By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Thursday Night Football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns was not particularly enjoyable to watch. That much was established long before Myles Garrett decided to throw his name into the Albert Haynewsworth/Marty McSorley/Todd Bertuzzi conversation for dirtiest/worst/most over the top attacks in modern sports history.
If that sounds like hyperbole, well, it’s not. While a sport like football, which is played by enormous men who are hired to inflict pain on opponents, lends itself to plenty of egregious acts of aggression, you really just don’t often see 270-pound defensive ends rip off the helmet of the quarterback and then use that same helmet to club that same quarterback in the head.
In fact, as far as anyone can tell, it’s unprecedented.
That it came in the final seconds of a game that had already been decided only compounded the issue.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 15, 2019
Of course, a singular moment like that one is sure to draw a significant level of attention, reaction and anger around the country. That is to be expected. But in an odd way, it may work to overshadow some of the violence that was on display in this game — issues that were equally concerning for a variety of reasons.
Take, for example, one particular snap in the middle of the second quarter. Mason Rudolph released a pass over the middle to JuJu Smith-Schuster. On that play, Chad Thomas delivered a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit on Rudolph, the same quarterback who was knocked unconscious on a football field a little more than a month ago. Thomas appeared to have left his feet to ensure that the contact he delivered on the vulnerable quarterback was made directly to Rudolph’s temple.
Referee Clete Blakeman saw the contact and threw a flag for roughing the passer.
On the same play though, Smith-Schuster absorbed not one but two hits to the helmet. As a defenseless receiver, the budding star was ineligible to be forcibly contacted in the head or neck area. The penalties were quite clear to see …
… yet, while the Browns’ defense celebrated their play, no flag flew.
Smith-Schuster stayed down on the turf, and he left the game due to a concussion. He of course did not return. One of the more popular young stars in the sport missed most of this prime-time game and is likely to miss more time, on a play where the officials on the field deemed a double head shot to have been legal.
And in Smith-Schuster’s two catches earlier in the night, the Browns appeared to have been intent on contacting him in the head whenever the opportunity arose.
Hits to the head of a ball carrier are legal, but that type of targeting might have raised some antennae for officials to be on the lookout for Browns defensive backs taking liberties on the receiver.
Protecting vulnerable players — or at least, protecting vulnerable quarterbacks and receivers — is an area where the NFL has claimed to be taking matters seriously over the past several years. While the situation has improved, a situation like this one shows that the league still struggles to enforce its own rules.
The lack of any such penalties may have emboldened safety Damarious Randall to run directly through the head of Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson in the third quarter. Randall made no effort whatsoever to avoid making violent contact with the head of a defenseless receiver, and the effect was devastating.
Johnson immediately went to the turf, grabbing his face and head while writhing in pain. Meanwhile, Randall was arguing vociferously that he had done nothing wrong.
Johnson needed help from trainers just to sit up, and he needed support from two trainers in order to be able to walk to the sideline. The broadcast cameras showed that Johnson was bleeding out of his right ear while being helped to the medical tent.
Diontae Johnson bleeding out of his ear. Easy ejection on a dirty hit. pic.twitter.com/W0njmYWD6Z
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 15, 2019
In this case, the rules were applied properly, and the offending player was swiftly ejected from the game. But now both Smith-Schuster and Johnson will be dealing with the aftereffects of concussions for some time. One can’t help but wonder if Randall might have felt some discouragement to deliver such a hit if the rules had been properly enforced earlier in the game.
As for the melee itself, it has now lent itself to be dissected, analyzed, and argued about 10 million times over. The simplest rundown is this:
–Garrett ripped Rudolph down to the ground long after the quarterback had released his pass. Blakeman did not throw a flag for roughing the passer. Rudolph was upset and thus grabbed at Garrett’s helmet while Garrett had the QB pinned to the turf. This could all be considered standard football horseplay.
–Garrett then ripped off the helmet of Rudolph. This could also be considered in the line of standard football horseplay, even if it did have a little extra level of aggressiveness.
Had it ended there, the tit-for-tat fracas would not have even made the game recap. It would have been chalked up to frustrations boiling over at the end of a long night. But it did not end there.
–With Rudolph still aggressively pursuing Garrett, the defensive end decided to windmill Rudolph’s helmet to hit the quarterback in the head. This was not standard football horseplay, no matter what kind of cockamamie explanations that folks try to concoct in order to hold Rudolph responsible for getting thwacked in the head with a football helmet.
That moment was certainly the worst of the bunch, but the general feel of this game was not entirely dissimilar to the infamous AFC North meeting between the Steelers and Bengals back in 2017. That was a game that began with Ryan Shazier suffering a life-altering spinal injury and ended up being a bit of a cauldron of on-field animosity. The two teams combined for 20 penalties and 239 penalty yards, and they also combined for over $63,000 in fine money assessed for violations in that game.
Given the severity of Shazier’s injury and the flagrant offenses committed that night, it was supposed to be something of a turning point when it came to such games. No longer was “AFC North football” going to serve as an explanation for prime-time games to be turned into showcases of varying levels of assault. Some long overdue adjustments were supposed to have been coming.
Thursday’s game showed that not much progress has been made.