Suh: Saying an Early Goodbye to a Legend

Clevelan Browns v Detroit Lions

Last weekend it leaked that the Lions had lost Ndamukong Suh, a future hall of famer and hands down the best player on their team the last 2 seasons to the Miami Dolphins. Suh would reportedly sign a 6 year, $114 million deal with the Dolphins, and end his time with the Detroit Lions. And by the time the Free Agency window actually opened on Tuesday it was all over.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

This is the lowest I think I’ve ever felt as a Lions fan. I know I know… I watched every game of an 0-16 season, and over a 10 year span I watched them go 39-121. You’d think there were some sadder moments in there. Saying I’m sadder about this moment then any of those makes it sound like I’m not a fan of the team at all, but rather just a fan of 1 player on that team (well… who USED to be on that team…).

But here’s the deal. During that 10 year, 39-121 stretch between 2001 and 2010 everything surrounding the Lions was hopeless. I was certainly sad and despondent, but that was all I knew when it came to the Lions. (Come to think of it I have no idea why I stuck with them through all that?) But that all started to chang in the 2010 draft when the Lions selected Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh with the 2nd overall selection in the draft.

Ndamukong-Suh (1)

With Suh came hope. Everything was different. The Lions certainly began the rebuilding process by adding franchise cornerstones Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford, but nothing really changed until Suh became a part of the team. And then EVERYTHING changed.

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It was a revelation. In 2010 Suh won pretty much every award in front of him (Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year, and like 4 different Rookie of the Year awards). Moreover, while the Lions only went 6-10 his Rookie year it was a lot better than 2 or 0 (their win totals from the previous 2 seasons). And then it happened. Suddenly the Lions were winning. In Suh’s second season in the NFL the Lions went 10-6, came in second in the NFC North, and made the playoffs for the first time in twelve seasons.

This was completely unheard of. The Lions hadn’t been in the playoffs since the Barry Sanders Era. But what was even more impressive was how much of this credit Suh himself deserved. The Lions secondary was atrocious, their linebacking corps wasn’t quite where it needed to be, but their Defensive Line was the best in football and that was more or less all thanks to Suh. There were certainly other good players on that like (Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Willie Young) but Suh was the centerpiece. That’s the best thing about his play on the field. He makes EVERYONE around him better, and he was (and is) so dominant that he even made our secondary seem compitent simply because our pass rush was so dominant. All of a sudden, in the Suh Era there was always hope.

The rebuild process started with the drafting of Calvin Johnson. Continued with the firing of Matt Millen, hiring of Jim Schwartz, and drafting of Matthew Stafford, but after none of those moves did the Lions achieve any success. It wasn’t until Suh was with the team that the winning really started. He changed everything and brought hope back to the franchise. However, it wasn’t always a perfectly smooth road.

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

Suh was universally reviled outside of Detroit for his on the field actions. However, I’m not naive enough to think Football is as clean a game as the NFL wants us to believe. Theres dirty play constantly. Just watch any cornerback twist Calvin Johnson’s leg, throw an extra kidney punch at Matthew Stafford, or kick Larry Warford while he’s down. This is the way the game works. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that guys were doing things just as bad to Suh on the field. They just were smart enough not to get caught on camera. And whereas some of these guys make themselves look clean on the field, but are scum off of it, Suh couldn’t have been a better off the field guy.

(Photo Credit: AP)

(Photo Credit: AP)

In 2011 Suh donated some $2.6 million to charity, more than any other athlete that year. In a destitude and struggling city like Detroit a guy like Suh couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did he give the city of Detroit something to hope for and feel good about on the field, he went out into the community and helped try to rebuild it from the inside. This is a guy who had no ties to the city of Detroit or the State of Michigan before coming to the Lions, but almost immediately after arriving starting working his ass off to help out. If that’s the kind of guy I’m dealing with off the field, rather than someone accused of domestic violence or animal abuse, I don’t particularly care what he does on a football field where violence is accepted.

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(Photo Credit: Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation)

I’d much rather have a guy like Suh than someone like Greg Hardy or Ray Rice. No matter what anyone says He gives back to sick kids, donates to the poor, and even sponsors classes at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. He is EXACTLY the kind of star the Detroit Lions needed, and exactly the kind of person the city of Detroit needed. Perfect in every way and right on time.

