INDIANAPOLIS — The two finest offensive coordinators in Philadelphia history met here Sunday afternoon. Frank Reich won a Super Bowl. Jon Gruden won a playoff game with Rodney Peete.
Both teams left Sunday’s game at 2-2, though neither Reich’s Colts nor Gruden’s Raiders performed as well as a typical .500 team. Still, Gruden said:
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“I’m as proud of this win as any one I’ve ever had before."
He’s proud of this 31-24 exercise in mediocrity? Obviously, Gruden graded himself on a curve — he won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson, after all. It was a curve made steep by injury, then steeper by Vontaze Burfict, his middle linebacker and the NFL’s chief miscreant, when Burfict submitted fresh evidence of why he shouldn’t be in the NFL at all.
In the middle of the field, with clear and malicious intent, Burfict lowered his head and drilled defenseless tight end Jack Doyle, helmet-to-helmet. It happened with 11:42 to play in the second quarter. He immediately drew a hailstorm of yellow penalty flags and underwent further review. Within minutes, after consulting with officials at the league offices in New York, Burfict was ejected.
On Monday morning, the league announced that Burfict had been suspended for the rest of the season, or 12 games, which is the longest suspension for an on-field action. Titans tackle Albert Haynesworth’s five-game foot-stomp of Cowboys center Andre Gurode, in 2006, held the previous record.
The ejection of Burfict made the NFL 1-for-3 in ejection decisions this week.
Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett should have been ejected Thursday night at Green Bay when, running full speed, he drove the crown of his helmet into the ear hole of Packers running back Jamaal Williams, while Williams was being held up by two other defenders. The play knocked Williams into the hospital.
Not long after Burfict’s hit on Doyle, Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones laid the right part of his face mask into the crown of the helmet worn by Bills quarterback Josh Allen and knocked Allen out of that game.
Al Riverton, the NFL head of officials, said the hit on Allen was not ejection-worthy. Neither, apparently, was Barnett’s kill shot on Williams.
Which begs the question: Why not? And what, exactly, is?
The NFL did not respond to that question Sunday afternoon.
It appears that the league is more concerned with who’s doing the hitting and who’s getting hit than with the letter of its own law.
It’s easy to eject Burfict, the dirtiest player this side of Ndamukong Suh, while he’s wearing silver and black, on an innocuous Sunday afternoon, in a game between irrelevant teams, in the middle of Indiana. It’s hard to eject Barnett, whose fumble recovery sealed Super Bowl LII, in a prime-time game at an NFL shrine like Lambeau Field.
Do the reputations of Burfict, and the Raiders, precede them?
“That might be the case,” said safety Lamarcus Joyner, in his first year with the Raiders after five with the Rams. “It’s like a court of law. Justice isn’t always served.”
Bills players were certain they’d have been ejected for hitting Tom Brady the way Allen was hit.
“If one of us did that to 12, we wouldn’t have been in the game anymore,” Micah Hyde told the Buffalo News. “There’s no way, no way we would have continued in that game.”
Barnett continued in his game. His strip-sack of Aaron Rodgers late in the second quarter led to a touchdown in a game decided by seven points.
Burfict did not continue. He gave an inspirational halftime speech, said Joyner, and he chest-bumped teammates as they exited the field victorious after the game, but no thanks to him. His team won without him, and that’s part of why Gruden was so satisfied. He’s been through a lot.
After being forced to cut malcontent receiver Antonio Brown before the season, Gruden had won against a 2018 playoff team, on the road, without two starting linemen, without one starting receiver, and without Burfict, who makes the defensive calls.
"I mean, our 'Z' receiver is a guy I just met,” said Gruden. He referred to Trevor Davis, who was traded from the Packers 10 days earlier. He gave the Raiders a 14-0 lead with a 60-yard end-around run midway through the first quarter.
It was a daring, brilliant play call from a daring, brilliant coaching mind. Gruden’s star began to rise when he was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator from 1995-97, then Raiders head coach from 1998-2001, then the Buccaneers’ head coach from 2002-08, including the Super Bowl victory in his first season. He spent the next nine years as the new John Madden on Monday Night Football, as well as other ESPN productions, before a 10-year, $100 million contract lured him back to the sideline. He was delighted Sunday to have won his sixth game in 20 tries since taking off the mic … but was he angry, as well, that his guy got thrown out, when Barnett didn’t.
“I’m not going to get into it. It’s a tough decision. I [agree] it was a flag,” Gruden said, tiptoeing around the ejection issue. “That came from New York City, so what can I do? I don’t have a cellphone on the field.”
He’s sure to be arguing Burfict’s case in the coming days. Burfict has been suspended for six games in his eight seasons for player-safety violations. The NFL does consider old offenses when it levies new discipline, so the imminent suspension seemed inevitable Sunday.
“We definitely need him,” Joyner admitted.
Barnett reportedly will not be suspended. Both he and Jones surely will be fined — a toothless response from a league that clearly cares less for player safety than for key player participation.
Coincidentally, the player who got hit dirtiest feels the best.
“I’m OK. I’m sure it looked worse than it was. I didn’t really feel anything from it,” said Doyle, who, of course, was satisfied with the outcome of the play. “They’re trying to take leading with the head out of the game. I think they’re doing a good job trying to eliminate it.”