Thursday night’s game ended with an alarming, unprecedented incident, with a player removing another player’s helmet and striking him with it. The full set of circumstances has some in the league wondering whether something more troubling was going on.
A high-level source with another team, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject and league rules that prohibit the public criticism of other teams, had this to say about the situation: “If the league is serious, they should fine Browns $5 million and fine [coach Freddie Kitchens] $500,000. That was like a bounty game. There were so many unnecessary flagrant hits, and then the cherry on top.”
While Myles Garrett‘s misbehavior will receive most of the attention, other illegal hits happened. Defensive back Damarious Randall applied an illegal hit to Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson, resulting in an ejection — and images of Johnson having blood running from his ear. Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also suffered a concussion during the game, courtesy of a pair of helmet-to-helmet hits at a time when he was in a defenseless posture. (No flag was thrown.)
The Browns have played an undisciplined brand of football all year long. During training camp, the Browns engaged in joint practice with the Colts. Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said after a session that featured multiple fights that “we’re not going to back down to anybody.” Kitchens grew angry at having those words read back to him after Thursday night’s game, insisting that he doesn’t coach penalties.
Maybe he doesn’t coach penalties, but it would be interesting to know what the coaching staff did to get Cleveland’s players sufficiently cranked up for Thursday night’s game to result in an ejection for an illegal hit, another illegal hit that wasn’t called, and ultimately the Myles Garrett incident. While Kitchens surely never told Garrett or anyone else to remove a player’s helmet and hit him with it, it’s Kitchens’ team. He lays down the law. He says what is and isn’t acceptable. And whatever messages he and his staff communicated prior to Thursday night’s game helped set the stage for what unfolded.
Consider this, from Jeremy Fowler of ESPN: “Myles Garrett completely lost it, connected the helmet square on Mason Rudolph’s head. And the Browns were celebrating the whole thing from the sideline.” (Emphasis added.)
“The burden starts with the coach/G.M. and culture,” our source said. “The players are the students. If the players don’t learn, you need to question the teaching.”
Kitchens has admitted that he’s still learning on the job. Apparently, he hasn’t learned how to strike the right balance between getting his players sufficiently motivated for a big game against a division rival and ensuring that they don’t cross the line. The best evidence for that conclusion is that Garrett and others crossed the line.
Thus, as the NFL decides what to do about Garrett, the NFL also should consider whether it needs to investigate methods utilized by Kitchens to get his team ready to play. Although Garrett ultimately is responsible for his own actions, Kitchens is also responsible for the things his players do.