Forgotten Villain Ndamukong Suh Is Happy to Lurk in the Super Bowl Shadows

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2019

Los Angeles Rams nose tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) is framed by a video camera as he speaks to reporters during a news conference ahead of the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game against the New England Patriots Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

ATLANTA — If the younger version of Ndamukong Suh were still playing, he would be the most talked-about player of Super Bowl week.

Suh was one of the best defenders in the NFL from 2010 through 2014. He was also the most notorious by far, with a cheap-shot delivering, player-stomping reputation somewhere between a WWE heel and Genghis Khan.

If that version of Suh were playing on Sunday, we'd fret about him crippling Tom Brady, perhaps by suplexing him after the whistle, or costing his team a win with an unnecessary penalty. If that version of Suh made remarks about sticking a dagger in the Patriots and watching them leak, we'd take them literally.

But the older and (in his own words) wiser Suh is playing in this game. His reputation is not what it used to be, for better and for worse.

Aaron Donald is now the sack-happy superstar, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Marcus Peters are the smack-talking bad boys, and Suh, now 32 years old and with his third NFL team, has found contentment outside of the spotlight.

"I wouldn't say I'm not in the spotlight," Suh said as a phalanx of reporters jostled for position at his interview riser on Tuesday.

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"But I'm an introvert. I don't mind being behind the shadows and just being a cog in a wheel."

Suh is a significant cog in the Rams wheel. He has not been named first-team All-Pro since 2014 or named to a Pro Bowl since 2016, but he is still a stout run defender and sometimes-fearsome pass-rusher.

While not the unstoppable force he was in his Lions heyday, Suh remains effective at winning one-on-one matchups as opponents focus their protection on Donald. In Super Bowl LIII, Suh will be tasked with not just pressuring Brady up the middle but also stopping the now ball-control-oriented Patriots offense.

Despite his pivotal role, Suh arrived in Atlanta with a lot less heat than he used to generate just a few years ago. Suh was fined by the league eight times from 2010 through 2014 for various acts of wanton violence:

Stepping on Aaron Rodgers' leg; shoving Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith's head into the turf; kicking Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the jock; as well as assorted roughness fouls, facemask yanks and throat-slash gestures.

Suh even attended a meeting with Roger Goodell and league officials in 2011 for "clarification" of the rules he was accused of regularly breaking.

"Obviously, there have been some mishaps that took place early in my career," Suh said. "Some people choose to run with it for years, some people choose to run with it for days. It's up to them."

Suh says that his style of play has evolved, but he chuckled when asked if his older-and-wiser approach led to a decrease in "mishaps."

"I'm not sure if anything's changed," he said with a chuckle. "I'm still aggressive. I still get after quarterbacks. I don't know: You have to ask the refs."

Suh hasn't exactly become a choir director in recent years. He was charged with roughing-the-passer twice this season and fined for a horse-collar tackle. He was penalized 13 times in 2017, three times for roughness-related fouls.

But the cage-match incidents after the whistle have decreased. And so has the attention they receive.

Suh grabbed Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett off the ground and threw him backward after a play in 2017. Replays showed Mallet ill-advisedly charging Suh to instigate the incident, but the maneuver would have led the news cycle if Suh had done it to someone like Rodgers a few seasons earlier. But the incident received few headlines, let alone a summit with a commissioner, in part because the players and teams involved, Suh included, just weren't all that relevant last year.

The storyline surrounding Suh changed when he signed a $114 million contract with the Dolphins in 2015. Suh's mammoth contract with the Lions was considered one of the reasons Detroit's rebuilding plan stalled. In Miami, a team with many needs and a penchant for miring itself in expensive mediocrity made him the highest-paid defender in the league.

Though Ndamukong Suh had some good moments during his tenure in Miami, his decline in production convinced some in the NFL that his career was all but over.
Though Ndamukong Suh had some good moments during his tenure in Miami, his decline in production convinced some in the NFL that his career was all but over.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Suh's sack totals dipped, and soon he went from being considered a dirty player to being considered a free-agent bust. The wrasslin' villain who threw chairs and gouged eyes became the money-grubbing heel with the silk robe and golden-handled cane.

Then he became just another aging veteran defender with a big paycheck. The Dolphins released him with three years left on his contract. The Rams signed him to a one-year contract. His new teammates weren't sure what to expect.

"You hear all this stuff: 'He's such a dirty player,'" Michael Brockers said. "But then you meet him and think, 'Hey, you're nothing like that.'"

While Suh has long been cast as a bad guy, in part because he took that role upon himself with all of those stomping-and-slashing mishaps, he has always been mild-mannered, soft-spoken and introspective off the field.

"They think I am a villain on and off the field," Suh said during Monday's Opening Night interviews. "I like to be a dominant force when I am between the lines, but that is not who I am 24-7-365.

"Don't just take my play as who I am as a human being."

"He's a businessman," Brockers said before quickly making it clear that he was referring to Suh's day-at-the-office mindset, not his earning prowess. "I like his mentality. A lot of people think that he shrugs them off, but it's all about his mindset. He's on a track; he's on a mission."

Suh may have been miscast as a superstar, too: Defensive tackles rarely get high sack totals and glory that Donald now enjoys. But just as he earned his villainous reputation with a few early-career "mishaps," Suh earned fame and fortune by taking over big games.

His 4.5-sack performance in the 2009 Big 12 title game made him the most coveted defensive prospect in his draft class. A pair of fourth-quarter sacks against the Cowboys in the 2014 playoffs would have made him a hero if the Lions managed to hold off a Cowboys comeback.

With Aaron Donald drawing the bulk of the attention from opposing coaches, Suh has been asked to provide enough pressure up the middle to allow Donald to rush off the edge.
With Aaron Donald drawing the bulk of the attention from opposing coaches, Suh has been asked to provide enough pressure up the middle to allow Donald to rush off the edge.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Suh still delivers those dominant performances once in a while. In 2017, he helped the Dolphins defense pressure Tom Brady into one of his worst games of the season, recording a sack in a 27-20 upset that wasn't as close as the score. He registered 1.5 sacks in this year's NFC Championship Game, getting to Drew Brees on back-to-back plays before halftime to help ignite a Rams comeback.

When asked to reflect upon his career, Suh said: "It's been a lot of highs and lows. But I enjoyed every minute of it."

"Everything happens for a particular reason; we just may not see it right away," he added. "I'm very proud of everything that I went through and looking at where I'm at now."

Suh may finally be where he fits best. There are no outsized expectations that he will single-handedly win games or fears that he will commit Bradyslaughter in the Super Bowl. He can be a cog in a wheel, operating in the shadows for a team in the limelight.

Suh is one big game away from changing the perception of him once and for all: from heel to has-been to hero.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.