A late hit out of bounds that seriously injured an opponent should carry a harsher punishment than a hit that happens before the whistle. But the NFL doesn’t see it that way, based on the one-game suspensions it doled out to both Rob Gronkowski and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Both hits left their opponents in the concussion protocol. And both warranted discipline. But a hit well after the play is over should get a longer suspension than one that happens in the course of the game, even if it’s illegal.
Why did Rob Gronkowski get suspended?
Gronkowski put a nasty, late hit on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White that resulted in White being carted off the field. Gronkowski piled on White out of bounds after the whistle and brought his elbow down on the back of White’s head.
White is about as defenseless as a player can be. He’s face down on the ground, just starting to get up, and Gronkowski leads with the elbow to the head. It’s late, it’s egregious, and it’s filthy.
Gronkowski apologized after the game, but also admitted his actions were deliberate because he was frustrated.
“I’m not in the business of that. There was a lot of frustration, and I was just really frustrated at that moment,” Gronkowski said. “It just happened naturally through emotions and frustration, and I just want to apologize to Tre’Davious White.”
The NFL’s vice president of football operations, Jon Runyan, said in his letter to Gronkowski that he had violated the league’s rules on unnecessary roughness and contact with a defenseless player.
“Your actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury,” Runyan wrote on behalf of the league. “The Competition Committee has clearly expressed its goal of ‘eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game.’ Those hits include the play you were involved in yesterday.”
Gronkowski appealed his suspension. His appeal was denied, and he’ll serve the one game in Week 14.
Why did JuJu Smith-Schuster get suspended?
The rookie Steelers receiver put a block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He led with the shoulder but made helmet-to-helmet contact with Burfict. Burfict was obviously dazed when he went to the ground.
Smith-Schuster then made the dumb decision to stand over a disoriented Burfict and stare him down.
He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and taunting. After the game, Smith-Schuster apologized for both of those things.
The league found that Smith-Schuster violated its rules on unnecessary contact with defenseless players and unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Specifically, with 7:10 remaining, on a passing play to a running back, you lined up a defender and delivered a violent and unnecessary blindside shot to his head and neck area. You then ‘celebrated’ the play by standing over him and taunting him,” Runyan wrote in the league’s letter to Smith-Schuster.
“The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided. Your conduct following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player.”
So what’s the difference?
Let’s break it down.
- Violated the NFL’s rules on unnecessary roughness and contact with a defenseless player.
- Seriously injured his opponent.
- Did so well after the play was dead.
- Violated the NFL’s rules on contact with a defenseless player and unsportsmanlike conduct.
- Seriously injured his opponent.
- Did so during the course of an actual play.
The NFL initially issued two-game suspensions to both Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib for their roles in setting off a brawl between the Broncos and Raiders. The suspensions were each reduced to one game on appeal. But the initial suspension was issued, in part, because of their actions “well after the play was over” and because they both endangered people on the sideline, according to the letters the league sent to Crabtree and Talib.
Both Smith-Schuster and Gronkowski were wrong. Both deserved to be disciplined. And both of the players on the receiving end of their bad behavior paid a heavy price.
But hitting an opponent during the flow of a game is a far cry from Gronkowski’s hit that came well after the whistle and caused White to be concussed and carted from the field. That context should carry greater weight when the NFL is dishing out suspensions.
If the league really wants to get rid of “flagrant hits that have no place in our game,” Gronkowski would have ended up suspended for more than one game.