Ndamukong Suh seemed like such a level-headed guy when he joined the NFL little more than a season and a half ago. Now, not so much.
A few months before the 2010 NFL draft, when other top picks might have been out pricing a Bentley, Suh pledged to donate $2.6 million to his alma mater, including $600,000 to endow a scholarship at the College of Engineering at Nebraska, from which he graduated with a degree in construction management. By then, he'd also already taken home nearly every important college award a defender can earn, including several which factor in sportsmanship as a component — the Outland, Bednarik, Nagurski and Associated Press Player of the Year awards — and finished fourth in the Heisman balloting to boot.
Suh proved just as dominating as pro as he was in college, being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and solved any transportation problems soon enough by becoming a pitchman for Chrysler, among others. He was in the express lane for NFL stardom, but not just the kind that results in endorsements. Three times during the 2010 season, Suh starred in film clips that wound up being reviewed by the league's disciplinarians and had his paychecks docked accordingly. Unrepentant, he threw Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to the ground in a preseason game, and by the middle of this season, Suh had already been labeled the NFL's "dirtiest" player in a poll surveying 100 of his peers. Then came the stomp.
By now, you've seen it at least a half dozen times. At the end of a play against Green Bay on Thanksgiving, Suh bounced Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith's head into the ground three times, then stomped on his arm. Even more damning is what Suh said afterward, denying he tried to kick Dietrich-Smith: "A lot of people are going to create their own storylines for seeing what they want to interpret, but I know what I did and the man upstairs knows what I did."
Presumably, he wasn't referring to Commissioner Roger Goodell, who, in any case, had few doubts about what he saw. The commish promptly doled out a two-game suspension, taking into account his failure to get his point across to Suh despite at least one face-to-face meeting a few weeks earlier, who-knows how many previous phone conversations covering the same ground, and Suh's place as league leader in both personal fouls and rules violations. Missing two game checks will cost Suh about $165,000. Missing games at New Orleans this Sunday and at home against Minnesota the week after, while the Lions are trying to stay in the NFC wild-card hunt, should drive the point home in a way that money never will.
Suh already posted a half-hearted apology on his Facebook page — "I made a mistake and have learned from it." He's also been assured his appeal will be heard ahead of Sunday's game by Art Shell, whose impartiality is supposed to be assured by drawing his pay from both the league and the players' union, but who also happens to be one of the wiliest offensive linemen to have played the game. During a 14-year, Hall of Fame career, Shell no doubt gave as good as he got and few men would be better qualified to decide which tactics — employed when — qualify as over the top.
The funny thing is that back when Shell played, almost nothing players did on the field qualified. Replay was still in its infancy, and first, you had to get caught. Then, as now, the most feared defensive players were hard hitters. But guys like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, not to mention a few of the defensive linemen Shell practiced against in Oakland, were more feared still because they might twist a finger or ankle temptingly sticking out at the bottom of a pile, or sink their teeth into it. If there was justice to be meted out, it had to happen before the final whistle and away from the gaze of the officials.
Back then, you had to pull a WWE maneuver in full view of everyone in the stadium, which is what Packers defender Charles Martin did while slamming Bears' QB Jim McMahon to the turf in a game nearly 25 years ago, becoming what's believed to be the league's first player suspended for more than a single game for an incident on the playing field. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, then playing for the Titans, became the second in 2006, earning a five-game furlough for swiping his cleats across the head of helmetless Dallas center Andre Gurode. And now there's Suh.
Considering Suh's third-quarter ejection turned a close game against Green Bay into a rout, he's effectively served a half-game already. He might get plenty of sympathy from Shell, but it's unlikely he'll get a reduced sentence. Even more than the suspension, however, the chance to watch a game from the comfort of his couch might finally convince Suh that the cameras catch absolutely everything. And that if he can't learn to control his temper better, he better learn something that Matt Millen, now a TV commentator but previously a tough-guy linebacker for the Raiders, pointed out the other day.
"It's a different game, covered differently these days. What's deemed crazy now, wasn't crazy back in the day. Now more than ever, you have to keep your poise and control emotions when you feel like you have to retaliate," Millen said. "What you learn is, you don't have to get back at the guy right then and that you've got time to take care of field justice."