The incident drew a season-long suspension for Garrett. Other incidents, which took place before the NFL decided to focus more on player safety, drew more lenient sanctions.
During a game between the Packers and Bears in November 1986, Green Bay defensive end Charles Martin slammed Bears quarterback Jim McMahon to the ground after an interception, well after the play was over:
“It was at least 20 seconds after the interception,” Jerry Markbreit, the referee who worked the game, told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “I don’t think he had an awareness of how late it was, or that the play was over. McMahon was walking to the sideline, had relaxed, and he picked him up and smashed him to the ground.”
At the time, there was no precedent for dealing with a violent act not considered part of the game, but Markbreit established one by ejecting Martin. The NFL office also established a precedent by fining Martin $15,000 and suspending him for two games, the first such multigame ban for an on-field incident.
Martin, whose nickname was “Too Mean,” had a hit list: During the game, he wore a white towel bearing the numbers of McMahon, running back Walter Payton, wide receiver Willie Gault, center Jay Hilgenberg and running back Dennis Gentry. He followed through on one of those players, ending McMahon’s season and the powerhouse Bears’ hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Martin’s suspension would remain the longest NFL ban over an on-field incident for nearly 20 years, until Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stomped on the helmetless head of Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode during a game in October 2006:
Haynesworth was contrite after the game.
“What I did out there was disgusting,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the league does to me. The way I feel right now, you just can’t describe it.”
Roger Goodell, then in his first season as NFL commissioner, suspended Haynesworth for a record five games.
Six years ago, Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith ripped the helmet off Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito and swung it at him during a preseason game. Though Smith did not make contact, the NFL suspended him for the final two weeks of the preseason and the first week of the regular season.
On Friday, the NFL suspended Garrett for at least the rest of the regular season and postseason, and he must meet with Goodell before reinstatement. He will be a huge loss for Cleveland’s defense. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Garrett has been the league’s fifth-best edge rusher this season, while his 10 sacks are tied for the third most in the NFL. Only three defensive linemen playing in a 4-3 scheme have more total pressures than Garrett, who has a combined 49 sacks, hits and hurries.
Garrett’s versatility will also be missed on a 4-6 Browns team attempting to climb back into the playoff picture. Coach Freddie Kitchens and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks use the 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end in a roughly 60/40 split between the right and left sides of the line, causing even the best opposing coaches to express concern.
“I wish we didn’t have to play against him. He’s pretty much impossible to block …,” New England Coach Bill Belichick told reporters before facing the Browns in Week 8. “Wherever he is, you better find him and block him or he’ll ruin the game.”