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Detroit Lions catch massive break with Ndamukong Suh's appeal win

12/30/2014

Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell has been asked in varying ways this season what it would be like not to have Ndamukong Suh in the lineup.

What would this defense be like without him this season? What will this team look like without him next season if he departs via free agency?

Consistently, Caldwell has said he doesn’t want to find out. After Suh twice stepped on Aaron Rodgers' leg Sunday and drew a one-game suspension, Caldwell learned what devising a game plan without Suh would look like. It was probably not a vision he wants to have happen again.

The good news for the Lions is they won’t have to find out just yet.

The Lions, in some ways, got lucky that Ted Cottrell, the appeals officer who heard Suh’s case Tuesday, chose to overturn the one-game suspension. This is the smart decision all around.

What Suh did was absolutely fine-worthy. Even some of Suh’s teammates, including safety James Ihedigbo, said as much.

A suspension seemed like overkill and Cottrell clearly agreed. What Cottrell decided on -- a $70,000 fine that will cost Suh more money than he’ll make for this week’s wild-card game -- just feels like an appropriate punishment for Suh’s latest action.

There was not much question that Suh deserved some punishment. If another player had done what Suh did, it might have been a different case, but Suh’s benefit of the doubt has long since expired.

Because of Suh's prior acts, the question of intent was much more difficult to answer. It likely helped, too, that Suh showed up in New York in person Tuesday to help make his appeal in front of Cottrell.

Suh was aided, too, by a provision in the NFL rules that wipes his lengthy fines slate clean in the eyes of the league if he goes 32 games without a player-safety penalty. The Lions picked up a lucky break there. Suh was fined twice in 2013 for player safety issues: Once in the season opener for a low block on Minnesota center John Sullivan and in Week 6 for a hit on then-Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Since the fine for the Weeden hit was later rescinded, it meant Suh qualified to be considered a first-time offender under NFL rules. That became a huge break for the Lions.

Also, it doesn’t punish Suh’s teammates, none of whom had anything to do with Suh’s actions and would have had a season ruined not by injury or by their own play but by a somewhat subjective decision made by the front office.

Let’s face it. While they talked a good game about the next man up and Darryl Tapp saying the defensive line is like Yahtzee with whatever four linemen they roll out being capable of creating disturbances, the Lions know Suh is different.

They know the attention Suh causes opens up everything else. They’ve been able to sustain the losses of Stephen Tulloch, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and Nick Fairley. They’ve dealt with Ihedigbo being out of the lineup for almost a month to start the season.

Much of that has been because of the one irreplaceable part of their defense -- Suh.

The way the majority of the Lions came screaming and yelling to Suh’s defense Monday afternoon after the suspension was levied spoke volumes. His position mates insisted he is not the same player who consistently got fined over the first four seasons of his career.

Suh had been on his best behavior for the majority of the season, only getting into two questionable situations -- hits against quarterbacks Josh McCown in the regular season and Chad Henne in the preseason.

His teammates said he’s a changed man and a player who wouldn’t have maliciously stepped on Rodgers’ calf and ankle twice without looking down or back to see what had happened.

“I’ve seen the play and I don’t think it was intentional, and like I said he’s been playing his heart out all year,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “He hasn’t really done anything to hurt the team for some time, so I don’t look at it as him being the same old Suh or whatever the case of what people may be saying.

“But I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

The NFL initially did. Then the appeals officer didn’t. And the Lions will go on with the full force of their top-rated run defense intact against DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys because one thing was obvious: If the Lions are going to have a legitimate shot of winning Sunday, they needed their best player to actually be on the field. And now, after a brief scare, that’ll happen after all.