Wojo: Suh about to leave, and Lions have selves to blame

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The Lions have not done enough to put themselves in a spot where Ndamukong Suh’s departure wouldn’t sting.

Detroit – Ndamukong Suh got paid. And the Lions got played.

Whether the Lions miscalculated or were misled by Suh and his agent, it's their own fault. They bungled this, long before the reports Sunday he was leaving for the Dolphins and a staggering $114 million, $60 million guaranteed.

Be mad at Suh if you wish, but don't misconstrue what happened here, as the Lions lost their best defensive player in a generation or more. Suh did exactly what he always suggested he would do — break the bank, any bank. And yet the Lions' front office of Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew clung to foolish optimism, knowing it was all about money even as they ran out of cap space and time. They reportedly made a very respectable offer of $102 million, $58 million guaranteed, over six years, which also would have made Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

Matching Miami's numbers wasn't really an option, with the Lions' salary cap tapped. No deal officially can be struck until Tuesday, but the Lions are frantically digging up Plans B-through-Z, while the Dolphins are welcoming a superstar in his prime. In the end, the Lions found themselves stuck between two disasters — wrecking their salary cap by trying to keep Suh, or wrecking their defense by losing him. They arrived at lose-lose because of their own mismanagement, and now incredible pressure falls on Mayhew and Lewand to find replacement pieces.

The Lions could wreck their salary cap by trying to keep Ndamukong Suh, or wreck their defense by losing him.

The Lions did gain salary-cap flexibility, and it will be vital to spend wisely. The free-agent market just got interesting, although the primary option is another difficult one, trying to re-sign tackle Nick Fairley. The draft will be the most important of Mayhew's tenure, because the odds of going 11-5 and having the top-rated run defense without Suh just plummeted.

It's too bad, because the defense was a force under coordinator Teryl Austin. Now we'll find out exactly how good Austin is, and how steady head coach Jim Caldwell is. They were supposed to be keys to keeping Suh, but Suh kept it all business.

I don't know if he was determined to leave Detroit under any circumstance, but it was pretty clear the highest bidder was going to win, and Miami made a ridiculously high bid. I don't think the Lions drove Suh away — they simply made it too difficult financially to keep him. They also had the misfortune of drafting him before the rookie pay scale, then compounded it by restructuring his contract twice.

Restructuring was a poison pill they needed to sign other free-agents, and they did it with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, too. But Suh's pill became too big to swallow, pushing his franchise-tag price to $26.9 million for one year, with another $9.7 million on the books regardless. When they declined to use the tag last week, you knew where this was headed.

The mistake didn't occur Sunday, when the Lions got outbid by a team from a sunny paradise that also has happens to have no state income tax. Maybe the Lions didn't think a team would spend so much. Maybe the allure of South Beach can't be matched.

But how could the Lions not have prepared better for a worst-case scenario? And we know it's a worst-case scenario because they basically told us so, when Mayhew and Lewand said for the past year re-signing Suh was the highest priority. The Lions couldn't get it done, then tabled negotiations when the season started.

They also didn't pick up their option on Fairley, and now have to scramble to keep him. The goal was to motivate Fairley but the insinuation was they'd have Suh anyhow. That's also probably why they made the inexplicable first-round pick of tight end Eric Ebron over defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Rams.

Coincidentally, the Tigers were in a similar situation last season, when Max Scherzer turned down their offer and eventually landed a bigger one from the Nationals. The difference is, the Tigers recognized that possibility and traded for another ace, David Price, as insurance.

I can hear the cries of scorned fans who "Suuuuuhed!" dutifully for five years and feel burned. But I also hear shouts of good riddance from those who like the idea of free-agent shopping, especially after Mayhew did well last year signing Golden Tate and James Ihedigbo. Suh bet on Suh and won, and now Mayhew must bet on Mayhew.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, left, head coach Jim Caldwell and president Tom Lewand have their work cut out for them. Suh can’t sign with another team until Tuesday.

But please be clear on this: Under no circumstance is it a good thing to lose the most-fearsome defensive player in franchise history. And if Lions fans feel a familiar queasiness, it's understandable. The best offensive player in franchise history, Barry Sanders, also departed abruptly when he retired in 1999.

Suh, 28, was considered the NFL's top defensive free-agent since Reggie White in 1993, which shows how rare this is. Almost never in the history of the league has a team let a potential Hall-of-Famer leave for nothing, except a compensatory draft pick.

The Lions knew the deal when they made Suh the No. 2 overall choice in 2010 and he immediately proved different, opting for a contract of five years instead of six so he could hit free-agency quicker. Then last fall, when asked if he wanted to stay in Detroit, Suh said his agent (Jimmy Sexton) would decide where he played. In other words: Big Money wins.

For all his eccentricities and sometimes-churlish behavior, Suh is a rarity. He has size, strength, durability and an almost narcissistic infatuation to be the best. He has said he wants to be a billionaire. He makes commercials and reality TV shows and he'll fit nicely with the beautiful people of South Beach.

In some ways, this is a predictable outcome, based on Suh's actions and words the past five years. Either the Lions didn't see it coming or didn't know how to manage it, and neither is an acceptable explanation. They'll try to recoup in free-agency and the draft, but the sad truth is, they'll spend years looking for the type of player who just walked away.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski