With apologies to Jonathan Goldsmith – the original lead actor in those Dos Equis beer commercials – Jon Runyan is actually the most interesting man in the world. He played 14 seasons in the NFL and at one point made 213 consecutive starts, which included 21 playoff games and two Super Bowl appearances. He played most of one season with a broken butt and fought through an assortment of other injuries to make sure he never missed a day of work.
And then, a year after his football career was over, he went headfirst into the cesspool that is Washington politics, serving two terms as a congressman from New Jersey. Did we mention that Runyan also has had part-time gigs on radio and TV and within the last year has even been an Uber driver?
Shortly after his thankless federal government gig ended, he allowed his former Eagles teammate Troy Vincent to persuade him to take the job of vice president of policy and rules administration for the NFL. The job title has changed to vice president of football operations, but both titles are just a euphemism for dean of discipline, another unappreciated line of work. Just ask the vice principal at your local high school.
Some weeks have to be tougher than others for Runyan, and the most recent one might have been more difficult than playing with that broken tailbone that forced him to fly home from road trips in a standing and uptight position during the 2007 season.
The first difficult ruling he had to make came after Sunday afternoon’s game between AFC East rivals Buffalo and New England. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, upset that pass interference was not called, slammed his heavily padded left arm into the back of Tre’Davious White’s head as the Bills cornerback was face down on the ground after an interception. It was the cheapest of cheap shots, and Runyan’s language in administering a suspension was strong and on point.
“Your actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury,” Runyan wrote to Gronkowski. “The Competition Committee has clearly expressed its goal of eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game. Those hits include the play you were involved in.”
The problem is that Runyan’s suspension was not harsh enough. It’s one thing to have a helmet-to-helmet hit or a low blow during the course of a football play, but entirely another when a player goes after an opponent when the play is already over. What Gronkowski did warranted at least a four-game suspension because he could have caused a serious head injury to White. Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted the play was dirty to Bills coach Sean McDermott after the game.
It will be interesting when the teams meet again on Christmas Eve in New England. ESPN’s Ryan Clark, a former NFL safety, said White texted him that “the whole hood want ’em,” in reference to the Bills’ wanting revenge against Gronkowski. White’s teammates came under fire from some former Buffalo players, including Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, for not immediately attacking Gronkowski on the field.
That would have triggered an on-field riot and made Runyan’s disciplinary job even more difficult. It became more difficult anyway when the Steelers and Bengals renewed the most gruesome of NFL rivalries Monday night in Cincinnati.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, considered by many to be among the dirtiest players in the game, was on the receiving end of a vicious hit from Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Runyan suspended Smith-Schuster for one game and wrote, “You are suspended for the dangerous and unsportsmanlike acts you committed during the fourth quarter of last night’s game. Specifically … you lined up a defender and delivered a violent and unnecessary blindside shot to his head and neck area. You then celebrated the play by standing over him and taunting him. The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided. Your conduct following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player.”
Again, the assessment by Runyan was correct, but the suspension should have been even harsher because of the celebration afterward.
Later in the same game, Bengals safety George Iloka administered a violent helmet-to-helmet hit on Antonio Brown as the Steelers star receiver caught a touchdown pass that sealed the Pittsburgh victory. Runyan also issued a one-game suspension to Iloka that was later overturned by Derrick Brooks, a former NFL linebacker. There is an argument to be made that sometimes helmet-to-helmet hits are unavoidable and in Iloka’s case he knew if he could not jar the football loose from Brown that the game and likely the Bengals’ season was over.
More difficult decisions are sure to lie ahead for Runyan, who does not need the money he is receiving for a job that is full of headaches. Part-time Uber driver sure sounds like a lot more fun.
The Browns have only won 4.4 games per season – a total of 48 – and have never reached the playoffs during Joe Thomas’ 11 seasons in Cleveland, so we are more than happy to award the star left tackle with the best tweet of the week as he questioned the five-year $200 million contract extension just given to commissioner Roger Goodell:
Tom Brady makes $20.5mm per year; @nflcommish makes $40mm per year. So does that mean that Roger Goodell is twice as valuable to the NFL and twice as hard to replace?🤔🤔
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) December 7, 2017
Speaking of the Browns, the NFL’s last winless team fired executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown Thursday. He was the team’s sixth general manager in the last 10 years and during that decade the Browns have gone 39-118. Could you imagine being a fan in a city where the football has been that bad for that long?
This week’s best
Sunday 1 p.m.
Minnesota at Carolina
For the second straight week the 10-2 Vikings go on the road for a game against an NFC South playoff contender while the 8-4 Panthers attempt to rebound from a loss at New Orleans. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum has completed 74 percent of his passes for nine TDs and posted a 116.7 passer rating in his last four games. Cam Newton has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in four of Carolina’s last five games.
Seattle at Jacksonville
The Jaguars have the No. 1 overall and the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL. They also lead the league with 45 sacks, so it should be interesting to see how they handle the elusive Russell Wilson, who was mostly able to avoid the rush from the Eagles defense last week. The Jaguars are just 3-3 at home and the Seahawks have won four straight on the road.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
The 10-2 Steelers, playing in their third straight prime-time game, can clinch the AFC North with a win over the 7-5 Ravens, who have won four of their last five. Three of the Steelers’ last four victories have come on field goals by Chris Boswell as time expired. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to fourth-quarter comebacks in all three of those wins, giving him 31 for his career. That number ties him with Hall of Famer Joe Montana for sixth on the all-time list.
New England at Miami
The 10-2 Patriots have outscored their opponents by 27.4 to 11.9 during an eight-game winning streak that has once again made them the favorite to win the AFC and the Super Bowl. The Pats surrendered 128 points in their first four games but just 95 in eight games since while holding every opponent to 17 points or fewer. A win over the Dolphins would give New England its ninth straight division title and 17th in 22 years.