By my count, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett held Mason Rudolph’s helmet in his hands for about five seconds before he clubbed the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback over the head with it on Thursday Night Football. That’s a giant period of time in football terms. For example, it takes Rudolph 2.83 seconds on average to receive a snap and throw a pass, and Garrett is expected to tackle or disrupt him during that short window. His attack on Rudolph’s bare head was uncommonly patient, and Garrett left no doubt that his actions were both intentional and dirty. On Friday, the NFL announced a severe punishment, suspending him “without pay indefinitely—at a minimum for the regular season and postseason.”
That you shouldn’t bludgeon someone with their own helmet should go without saying, but the NFL rulebook—an otherwise confusing mess of quasi-legalese—is nonetheless clear about this. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 17: “A player may not use a helmet that is no longer worn by anyone as a weapon to strike, swing at, or throw at an opponent.”
Rarely in this league is a play met with such immediate condemnation. On Twitter, fans, NFL writers, and Garrett’s fellow players immediately called for his suspension. In a league where “bang-bang play” is an accepted and commonly used term, this was an indisputable moment of unsanctioned violence. No one needed to mince words.
It should be noted that King’s claim is not exactly true. In 2013, Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith hit Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito over the head with his own helmet. The league suspended Smith for one game.
Still, the rush to condemn the attack as “unthinkable and unimaginable,” as ESPN’s Adam Schefter put it, is understandable. Garrett’s helmet-swing is not just shocking for the act itself. It also represents a relative rarity for the NFL: a high-profile disciplinary issue that doesn’t require any hemming or hawing from the league.
The NFL is notoriously clumsy when reacting to player misconduct, and the league’s designated consequences tend to be bafflingly inconsistent. Last year, it suspended Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston three games for allegedly groping an Uber driver. Months later, the league suspended Seattle Seahawks linebacker Mychal Kendricks eight games for insider trading—which is the same punishment Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt received once video evidence emerged of him kicking a woman in a hotel hallway.
All those infractions are put under the umbrella of off-field incidents, a vague term that implies that what happens outside those magical grass, turf, and paint boundaries is too murky to be fully understood. The NFL conducts its own investigations into these incidents, which often fall under its “Personal Conduct Policy,” and the response is rarely immediate. For example, Winston was accused of assault in March 2016, and the league announced his suspension on June 28, 2018. The public isn’t privy to all the details of the league’s fact-finding missions, either. Regarding Winston’s punishment, the NFL released a statement saying that it conducted multiple interviews and “examined an extensive amount of other evidence” before making its ruling, though it never offered any specifics of what that evidence showed.
The ambiguity and privacy the league enjoys in deciding typical “personal conduct” cases give the NFL broad leeway to do whatever the hell it wants—or whatever the hell it thinks might cause it the least amount of grief. In most such instances, league officials have broad freedom and authority to suspend or not suspend, to fine or not to fine, any amount of games or money that Roger Goodell, the owners, and other stakeholders deem necessary to look responsible but also just make the thing go away. This flexibility and power naturally result in inconsistencies that never get explained. Why did Winston get put on the bench for three games specifically? Why not five or six? Is there a reason insider trading carries a harsher sentence?
These are hard questions the league has zero interest in answering. But Garrett made it easy for the NFL, just as Vontaze Burfict has made it easy for the NFL many, many, many times.
Garrett whacked Rudolph during Thursday Night Football. We all saw it. It was bad, and it was in the rulebook as bad, so he was punished the very next day. Things may get more confusing—Rudolph’s agent is reportedly weighing further legal action against Garrett—but the league can consider its job done here.
Let this be a lesson for anyone thinking about violating Rule 12, Section 2, Article 17 of the rulebook during a nationally televised game: the NFL will find you, and you will pay.