David Richard/Associated Press
Myles Garrett is an immensely talented football player. In three seasons, the first overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft has become one of the more feared edge-rushers in the league. He has everything a team could want in a defensive end. Speed. Power. Athleticism galore. For most of the first 10 games of the 2019 season, Garrett looked the part of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Then, in an instant, everything changed. Garrett could still lead the NFL in sacks three years running. Get named to a fistful of Pro Bowls. Win that Defensive Player of the Year award. But none of it will matter.
No matter what Myles Garrett does from now until the end of his professional career, the only thing that most fans will remember is one play on a Thursday night in November against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And Garrett has no one to blame but himself.
Heading into that affair at FirstEnergy Stadium, everything appeared to be falling into place for Garrett. After coming up just half a sack short of the franchise record in 2018, Garrett was well on his way to shattering the mark in 2019, with 10 sacks over the team’s first nine games.
Things were going well for the team, too—at least on that particular evening. The Browns were just 3-6 entering that game, but they were pummeling the Steelers on national television. It was the high-water mark in a year that hadn’t contained a lot of good news in Cleveland.
And then, with the game well in hand and the clock running down…chaos.
What happened next really needs no explanation, because even the most casual NFL fan has seen the video approximately 11,000 times. After Garrett hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, the pair got tangled up on the ground. There was pushing and shoving. Garrett pulled Rudolph’s helmet off.
And then, after more words were exchanged—Garrett hit Rudolph in the head with his own helmet.
Fans, players and pundits alike were left equal parts stunned and appalled. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield condemned Garrett’s meltdown while talking to Fox’s Erin Andrews after the game.
“I didn’t see why it started, but it’s inexcusable. I don’t care, rivalry or not, we can’t do that,” Mayfield said, via Patrik Walker of CBS Sports. “That’s kind of the history of what’s been going on here lately, hurting yourself. That’s endangering the other team. That’s inexcusable. He knows that. Well, I hope he does now. It’s tough. We’ll see.”
The Browns didn’t have to wait long to see what the league would do. Roger Goodell dropped the hammer, suspending Garrett indefinitely. He didn’t play again in 2019.
It was the most severe punishment ever levied against a player for a single incident on the field.
And let’s make one thing very clear. That punishment was absolutely deserved. There isn’t going to be any litigation of who may have done what or assignment of percentages of blame here. Garrett said during his appeal hearing that Rudolph uttered a racial slur (which was never substantiated), but nothing excuses what Garrett did. It was an act that would get most people thrown in jail. Rudolph easily could have been seriously injured.
David Richard/Associated Press
With that said, the NFL also did the right thing by reinstating Garrett on Wednesday. The 24-year-old had already served a longer suspension than Albert Haynesworth received in 2006 for his infamous head-stomp. It was the first suspension of Garrett’s career. And as inexcusable as what Garrett did was, Rudolph wasn’t hurt.
Garrett was never going to get banned for life or locked up, despite calls for both. Sadly, there is a measure of precedent for the punishment the league handed down. The league followed it. Garrett served his sentence. It was time that he be allowed to rejoin the team.
But while Garrett is eligible to play again, his punishment is far from over.
Where commercial endorsements are concerned, Garrett is finished. Toast. When the thing you’re best known for in the eyes of John and Jane Q. Consumer is braining a quarterback with his own helmet, the fine folks at Chunky Soup aren’t likely to come calling. The NFL is even less likely to want to market Garrett as one of the faces of league. He flushed hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars in additional income down the drain.
There’s zero margin for error for Garrett on the playing field from now on. He’ll be under an officiating microscope. Borderline plays that wouldn’t draw a flag with J.J. Watt will get one with Garrett. Plays that are a bit reckless will be more likely to result in hefty fines or another league-mandated vacation. It will be the polar opposite of the benefit of the doubt. Garrett’s guilt will be presumed.
Garrett’s teammates in Cleveland will no doubt welcome him back, but opinions of him in other NFL locker rooms are likely to be mixed at best. There will be some offensive linemen who will attempt to goad him into losing his cool in front of the officials. Others (especially in Pittsburgh) may well be looking for payback.
For many in the media, Garrett will forever be defined by what happened in November. Stories from now until the end of time will include that video. Many interviews will feature a question about it. He’s going to be grilled more than a rack of ribs in Memphis.
Then there are the fans. Hoo-boy the fans. The court of Goodell and even the court of law pale in comparison to the harshness of the court of public opinion. For most outside Cleveland, Garrett is a dirty player—period. They’ll point to what happened against the Steelers. His shot at Delanie Walker in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans. The hit that ended Trevor Siemian’s season a week later.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
That the Walker shove is hardly unprecedented in today’s NFL and the Siemian hit would have been legal not that long ago doesn’t matter even a little. Neither will anything that Garrett does from now on—unless it makes things worse.
Myles Garrett is an incredibly talented athlete. The kind of talent who doesn’t come along every year. He’s a difference-maker between the lines.
As terrible as what he did was, the league made the right call by reinstating him. Garrett deserves the opportunity to continue his playing career. A chance to at least try to put that awful mistake behind him.
But the cold, hard reality is that to a large extent that is just not possible. Garrett can pile up stats and accolades, but he’s never going to be able to undo what happened on that fateful Thursday night.
The damage is done.