Given the relatively quick trigger NFL officials have had on player ejections this season, I was really surprised that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski did not get thrown out of Sunday's 23-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
So was former NFL officiating Dean Blandino, who said in a Twitter video that Gronkowski should have been disqualified after his cheap shot on Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White. Blandino went on to speculate that Gronkowski could "maybe" be in line for a suspension.
From the top, I think referee Gene Steratore erred by not kicking Gronkowski out of the game. Had Steratore recognized Gronkowski's punch to the head of White, who was on the ground and later evaluated for a concussion, as the flagrant act that it was, we probably wouldn't be having a conversation about a possible suspension. Generally speaking, unless there is a specific prior history involved, the NFL allows ejections to serve as a proxy for future suspensions.
But because he was not ejected, Gronkowski will come under serious review by the NFL over the next 24 hours to determine if he'll be eligible for the Patriots' Week 14 game against the Miami Dolphins. And while Gronkowski does not have a history of this type of cheap shot, I don't think the NFL would consider him a first-time offender in its world of on-field discipline.
Two instances immediately come to mind. Gronkowski was fined $8,268 in 2015 for fighting near the end of the Patriots' Super Bowl XLIX victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Earlier that season, he had also been fined $8,268 for unnecessary roughness against Indianapolis Colts cornerback Sergio Brown. Gronkowski famously referred to the play as throwing Brown "out of the club."
The NFL will take into account Gronkowski's immediate and full apology after the game. But the reason he should fear the possibility of further suspension is clear. Anyone paying attention this season knows there has been a clear uptick in the severity of NFL discipline for on-field infractions.
First of all, there already have been 13 players ejected from games, tied for the most in any season since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Second, the league is issuing heavier-handed suspensions when appropriate.
In fact, it has departed from long-held trends to issue three separate multigame suspensions for in-game violations. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict served a three-game suspension for a preseason blindside block. Meanwhile, Oakland Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree and Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib were suspended two games apiece for their roles in a Week 12 fight.
The Crabtree and Talib suspensions were dropped to one game apiece on appeal. But consider the context: Prior to this season, the NFL had suspended only five players for multiple games because of on-field incidents, according to Football Zebras research, in the entire history of the league. (Those infractions do not include violations of the drug or personal conduct policies.)
That's a long way of saying that the context surrounding Gronkowski's cheap shot has changed this season. Typically, we wouldn't spend much time debating whether a player would be suspended for this type of incident. But times have changed, and it would be wrong to assume that Gronkowski's relatively clear history and his apology will protect him. Stay tuned.