Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the subject of even more scrutiny this week following a Week 6 hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. Although the hit was not flagged on the field, the NFL league office fined him $31,500 after the fact.
Fan reaction to Suh's fines generally fall along the normal party loyalties. NFL fans love big hits. Heck, they crave them. It's almost never realistic to expect a fan to cheer a hit one moment and then nod his head approvingly as the news drops that the player will be fined for said hit.
So, Lions fans will almost always absolve Suh of any blame whether the hit was legal or not. Many football purists, as well, will give rough-and-tumble players the benefit of the doubt—unless, of course, the wrecked quarterback in question is theirs.
Then, there's the "liberal, limp-wristed, panty-waisted milquetoast media." Being conditioned to determine which fines draw FedEx packages and which do not often leaves the media looking like shills for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as writers and commentators see players like Suh as outside the current NFL norms.
The narrative around Suh (and previously James Harrison) always seems a few degrees hotter than the reality of his play or character. This, in turn, irritates even the most rational of fans—a contradiction in terms—who don't understand why someone with no personal attachment to Suh won't champion him as all that is right with football and all that is wrong with the NFL.
As both a Michigan native and a vocal advocate for player safety, I tend to fall in the middle of such battles—frustrated at both Suh's occasional lack of control and the NFL's ongoing inability to cut him any slack.
Immediately following the most recent hit on Weeden, I remarked on Twitter that Suh was "lucky" to not get flagged for the play because it was Weeden and not a more marketable quarterback like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Lions fans almost immediately jumped to his defense, claiming it was a legal hit that didn't warrant a flag, but that isn't the point. The point is that Suh is going to draw flags and fines that others will not because he's being forced to lie in the bed he has made.
Unlike many others, I don't believe Suh is evil. He's more of a big kid who doesn't realize how much bigger, stronger and faster he is. For years, Suh was lauded for the kinds of hits which now draw wagging fingers. If it weren't for countless hits like the one on Weeden, Suh would not have been the top prospect that led the Lions to draft him second overall in 2010.
Asked to comment on his client's penchant for receiving excessive NFL discipline, Roosevelt Barnes replied: "Every movie needs a villain. Batman had Bane. Superman had Lex Luthor...Ndamukong is the NFL's Bane right now. The more menacing the villain, the better the movie."
Barnes also added that Suh "doesn't want to be the villain. He just wants to play football," and that his client is worried about the money he's losing, but even more concerned about losing games and the effect these fines have on his reputation.
I asked NFL spokesman Greg Aiello whether Suh was being specifically targeted, and he explained it this way:
"No, he is not. Enforcement of rules, including discipline, is based on actions. Repeat offenses result in increased discipline. That has always been part of the system to create the proper deterrent to violations of rules."
In short, the NFL maintains that the spotlight on Suh was built, focused and intensified by only one person—Suh.
Randall Liu, the NFL's director of NFC football communications, sent along this clip of Dean Blandino—the NFL's vice president of officiating—explaining the Week 6 fine for Suh.
The pull quote from that is:
When I looked at the play, I felt he did make contact with the forehead/hairline...lowered the head and made contact with the forehead/hairline—not to the head or neck, but the rule does prohibit that contact to the body.
Blandino is correct; the rulebook does prohibit that kind of contact to the body—above and beyond what many fans consider unnecessary roughness or roughing the passer. From the rulebook, Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 (c-2):
Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/hairline parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.
However, even if that's the letter of the law, are all NFL players being held to that same standard?
Barnes isn't buying it:
"Anytime Suh hits a quarterback, it's going to be like a semi-truck hitting a smart car. It's going to be ugly."
Barnes pointed out how Suh has changed the way he's played since college, where there was no emphasis on player safety, saying that his penalties have dropped from year to year—especially after the notorious Thanksgiving stomping incident.
"He tries to lead with his hands first, and to lead with his hands low."
Playing off of his "movie villain" line from earlier, Barnes pointed out how the league's own website and network once called his client "evil" in respect to a game against then-quarterback Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
"If you want him to be evil because a villain makes for good TV, that's fine. But pay him to be your villain; don't take money away from him because you need a villain."
Moreover, listen to the outrage from the color commentator over the "wing to the back of the head" turn into outrage at the call when the slow-motion replay shows that it was a forearm shiver well-below the head of Cutler.
That is a level of inspection it appears the NFL's offices don't want to give Suh. They fined Suh for that hit—apparently because it looked like a semi hitting a smart car, rather than looking closer at what happened and seeing there was no actual foul on the play.
Another great example is a play for which Suh was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber. Only, replays showed that Suh made no contact with the back of Barber's collar. Suh pulled on Barber's ample dreadlocks.
The NFL's own website even called the play a pull of Barber's hair. Yet, it was a personal foul and gets to be added to Suh's total of personal fouls whenever someone talks about how "evil" he is.
Then, there's the kick to Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. Suh, facing the ground, extends his leg and makes contact with the groin of Schaub. Barnes says his client, "isn't a contortionist" and that there's no way he could have made contact like that on purpose, but the NFL disagreed, saying that the clear intent of the kick was worthy of a $30,000 fine.
Yet, Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Brian Robinson, who admits to trying to kick another player in the groin, was only fined $20,000. That's the same $20,000 fine that New Orleans Saints tackle Brodrick Bunkley got for intentionally kicking a player in the head while he was down.
It's that kind of uneven enforcement that angers Suh apologists to the point where they, in turn, enrage his critics. Is Suh a dirty player? Or, is he just a player who has done dirty things. The NFL clearly thinks the former, while Suh clearly maintains it is the latter. The NFL's focus on Suh appears to be related, at least partially, not only to what he does on the field, but the intent of those actions as well.
Is every Suh hit—flagged, fined or otherwise—evidence that he doesn't respect his fellow player's careers as was said about his $100,000 illegal block earlier this season? Some even called for Suh's suspension over that hit. Yet, it's another play where many see clear intent while others just see a player trying to play "to the echo of the whistle" as former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher once said about the Lions, per ESPN Chicago:
As a player, you can't be mad because that's the way the game should be played. They play fast. They play physical. Sometimes they go a little bit too far, but you know what, sometimes they get away with it. That's just the way the game is played now, I guess.
One thing is certain: Suh isn't getting away with anything these days. The NFL has both eyes clearly on the Lions tackle and has no intention of letting up until he completely changes the way he plays. The league wants him to change. It wants him to be less violent in a game of violence. It won't stop fining him until that happens.
Or, perhaps, just until it finds a new villain.