Ndamukong Suh is an intensely aggressive player in a game that rewards intense aggression, and at a position where such an attitude is not only required, it’s expected. He’s physical, mean, intimidating, and strong, all attributes that highly benefit the Detroit Lions, and led to his Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and 10 sacks in 2010.
That’s the good Ndamukong. We’ve now been led to believe that there’s a hidden, sinister evil lurking somewhere in Suh’s inner football soul, and that he’s becoming one of the league’s most brash and unhinged players. Being fined a combined $110,000 for three separate hits–the latest coming just last week when the league deemed his take down of Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton a little too rough for their China doll approach–will do that.
Suh needs to learn how to harness and control his aggression, a learning curve that we’ll see more often for young defensive players as the league clamps down on excessive physicality. But what’s happened as Suh goes through this self-education process is that every hit becomes magnified, and every indiscretion becomes grounds for a fine, and perhaps even a suspension. It’s the growth of a false perception of a dirty player, and the next step was taken Saturday night.
Suh was the ferocious defender we’ve all come to expect during Detriot’s 34-10 win over New England Saturday, leading a defensive line that put Tom Brady on his backside several times. After Suh tossed Brady to the turf late in the second quarter, a scuffle followed in which Patriots guard Logan Mankins grabbed the facemask and/or head of Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson.
It was the kind of post-play, testosterone-fueled dust-up that happens nearly every game, and Suh jumped to the aid of his teammate, throwing a punch that barely hit its mark. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk thinks Suh’s wallet will take another dent even though he wasn’t penalized on the play, and even though it was actually Mankins who was flagged for 15-yards.
He’s probably right, and on some level Suh has only himself to blame because of his sluggish adjustment to the NFL rule book circa 2011. On many more levels, this is the responsibility of a stereotype quickly run amok.
The zero tolerance policy for post-whistle skirmishes isn’t difficult to justify, and one exception eventually grows into a collection fisticuffs. However, the current perception of Suh goes beyond one glancing, nearly missed blow.
While Suh’s attempt to unscrew Jake Delhomme’s head last August crossed a line that separates the barbarians and humans, the other two fines (on his hit to Jay Cutler’s head and the Dalton play) have been the result of rough football plays ending in a manner that paints Suh as the villain, and his fallen quarterback foe as the helpless victim. This is expected, and to some degree accepted in a league increasingly aiming to build reinforced bubbles around its quarterbacks, the most marketable faces for a business trying to maintain its hold over the casual fan following the lockout.
The Budweiser drinkin’, Rush Limbaugh listenin’, blood thirsty football fan despises this new NFL. The rest of us do too, but we’re quiet about it, likely because we’re more easily able to grip reality. We know that head trauma is a very real thing, and that quarterback protection is the product of a shrewd business move.
The mistake here is in calling Suh dirty, a campaign most recently led by Mike Freeman of CBS Sports. Call him brutish, call him animalistic even, but resist the urge to reach for an overused, poorly defined label. He’s never led with his head and caused an injury like James Harrison, who shares Suh’s slow comprehension of the new rulebook, but has been far more blatant in his disregard for Roger Goodell’s NFL both vocally and physically.
Suh has created a cavernous divide of opinion on his play in a short period of time, but the haters are misguided. He’s stubborn, not stupid, and now there’s a strong possibility that Suh will face discipline for a play that originally warranted punishment for the opposition, and was the result of aggression from a player asked to be the ultimate aggressor. He’ll pay for his defense of a teammate, even if he was the retaliator instead of the initiator. That’s not dirty–it’s a large man instinctively reacting to a physical confrontation, just like Andre Johnson did when Cortland Finnegan was up in his grill last season. Was he being dirty?
We salivated at Suh’s Nebraska highlights, and wanted him to be a rampaging maniac in the NFL. We created this player, and now he’s confused.
And so are we.