The NFL has a very strict and clear rule regarding player contact with officials. Unless it doesn't.
Here's the rule: "Under no circumstance is a player allowed to shove, push, or strike an official in an offensive, disrespectful, or unsportsmanlike manner. The player shall be disqualified from the game, and any such action must be reported to the Commissioner, who may impose further discipline."
On Monday night, during a sideline skirmish after the first of two flagrant facemask fouls by Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (technically, he could have been ejected for either one), Watson shoved an official away from him. He was not ejected.
"In the judgment of the officials, the contact did not rise to the level of a foul," the NFL explained on Tuesday. "The officials are called upon to maintain order on the field, and sometimes while performing those duties, there is inadvertent contact between players and officials."
The rule doesn't have an "inadvertent contact" exception. however. If a player is shoving people in his immediate vicinity and inadvertently shoves an official, that's still a violation.
Even if there is an "inadvertent contact" exception, what about the contact was inadvertent? An official was trying to push Watson in a direction he didn't want to go, so Watson eventually pushed the official away.
Watch the video. An official was in Watson's face, pushing him away from the Pittsburgh sideline. Once Watson had enough, he shoved the official away.
The easy explanation is that the NFL didn't want to deprive one team of its starting quarterback during a prime-time, standalone game. Last year, the NFL expressly cited the link between the availability of starting quarterbacks and high TV ratings in explaining the hair trigger for roughing the passer fouls.
It's apparently going to take a lot for a starting quarterback to get ejected. Indeed, if anyone else had done what Watson did (other than Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett) he surely would have been suspended.