The NFL suspended Carolina Panthers special teams player Dante Wesley one game without pay Monday for launching himself into defenseless Tampa Bay returner Clifton Smith.
Wesley left his feet and hit Smith in the neck and head with his forearm and shoulder as Smith waited to field a punt late in the second quarter on Sunday. Smith sustained a concussion and both benches emptied onto the field. Wesley was immediately ejected.
Smith had not signaled for a fair catch and Wesley said he mistimed hitting him. But NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson called the act a flagrant violation of player safety rules.
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“The prohibited contact in this case went well beyond simply interfering with the receiver,” Anderson wrote in a letter to Wesley. “Instead, by striking your defenseless opponent in the head and neck area, you committed an unnecessary and unnecessarily dangerous act that is specifically prohibited by the rules.
“Your actions are of particular concern in light of the emphasis that our office has placed on developing and enforcing rules designed to protect players from injury, including head and neck injuries. The safety of our players is paramount to all of us in the NFL.”
Wesley, who will lose more than $36,000 in salary because of the suspension, has spent seven of his eight NFL seasons with the Panthers. While he’s deep down the depth chart at cornerback, Wesley is the gunner on special teams and entered this season ranked 10th in team history with 46 special teams tackles.
“I was just trying to make a play,” Wesley said after the game, a 28-21 Carolina victory. “You can check my record. … I’ve never really tried to hurt anybody.”
Coach John Fox said after watching the film Monday he didn’t believe Wesley was trying to injure Smith, who did not return to the game.
“It’s not intentional. It’s not done maliciously,” Fox said. “You’ve got to make a split-second decision. It’s no different than driving to work and putting your brakes on. Sometimes accidents happen.”
The Panthers allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after Wesley’s ejection. He’ll sit out next Sunday’s game against Buffalo.