In the moments after he forcibly removed the helmet of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and whacked him over the head with it, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett calmly explained that he “lost [his] cool.”
Indeed he did. And now that he has been reinstated, it’s critical for the Browns, the league, and Garrett that he never lose his cool that way again.
Everyone associated with the game of football (especially Rudolph) got lucky when Rudolph seemed unfazed by the windmilled whacking over his head with a hard plastic helmet. If he’d been seriously hurt or worse, the NFL may have realized a worst-case scenario.
With Garrett reinstated, the league and the Browns need to be completely sure he won’t do it again. That’s surely why Garrett didn’t receive a finite suspension. The NFL wanted/needed the ability to talk to Garrett and to ensure that his behavior was an aberration before allowing him to return to play. Although it’s unclear what the league did to come to the conclusion that Garrett won’t do it again (surely, opponents will be baiting him), the ultimate pass-fail proposition will be whether he does it again.
If he does, there may not be a second reinstatement. And if he inflicts a real injury on an opponent, the league and the Browns will be facing real liability for allowing Garrett to keep playing football at a time when the league knew or should have known that he had a propensity to blow a fuse.
The league’s file on Garrett will be critical to the question of whether enough was done to ensure that there won’t be a second time. The first time, the league could honestly say, “We had no reason to believe he’d do something like this.” The second time, that becomes a much harder sell.
It could be that, in the end, there’s nothing the NFL can do to avoid responsibility if Garrett loses his cool and hits someone over the head with a helmet again. But in lieu of banishing one of the best young defensive players from the game, the league has opted to assume the risk, presumably after explaining to him that this specific batter’s box provides only two strikes.
It’s easy to say that Garrett has learned his lesson. (Of course, some have erroneously assumed that in a different context.) Given the rarity of such incidents through the history of the league, the risk of Garrett doing it again remains low, especially if the finger wagging regarding the consequences of a repeat registered with him.
Regardless, the stakes are very high for the league, the Browns, Garrett, and the game. Whatever it is that caused him to do what he did to Rudolph can never resurface during Garrett’s career. The next time it happens, the end result could be much worse, for everybody.