Rob Gronkowski will pay his debt to the NFL society when he sits out Monday night’s game against the Miami Dolphins. So, too, will Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster when the Baltimore Ravens visit the Steel City.
Both players were handed one-game suspensions by the NFL this week for their respective actions in Week 13 games. Gronkowski’s one-game ban is a result of the New England Patriots tight end’s Randy Savage-esque elbow drop on a defenseless Buffalo Bills player, while Smith-Schuster will sit as a result of his crack-back block on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
As others already have noted, Gronkowski (who’s been fined for post-whistle scraps before) got the same punishment as Smith-Schuster (a rookie with no priors) when Gronkowski’s transgression came after the whistle while the Steelers wideout leveled Burfict in the course of play.
That difference wasn’t lost on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who argued Wednesday that if Gronkowski’s actions were worthy of a one-game suspension, the NFL should have gone easier on Smith-Schuster.
“I thought what happened, the play that happened (involving Smith-Schuster), happened in the context of a football play,” Roethlisberger told reporters Wednesday, per ESPN. “It wasn’t away from the ball, it wasn’t a kicker, a defenseless player, it was a guy getting ready to make a tackle — a much bigger football player. Obviously, we don’t like the taunting, the standing over him, the things like that… but you look at what Gronk did and what JuJu did and he got the same suspension, I don’t know if that’s necessarily fair. But that’s above all of our pay grades.”
In a vacuum, Roethlisberger raises a very good point. As mentioned above, Gronkowski’s actions happened after the play was over. And Gronkowski didn’t even plead ignorance. His excuse wasn’t something like, “Well, I didn’t know the play was over.” Rather, the Patriots tight end said the frustration of being held and interfered with all game finally boiled over.
Smith-Schuster shouldn’t be absolved of any guilt, either. It’s hard to believe, given the Steelers-Bengals rivalry, that it was just a coincidence Burfict was the recipient of the most vicious hit of arguably the most physical game of the season — especially when Smith-Schuster stood over Burfict taunting him after the play. But at least it was a hit that came in the course of game action.
The problem, though, is these incidents aren’t viewed in a vacuum, because the NFL is so inconsistent when it comes to supplemental discipline. Perhaps it’s time for the league to take a page out of the NHL’s book and create a department of player safety. There are similar mechanisms already in place, but the NFL can do even more to educate its players on the rules. In a world where we still don’t even know what a catch is, how are we supposed to adequately parse the rules when it comes to plays like these?
(If you don’t think there’s any issue with consistency as it pertains to the NFL’s punishments, just click here.)
Make that decision-making process even more public and be more transparent. Simply writing a letter and sending a press release leaves plenty to be desired and it doesn’t do a good enough job of specifically addressing the play. Imagine a scenario where the league produces an explanatory video outlining a questionable hit, explains in full why it violates the rule while also comparing it to similar plays and then going from there. Not only will players be better educated in the long run, the NFL can reduce the second-guessing that accompanies each and every supplemental discipline decision — or non-decision.
You’ll never make everyone happy, but more defined guidelines and discipline will go a long way in ensuring consistency.