ALLEN PARK, Mich. — New Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell and his staff are starting to install their system this week without one of the star players and team captains around.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, as he’s done in past years, has chosen not to attend the beginning of the Lions’ voluntary offseason workout program.
It didn’t come as a surprise to him, but Caldwell wishes it were different.
"It certainly didn’t blindside me," Caldwell said Thursday. "We certainly knew. He and I have had probably more discussions than any player that we’ve had on the team. He’s been in and out. I think he was here actually a couple days when I came in to visit. We kind of knew exactly what was going on.
"From a coach’s standpoint, it’s just like anything else. My business is to get into position to win and win consistently. So we want every single minute of every single hour of every single player. That’s the way we want it. The rules don’t always lend to that type of attitude, but nevertheless that’s the way it is.
"We’re working. We’ve got a great group that are here. They’re focused. We’re making progress."
Caldwell wouldn’t elaborate on the exact nature of his discussions with Suh.
Because they are officially "voluntary" workouts, there’s really not much Caldwell and the Lions can do, other than be a little disappointed.
"I told you my feelings on it, what I would like to have done," Caldwell said. "It’s just kind of the way it is at this point in time."
The coaches aren’t allowed to work with the players on the field at this point, per collective-bargaining rules, but they are allowed to have meetings. It’s during those meetings that the new defensive system is starting to get installed by coordinator Teryl Austin.
Running back Reggie Bush suggested to reporters that Suh’s absence is a "contract thing," but Suh has missed these workouts in past years, too.
Suh can become an unrestricted free agent after this coming season, but the Lions have expressed a desire to reach a contract extension with their two-time All-Pro, at least before training camp opens.
From all indications, there’s no deal close to being put together at this time, partly because negotiations were put on hold for several weeks after Suh switched agents.
Suh, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, was a captain last season and will be relied upon to add even more leadership now, with the Lions trying to get back to the playoffs following two straight losing seasons.
It’s only natural that teammates, especially the younger players, would look to Suh to set an example. You can argue he’s not doing that by choosing to skip these off-field workouts.
Not surprisingly, however, his teammates aren’t publicly criticizing him for it.
"Ndamukong’s a hard-working guy," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, I’m sure he’s doing the right things, not only for himself but for our team.
"He’s a guy that has trainers he likes to work with. He’s done it sometimes in the past. We understand it.
"The one thing we know, when he shows up, he’s going to be in great shape and be playing great football, and we’ll be happy to have him."
Bush told reporters, "Nobody is looking down on him."
Safety James Ihedigbo, who recently signed a free-agent deal with the Lions after spending the last two years with the Baltimore Ravens, also stood up for his new teammate.
"Suh’s never been a guy who’s going to come in out of shape or not prepared, not physically ready to play," Ihedigbo said. "He’s a dominant force in this league, a dominant force on this team.
"I’m excited to be able to have him on my D-line. It’s going to make my job a lot easier come this season.
"We have open arms for him when he gets back, and we know he’s going to be ready to go."
The Lions have a voluntary mini-camp scheduled in two weeks (April 22-24).
Will Suh or won’t Suh be there? That’s the question.