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Three thoughts: Hardy's reduced suspension shows lack of consistency

The reduction in Cowboys DE Greg Hardy's suspension again proves how little rhyme or reason there is behind the NFL's punishments. The next NFL player involved in a domestic-violence incident should be handed a six-game suspension, period.

The NFL announced Friday (Happy News Dump Day!) that Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy's 10-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy has been reduced, substantially, to four games. Barring any further action by Hardy, the Cowboys will have him back on the field by Week 5.

Hardy and the NFLPA first appealed the punishment back in late April, meaning that it took more than two months for the situation to be settled. Arbitrator Harold Henderson heard the appeal some six weeks ago.

So, what does it all mean? Three thoughts on the resolution:

1. Four games? How'd that happen?: As is often the case, the NFL was all over the map here. The precedent for domestic violence offenses before the Ray Rice incident unfolded showed rather lenient penalties—remember, Rice initially was suspended for just two games before that security-cam video surfaced and he was banned indefinitely. But  last summer the league put on the blocks that a first-time offender under the league's domestic violence rules would be suspended for six games.

Hardy's 10-gamer soared above that mark. His reduced, post-appeal suspension lands below it. So, from where did the four-game punishment come? Presumably, here:

In theory, Hardy missing a quarter of the regular season still stands as harsh punishment compared to the old system. But this is part of why the NFL continues to come off as rudderless when it comes to disciplining its own—there is minimal rhyme or reason to how these appeals will play out, let alone what approach Goodell (or his appointed stand-in, as Troy Vincent was for the Tom Brady hearing) will take when handing down rulings.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course. By hammering Hardy, Goodell was able to back the league's stance against domestic violence, publicly hardened in the aftermath of the Rice case. In doing so, though, he very much left the door open for Hardy's suspension to be reduced on appeal, as it was, thereby letting the Dallas DE feel like he has scored a win, too.

The next NFL player involved in a domestic-violence incident should be handed a six-game suspension, period. Between any lingering gray area in the league's laws and the discombobulated appeals process, those future punishments may not stick either.

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2. This is huge for the Cowboys: Hardy is one of the Cowboys' two best defensive talents, and quite possibly stands alone atop that list depending on how Sean Lee looks coming back from a knee injury. He was a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro back in 2013, on the strength of a 15.0-sack showing for Carolina. 

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Will Hardy have some rust when he returns vs. New England in Week 5? Sure. However, we're also not talking about a grizzled vet at the end of his career. Hardy turns 27 this month and ought to be both fresh and motivated for the final three months of the regular season. 

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The Cowboys took a shot on Hardy this off-season because their pass-rush was borderline nonexistent at times last season. (Their selection of Randy Gregory with a second-round draft pick targeted a similar aim.) Dallas mustered a mere 28 sacks in 2014, no one on the roster registering more than 6.0. Even sitting out Weeks 1 through 4, Hardy should lap that number. 

When he does join the lineup, Hardy stands to make the rest of the defense more formidable. He'll draw attention from Dallas' other defensive linemen, help force open some holes for the linebackers and shorten opposing quarterbacks' time in the pocket, thus giving the secondary an edge. There were teams unwilling to go near Hardy in free agency because of his off-field issues, but on game days he can be a massive difference-maker for the Cowboys.

There is a financial impact: Hardy is in line after this ruling to make $8.8 million in base salary this season, per Dallas has room to cover his cost for 12 games, although it chips away at much of the team's cap space. 

Having Hardy for 12 games as opposed to six may not tip the NFC East scales in Dallas' favor on its own, but it is significant. 

3. And, now ... all eyes on Tom Brady: With the Hardy decision in the books, among the NFL's next big set of unveils should be a ruling on Brady's appeal. As things stand, Brady and Hardy will be out of action for the same amount of time.

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Here we circle back to topic No. 1—the league's initial punishments tend to run harsh so there's ample room for reduction later. The only surprise now concerning Brady would come if the NFL upheld his four-game ban. While it is difficult to draw any cross-case conclusions because of the NFL's aforementioned discipline inconsistencies, Brady and Hardy winding up with the same penalty would not really measure up.

The Patriots' Week 1 foe, Pittsburgh, also has its own pending appeals hearing. Star running back Le'Veon Bell has yet to meet with the league about his three-game suspension for a marijuana-related charge but he, too, could receive some leeway. Bell is a first-time offender. 

Of course, who knows? The suspensions for Brady and Bell may be upheld under whichever arbitrary factors the league—and those hearing the cases—opt to enact. The NFL's disciplinary system has wandered beyond guesswork into unpredictable mayhem.