The Suh question

An interesting piece on Grantland asks the following: Would you want soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh on your team?

My response: “Is that a trick question?”

To me, it deserves to be the subject of one of those silly-question Geiko ads. It ranks alongside gems of idiocy such as “Did the Lakers give up too much in the 2008 trade for Pau Gasol* ?,” or “Was it really wise for the Broncos to sign Peyton Manning to replace Tim Tebow?,” or even the ESPN First Take clanger “Would you take Tom Brady or Tebow as your quarterback with two minutes left and the game on the line?”

Yeah, but Turp! That tells us you’re passionate about your answer, not what your answer actually is! Point taken, so here goes. Yes, I would sign Ndamokung Suh, and I would do so in less time than it would take anyone to say “the best since Sapp.” For crissakes, not since Reggie White has such a dominant defensive lineman hit free agency at the peak of his powers! Sapp was almost completely over-the-hill when he went to Oakland, and though Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago with quite a bit of gas left in the tank, he was already starting to decline a bit.

That said, I have to acknowledge my bias. Yes, I struggle to hate great players at my position. Yes, I find something cathartic in watching a defensive lineman beat up on quarterbacks in a league where they are so ridiculously overprotected compared to their fellow players at other positions, in a league that so deliberately handicaps defence to favour offence. And yes, I’m the guy whose delight when he sees quarterbacks take a pounding just might be described as Joker-esque.

In other words, it’s impossible for me to hate a guy who can pull off shit like this (the whole thing’s impressive, but the tackle starting at 1:59… Oh my!) :

Or this sack of notorious don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferer Jay Cutler (P.S.: Forget the regrettable injury and watch the play):

However, what I would now like to submit is that, while my love of Suh has an emotional component to it, so does a large part of the vitriol aimed in his direction. Not since Terrell Owens at the peak of his petulance has the league’s best player at a given position been so universally reviled. And even then, I think Suh takes the cake.

Today, Suh is not only one of the NFL’s most despised players, but also one of its most under-appreciated. Of no other player of such talent would CBS’ Pete Prisco say, in a calamity of a column, that he’s the league’s most overrated player. Is it really fair that a player who

  1. grabbed the title of best at his position during his rookie year,
  2. single-handedly alters offensive gameplans,
  3. plays with the kind of abandon that we wish all pro athletes would display,
  4. has seemingly never been anything but a model teammate, and
  5. has never said a wrong thing in the media

would have an asterisk put on his greatness by such an overwhelming amount of people in the media and in the viewing public? No, but so far, this is Suh’s legacy, and there are no signs of that changing anywhere in sight. People have just made up their minds about him.

I’m not surprised to see a guy as bright and as composed as Suh deal with his heel status by pretending he doesn’t actually have it. What impresses me a lot is to see that he hasn’t taken offence to people suggesting, both implicitly and explicitly, that his style of play diminishes his value or his greatness as a player. Do we dare put Gerald McCoy, as talented as he is, in the same conversation as Suh unless we’re trying to diminish Suh’s stock? I have my doubts. McCoy is terrific, but anyone who actually watches Suh on tape, instead of relying on the box scores, knows that his on-field dominance is so profound that the only other defensive lineman who can hope to impact games in such a way is JJ Watt**. Suh and Watt simply operate in another dimension. There are other Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen in the NFL, namely McCoy, but they belong in the “everybody else” conversation. We’re starting to see some analysts recognize that (better late than never) after Suh did a better job of harnessing his intensity this season, but it’s taking time.

But Turp! You’re conveniently leaving out that he’s such a dirty player! It’s funny how selective our memories get when it comes to these things. James Harrison caught more flack for publicly insulting Roger Goodell than for his multiple attempts at maiming opposing players. Rodney Harrison was an artist at ending seasons (see: Green, Trent) with knee-level hits, but he’s one of the best in history at his position, so we can chalk that up to intensity and to the fact that, back when Harrison played, dirty hits didn’t carry such a stigma. Bernard Pollard ended the seasons of two quarterbacks, including America’s Darling Tom Brady, but we know him as a “physical, run-stuffing safety” even though he’s the football equivalent of the fourth-line goon. And don’t even get me started on Deacon Jones. Using his patented headslap, he probably shattered more eardrums than the last 40 years of boxers and MMA fighters combined. He got away with shit 10 times worse than anything Suh would dare attempt. But the NFL Network still ranked him as the best pass rusher ever (despite the fact that it’s unclear how he projects in today’s game), and to this day, his dirty play is revered, not frowned upon.

