On Thursday night, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett committed the closest thing we’ve seen to an on-field crime in the modern era of pro football. Only one response will suffice. The NFL must issue the longest suspension for a single on-field act in its history, ending Garrett’s 2019 season with six games remaining in the Browns’ schedule and making clear to the world that what happened at FirstEnergy Stadium is one of the worst moments on the field in its history.
Such discipline, as harsh as it might seem, won’t be particularly controversial to anyone who saw Garrett rip off Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and then use it to pummel his unprotected head. If Garrett hit someone with a helmet on the streets of Cleveland, he would face arrest. The outburst left grizzled football veterans gasping at its sheer violence, a throwback matched by only a handful — if any — of intentional acts in 100 years of league play.
Myles Garrett hits Mason Rudolph in the head with a helmet as a fight breaks out at the end of the Steelers-Browns game.
The length of Garrett’s absence shouldn’t be too tough for the NFL to figure out. It suspended Oakland Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict indefinitely earlier this season for an accumulation of on-field acts, culminating with a helmet-to-helmet hit, but the longest suspension it has issued for a single on-field incident is five games. That happened in 2006, when then-Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth ripped the helmet off Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode and then kicked and stomped on his face. Gurode needed 30 stitches to close the wounds.
Only the grace of God saved Rudolph from a similar fate, or worse. The stunned expression on the face of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, speaking moments later in an interview on Fox, depicted the weight of the scene. Mayfield couldn’t summon an ounce of defense for his teammate.
“It’s inexcusable,” he said. “That’s just endangering the other team. … The reality is he is going to get suspended. We don’t know how long, and that hurts our team.”
Don’t forget that Rudolph was knocked unconscious last month by a hit to his helmet and missed one game. The contact from that blow, initiated by Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas, was so severe that Rudolph’s eyes were closed before he hit the ground. If you knew that context, you were surely cringing as you saw Garrett bash Rudolph’s head, topped off by Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi pushing him to the ground from behind. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey then entered the fray, kicking and punching Garrett and escalating the scene to a point where it wouldn’t have been surprising to see police officers on the field.
“I lost my cool and I regret it,” Garrett said afterwards. Rudolph called it “cowardly” and “bush” league after the game. But I’m sorry, using normal words to describe a singular act of violence risks assimilating it into all the other dirty and unsportsmanlike plays we’ve seen in football.
This was worse than Chuck Bendarik’s knockout of Frank Gifford in 1960. It was worse than Jack Tatum’s hit on Daryl Stingley in 1978, one that ultimately left Stingley paralyzed. Those plays, the first two that come to mind in the NFL’s history of on-field violence, were part of the flow of game action. Bednarik clotheslined Gifford in a tackle technique that was not uncommon in that era. Tatum lined up a hit to the head of Stingley, who was stretching for the ball in what would now be considered a defenseless position.
They were violent, unnecessary and exceedingly damaging. Garrett’s absurdity, on the other hand, came after the whistle, outside of any semblance of competition.
Maurkice Pouncey says the NFL should suspend Myles Garrett for the rest of the season after hitting Mason Rudolph in the head with a helmet.
There are few precedents in NFL history that come close to matching it. Haynesworth’s stomp is one. In 2013, meanwhile, Antonio Smith ripped off the helmet of Richie Incognito and swung it close to his face. For that, Smith was suspended for three games. In 1954, according to pro football historian Dan Daly, Colts defensive end Don Joyce hit Rams linebacker Les Richter with a helmet, for which he was ejected but not suspended.
That, of course, was 65 years ago.
The NFL should be eager to demonstrate its mettle at a time when it has never been more cognizant of a responsive to brain health. There should be little debate Friday at the league headquarters in New York City. Commissioner Roger Goodell should want the world to know how exceptional this situation is. Football can’t be like this anymore.
But the truth is that it has rarely — if ever — been like this. The NFL’s punishment should reflect that sobering fact.