There is little doubt that Ndamukong Suh has reached a turning point in his NFL career as he prepares to serve the suspension he so richly deserves for his actions in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Packers. He either is the best defensive lineman in football or has the ability to be the best but hasn't gotten there yet because he insists on worrying more about building an image of himself as the baddest man around than he is in simply being the best football player he can be. But what is rapidly becoming equally clear is that Suh is nowhere near all that's wrong with the Detroit Lions, and it may, in fact, be the Lions that are what's wrong with Suh.
Following a 5-0 start to the 2011 season, the Lions have now dropped four of their last six games and have gone from Super Bowl contender to playoff long shot. One clue to who the Lions really are is that their losses are to the 49ers, Falcons, Bears and Packers, whereas their only victories over teams that now have winning records came against Chicago, which was 2-2 at the time, and Dallas, which was 2-1. A closer look at their win over the Bears reveals the Lions did everything they could to give that game away, with 12 penalties for 94 yards and minus-1 in turnover-takeaway ratio. What the young Lions revealed in victory in that Week Five Bears game was a terribly young and immature group that not only was still learning how to win but also was still finding ways to lose.
One week later, following a hard-fought loss to San Francisco, we witnessed what at the time seemed like a simple misunderstanding between head coaches at a very emotional moment. Now, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I believe what we really saw in Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz's angry overreaction to an admittedly exuberant backslap from 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, which nearly evolved into an all-out brawl between the two teams and coaches, reflected the real problem with the Lions.
What's wrong with the Lions is they are a young and immature organization that hasn't learned how to win yet, and it starts with Schwartz. While Suh is certainly responsible for his own actions, and it is never OK to attempt to kick or stomp an opponent, it looks to me as if Schwartz and his staff may have been acting as classic enablers. At the time, it was at least politically correct to spread the blame for the 49ers-Lions near-brawl equally between Harbaugh and Schwartz. But the reality is that all Harbaugh did was slap Schwartz on the back a little too hard following a really big win. Schwartz, on the other hand, badly overreacted, chasing Harbaugh down the field and needing to be restrained by his own players, giving us a preview of Suh's terrible overreaction to getting tangled up with Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Four weeks later, coming off their bye week, the Lions went into Chicago for their divisional rematch with the Bears and completely embarrassed themselves, cheap-shotting the Bears several times after it was obvious the Bears were kicking their butts, and eventually starting a brawl that led to $62,500 in fines for a number of players. I felt bad for the Lions after the game for having acted so childishly, but I heard nothing from Schwartz in his postgame comments that indicated he shared my feelings.
Marty Mayhew has been one of the best GMs in the league over the last few years, assembling the outstanding young talent he has in Detroit. Schwartz has been an excellent defensive coach for years and appears to be doing a really nice job of developing the talent Mayhew has given him — physically. And when Suh acts like a street thug on the field, that's on him, not Schwartz.
Yet, when Suh and a number of his teammates consistently play after the whistle and on the fringes of the NFL's rules governing violence and sportsmanship, earning the label they now have of a "dirty team," that's on the head coach. There is no defending Suh, but there's also no hope he'll get better until his coach starts setting the right example and teaching him the right way to play the game.