So what’s so different about Suh? Well, the era for one. In the cartoonishly violent NFL of 12-15 years ago, he would have been a demigod. But that was then and this is now. The league now has to fake concern for player safety in the hopes of avoiding more lawsuits by former players. But I can’t help but feel there is more to it than that. I’ll concede without resistance that some of the things Suh has done (the stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the kick to Matt Schaub’s groin) cannot be defended.

However, he has received penalties (and sometimes, subsequent fines) that betray the fact that officials have been instructed to flag him when in doubt. I’m in complete agreement with the analyst on this one:

And that’s just one example. The facile argument that his reputation now precedes him cannot possibly constitute a valid justification for his getting zero benefit of the doubt on the field. You can justify giving him larger fines because he has “proven” to be a “recidivist.” What you can’t do is decide that an act which would not have been considered a transgression had another player committed it suddenly becomes a transgression because it is Suh’s doing. This push is probably a 50/50 call if it’s someone other than Suh doing it, and it’s almost a guaranteed non-call if it happens to a non-quarterback. It has come to a point where Suh is now basically getting flagged for hitting too hard. Strictly speaking, many though not all of Suh’s “dirty” plays are within the rules, but given his ferocity and raw power, well… we’d best try to get him to rein it in a bit.

Another valid question pertains to where Suh’s aggressiveness (or out-of-control play, according to some) stems from. Every defensive player is told to punish ballcarriers. Few actually do it on a regular basis. They hear their coaches talk about “imposing their will,” take them with a grain of salt, and tackle players however they can. But what if you had someone with unusual ability, combined with the most pure upper-body strength of any defensive lineman since Reggie White, and who played as though he actually took the coach’s speeches 100% seriously? Would you not want that guy on your team? Would you not go out of your way to have him on your team?

Now, as for the price, well that depends. Detroit couldn’t use the franchise tag on him, which would have forced them to sign Suh to a deal that would’ve counted for nearly $27 million against the cap next season. It’s not a matter of whether he’s worth it, but giving a player such a cap-killing contract makes no sense regardless of the player’s identity. It’s a playoff-chance crippler. However, if I were advising the Lions, I would urge them not to play hardball with Suh and do everything they can to re-sign him before the start of free agency. His impact is such that a Suh-less Lions’ defence would be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Moreover, there are lots of teams with lots of cap room who will seriously consider making a run for him. If you’re the Lions, do you really want to get into a bidding war with them, which would lead you to having to pay Suh a lot more than you’d like***?

Again, though, I’d take him on my team in a New York minute. I’ll even make a bet with you, dear readers. If he signs with my hapless Jaguars, I’m buying his jersey. Of course, he won’t, because he’s neither that stupid nor that desperate for money. If you’re going to get paid a king’s ransom wherever you go, you might as well pick a spot where you have a chance to win something. And I hope he signs with a team that’s good enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s completely capably of. And that he just keeps giving the Manning-like “I just play with intensity” speech so the haters can spend even more energy spewing in a kettle of their own bile. I say this even though, quite frankly, part of me wishes he’d pull off the complete heel turn and go completely CM Punk on the NFL and its entire fanbase. Goodness knows we’ve all earned it.

* For the record, the trade was Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick going to the Lakers in exchange for 2008 and 2010 first-round picks, draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie and the immortal disaster zone Kwame Brown heading to Memphis. I can’t think of three more hideously one-sided trades in modern sports history. 

** My friend Gabe Flewelling, an incurable Titans homer, will be irate at me for not mentioning Albert Haynesworth. It’s true that, at his best, Haynesworth was as routinely unstoppable as Suh. His ability to take over games was quite spectacular indeed. But he also could never be bothered to give a shit unless he was playing for a contract, didn’t so much take PLAYS off as he took GAMES off, and outdid himself by taking a mammoth shit in Washington’s hands after Dan Snyder gifted him the first $100-million contract to a defensive tackle not only through his poor play but also by failing a conditioning test. I can’t take such a guy’s resume seriously, regardless of how periodically dominant he was capable of being. Even Shaq thinks Haynesworth was lazy. (Seriously! How are you a pro football player and fail a conditioning test? That’s like a high school teacher turning up for his class naked. It’s that egregious!)

*** A few hours after I published this article, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Suh had agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins. In related news, this raises questions about the point of free agency start date if people can agree contracts before said date. Or perhaps more to the point: what legally stops Suh’s agent Jimmy Sexton for using the now public terms of the Dolphins’ offer sheet to leverage another team, or the Phins themselves for that matter, into giving him more? If the deal gets done, though, it makes the Dolphins’ defensive line a monstrous unit provided Cameron Wake doesn’t take a plunge in terms of production. Doesn’t solve their offensive problems, but hey, they’ll hunt quarterbacks like nobody’s business. 

