If you were to build a tight end in an NFL workshop, it would be Rob Gronkowski. He plays hard all the time. He masters every inch of a complex New England Patriots offense. He’s gifted and loved by teammates. And in what probably bonds him most to devoted football fans is his emotions are often indistinguishable from the fabric of the game he plays. If he occasionally (or often) sounds like a teenage jock meathead who never had to grow up that’s because he occasionally is a teenage jock meathead who never had to grow up.
But even the most well-intended emotions in football can undercut a player. Gronkowski fell victim to that Sunday, when he delivered one of the dirtiest hits we’ve seen in the NFL this season. It was a moment that screamed for a suspension and significant fine, especially if the NFL is serious about protecting the health and safety of players. Not because Gronkowski has a reputation for being dirty –he doesn’t – but because even an ideal player with a fairly clean record can’t be allowed to make the foolish decision the Patriots tight end made Sunday.
It was a 265-pound flying elbow, to the back of the head of Buffalo Bills rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White. A hit that came after the whistle and was delivered while White was on the ground half out of bounds – with no idea the blow was coming. Gronkowski felt he was interfered with on the pass play that resulted in a Bills interception, unsnapping his chinstrap in disgust before diving into the back of White’s head.
It was the titanium-plated definition of hitting a defenseless opponent, sending White into the concussion protocol while Gronkowski was inexplicably allowed to continue playing. And that is what leaves the NFL in a spot where it has to make sure the point is driven home on protecting the brains of its players.
To his credit, Gronkowski appeared to be legitimately apologetic to White afterward, saying he reacted out of emotion and, “I’m not in the business of that.”
“I don’t really believe in types of shots like that,” Gronkowski said.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemed to agree, being caught on video telling Bills head coach Sean McDermott of the hit, “It was [expletive]. I’m sorry. I apologize.”
Bill Belichick apologizes to Sean McDermott for the Gronk hit that gave Tre' White a concussion. Called it bull%^&*. pic.twitter.com/qfkBB9bgid
— Prescott Rossi (@PrescottRossi) December 3, 2017
Belichick’s assessment probably summed up the entire moment most accurately. And he’ll likely have plenty of reason to continue being upset since game officials botched the moment and continued to let Gronkowski play. Considering Gronkowski was flagged for the hit, there’s no reason why he was allowed to remain in the game. The officials saw what he did, then made the incorrect decision to let him keep playing
That will likely hurt the Patriots because now it puts the onus on the NFL to levy the proper sanction – a suspension. Regardless, Gronkowski was going to face a fine for the hit. The fact that he wasn’t ejected now puts the league into a position where it will have to rectify that oversight, too. Even if it means taking New England’s best offensive player not named Tom Brady off the field, in a stretch where the Patriots are fighting for the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC. (Before a showdown against the Steelers on Dec. 17, the Patriots are in Miami on Dec. 11)
Some will argue that Gronkowski deserves leniency because he doesn’t have a track record for dirty hits. But his history isn’t spotless, including a pair of personal foul fines in 2015 – one for fighting in Super Bowl XLIX and another for steamrolling Indianapolis Colts cornerback Sergio Brown into a sideline camera lift well after a play had ended. The latter was violent enough to make all the highlight shows and even left Gronkowski joking that he had tossed Brown “out of the club” on the play.
The Brown moment pushed the safety boundaries. And looking back, it was reminiscent of what happened Sunday afternoon. An emotionally-charged Gronkowski simply went too far – to the point of potentially injuring an opponent. The only difference was Brown could attempt to protect himself, while White was face down as Gronkowski went at the back of his head like he was jumping off a WWE turnbuckle.
Whether a player is considered clean or not, the league has put itself in a position of legislating these emotional mistakes out of the game. And with Gronkowski failing to get tossed from the game, the league office has to enforce at least a one-game suspension on top of a fine. Particularly with White being in the concussion protocol. Anything less looks like a half-measure in favor of a star player, or an invitation for others to appeal future personal foul suspensions based on a weak league response in this case.
Conversely, stepping in on this one continues to show the league remains intent on flashing its teeth for on-field discipline – something that has been more of a priority since a pair of nasty fights between Josh Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. in 2015. The NFL has already tossed 13 players out of games this season and issued high-profile suspensions to Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (illegal hit), Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (fighting) and Oakland Raiders wideout Michael Crabtree (fighting).
There’s little argument that trio deserved to be taken off the field for their actions. And apology or not, there should be little argument that Gronkowski deserves to be next. What he did to White was a dirty hit driven by emotion, by a player who isn’t known to have that kind of reputation.
But even momentary lapses have consequences. And with the NFL trying to reach for the perception of protecting brains of players, it’s going to have to illustrate that now more than ever.
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