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.

John Niyo: Lions’ Ndamukong Suh goes on defense to protect reputation

John Niyo

Detroit Ndamukong Suh had a lot to say Monday.

But nothing said it better than this.

“If I’m not gonna protect myself,” the Lions all-Pro defensive tackle mused, “then nobody else is going to.”

That, as much as any statement — alleged or otherwise, heard or unspoken — might explain what he’s thinking these days, both on and off the field.

Because he’s being asked to wage a war on both fronts, no matter how understandably reluctant he is to admit it. When he’s not fighting opponents double teams in the trenches — and the cheap shots that inevitably come with them — he finds himself fighting, or at least being asked to fight, a perception that he’s a dirty player, fueled by postgame comments from the Falcons after a 23-16 loss at Ford Field.

Suh and teammate Cliff Avril were accused by Falcons players of taunting and trash-talking on the field when Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went down what initially looked to be a serious leg injury in the game. (Ryan did return to the game the next series.)

Receiver Roddy White told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he “lost a whole lot of respect for” both players for “the (expletive) they were doing when Matt got hurt.”

The newspaper quoted White as saying Avril “was kicking (Ryan’s) feet saying, ‘Get him off the field.'”

Falcons center Todd McClure said Suh was saying, “‘Get the cart’ and several other things that I can’t repeat.”

Avril disputed those comments via Twitter on Sunday night, while Suh, who normally doesn’t address the media until Wednesday each week, angrily addressed them Monday.

“They’re gonna say what they want to say,” Suh said, adding “it’s he-said, she-said” as he quickly dismissed the suggestion — one that apparently was lost in translation by the initial report — that Avril actually kicked Ryan while he was down.

The video clearly shows he didn’t. (Avril and Suh are barely in the picture before and after Ryan goes down in a heap.)

And besides, as Suh points out, “I know for a fact, if Cliff — or anybody, for that matter — kicked an opposing quarterback, I’m sure there would’ve been a riot.”

“If that would’ve happened to Matt Stafford and he was on the ground and somebody kicked him,” Suh said, “I guarantee you all hell would’ve broke loose.”

Instead, we’re left with this, whatever the heck it is.

He said, he said

The Lions lost. The Falcons won. Atlanta players accused Detroit of ugly behavior, prompting the Lions to fire back with similar accusations. And we in the media become a ping-pong ball of sorts.

He said, she said? It’s more like, “Did you hear what they said about what you said?” (While conveniently ignoring the fact the hidden soundtrack of an NFL game would make Howard Stern cringe.)

“There was no comments — at all,” Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “I was there when he went down. … We waved for the trainers to come get Matt. We never once made a threat like that to him at all.

“It’s absurd that they would even mention that.”

White, though, wasn’t backing down Monday as he clarified his remarks in an interview with the NFL Network.

“We didn’t say (Avril) kicked Matt,” White said. “We said one of the guys — I don’t know if it was 92 (Avril) or 93 (Kyle Vanden Bosch), one of the defensive ends — came over and he was making kicking gestures, like, ‘Get him out of here.’ And I know Suh said what he said. He was like, ‘Go get the cart for him. Get him out of here.’ He knows he said that.”

Suh was asked about what he said or didn’t say Monday, and he responded, “I’m not even near their quarterback, so how am I going to trash-talk somebody that has a medical staff that’s all around him?”

But he didn’t stop there, as Suh pointed out it wasn’t the Lions who made contact with Ryan on the play. It was his own lineman, Will Svitek, who stepped on Ryan’s ankle while trying to block the Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson.

“If you look at it, to me, it’s karma,” Suh said, noting the Falcons own well-cultivated reputation for dirty play on the offensive line. “For all the bad stuff they’ve done in the past, their offensive lineman hurt their own quarterback. So I’ll leave it at that.”

White responded, “We’re not gonna go back and forth about ‘he-said, she-said,'” before doing just that, adding, “And then he’s gonna say it’s karma for what we’ve done in the past? And then their quarterback (Matthew Stafford) gets hurt on the last play of the game.”

Reputation is sticking

Back to you, Mr. Suh, who was asked if he was hurt personally by the accusations.

“Do I need Rodney White’s respect?” Suh said, before answering himself. “No. I’ll leave it at that.”

At that point, he walked away, flanked by a Lions spokesman.

Now, I have no idea whether Suh purposely mispronounced White’s name or not as a parting gesture — I don’t think he did — or whether Suh knows where the Pistons former first-round pick is now. (Last I heard, he was hooping it up in South Korea.)

But as Suh himself rather bluntly reminded us Monday, we really don’t know him at all.

“Nobody’s gonna be able to really understand who I am, except for very few,” Suh said.

He went on to explain that’s because some people “won’t take the time” to, as he put it, “see the type of person I am.” Then, in the next breath, he admitted that’s because “they can’t get close enough to me. I won’t let people get close to me.”

