As I force myself to again view the video of Myles Garrett’s criminal assault on Thursday night, I am baffled by what seems to be a willingness among players, fans and the NFL infrastructure to believe that this was just one player gone rogue.
In fact, after Garrett ripped off Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and smashed him over the head with that potentially lethal object, Garrett’s “That’s not who I am” defense — a cliche we’ve been hearing from sociopaths forever — was not universally scorned. As if we couldn’t see this coming.
The fact is that Garrett already had an impressive rap sheet. This year alone he punched Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker and was fined 10 grand and change. Pocket change, but a harbinger. That, after all, happened in Week 1. By the next week, he was in midseason form: he earned two roughing-the-passer calls, and a fine of more than $42,000. His trophy was a late hit that ended quarterback Trevor Siemian’s season. All the signs were there, but considering Thursday night’s game alone it’s impossible not to suspect that Browns coach Freddie Kitchens either encourages this crap or he and his coaches simply look the other way. Cleveland, by the way, is the most penalized team in the NFL.
Is it just a coincidence that earlier the Browns had methodically concussed All-Pro JuJu Smith-Schuster with two simultaneous helmet hits on one play? Perhaps the insanity would have been prevented if the officials had done the right thing and ejected defensive backs Greedy Williams and Morgan Burnett. No word yet on when Smith-Schuster might be able to return to action.
So perhaps Browns safety Damarious Randall felt empowered after he nailed the next man up, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson, with a vicious hit well after an attempted pass went awry. Even in real-time, the hit looked premeditated and the result was frightening. A dazed Johnson stumbled off the field with blood streaming down his ear. When Randall was ejected, he jumped in the air with an anguish that suggested his shock and victimization.
And, yes, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin didn’t help matters as the game was winding down. The Steelers were trailing 21-7 with 14 seconds left, and Rudolph had just been brutally sacked on two consecutive plays. You didn’t have to be a humanitarian to realize that, with the Steelers on their own 17-yard line, you take a knee on third down and get the hell out of there. Tomlin not only left Rudolph in the game, but subjected him to another pass play. That was beyond stupid; it was more like malicious. With the Browns linemen determined to add to their stats, Rudolph got the pass off and was then taken to the ground by Garrett. That’s when things went from out of hand to a Code Red.
It’s a universal sports truism that some athletes will do anything they can get away with, the latest examples being the revelation that the habitually corrupt Houston Astros used high tech to steal signs in the 2017 World Series. (I can’t get back the money I lost betting on the Dodgers, but L.A. should be declared the official winner of the series just for starters.) But the flip side is that when boundaries are established, they rarely cross the line. And the NFL’s boundaries are fluid, ineffective, and a danger to players.
But all is not lost, even if I have trouble believing in the basic decency of our species. Because we may unwittingly have lost the blood lust that accompanied the professional football of my youth. There was a time, in the age of VCRs and pay-per-view highlights, when compilations of especially ugly hits were almost as popular as other forms of pornography. I don’t see much interest in those violent highlights these days.
Which is terrific. Maybe a rare indication of some sort of positive evolution. And just to reinforce the notion, I am going to put on my gambler hat, which, ironically, may only expose the baldness of my own selfishness.
The idea being that gamblers, like investors in the stock market, fear instability. Sports bettors hate injuries as much as the market fears trade wars. Games like the Thursday Night Massacre render our best projections useless and increasingly make fantasy football leagues a game of pure chance.
But we gamblers, once denounced as sickos and degenerates, are becoming the NFL’s most important audience. Legalized sports betting, off-shore casinos and fantasy football have stepped in as TV ratings have suffered. I like to think that because of gamblers’ concerns about the volatility that comes from massive injuries, the NFL will be forced to actually do something about the predators in our midst.
Which will probably never happen. Science deniers have — more irony here — achieved the protection we once reserved for endangered species. So it’s no surprise that football players, fans and regulators have either dismissed the obvious horrendous result of concussions or downplayed them.
Even after Thursday’s game, Garrett “apologized” but quickly added this gem: “I’m just going to keep playing this game the way it’s supposed to be played and that’s violently but passionately.”
As a matter of fact, he won’t be playing this game at all for the rest of this year — not after the NFL suspended him indefinitely.
To its credit, the league also fined the Browns and the Steelers $250,000, which is an unspoken acknowledgment that the teams were unindicted co-conspirators. The problem with that, however, is that the league isn’t acknowledging its own culpability. To wit, the NFL hasn’t even made a credible effort to eliminate the helmet hits that are certain to contribute to what is already a proven epidemic of former players who are dying from and with ghastly brain damage.
The NCAA, hardly an agent of change, is way ahead of the NFL. Iffy hit in college games are reviewed and when helmet hits are confirmed, the perps are ejected.
That would be a good start for the NFL, although I would take more satisfaction in the severe punishment of coaches and owners who by their actions or inactions encourage horrific injuries. And, most of all, I’d like to see the league yank off the helmets of the likes of Garrett. Permanently.
I juiced out last week, going 1-1 and losing seven dollars. After losing a mythical $55 on Thursday night, I’ll need some luck to go 2-1 on Sunday and end up juicing out again.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
If you don’t believe that the running game is quickly losing its importance, consider the Bucs. They own the best defense against the run and the worst against the pass. The result: they’ve allowed more points per game than any team. So I’m hoping that Drew Brees recovers his mojo.
The pick: Saints 35, Bucs 27 — Over 50 for $50
Houston at Baltimore
I think that headline comic Bryan Miller, one of my colleagues on the Wednesday version of Bob Sansevere’s podcast will love this game. He’s the only person I know who watches pro football because he actually likes the sport, and this one comes with high expectations. My pick, not so much. Against my better (bettor?) judgment, I’m going with a momentum play and ignoring all technical factors. Yes, I have Lamar Jackson fever and I just don’t think he can be contained.
The pick: Baltimore 30, Houston 20 — Texans minus 4 1/2 for $50
Chicago at L.A. Rams
The Bears have gone under in 11 of their most recent 14 games, and I think we all know why. Pretty good defense and historically bad offense. Best line of the week, via a pal who lives in Evanston: “When are they going to take the wraps off Mitch Trubisky?” As for the Rams offense: it couldn’t even muster a touchdown vs. the Steelers this week. It wouldn’t shock me if they fail to score one this week, too; nor would it shock me if the game goes into overtime with the score tied at 20.
The pick: Rams 20, Bears 10 — Under 40 for $50