The James Harrison hit on Colt McCoy, 10 years later

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
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It’s now been 10 years since one of the last truly devastating hits the NFL has witnessed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011. The Browns visited the Steelers. Colt McCoy played quarterback for Cleveland. James Harrison provided the Pittsburgh defense with a degree of physicality and, in turn, intimidation.

As the clock moved under six minutes to play in a game the Steelers led, 7-3, McCoy took the snap from under center on second and five from the Pittsburgh 39. Flushed out of the pocket by defensive lineman Brett Keisel, McCoy started to his left. As he approached the line of scrimmage, he took a step or two parallel to it before flipping the ball to running back Montario Hardesty.

Just as McCoy released the ball, Harrison dipped his helmet and drove it into McCoy’s facemask. The devastating blow left McCoy flat on his back, writhing. Multiple Browns employees attended to him. The officials called roughing the passer, over Harrison’s objection. Seneca Wallace replaced McCoy briefly, but McCoy returned later that same drive, throwing an interception in the end zone that essentially ended the game — especially since Antonio Brown took a short pass 79 yards for a clinching touchdown on the second play of the next drive.

Harrison insisted that the hit was clean because McCoy had become a runner.

“From what I understand, once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he’s considered a runner,” Harrison said at the time. “All the defenseless[ness] and liberties that a quarterback has in the pocket are gone and you can tackle him just as he’s a running back. The hit wasn’t late, so I really don’t understand why it was called.”

The rule, as written, contains a gray area between clearly being a passer and clearly being a runner. If the quarterback is “attempting to advance the ball as a runner,” he is no longer protected against forcible blows to the head or neck. The line of scrimmage provides a fairly bright line when determining whether a quarterback is attempting to advance the ball as a runner. Then again, some quarterbacks who stray beyond the line of scrimmage are still looking to throw it, even if it’s not a legal pass at that point.

The challenge for officials becomes recognizing when a quarterback has shifted from passer to runner. Once it happens, he can be struck forcibly in the head or neck.

That said, Harrison’s hit on McCoy from 2011 would draw a flag in 2021 for another reason. He lowered his helmet and initiated contact with it, in violation of the rule the NFL passed in 2018.

Harrison received a one-game suspension for the hit on McCoy. Today, a hit like that would likely trigger a greater punishment, regardless of the specific rule that it violated.

Today, the person who absorbed a hit like that wouldn’t have been put back in the game. Brad McCoy, Colt’s father, was critical of the decision to let him return to action.

He never should’ve gone back in the game,” Brad McCoy said at the time. “He was basically out after the hit. You could tell by the rigidity of his body as he was laying there. There were a lot of easy symptoms that should’ve told them he had a concussion. He was nauseated and he didn’t know who he was. From what I could see, they didn’t test him for a concussion on the sidelines. They looked at his hand. . . .

“After the game, the [public relations staff] made sure Colt’s interview was brief and he couldn’t face the lights in his press conference. The TV lights and the stadium lights were killing him. Why would you say he was fine? That makes it even worse. . . . Josh Cribbs suffered a groin injury earlier in the game and he was out for the rest of the game. Colt takes a severe hit like that and he’s back in the game a play later? If he took another blow to the head, we could’ve been talking about his career here.”

At the time, we expressed “hope [that] the Browns don’t hold Brad McCoy’s comments against Colt, especially as the Browns try to decide what to do at quarterback in 2012.” As it turned out, the Browns reportedly did. Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com reported several months later that McCoy’s fate was sealed when his father said what he said.

What Brad McCoy said was justified, obvious, and necessary. The fact that the Browns held the comments against Colt shows how far the league has come, when it comes to whether the words of the parent will stick to the son.

The entire episode shows how far the league has come in multiple ways. Devastating hits like that one rarely if ever happen. When they do, the players don’t get back in the game, thanks to the network of safeguards put in place to remove a player from action (it’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was). And no one would ever criticize a father or a mother for saying what needs to be said if/when their child’s safety is compromised by his team or by the league.

39 responses to “The James Harrison hit on Colt McCoy, 10 years later

  1. Lol, this was not about how far the league has come. This is about how it was and always will be whether the player is elite or not. If he is, they over look any comments family members might make.

  2. Ryan Shazier. Jack Lambert. Joey Porter. James Harrison. Mike Mitchell. Greg Lloyd. Mel Blount. Troy Polamalu. You cant tell me that headhunting, if not coached, at the very least is tolerated by that organization.

  3. I mean for what its worth, it was TEN years ago. Obviously since then the rules have changed to make sure this doesn’t happen, but what makes me laugh is how Harrison thought the hit was good. Dude, regardless of whether McCoy was in or out of the pocket, look at the hit. It was literally a head first spear into his chin. I really don’t see how some of these hits that defenders make they can even try to justify themselves. But glad the league is harder now on these types of plays.

  4. reducw injuriews by removing the cages we call facemasks, reduce the padding, and make the physical consequences as decimating to the initiator as the victim.

  5. Yes rules on hits and concussion protocols have evolved based on learning and growth. There used to be ash trays on commercial air lines and children riding in the bed of pick up trucks with no seat belts which is unheard of now.

