EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Rams coach Jeff Fisher has long been known as a players' coach -- the type who will afford his team the respect he craved during his own five-year playing career.
That respect is not unconditional and the situation involving linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, seems to prove it.
Since May 23, three Rams have been suspended by the NFL for at least one game for violation of either the league’s policy on substance abuse or its policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Dunbar’s four-game suspension for violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy came down Wednesday. Running back Isaiah Pead and guard Rokevious Watkins had earned penalties earlier in the summer.
Each suspension has come with its own penalty but what’s more interesting may be the varied reactions of Fisher.
Fisher discussed Dunbar’s suspension Thursday afternoon and made it known he was not pleased.
“First and foremost, we are very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions,” Fisher said. “It’s selfish, it hurts the team but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake so we discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibilities that each and every player has as far as taking care of themselves and what you can do and what you can’t do.”
Fisher has repeatedly showed a penchant for defending his players. Just last week, Fisher took umbrage with Cleveland Browns color analyst Bernie Kosar when he ripped his team’s receiving corps, its coach and backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.
When Watkins was suspended for a game for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy on May 23, Fisher went to bat on Watkins’ behalf and let it be known that he did not approve.
"I'm not going to go into specifics of the suspension," Fisher said at the time. "We respect the league's decision, but personally and respectfully, I disagree with the suspension and the circumstances regarding the suspension."
In that situation it would have been easy for Fisher to cut bait on Watkins, who had earned a spot in the doghouse in last year’s training camp for reporting overweight and struggling to get into playing shape.
The Rams released Watkins before this year’s camp began after Watkins again reported overweight, but nobody could say it was because Watkins didn’t get enough chances.
On June 6, the league suspended Pead for a game, also for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Fisher again offered a vote of confidence for a young player trying to make his way in the league.
“This was an incident that took place last summer, so we dealt with it at that point knowing that the league was probably going to follow up,” Fisher said then. “We were disappointed. So much time between the incident and where he’s at now, I believe it is behind him. Obviously, he has to suffer the consequences and miss the game, but I’m pleased with how he’s bounced back and his professional approach to being a member of this team this year.”
Fisher went on to say that Pead’s position in the competition for the starting running back job would not be affected by the suspension.
“It will not, no, whatsoever,” Fisher said. “There’s great competition there. He’s not going to be penalized as far as reps and carries during the preseason. We’re getting ready for a long haul and we’ll be without him for one week, which we understand, but it doesn’t complicate things.”
In the cases of Watkins and Pead, Fisher offered solace for a pair of young players, both of whom had and have plenty of maturing left to do. But Fisher’s reaction to Dunbar’s suspension was a bit different.
Beyond expressing his disappointment in Dunbar’s decision making, Fisher went so far as to offer that veteran Will Witherspoon may have the opportunity to handle Dunbar’s starting spot beyond the four games Dunbar is suspended.
The nature of the violations might also play into the differing public reactions as well. While Pead and Watkins violated substance abuse policy, Dunbar’s suspension deals with performance-enhancing substances.
Fisher discussed the need to clean up the game from a PED standpoint as recently as late July.
"We're in the situation now where we are trying to make this game better," Fisher said after a rookie workout on July 22. "Any steps we can possibly take, regardless of what the issue is, in that direction is good. I'm hearing the NFL and players association are working in conjunction with that, which is good. I'm sure they've got some work to do. But it would be good to head down that path."
From a pure football perspective, not only is Dunbar a returning starter, unlike Pead and Watkins, but he’s also entering his sixth year in the league. The simple takeaway here might be that Dunbar should simply know better than to make this type of mistake at this point in his career and life.