With Steelers linebacker James Harrison suspended for one game after his latest illegal hit, the question becomes whether the latest step in the system of progressive discipline will prompt Harrison to change his behavior.
Harrison’s public statements suggest that he won’t. Most recently, he posted on Twitter the following reaction to his suspension: “17 games, 1000+ snaps, 100+ tackles, 12+sacks and 2 forces fumbles since my last incident and I get a suspension for a football play!”
There are two problems with his comments. First, he doesn’t realize that the league looks at three seasons when determining whether a player’s past actions merit enhanced punishment. Second, while it definitely was a “football play,” the hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was an “illegal football play.”
Regardless of whether Harrison likes it (and he clearly doesn’t), the rule is that a quarterback who throws on the run can’t be hit in the head. Period. The notion that McCoy was running with the ball just before throwing it doesn’t matter. He threw on the run, and thus he shouldn’t have been struck in the head.
Again, if Harrison genuinely believes that a quarterback becomes fair game for a helmet-to-face hit once he’s running with the ball out of the pocket, Harrison should take it up with his coaches, who apparently haven’t taught him the rules. And his coaches (along with all other coaches) should be teaching their players that, when the quarterback is behind the line of scrimmage, players should assume he could throw it at the last minute, so they should aim lower than the quarterback’s head, and they shouldn’t strike him with your helmet.
If Harrison doesn’t change his ways, the next illegal hit could result in an even stiffer suspension. Though the manual regarding discipline for on-field infractions lists only the minimum fines for a first and second offense, the league ultimately wants to get players to comply with the rules. If a one-game suspension doesn’t work, then a longer suspension will be the answer.