PITTSBURGH – Thanks to Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph has entered the kingdom of NFL hits and injuries that you only need to see once before never wanting to see them again.
However, if there’s anyone with the NFL who is genuinely concerned about player safety, the hit on Rudolph should be viewed on a loop until more measures are taken to eliminate such hits – or those who deliver them – from the game, entirely.
Arguments will spring up about Thomas’ intent. Some will call for the Baltimore safety to be fined or suspended as a result of the play that led to Rudolph being diagnosed with a concussion and taken to a local medical facility for further testing and observation. Others will call it an incidental part of the game.
Any way the arguments are spun in the wake of Sunday’s game – a 26-23 overtime win by the Ravens – that hit led to one of the most uncomfortable, sobering and solemn moments in Heinz Field’s history.
The whole sequence started innocently enough.
On a third-down snap from the Steelers’ 11, Rudolph scrambled to his left before firing a 26-yard pass to James Washington. As Rudolph was throwing, Baltimore’s Brandon Carr wrapped up Rudolph from behind as Thomas smashed head-first into the quarterback’s jaw, knocking him out before he fell.
What followed was a terrifying scene.
As Rudolph lay on the field, linemen Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster rushed to his aid, only to find him unresponsive. As more teammates gathered, JuJu Smith-Schuster was so taken aback as he approached Rudolph that he fell upon looking down at the unmoving quarterback.
Rudolph did regain consciousness and was able to communicate with trainers and medical personnel before slowly walking – or getting partially carried – off the field by training staff.
If you may be wondering why Rudolph walked off the field, the medical cart that was driven onto the field apparently had broken down and needed to be pushed off itself before play resumed with rookie Devlin Hodges under center.
“First thing I thought was, ‘Is Mason OK?’ ” Hodges said.
“Mason is my guy. I would say he is one of my closer friends on the team. He has really taken me in. You might see me on the sideline, kind of just standing there. It wasn’t because I was freaking out about me going in. I was just thinking about Mason and what’s up with him and is he OK? After a minute, he was just lying there, he wasn’t even moving. That is just tough to look at.”
The shock hit different players in different ways.
“As soon as you saw him lying on the ground, I knew (I was going in),” Hodges said. “I threw my headset down and ran and got my helmet. I didn’t know how long he was going to be down for. I was ready to go in for 10 seconds or a minute or however long it took.”
Smith-Schuster, who had a much closer view of what was happening, reacted as a friend would.
“That’s a tough experience,” Smith-Schuster said. “I’ve heard of situation where the person who is not moving at all that doesn’t get up. I was just praying to God that he gets up.
“He is our quarterback and he is our guy. I am praying for a speedy recovery.”
Back to Thomas, though. He was flagged for roughing the passer, but was not ejected. In fact, he appeared to have picked off a pass during the fourth quarter and returned it 21 yards before it was negated by a defensive holding call on Tony Jefferson.
For the gravity of how weak the call on Thomas was, later in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens on their way to an eventual equalizing field goal, Pittsburgh’s Ola Adeniyi was flagged when he wrapped up Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson at the knees just after he delivered a pass to Mark Ingram for no gain.
It was the correct call. But in comparison to Thomas’ knockout blow, Adeniyi’s infraction was incredibly weak.
Thomas, however, was remorseful in regard to the injury but not the hit itself.
“I hit the strike zone like we talk about,” Thomas said. “I didn’t go high. I didn’t intentionally try to hurt him. I’m worried about him. I heard he’s at the hospital. My prayers go out to him and his family. I’ve never tried to hurt anybody.”
It seems that the NFL is indifferent to its inconsistent officiating and rulings resulting in lost fans – steep decline in the sharpness of its officials has been matched by a steady increase of fan angst on social mediums – or its judicial system, which never seems to strike the right note on the first try.
Maybe an injury such as Rudolph’s – one that occurred during a rivalry contest championed by the NFL and its media partners for its intensity and hard-hitting history – will open enough eyes to have the league lead a transparent charge to phase out the hits, and adequately punish those who deliver them.