After the coach’s postgame DUI charge, the NFL must send a strong message

The NFL shouldn’t have had to send the memo that reminded its 32 teams about its restriction against alcohol on team properties and team flights.

On Nov. 1, former Chiefs assistant coach Britt Reid, the son of Andy Reid, received a three-year prison sentence for severely injuring a young girl while driving drunk 21 months ago. Reid, 37, was on his way home from work and intoxicated when he ran his car into a vehicle parked on the shoulder of a Kansas City-area highway. So the dangers of drunk driving should have been fresh on the minds of most in the NFL community, right?

Apparently not fresh enough, because two incidents in the same week prompted a response from the league.

First, a social media post surfaced showing Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke enjoying a beer on the team plane while celebrating his team’s win Monday night over Philadelphia.

Then, early Friday morning, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and speeding just minutes after his team’s return flight from Green Bay landed following Tennessee’s win over the Packers.

Maybe the Heinicke social media post only reflected poor judgment and immaturity; a breaking of the “act like you’ve been there before” code. But the league condemns such behavior because that very thing can lead to Downing’s transgression, which is far more serious. The coach was lucky to have been pulled over before he killed someone.

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Titans OC Todd Downing arrested, charged with DUI, speeding

So, because of what could have happened, the NFL reminded teams of the policy.

The statement issued by the league read:

“In light of recent events, clubs are reminded that league policy prohibits alcoholic beverages, including beer, in the locker rooms, practice or office facilities, or while traveling on team buses or planes at any time during the preseason, regular season or postseason. This applies to all players, coaches, club personnel and guests traveling with your team. This policy has been in place for many years. Making alcohol available at club facilities or while traveling creates significant and unnecessary risks to the league, its players, coaches and others. Violations of this important policy will be taken seriously and will result in significant discipline.

“Each club should ensure that its travel arrangements do not include providing alcohol service at any time and should also take appropriate steps to confirm that alcohol (whether beer or any other alcoholic beverage) is not available at its facility. Please direct all further questions on this subject to the Management Council of Football Operations.”

Downing, 42, was operating a vehicle in a dangerous manner and could have experienced a repeat of the Britt Reid situation, or worse.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel spoke to reporters Friday and declined to go into details because of the ongoing legal process, but he did say, “We all have a great responsibility as members of this community, as coaches and players of this organization, as fathers and husbands and teammates to make great decisions, and we understand that.”

It’s unclear what kind of discipline Downing — one of Vrabel’s top assistants and someone previously regarded by some in the league as a future head coaching candidate — could receive from the Titans and the NFL.

But it’s important that league and Titans officials send a strong message because although Downing made a mistake and doesn’t have any known similar prior infractions, he’s in a position of authority and influence as a coach, who should set a good example for his players and members of the Nashville community.

The league also needs to send a strong message because, for whatever reason, drinking and driving remains a problem in the NFL, just as it does in America, where more than 10,000 a year are killed by drunk drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It was one year ago that Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs, allegedly while driving under the influence and at a speed of 150 mph, struck and killed a fellow motorist, 23-year-old Las Vegas resident Tina Tintor. Tintor and her dog burned alive as a result of the crash, which took place at 3:39 am on Nov. 2, 2021.

At least four NFL players in the last 25 years have been involved in drunk driving incidents that killed others. Meanwhile, others, including figures in positions of power like Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim each pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in the last eight years. The NFL’s punishments have varied in severity.

Ruggs, who is facing up to 20 years in prison, was cut by the Raiders, but the league has yet to hand down additional punishment while waiting for the legal process to play out.

In 2014, the NFL suspended Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent 10 games after he lost control of his car while driving with an alcohol level more than twice Texas’ legal limit and killed his passenger and teammate Jerry Brown.

Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth was suspended the entire 2009 season for pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter. Before him, former Rams defensive end Leonard Little served an eight-game suspension in 1998 after he hit and killed a woman.

Punishments also have varied for individuals guilty of DUIs that did not involve deaths. There have been repeat offenders such as Aldon Smith and Michael Floyd, who have also received multiple shots at redemption. And we’ve seen non-players receive leniency after DUIs. Irsay, who should be held to the highest standard, served a six-game suspension and paid a $500,000 fine. Keim, who also should have been held to a high standard, served a five-week suspension, paid a $200,000 fine and kept his job.

It remains unclear what kind of punishment Downing might receive, but according to the NFL’s policy on substance abuse, discipline for players guilty of a first-offense DUI, absent aggravating circumstances, is a three-game suspension without pay. A second offense carries an eight-game ban. Those guidelines apply to players, but Downing could be looking at a punishment more like Keim’s. The when also remains unknown. The NFL generally waits for the completion of the legal process. But should the Titans act swiftly or wait for a ruling from the NFL?

Downing very well could have damaged his prospects for a head coaching job in the near future, and rightfully so. You can’t effectively lead while displaying such poor judgment. But not only should Downing have known better, but his decision was also completely unnecessary because all NFL teams offer free driver service at any hour of the day for any player or coach who has been drinking.

Now, the Titans, instead of being able to focus on building momentum after Thursday night’s victory over Green Bay, will likely have to scramble for a temporary contingency plan at offensive coordinator. That could threaten their chance of winning games. But because Downing chose to put himself ahead of the team and any individual sharing the road with him Friday morning, he and the Titans will rightfully have to deal with the repercussions.

The coach should count himself blessed that he didn’t seriously injure or kill someone else. And he will likely have to work hard to regain trust while also helping his players learn from his mistakes.

Hopefully Downing’s arrest serves as a wake-up call for all NFL players, coaches and fans, and the league’s memo helps save employees and fans from future alcohol-related transgressions. But history suggests it may soon fade into distant memory.

The NFL must do what it can to avoid that, however. The league’s officials like to see its organizations and teams as leaders in their communities. Now here’s another chance for the league to do the right thing by handling the Downing situation in a way that sends a clear message against drunk driving while hopefully helping save its employees and fans from similar life-threatening mistakes.

(Photo of Todd Downing: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

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