The Detroit Lions' offseason has been so off-putting, it's easy to forget that their 2011 accomplishments were steeped in significance – and that their near future holds so much promise. With six arrests involving four players over the past six months, along with the sucker punch wide receiver Titus Young gave teammate Louis Delmas during OTAs, the afterglow of the team's first playoff appearance since 1999 has been replaced by the harsh glare of national scrutiny.
As the Lions prepare to report to training camp at their Allen Park, Mich., facility, with veterans due in July 26, one of the team's most accomplished and controversial players believes a healthy dose of maturity is in order, himself included.
"Everybody has to be accountable for themselves, and obviously we as teammates need to hold each other to a higher standard," Ndamukong Suh said last week at a Subway-sponsored training event near Los Angeles. "And that's being addressed, and some of our teammates will have to deal with repercussions from the league, and I think they'll handle that the right way and move forward and not let it truly affect us during the season."
If some of you are rolling your eyes at the notion of Suh as a voice of reason and restraint, the third-year defensive tackle knows he has it coming. After a terrific 2010 season in which the No. 2 overall pick in the draft earned NFL defensive rookie of the year honors, Suh's sophomore slump extended beyond his sharply decreased production.
During a 34-day stretch last November and December, Suh met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York City to discuss the slew of fines and penalties he'd incurred for rough play, infamously earned an ejection from the Lions' Thanksgiving Day defeat to the Green Bay Packers for stomping on fallen opponent Evan Dietrich-Smith's arm and, after crashing his car into a tree during the team's bye week, was accused by a passenger of having lied to the Portland police.
Suh, who in March was ticketed after reportedly driving 91 miles an hour in a 55-mph zone, insisted that such behavior is in his rearview mirror.
"Things, I believe, always happen for a reason," he said. "At that particular moment, you're not gonna know what those reasons are. You look back and reflect on those [experiences] and take the positives and learn from the negatives and make the most of them.
"That's what I've done. All that's fortunately in the past. And there's a lot of bright future ahead for myself and my teammates."
Last season was far from satisfying for Suh, who had just four sacks in 2011 after a 10-sack rookie campaign. The Lions, just three years removed from an 0-16 nightmare, finished second to the Packers in the NFC North to earn a wild-card berth, setting off a wild celebration at Ford Field. Yet Detroit's return to the postseason ended quickly and decisively, as the Lions got blasted by the Saints, 45-28, at the Superdome.
Suh, a former Nebraska star, chose a collegiate analogy to assess the Lions' achievement.
"Getting to the playoffs, to me, was like us always going to a bowl game," Suh said. "My expectation at Nebraska was at the very least to make it to a bowl game; my expectation as a Lion is at the very least to make the playoffs. And I'm never gonna be happy till I win it all.
"Being in the first round and losing? I mean, you made the bowl game and you lost. You went and you got the gifts, and that's it. So that's not enough for me. I want the gifts and I want to win the game – and have that ring, and be able to say that I was successful that year."
In one sense, Suh regards the spate of negative coverage his team has received – and its accompanying bad boy image (including an infamous nfl.com headline which portrayed the Lions as "evil" before they faced Tim Tebow) – as a gift from the motivation gods.
"I would definitely say it's a way for us to really band together as a team and understand that it's gonna be us vs. the world," Suh said. "And everybody may not see us as a hot team, up and coming, and that's fine. I've always loved being, not necessarily an underdog, but a guy that's given some respect and still somewhat doubted, and that's kind of how I've gone through my ranks.
"I was somewhat of a top defensive lineman but not quite when I was coming out of high school. And I've had to continue to prove that that's not the case. Now I'm on a team that has great potential but they have character issues and all these different things. Now it's an opportunity for us to go into the season 2012 and take it to a new level."
Suh, who faced constant double teams in 2011, believes he'll adjust to the extra attention and excel in his third season. And he believes his development as a player will be accompanied by a sharper sense of personal responsibility spurred by last season's struggles – and by the intra-team accountability of which he earlier spoke.
"It's a matter of refocusing and getting back to that original form of being that dominant athlete," Suh said. "You're always evolving and growing as a human being, especially as a man in this day and age. If you say you're at a plateau, you're wrong. So I'm continuing to grow. I think I'm a very mature young man and had to grow up fast and I enjoyed that. I will continue to enjoy that, and I'm lucky enough to be in the position that I'm in."
And what will the storyline surrounding the Lions be a year from now?
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"That remains to be seen," Suh said. "Hopefully, people will be saying a lot of good things. Hopefully, we'll be somewhere talking about repeating. But you never know. We have a lot of work ahead of ourselves.
"We hope to be down in New Orleans in February [for Super Bowl XLVII]. But we're a long ways from there. The biggest thing is going into camp and picking up from where we left off as a team."
And, Suh hopes, bidding farewell to an offseason from hell.
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