The James Harrison hit on Colt McCoy, 10 years later

It’s now been 10 years since one of the last truly devastating hits the NFL has witnessed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011. The Browns visited the Steelers. Colt McCoy played quarterback for Cleveland. James Harrison provided the Pittsburgh defense with a degree of physicality and, in turn, intimidation.

As the clock moved under six minutes to play in a game the Steelers led, 7-3, McCoy took the snap from under center on second and five from the Pittsburgh 39. Flushed out of the pocket by defensive lineman Brett Keisel, McCoy started to his left. As he approached the line of scrimmage, he took a step or two parallel to it before flipping the ball to running back Montario Hardesty.

Just as McCoy released the ball, Harrison dipped his helmet and drove it into McCoy’s facemask. The devastating blow left McCoy flat on his back, writhing. Multiple Browns employees attended to him. The officials called roughing the passer, over Harrison’s objection. Seneca Wallace replaced McCoy briefly, but McCoy returned later that same drive, throwing an interception in the end zone that essentially ended the game — especially since Antonio Brown took a short pass 79 yards for a clinching touchdown on the second play of the next drive.

Harrison insisted that the hit was clean because McCoy had become a runner.

“From what I understand, once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he’s considered a runner,” Harrison said at the time. “All the defenseless[ness] and liberties that a quarterback has in the pocket are gone and you can tackle him just as he’s a running back. The hit wasn’t late, so I really don’t understand why it was called.”

The rule, as written, contains a gray area between clearly being a passer and clearly being a runner. If the quarterback is “attempting to advance the ball as a runner,” he is no longer protected against forcible blows to the head or neck. The line of scrimmage provides a fairly bright line when determining whether a quarterback is attempting to advance the ball as a runner. Then again, some quarterbacks who stray beyond the line of scrimmage are still looking to throw it, even if it’s not a legal pass at that point.

The challenge for officials becomes recognizing when a quarterback has shifted from passer to runner. Once it happens, he can be struck forcibly in the head or neck.

That said, Harrison’s hit on McCoy from 2011 would draw a flag in 2021 for another reason. He lowered his helmet and initiated contact with it, in violation of the rule the NFL passed in 2018.

Harrison received a one-game suspension for the hit on McCoy. Today, a hit like that would likely trigger a greater punishment, regardless of the specific rule that it violated.

Today, the person who absorbed a hit like that wouldn’t have been put back in the game. Brad McCoy, Colt’s father, was critical of the decision to let him return to action.

“He never should’ve gone back in the game,” Brad McCoy said at the time. “He was basically out after the hit. You could tell by the rigidity of his body as he was laying there. There were a lot of easy symptoms that should’ve told them he had a concussion. He was nauseated and he didn’t know who he was. From what I could see, they didn’t test him for a concussion on the sidelines. They looked at his hand. . . .

“After the game, the [public relations staff] made sure Colt’s interview was brief and he couldn’t face the lights in his press conference. The TV lights and the stadium lights were killing him. Why would you say he was fine? That makes it even worse. . . . Josh Cribbs suffered a groin injury earlier in the game and he was out for the rest of the game. Colt takes a severe hit like that and he’s back in the game a play later? If he took another blow to the head, we could’ve been talking about his career here.”

At the time, we expressed “hope [that] the Browns don’t hold Brad McCoy’s comments against Colt, especially as the Browns try to decide what to do at quarterback in 2012.” As it turned out, the Browns reportedly did. Tony Grossi of reported several months later that McCoy’s fate was sealed when his father said what he said.

What Brad McCoy said was justified, obvious, and necessary. The fact that the Browns held the comments against Colt shows how far the league has come, when it comes to whether the words of the parent will stick to the son.

The entire episode shows how far the league has come in multiple ways. Devastating hits like that one rarely if ever happen. When they do, the players don’t get back in the game, thanks to the network of safeguards put in place to remove a player from action (it’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was). And no one would ever criticize a father or a mother for saying what needs to be said if/when their child’s safety is compromised by his team or by the league.