Head coach Jeff Fisher knows the St. Louis Rams are in an all-hands-on-deck situation as they try to break up the 49ers-Seahawks bloc atop the NFC West. So Fisher was understandably peeved by the four-game suspension starting linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar received for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Fisher did not hold back Friday when asked about the incident, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"We’ve known about it for some time and, obviously, we’ve been dealing with it," the coach said. "First and foremost, we’re very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions. It’s selfish, it hurts the team, but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake. We discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibility that each and every player has as far as taking care of himself and what you can do and what you can’t do."
Dunbar's impending suspension surely played a role in the Rams' decision to sign versatile veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon. A Ram from 2006-09, Witherspoon now figures to find himself in the starting lineup when St. Louis opens the regular season.
The Rams would be in much worse situation at outside linebacker without Witherspoon, and yet Dunbar's suspension thins the ranks during their critical opening stretch. Fisher's team opens the season at home against Arizona, another team trying to climb the NFC West ladder; it then travels to Dallas and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks, before returning to St. Louis again for an all-important Thursday night game with San Francisco. The Rams finished last season with a 7-8-1 record but opened just 3-6-1, meaning there's undoubtedly an emphasis on getting out of the gate quickly.
St. Louis may be able to do that in spite of Dunbar's slip-up, but Fisher has a right to let his linebacker have it. It is at least a chance for Fisher to publicly send a message to the rest of the team that mistakes like the one Dunbar made are unacceptable.
There's also no guarantee that Dunbar, a 16-game starter, will be able to reclaim his starting job once he returns. Though he had a difficult 2012 with the Titans, Witherspoon does have 151 career starts under his belt and he started the entire 2010 season for Tennessee, when Fisher was running the show. He does not need to be spectacular with James Laurinaitis manning the MLB spot next to him and rookie Alec Ogletree on the far side of the field.
Still, Dunbar is coming off the best season of his career -- 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions -- and appeared to have tapped into his potential after four so-so years with the Saints.
Dunbar will have the final 12 games of the season to redeem himself, assuming he can work his way out of Fisher's doghouse. GALLERY: NFL suspensions and fines so far in 2013