Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston gives his rant on the suspension of Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and what it means for the season. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Haloti Ngata, one of the Ravens' most accomplished and integral players, will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season and the team's playoff push after he was suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Ngata acknowledged in a statement released by the Ravens that he tested positive for Adderall, a drug commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It's the same drug that Orioles slugger Chris Davis tested positive for, leading to his suspension for 25 games by Major League Baseball.
"I made a mistake and I own this," Ngata said. "I took Adderall and take full responsibility for doing this. I am deeply sorry and broken up over this. I let down my family, my teammates, Ravens' fans and myself. My hope is that the Ravens make the playoffs, and I believe they can do this. And then I can come back and help us win."
The suspension, the latest chapter in one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, starts immediately and carries through the rest of the regular season. Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who was having a strong season, will be eligible to return to the Ravens' active roster on Dec.29, the day after the Ravens' regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens (7-5) play the Miami Dolphins (7-5) on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium and several players, including veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs, have said the team needs to win out to make the playoffs.
"This is disappointing news for the Ravens," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We are disappointed with Haloti, but no more than he is with himself."
The Ravens learned of the impending suspension for Ngata earlier this week, and were shocked and saddened by the news, according to team sources. A first-round pick in the 2006 draft, Ngata, 30, has been one of the franchise's model players on and off the field.
According to sources, Ngata was extremely upset and embarrassed when addressing the suspension with team officials and some teammates. He plans to return to Utah, his offseason home, and continue to train so he'll be ready to return if the Ravens qualify for the playoffs.
"Haloti feels terrible about the mistake he's made," Ngata's agent, Mike McCartney, told The Baltimore Sun. "I have a lot of respect for Haloti. He owned up to it immediately. He never pointed the finger at anybody or anything. I'm confident Haloti will work really hard and be ready for the playoffs."
He could have appealed the suspension, but Ngata chose to accept his punishment, McCartney said.
Ngata became the latest NFL player to be punished for testing positive for the amphetamine, which can help the user increase his focus and energy levels. Under its agreement with the players union, the NFL doesn't reveal what causes specific violations of its substance-abuse policy. However, according to a Denver Post article last year, 19 players were suspended under the policy in 2012 and eight of those were linked to Adderall or blamed it for their failed tests. Ravens cornerback Asa Jackson has been suspended twice for Adderall use.
Under the NFL's new PED policy, the league "may publicly disclose information relating to the discipline of a player to correct inaccurate public claims made by that player or his representatives about the discipline." A league spokesman said Thursday that the NFL was not disputing Ngata's claim that his failed test was caused by Adderall.
The NFL does grant therapeutic-use exemptions for Adderall — a process that is confidential — but Ngata, according to sources, did not have a doctor's exemption. It's also unclear how long Ngata had been taking Adderall, but sources said that he turned to it recently to combat sleep deprivation after regularly staying up late with his three young children.
"I was very shocked," said rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who will likely get the first opportunity to replace Ngata. "It just didn't sound like Haloti. At the end of the day, I don't know what the situation was. All I can do is pray for Haloti. It's been a great opportunity to learn from him over these 12 weeks. I definitely feel like I learned from him and I'll be ready for this opportunity."
Ngata's mistake was a costly one financially and it could have significant ramifications for his Ravens future. Ngata will lose $2 million this season through the elimination of four game checks, while the Ravens will save $2 million against the salary cap.
He has one more season remaining on the five-year, $61 million deal that he signed with the Ravens in September 2011. Knowing that the defensive tackle is due a $8.5 million salary next season and carries a $16 million salary-cap figure, team officials had some discussions with Ngata's agent this past offseason about a potential contract extension, but those talks went nowhere. The talks could pick up again following the season, but Ngata obviously lost a lot of leverage.
Big hole to fill
However, the Ravens' immediate concern is how they'll plug a huge hole in the middle of their defensive line and replace one of their most effective players.
"It's disappointing and all that, but it would be the same thing if we lost [a player] due to injury or whatever the case might be," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I never want to lose anybody for any reason, at all. But that's the name of the game. Everybody goes through stuff at this time of year, whether it be injuries. A couple years ago, we played 10 games without Ray Lewis. We played eight games without Suggs. We're going to play four games without Haloti. Next guy up, let's play."
Ngata was slowed by injuries the previous two years but he reported to training camp this year healthy and in good shape and it carried over to the regular season. His presence in the middle is a big reason the Ravens are allowing just 86.3 rushing yards per game, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL.
He had 32 tackles, two sacks and was tied for the team lead with two interceptions but his impact went well beyond statistics. He regularly ate up double teams, helping nose tackle Brandon Williams to thrive in one-on-one matchups and keeping blockers off inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith, who have combined for nearly 200 tackles.
"It was an unfortunate situation," Mosley said. "We know the rules and we have to abide by them. It is what it is. We have to move on. We just wish the best for him and hope we make it to the playoffs so we can have him back."
It helps that the Ravens are all relatively deep along the defensive line as Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, DeAngelo Tyson and Terrence Cody could play more prominent roles in Ngata's absence.
Still, the timing of the suspension will be difficult to overcome. The Ravens' 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers Sunday left them with virtually no margin of error over the final four games, and a defeat to the Dolphins, another AFC playoff hopeful, could be disastrous for their postseason hopes.
But the Ravens have been dealing with the absence of key players all season. It started with Ray Rice's suspension and eventual release, continued with season-ending injuries to tight end Dennis Pitta and cornerback Jimmy Smith, and now it includes Ngata.
"It does feel like it's always something, but shoot, that's life," said wide receiver Torrey Smith. "Stuff pops up all the time. It's all about how you deal with it. If Haloti's back, we'll be looking back at it like, 'All right, that was something we were able to brush off,' and again, we'll be in the playoffs. We have to worry about this game and play, and hopefully Haloti will be back, and we're still in the hunt."