But now the team has cut ties with the source of that hope. Why would they let this happen? Someone who was NOTHING but positive for the city of Detroit, and helped transform a moribund franchise into a playoff team. Well… I guess there were 114 million reasons why… Not that the Lions weren’t willing to give up the dollars to Suh. He obviously deserves that money (and then-some) and everybody knows it. But the Lions, unfortunately, could not fit him under their salary cap.

Let’s stop there for a second though. This is an excuse that comes up a lot in American sports, and it is always a miserable and miserly answer. Teams imply that its not their fault and that the system is preventing them from doing right by their players and their fans, but in truth teams have only themselves to blame. Everyone could see this disaster coming a mile away. Martin Mayhew has done a miserable job managing Detroit’s cap situation from day 1, just like Matt Millen did before him (oh… jeez… I wonder if we could have predicted this considering MAYHEW WAS MILLENS RIGHT HAND FREAKING MAN). Stafford and Calvin are very important to this team. Don’t get me wrong. But Suh is the single most important player on it. He is either the best or second best defensive player in the NFL (behind JJ Watt in Houston) and is the best player on Detroit’s team. So it only makes sense that the team should have known, as far back as that first playoff run in 2011, that they should do the best they can to lock him up. They did not, and they used the Salary Cap as their excuse. So let’s take a quick look at this upcoming season’s highest plaid Lions.

Lions 2015 cap hits

Image via sportrac.com 

The Lions have already paid Johnson and Stafford boatloads of money. They decided they couldn’t afford a third boatload or the whole ship would go down. They gave out huge dollars to Johnson and Stafford, which, again, I understand and can get behind, but here’s the problem. Suh is very much in his prime, and I’m not even certain that he’s halfway done with his prime yet. While Stafford, though in his prime, has probably peaked, and certainly has quirks that limit the team’s performance (although I have no interest in cutting ties with him) and I’m very worried that Calvin is actually on the back half of his prime.

calvin-record2

Injuries are finally beginning to catch up to him through absolutely no fault of his own. He is far and away the greatest wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. Jerry Rice can shove it. But for his entire career there was absolutely NO way any defender could LEGALLY slow him down or stop him. So what did they do? Twist his ankles. Throw late hits and cheap shots. Basically do anything illegal that the refs would let them get away with. Which as it turns out was A LOT. The NFL created unfair rules to try to limit Calvin’s impact on the game (which came back to bite them this post-season as it screwed over Dez Bryant and the Cowboys) and refs refused to give him the benefit of the doubt EVER as defenders took cheap shots at him constantly.

Well… all these extra hits and extra miles were bound to take their toll, and Calvin has undeniably slowed down this year. He missed large chunks of the season last year, and that wasn’t the only problem. The whole offense was sluggish and disappointing all last year. Detroit was 22nd in scoring in a year where they had Stafford, Johnson, and new high paid receiver option Golden Tate. In only 3 games last year did the Lions exceed 24 points (and half the time the defense was scoring at least 7, but up to 14 of those 24 anyway) and in 10 games they were held to 20 or fewer points. So the first question is, how much could those 3 guys REALLY be worth if for well over half the season they only account for 20 points? And the next question is, how did that team even make the playoffs? The answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second, of course, is Suh.

Mayhew has allocated $43,629,250 of cap space to Johnson, Stafford, and Tate. $38,279,250 to Stafford and Johnson alone, and has therefore decided that he cannot afford another $20,000,000 for Suh. Makes sense if Suh weren’t an all time great, but if my only options were to lose Suh (a surefire Hall of Famer and ALL TIME GREAT at his position who BY ALL ACCOUNTS should have retired with his original team) or overpay all three of them, I’m picking the overpay 1,000 times out of 1,000. It’s too late to take the money away from Johnson, Stafford, and Tate, and in truth I don’t really want to, but off all those guys if I can only have one I pick Suh every. Single. Time. We’re paying 35% of our cap to 3 guys accounting for maaaaaybe 15% of last season’s success and “unable” to pay 15% of the cap to 1 guy who accounts for something like 40% of our wins. Sounds like wise business planning to me. Keep up the good work Mayhew…

No, I'm not quite sure why I got the job either. I'm also not sure why I haven't been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks... (Photo Credit - Daniel Mears)

No, I’m not quite sure why I got the job either. I’m also not sure why I haven’t been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks… (Photo Credit – Daniel Mears)

I’d rather keep Suh at whatever his asking price was and be bad for the rest of his career WITH him than let him go and embrace whatever debacle is about to be inflicted on me for the next 5 years.