So Suh me, but I don’t know how we’re going to solve that riddle if that’s the way he’s going to play this game.

Still, what I do know about Suh is that he’s smart, he’s focused, he’s determined and he’s potentially as dominant a player as we’ve ever seen at his position. And while it’d be foolish to think this talk will change his game — “Have you seen me stop playing? Not at all. It’s not gonna affect me,” he said — it’d be a shame if that talent got overshadowed by talk of dirty play, much as it has been with Pittsburgh’s James Harrison.

Talk is cheap. But reputations are invaluable.

John Niyo: Lions LB Zack Follett is back, thankful and pumped up

John Niyo

Allen Park — The first time the lockout ended — and the doors closed almost as soon as they’d opened in April — linebacker Zack Follett was one of a handful of players who managed to get into the Lions practice facility.

“He showed up and then they shut it down about two hours later,” laughed Matt Burke, the team’s linebackers coach. “So I actually saw him for about five minutes is all.”

That was enough, though. Enough for Follett to show not that he was ready to play football again — he wasn’t, he readily admits now — but that he was still hoping to be.

And after the team had extended him a contract offer before the lockout in early March, he figured that was the least he could do.

“I wanted to show them that, since they gave me this opportunity, I’m going to be diligent and do what I need to do,” Follett said. “I’m not going to be slacking off.”

Friday, he showed them he’d made good on that promise, at least. Nine months after suffering a career-threatening neck injury that left him momentarily paralyzed, Follett was back on the practice field as the Lions kicked off training camp.

“I never thought I’d have a helmet on again,” said Follett, who received full medical clearance Thursday after meeting with the Lions medical staff and passing a conditioning test. “This is a big blessing, and I’m very thankful.

“It felt good, running around and getting back on the field, something that when this all happened I thought wouldn’t be a possibility. And to be honest, because of the way my neck felt earlier this year, I was ready to hang it up.”

Follett was ready, if not willing, because his body wasn’t — or so it seemed — months after he took a blindside hit from Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul while covering a kickoff last October. The hit left him without feeling in his extremities, and it was only after he’d been carted off the field on a backboard and taken to a local hospital that he regained full movement in his arms and legs.

His season was over, his career in jeopardy.

Heart trumps doubt

“Something serious like that, I definitely wasn’t even looking to play football anymore,” said Follett, a 2009 seventh-round pick out of Cal who quickly became a fan favorite in Detroit, as much for his brash talk as his reckless style of play, including that highlight-reel hit on Rams receiver Danny Amendola as a rookie.

Follett, wearing his homemade “Pain Train is Coming” T-shirt in the locker room Friday, acknowledged as much as he thanked the fans for their support, saying, “With them believing in me just over pretty much one hit in my career, I mean, it shows a lot.”

The neck injury, though it didn’t require surgery, did require months of rehabilitation. Follett saw a specialist in North Carolina and another in Ohio after consulting with team physicians in Detroit. He worked with a rehab specialist near his offseason home in Fresno, Calif., as well. But persistent pain this winter left him seriously doubting his future, even after the Lions offered him a one-year contract as an exclusive-rights free agent.

“I signed right before the lockout, and it got me all gung-ho, so I went into the weight room and tried to lift weights and it still didn’t feel right,” he said. “So I got discouraged.”

And if you know Follett — this Gospel-spreading, freestyle-rapping free spirit — you know that didn’t feel right.

“You know the type of kid he is, that he’s going to want to do whatever he can to get back,” Burke said. “But it was a pretty big unknown. We were sitting in meetings talking about guys and it was like, ‘What about Follett?’ Nobody really knew. But I was really happy to see him out there today. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

Ready to win spot

There were many happy returns Friday in Allen Park. Football’s back in business, and the players — most of them, anyway — are back to work. But no one’s more pleased than Follett, though he’s well aware all he has been given is a chance to keep playing.

A roster spot, he’ll have to earn. And he’ll have his work cut out to do that, a year after he was essentially handed a starting job in training camp. The Lions already have added one free-agent linebacker in Justin Durant, who’ll likely start alongside DeAndre Levy, and they may add another soon, with veteran starters Nick Barnett and Stephen Tulloch among the possibilities.

“Coming in my rookie year, I had my head on backward,” Follett said. “Coming in my second year, trying to start and having that pressure was tough. … Now, there’s really no pressure. No one expects anything of me because of where I’m coming from. So I have no monkey on my back. I can just go out there and play.”

But can he still play the way he used to, flying down the field on special teams or filling the gap in run support, knowing what he knows after last fall’s scare?

“Anyone could have that one play that puts ’em in the hospital or whatever,” said Follett, who checked in at 238 pounds Friday and “looked good,” according to coach Jim Schwartz. “But I definitely feel like I’m protected. I wouldn’t be coming back if I didn’t feel that way.

