence (and potential injuries).
Ultimately, it is up to the players and coaches to determine how the rest of the game will go after a flagrant incident. It is up to the players to decide whether or not to step over the line. If they choose to step over the line, the officials have no choice but to throw the flag and issue penalties.
After such a tinderbox game, the officials are more mentally exhausted than physically exhausted. They will work several man hours compiling reports to send to the league office. The referee will be on the phone with the NFL officiating office several times to go over details of the game report as the league determines fines and suspensions and prepares for player appeals.
Try as they might, sometimes players and teams lose control of themselves. Then, it is up to the officials to clean up the mess.