So this week, as Ben and I were tossing darts at a dartboard of Matt Ryan’s face, we bandied about topics for our regular (or used to be regular before my free time got erased quicker than an Antonio Cromartie paycheck) trial feature where we prosecute/defend fun football stuff. Well, we found a topic (TUNE IN TOMORROW, KIDS!), but during the brainstorm session, Ndamukong Suh’s hit on Jay Cutler came up. We thought about it for a while before ultimately deciding against it, primarily on the grounds that neither of us think it’s that big of a deal. To both of us, the hit seems legal. Whether or not it’s because we both love to see a good Cutler beatdown is irrelevant.
But as I thought about the topic more, the more I thought about how odd the case of Ndamakong Suh has become. What makes this case so interesting is that it proves that NFL storylines are almost always based purely on reputation. The tackle is getting attention because of the tackler. If it had been Nick Fairley who swung Cutler’s arms around and slammed him to the ground, it wouldn’t have been analyzed as much. (Brief aside: “swung Cutler’s arms around and slammed him to the ground” would be an excellent lyric in a 90s era hip hop song. And then the chorus would be a call and response: “What do they call me?” “SUUUUUUUH” “What do the fans say?” “BOOOOOOOO” Give Dre a few hundred grand to make a beat and you’d have the best Detroit rapper since ICP!) It makes me think of how many players in the NFL have one thing about them that gets extra attention, no matter how different or similar they may be from others in the league.
Ndamukong Suh set the world on fire when he erupted in Nebraska, because he was strong and vicious, and he ate quarterbacks for lunch. This was a humorous and cute phrase until he started actually taking quarterbacks, putting them on bread with Miracle Whip, and swallowing them whole. Then he started to develop a reputation as a “dirty player.” Stomping on some dude didn’t help matters any.
So does reputation dictate behavior in the NFL? If I were to be the prosecution in our imaginary trial, this is what I would say:
The hit may not have been technically dirty. No flags were thrown, no one was fined, and repeated spouse abuser Brandon Marshall was the only person on the Bears team to think Suh did anything wrong (Yeah, let’s totally listen to that guy!) So calling the hit dirty or wrong is a stretch. But Suh has a reputation. When he lifts his hands towards Cutler’s head, and when he uses his brute strength to swing him down violently, it reminds viewers of the things he has done that have been fined: the headlock takedown of Delhomme, the forearm smash to Cutler, the aforementioned stomp on someone who wasn’t a quarterback and thus clearly isn’t important enough to name. Whether or not the hit was penalized, it has the same characteristics that other “dirty” hits of his have had. They all stem from a result of extra violence and aggression that Suh seems to use. Therefore, if he doesn’t want a hit being seen as dirty, he should focus on getting the tackle without quick, violent movements.
But is that fair? I find myself writing the defense of Suh as well:
Ndamukong Suh has done some things that have earned him the label as a dirty player. But that doesn’t mean every hit he makes is dirty. He plays a style that is vicious and seemingly too rough, but it’s how he got drafted in the first place, and more importantly it’s how he plays the game. If he has to think about how he tackles, how he rushes the quarterback, how he brings him down, then he might actually hurt someone. Also, it’s not like Suh is the only player hitting players hard. Jared Allen is just as strong and vicious as Suh, but he doesn’t get reputation calls. Suh shouldn’t suffer because people are more aware of his style of play than other players. A player’s reputation shouldn’t come into play on every play.
But this is the NFL, and it does, both good and bad. Eli Manning can lose three games in the final few minutes, but the next time he scores a game-winning TD, people will crow about how clutch he is. Cam Newton can smile for half the season, but the second he puts a towel over his head, people go “There he goes, sulking again.” Reputations are everything in the NFL, like it or not, because we live in a country that wants information processed and categorized and transformed into bite-sized chunks. So we have two or three tidbits about each player that we recognize as fact without questioning it. “Drew Brees is short, and he’s also a great guy.” “Vince Young can’t get his head right, so he can’t lead a team.” “Joe Flacco has badass facial hair.” Even if Drew may have killed his franchise in the pursuit of more money. Even though Vince Young was successful in Tennessee. Even if Joe Flacco shaves (which he should never do. Ever.)
And that’s why, even if the hit wasn’t dirty, it was. Because Ndamukong Suh is seen as a dirty player, and anything he does will be seen as a dirty hit. We live in a world where perception is reality, and so until that changes, expect the world to cry whenever Suh’s tackle makes the crowd go “OOOOOH.” Or “BOOOOOO.” Man, these rap lyrics are writing themselves!