The failure to suspend Damarious Randall for the gruesome hit that preceded Myles Garretts outburst shows the NFL cares most about the perception of combating violence
The NFL indefinitely suspended Myles Garrett on Friday after the Cleveland Browns star defensive lineman removed Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolphs helmet and smashed it into Rudolphs head on Thursday night. Garrett will miss at least the remainder of the regular season and the postseason if Cleveland manage to qualify. The league also suspended Steelers offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey three games and Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi one game for their roles in the brawl and fined the teams $250,000 apiece.
The altercation started with eight seconds remaining in the Browns ugly 21-7 win over the Steelers when Rudolph and Garrett tangled on the turf after a meaningless third-down play. Rudolphs fingers wedged into the back of Garretts helmet, presumably to try and remove it, which led to Garrett tearing Rudolphs helmet off and swinging it to hit the quarterback on top of his head. The resulting fracas led Pouncey punching and kicking Garrett after he had been tackled by other Steelers and Ogunjobi shoving Rudolph from his blind side after sustaining Garretts hit.
The Garrett incident was culmination of an nasty, violent game between AFC North rivals that conjured memories of the Steelers January 2016 clash with the Cincinnati Bengals that featured a host of violent helmet-to-helmet hits and altercations. As the NFL continues its public battle to prove that football doesnt endanger the long-term safety of its players, Thursday night was a brutal reminder of the games inherent violence between whistles and after them.
Prior to Garretts abhorrent actions, however, his team-mate Damarious Randall was ejected for a ghastly helmet-to-helmet hit on a Steelers receiver. The NFLs structuring of their suspensions further demonstrates what they care about when combating footballs violence problem: perception, not consequence, is what matters.
Garretts attack might be the dirtiest moment since Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stomped on the unprotected head of Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Andre Gurode in 2006. Once the former No 1 overall pick and revered defensive lineman, who admired the poetry of Muhammad Ali and Dragonball Z, Garrett is now the face of NFLs violence obsession. That he swung the helmet at Rudolph, who suffered an ugly concussion against Baltimore earlier this season, only worsens the optics of the NFL seasons lowest moment. Neither Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield nor head coach Freddie Kitchens spared Garrett in the postgame, calling the moment inexcusable and criticizing Garrett for hurting a team trying to save a disappointing season that began with playoff expectations.
The indefinite suspension is the second major crackdown the NFL has issued to try and root out dirty play: earlier this season, the league barred longtime offender Vontaze Burfict for the season after the Raiders linebacker issued a late hit against the Indianapolis Colts.
Oddly, the list of suspended players did not include Randall, who was ejected in the third quarter after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Pittsburgh wide receiver Diontae Johnson. For the NFL, indefinitely suspending Garrett is easy: weaponizing an opposing players helmet away from the play is an indefensible act of brutality that isnt justified by any motive (some pointed out that Rudolph kicked Garrett in the groin before the attack). The bigger tell of how much the NFL cares about the games endemic violence and risk of head trauma is whether it cares to penalize Randall. After absorbing Randalls full-speed helmet-to-helmet hit, Johnson left the game with a concussion and bleeding from his ears and could barely make it to the sideline injury tent for evaluation.
While the game doesnt happen in slow motion, the play is every bit as dirty in real speed: Randall targets Johnson from some eight yards away and careens himself, helmet first, directly into Johnsons head after the ball dropped for an incomplete pass. The NCAA introduced the targeting penalty in 2013, meaning intentional, forcible contact to a players helmet would result in ejection and suspension for a full half of the next game. While defensive backs must deliver hits at full speed to try and prevent or mitigate big plays on offense, players know not to use the crown of their helmets as weapons. The damage that Randall delivered to Johnson on that hit was real and terrifying, even if the NFL deems it more acceptable in the context of gameplay.
The Garrett moment will linger in the public consciousness for some time. To watch a player swing a helmet around 20 yards away from the play is embarrassing for the league because it reinforces the notion that the NFL invites all forms of violence. The NFL desperately wants to avoid moments like the NBAs Malice at the Palace, Kermit Washingtons punch of Rudy Tomjonavich or anything that resembles the aforementioned Bengals-Steelers catastrophe.
Unless a suspension is announced for Randall, however, the league seems to be content with the kind of hits that subject its players to forcible head trauma consistent with high-speed car accidents. Randall will likely be fined for the hit and will presumably play in Clevelands next game against the Dolphins.
The Garrett moment embarrasses the league because of the perception of lawlessness, so it hammered him with a historic (and deserved) suspension.
But when it looked at the Randall hit, however? To the NFL, that was just football.