In defence of Blaine Gabbert and in rejection of Tim Tebow

After Forbes magazine named Tim Tebow the most influential athlete in all of sports, which exposes the fact that they obviously restrict their scope to North America (’cause you know, I can name you five soccer players I’d pick before him), some Jacksonville lawyer named John Morgan bought advertising space to try to make Tim Tebow-to- the-Jacksonville-Jaguars happen. This took place after a petition was sent to President Obama (…unbelievable!) to “pressure” him into getting the NFL to award Tebow to the Jags. Morgan is free to buy and use advertising space as he pleases, but his sanctimonious message, as well as the petition to the President, are so preposterous that I have an inappropriate Anthony Jeselnik-type joke on the tip of my tongue.

I have criticized the previous regime of Jack Del Rio/Mike Mularkey and Gene Smith virulently, and I take none of it back, but one thing even they got right was that Tebow isn’t the answer. The new Gus Bradley/David Caldwell administration, put together by new Jags owner Shahid Khan, understands this as well. Notwithstanding the sheer imbecility of the idea that the NFL should impose a player upon one of its franchises, the very notion that Tebow should join the Jaguars by any means is almost as problematic.

The likes of Skip Bayless have said over and over again that Tebow would have dramatically improved the quarterback position for the Jaguars because the alternatives were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Bayless himself wandered into heresy territory when he said that Tebow would have won them eight or nine games last year. That’s comical. You could have taken Montana or Elway in their prime, put them on that 2012 Jags team, and they’d have returned to the bench and said, “no can do, coach. This is a minor league team we’ve got there.” But we shouldn’t take Bayless seriously on Tebow. A quarterback of such limited passing ability might run for a few game-winning touchdowns against teams that would eventually pick in the Top 5. Hell, Vince Young won offensive rookie of the year doing that, despite the fact that he threw more picks than touchdowns as a rookie. Tebow might have led them the Jags to, let’s be generous, four wins for the sole reason that he’s the kind of player who might somewhat compensate for the incredible crassness of his supporting cast because of his athleticism and his short yardage back disposition.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that part of the reason why I don’t want Tebow with my Jags is viscerally personal. I am a Florida State Seminole through and through. Since Tebow is a filthy heathen Florida Gator, he is responsible for many moments of frustration on my part for which I could never forgive him. It would feel about the same way as if some dude bullied me in high school, and then wound up being my son’s position coach years later. The moment Tebow winds up in Jacksonville will be the moment when I become a New York Giants fan. That being said, I’d be completely capable of putting my personal feelings aside and admit that bringing in Tebow would be a good move, were this the case. But it is not. Allow me, dear reader to elaborate on a few reasons why it would be a dreadful idea.

The problem with Tebow

Let me stomp on my personal feelings and say this: Tebow should play in the NFL. What as, you ask? From a pure footballing standpoint, Tebow would fit as a backup quarterback for a team that has option elements incorporated in its offence. The 49ers come to mind, given that they may have fooled the Chiefs into giving a second-round pick (and perhaps a third rounder next year) for Alex Smith, but they still need a viable replacement for him. It would help the Niners to have a backup who doesn’t force them to scrap parts of their gameplan if Colin Kaepernick gets injured. Tebow could help in that regard. Is he nearly the same thrower? No, but that would be why he’d be backing up.

Here’s the problem: Teams are extremely wary of signing him for such a duty because of the media and fan frenzy that comes with him. That’s why, in retrospect, the Jets’ acquisition of Tebow was such a mistake. How could anyone, including Tebow himself, not get the sense that the Jets wanted him to win their starting job, given that they were placing him behind a supremely fragile starter in Mark Sanchez? Thus, when it didn’t happen, people started getting aggravated, especially when the perception became that Rex Ryan was going out of his way to keep Tebow off the field. The popular belief is now that the Jets “sabotaged” Tebow. Such speculation would of course be dismissed as sheer nonsense were this any other player, but that’s the fanfare Tim Tebow brings with him. What really sucks for him is that I’m not sure he wants it this way. Tebow, by all accounts, is a sharp guy, and surely he understands that as much as this fanfare can help you, as it did in Denver when he was chucking dirt balls while his defence was keeping the Broncos in the game, it can hurt you.

