The NFL couldn't discern intent when it reviewed Ndamukong Suh's leg extension in the direction of Matt Schaub's groin. The kick may have been a careless maneuver, perhaps just a poorly timed yoga pose, and the NFL doesn't suspend players for sloppiness.
The game itself metes out ample punishment for that, as evidenced by a wider-angle view of Suh and his team. The Lions are 4-7 because they have spent a good part of this season kneeing themselves in the nether regions. They are the NFL's biggest disappointment because they are the team that never learns.
Suh's leg flex might have been slightly less suspicious if he hadn't stomped on the arm of Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith a year earlier. Or if he hadn't made a special visit to commissioner Roger Goodell last season to discuss three fines within a year for dirty hits on quarterbacks.
When will he learn, and who will teach him?
As a collegian at Nebraska, he was never known as a dirty player. He joined the Lions in 2010 and became the centerpiece of Team Indulgence. Watching Detroit play tends to serve as a reminder of the enormous restraint exercised by the typical football team. The Lions give in to emotional impulses as if they were average people, dropped randomly into the chaos of an NFL game.
When discipline consistently vanishes, when two-game suspensions for arm-stomping don't deter a wayward foot from accosting a groin, the root cause can usually be traced to the region above the coach's neck.
Jim Schwartz's illicit challenge-flag toss in the loss to Houston was the fraternal twin to Suh's unfortunate use of his shoe. The coach cost his team a win because he couldn't remember a rule that he once mocked another coach for forgetting.
The consequences for throwing a challenge flag on a scoring play have been properly ridiculed since the Lions' loss. Schwartz should have incurred only a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for tossing the red flag and not remembering the automatic review of scoring plays. The review should not have been canceled, allowing the Texans to keep a touchdown on a play that plainly demanded reversal. The rule cheated the fans and undermined the credibility of the league. But those breaches do not excuse Schwartz's error.
A year earlier, however, he had made extravagant observations about Jim Harbaugh's faulty challenge of a Lions scoring play. TV cameras caught Schwartz strutting and hollering toward the 49ers' sideline after the error.
The Lions coach trumped himself later, turning into a rampaging Miss Manners as he sprinted after Harbaugh to confront him about the etiquette of their post-game handshake. The Lions went into that game at 5-0. Since then, they have gone 9-13, plus a first-round playoff dismantling in New Orleans.
The general elation over the revival of football in Detroit -- how many Americans lack a soft spot for that town these days? -- obscured the fact that the Lions had been involved in two of the most infamous moments of the 2011 season. The episodes were outliers of unsportsmanlike conduct, but not out of character for the Lions. Too often, they play the game like free-swinging sluggers who are too impatient to look at pitches but always linger at the plate to watch their homers leave the park.
Suh can drive his blockers back so quickly that he has been known to go beyond the ball, past where he can make a play. Over-pursuit became a hallmark of Team Indulgence last year. The dominance didn't always get the job done, but it sure looked fierce. By the end of the season, one had to wonder whether opponents had developed a rope-a-dope strategy: Ease up a little on the block. Prepare to back-pedal and flatter their egos. They'll preen a quarter-second longer than they should, and the ball will be out of the backfield.
This year's Lions have dialed back in one obvious sloppiness category. They're tied for sixth place in penalties, after holding second place in 2010 and third in 2011. (Three players racked up $40,000 in fines in one game last year, including a $25,000 levy for abusing an official.) The Lions ranked 13th in penalties in 2009, Schwartz's first season.
Asked about Suh's kick on Detroit radio after the NFL ruled against a suspension, Schwartz mentioned his defensive tackle's lower penalty total overall, as if an offsides infraction were the same thing as a low blow. If the kick were a mistake, as Schwartz contends, they would be the same. But the replays strongly suggest a leg in search of a target.
Suh's face had turned downward before the blow struck, so the NFL gave him the benefit of some very marginal doubt. In the hours after the game, though, he said nothing. In the days between the game and the NFL ruling, he said nothing. The man has a Twitter account. He took questions from fans there two days after Thanksgiving. He didn't tweet a word about the kick/accident, even when a fan asked how he dealt with his reputation as a dirty player. He requested last year's meeting with Goodell, so it's not as if he is shy about protecting his place in the game.
How hard would it be, and how long does it take, to say "I didn't mean it''?
The Lions could have prodded him to say something. They didn't. They let others control the conversation. Boomer Esiason delivered one of the more damning statements, saying that he had always shaken hands with feared pass rushers Reggie White and Bruce Smith, but if Suh had been around in his day, he would have skipped the gesture. Schaub told SportsRadio 610 in Houston that he would never want Suh as a teammate. "The stuff that he stands for and the type of player he is, that's not Houston Texan-worthy," he said.
The Lions can ignore those comments. They can't ignore 4-7. They can't overlook the fact that they are letting down a city that deserves far better. The game has spoken more loudly than Esiason or Schaub or league headquarters. It has slapped the Lions upside the head, and there's never a flag on that play.