“I’ll try to be smart keeping my head up, but as far as going out there and playing soft? I read that in an article that he’ll probably be playing scared, and they obviously don’t know me. I got here not on my athletic ability, but on my heart and desire and love for the game. If that was a question in my mind, then I wouldn’t come back. But I feel good and I’m ready to go out there and prove it.”

John Niyo: Lions might strike lightning with Titus Young

John Niyo

Allen Park — Moments after the Lions drafted Boise State receiver Titus Young in the second round of the NFL draft Friday night, general manager Martin Mayhew called him “a stick of dynamite.”

Not long after, somebody decided to light the fuse on a guy who’s about to become a fan favorite in Detroit, whether Lions fans realize it or not.

He’s been called a poor man’s DeSean Jackson by at least one prominent draft analyst, as the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock compared him to Philadelphia’s dynamic Pro Bowl playmaker leading up to the draft. And not to be outdone, Lions coach Jim Schwartz even referred to him as “DeSean” by accident after responding to a question about that comparison Friday night.

But while that’s a heck of a compliment — and the Lions have been practically penniless when it comes to a No. 3 receiver the last couple of years — Young passionately and playfully took issue with it.


“I’ve never been another man’s nothing,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always known that I’ve been Titus Young from Day One. My mother named me Titus Demetrius Young. She didn’t name me nothing else. I know who I am and I know people compare you to people. But God made me to be me. He made me to be Titus Demetrius Young. You can compare me all you want to, but I’m no man’s poor man.”

And right there, man, I can tell you this: We in the local media were starting to realize we probably struck it rich with this pick.

Whether or not the Lions did, none of us can say for sure, obviously.

I actually liked the pick — more so than the trade up to snag Mikel Leshoure, though I didn’t have a huge problem with that, either — because it adds talent and addresses a glaring need. (And in case you didn’t notice, Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for a whopping 21 catches last season.)

Sure, there’s more glaring needs at linebacker and cornerback. But the best of the corners were off the market before the Lions picked Friday night. And if you hadn’t noticed by now, this draft class of linebackers is more than mildly underwhelming. (A linebacker from Michigan (!), Jonas Mouton, was a second-round pick.)

Just call him T.D.

Young, meanwhile, is anything but underwhelming. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder plays a little like Jackson, maybe, and in addition to his return ability, he could thrive in that role Schwartz envisions for him helping Nate Burleson help Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, and vice versa. (Where will he play? “Where Calvin’s not,” Schwartz joked.) But he also smiles and laughs eerily like Desmond Howard — Young laughs a lot, too — and he talks a bit like Chad Ochocinco, which isn’t all bad.

But sorry for the interruption, Titus. Please continue that thought.

“Actually, my initials my whole life have been T.D. Young,” said Young, the youngest of five children — and the only boy — growing up in Los Angeles, where his parents, Richard and Teresa Young, are pastors. “So it’s been Titus Demetrius Young — Touchdown Young. So I just feel like football has been me ever since I was born. And now I can go play some more football in Dee-troit.”

He cackled as he put the emphasis on that last part, and he did so often Friday, enjoying this moment for all it’s worth. He even let out a little banshee cry at one point, as he talked about leaving behind the dominant program they’ve built on the Smurf Turf in Boise and joining the Lions, who haven’t made the playoffs since 1999.

“The green turf is gonna be a little bit of an adjustment for me,” Young said, “but I know the blue uniforms will keep me at home.”

And fittingly, at least the way Young sees it, Hall of Famer Barry Sanders was the one on the stage Friday in New York announcing his selection for the Lions.

“I know Barry Sanders,” said Young, who had his off-field struggles early at Boise State but rebounded well playing for a no-nonsense coaching staff. “I know a lot about him. He went to Detroit and he wanted to win. His whole thing was about winning. And unfortunately he wasn’t able to win as much as I believe that when I come in we’re going to be able to win.”

All of which brings him back to where he started in a 10-minute conversation that had everyone in stitches, even after he got choked with emotion and broke down in tears a couple of times.

Family ties

It turns out Young has family ties to Detroit, where his maternal grandfather lived. He hasn’t visited since his grandfather passed away in 1998, but he says he’s coming home.

“My roots are actually in Detroit,” Young said, when asked to explain the tears. “It’s just the emotion of I’m actually gonna be back in a family town. That’s my home now. I’m gonna take care of Detroit, and I know they’ll take care of me. And all this emotion is really just all the hard work and all this waiting and all this patience and having faith in the Lord and …”

And then he broke down again, just before he managed to crack another joke about his father being from Texas. (“So he’s probably a little upset I ain’t in Dallas,” Young laughed.)

“But the whole thing is just about winning,” he added. “I feel like we’re all gonna be winners in Detroit. Not just me — the community, the kids in Detroit, they’re gonna know that the Lions are here to stay. We ain’t just no anybody; we’re coming to play.”