So Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) posted an estimate-beating first quarter last night and was promptly beaten to a pulp. It seems like everybody expected to be surprised -- which kind of makes the very concept of "surprise" rather meaningless.

Sure, the forward guidance was less than cheerful. Cisco's long-term goal is to grow sales at 12% to 17% per year, and the guidance for the just-reported quarter was a more ambitious 18% to 20%. Even that was seen as disappointingly conservative at the time, but Cisco delivered 19% sales growth year over year to land smack in the middle of its own range and slightly above the average analyst earnings estimate. But next quarter, that growth should slow down to a 3%-to-5% year-over-year increase. Even if the full-year target for 2011 rebounds to a range of 9% to 12%, that's a pretty serious near-term hit. Of course you should expect to see a stock implosion after that.

But here's the thing: A good-size portion of Cisco's dive took place right after the earnings report was released. There is nothing about guidance in there, only a presentation of current results. Even the slide deck for the conference call says nothing about guidance. That's just not how Cisco rolls.

The swoon continued as soon as the earnings call started, and by the time CEO John Chambers got around to actually saying something about guidance, the damage was already done. By the end of the call, nearly an entire regular trading day's worth of shares of Cisco had traded hands. Investors were clearly shell-shocked -- but it seems like a lack of guidance was enough to cause this fall.

Trouble in paradise
That being said, Cisco does seem to have some problems on its plate: Sales grew slower than those of rival Juniper Networks (NYSE: JNPR), which doesn't bode well for market-share stability and explains why Juniper's stock survived this momentous event relatively unscathed. Cost controls appear to be a bit loose because Cisco spent 41% of revenue on operating expenses, missing an avowed target of no more than 38%. The order flow is truly damaged, with the backlog of purchase commitments dwindling by about 6% in the quarter.

On the other hand ...
But cash flows were strong, the company is buying back shares like nobody's business, and I may have my misgivings about certain aspects of Cisco's strategy, but overall this is a quality business that should emerge from this spot of trouble in better shape than most of the competition.

In particular, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), and Extreme Networks (Nasdaq: EXTR) with its great balance sheet but small size, seem ill equipped to survive another financial storm this close to the previous one. We've seen large networking companies fall before, and what happened to Nortel was nothing short of a chop-shop slaughter as rivals from little Radware (Nasdaq: RDWR) to big optical shop CIENA (Nasdaq: CIEN) lined up to grab a piece of their fallen comrade's assets. It reminded me of that old movie Alive! for some reason.

Cisco is filthy rich, strongly profitable, and always hungry for opportunistic acquisitions. The company might have to stave off an assault from Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), which could use some tack-on networking operations to close in on the one-stop-shop ideal it has been chasing of late, but Cisco should walk away with a few prizes in whatever bankruptcy auctions may come if dire government spending cuts sweep across the industry.

Buy, sell, or hold?
So you see, Cisco is in the enviable position to be the canary in the coal mine -- but instead of keeling over dead, it gets to eat some of the leftovers around it. I think a long-term investor could profit handsomely by picking up a few shares at this unexpected discount, with very little risk on the downside.

You know what Benjamin Graham said about weighing and voting machines, and Warren Buffett likes to buy when there's blood in the streets. Here's the bloodbath, dear investor -- pull on your wading boots and jump right in.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.