It is telling that, when looking for a comparison to Myles Garrett‘s outrageous behavior Thursday night, you had to reach all the way back to Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth, then with the Tennessee Titans, stomped on the face of an opponent with his cleated foot, an act that even he said was disgusting, drawing a then-unprecedented five-game suspension from the NFL.
That was 13 years ago. There has been no shortage of on-field violence in the NFL since then. A helmet-to-helmet hit concussed Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and resulted in the ejection of Browns safety Damarious Randall earlier in Pittsburgh’s 21-7 loss to Cleveland, for instance. That such gasp-inducing losses of control as Garrett’s are so rare, though, explains the extraordinary punishment the league handed the Pro Bowl defensive end, who was suspended indefinitely on Friday and will not play again for at least this season.
Even in those 13 years, the NFL has changed. It is more closely scrutinized than ever before, surely, and is ever more sensitive to public perception, particularly of those who must decide if they will let their children play the game. The league is acutely aware of the shaky tightrope it walks every day: The game’s physicality is a large part of its appeal, but the brutality is also what threatens its popularity in some audiences. The NFL has spent plenty of time, money and manpower trying to change that perception in the name of player safety. It has changed rules, endorsed flag football, ejected players. Even routinely hard hits threaten to undermine those initiatives and the message they are designed to send. What Garrett did was far from routine and demanded a penalty as rare as the act.
Garrett is one of the best defensive players in the league. But he did not look like the kind of superb athlete the NFL celebrates, even an angry one, when he clubbed Mason Rudolph in the head with his own helmet. He looked like an assailant. No business can leave that image unchecked, so the NFL did the right thing in banishing Garrett.
The ugliness at the end of the game sullied everyone involved — the teams were fined $250,000 each — and my colleague Tom Pelissero reports there will also be a fine for Rudolph, who tugged on Garrett’s helmet after Garrett drove him to the ground at the end of the play that preceded the skirmish. And the incident will be attached to Garrett for the rest of his career, just as a search for Haynesworth’s name hits first on his worst career lowlight. About an hour after his suspension was announced, Garrett released a statement calling his actions a “terrible mistake” that was “selfish and unacceptable.” He apologized.
With Garrett gone and the NFL happy to quickly close this case, it is the Browns who will come in for deeper questioning, and not just for what Garrett’s absence does to their playoff chances. Three weeks ago, after the Browns drew 13 penalties in a loss to the New England Patriots, quarterback Baker Mayfield volunteered that the Browns lacked discipline and accountability. Nothing, apparently, has changed. The Browns have 822 penalty yards this season, which is the most in the NFL entering Sunday’s games. A holding penalty, of course, is not equivalent to Garrett’s attack on Rudolph, but Garrett’s act speaks to a potentially bigger problem with the Browns. To varying degrees, they are out of control. And coach Freddie Kitchens has been unable — and, perhaps, at times unwilling — to reign them in. During training camp, the Browns had a joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts that was headlined by a series of tussles and one bench-clearing brawl. At the time, Kitchens, a rookie coach trying to change the culture and mindset of his team, said the Browns would not back down from anybody.
That is part of the edge football players need, and it is often applauded. The Steelers‘ Maurkice Pouncey was suspended three games for punching and kicking Garrett after Garrett’s swing at Rudolph, but he is also being celebrated for fiercely defending his quarterback.
Garrett, though, tipped over the edge Thursday night and he took the Browns tumbling down with him. Todd Haley, the former Browns offensive coordinator who undoubtedly has insight into the team as well as an ax to grind, said on SiriusXM radio that the Browns lack self-control. He blamed Kitchens, pointing to a series of small infractions — Odell Beckham‘s unapproved visor and cleats, among them — as things that the Browns let slide. Haley was fired last year and watched Kitchens ascend to the head job, so take his thoughts with a grain of salt. But there is plenty of evidence to back up Haley’s contention that Garrett’s behavior was not entirely a fluke.
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement they were extremely disappointed by Thursday night’s events and they, too, apologized to Rudolph and the Steelers. But the Haslams and their team have more to worry about than just Garrett. Their team lost one of its best players and possibly its chance to make the playoffs. This turned a rousing win into a dispiriting loss, giving a lot of people reason to believe the Browns still aren’t ready for prime time.
Most damaging of all, Garrett gave everyone a look at some of the ugliest behavior seen on an NFL field. The league can only hope it goes at least another 13 years before it sees something like it again.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.