In the closing seconds of Cleveland’s 21-7 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped the helmet off Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and clubbed him in the head with it. From there, a melee ensued, which resulted in mass fines and the longest suspension for a single on-field incident in NFL history.
On Sunday, 17 days after the skirmish, the two AFC North Division rivals will meet again at Heinz Field, where tensions will be running high in a rematch both teams desperately need to keep their playoff hopes alive. Here’s what you need to know about everything that’s happened and what it all means going forward:
What are Garrett and Rudolph saying happened?
During his appeals hearing, Garrett said Rudolph incited him with a racial slur. While Garrett says he never intended for the accusation to become public after sources told ESPN’s Josina Anderson and Adam Schefter, he stood by what he said, tweeting on Nov. 21, “I know what I heard.” After Sunday’s game at Cincinnati, Rudolph called the allegation “totally untrue” and added he “couldn’t believe that [Garrett] would go that route after the fact.” In other words, it’s he said, he said.
What were the punishments?
All told, the NFL disciplined 33 players from both teams — with fines totaling $732,422 — as penalties for the brawl. Twenty-nine of those players, including Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry, were fined $3,507 apiece for “entering the fight area,” while the Browns and Steelers franchises were fined $250,000 each. Garrett was suspended indefinitely, including for the rest of this season and any playoff games. Fines collected go to programs for former NFL players.
Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who won an appeal reducing his suspension from three games to two, was fined $35,096 for fighting. Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was suspended for one game against the Miami Dolphins, but his $10,527 fine was rescinded upon appeal. Rudolph, not suspended, was given the largest fine, of $50,000. Garrett was fined $45,623, though he will also lose roughly $1.2 million this season for being suspended the six games.
Why wasn’t Rudolph suspended?
Though camera angles appear to capture Rudolph attempting to dislodge Garrett’s helmet after the defensive end’s hit on the Steelers quarterback at the end of the game, the NFL decided his actions didn’t rise to a level that warranted a suspension. Rudolph didn’t throw a punch or forearm and didn’t attempt to kick Garrett. Despite Garrett’s allegation, the league also found “no evidence” he used a racial slur — an action that could have resulted in a suspension. Instead, the NFL opted to hand Rudolph a significant fine — one he’ll likely appeal because it’s more than 25% of his game check.
Did the Browns know about Garrett’s allegation that Rudolph used a racial slur?
Schefter first reported that some in the Browns organization were aware Garrett was going to assert sensitive information as part of his appeal, though neither Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens nor general manager John Dorsey have said on the record whether Garrett told them about the racial slur allegation beforehand. “What Myles and I talk about stays between Myles and I,” Kitchens has said. The Browns did send a security official with Garrett to New York for his appeal. Several of Garrett’s teammates, however, said they weren’t aware of Garrett’s allegation or that he was going to use it during his appeal until ESPN broke the story.
How have the Steelers reacted to the allegation that Rudolph directed a racial slur at Garrett?
The Steelers fiercely defended Rudolph immediately after the fight and took an even stronger tone after Garrett’s allegation. Steelers offensive linemen David DeCastro and Matt Feiler, who were both near the fight, said they didn’t hear Rudolph say anything derogatory to Garrett. “People can see him however they want to, but like I’ve been saying, he’s not that kind of guy,” Feiler said. “He wouldn’t say anything like that. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Defensive end Cam Heyward called Garrett’s decision to accuse Rudolph of using a slur “childish” on a local radio station. The Steelers in the locker room were also skeptical of the timing of the allegation. “If that would’ve been said, you would’ve known about it Thursday night after the game, not a week later when he’s trying to appeal,” said Devlin Hodges, who was named starting quarterback over Rudolph for Sunday. “That guy’s got everything on the line for him, and he’s trying to get everything back.”
How does the NFL or anyone else find out the truth? Weren’t there microphones on the field?
