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NFL refs were inconsistent in handling fights in Week 9, and that's a problem

Officials seem to have different standards for what deserves an ejection.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

NFL officials had their hands full trying to keep things in order Sunday. There were three different fights around the league, and a total of five players were ejected. But the inconsistency of how players were punished raised some question marks.

The first fight of the day was the most contentious. Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green were both tossed. A few hours later, San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, and Arizona Cardinals defenders Haason Reddick and Frostee Rucker were all ejected for some late-game chaos.

The other fight happened when Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans ran across the field to barrel into New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, but no players were ejected.

Some of the decisions — mostly the ejection of Ramsey, and the non-ejection of Evans — were confusing, especially when compared to each other.

What is the rule for automatic disqualifications?

There’s a section in the NFL rulebook that specifically deals with automatic disqualifications. It reads as follows:

In addition to any penalty referenced elsewhere in the Official Playing Rules, a player will be automatically disqualified in the event that player is penalized twice in the same game for committing one of the fouls listed below, or a combination of the fouls listed below:

a. Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is 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 may engender ill will between teams.

The player will be automatically disqualified regardless of whether the penalty is accepted or declined by the opponent. The fouls do not have to be judged by the official to be flagrant for the automatic disqualification to occur, and any foul that occurs during the pregame warm-up period will carry over into the game. Nothing in this section supersedes the Game Official’s discretion to judge a foul to be flagrant and disqualify the player based on one occurrence.

In addition, there are several spots throughout the rulebook that say “flagrant” actions on any personal foul penalty — from a facemask to roughing the kicker — can result in an automatic disqualification.

That leaves a lot of gray area.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The NFL has made the mistake of overdefining things like the catch rule, to the point that they become robotic and take common sense out of the fold.

But so much room for interpretation on what constitutes “flagrant” penalties is part of the reason why we saw so much inconsistency from officials Sunday.

Why was Ramsey ejected?

The second-year Jaguars cornerback has a loud, brash personality that gets on the nerves of opponents. It’s part of what makes him some a special player, and it’s the reason why just 24 games into his career he’s already butted heads with DeAndre Hopkins, Steve Smith, and now Green.

Even after he was sent to the locker room, he was reportedly trying to make his way to the visitor’s locker room in Jacksonville to bark at Green some more.

But why exactly was he sent off in the first place?

Ramsey was definitely the instigator, but officials didn’t have a problem with his shove to the point that a flag was thrown. Those didn’t come out until after Green took down the cornerback and began raining down punches.

Green’s decision to attack and punch Ramsey makes his dismissal easy to understand, but the cornerback never swung back. There’s the possibility that officials just made a mistake and saw things wrong:

But referee Brad Allen contradicted that with his comments to Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union after the game.

“[Ramsey] was ejected for a flagrant personal foul, which started the altercation which resulted in a punch from [Green],” Allen said. “We try to get the instigators of a situation like that. That’s who we believe we got.”

The severe flaw in that logic is the idea that Ramsey should be punished for making Green fly off the handle. Yes, Allen said both players were warned for jawing at each other earlier in the game. But if Green had walked away from the push from Ramsey, it wouldn’t have resulted in the cornerback’s ejection.

If Ramsey’s crime is dependent upon Green’s reaction, that’s a weird line to draw.

Why wasn’t Evans ejected?

The disqualification of Green and Ramsey provides a stark contrast to the way officials handled a fight late in the game between the Buccaneers and Saints.

Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston clearly started the problem by poking the back of Lattimore’s helmet. Lattimore then shoved Winston. That subsequently drew Evans streaking across the field to bulldoze the rookie cornerback.

Is that not flagrant? And if it is, and Winston instigated enough to cause the chain reaction, isn’t he every bit as at fault as Ramsey was against Cincinnati?

Instead, a 15-yard penalty was assessed against Evans and play continued.

Even though Evans stayed on the field Sunday, the NFL announced the following day that Evans will be suspended for the Bucs’ next game.

Why was anyone ejected in the 49ers vs. Cardinals game?

Antoine Bethea picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty for his hit on 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, who made the dangerous choice to slide late. San Francisco players were insulted that their quarterback got hit, and Arizona players fought back.

But at the end of it all, the worst that happened was some shoving:

The 15-yard penalty on Bethea was enforced and the three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that resulted in ejections all offset. Would anyone have had a problem if Hyde, Rucker, and Reddick were all allowed to continue?

A difficult factor in all of this is that fans can’t hear the interactions that set off players in the first place. They also don’t have the aid of replay to figure out who did what.

But an ejection is a serious punishment. Players like Evans, Green, and Ramsey are significant pieces for their respective teams, and the decision to remove them from the field is a game changer.

For now, it seems different officials have their own standards for what deserves that heavy hand. And that was a major problem in a fight-filled Week 9.