And it’s hurting Tebow a lot right now. Every NFL coach should logically be asking himself, “could this guy help us as a backup and perhaps with some option packages we could build for him?” But with the Forbes article, and the petition to President Obama (…unbelievable!), and the Jacksonville lawyer promoting Tebow with ads, every coach is instead wondering, “Do I want every interception my starter throws to become a PR nightmare?” What this means is that, because the pressure on you as a staff and on your starting QB would be too great, not to mention the potential divisiveness of the move for locker room harmony, signing Tebow as a backup isn’t a viable option anymore. If you’re going to bring him in, it must be as a starter.

But who wants to do that? If your team is crap, you might give it a thought. But since Tebow can’t throw, what you’re guaranteeing is that while he might, maybe, keep you out of the absolute bottom of the NFL’s cellar, he is a guy you’ll instantly look to improve upon the millisecond your team has the potential to finish over .500.  Smashing! And guess who’ll be on the wrong end of that PR disaster.  Hell, Denver’s Johns, that would be Fox and Elway, caught tremendous flack for replacing Tebow with Peyton Manning.

Let me give you a moment to think about this…


Sure, he was coming off the surgery and we didn’t know how he’d perform. But there were lots of people who objected to it on principle. They objected to replacing the kid who can’t throw with Peyton Manning, the greatest quarterback of the past 15 years (yes, better than Brady). The guy so cerebral he picks apart defences like a serial killer dismembering a body before our very eyes. The guy who got so many experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts never really had a defence during the whole time he played for them. The guy who got said experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts O-Line, during Manning’s last few years in Indy, was comprised mostly of undrafted free agents. For 15 years, he practically single-handedly got us to take the Colts seriously.

So you have a shot at that guy, but you’d keep Tebow instead. Even your grandmother knows that makes you a complete nutter. But that’s the irrational obsession Tebow creates. No team wants any part of it, and I can’t say I blame these coaches and GMs.

Not quite the time to give up on Blaine Gabbert

OK, but do the Jags not fit to a “t” my description of a bad team Tebow might help a bit? Well, yes. But here it helps to look at the specifics of this Jags team. In a post in which I commended the Jags for taking Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel despite the popular perception that they didn’t need him, I said that playing behind that offensive line was the quarterbacking equivalent of being sentenced to death by firing squad. The Jags haven’t had consistent pass protection since Tony Boselli was playing left tackle for them. Now that they have both Joeckel and former Top 10 pick Eugene Monroe at the tackle spots, this might change. Which brings me to my next point.

The team’s starter, Blaine Gabbert, is entering his third year in the league. The widespread belief that he should already be considered a bust is one that I meant to challenge months ago, but couldn’t find the time. Well, here goes. The Jags drafted Gabbert in the first round two years ago. He is not some talent-deprived scrub you start because you have nobody else. There’s a reason why he got drafted so early. Am I saying he’s a Pro Bowler in the making? No, but what I am saying is that the sample we have to evaluate him in the NFL is flawed and insufficient and that should the Jags give up on him now, they risk giving up on a player who can be very successful but just wound up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

First and most obviously, Gabbert will be playing for his third head coach and offensive coordinator in three years. Ouch! Look at the bulk of first-round QBs who became great, or even good. They had some kind of continuity in terms of scheme and coaching style. Peyton Manning had Tom Moore, Brady had Charlie Weis (and then all the others who worked under him), Aaron Rodgers had Mike McCarthy and co., Eli has Kevin Gilbride, the list goes on. You can’t expect any young QB, bright and talented though he may be, to excel when the staff goes table rase every year. Some young quarterbacks get less-than-ideal situations to start their career. This isn’t less-than-ideal, it’s worse-than-awful.

Then comes the issue of the supporting cast. Let’s not even waste time analyzing the sheer dreadfulness of the squad he stepped into for Jack Del Rio’s last year in the Jax. Instead, let’s just look at last season, or as I call it, Mike Mularkey’s in-and-out.  Jags fans were treated to a mix of inadequacy and bad luck that a great fiction writer wouldn’t dare come up with. I’ve already talked a little bit about the offensive line. The only reliable long term fixture there is left tackle Eugene Monroe (and even that’s pushing it). The year they drafted Monroe, they used a second-round pick on another OT, Arizona’s Eben Britton, a good player who was, however, so injury-prone that he never settled into the lineup and is now in Chicago. The result is that the right tackle position has been filled, for some time now, by a committee of journeymen who would look like revolving doors against opposing pass rushers (did I mention I LOVE the Joeckel pick?). The centre is one of my personal favourites, Brad Meester, but he’s entering his 14th season in the league, and age is catching up. Meester was always smarter than he was overpowering, but now he’s become more injury-prone as well. The guard position symbolizes the terrible personnel decisions that have plagued this team over the years. So many reserve players have played left guard that I’ve lost count, while the right guard spot is manned by Uche Nwaneri, a fringe player making 5 million a year for reasons that only the previous administration can understand. These inside guys were beaten by more stunts than bad drug dealers and were a health hazard to whomever was playing quarterback back there.

