By Don Banks
May 11, 2010

Don Banks and Peter King are two of the 50 AP voters who will revote for the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Read King's contrasting viewpoint here.

Slippery slope. Pandora's box. Can of worms. Pick any cliché, and that's what the precedent-setting move of possibly rescinding Brian Cushing's 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award represents. Having a revote after the fact is a murky, gray area that should not be breeched.

First off, it might sound counter-intuitive, but this isn't really about Cushing per se, and he should be removed from the crux of the discussion. I don't have any interest in defending him. By definition of the league's current drug policy, Cushing cheated at some point early in his rookie season of 2009, got caught, appealed the finding, lost that appeal, and will now pay the price with a four-game suspension at the start of 2010. End of that part of the story.

But Cushing is merely the example that makes us examine the principle behind the proposed punishment in this case. He has no more significance than any other player who has been caught in this same situation -- winning one of the NFL's major individual awards either shortly after or shortly before testing positive under the league's drug policy.

If the Associated Press's revote winds up bestowing the award to someone besides Cushing, four months after he first won it, where's the equity of punishment and sense of fairness we would all want, at least in light of the cases of Julius Peppers in 2002 or Shawne Merriman in 2005? Both were honored as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year despite serving league suspensions for drug use that presumably could have enhanced their rookie performances. Peppers's suspension came at the end of his rookie year of 2002, while Merriman's was announced early in the 2006 season, bringing into question his stellar play of his 2005 debut.

Even allowing that examples must sometimes be made of certain players for the greater good -- like the NFL suspending Ben Roethlisberger under its personal conduct policy, despite no charges ever being filed against the Pittsburgh quarterback -- the reversal of Cushing's selection as the league's best defensive rookie just doesn't feel like the right case to make at the right time.

I have one of the votes that has to be re-cast by noon Wednesday, and unless something dramatic alters the facts as I know them, I plan on voting Cushing the league's defensive rookie of the year, just as I did in January. Given that Cushing's original margin over second-place finisher Jairus Byrd of Buffalo was a whopping 39-6, landslide territory, I'd be shocked if there's a new winner this time around. But the margin isn't really the point that makes or breaks this argument.


In reality, the ridiculously long appeals process is partly to blame for this predicament. If Cushing failed a drug test in September, there's no good reason why that information wasn't readily known and then could be factored into the equation when I and the other 49 AP voters filled out our awards ballots on the first Monday in January. Had Cushing been suspended for the final four games of the 2009 season, his statistics and his candidacy obviously would have both suffered the consequences of his illegal action. That's a fair and legitimate cause and effect at play.

But the facts are these: With the appeals process still ongoing, Cushing did play the entire season as NFL rules allow, and was eligible for the award at the time of the voting. The recent league rule change that blocks a player from being selected to the Pro Bowl or receiving any league honors or awards in the same season he is notified and suspended for an illegality did not apply. And the AP set forth no such guidelines on the matter either.

So that means it's essentially up to the voters to arbitrarily decide how much of an impact an unknown substance (the latest reports indicate it was hCG) made on his rookie performance, and whether he was still the league's best rookie defender without that edge? That's far too much of an unknowable for me.

We can argue all day about whether it should have, but the guidelines blocking Cushing from the winning of an individual honor did not apply in his case. His suspension wasn't handed down until 2010, and to retroactively circumvent that is to start playing a little fast and loose with the rules, kind of the same way Cushing did early last season. Irony, anyone?

Even if you think Cushing's case is completely cut and dried -- he cheated during his rookie season, won a rookie award, and thus shouldn't have been eligible -- maybe the next debate inspired by the intersection of a suspended player and an individual award won't be so crystal clear. If we start redrawing the lines on a case-by-case basis, what about the tangential effect a since-suspended player might have had on a teammate's individual honor?

Say Peyton Manning puts up another boffo set of statistics in 2010 and wins a fifth NFL MVP award, but this time he does it by barely edging out San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. And maybe four months into the following offseason, we find out Reggie Wayne's record-breaking 140-catch, 1,800-yard receiving year came while he was appealing a failed drug test, one that will cost him four games in 2011. Would Manning still have been the MVP winner if we knew Wayne's monster season was tainted? Is that fair, given that so much of Manning's statistical dominance would have been the product of a player who was ultimately suspended?

It may not always be a nice, neat, easy call, and that's why you don't toss out the principle of precedent every time you feel the whim. It may not be the case of the moment that requires much foresight, but the case that we don't yet know about, and is still unimagined, just might.

Going forward, if the NFL and the Associated Press want to broaden their guidelines and give themselves more latitude to deal with the issue of retroactive punishment and individual awards, they'd be wise to do so when no one player is in position to bear the brunt of the new precedent and the decisions are broad-based and non-specific. Let players from now on beware and be aware of the new standard.

But in the case of Brian Cushing and last season's defensive rookie of the year award, trying to un-ring that bell so long after the fact just sounds wrong.

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