It is the truest thing Jim Schwartz ever said:
“You do dumbass things, pretty soon you’re going to be labeled a dumbass.”
Schwartz, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, said that in 2016, after Nigel Bradham was arrested twice in 10 weeks.
The same logic applies to Schwartz’s serial cheap-shot artist, defensive end Derek Barnett. If he keeps making dirty plays, he’ll be labeled a dirty player.
Officials will start watching him on every snap, and long after the whistle blows, and that scrutiny will erase any benefit of the doubt he might have gotten before. He’ll be taunted and teased and baited by cagey offensive linemen, and he’ll draw more and more flags, and, ultimately, he’ll get suspended, just like Vontaze Burfict.
And, just like Burfict, he’ll deserve it.
On Sunday, during Nate Gerry’s interception return for a touchdown, Barnett was pestered by Jets left tackle Alex Lewis. Barnett responded by diving at Lewis’s knees, from the side, and upending him. It happened about 25 yards from the play, at the Jets’ 30-yard line. It drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. It was inarguably dirty.
After much discussion, officials concluded that Barnett committed the penalty after Gerry crossed the goal line. That was incorrect. Gerry was 10 yards from the end zone. The touchdown should have been nullified. The Eagles should have had the ball at the Jets’ 45-yard line.
Would proper enforcement of the penalty have changed the outcome of a 31-6 blowout? Probably not. The Eagles had just driven their first possession 53 yards for a touchdown. The Jets didn’t score until the fourth quarter, after Corey Clement muffed a punt. But you never know.
More significantly, perhaps, this was Barnett’s third unnecessary-roughness penalty of the season in only five games. No other player in the NFL has more than one.
In all of 2018, only one player had more than three such penalties: Bucs center Ryan Jensen.
The most notorious hit man in football, Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict, only had three unnecessary roughness penalties in 2017 and 2018 combined. In fact, Burfict seemed to have turned over a new leaf — that is, until last week, when his sickening kill shot on Colts tight end Jack Doyle resulted in Burfict’s suspension for the rest of the season.
It is the longest suspension for on-field conduct in NFL history. It was earned over eight seasons of violent, reckless acts.
But consider: Burfict’s personal record for unnecessary-roughness penalties is six, set in 2013.
Barnett is on pace for nine in 2019.
Is Barnett the next Burfict?
“Obviously you don’t ever want to be labeled as one of those type of athletes,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “Listen, it’s an emotional game and sometimes things escalate during the game. He plays hard. He plays to the whistle.”
Barnett’s chilling headshot on Packers running back Jamaal Williams in Game 4 came just after the whistle. It was entirely unnecessary, considering Williams was being held up by three other Eagles. Williams left the game on a stretcher, spent the night in a hospital, and missed Sunday’s win at Dallas as he recovers from his concussion. Barnett should have been ejected.
Barnett’s first unnecessary-roughness penalty of the season, in Game 2 at Atlanta, wasn’t quite as vicious. Coincidentally, it happened on Gerry’s other interception. It was a hellacious, blindside block of Falcons guard Jamon Brown that left Brown stunned on the ground. The penalty gave the Eagles the ball at their 10 instead of their 20. They punted four plays later. They trailed at that point, and the lead changed hands twice more, and they lost by four points. Did the penalty cost them? Well, it certainly didn’t help.
So, again: Is Barnett a dirty player? Pederson knows the way he’s trending.
“Derek and I have talked. We talk during the week. We talked during the game [Sunday] about it,” said Pederson, who knows the TD could have been called back. “It was just a mistake that he didn’t need to make.”
Probably not. Barnett showed no evidence of unhinged play before this season. He incurred just one unnecessary-roughness penalty in his first two seasons, a specious call at Carolina in 2017, when a play was blown dead but the ball was snapped anyway, and Barnett gave quarterback Cam Newton little more than a love tap.
But players change. Players feel pressure.
Barnett missed the 10 games and the playoffs last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery and cost him the 2019 preseason. He broke Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee, which enticed the Eagles to draft him with the 14th overall pick in 2017, but he entered the Packers game with just 7 1/2 sacks through three games of his third season. The Eagles leaned on veterans Michael Bennett and Chris Long last season, but they traded Bennett and lost Long to retirement in anticipation of Barnett being more productive this season.
Also, Barnett is eligible for a contract extension after this season; Carson Wentz and Jared Goff just signed extensions after their third seasons. Also, the Eagles can choose to extend Barnett’s four-year rookie contract into a fifth season. So, Year 3 is big for Barnett’s bottom line.
He collected a sack against both the Packers and Jets. The NFL collected a $28,075 fine from him for his hit on Williams. He’ll probably face another for the block Sunday that could have cost Lewis his knees.
It doesn’t help that Barnett wasn’t truthful when he explained his actions.
“I didn’t take a shot on him,” Barnett said.
Untrue. He clearly did. Barnett was uninterested in engaging with Lewis at all until Lewis annoyed him, and Lewis was nowhere near the play.
Barnett seems to understand that his behavior must change. The penalty Sunday was enforced on the kickoff, which resulted in the Jets starting their next drive from their 39-yard line. It was, of course, the Jets, so the penalty was of little consequence.
Other than putting a darker stain on Barnett’s name.
“I’ve got to be smarter than that,” Barnett said. "I’m putting us in a bad position, and I can’t be doing that. I got be more disciplined.”
If he isn’t, he’ll be watching at home and not getting paid.
Just like Vontaze Burfict.