Teammates say Ndamukong Suh has matured during his time with the Lions. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
New York – Here’s how this is going to go: I am going to refute a reckless and inaccurate characterization of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh made by NFL Network and Fox analyst Heath Evans.
I am going to refute it on the basis of my own reporting – I have been covering the Lions on a daily basis for Suh’s entire career – and I am going to have some of his teammates refute it.
But in the end, it won’t matter. The damage has already been done. The reckless and inaccurate characterization will endure, like a stain that won’t wash out.
It’s just like the report by Fox’s Jay Glazer last year saying Suh was roughing up teammates in practice, that he would slam guys’ heads on the ground and stomp on them. That report was debunked by Suh, his teammates and coaches for three days last fall.
Yet, when this latest Suh slam came out Friday, the Glazer report was brought up again as if it was fact.
It’s very disheartening. The smart thing would probably be to just ignore what Evans told Matt Dery on 105.1 FM Friday. Chalk it up to Super Bowl hysteria where a horde of ex-player analysts are straining to be heard above their own clatter and just let it die.
But, call it an old-school journalistic reflex, I feel compelled to at least try to present a more accurate and updated characterization.
Evans, citing anecdotes he heard from teammates he didn’t name, said Suh was uncontrollable, that he had a power struggle with former head coach Jim Schwartz. He said Suh would “constantly do things to show his power over Jim Schwartz, whether it was team meetings and showing up late, whatever.”
None of that happened last season.
Some of that may have been true in Suh’s first two seasons. He was very aloof then. He came in with an unearned sense of entitlement. I’ve often told the story of the leather recliner that Suh had installed in the defensive linemen’s meeting room his rookie year.
Everybody else, veterans like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams, were sitting on metal folding chairs and Suh had himself a comfy recliner, wouldn’t let anybody else sit in it.
Naturally, that didn’t go over well with anybody and the players took great delight in taking the recliner out of the room and hiding it on Suh from time to time.
He and Schwartz did butt heads, especially during the 2012 season. His antics were wearing thin on some of the veteran players, as well. Vanden Bosch, who the Lions signed in part to be Suh’s mentor, got fed up and ultimately washed his hands of him.
But Suh was a changed man last year. I don’t know if it was the influence of new defensive line coach Jim Washburn, if it was because the older players like Vanden Bosch, Williams and Cliff Avril were gone and he was now the veteran of the d-line room or if it was because he knew his contract was coming up, but the Suh that showed up at OTAs last spring bore no resemblance to the moody, petulant guy we had known.
He fully embraced the responsibilities of leadership. He was more open and engaging with his teammates and he was more cooperative with the media. And, if you looked into the defensive linemen’s room, each player had a recliner, compliments of Suh.
He didn’t miss meetings or disrupt meetings. Often, he organized meetings.
“The guy was the leader of our leadership meetings,” left guard Rob Sims said in a phone interview with the News Saturday. “He was getting guys together, guys like myself and Stephen Tulloch and organizing our meetings. So to say he wasn’t with us and wasn’t being a captain, that’s ridiculous.”
Dominic Raiola, once one of Suh’s harshest critics, praised his transformation throughout the season.
“I can’t say enough about Suh,” Raiola said early last season. “He’s been unbelievable the way he’s stepped up this year.”
Raiola was the first to defend Suh after the Glazer report.
“It’s completely false,” he said at the time. “You have to look no further than his teammates voting him captain. He doesn’t do that in practice…He practices hard. That’s how you should practice – like a professional.”
Reggie Bush didn’t know what to expect from Suh, having heard all the stories. But, as he told NFL Network Friday, all he saw was a great teammate and a great leader.
“I can’t say nothing bad about him,” Bush said. “The first time I talked to him was when he was organizing our leadership council.”
Sims said he never detected any signs of a power struggle between Suh and Schwartz.
“I never sensed that at all,” Sims said. “You always saw them having conversations. Jim was the head coach, that’s what he’s going to do, he’s going to have conversations with his main guys, his superstars.
“The way Ndamukong was this year, he’d really grown from where he was. Ndamukong knows that for him to be as great as he can be, he has to be on a winning team and he’s working toward that.”
Evans worked two Lions games last season – Week 2 at Arizona and at Cleveland in Week 6. I know there was a production meeting with players before the Arizona game but my understanding is the Fox guys prepped for the Cleveland game via teleconference. So I am not sure how much off-the-record type access he had with players.
It’s time to stop convicting Suh on old charges. We need to acknowledge his growth as a man as much as we do his growth as a player.
“Ndamukong is a very good, on his way to being a great defensive lineman,” Sims said. “You look at some of the great linemen throughout history, they aren’t exactly poster children for whatever – Warren Sapp.
“For him to be getting this kind of flack just because of the way he plays and some of the stuff he’s done in the past is ridiculous to me. He’s always at practice, always working hard and he shows up and plays every Sunday. That should be enough for people.”
It really should be.
Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky