John Niyo: Ndamukong Suh, Lions must tread carefully

John Niyo

Allen Park — He’s gone, but hardly forgotten. And he’ll be back, perhaps sooner rather than later.

So even as the Lions tried their best Tuesday to ignore the elephant notin the room, the question remains: What do they do with Ndamukong Suh?

The NFL weighed in with its initial answer, handing down a two-game suspension in response to Suh’s helmet-grinding, foot-stomping ejection in last week’s loss to Green Bay.

And the Lions all-Pro defensive tackle countered with his own reply, appealing the suspension at the urging of the NFL Players Association and others, no matter how tone deaf that strikes some in Suh’s growing legion of critics.

But while the expedited (and likely fruitless) appeal won’t change the immediate plans — Suh is expected to miss Sunday’s game at New Orleans and next week’s home game against Minnesota — it still left the entire organization, and particularly the players, stuck in an awkward limbo.

Not just because the team returned to practice without its best defensive player. But also because his absence leaves his teammates to answer for him, literally and figuratively.

And while none of them cared to reprimand Suh publicly Tuesday, I think it’s safe to say they’ve had enough of the nonsense, just like most everyone else, including the league’s disciplinarians.

After getting tossed for stomping on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith — not to mention the Ford family’s treasured Thanksgiving tradition — Suh spent a good chunk of last Friday meeting with coaches and teammates before finally issuing his day-late, dollars-short apology to the Lions and his “true fans” via Facebook. Team officials also issued a statement then, expressing all the proper regrets to try to minimize the public-relations damage after a nationally televised meltdown.

But Suh has yet to speak to reporters since his defiant postgame news conference took a bad situation and made it immeasurably worse. (He also has yet to apologize to Dietrich-Smith, as far as we know. The Packers guard avoided the media Tuesday in Green Bay.)

Suh was back with the team in Allen Park on Tuesday morning, but got the anticipated phone call from the NFL about the suspension — one that included a ban from the practice facility — and just like that, he was kicked out. Again.

So we’ll have to wait a while longer to hear from him directly about where he goes from here, or how he truly intends to make amends and start repairing his reputation while the Lions try to salvage a playoff berth.

“He’s going to have to deal with the repercussions of it personally,” said veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, a team captain who said he had a 1-on-1 talk with Suh last Friday. “We’ll handle the effects it has on us as a team. But it’s gonna be tough for him.”

Short on contrition

It’ll be tougher still, because for all of Suh’s good qualities — on and off the field — contrition doesn’t appear to be one of them, at least publicly.

Yet, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he’s had “a lot of conversations with (Suh) the last two days and I think he is in a different spot,” than he was — emotionally — after the game.

“I think, for sure, he understands the position that he put his team in the game, and also the position that we’re in right now,” Schwartz added. “And he feels a tremendous sense of responsibility for that. There’s an accountability for what we do on the field and he — particularly these last couple days — is well aware of that.”

And yes, I’m well aware contrition isn’t exactly what the Lions — or their playoff-starved fans — need from Suh to reach the postseason. But therein lies the real challenge going forward.

Now that one of the team’s cornerstone players — the face of the franchise, alongside quarterback Matthew Stafford — has crossed the line, how will he handle this tightrope walk? How will he handle the backlash? How will he handle his emotions? And, quite frankly, how will it affect his play on the field?

Because if Suh thought he was a target before all this — and that’s why he said he went to New York to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell and others — it’s going to be far worse for him now. Everyone from Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene to Suh’s head coach was saying that this week — “Everybody knows that he’s had this one, and players are gonna push him to the edge,” Schwartz said — as this Suh saga spiraled out of control.

Keeping his cool

Look, the sooner he returns, the sooner his teammates can forget about what he has done. And the sooner he can start doing something about it.

But for the foreseeable future, the question is always going to be whether Suh can keep his cool.

“It’s difficult,” Vanden Bosch said. “A lot of things happen in the game and you’re taught to be aggressive, you’re taught to be as physical as possible, and when people are doing things to you throughout the course of a game to try to antagonize you … sometimes it’s difficult to swallow your pride and walk away and move on.

“Especially in the heat of the moment. A lot of people just want to say, well, he just should’ve walked away. And even though that’s the right thing to do, in that moment, a lot of people don’t understand how difficult that is to do.”

Maybe not, but Suh better understand now.

And I think that’s the real appeal here — not to the NFL, but to Suh. He better swallow his pride — easy for me to say, I know — before he lets it swallow his career.

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