An unused hammer sits gathering dust in the NFL's storage closet, a tool that would be more effective in the league's presumed fight for player safety than penalties, fines or suspensions. It could stop repeat offenders short, incentivize coaches to keep better control of players and minimize the chance of a game devolving into a dangerous and unaesthetic street fight.
Ejections historically have been a measure of last resort in pro football, where every game represents 6.25 percent of the season. Football players know they will not be disqualified unless their behavior is outrageous to the point of unprecedented. If they thought otherwise -- if they knew that one mistake could end their participation immediately with swift discipline that would hurt their team more than a future suspension -- they might be more likely to police themselves.
Instead, we more than occasionally see games such as Saturday's wild-card affair between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Despite seven penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness, the only people who didn't finish the game were the ones injured by overaggressive play. It is inherently backward that Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict played until the final whistle but Steelers receiver Antonio Brown did not. Brown's concussion, courtesy of an illegal hit by Burfict, is severe enough that he appears doubtful for Sunday's divisional-round game against the Denver Broncos.
The NFL has suspended Burfict for the first three games of the 2016 season, a sizable punishment that the Bengals nonetheless have nine months to prepare for. But the sudden change of an ejection, one where a team must replace its top player with no warning, would represent a unique deterrent. The possibility seems especially relevant as the NFL gears for another "rivalry" game between the Steelers and Broncos.
We all know that penalties and fines have had no effect on Burfict. He has been penalized 12 times in his career for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness, the second most for any player since 2012, and fined more than $200,000. An ejection might not have a career-changing impact on his behavior, but the threat of it might have curbed his edge enough to protect Brown on Saturday night. Over time, if nothing else, more frequent ejections will take players off the field who are on the path to playing the way Burfict did Saturday night.
The NFL ejected only four players during the 2015 regular season, even with fighting as a point of emphasis. Two came after vice president of officiating Dean Blandino criticized the officiating crew that failed to eject anyone from a fight-filled game in Week 15 between the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants.
Recent postseasons have been particularly devoid of ejections. According to research by Michael Bonzagni of ESPN Stats & Information, only three players have been kicked out of playoff games in the past 15 years. Details are in the chart.
I understand the NFL's reluctance here. In baseball, a pitcher ejected for throwing the ball at a hitter still has 30 other opportunities to start a game. An NBA player who commits a flagrant 2 foul, which calls for automatic ejection, has 81 other games to play. Both sports play best-of playoff series, minimizing the impact of an ejection on any one particular game.
The NFL, of course, plays a 16-game regular season and one-game playoff rounds. It has established a high standard for ejection because each of its games are so meaningful. Kicking out a prominent player could dramatically impact a game's outcome and thus the course of the season. If at all possible, you want championships won by players on the field and not by decisions from officials or directives from the league office. And understandably, the NFL doesn't want to make a habit of removing marquee players from the field.
"We don't take disqualifications lightly," Blandino said last month. "It's a short season and the action really has to rise above and beyond the normal course ..."
Blandino pushed referee Terry McAulay to eject Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 15, and it's worth noting that his elevated power to speak with referees in the playoffs still doesn't allow him to order ejections. Blandino is permitted to correct administrative mistakes under the new policy, but can't call penalties or assist on judgment calls that aren't reviewable.
Ejecting Burfict after his hit on Brown would have been warranted but -- with just 18 seconds remaining -- hardly impactful. From this vantage point, that play was the culmination of an increasingly emboldened set of players over the course of a physical game. Allowing those players to remain in the game was a tacit endorsement of their tact, at least in the context of that contest. It would be eye-opening for players and their coaches to see ejections over time for offenses that fall short of outright maiming opponents.
As in any sport, football players and coaches will push their perceived advantage to the fullest extent allowed. Penalties and fines deter some but not all. Ejections aren't a magic antidote to dirty hits, nor would they protect every player on every play. But if the NFL is as serious about protecting players as it says it is, there is no reason to leave any tools in the shed.