Jermaine Cunningham, whose rise to relevance this season seemed to squelch concerns he was bound for bust-dom, has been suspended four games for using performance-enhancing substances.
The NFL announced Cunningham's suspension Monday afternoon. The third-year defensive end is eligible to return to the team on December 24 in time for the regular-season finale against Miami.
Cunningham was a second-round pick out of Florida in 2010. As a rookie, he showed promise at outside linebacker and had a key pressure that led to a game-clinching interception against the Colts.
But in 2011, he slid into irrelevance and made just one tackle.
This season, with the Patriots moving even more decidedly to a 4-3 alignment, Cunningham has been a key contributor in pass-rush situations at defensive tackle. He has 2.5 sacks and 15 tackles. Last week, with rookie Chandler Jones injured, Cunningham went to the left defensive end spot on several plays while Rob Ninkovich replaced Jones.
Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise for Cunningham's development in the offseason and training camp. Last week, the Patriots head coach said of Cunningham, "Hes certainly making the most of a lot of opportunities and whatever opportunities hes had, hes earned; they havent been given to him. Hes earned them through his work ethic, performance and production. The harder you work, the more you produce, the more opportunities you get. Thats pro sports. Thats pro football."
The Patriots have now had three players busted by the league for performance enhancers this season -- Cunningham, running back Brandon Bolden and corner Aqib Talib, who tested positive while with the Buccaners.
The NFL does not say which substance was ingested.
It's been almost two years exactly since the Deflategate saga began during the AFC title game between the Colts and Patriots on Jan. 18, 2015.
Since then, Robert Kraft has expressed his displeasure at how the whole thing was handled by the league -- particularly as it relates to the treatment of quarterback Tom Brady -- on multiple occasions. And according to a story in the New York Times, that feeling hasn't subsided.
"Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly," said Kraft . "But we’ve all agreed to subjugate our right to disrupt everything.
"I mean, we can, but we’re a partnership. There’s jealousy, there’s envy, there’s stupidity. Sometimes, life is unfair, and you have to suck it up and move on and not use it as an excuse."
Brady served his four-game suspension to start this season, and Kraft opted to accept the league's punishment for the team following the 2014 season: They were docked two draft picks (a first and a fourth) and fined $1 million.
The piece includes Kraft's thoughts on President-elect Donald Trump ("Loyalty is important to me, and he has been a wonderful friend," Kraft said), as well as comments from others on how Kraft has handled his situation ("I think Bob has exhibited disagreement, but he’s also very capable of making and influencing change," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said).
You can read the full piece here.
FOXBORO -- The Patriots have had perfect attendance at each of their last two practices. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been working with less than a full deck.
All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell has been conspiculously absent from Pittsburgh's practices each of the last two days. On Wednesday, he was listed on the injury report as a non-participant due to non-injury related reasons. On Thursday, coach Mike Tomlin announced that Bell had been excused from practice due to "personal reasons."
Tomlin added that Bell will be ready to go against the Patriots on Sunday so it seems as though the team is painting this as a nothing-to-see-here situation. And it probably is. Whether or not Bell practices at all this week won't necessarily have any bearing on the AFC title game; if he's healthy, he'll be a factor.
If for some reason he doesn't follow up his 170-yard performance against the Chiefs with another strong game, however, people will wonder how his preparation was impacted by missing out on the first two of his team's on-the-field sessions this week.