When a heated Mike Zimmer went to referee Brad Rogers on Sunday afternoon demanding an explanation for safety Harrison Smith’s second-quarter ejection in the Vikings’ 31-23 win in Houston, he said he was told it was the league’s decision. The league said it was just confirming the call on the field.

Either way, Smith (above, far right) was booted from the game, and the Vikings eked out the season’s first win.

“They told me that the league office ejected him,” Zimmer said via videoconference. “If they want to give us a penalty, fine, give us a penalty, but don’t eject guys. This guy’s one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best people in the NFL. He’s not a dirty player, so that’s kind of what irritated me, I guess.”

Al Riveron, the NFL’s executive vice president of officiating, said he simply confirmed the call on the field, indicating it was Rogers’ officiating crew that decided to eject Smith after the Vikings’ All-Pro safety made helmet-to-helmet contact on Texans tight end Jordan Akins (above, left) during a 26-yard catch down the middle of the field.

Both players were knocked from the game as Akins was diagnosed with a concussion and Smith was ejected for the second time in his nine-year NFL career.

“The ruling on the field was that of a foul on a defenseless player, and also an ejection,” Riveron said, according to a pool reporter. “Any time the officials rule a disqualification on the field, we take a look at it in replay to make sure that it is there. After we looked at it, there was nothing clear and obvious for us to overturn the ruling on the field, therefore the ruling on the field stood.”

Smith was flagged for initiating contact with his helmet after leaving his feet to hit Akins, a collision in which Zimmer contended Smith “tried to get his shoulder in there.”

The Vikings were penalized 10 yards and, according to the NFL rulebook, officials and Riveron had to deem Smith’s hit as flagrant to eject him. The NFL defines “flagrant” as a degree of a violation that’s “extremely objectionable, conspicuous, unnecessary, avoidable, or gratuitous” and “does not necessarily imply malice on the part of the fouling player or an intention to injure an opponent.”

Smith hadn’t been ejected since he made illegal contact with an official in 2012 during his rookie season. He was also fined $10,026 in 2018 for a late hit on Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Safety Anthony Harris said the defense didn’t have much time to react to the call.

“The play happened so quick,” Harris said. “You try to get [informed] on what you can see on the instant replay and try to take a look from there, but once you get the notification that he’s going to the locker room, it quickly switches from what happened on that play to who’s coming in and how can we quickly adjust.”

Zimmer surely will have more to say if the league decides to suspend Smith for next week’s game in Seattle. The NFL has suspended players after ejections, but recently Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs avoided a suspension after being ejected for targeting in a Week 2 win vs. New England.

“My issue has always been, the quarterback’s gonna throw the ball in the middle of the field and there’s no repercussions whatsoever,” Zimmer said. “And Harrison is not a dirty player, he’s never been a dirty player, and I feel like he tried to get his shoulder in there.”

The Vikings defense turned to safety George Iloka to replace Smith. Iloka, the former Bengals veteran, re-signed with Minnesota on Sept. 17 and was elevated from the practice squad for a second game.

Minnesota’s secondary was already without cornerbacks Mike Hughes (neck) and Kris Boyd (hamstring), and rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler was shaken up and briefly left the game in the first quarter before returning.

Photo by  Eric Christian Smith, Associated Press

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