He is a hard man to believe in. And yet, Roger Goodell, the NFL's hanging judge, has found a reason.
He is a difficult player to defend. And still, Goodell did not take his season from him.
The career of Aqib Talib has been a turbulent flight, a nasty journey filled with controversies and screaming headlines. So many times, Talib has demonstrated the worst of human behavior, and so it has become easy to believe the worst of him. And somehow, Goodell did not.
Talib, 25, has made the play of the preseason.
He has kept his season intact.
And who saw that coming?
For a lot of people, this had punishment written all over it. On one side of the desk was Talib, again, and on the other was Goodell, the commissioner with blood on the rug. As commissioners go, Goodell is undefeated. For players who make the wrong kinds of plays, and especially for those who dare to show up more than once, this is where seasons go to die.
This time, Goodell listened. And he pondered. And he decided not to punish at all.
For Talib, and for the Bucs, this was the best news of the summer. Talib isn't going to miss any time, at least not this year. The Bucs retain their best defensive player in a season when they can use as much of him as they can get. And both sides get more time to see if the corner has enough character to hang around for the seasons beyond this one.
"I'm happy it's over with," Talib said. "Big burden off my shoulders. It turned out good, and it's kind of behind me now."
How far behind will depend on the court. But, yeah, Goodell could have punished now. The Bucs could have, too. No, "innocent until proven guilty" doesn't have anything to do with it. That's a concept for a courtroom, not for an employer dealing with an employee who has spent too much time out of bounds.
So what happened here?
Did Goodell, the same man who suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games (later reduced to four) when he had not been charged, discover mercy as part of the new CBA?
Does he know something about the afternoon when the home of Talib's sister turned into the O.K. Corral the rest of us do not? For instance: Who shot at whom?
Did Goodell simply believe Talib — and his attorney — as far as what happened? Or did he simply decide to bide his time until next year's suspending season?
Just guessing, but I'd say the last option is most likely. Remember, the NFL was in shutdown mode when Talib was accused of shooting at his sister's boyfriend, which means the league didn't have a chance to move quickly. At this point, without clear evidence that Talib pulled the trigger, it seems logical the league would wait on the courts this time.
After all, the NFL could always hammer Talib next year.
For that matter, so could the Bucs.
For that matter, so could a jury.
That is important to remember. Goodell's ruling doesn't turn Talib into a warm-and-fuzzy figure who has been simply misunderstood. There's still too much "doesn't get it" to Talib. For now, you should probably resist putting up his poster in your kid's bedroom.
That said, Talib is a talented football player. With a defense that is young enough to party at Chuck E. Cheese's, the Bucs could use him.
Have you seen the wide receivers on the Bucs' schedule? Detroit's Calvin Johnson and his 1,120 yards. Atlanta's Roddy White and his 1,389 (twice). Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne and his 1,355. Green Bay's Greg Jennings and his 1,265. Houston's Andre Johnson and his 1,216 (in 13 games). And so on. In all, the Bucs play 1,000-yard receivers from 2010 in 11 of their 16 games this season.
So, yeah, they could use a corner to help control those guys.
That said, ability has never been the problem with Talib. It's the punched cabbie, and the cursed ref, and the bloodied teammate, and the rest of it. At a time when the Bucs make no secret about their desire to be a likable team for their community, Talib has been trouble in cleats.
As lenient as the Bucs have been with Talib, you have to believe he is one more headline away from elsewhere. It was telling Saturday night when general manager Mark Dominik announced that Talib would not be suspended. There was no celebration in his voice, no joy on his face. He sounded like a man who is weary of these situations. When you get down to it, aren't we all?
For now, Talib plays on.
In this, his latest of last chances, do you think he gets it yet?
Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.