ALLEN PARK, Mich. — There isn’t a player in the NFL people love to hate more than Ndamukong Suh.
The Lions defensive tackle is a classic villain, a throwback, a perfect fit for your father’s NFL. He’s as unhappy an individual expressing it on the field as Dick Butkus, who would froth at the mouth for the Bears. He’s as nasty as Mean Joe Greene, who football lore has it once spit in the face of Butkus to challenge him.
In the first two weeks of the season, Suh was labeled a menace to opponents, neighbors and teammates, leaving you to wonder if anyone is safe.
He was fined $100,000 for a block on Vikings center John Sullivan in Week 1. In fines and suspensions, he has forfeited $342,000 in his career.
He was forced to explain to police why he was holding a pellet gun while inquiring what a cable television worker was doing in his backyard.
He was accused of being rough in practice on teammates in a Fox Sports report, something coach Jim Schwartz and those in the locker room vehemently denied.
Video surfaced of an elbow directed at the head of Cardinals lineman Eric Winston, something that escaped the league until Pro Football Talk discovered it six days later.
There is no debating Suh stretches the rules, but few make issues of linemen diving at his knees regularly, something he described as “gnats that are in the air” and “part of the game.” Standing at his locker last week, he polished off a protein shake while considering the question: At this point, in his fourth season, is scant attention paid to his game because of all the vile stories about him?
“Pertaining to me solely, yes,” Suh said. “You are 100 percent correct. It is funny how they want to keep bringing up the fine and this and that, but when you make two or three plays in a game that cause things to happen, they do a little blurb. That’s it.
“I don’t do it to get the glory. I do it to win games. I don’t really care what people say. I just have to be true to who I am and continue to do what I want to do, which is play hard, attack and do what my coaches tell me.”
The Lions (2-1) appear to have rebounded from a terrible 2012 season. An improved defense deserves credit. Suh doesn’t have any sacks, but he pressured Christian Ponder and Carson Palmer into interceptions in the first two games.
Suh has transformed himself. Teammates voted him a captain for the first time, an honor he takes seriously. It’s a different Suh than Lions players and sources described over the last two seasons. As a rookie in 2010, he was an immediate force and model teammate. That changed the last two years when one club source said Suh acted as if the NFL needed him. One teammate said no one wanted to be around him.
Did Suh, who was a captain at Nebraska, have a mid-career epiphany, naturally transitioning into a leadership role after the departure of veteran linemen Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams? Or did he realize with a $21.4 million salary-cap figure in 2014, he needs to be on better behavior to strike it big with his second contract?
Whatever the case, the Lions noticed a pronounced difference at the start of the offseason. He showed up for camp in the best shape of his career and is playing at an elite level. He’s a positive influence for young tackle Nick Fairley and end Ziggy Ansah, the rookie first-round pick.
“He just kind of took it upon himself,” center Dominic Raiola said. “He kind of just took the bull by the horns. He’s doing a great job. That cut block on Sullivan? It’s on the football field, you know. He is just growing up. How much was put on his shoulders when he was drafted? He was asked to be the man right away and he was the man. He’s kind of rounding out his brand being a leader.
“He has the young D-line going. They all look up to him. He’s right in the middle of it.”
Former Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije sits next to Suh daily and described getting to know him as a “great experience.”
“The guy works just as hard as anyone I have ever seen,” Idonije said. “He is one of the first people here in the morning, working his craft. The truth is, when I first got in the league, 2003, those hits and those plays (where he has been fined) and the effort, not a single flag would have been thrown in ’03. But the game has evolved. He just wants to win. It’s always interesting what the perception is and the reality.”
Get back to talk about his ferocious play and Suh quickly points out he doesn’t strive to scare anyone in a violent game in which collisions are dangerous enough without the over-the-line tactics. He has no interest in a discussion on who is the present day’s most feared man in football, something many all-time greats have been at one time.
“I never want to intimidate a player,” Suh said. “I just want to impose my will on a player and have them respect me. I don’t want anybody ever to fear me but to respect me. Understand that a guy like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady — of all the 32 starting quarterbacks — I highly respect them because of the way they play and approach the game. I don’t fear Tom Brady. I am not scared to play against him. I respect him and I know what he is good at and I know how he can hurt and affect the defense.”
Even if more attention is paid to everything on the periphery, Suh is one of the most gifted and dominating young players in the NFL. In Detroit, they are embracing a more mature Suh.
“I am naturally quiet and I am an introvert,” he said. “I don’t agree with people when they say you can’t lead by example because leading by example is playing hard and doing it a certain way so someone else can follow you. I have always been able to do that with my play since I stepped foot in the league.”