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NFL

Please, Please Don’t Punch Sweet Justin Herbert

NBC

Last night’s SNF was great television—a high-scoring affair very nearly resulting in a complete Chargering. But there was one moment that we must review now in the light of day.

Here’s Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, all 295 pounds of him, chasing down Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert on a 42-yard scramble that looked like it was going to end in a sure touchdown. That is an incredible athletic feat! And I still can’t figure out why Heyward was the one tasked with completing this sprint to save a touchdown instead of one of the smaller, lighter and presumably faster players in the Steelers’ defensive backfield. (If only reporters could have access to the All-22 on the morning after games…)

OK, great play, Heyward. Let’s keep going. Heyward brings down Herbert from behind and then lays on him for what feels like an unnecessary amount of time. I can’t tell from the broadcast angle, but it almost looks like Heyward is saying something to Herbert, because his helmet is right up in Herbert’s helmet, and what else is he doing there? Singing a nice tune in his ear? Herbert is the sweetest boy, a baby-faced humble genius. He gives off Philip Rivers/Kirk Cousins I-never-cuss vibes, but in a cooler way because he’s younger and has great hair. How could you have anything mean to say to him?

Chargers receiver Josh Palmer apparently agreed with me in this moment, and he ran up to grab Heyward’s jersey and remove him from crushing our dear Herbert. Once Palmer tugged Heyward’s jersey, Heyward flipped out and pushed Palmer backwards, throwing a punch at Palmer’s neck. For some unknown reason, he also decided to punch Herbert in the stomach while the quarterback was still laying defenseless on the field. What the heck, man?

Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth never mentioned the punches when they happened or during the several replays that the NBC broadcast showed afterwards. You could argue that the punches were more shove-like, but they still looked very intentional. The officials decided to flag it only as unnecessary roughness. And while I know Herbert was not actually hurt by this unprovoked attack, and I do appreciate conservative officials, this feels certainly worthy of an ejection. VP of officiating Walt Anderson told the pool reporter after the game that “it just didn’t look like it rose to the level of a foul that would result in disqualification.”

That would be a fine non-answer if the league weren’t currently cracking down on taunting because they thought that fights on the field had been getting out of hand in recent years. Two weeks ago Bears linebacker Cassius Marsh got a ridiculous taunting penalty for just looking at the Steelers bench, which I guess is equivalent to two connected punches? I think Heyward got away with this because he wasn’t aiming for Herbert’s innocent face, and there was some pushing momentum involved.

The NFL said Monday it won’t be considering a suspension for Heyward, and Heyward told reporters after the game that he caught his hand under Herbert and he was just trying to get up, but fell back on the quarterback because his hand was stuck. I guess that’s a creative way to explain the two punches thrown when both his hands were free.

“I know it looks terrible but there was nothing malicious behind it,” Heyward said. “I don’t think I was trying to punch him but I know it looks more worse than it is in slow motion. I’m sorry if I did anything to offend anybody. I wish I said more to Justin afterwards, but there was nothing behind it.”

Herbert is my favorite quarterback to watch right now, and it’s so fun to see the Chargers actually win some games behind his talent. He’s 6-foot-6, but runs like a much shorter guy, and last night, he threw for 382 yards and rushed for 90 yards (sure, against a depleted Steelers defense), totals that no other NFL quarterback has ever achieved in the same game.

We must protect this national treasure from punching.