The news of Ndamukong Suh's two-game suspension following the episode in which he kicked Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Evan Dietrich-Smith in the Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving Day loss to the defending NFL champs wasn't a surprise, but it does beg the question: When it comes to the line between physical play, pure intensity, and the need to stay on the league's good side, how far is too far?
On Tuesday, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talked about the suspension, what it will mean for the team, and how it might change the approach of perhaps his best player.
"I think his No. 1 thing is he didn't want to be a distraction for the team," Schwartz said of Suh. "He wanted the team to be able to focus on the Saints and then he wants to be accountable for his actions and get back on the field as quick as he can."
Suh reportedly intends to appeal his suspension, which would allow him to play against the Saints and perhaps miss later games against less challenging opponents, such as the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, or San Diego Chargers. The Packers close out the Lions' 2011 regular-season schedule, so you can be sure he'll be back before then.
More generally, and in the face of contentions from people like Tony Dungy, who has passed judgment on Schwartz's handling of the Suh situation despite the fact that he has not spoken to Schwartz or Suh, Schwartz has to find a balance for Suh. Especially on a team where the tougher, more aggressive defensive player is preferred (rookie Nick Fairley had a well-developed reputation as a cheap-shot artist during his days at Auburn). The way Suh is handled could be a big statement for the rest of the team.
"We want to be as tough and as physical as we can be between the snap and the whistle and that doesn't change for Ndamukong Suh or any of our players. We'll all defend our players all day long when it's something that happens in the course of a play. You get a face mask — nobody's trying to get a face mask. Or it ends up being a helmet-to-helmet hit when your aiming point is not that way, and all those different things—those are all [things] that we can work with and it's part of playing, it's part of the game.
"But anything that happens after the whistle, and when you get your team penalized — and in this situation, [it] cost us four points. We were getting ready to hold [the Packers] to a field goal attempt in a very tight game, at that point, and also take a player off the field. You know, Corey Williams had a calf, and we had less numbers at defensive line. All of a sudden, other guys have to take those positions. So, it put the team in a bad position."
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Schwartz tried to mitigate what Suh did to a degree, and while he may be right in what he said, the Dungy dialogue and other takes on the situation may make him took to be more of an enabler. "If I remember correctly, this is the first time Ndamukong been flagged for something that was after the whistle. He's been fined for the [Jay] Cutler hit or a face mask or a hands to the face, or those kind of things, but this is the first one that's occurred after the whistle and it needs to be his last. I think part of the thing is that obviously there's scrutiny of him and there's going to be a lot of attention and everything he does is going to be put under a microscope and he needs to act accordingly. But it shouldn't change his effort and his toughness and how hard he's playing in between the snaps."
But does he personally take responsibility for what Suh does? "The head coach takes responsibility for everything that occurs on the field, whether it's a player dropping a pass or mental error or scoring a touchdown. Ultimately, it's a responsibility of the head coach, so we don't shy away from that at all. I think that there's accountability in a lot of different places. Every player has accountability for his play, and coaches have responsibility for what happens on the field. We certainly don't shy away from that.
"There's an accountability for what we do on the field and he, particularly these last couple days, is well aware of that and feels a tremendous responsibility and like I said, the main thing is, with all this going on, he didn't want it to be something that takes away from the focus of (the) New Orleans Saints and I can say, for the team, I mean, the team's not thinking about it. The team's used to dealing with losing players, whether it's injuries and things like that—you move on, next guy has to step up, and you play. It's a lot easier for our players to keep focus when they're getting ready and they're playing in the game, rather than somebody that's been suspended and doesn't have anything else to look forward to."
Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene was Suh's antecedent in many ways — he wasn't nicknamed "Mean Joe" because it was cute. In his early years, Greene would stomp and kick opponents, once threw a football into the stands during a game to express his frustration, and nearly left the NFL because he hated losing so much. Fortunately for Greene and for his team, he stuck around long enough to channel his aggression and help the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. As a man who once shared Suh's lethal combination of athletic dominance and hair-trigger temper, Green might be the one man who could get through to Suh on his own level.
"I hated for that to happen to him and I'm sure he does now, too," Greene told the Huffington Post. "With time, he'll learn how to funnel his fire, but I hope he never loses that fire because he has to have it to play the position.
"If it happens in the game, there's a place for it," Greene said Monday night in a telephone interview. "If you haven't played interior defensive line, you won't know and you'll never know what it's like in there. I don't think anything that happens on the field is dirty, but Suh shouldn't have done what he did. He let the moment get away."
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll commands one of the younger defenses in the NFL, and that's another team racking up the flags on a weekly basis. Whether it's through youthful indiscretion or the need to play physically to keep up with more experienced opponents, Carroll said on Tuesday that the line between football intensity and outright thuggery is one that he saw a great deal during his days at USC.
"Yeah — there have been guys. And some, you might be surprised. Troy Polamalu was a guy who could go over the top because he was such an extraordinary competitor, and so fiery. Justin Fargas was another one of those guys we had in college who were just unbelievable competitors. They were so driven, they would just lose their poise at times because they wanted so much to do something, and make something happen. But when that's corralled, it's all you could ever ask for. It takes time to get guys to the point where they can utilize their instincts to the maximum, and stay in that manner of poise where they make the right decisions — where the fire and the juice don't get the best of them.
"You have to deal with those guys — you have to talk to them, make it clear to them, show them examples. Point it out and you need to point it out to them in front of other players, which has happened, so they feel the collective pressure of doing things right. It's a process, and with the young guys … you love it, you love the way they play, and I don't want to slow our guys down. I want them to play as aggressively and tough as possible, and to continue to grow as a team in that manner. We're going through some growing pains there.
In Carroll's mind, is it up to the coach or the player in the end? "It's everybody's responsibility. It's a question for the kid, because he's going to eventually lose his career — he gets taken out of the game, and he can't play anymore. It's the players for sure, but it's the coaches who do everything they can to help them. And you can help them until … they won't let you help them anymore. Then, you have to move on. I don't know any of the particulars of the [Suh] situation, but as coaches, we all face different individuals and characters and personalities. We have to deal with them, and mold them into fitting the team mentality."
That's the challenge Suh will face through the rest of his career. And with an NFL that looks ever more closely at what players do and how they do it, the need to stay on the right side of the physical-versus-mental battle has never been more pronounced.