Today we learned that Ndamukong Suh won his appeal of his one game suspension and will now be allowed to play in this weekend’s wild card game against the Dallas Cowboys. Suh’s suspension generated some debate with some claiming that the league overreacted to a relatively harmless offense while others claimed that he got off light based on his long history of dirty play. Both sides make valid points, but all of the commentators in the sports media have completely overlooked what I believe to be the most significant part of this story, which is that no members of the Green Bay offensive line were suspended, fined, or even flagged on that play.
Most NFL fans would find it odd that I would be questioning why no Green Bay offensive linemen were punished when they didn’t commit any fouls of any kind on the play; but that is exactly my point. Five 300 plus pound offensive lineman who are paid to protect Aaron Rogers, by far the most important player on the Packers and the leading candidate to win the league MVP this year, stood idly by while 300 pound Ndamukong Suh stood on Aaron Rogers already injured calf. The only person who retaliated against Suh was Rogers himself when he gave the defensive tackle a shove in the behind as he was walking away. Even if you want to pretend that none of them noticed the infraction at the time, Suh played the rest of the game and didn’t have a single Packer commit a personal foul against him.
As someone who grew up in Canada watching hockey, the almost universal pacifism of NFL offensive linemen continues to be one of the most baffling phenomena in all of sports. In hockey, merely spraying ice in the face of a goalie will trigger about 20 minutes in penalties. A blatant attempt to injure a star player will start an outright war that will usually end with one or more suspensions, which is why even though an NHL season is 82 games long, you still rarely see someone blatantly take cheap shots at a star player. In the NFL, defensive players routinely take cheap shots and attempt to injure the quarterbacks and star wide receivers, but never face any retaliation from opposing teams. The only punishment a defensive player ever faces is from the league. In the NHL, if you go after Sydney Crosby’s ankle the last thing you will be worried about what the league office will do.
Offensive lineman are critically important players and it is understandable that a team would not want its top left tackle thrown out of the game, but teams have at least one backup at every position, so it would be easy to throw in a backup for a play on 3rd and 20 after a sack to exact a little retribution. Even if you were to lose a top lineman for a game it would still probably be worth it in the long run if it meant opposing players would be less likely to try to hurt your franchise quarterback.
Perhaps the most appalling example of offensive linemen inaction I have ever witnessed also involved Ndamukong Suh. It was in a pre-season during Suh’s rookie year when he grabbed quarterback Jake Delhomme by his facemask and threw him into the ground. Suh was penalized on the play and later fined, but all of the offensive lineman just watched passively and meekly walked back to the line of scrimmage. The pre-season is when most of the players are guys just fighting to get a job as a backup or make the practice squad. One would think that some undrafted linemen trying to get noticed would have seized the opportunity to rip off Suh’s helmet and beat him with it, but no. In the NHL, the pre-season is when you see the most fighting as borderline players struggle to get noticed. If you were to take a cheap shot at a star player or goalie in a preseason game there would be players waiting in line to for their turn to take a swing at you.
It is often said that football is a “Gladiator” sport, played by the baddest and toughest men in all of sports, but the more I see examples of 300+ pound men watching someone stomp their star quarterback, or a safety who tries to take the head off a defenseless receiver but jumps out of the way of Marshawn Lynch, the more I doubt that. NFL players may be the baddest of all professional athletes, but you are kidding yourself if you think they are the toughest. If you don’t agree, keep in mind that there have been more examples of NFL players punching women this year than punching opposing players.