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Starkey: NFL fumbles on gunner incident

| Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

Let me concoct a scenario for you: Steelers linebacker James Harrison jumps off the bench during a punt return and decks an opposing player running down the field.

What do you think happens to Harrison?

Six-figure fine?

Two-game suspension?

Forty days in the slammer?

Here is what happened to the Carolina Panthers player who actually committed that unthinkable act two weeks ago: Nothing. Unless you consider a paltry $15,000 fine significant compared to, say, the $75,000 Harrison was docked for attempting to make a legal tackle against the Cleveland Browns.

Tyler Brayton, a starting defensive end for the Panthers, should not be allowed to suit up tonight at Heinz Field. But he will, likely because he is almost as obscure as the player he clocked, Atlanta Falcons gunner Chris Owens.

Brayton's sideline body block was easily the most reckless act of an NFL season marked by the league's erratic attempts to crack down on reckless acts. The move could have resulted in serious injury to Owens, whose job is hard enough without somebody not in the game abusing him.

"It's kind of cowardly, if you ask me, to come off the bench and hit a guy when he's not looking," Steelers gunner Anthony Madison said. "That's no way to play ball."

Gunners are the guys who race down the flanks in punt coverage, often facing a double-team and perhaps even a third blocker along the way. Owens was working against a blocker when he was forced out of bounds. He was moving at a high rate of speed, legally trying to get back onto the field, when Brayton jumped off the bench and decked him.

Think about that.

The video, uncovered this past Sunday by Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, is stunning. It might even remind you of one of the most infamous plays in football history: Alabama's Tommy Lewis leaping from the sidelines to tackle Rice running back Dicky Maegle in the 1954 Cotton Bowl.

Of course, this wasn't a spotlight game, and that wasn't Tom Brady getting drilled on the sideline. It was Chris Owens. What's more, a similar incident from the same weekend was uncovered immediately and garnered much more attention.

The culprit in that case was New York Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi, who stuck out a knee and tripped a Miami Dolphins gunner. Alosi actually had players form a human wall with him along the sidelines to deter the gunner's path.

The Jets, in consultation with the NFL, fined Alosi $25,000 and suspended him for the rest of the season.

Brayton plays on.

These stories will pass quickly, of course, because nobody cares about the punt coverage team. Gunners are about as obscure as, well ...

"It's like being a freakin' long snapper," Madison said. "You don't notice them until they mess up."

Or until they're KO'd on the sidelines. Now that gunners are under attack, they are attracting media attention — and it turns out sideline shenanigans are nothing new. Madison said he has been subjected to sideline interference from coaches and players, though nothing as dramatic as a Brayton clothesline.

The NFL is paying some attention to the problem. It has issued a memo reminding teams of sideline regulations and ordering them to employ a "get-back" coach whose job is to make sure players on the sideline stay out of trouble (the Steelers' "get-back" coaches are strength and conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont and director of player development Ray Jackson).

Madison's teammate, Arnaz Battle, was a gunner earlier in his career. He hated what he saw from Brayton.

"What if it (results in a) career-ending knee injury?" Battle said. "Then you've taken away someone's goals and ambitions and livelihood with a senseless act. Cheating, basically."

Yes, cheating. And cheap. And utterly reckless.

And the NFL looked the other way.

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