Looking at Past NFL Suspensions

There has been a lot of (justifiable) outrage in the wake of Deshaun Watson’s initial 6-game suspension after 24+ women accused him of alleged sexual assault and/or misconduct.

After the ruling, people were quick to point out that previously, many NFL athletes had received much longer suspensions for much less egregious violations:

  • Calvin Ridley received a full-year suspension after he bet $1,500 on his team to win a game he wasn’t playing in.

  • Myles Garrett received a 6-game suspension (initially indefinite) for an on-field altercation with Mason Rudolph.

  • While not a longer suspension, Terrelle Pryor received a similarly long 5-game suspension for conduct before he even joined the NFL (improper benefits while in college).

While these examples are powerful in illustrating how lenient Watson’s initial suspension was, they’re ultimately just anecdotes. What if we tried to take a systematic look at all (or at least most) past NFL suspensions?

Conveniently, the NFL does not “have a comprehensive list” or dataset cataloguing past suspensions (that would make it too easy for people to point out the League’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies).

However, smarter people than me have put a lot of work into trying to catalogue past NFL suspensions. I leveraged the fantastic work by 538, Brent Schrotenboer at USA Today, and the fine common folk on Wikipedia to create a semi-comprehensive dataset of past NFL suspensions dating as far back as 1925. I restricted my analysis to suspensions after 1978 — this was kind of arbitrary, but that is when the League introduced the 16 game season and the suspension lengths become easier to compare.

CAVEAT: This dataset is most definitely incomplete. The Wikipedia page seems to start becoming incomplete around 2019 and the 538 data stops at 2014. The USA Today dataset is likely up-to-date, but it only lists suspensions for PEDs. That means a couple of high-profile recent suspensions that haven’t finished like Calvin Ridley’s aren’t in this dataset yet. This analysis is still illustrative, but take it with a grain of salt. If you see a suspension that you know is missing — let me know! I’ll try and update this post.

Personal Conduct Policy Violations

The NFL has a nebulous Personal Conduct Policy that the NFLPA and League have agreed to. It was under a violation of this specific policy that Deshaun Watson’s suspension was levied.

So we might be interested in looking at past violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy to help contextualize Watson’s suspension.

Below is a chart of all NFL Personal Conduct Policy violations in the dataset in the neighborhood of Watson’s suspension (>= 4 games):

Post image

(click here for an imgur link to the chart. Note that reddit & imgur had some trouble with these images, clicking on the image should enlarge them and increase the resolution).

As the chart indicates, there have been at least 7 suspensions worse than Watson’s under the Personal Conduct Policy. Many of them were for truly egregious conduct as well, but some of them were arguably less serious than what Watson did.

Other Similar Length Suspensions

Of course, an NFL player can get suspended for other reasons than violations of the personal conduct policy. Reasons for suspension range from providing non-human urine to drug testing officials to actual murder charges.

As another simple analysis, we can look at all other suspensions of 6 games or longer in the dataset, and the ultimate reason for the suspensions. According to my sources, there were at least 162 suspensions of 6 games or longer since the 16-game season was introduced. A breakdown of these suspensions can be found below:

Post image

(click here for an imgur link to the chart).

Most (78.4%) of these suspensions were for PEDs or substance use.

The Incoming Indefinite Suspension

As many of you are probably ready to point out, Deshaun Watson’s suspension will likely not stay at just 6 games. Roger Goodell has all but stated that the League will extend it — the question is by how much. The consensus seems to be that the updated suspension will be around a season (or potentially indefinite).

So we can take a look at the season-long and indefinite suspensions in the data. As some of you may know, often times, indefinite/season long suspensions are successfully appealed and reduced. So below is a chart that summarizes the 21 non PED/Substance Use indefinite/season-long suspensions and the actual time suspended by each player:

Post image

(click here for an imgur link to the chart).

According to the data, since 1978 there have been just 9 players (10 when we include Ridley) who have served at least a season-long suspension. A season-long suspension would thus put Watson in more “rarified” air.

Note: There have been at least 62 additional season-long or indefinite suspensions for PEDs/Substance Use. I omit them for a nicer graph.


Watson is a bad guy. Like really bad — his conduct is among the worst the NFL has ever seen. Even the judge who ruled on his case noted that “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.” His initial suspension is definitely insufficient. Luckily Roger Goodell seems to be pushing towards extending Watson’s suspension to a full year, and for once I’m actually in support of the commissioner. 

Here’s to Watson never seeing the field again and a lifetime of mediocrity for the Browns

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