CLEVELAND - Myles Garrett’s goal was to be NFL’s top defensive player this season. He won’t finish it.
Garrett’s indefinite suspension for smashing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph over the head with a helmet was upheld Thursday by an appeals officer who decided the severe penalty on the Cleveland Browns star defensive end is fair.
One of the league’s most dominant edge rushers, Garrett is banned for the final six regular-season games and playoffs - if Cleveland qualifies - for pulling off Rudolph’s helmet and cracking him with it in the closing seconds of the Browns’ 21-7 win over their AFC North rival last week.
On Wednesday, Garrett attended his appeals hearing in New York and made his case to former player James Thrash for a reduction of his penalty, which will damage Cleveland’s season and stain the 24-year-old’s budding career.
Thrash didn’t find enough compelling evidence to lessen Garrett’s punishment, which will keep him off the field until 2020 - at the earliest.
As part of his historic suspension for using his helmet “as a weapon,” Garrett must also meet with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office before he can be reinstated. He’s been fined $45,623.
Appeals officer Derrick Brooks, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker, did reduce the suspension for Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey from three games to two for punching and kicking Garrett following the shocking assault on Rudolph, who earlier this week said he “should have done a better job keeping my composure in that situation.”
Brooks also upheld a $35,096 fine for Pouncey, who will miss the Steelers’ rematch with the Browns on Dec. 1 at Heinz Field, where the atmosphere is intense for every game between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Garrett’s violent act - he pulled Rudolph’s helmet off and clobbered him with it - on national TV and its aftermath have been a dominant topic since it happened. The story took a new twist when ESPN, using anonymous sources, first reported that Garrett told the league during his meeting with Thrash that Rudolph used a racial slur just before the brawl erupted.
Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said Rudolph “vehemently denies” the report. Rudolph had been scheduled to speak to reporters after practice but declined shortly after the report surfaced.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league investigated Garrett’s claim and “found no such evidence.”
Garrett stood by his claims about Rudolph in a posting on his Twitter account.
“I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension,” he wrote. “This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed.
"I know what I heard. Whether my opponent's comment was born out of frustration or ignorance, I cannot say. But his actions do not excuse my lack of restraint in the moment, and I truly regret the impact this has had on the league, the Browns and our devoted fans."
Browns tackle Sheldon Richardson was one of several players who said Garrett didn’t mention anything about Rudolph making a disparaging comment.
“I wouldn’t doubt it, though,” said Richardson, who felt Rudolph deserved to be suspended. “Had to be something to get him out of his body. ... I know he wouldn’t lie on nothin’ like that.”
The Browns are sticking by Garrett.
“As we’ve consistently stated, our organizational support for Myles will continue,” general manager John Dorsey said in a statement released hours after Thrash’s ruling. “He is a man of high character and unquestionable integrity. He was open and honest with us about the incident from the start. He has taken accountability for his actions on Thursday night and this situation will not define him.
“As an organization, our focus going forward remains on the task-at-hand, which is preparing for the Miami Dolphins.”
Garrett will lose $1.14 million in salary and his absence is a significant setback to the Browns (4-6), who will be without their best defensive player as they try to end a postseason drought dating to 2002.
The suspension is the longest issued for a single on-field behavior. Tennessee defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth was suspended five games in 2006 for stomping on the face Cowboys center Andre Gurode in 2006.
Garrett’s stunning behavior was out of character for the soft-spoken Pro Bowler who likes to write poetry. His teammates were shocked by what happened, and several wondered if Rudolph, who avoided suspension but will be fined, did something to trigger the outburst.
“Whatever the actions were, this is a guy I’ve never seen anything like that,” wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said moments before Thrash’s decision was announced. I’m just praying there’s a resolution for him. He’s a very good dude and we all miss him.”
Browns guard Joel Bitonio didn’t condone Garrett’s behavior, but never imagined seeing his teammate lose control.
“It’s still one of those things where you can’t really swing a helmet like a weapon,” he said. “It’s tough to justify that no matter what’s happening. Obviously in the heat of the moment it could anger you even more if that’s what was said, and you could see why he was kind of upset out there. ... That’s the crazy part with life is you have two people and you’re probably never going to find out the exact truth. It’s always somewhere in between usually.”
Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was suspended one game for shoving a helmet-less Rudolph to the ground. Thrash upheld his suspension but rescinded a $10,527 fine on Wednesday.
Several players from both teams are expected to be fined for leaving their respective sidelines as the officials tried to restore order during the game’s chaotic ending. Those penalties will be released Saturday.
The Browns and Steelers organizations were each fined $250,000 for their roles in the incident. Both released statements stating regret.