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Roger Goodell's ejection proposal has merit but needs work

Roger Goodell is pushing the NFL toward a policy that would require automatic ejections for players who commit multiple personal fouls in a game. In theory, it's a good idea and an effective deterrent against outrageous on-field behavior. In reality, there are many details to consider and resolve before we can feel confident that the policy would be a net positive for the league.

Here's the kicker: Depending on how the rule is structured and designed, we could see a 10-fold rise in ejections based on last season's per-game penalty totals. We'll get to that in a moment. First, however, let's look at the proposal as outlined Friday.

At his Super Bowl news conference, Goodell was asked about the league's long-term reaction to incidents such as the Week 15 battle between the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants. In that game, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. received three 15-yard penalties and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman two for repeated violations. Neither was ejected. Beckham later was suspended for one game and Norman was fined $26,044.

In response to the question, Goodell said he already has spoken to the league's competition committee about instituting an automatic ejection rule after a player receives two personal fouls in one game. ("Personal fouls" are a catch-all definition that, according to the NFL rule book, includes more than a dozen penalty types.)

"I believe that that's consistent with what we believe are the safety issues," Goodell said, "but I also believe it's consistent with what we believe are the standards of sportsmanship that we've emphasized. We should take that out of the hands of the officials when it gets to that point. They obviously will have to throw the flag, but when they do, we'll look to see if we can reach an agreement on the conditions with which they'd be ejected."

Indeed, the idea must move through the competition committee, then be approved by 24 owners before it can be implemented. The committee often moves slowly to consider all possibilities, but most issues wrapped in "safety" get fast-tracked.

I recently laid out a case for increasing ejections. Historically, NFL officials -- at the direction of the league office -- rarely have ejected players. It happened only four times in 2015, and two of them came after vice president of officiating Dean Blandino criticized referee Terry McAulay for not ejecting Beckham and/or Norman from the Week 15 game.

Blandino said recently that because of the NFL's "short season," the league does not "take disqualifications lightly." But we've all seen repeated incidents in which aggressive play spilled into dangerous situations, not just between Beckham and Norman but also between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card playoff round. The sudden change of an ejection has been a largely unused hammer even as other sports leagues -- albeit with more games, which serves to reduce the impact -- employ them regularly.

Nevertheless, Goodell's proposal must be carefully considered and scrutinized. At the top, we'll need to know which personal fouls -- if not all -- would count toward the maximum of two.

Below is the list of what the NFL rule book classifies as personal fouls. In 2015, there were 46 occasions when a player committed at least two of them in one game, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database.

  • Chop blocks

  • Clipping

  • Facemask

  • Illegal block above the waist

  • Illegal crackback

  • Low block

  • Roughing the kicker

  • Roughing the passer

  • Unnecessary roughness

  • Horse collar

  • Illegal cut

  • Illegal blindside block

  • Personal foul

  • Unsportsmanlike conduct

All of those penalties come with 15-yard walkoffs, but not all should be considered a matter of sportsmanship, the implied focus of Goodell's suggestion. Nor would, say, a blow to the head of a defenseless receiver or a facemask while rushing the quarterback.

Speaking on ESPN shortly after Goodell's announcement, former competition committee chairman Bill Polian urged the current members to "look at the unintended consequences of this."

Polian added: "You are putting the outcome of a game in the hands of the officials. … Suppose a guy got two personal fouls for illegal hits to the head that were inadvertent. We see those every week. You're going to have to eject that guy. … I understand where the commissioner is coming from, but putting it in place is another issue."

Cutting that list down to roughing the passer, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct, the NFL would have had 17 ejections in 2015. That seems a much more reasonable number.

The NFL must consider other issues as well, including whether teams might be incentivized to bait players who already have committed one personal foul. They might also consider making these personal fouls reviewable to ensure that no player is ejected in error.

But the core of the idea seems fair and reasonable. Unutilized, ejections aren't effective deterrents against abhorrence. Goodell is right to push back. Now, for the details …