Yes, Pouncey was miked up. But no recorded sound from the field exists. As the center, Pouncey wore a microphone to capture ambient sound on the field before the snap. The microphones are opened from the break of the huddle, or when the center puts his hands on the ball in a no-huddle offense, through the snap and clipped once the ball leaves the center’s hands, according to the NFL. Likely, no one will ever truly know what was or wasn’t said between Garrett and Rudolph. The NFL can interview Rudolph, Garrett, DeCastro, Feiler and Pouncey — all players who could have heard something — but that’s the extent of the investigative material the league can gather.
Have the Steelers and Browns had other fights or incidents during their 69-year rivalry?
Yes. In 1976, Cleveland’s Joe “Turkey” Jones body-slammed Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw onto his head and was fined $3,000 for the hit. Bradshaw, who had to be taken off on a stretcher, claimed to have no feeling in his body for two days. In 2005, Browns fan Nathan Mallett ran onto the field during a 41-0 Pittsburgh victory before he was body-slammed and pinned by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Mallett pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct while intoxicated and criminal trespassing and had to spend Super Bowl weekend in jail. “I hate losing to the Steelers,” Mallett said, when later asked about the decision. Harrison also ties Rudolph for the rivalry’s biggest fine. In 2010, Harrison was initially fined $75,000 for a hit on defenseless Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. The fine was later reduced to $50,000.
What does the loss of Garrett mean for the Browns’ playoff chances?
First of all, those playoff chances are looking less and less slim. On the heels of three consecutive victories, ESPN’s Football Power Index now gives the Browns a 25.2% chance of making the playoffs, a number that would go up with a victory over Pittsburgh, also a wild-card hopeful. Cleveland also has the NFL’s fourth-easiest remaining schedule, including two games over the winless Bengals. Obviously, a pass-rusher such as Garrett is impossible to replace, but the Browns might still be favorites in four of their five remaining games. Win those four and they may sneak into the playoffs as the final wild card. Of course, a road playoff game is where Cleveland would really miss a game-changer of Garrett’s caliber.
How does Garrett’s suspension impact his 2020 season and potential contract extension?
He will miss six games this season because of the suspension but still will accrue his third season in the league. That means Cleveland can begin negotiating an extension with the former 2017 No. 1 overall pick beginning Dec. 30, the day after the regular season ends. The Browns have multiple reasons to be interested in getting a deal done with Garrett. One, their star players from the 2018 draft, notably quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward, will all have extensions coming the following year (they also have to juggle the money owed to wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry); in other words, frontloading Garrett money next year figures to help the Browns’ cap down the line.
Two, getting a Garrett extension done under the current CBA, which expires after the 2020 season, likely would save the franchise money. Cleveland might also find Garrett even more amenable to an extension now that he’s been disciplined for on-field behavior. As an aside, theoretically the Browns could wait to see if Garrett will be suspended for a chunk of the 2020 season, and in that scenario, they could toll his contract back a year. At this point, that seems highly unlikely.
What’s Rudolph’s future with the Steelers?
Rudolph was pulled in the third quarter against the Bengals, and his time as the Steelers’ starter is over for now. But his career as a backup is still intact — at least for a little longer. Hodges, who finished the win in Cincinnati, will start Sunday, although Tomlin didn’t commit to him for the rest of the season. Outside of a 79-yard touchdown strike to James Washington, Hodges’ outing in Cincinnati was unremarkable, but he didn’t turn the ball over. “He has not killed us,” Tomlin said Tuesday when asked what he saw of Hodges to make him the starter. Carried by the defense, the Steelers need a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes.
Hodges, who Tomlin said gives the offense a spark, is that guy right now. Rudolph has struggled in place of Ben Roethlisberger, who went down in Week 2 because of a season-ending elbow injury. Since suffering a concussion in Week 5, Rudolph has struggled to make good decisions in the pocket, often holding on to the ball too long or throwing ill-advised passes. He’s thrown 12 interceptions to nine touchdowns and has a QBR of 33.0, 33rd among NFL quarterbacks this season. His mediocre numbers aren’t entirely his fault, though.
With injuries to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner and the slow emergence of a No. 2 receiver, Rudolph has been hampered by a lack of bona fide players on the roster this season. He still has two years left on his rookie deal, and he figures to return as Roethlisberger’s backup for at least one more season.