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Kevin Gorman: Missed message by NFL with decisions on Steelers, Bengals suspensions

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, 8:21 p.m.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster lays out the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict during the fourth quarter Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster lays out the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict during the fourth quarter Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

The NFL wants to be “fair and firm, but not excessive” when punishing players in what it calls an effort to eliminate flagrant hits that have no place in football.

So the league suspended Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster one game for his first offense, a crushing crack-back block on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a repeat offender of the “egregious violations” the NFL wants to end.

Then the league reduced a one-game suspension to a $36,464.50 fine for Bengals safety George Iloka, who has a history of being fined for helmet-to-helmet hits after he delivered such a blow to Antonio Brown.

The same Antonio Brown who was on the receiving end of a vicious Burfict helmet-to-helmet hit in a 2015 AFC wild-card playoff game, which forced the Steelers All-Pro receiver to miss a divisional playoff game with a concussion.

To boot, Smith-Schuster got the same punishment as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who concussed Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White by driving a shoulder into his helmet after a play ended.

Nice message, NFL.

That'll show them.

“I didn't think it was warranted,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Smith-Schuster's suspension. “I thought maybe a fine, a pretty steep fine or something like that.

“I thought what happened, happened in the context of a football play. It wasn't a hit on a kicker or a defenseless player. It was a guy getting ready to make a tackle — a much bigger football player.

“I don't like to compare players and suspensions, but you look at what Gronk did and what JuJu did and they got the same suspension.”

So much for consistency.

Of the three offenses, only Gronkowski's concussion-causing cheap shot after the whistle was worthy of a suspension.

Here's the hypocrisy: A league that has cracked down on helmet-to-helmet hits for the sake of player safety punished Smith-Schuster for a shoulder-first shot with incidental helmet contact that caused a concussion but cleared Iloka for a helmet-first hit that didn't.

Smith-Schuster and Iloka both were involved in bang-bang collisions, what NFL players and coaches call “football plays.” They were judgment calls that deserved fines, not suspensions.

The NFL's mixed messages are farcical and flawed but not unexpected. The league appears to be making up the rules as it goes, leaving players frustrated by the lack of leadership from Roger Goodell, now its $200 million commissioner.

No wonder Mike Mitchell ripped everyone from Goodell on down in an epic rant.

Look, the league couldn't even get its story straight from two men who work together.

Contradicting explanations were given by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who said it was “the act of” Smith-Schuster's hit that drew the suspension, and NFL vice president of football operations Jon Runyan, who partially blamed taunting in a written explanation.

“There's no golden book they go off of. It makes no sense,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “My thing is, keep everything fair, keep everything the same. If you're going to do one, do the other. If you're not going to do one, don't do the other one. Simple as that.”

Mitchell wasn't so diplomatic Wednesday. After taking to Twitter to catalogue his complaints, the Steelers safety spouted off again about making football football again.

Mitchell even went so far as to side with his friend Iloka, which can't go over well with the Steelers, given Iloka was fined for a hit on Heath Miller in 2015, ended Ladarius Green's career with a helmet hit last year and could have hurt Brown.

“It's crazy. He's not that way,” Mitchell said. “But we are physical safeties. Think about what you ask us to do. We are always the last line of defense. We are always making bang-bang plays. You never see us get to line somebody up in a hole like a linebacker.

“We're playing at full speed. We're 4.4 speed. Aim that. You go do that. You can't. It's just the risk of playing football. If the ball is in the air and a man jumps or a man ducks his head, how do you want me to readjust my body? You cannot do it. At the end of the day, this is football. If you want see flag football, let us take our pads off and make it easier for me.”


Smith-Schuster had the same reaction on a day when the NFL left everyone shaking their heads by delivering discipline with a dose of hypocrisy.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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