Ndamukong Suh stuck with 'dirty player' tag, but he still has power to change Lions' fortunes

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Calling someone a dirty player is usually met with shock. Calling Ndamukong Suh dirty isn't met with much of a reaction anymore.

Even a record $100,000 fine could be seen as light, because he didn't get a game docked. His latest wince-worthy move, kneecapping Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan on Sunday, was heinous and sadly unsurprising. The "Suh stomp" of Green Bay Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith two seasons ago on Thanksgiving was a shock, but every subsequent borderline cheap shot (remember the kick to the groin of Matt Schaub?) afterward has only added to an entrenched view of Suh.

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What will Suh do to change that perception, and change the Lions' reality of being a losing franchise?

A year after a suspect hit of quarterback Jake Delhomme in the preseason of his rookie year, Suh followed up with a near decapitation of Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton in a 2011 preseason contest. Suh was fined $20,000 (which is only a fifth of the penalty for Sunday's hit against the Vikings) and his reaction then was telling. Suh tweeted, "$20,000 REALLY???!!!" Then he compared himself to Shaquille O'Neal.

"Shaq had the same problem when he was in the NBA," Suh said. "He kept playing. NBA Hall of Famer soon to come, one of the greatest big men I've ever seen, so I hope to follow in his footsteps."

Perhaps Suh meant to compare himself to Bill Laimbeer.

Suh's reaction to the infamous stomp was worse.

"What I did was remove myself from the situation in the best way I felt, me being held down in the situation I was in," Suh told reporters. "And further, my intentions were not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself as you see, I'm walking away from the situation and with that I apologize to my teammates and my fans and my coaches for putting myself in the position to be misinterpreted and taken out of the game."

There was nothing at all misinterpreted. Suh stomped the man.

The Lions' 10-win season spiraled after that, devolving into a sideshow of wretched defense and undisciplined play. Last year was a 12-loss catastrophe, which itself followed an offseason of off-field issues.

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Suh failed to take ownership of his behavior and failed to fully embody his place as the soul of the Lions. He is the perfect embodiment of head coach Jim Schwartz, who is known for physical, aggressive defenses and for boys-will-be-boys rationalizations that end up torpedoing his own team. When Suh is on the field and playing well, Schwartz looks like a genius and the Lions look fearsome. When Suh is acting up or being shut down, the Lions resemble a fraud and Schwartz a WWE manager.

No offense to Calvin Johnson, who is as classy as they come, or Matthew Stafford, who took it upon himself to help recruit Reggie Bush to Detroit, but Suh is the fulcrum of this team. The Lions can go either way, depending on which way Suh goes.

It is Suh who lifts up the entire defensive line: Nick Fairley, who has matured in his own right, is tougher to handle when Suh is disruptive. Ziggy Anseh, the first-round pick in the classic Schwartz mold, is liberated by Suh's play. So is Willie Young. And the lot of those Lions assist a secondary that hasn't been potent since the Ray Crockett days.

The good news is this: there are signs Suh gets it. He is a team captain now, for the first time. He called a players-only meeting recently to reiterate the importance of this season. And he has apologized to his teammates for Sunday's knucklehead move, as well as to Sullivan, the man he hit. Yes, he has apologized to teammates for past behavior, but it was shrouded in excuse-making and weak rationalizations. The trend here shows a player who is realizing his place in a franchise, not just his place in a parade of Subway pitchmen.

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Detroit loves Suh. Fans see the power and potential he brings. Other Michigan teams have won with nastiness, most especially the Bad Boys Pistons but also the Red Wings with Bob Probert and Joe Kocur. (Jack Morris wasn't exactly on the board of the convention and visitors bureau, either.) Sure, some fans have had it with Suh's antics, but far more relish his mean streak and fear he's going to take the free-agent money and run. The Detroit Tigers are in contention for another pennant, but nothing would make Detroit happier than a Super Bowl run. Nothing.

The talent is there for the Lions to become a force in the NFL. But it's never been about talent in the Schwartz era. It's been about having the discipline to let the talent shine. Suh's latest offense was sadly vintage because it negated a pick-six by DeAndre Levy.

Suh may always be called dirty. But if he starts acting right, he's got a chance to be called the player who changed the Lions for the better.

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