  6. The most shocking part of that video is that the NFLN actually had a great announcing team at the time with Nessler and Mayock

  7. McCoy is the perfect backup for Murray. McCoy deserves all the success he’s had this year, he’s one of the most underrated QBs in the NFL. Very smart athletic QB with a below average arm but he’s a very capable backup, I’d love to see him win a ring with AZ before he calls it a career.

  8. Holmgren. An NFL icon was coach of the Brown’s. The whole sideline staff, including the first ctor, were playing games saying about the situation, “well, I had my head turned, and missed the play where colt got hurt”.

    The league could not afford to have this be a case of reckless management of a player, the liabilities were extreme.

    Harrison took the punishment. Holmgren is in the Hall of Fame. I remain a true fan of Colt McCoy’s bravery.

  9. joe6606 says:
    December 8, 2021 at 11:00 am
    It was a clean hit according to the rules at the time. Bad call
    __________

    Hits that are solely intended to injure a player are never clean at any time. Harrison could have hit Colt anywhere but in the face. Purposefully trying to injure another player is is contrary to sportsmanship. Fans who cheer for such hits are ghouls.

  10. I remember seeing that hit at the time and literally being concerned that Colt McCoy might not survive.

  11. It may have been “Legal” but by no means “Clean”
    How is driving your helmet directly into the facemask of a QB who had already released the ball and knocking him completely out anything a real athlete would considered “clean”?

    Sorry, just dirty, with intention to hurt. Not necessary. Could have hit him in the chest or just pushed him.

  12. The most disgusting head hunting play ever was by the Browns myles garrett two years ago swinging a helmet and striking Mason Rudolph. That is the lowest point in NFL history.

  13. mrbigchest says:
    December 8, 2021 at 10:49 am
    Deebo is on the NFL ALL Time Intimidation Team

    ——————-

    Sure, until you hear him talk. Then he’s on the NFL ALL Time Dork Team

  14. BayAreaBrownsBacker says:
    December 8, 2021 at 10:58 am
    Yes rules on hits and concussion protocols have evolved based on learning and growth. There used to be ash trays on commercial air lines and children riding in the bed of pick up trucks with no seat belts which is unheard of now.
    ___________

    On the other hand, everyone used to believe in science and thought that vaccines to eliminate horrible diseases were good things. In many ways we have progressed, unfortunately in some ways some people have regressed.

  15. gibson45 says:
    December 8, 2021 at 11:22 am
    joe6606 says:
    December 8, 2021 at 11:00 am
    It was a clean hit according to the rules at the time. Bad call
    __________

    Hits that are solely intended to injure a player are never clean at any time. Harrison could have hit Colt anywhere but in the face. Purposefully trying to injure another player is is contrary to sportsmanship. Fans who cheer for such hits are ghouls.
    ________________________________________

    No way was that a clean hit. Harrison saw the ball leave McCoy’s hands and he still launched himself into McCoy’s chin after the pass was thrown.

  16. One of the most brutal hits you’ll ever see. I’m glad to see colt mccoy knows what year it is because he was seeing stars.

  17. Steelers fans were so quick to vilify Vontaze Burfict as if James Harrison had never existed.

  18. chillyball says:
    December 8, 2021 at 11:55 am
    This is why Dan Marino it the REAL GOAT.

    ——-

    Dan’s zero SB wins say otherwise

  19. joe6606 says:
    It was a clean hit according to the rules at the time. Bad call
    ==

    No, it wasn’t a clean hit.
    Specifically, hitting facemask-to-facemask was not against NFL rules at that time. But spearing WAS against the rules then, at that was a classic case of it.

  20. thewanderer says:
    December 8, 2021 at 12:24 pm
    Steelers fans were so quick to vilify Vontaze Burfict as if James Harrison had never existed.———————-because they couldn’t handle a taste of their own medicine

  21. Colt McCoy played decoy against Harrison … He was going to run the ball unless Harrison commited to him, then he would pass it off. Harrison commited. Like he always did. Full force, in this case against a runner not a passer. So Colt passed it.

    Colt sacrificed himself to set up Harrison. If it was a chess board it was brilliant. On the football field. Brutal.

    Never forget it.

    Shame on Holmgren and the rest of the Brown’s staff.

  22. It happens….throughout history. Chuck Bednarik’s “perfectly legal,” knockout tackle of Frank Gifford took out Frank for the season. Can go on and on with hits like that

  23. I like James Harrison and see him as a great role model for working very hard day in and day out to achieve your goals and stay on top. But man– that’s a one year suspension right there.

  24. mnionc says:
    December 8, 2021 at 12:07 pm
    Colt McCoy’s teammates did absolutely nothing after the hit. Gutless Browns players
    ——————————————-

    Yes, because getting a bunch of Browns players thrown out in a close game would’ve been great for the team. I wouldn’t call them gutless, they just had common sense.

  25. tavisteelersfan says:
    December 8, 2021 at 11:20 am
    Holmgren. An NFL icon was coach of the Brown’s.

    ——-

    No, no he wasn’t. Pat Shurmer was the HC of the Browns.

  26. Just because it was not an Illegal hit doesn’t mean it was Legal. I hope McCoy is in a longitudinal medical surveillance protocol to see if he later develops CTE.

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