And the worst part? Cutting him doesn’t even solve any of Detroit’s cap woes. That money tied up in an under-performing offense is still there. We’re still paying big money to two tight ends, neither of whom are performing at the level we need them to. And the real kicker is this. Check this one out. Bill Barnwell brought this up last week on the Grantland NFL Podcast, and it is a hilariously depressing point. This is a list of the 5 highest paid DTs in the NFL next year based on average salary.

Top 5 DTs Salarys

Image via sportrac.com

But there is one name missing from this list. Ndamukong Suh. “But wait!” You exclaim. “He’s not missing! He’s right there at the top!” Yes he is friend, but you are forgetting the ghost of Ndamukong Suh. Because of the way the Lions restructured his deal when he was still with the team, Detroit still has exactly $9,737,500 worth of Ndamukong Suh on the books for this coming season. And yes, that means Ndamukong Suh is technically both the highest paid DT in football with his Miami figure as well as the 5th highest paid DT in football with his Detroit figure… If he was going to be eating up $10,000,000 of cap space either way, HOW could you not re-sign him??? The whole excuse was that we needed to move on for cap related purposes!!! Well we moved on and it sure doesn’t look like the cap is fixed!!! Moreover, refer back to that earlier image of the Lions 10 highest paid payers for next season… SUH IS STILL THE THIRD HIGHEST PAID PLAYER ON THE LIONS!!! Add that number to Detroit’s replacement for Suh (Haloti Ngata) and his $8,500,000 figure, and essentially you’re still paying $18,237,500 to your number 1 DT tackle…only $810,000 more than Suh’s figure anyway… so don’t feed me this cap crap Mayhew…

And Mayhew’s plan for replacing Suh? That was a real gem. We brought in Haloti Ngata who is a very good NFL player.

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

Used to be better, but his prime ended a couple years ago so what are you gonna do. He’s still very good, just not at the top of his game like Suh is. But that’s ok. We’ll take him off your hands Baltimore. We’ll give you a 4th and a 5th round pick for him because cap starved teams NEVER rebuild through the draft right? That would be stupid. Teams with cap problems don’t draft rookies on cap controlled deals, they trade those draft picks for old veterans with massive salary cap hits. That’s what smart GMs do, right Martin? Nevermind the fact that Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome is the best GM in football who knows exactly when to cut ties with his own players, and nearly EVERY player Baltimore ever let’s go has a nearly immediate dropoff in production on their new team.

(Photo via NFL.com)

(Photo via NFL.com)

Haloti Ngata is still a very good player. Detroit needed some star power on the defensive line to plug the gap left behind by Suh. And Ngata will do that. For the next year… maybe two… but trading draft picks for him feels horrendously short sighted to me and seems akin to cutting off your right hand, and trying to duct tape it back together… it just isn’t enough.

Ndamukong Suh is one of the greatest defensive tackles to every play football. He’s one of the best players I have ever watched in my entire life. And he was on my team. He was my guy. I didn’t care about all the on field incidents of aggression, mainly because he was such a spectacular guy off the field. He came to Detroit at one of its lowest points in years (and let me tell you, there have been a lot of low points for the city of Detroit this past decade) and he helped put together something to be proud of and something fun to be a part of when the Lions and being a Lions fan has been anything but for for… ohhh… idk… my entire life.

Suh should have been allowed to retire a lion. When you have one of the best to ever play the game. When he is a first round draft pick for your team and turns out to be even more than you ever hoped for. When he is an ambassador and a pillar for your struggling community. When you have a guy like that playing for your franchise you do your best to make sure he becomes a lifelong member of your organization. You make sure he becomes a part of your family and stays a member of your family for life because invariably its those kinds of players who become ambassadors for the sport and your franchise for many years into the future. When Suh came to Detroit it felt like the franchise had FINALLY turned a corner. They finally had pieces in place with Stafford, Johnson, and especially Suh to be winners on and off the field. It felt like they had finally moved on from the Matt Millen debacle era, and learned how a great organization thinks. But clearly this is the same old Detroit with the some old ignorance and losing ways.