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Prosecuting Garrett is overkill. Rudolph got off light. Pouncey is a folk hero but he deserved 3 games.

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

On the “well that escalated quickly” scale — say it with me in the Ron Burgundy voice — the Myles Garrett-Mason Rudolph fight on Thursday night ranks a solid nine out of 10.

A 10 would have been a fight that involved fans, something equivalent to the NBA’s Malice at the Palace.

It has been a while since we had an NFL game this severe. The last game that got there was Bengals-Steelers in 2017, another prime-time spectacle involving two AFC North squads that included so many cheap shots that even Ndamukong Suh could’ve watched it and said, “Whoa, let’s settle down guys.”

Cleveland's Myles Garrett (95) is punched by Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (53) and tackled by guard David DeCastro in disturbing incident of Thursday night's game in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

The latest in AFC North nastiness was one of the ugliest on-field sights the sporting world has seen in years, with Garrett (the Browns’ star defensive end) using his helmet to whack Rudolph (the Steelers’ sometimes-functional quarterback) over the head, inciting a melee. It was a sight so grim that it overshadowed an earlier incident, when Browns safety Damarious Randall was ejected for a hit that made Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson bleed from his ear.

More outrageous than last night’s spectacle: the reaction.

Social media couldn’t wait to unleash on Garrett (and rightfully so, for his stupidity), Rudolph (yeah, we caught that kick to Garrett’s groin) and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey for … eh, actually everyone loved Pouncey’s dose of street justice to Garrett, complete with a two-piece and some kicks, so much so that he moved into everyone’s “top five current players you’d have by your side in a dark alley” list.

There were even some people openly wondering why the fight was such a big deal in comparison to the largely ho-hum reaction that fights in baseball and hockey get.

Here’s why: You can’t really compare the sports to each other. There has been hand-to-hand fighting in hockey for decades, and it has been cheered and celebrated. Same for baseball, where brawls often become part of the lore of storied rivalries (i.e. Yankees-Red Sox). In both sports, it’s an accepted part of the culture, just like tussles, kerfuffles and skirmishes are an accepted part of football.

But you know what isn’t an accepted part of football? Grabbing a helmet and treating an opponent’s head like a whack-a-mole. Anytime a player does that — and connects — he’s putting another man’s health at risk in an already dangerous sport. And that’s not OK, as the legion of current and former players who have chimed in on the matter apparently agreed. 

And with some former players coming in insisting that Rudolph wasn’t getting enough of the blame, the argument continued right up to and through the NFL’s decision to quickly announce suspensions and fines.

Let’s run through the punishments and take stock of their fairness, all while attempting to have some — wait for it — nuance and perspective. It’s a bold move in 2019, I know.


Myles Garrett was fairly punished, and seeking criminal charges is overkill

His actions on Thursday night were moronic, from his insistence on driving Rudolph to the ground seconds after the ball was out to the helmet smash. The league’s decision to suspend him for the rest of the season and beyond was fair.

For those wanting him to get kicked out of the league for good or see criminal charges pressed against him? You guys can chill with that.

Fighting is a part of football. When players take swings at each other, it often energizes each team and increases the intensity of the game. It’s often no harm, no foul. Garrett is surely not the first player to use his helmet as a weapon (who knows what has happened in closed practices in past years), but he crossed the line the moment he connected in a game, flush on the head of a player who just came back from a serious concussion a month ago. 

The optics are already bad, but the reality easily could have been worse if Garrett had connected in a different spot on Rudolph’s head. Results often dictate consequences, so if Rudolph had gotten hurt, then all the “charges” talk would have merit. 

But he didn’t. So it doesn’t.

Mason Rudolph deserves suspension

Replays show that Rudolph was pissed after being driven to the ground hard by Garrett for no reason, and he appeared to kick him in the groin and rip off his helmet in retaliation. His frustration was understandable. The only thing worse than his four-interception game was his performance in the actual fight. 

However, Rudolph deserves some discipline for his role in the matter. There are reports saying he will be fined, but I would have included a suspension of at least one game.

Again, results dictate consequences and Rudolph escalated the situation, even though he did not deserve to be struck in the head with a helmet “NFL Blitz”-style.

Maurkice Pouncey earns admiration but ...

Yes, I understand his actions.

He was defending his guy — and in football, there’s honor in protecting teammates by any means necessary, including street justice. 

But … um ... you can’t recreate Canelo-Kovalev on a guy, especially in a nationally televised game, and get away with it. It sets a bad precedent, and the NFL has to at least act like it cares about player safety, even though every offensive line coach in the league who saw that Pouncey clip probably beamed with pride. Pouncey might be 30, but he might play another 10 years in the NFL based on that clip alone. Teams love linemen who, um, go the extra mile to protect their quarterbacks.

To summarize: Garrett was really wrong for the late hit and helmet swing, Rudolph was wrong for escalating, and Pouncey was right for defending his guy, but wrong for turning into 1988 Mike Tyson on the field.

All are wrong, but there are degrees of wrongness, and the NFL’s punishment was largely meted out in that manner (though, again, I would have advocated for a one-game suspension for Rudolph). 

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