Monday night’s clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals wasn’t a football game. It was a gang war. And it’s got to stop.
I like violence as much as the next guy and probably more than most, firmly believing that the threat of mayhem can serve to focus the mind of all involved. But what happened at Paul Brown Stadium was a street fight ... not a football game ... with a tinge of intimidation.
A half-dozen players were carted off the field, two left immobilized - strapped to back boards and gurneys - and a third, Steelers' receiver Antonio Brown, had to be the luckiest man in America to have avoided a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet head shot from Cincinnati’s George Iloka while defenseless and in midair after a touchdown catch.
It takes a remarkable moment to turn Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict into a sympathetic figure with his resume for cheap shots and suspensions. But JuJu Smith-Schuster managed to do it after an illegal blindside hit leveled Burfict, and JuJu stood over him threateningly as Burfict lay immobilized on the field.
Later JuJu (such an innocent sounding name for a hired assassin) called what he’d done “messed up.’’ He was referring to standing over the fallen Burfect, not the prior act of disengaging his mind from his body with an illegal block. That’s not messed up. That’s felonious assault.
I long for the days of old-time football when defense was still legal, but I don’t want to see NFL games turn into violent versions of "West Side Story." That’s what happened not only Monday night but also last Sunday in Buffalo, when the usually affable Rob Gronkowski drove his 270-pound body into the neck of Tre’Davious White as White lay on the ground face down, out of bounds and defenseless.
Later Gronkowski apologized, but then launched into a litany of justifications for his actions, all centering around some form of how referees haven’t protected him from vile defenders holding him for seven years ... and how he couldn’t abide one more moment of it. Funny, Mike Tyson tried the same defense after he bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.
It was bogus then, and it’s bogus now.
White went into concussion protocol, and Gronkowski was suspended for a game, which will cost him $281,250 in salary and game-day roster bonus, as well as a likely fine. No matter how much they fine the culprits in the Steelers-Bengals game after JuJu was suspended, it wouldn’t be enough on a night when the Bengals had 173 penalty yards and the two teams combined for 239 -- more yards than the two of them had rushing and more than Cincinnati had passing.
After the bruising was over, Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dismissed what went on as “AFC North football.’’ That’s one way to look at it. But it’s not how Hall-of-Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden saw it. Both were disgusted and horrified, calling it bad for the game.
Pro football has enough problems of its own making already. It doesn’t need more self-inflicted wounds. But it does need a solution, and there is only one.
Forget fines. Players make so much of it that fines are meaningless. Forget the one-game slap on the wrists, too. For someone in Gronkowski’s shoes, a week off before facing the Steelers in the biggest game of the regular season for New England is a bonus, not a punishment.
So instead of petty penances start with this: If your dirty play injuries someone, you're out for one game longer than the player you injured. If he’s out a week, you’re out two. If he’s out a season, you’re out 17 games. If he’s uninjured, we’ll start the clock ticking at two games for a foul with intent to injure and double it every time you repeat that kind of stuff.
That would be, as Antonio Brown kept mumbling about Burfict’s fate, “karma." It would also be justice.