An NFL coach outlined a scenario after the league officially passed a rule Wednesday that two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on a player will now lead to ejection. He called it "the goon scenario."
Early in a game, a star player gets a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. Say it's the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict. One more unsportsmanlike and he's done. So the opposing team, sensing a chance to get a good player kicked out of the game, sends in a backup player to act as an agitator. Or has a starter with no unsportsmanlike penalties do it.
Burfict makes a tackle. Under the pile, he's elbowed in the face by the agitator. The refs don't see it. A few plays later, the same thing happens. A purposeful elbow to the face. Burfict ignores it. Later comes another cheap shot. This time, Burfict responds, and the refs see it. Poof. Burfict's gone. Second unsportsmanlike penalty is called, and Burfict is kicked out.
Other coaches I spoke to had the same angst over the unintended consequences of this new rule. I spoke to one head coach and several assistants, and Fox Sports' Jay Glazer tweeted the same concerns from coaches he was speaking to:
Coaches VERY frustrated w new ejection rule. Why? If star player gets 1 UC flag, other team will spend rest of game baiting that player— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) March 23, 2016
With star player having 1 flag they fear there will be more pot shots hoping they get caught retaliating— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) March 23, 2016
Yes discipline. So if J J watt gets flagged why wouldn't you as a coach send every slappy you have to bait him into something dumb??— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) March 23, 2016
To me, it seems almost impossible that such a thing could really happen. It would be far too obvious. Everyone watching for "the goon scenario" would know that's what was unfolding if it happened. Any team that did this would be instantly busted. This ain't hockey.
Besides, if a player can just keep his cool in the first place, he'll be fine.
But that, coaches tell me, is a magnificent, galaxy-sized "if." This is where the coaches might know more than me.
One coach believes there are anywhere from 10 to 15 players on each NFL roster who are always on the edge, and it wouldn't take much to push them off that edge. He imagines opponents identifying those hotheads and subsequently using goons and their goony moves to agitate those players and get them kicked out.
I asked a current offensive player in the league, and he told me this: "Of course guys will try baiting someone into a [second] flag, but who cares? They should have control to not get a second dead-ball flag."
He added: "There are many times where I've tried to get a [defensive lineman] to punch me in front of a ref. That's a personal foul, but still. The baiting happens often."
So if the baiting already occurs a lot, wouldn't this new rule increase it?
The rule has other flaws, outside of the possibility of games becoming all goony.
One of the big problems is that it really doesn't go far enough. When Odell Beckham Jr. lost his mind against Carolina last year, he was called for unnecessary roughness, not unsportsmanlike conduct. Burfict was called for unnecessary roughness when he smacked Antonio Brown in the head. Again, not unsportsmanlike conduct.
When NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino was asked by the MMQB if the rule went far enough, he said it did:
We think that this will put the player on notice if he has one of these unsportsmanlike conduct fouls that if he doesn't modify the behavior then it will lead to ejection. This, in conjunction with us reaffirming with our game officials that the flagrant acts are subject to disqualification even on the first instance…the combination of the two is enough to deter some of this behavior. We aren't talking about a lot of instances; this is not something that is widespread, but it is something that we are concerned about.
Another of the unintended consequences (there are those words again): the additional pressure it puts on the game officials.
We still don't know what the hell a catch is, and now the league is going to saddle them with this?
The league will disagree with what I'm about to say, but it's true: Game officials are already overwhelmed by dizzying rules and the scrutiny of everything they do being second-guessed by replays and Twitter. Now they have to deal with various machinations of differing points of emphasis for when a player should be thrown out or not? Next NFL ask for game officials: Build a ship that travels faster than light. Actually, that's easier than figuring out what a catch is.
What happens in the NFL (hell, in life) is that there are rules. Most people will follow them, and a select few find ways to circumvent them. This happens in football every hour of every day.
The coaches I spoke to fear the same will happen with this new rule. It could perhaps lead to more trouble on the field, not less.
It could lead to the goon scenario.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.