What is happening as the season enters its home stretch? The day-after conversations now center on fights over necklaces and nasty hits, with Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals the most recent example. Vontaze Burfict was stretchered off the field to undergo concussion evaluation after an illegal hit by JuJu Smith-Schuster, who taunted him as he stood over him. Not long after that, George Iloka of the Bengals drilled Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the face mask on a game-tying touchdown. All of which came after the sobering sight of a Steelers player being immobilized and carted off, to be hospitalized overnight with a spinal contusion.
The NFL swiftly punished Smith-Schuster and Iloka, suspending each for one game for “violations of safety-related playing rules.”
The most serious injury, to Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier, left him lying on the field with his hands over his eyes — and it was one of the more innocuous plays of a game between two rivals known for smash-mouth football that occasionally crosses a line. It was, Ben Roethlisberger said, “AFC North football.”
But it was more than that. “This game is hard to watch for a number of reasons,” Fox Sports’ Troy Aikman tweeted. “Terrible for the NFL and the game of football overall.” The Smith-Schuster hit brought a milder reaction from ESPN’s Jon Gruden, who wondered why he wasn’t ejected rather than merely flagged for unnecessary roughness, which was automatically declined, and taunting, a 15-yard penalty.
Smith-Schuster, a rookie, said he initially “didn’t know it was Burfict,” who has a well-chronicled history of his own incidents. “All I saw was the first Bengal was going to tackle . . . and my instinct is I gotta block for my teammate,” he said. “And me just playing ball, I hit him. After I seen the replay I think I should’ve held back a little bit more from blocking him. Also, I believe that that’s not me. I should’ve never stood over him. I apologize for that and, with that being said, I hope he gets better.”
Over the past month or so, those apologies have rung hollow. We’ve seen A.J. Green of the Bengals accept without appeal a $42,000 fine for putting Jalen Ramsey of the Jaguars in a chokehold, a move in a fight that followed an offensive play that involved neither player. Both were ejected and Green said all the right words afterward. “I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. Now I have to accept the consequences. That’s fine,” Green said. “I accept whatever punishment that was handed down to me because I put myself in position where I hurt my team and hurt myself. I apologized to the people I hurt. My family. That’s not who I am, I can’t go out there and black out like that. That was not professional. That’s not who I am. That’s no reflection on my family. That’s not who we are. I apologize for that.”
But more and more often of late, that is who these guys are. Take the fight between the Raiders’ Michael Crabtree and the Broncos’ Aqib Talib on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, an incident that had been brewing since New Year’s Day, when Talib ripped the gold chain from around Crabtree’s neck. This time, Crabtree came prepared, spoiling for a fight by taping his chain down and daring Talib to come for him. Talib still found a way to rip off the chain. All in all, five players were fined more than $1 million for their actions in that game.
“He has just been wearing that gold chain all year; it’s just been growing on me,” Talib had explained in January. “I said if he wears that chain in front of me, I’m going to snatch it off. He wore it in front of me, so I had to snatch it off. He started crying to the ref. He didn’t say nothing to me, though.”
Then, on Sunday, one of the NFL’s biggest stars delivered what might be the ugliest hit of the season when Rob Gronkowski slammed an unsuspecting Tre’Davious White, who was already face down on the turf after he intercepted a Tom Brady pass. Gronk’s hit sent White into concussion protocol and resulted in a one-game suspension that the New England Patriots tight end is appealing. He was immediately apologetic, but he also blamed his action on game officials who don’t flag defenders for how they defend against him, an explanation that undercut his apology and left plenty of people calling for a lengthier suspension. Even Coach Bill Belichick admitted it was a “bull[crap]” play as he apologized to Buffalo Bills Coach Sean McDermott.
“First off, I definitely want to apologize to No. 27,” Gronkowski said of White. “I’m not in the business of that. I was just really frustrated at that moment.”
In all of the brutality Monday, it was the worst damage absorbed may have been on an innocent hit, as Shazier lowered his head to make a simple tackle in a game between two teams known for smash-mouth play and a heated rivalry. To be fair, most of the play over the past month has been within what we consider reasonable as we watch the game of football. But there is an element of thuggery and ugliness that simply has to go.
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