Shifting Suh-mania back to the field

While his sack total was down last season, Ndamukong Suh still made an impact for the Detroit Lions. AP Photo/Jim Prisching

We reached the height of Suh-mania in early February, when a Forbes magazine poll revealed Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was one of America's most disliked athletes. Two of the three men ranked ahead of him -- Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress -- are felons. The third, well, was Tiger Woods.

During a quiet moment at the NFL scouting combine, a few reporters were speaking with Lions coach Jim Schwartz. How did it come to this? Schwartz laughed, shook his head and suggested that Suh had spawned the "first armchair defensive linemen" in the history of NFL observation.

"We've all heard of armchair quarterbacks," Schwartz said, "and everybody has a thought on game strategy and what a coach should do. Everyone sees if a quarterback is having success or not. But Ndamukong is probably the first [lineman] that has that kind of scrutiny, that has Forbes magazine looking at him. … The fact that they're talking about a guy like Ndamukong Suh shows you how different he is and the scrutiny that he does get."

Three months later, an amazing thing has happened. The Suh-as-a-monster theme has been eclipsed by the New Orleans Saints' bounty story, among other offseason discussions about the NFL's violent nature. Ndamukong Suh stomped a player? Well, Gregg Williams ordered his players to take aim at opponents' heads and knees. Checkmate!

Even in a team context, Suh suddenly seems the least of the Lions' problems after an offseason in which three members of their 2011 draft class have been cited for marijuana incidents and a fourth -- receiver Titus Young -- sucker punched teammate Louis Delmas during a confrontation last week.

From this vantage point, it appears Suh has been handed an extraordinary opportunity if he cares about it. (And based on his carefully orchestrated offseason, which included an in-depth personality profile with ESPN's Hannah Storm and an upcoming appearance on a reality dating show, I'm guessing he does.) Public crusaders have abandoned their camp outside Suh's locker to chase new offenders, leaving Suh to redirect discussion back to where he and the Lions want it: to his on-field performance.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Suh said 2012 is "a very important year" in terms of restoring and/or enhancing his reputation as one of the NFL's most formidable defensive tackles.

"Every year I want to outdo the previous year," he said. "My rookie year was good. Last year was indifferent. This year we have an opportunity to have an outstanding year."

By "indifferent," I assume Suh meant he doesn't have a strong opinion about a 2011 season that saw his sacks drop from 10 to four and his tackles from 66 to 36. He was a Pro Bowl alternate after being voted a starter, as well as a first-team All-Pro, as a rookie in 2010.

To me, the question is if Suh's performance really dropped by the same percentage as his tackles and sacks. Was he half the player in 2011 he was in 2010? And will he need to be twice the player in 2012 to match his original promise?

The answer, based both on the Lions' assessment and that of independent observers, is no. Suh did not make the same kind of statistical impact and didn't have an elite season in 2011. But it's only fair to point out the flaws in relying purely on sacks and tackles to evaluate a defensive lineman.

Earlier this winter, Schwartz went back and watched every play of Suh's season. Afterward, he said, "I had more appreciation for what he did."

Schwartz added: "There are a lot of guys that are judged on a lot of different things. Defensive players, the only thing you get judged on are tackles, sacks and interceptions. There's not a whole lot that goes into it. Offensive linemen, it's tough to quantify those positions. …

"There's a couple plays in there, had a great pass rush, quarterback threw the ball before he wanted to. He's free to the quarterback, the quarterback gets rid of the ball, throws an interception. No stat at all for a defensive lineman. No sack, anything that people in the media or fans can look at, but obviously that’s an impact play."

Indeed, Pro Football Focus credited Suh with more quarterback pressures -- 27 -- than any NFL defensive tackle last season.

To be clear, I'm not rationalizing what was a less impactful second season for Suh. I just think it's fair to note he wasn't rendered completely ineffective and point out he doesn't have to make a huge jump to return to elite status. It might be difficult to judge him based purely on sack totals, as the charts suggest, but mostly I think we should all take advantage of a moment in time when Suh's football exploits are the only points of relevance in our discussions about him. Armchair away!