September 12, 2013 at 9:44 am

John Niyo

Lions, Ndamukong Suh still paying price for reckless past

Allen Park — Ndamukong Suh wants to move on. He says he doesn’t want to dwell on the past, even as it catches up to him — again.

His head coach, Jim Schwartz, was saying the same Wednesday, a day after Suh, the Lions’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was fined $100,000 by the NFL for an illegal block in Sunday’s season-opening win against the Vikings.

Here’s the problem, though: Suh can appeal the fine, as he is — and as he should. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a slightly discounted rate in the end. But he can’t escape his past — at least not for the foreseeable future — any more than the Lions can escape their own.

And trying to separate the two — the star player and his coach, the individual and the team, perception from reality, the past from the present — isn’t just an exercise in futility. It’s also the kind of dissociative behavior that got them in trouble in the first place, enabling the reckless play that earned Suh a league-wide reputation as a dirty player and the Lions a bad-boy image that has become synonymous with Schwartz’s tenure in Detroit.

Like it or not, fair or unfair, those are labels that stick. They also come with warnings, however, and to whatever extent the Lions ignored them, they did so at their own future expense.

Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, was fined five times in his first two NFL seasons even before he was slapped with a two-game suspension for his infamous Thanksgiving Day stomp of the Packers’ Evan Dietrich-Smith in 2011. And it was painfully clear in the response to some of those incidents — both from Suh and his superiors — that the message wasn’t getting through.

Martin Mayhew, the Lions general manager, admitted as much after the 2011 season, saying, “Looking back on it, probably not enough people talked to him in those situations.”

Schwartz, for his part, never acknowledged that. Suh’s defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, really didn’t, either. As the latter put it back in August 2011, shortly after Suh was fined $20,000 for a preseason hit on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, “The problem with the league is they’ve never seen a tackle like this. That’s their problem.”

Maybe so, but the Lions’ problems run deeper than that. Because just like Suh, who’s undoubtedly facing another suspension the next time he’s subject to supplementary discipline, their fist-pumping, chest-bumping, Tom Brady-taunting, challenge flag-throwing reputation precedes them. And follows them like a shadow.

The Lions lead the league with 116 personal-foul penalties since 2009, when Schwartz and his staff took over in Detroit, according to STATS LLC. (The Eagles are a distant second with 99 in that span.) And while the Lions cut their season total from 37 and 35 in 2010 and ’11, respectively, to 21 last season, I’m not sure anyone cared to notice, especially after a 4-12 finish that followed a rash of offseason player arrests.

“When you think about this football team, the Detroit Lions, they play to the echo of the whistle now,” former NFL coach Herm Edwards said on ESPN radio Wednesday. “I mean, this is how they play.”

Play. Played. Whatever.

Lions are targeted

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Suh, myself or even the quietest guy on the team,” said Nate Burleson, the Lions veteran wide receiver. “There’s a perception that Detroit football players are a little rough around the edges.”

He paused, and added, “So we don’t want to give anybody any ammunition to shoot at us unfairly.”

Insert your own pellet gun joke here, I suppose. And feel free to repeat Schwartz’s defiant postgame comment about all the penalties his team committed. (“I’m not going to apologize for anything this team did,” the coach said.)

But whatever they’ve done to deserve it, Burleson’s right: The Lions do have a target on their backs. And it hardly matters if Suh’s really the league’s dirtiest player or merely the easiest target, after going from a league-high five personal fouls as a rookie — and four more in 2011 — to just one last season.

“I think he has adapted from a couple years ago,” Schwartz argued Wednesday, before adding the obvious — that this latest NFL verdict was as severe as it was “because of what happened in his past.”

Suh seemed to suggest that wasn’t fair when he was asked about his repeat-offender status clouding the judgment.

“Really, you’ve got to ask the league that question,” he said. “Whether they wanted to make a decision off my reputation or off of this year or whatever it may be — it’s the first game of the year, so I don’t know.”

Critics let loose

Surely, though, he knows. He knows every time he toes the line or crosses it, he’ll hear from his critics first, and then from the league.

After Suh’s dangerous — and unnecessary — low block on the Vikings’ John Sullivan on Sunday, current and former players immediately started the mud-flinging Monday. “Enough is enough,” Saints tight end Ben Watson said. Ex-Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a CBS analyst, called Suh a “thug” and said a six-game suspension was warranted. Jeff Saturday, the retired six-time Pro Bowl center from the Colts, called Suh a “dirty player.”

“Every player that plays against him knows it,” said Saturday, now working for ESPN. “What he does and continues to do is ridiculous.”

Suh, who was elected a first-time captain by his teammates just last week, wasn’t interested in defending himself publicly Wednesday. He knows that’s a game he won’t win, and he “graciously” requested the media let him focus on one he can, Sunday at Arizona.

“You’re never gonna change people,” he shrugged.

Maybe not, but he — and his team, from the head coach on down — better keep trying.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Ndamukong Suh, who was elected a first-time captain by his teammates just last week, wasn't interested in defending himself publicly Wednesday. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News