Suh’s distorted self-image meeting reality

The Chrysler 300, with big Ndamukong Suh(notes) behind the wheel, rolls through the blue-collar Portland, Ore., neighborhoods that produced the Detroit Lions’ talented and controversial defensive tackle.

The beat on this 60-second commercial is slow, the weather gray and rainy, the imagery unmistakable. The narration does more to familiarize and market Chrysler’s new celebrity spokesman than the car the company is actually selling.

“Humble beginnings are true beginnings,” the commercial states. “They’re character-building beginnings. They’re hard work ethic beginnings. They’re appreciate-what-you’ve-earned beginnings. They are the purest way to gain success, maybe the only way to gain success.

Through 11 games, Ndamukong Suh's stats are considerably lower than they were a season ago.
(US Presswire)

“But the most powerful thing about humble beginnings is that they are … humbling.”

The commercial ends with Suh climbing the steps of a simple home, where the vision of his mother coming with a hug causes his serious demeanor to break into a huge smile and bigger hug.

This is exactly what Ndamukong Suh wants to be seen as, and, indeed, how he sees himself, sources say. He’s a gentle giant, the everyman made good and the hard-hat hero who spends his off time visiting mom back home, not in some nightclub or gated-community mansion.

It is an image that has been carefully crafted. It was a plan hatched back at least when he was at Nebraska, according to sources in Lincoln. They would take a guy with a mostly unpronounceable name, playing perhaps the most anonymous position in football, and turn him into one of the biggest endorsement forces in sports.

[Related: Suh’s stomp puts Lions’ season in jeopardy]

That’s not to say the image isn’t true. In fact, Suh believes it perfectly describes him, even as he now deals with the fallout of stomping on the right arm of Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith(notes) on Thanksgiving, a move that got him ejected from the Lions’ 27-15 loss to the Packers.

The NFL said it would review the incident “next week,” a suspension likely coming. Suh, after a much-panned denial following the game, issued a statement on Facebook apologizing for “letting my teammates down, the organization, and especially to my fans who look to me for positive inspiration.”

This is the struggle with the second-year player, according to sources from Detroit, Nebraska and Portland.

This is what the Lions knew was possible since they began scouting him. It’s not just his volcanic temper. It’s also the emotional balance of a player who is focused on being an All-Pro defensive tackle and a respected mainstream role model at the same time, two almost Newtonian goals.

Suh isn’t merely looking to redefine the defensive tackle position. He’s looking to rewrite the script on how to make it big from a decidedly non-glory position.

Commercial success from the defensive tackle spot is rare, and the most obvious path is to be the lovable giant, the class clown à la Warren Sapp. That’s not Suh, however.

Instead he is focused on being polite, professional and polished, everything that Chrysler commercial painted him as. He’s mesmerizing in press conferences, speaking thoughtfully on any and all subjects while purposely making eye contact with each questioner. It’s a rare tactic in pro sports and one that is particularly disarming considering the position he plays and how he plays it, with unapologetic brute force.

That is the part that can’t be marketed away, of course. Suh plays rough and has a legitimate mean streak. A Sporting News poll of 111 players labeled him the NFL’s dirtiest player.

It was like this at Nebraska, too.

“He was well-respected for his ability, but everybody kind of knew who he was,” former Nebraska teammate and current New York Jet Matt Slauson(notes) told the New York Post, noting there were at least two ugly practice flare-ups involving Suh.

“He wasn’t well-liked,” Slauson continued.

Ndamukong Suh's now-infamous cleat stomp is expected to draw a hefty fine and suspension from the NFL.
(US Presswire)

NFL teams knew Suh had a nasty side even for a position where such a thing is nearly a prerequisite. It was of little concern because Suh has had no off-field issues. He instead has focused on being a role model, doing community outreach and pledging $2.6 million to his alma mater. Detroit never hesitated to take him second overall in the 2010 draft. No team would have.

Suh has racked up $42,500 in fines already, however, with more to come.

The Lions so feared the reputation he was getting as a dirty player and, by proxy, what it meant for the entire team, that coach Jim Schwartz and team president Tom Lewand traveled to New York earlier this month to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell. The goal was to open a line of communication that might help Detroit avoid losing borderline calls, both in-game and inevitably through the league’s disciplinary system.

Any idea that the Lions want this black hat act is inaccurate.

It’s especially true for Suh, who also met with Goodell, only under the somewhat delusional idea that he could show the commissioner game footage that would exonerate him.

If the dirty label scares the Lions, it terrifies Suh. It’s everything he doesn’t believe he is, and it’s the kind of rap that will ruin his endorsement potential. Fines, suspensions and arm-stompings are the antithesis of that Chrysler commercial. It’s part of what fuels Suh’s denial, a Nebraska source said. It’s as though if he wishes a negative isn’t true, it won’t be, the source said.

There is another angle, too, and one that may help explain Suh’s outburst Thursday. Lions sources say he’s obsessed with stats. He knows that to stand out, he needs gaudy numbers and highlight reel plays. It’s not a problem for Detroit because the more sacks and tackles for a loss the better it is for the team.

But Suh isn’t putting up the numbers he did as a rookie. While it’s almost impossible to analyze a player without repeatedly watching coaches’ game footage and grading him out based on the Lions’ strategy, that doesn’t stop fans and media from doing it.

The numbers are obvious. As a rookie, Suh had 66 tackles and 10 sacks. This year, through 11 games, he has just 33 and 3 – on pace for 48 tackles and 4.4 sacks for the full season. Those numbers should turn out even worse because he’s likely to miss time.

Already he’s hearing criticism that he has regressed as a player or was overrated in the first place.

The reason for the statistical backtrack isn’t simple. The most obvious explanation, however, is that Suh is the focus of every offensive game plan and is relentlessly double- and on certain plays even triple-teamed.

Lions coaches insist he’s better than ever and he has allowed other defenders to make plays., which provides statistical analysis on the NFL, notes that while it hasn’t translated into sacks, he actually is applying quarterback pressure once every 11.5 snaps, up from 13.5 a year ago.

None of that is as impactful as getting to Aaron Rodgers(notes) during the heavily watched Thanksgiving game. When he was thrown out, Suh had just one tackle – although the Lions had allowed only seven points.

Whether the frustration of not delivering numbers in the big game set him off is anyone’s guess. So too is the bitterness of dealing with a parade of Packers, especially when Dietrich-Smith was trying to push him backward as he knelt after a play.

In the dueling worlds of Ndamukong Suh – desperate need for both big plays and a bright spotlight combining with his short fuse – this was a disaster waiting to happen. Suh may be the only person surprised he eventually snapped.

Now the replay won’t get off the TV. Now the rips are coming from all directions. “Nebraska has always prided itself on producing high-character guys,” Slauson said, “and [he isn’t one of them].”

That’s a former teammate. And the suspension is next, triggering another wave of debate. At the very least, he should wind up missing Detroit’s high-profile Sunday night game at New Orleans on Dec. 4, where he’ll remain a major conversation point.

This entire ordeal has come straight out of the Lions’ sharpest fear and Suh’s deepest denial, what Detroit hoped to avoid and Suh never thought possible.

“Playing professional sports is not a game,” Suh’s Facebook page read Friday, the first sign he, or his representatives, understands the hole he has put himself in.

“It is a profession with great responsibility, and where performance on and off the field should never be compromised. It requires a calm and determined demeanor, which cannot be derailed by the game, referee calls, fans or other players.”

Time will tell how much of that is real, how much is wishful marketing and how well Ndamukong Suh can find balance.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Nov 26, 2011