May 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions can't give up on Suh, no matter the headache

Jim Caldwell on Ndamukong Suh
Jim Caldwell on Ndamukong Suh: Lions' coach expects his defensive tackle to attend this week's OTA in Allen Park.

Allen Park — It’s about to begin, ready or not, fair or not. You can gripe if you wish, but the prudent move is to withhold judgment on Ndamukong Suh until, you know, something actually happens.

We’re entering a clamorous period with the Lions called S.O.S. — Summer of Suh. It’s not quite the Same Ol’ Stuff, as Suh enters the final season of his contract sending mixed signals interpreted (or misinterpreted) daily. Everything is high drama with Suh, but a little suggestion for Lions fans: Don’t vilify him before it’s necessary, if it ever is.

New coach Jim Caldwell is heeding that, which is smart, because he desperately needs a dominant Suh. He said he “anticipates” Suh will be at the OTAs (organized team activities) that start Tuesday and spoke glowingly of his leadership. It was hard to tell if Caldwell was describing what Suh is, or what he hopes he is. But for all the murmurs of Suh spurning the Lions, a preemptive spurn by the team makes no sense.

“Obviously, he’s a great player and he’s also got great leadership ability,” Caldwell said Sunday at the end of rookie orientation camp. “So, to have him back in here working amongst the group is going to be a great time for everybody.”

It isn’t labeled a voluntary workout and it’s not a mandatory workout, so it’s something in between, which is where the Lions sit with Suh right now. Martin Mayhew said he has no intention of trading Suh and is pursuing a contract extension, but he won’t discuss timetables, which sounds vaguely ominous. Suh also changed agents, stalling negotiations with team president Tom Lewand. If he doesn’t sign a new deal, the Lions take a $22.4-million salary cap hit this season, and then he could bolt as a free-agent.

But be careful trying to decipher motivations in the sports world. It’s not a job for amateurs. For instance, there’s another S.O.S. in our city — Summer of Scherzer. Tigers star Max Scherzer turned down $144 million and plans to test free-agency. The way he’s dominating, it looks like a wise gamble, and I doubt many begrudge it. He bet on himself, and if the Tigers benefit for one more season, fair enough.

Would fans feel the same way if Suh turns down a hefty contract? Probably not, a sentiment perhaps affected by Suh’s surly tendencies and on-field nastiness. The NFL’s salary cap also makes contracts problematic.

Testing the market

But right now, who do you think is more likely to remain in Detroit — Scherzer or Suh? I contend it’s Suh.

Scherzer has said nothing but good things about the team and the city, but he knows he could top $200 million on the open market. Suh says little about his plans and signed a rookie contract that gets him to free-agency quicker, but he could strike the best deal here.

My point with the dueling S.O.S’s is not to denigrate either. It’s to point out that words don’t define intentions, and value is partly a function of timing and a team’s needs.

Whatever you think of Suh’s detached demeanor, it would be a huge blow for the Lions to lose him. When it’s just about football, Suh is very popular in this town. He’s one of the top defensive tackles in the game, and at 27 is entering his prime. He hasn’t matched the 10-sack total of his rookie season but that’s not how he’s judged. He’s strong, he plays every game and he’s disruptive. Some of that disruption spills off the field, and some is overblown.

There are worse issues than having one of your star players working with his own trainers in Portland, a vigorous regimen he long has followed. If Suh shows up this week flabby, I’d be flabbergasted. The guy is a physical freak, and if he doesn’t fit in the same box as most football players, that’s OK.

Proper perspective

The vexing part is, Suh invites the scrutiny even as he evades it. He does national commercials and other endeavors, but skips voluntary workouts and a chance to get better acquainted with a new coaching staff. A new system doesn’t affect a defensive tackle as much as a quarterback, but if the leadership angle is real, it’d be nice to see it.

Caldwell leapt to Suh’s defense Sunday, in what appears to be a not-so-subtle courtship. He said they talk and text all the time, and isn’t concerned Suh has been absent from the team facility.

“I’ve been a few places in my time, and I can cite you so many different examples of guys that maybe weren’t here during the time period, that did a tremendous job in terms of their leadership,” Caldwell said.

“I don’t expect him to be any different. I think he’ll fit into that category, as opposed to any other category you’d like to slide him into.”

Ah, a friendly dig from a coach not interested in the media’s preconceived notions. Caldwell’s first inclination is to back one of his best players, as he should. Would it be better if Suh attended every offseason workout and bonded with his team? Sure. But on the list of misdeeds, applying the full definition of “voluntary” doesn’t qualify.

The fact is, Suh ultimately will decide which category fits him best. If he truly wants to lead, and wants to do it here, he’ll have to show up and prove it soon enough.

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh likes to keep people guessing as to his future with the team. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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