Haloti Ngata, former Ducks star, turns into player-coach with Lions while injured

Nov 20, 2017 | by Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Detroit Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has not played a game in more than a month, and he might not play again. But as the former Oregon Ducks star rehabs from surgery to repair a torn biceps, Ngata has made the telling choice to do so around the team.

“We’ve been calling him ‘Coach 92’ since the summer, since OTAs (organized team activities) and stuff,” Lions defensive end Cornelius Washington said. “He is the old man and he takes a day off, so during that day off we call him ‘Coach 92’ ’cause he coaches for that day. But just having that presence in the room, it’s always good and he keeps us on track if we go off on a tangent.”

Ngata, 33, has taken on a more prominent role as a teacher and pseudo-coach in the Lions defensive line room since his injury.

He has attended games at home and on the road. He is a fixture playing cards in the locker room. And players and coaches say his voice still carries plenty of weight on a team that has come to rely on its defense.

“I think he offers the same thing he did when he was playing,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He is a veteran voice. He’s a guy that’s been through a lot of trench warfare in there with the guys. He’s able to give them insights as a player, just like he was when he was here. So I think that’s important that he’s around, and he still provides leadership to that group.”

While at Oregon from 2002 to 2005, Ngata was the Ducks’ first consensus All-American in more than four decades and was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2005 before leaving after his junior season. He was drafted 12th overall by the Baltimore Ravens.

The Lions have missed the two-time All-Pro’s presence on the field since he was injured in the first half of an Oct. 8 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The Lions have given up 153.8 yards rushing in five games without Ngata in the lineup, after allowing just 74.6 yards in the first five weeks with him on the field.

On Thursday, the Lions face the NFC North Division-leading Minnesota Vikings, who through Sunday’s games had the eighth-best rushing offense in the league with 123.3 yards per game.

“You’re talking about one of the all-time premiere run stoppers in the league,” Austin said. “And even in his advanced age — he won’t like me saying advanced age, but even in his advanced age, he was still a very, very strong run stopper for us. So, we’re missing that, but that’s part of the NFL. You’re not always going to have your good guys, and the guys that are in there have to step up and we have to play better.”

Ngata, a potential Hall of Famer when he retires, has declined all interview requests since telling the Free Press shortly after his injury that it still was “to be determined” if he would return for a 13th NFL season.

Austin said he has not seen Ngata lose any of his passion for the game, but he said he is not sure what Ngata’s plans are for 2018.

“He loves playing football. He loves being around his teammates, his team. He loves contributing. And I think that’s what makes him special,” Austin said. “He’s never been, the six years I’ve been involved with him, he’s never been a selfish person, ever. That’s the least thing you ever worry about with Haloti. Always looking for what’s good for the team, what can we do better as a team, as a group.”