And what of the skill positions? Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the only proven playmaker on the team, was lost for the season early, and none of his backups could come close to matching his productivity. Tight end Marcedes Lewis, whom the Jags decided to pay Rob Gronkowski money after one 10-touchdown season though his career had been uneventful until that point, can’t stretch the seam and is a relative non-factor in the passing game until the Jags get to the red zone, which doesn’t happen very often. The team also made the imbecilic decision to sign Laurent Robinson, whose resumé basically included tons of injuries and one good 3/4 of a season replacing Miles Austin in Dallas, to a 6-year, $32.5 million contract.

Timeout… Words are inadequate to describe how incredibly stupid that signing was. What did they give him that money for? So he could start his own space program? Actually, they didn’t give him all that money, because after a single season in Jacksonville, of which the highlight was a key fumble against Houston that allowed the Texans to survive a scare, the Jags released Robinson.

Now, where were we? Right, the skill positions. They drafted Justin Blackmon fifth overall. I was very happy with the pick. However, just about two days after the draft, Blackmon got busted for DUI and spent the first half of the season unable to separate from any defensive back. (Don’t get me started on the fact that he might be suspended for the first four games of the coming season). Gabbert got injured and was placed on IR in the middle of the season. It was only after Gabbert’s injury that Blackmon was nice enough to get his head out of his ass and start playing like a first rounder. If not for Cecil Shorts, who pulled off a Victor Cruz and emerged out of virtually nowhere, the Jags would not have had a single potent offensive weapon for the entire time Gabbert was quarterbacking them last year.

And then, people have the gall to say Gabbert holds onto the ball too long and takes too many sacks. How surprising! Who was he supposed to throw to? The guys wearing the different-coloured jerseys? No protection, no MoJo Drew, no Blackmon, Lewis a non-factor, Laurent Robinson is terrible; Broadway Joe would have wound up Broadway Hoe playing with this lot.

To put it more elegantly, you cannot expect a guy to succeed when the means to do so just aren’t there. This has been Blaine Gabbert’s reality so far in Jacksonville. I do not think that we can surmise, based on the problematic evidence we have up to this point, that he can’t get it done in the NFL. Is it possible that he was overrated coming out of college? Yes. Is it possible that he, as did the likes of David Carr, has picked up so many bad habits that he is now “beyond saving”? Absolutely. But two years on a team that was beyond terrible represents a sample that is both insufficient and potentially unrepresentative when it comes to judging Gabbert’s ability to be the Jags’ franchise quarterback. Here’s another thing that keeps me hopeful about Gabbert: he doesn’t compulsively turn the ball over like so many quarterback busts typically do. He’ll eat it rather than get picked. Give him protection and receivers who might get open once in a while and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metamorphosis from Gabbert.

Fast forward to this year. They get MoJo back. They drafted Luke Joeckel to help with the offensive line. They have Cecil Shorts, and they’ll get at least 12 games out of Blackmon, which would be 12 times more than Gabbert got from him last year. And the X-Factor could be another rookie, Denard Robinson, whose playmaking skills could be used in many different ways. They are starting to put together something interesting on offence. This is why I’ll be the first person to suggest that they cut Gabbert loose if we don’t see marked improvement from him this year. But those who call him a bust right now are jumping the gun. He isn’t JaMarcus Russell. Gabbert has none of the self-destructive traits that ruined the careers of the likes of Russell and Ryan Leaf, and failing that, the Jags simply cannot afford to give up on him so early.

There are so many quarterback busts who become victims of circumstances that it amazes me that few so-called experts ever seem to pause to give this reality a second look. Not every bust at quarterback is a Russell or a Leaf; in fact, few of them are. Usually, quarterbacks who don’t work out either:

  1. Come in a little overrated and/or mentally fragile and can’t live up to the enormous expectations placed on them (see Sanchez, Mark), or…
  2. just never manage to overcome the incredibly crappy rosters they are expected to revitalize.

I’m thrilled that the new Jags administration seems determined to cut Blaine Gabbert only if he proves to belong in group 1, not group 2. If they find out that they can win with Gabbert provided they surround him with enough pieces on offence and put together a defence that can stop the other team every once in a blue moon, it makes sense that they would go that route. If that’s the case, Gabbert would be more of an answer for the Jags than Tim Tebow could ever hope to be.

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