Terrell Suggs heard the critics. He was out of shape. Overpaid. Unfocused. Selfish.
In 2009, the Ravens linebacker recorded a career-low 4.5 sacks in his first season chasing quarterbacks with the weight of a fat, new contract extension on his broad shoulders.
Two seasons later, Suggs, in the third year of a six-year, $63-million deal, has made all of that talk seem silly, while still entertaining fans and former critics alike by saying his own goofy things whenever the camera flashes on and a microphone gets shoved in his face.
But Suggs, who at season's end will likely make back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances for the first time in his career, might not be getting national praise for his play today if not for a reunion with a former coach and a vow to himself to take football more seriously.
"I am not going to be 29 forever," Suggs said. "We have a good chance to make a run at [a Super Bowl title]. My opportunity to achieve that football immortality, that greatness, the window, let's be honest, is not as wide as it was when I first started when I was 20."
If you ask Ted Monachino, Suggs has not changed much since the former Arizona State star was selected by the Ravens with the tenth overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft. Suggs had more of a filter then when speaking with reporters, but he has always been "T-Sizzle."
Monachino coached the defensive line at Arizona State when Suggs racked up an NCAA-record 24 sacks in his junior year. He joined the Ravens as outside linebackers coach in 2010 and set about helping Suggs, whom he said was wounded by the criticism.
"I think it affected him. He felt that some of the things he was being criticized for were out of his control," Monachino said. "When we explained it to him, he realized a lot of those other things were in his control. … He took ownership of himself as a player and an athlete. He took ownership in his conditioning and his diet, all of those things."
They talked about what was important to Suggs and what he wanted to take away from his experience in the NFL. Suggs was certainly inspired to silence his critics, but his main desire (besides leaving his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy) was to be the best.
"Not the best he could be," Monachino said. "He simply wanted to be 'the best.'"
Monachino challenged Suggs to improve his behavior during practice and while in the meeting room — and at home in his pantry, too. Suggs cut back on the cookies, showed up at training camp in July of 2010 about 20 pounds lighter and was ready to dominate.
Suggs recorded 68 tackles and 11 sacks — his highest sack total since his rookie season (12) — and finished the fourth Pro Bowl season of his career by dragging down Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times in the AFC Divisional Round loss.
In 2011, Suggs, who was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after recording three sacks last week, is threatening to set a new career-high in sacks. He has nine in 11 games, and has added 49 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. His stellar all-around play is garnering NFL Defensive Player of the Year chatter from some pigskin pundits.
It wouldn't be happening if not for Monachino, whom Suggs said he'd give his arm for.
"Our relationship is deeper than football. I care about the man. He cares about me. And you can see that since he has been here, he rejuvenated my whole career," Suggs said. "He's like family and I'm just glad he's my coach again. I want to make him proud."
Suggs is as playful as ever, whether he is founding a fictional university — Ball So Hard U — based on a song by Jay-Z and Kanye West, claiming dominion over Roethlisberger's backside, or chiding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and tight end Dennis Pitta for their Fu Manchu mustaches.
"But the seriousness is there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the emerging leader, one who is often spotted by his teammates watching tape in the ice tub or the Jacuzzi.
"For a guy to be able to balance the fun part with just a real strong desire to be the best in the league at what he does," Harbaugh said, "he's highly motivated. You can tell by the way he works and the way he leads. It's been really nice to see it pay off statistically for him. But I don't think he cares. He just wants to play the best he can next week."
The biggest obstacle for Suggs on Sunday will be Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, whom Suggs praised Wednesday as one of the top three left tackles in the NFL. But it's a two-way street for Thomas, who will have to block one of its best pass rushers.
"Every team knows they have to tend to Terrell wherever he is," Monachino said. "When they didn't do that, he took it as disrespect. Now that they are, he sees it as a challenge."
That respect means more to Suggs than individual accolades. He vowed to be the best. And thanks to Monachino, he now knows he can't accomplish that ultimate goal alone.
"There is a big reminder at the end of the end zone," said Suggs, pointing to a picture of the Lombardi Trophy looking down on the indoor practice field. "It's a constant reminder that this is bigger than one's self. We are all buying in and playing for each other this year."