Brandon Meriweather’s two-game suspension for a helmet-first tackle in Washington’s preseason loss at Baltimore has hit the veteran safety hard in the wallet and compromised the Redskins’ defense at the start of the regular season.
But the ramifications may be further reaching, giving veteran NFL players one more reason to avoid preseason games altogether.
Washington free safety Ryan Clark says veterans need to weigh the risk of playing in the preseason — not just the well-established risk of injury, but the risk of five- and six-figure fines and suspensions that could jeopardize starting jobs.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has gone one step further, announcing on social media that he won’t play another preseason game. He restated the vow in an interview this week.
“It gives you something to think about, definitely,” Hall said of the punishment meted out to Meriweather. “Personally, I don’t need preseason games, so I’m just going to go as hard as I can in practice, knowing I’m not going to play in a game, and get my work done that way. I don’t plan on playing in any more games.”
What chafes Clark, 34, and Hall, 30, both outspoken locker-room leaders, is the fact that the NFL is using regular season playing time to punish players for transgressions in largely meaningless preseason games. Missing a regular season game means missing a regular season paycheck, which for starters is vastly more than the $975 to $1,700 they earn weekly for the preseason, depending on tenure.
“It’s unfair,” said Clark, a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee. “The compensation for what we’re doing [in the preseason] isn’t there. We understand that the NFL is able to make good money off of having those games, and that’s fine. But for us to put ourselves out there for that price — first to risk injury, but also to miss two regular season games, two games of pay and to also dock a football team one of its best players for a preseason play — is really, really, really tough.”
Meriweather’s forfeited checks for missing the Sept. 7 season opener at Houston and Sept. 14 home opener against Jacksonville total $100,588.24.
He’s believed to be just the second NFL player penalized in the regular season for a preseason infraction. The first was Houston’s Antonio Smith, suspended two preseason games and one regular season game in 2013 for ripping off a player’s helmet and swinging it at him.
Regarding Meriweather’s case, Dave Gardi, the NFL’s senior vice president of football operations, said: “With his status as a repeat offender, the discipline was warranted. If it was a first-time offense, we would have analyzed that differently.”
Meriweather’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith, which he insisted was unintentional, was the sixth such rules violation of his career.
For the next two weeks, the Redskins’ defensive backfield will be thin at safety, the last line of defense in keeping opponents out of the end zone.
Assuming Meriweather returns for a fourth season in Washington, his history of NFL suspensions could be reason enough to hold him out of preseason games.
“It’s akin to injury now,” Clark notes. “Think about a veteran starter who is coming off an injury; you won’t really play him much in the preseason. The reason is, he could get hurt and then he could miss games. You’re protecting your investment.
“So why wouldn’t it be the same with a guy like Brandon, who you know is already tinkering on the edge of being suspended? Why not say, ‘We’re going to keep you out of preseason because we know this is a possibility.’ ”
Without a coach’s approval, however, NFL players can’t simply opt out, as New York Jets cornerback Dimitri Patterson learned last week. They’re under contract to play. After Patterson failed to show up for an Aug. 22 preseason game, the Jets suspended him indefinitely and then cut him, despite a shortage of corners.
No one in Washington’s locker room is talking about a boycott or any organized movement against preseason games.
“We can take a stand and try to make it an issue, but you can’t tell all the guys not to play,” said Clark, who went undrafted out of Louisiana State in 2002 and who understands that preseason games are invaluable for young players trying to land a job in the pros.
For established starters, however, the cost can be enormous if a handful of preseason snaps results in a regular season suspension.
In Meriweather’s case, it’s not only about money but about job security, too.
Last weekend, Washington brought in third-year safety Duke Ihenacho to bridge the gap in the defensive backfield. Cut by Denver, Ihenacho is expected to help immediately on special teams and could help at strong safety in Meriweather’s absence or later, if he runs afoul of the rulebook again.
“What if another guy comes in here, plays extremely well while he’s out, and then it’s hard for him to get back on the field,” Clark said. “It’s really tough to be put in that position for a preseason game.”
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