If you were at Heinz Field Sunday night, perhaps you saw Ravens safety Ed Reed wander over to the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench to chat with several players during a timeout.
It happened early in the fourth quarter during a long replay review, minutes after Reed was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the penalty that led to the NFL announcing Monday it was suspending Reed for one game. I don't know what was said, but the visit obviously was convivial rather than confrontational. Reed shook hands with safety Ryan Clark and several other Steelers. It appeared they could have been chatting over the lettuce in a supermarket produce department.
The moment came and went quickly when play resumed, but it provided a classic snapshot of how Reed approaches the game. He isn't a chest-beating kill-the-enemy guy, nor is he a trash talker. A lot of other players wouldn't chat idly with the opposition during a game, but Reed respects the other side as much as he respects his own.
That's the irony in the league singling him out as its latest poster child for rough play, making him the third player in the past two years to be docked a game's pay, reportedly costing Reed $423,529. He isn't a headhunter. While he understands football is a physical game, that isn't his thing. He's much more into the chess match, the science of the secondary, outsmarting the other side rather than out-toughing it.
The last thing he is is some punk out for blood, as this suspension suggests. The other side gets that entirely. Within minutes of Monday's announcement, Ryan Clark tweeted, "Tough on Ed getting suspended. I can't say that I agree w that. It was a penalty but I don't believe he was intentionally trying to harm E."
Reed doesn't play that way. Why do you think Bill Belichick showers him with more love than just about any other opposing player? Belichick loves how Reed plays.
Why do you think New England receiver Deion Branch slapped hands with Reed on the field earlier this season after the second of the three flagrant hits that led to Reed being suspended? There were no hard feelings.
"He's a good person, and he's got a good heart," Harbaugh said. "He's got tremendous respect for the game, and we stand behind him in that respect as a team and as an organization."
That comment is spot on. Reed plays to win, not to injure.
You will notice Harbaugh didn't suggest the flags on Reed (two this year, one in 2010) were unjust. The fact is they were all penalties according to the rulebook, which contains specific language about where and how one player can strike another.
Reed is appealing, which is understandable, but he is going to have to explain why he elected to go in so high.
We can spend all day debating whether the rulebook is making the game better or worse. A lot of players and fans think it's making the game too soft, but someone needs to be the adult in the room. Far too many former players are suffering for the league not to endeavor to do a much better job of protecting its players.
So while fans are outraged and Reed surely is, too, this is simply part of pro football's new politics, the NFL world we now live in. The evolution is necessary. You can love it or leave it.
Is the league making an example of Reed? Yes, absolutely. Not because he plays for Baltimore or is a high-profile guy. It is simply seeking to illustrate to its rank-and-file what is unacceptable.
But while it does that, it should consider giving its officials more latitude in determining a hit's flagrancy, i.e., let them take into account what is willful, punk or unavoidable, as in when a receiver moves his head just before a collision and makes it a helmet-to-helmet shot, as Sanders did, however unintentionally. If the NFL is going to go so far as to take almost a half-million dollars out of the pocket of a guy who is respected for playing the game right, maybe its mechanism needs to be more sophisticated.