By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Rob Gronkowski delivered a very late hit to a man who was not looking, and as you might expect, the fiasco has drawn quite a bit of attention.
And for the first time in several years, there’s a groundswell of public opinion suggesting that the Patriots’ star tight end needs to be suspended. Public campaigns for players to be suspended typically take place in hockey, and occasionally in baseball, but the NFL generally doesn’t find itself in the middle of such a story too often — especially when Ndamukong Suh is not involved.
The reaction has, largely, been emotional — but is it logical? Is there a firm basis for the belief to persist that Gronkowski should face a suspension?
For the answer to that, let’s look at some of the higher-profile hits that did and did not lead to suspensions from the league office this season.
Bucs WR Mike Evans delivers blindside hit on Saints CB Marshon Lattimore in post-whistle altercation, then dives on top of Lattimore to deliver a punch.
One-game suspension for Evans
This hit might be the most comparable to Gronkowski’s for its lateness and the vulnerability of the unsuspecting player.
The hit came in the third quarter. Evans was penalized but not ejected for the hit.
Evans appealed the one-game suspension, but it was upheld by James Thrash.
NFL VP of football operations Jon Runyan wrote a message to Evans which could essentially be copied and pasted to Gronkowski: “During the third quarter, after a play had ended, you struck an unsuspecting opponent in the back, knocking him to the ground. Your conduct clearly did not reflect the high standards of sportsmanship expected of a professional.”
Bears LB Danny Trevathan hits Packers WR Davante Adams helmet-to-helmet; Vikings S Andrew Sendejo hits Ravens WR helmet-to-helmet.
One-game suspensions for both Treathan and Sendejo
These hits don’t really apply to Gronkowski, as these were helmet-to-helmet hits that took place during plays, not after whistles.
However, Trevathan’s is an interesting case. I wrote at the time that such hits are commonplace in the NFL, happening frequently in almost every game. It is almost never called a penalty; in fact after Trevathan delivered the hit, no official threw a flag until seeing the receiver lying prone on the turf. The only difference with Trevathan’s hit was that it happened on national TV, and it resulted in a very obvious concussion.
So, the league decided to suspend Trevathan for two games. He appealed, and Derrick Brooks reduced the suspension to one game.
Sendejo appealed his one-game suspension, but it was upheld.
Also, Runyan’s message to Sendejo once again looks like a message that could apply to Gronkowski: “The violation was flagrant and warrants a suspension because it could have been avoided, was violently directed at the head and neck area and unreasonably placed both you and an opposing player at risk of serious injury.”
Raiders WR Michael Crabtree and Broncos CB Aqib Talib engage in a wrestling match and all-out fist fight.
Two-game suspensions for both players, reduced to one-game suspensions on appeal
This brouhaha generated a lot of negative attention, none of which the NFL wanted. So the league came down hard on both players, holding them equally responsible for the fight.
It’s important to note, though, that the same two players engaged in a skirmish last year, with Talib yanking Crabtree’s chain off his neck. Talib was not penalized for doing that.
A year later, with some understanding that such nonsense would not be allowed, both players earned the most obvious ejections in NFL history.
Marshawn Lynch bumps a referee after leaving the sideline to get involved with a midfield skirmish.
This one was also doesn’t apply to Gronkowski, as it involved contact with an official.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart’s comment about the fight could apply to Gronkowski though.
“I think a two-game suspension is designed to appropriately discipline a player, but also get their attention,” Lockhart said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “I suspect this will get their attention.”
Generally, decisions are made within a set of guidelines, and not to “get their attention.” But sometimes, that is how the NFL operates.
Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict hits Chiefs RB Anthony Sherman, who was running a route over the middle.
Five-game suspension, reduced to three games
Again, it’s not applicable to Gronkowski because it took place during a play and also involved a player who has an extensive history of delivering questionable-to-dirty hits.
Bengals WR A.J. Green wraps his arms around Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey, slams him to the turf, and delivers punches while on the ground.
A $42,000 fine; no suspension
In what was a clearly violent incident that took place in the middle of the field, the NFL opted to not suspend the player.
It’s worth noting that Green — and Ramsey — were ejected after their tussle, costing them one half of a football game. But certainly, many of those messages above that were shared with offending players could have been applied to this case. Green was likely saved by his complete lack of any record of dirty play.
Browns S Jabrill Peppers hits Bengals WR Josh Malone in defenseless position.
A $24,000 fine
It took place during a play, but it was a late hit, so it’s somewhat applicable:
Eagles LB Joe Walker dives headfirst into the helmet of Redskins WR Jamison Crowder.
A $24,000 fine
It took place during a play, but involved a similar action to Gronkowski’s.
Bottom Line: The NFL purports itself as a league that cares about head injuries, so the fact that Gronkowski delivered a flying elbow to the head of an unsuspecting opponent, combined with the fact that the words “concussion protocol” were uttered by the Buffalo coach after the game, should confirm that the league will take a long look at this one. In an effort to “prove” that it takes brain trauma seriously, it would not at all be out of the realm of possibility for the league to suspend Gronkowski — though that would be based more on public relations than it would be based on precedent.
At the same time, there is at least one suspension on the books — Evans’ suspension — that applies to Gronkowski’s situation. So, if the public push is strong enough, Gronkowski just might find himself suspended. Don’t expect it to be longer than one game, though.
If he’s more fortunate, he’ll get the A.J. Green benefit of the doubt and just be docked a massive fine.
Any punishment more than either a one-game ban or a $42,000 fine will be too much, as far as precedent is concerned. Anything less will be light.