Cleveland pass rusher Myles Garrett ended Thursday night’s game against the Steelers with a bang, ripping quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off and swinging it at Rudolph’s unprotected skull like a battle axe. Only the fact that Garrett’s swing angle was slightly off saved Rudolph from serious injury.
Takes have run from apocalyptic (“unthinkable and unimaginable”) to the dismissive (“acting like it’s some criminal offense is exaggerating things”), but what’s indisputable is that Garrett is headed to the sideline for an extended period of time, perhaps the rest of the season, perhaps longer.
It’s impossible to compare Garrett’s impending punishment with that of previous athletes who’ve gone rogue on the playing field. The NFL’s increasing push toward player safety and away from the bonecrushing-manly-men stereotype of years past means the league has little choice but to drop an unprecedented hammer on Garrett. Here’s how the league has handled transgressions in the past:
Vontaze Burfict, indefinite suspension for helmet-to-helmet hits
Following two illegal helmet-to-helmet hits against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4, Burfict drew an indefinite suspension from the league. This was more of a lifetime achievement punishment than one related to a specific incident; Burfict has amassed more than $5 million in penalties when considering the salary he has forfeited.
Antonio Smith, one game for swinging a helmet
The Raiders’ Smith drew a one-game suspension for a 2013 preseason incident in which he ripped off the helmet of Miami’s Richie Incognito and swung it at him without connecting.
Albert Haynesworth, five games for stomping
During a 2006 game against the Cowboys, Haynesworth, then with the Titans, tore off the the helmet of Dallas center Andre Gurode, then attempted to stomp on Gurode’s head. Gurode suffered an injury that required 30 stitches to close. Haynesworth was suspended without pay for five games, at the time the longest suspension for an on-field incident.
Charles Martin, two games for late hit
After the Bears’ Jim McMahon threw an interception in a 1986 game against the Packers, Green Bay’s Martin grabbed McMahon and threw him to the Soldier Field turf, aggravating an existing shoulder injury and knocking McMahon out for the season. Martin’s two-game suspension served as notice that the league could levy punishment for egregious on-field incidents that extended past the confines of a single game.
Jack Tatum, no penalty for violent tackle
Possibly the most infamous tackle in history, Jack Tatum’s hit on the Patriots’ Darryl Stingley during a crossing route drew no flags or penalties, but left Stingley paralyzed for the rest of his life. Tatum helped create and perpetuate the Oakland Raiders’ tough reputation with a series of bone-rattling hits, many of which the NFL later deemed illegal.
Chuck Bednarik, no penalty for devastating hit
One of the most brutal hits in NFL history came in 1960, when Philadelphia’s Bednarik destroyed the Giants’ Frank Gifford with a tackle so bad it kept Gifford sidelined for a season and a half. No penalty then, an ejection at the very least now.
Don Joyce, ejected for hitting with a helmet
The closest NFL antecedent to the Garrett situation came all the way back in 1954, when the Colts’ Don Joyce pulled off the helmet of the Rams’ Les Richter and hit him in the face with it. Joyce drew an ejection, but nothing else.
The NFL isn’t likely to go as light on Garrett as it did on players in previous eras. This is a new day in the NFL, and “it’s part of the game” doesn’t fly anymore.
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