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Lions must learn how to handle risky players; manage necessary culture change

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Jim Schwartz and Titus Young have some things to figure out. (Getty Images)

As we detailed over the weekend when posting the news of defensive tackle Nick Fairley's second arrest in an NFL career just about one year old, the Detroit Lions have a bit of a discipline problem on their hands these days. Fairley was popped last Saturday night by Alabama cops for allegedly driving under the influence and attempting to elude police. Fairley was also charged with marijuana possession recently -- he'll face arraignment for that charge in July, and it's reasonable to expect that he could expect a nasty letter from Roger Goodell in the near future.

Running back Mikel Leshoure has been charged with marijuana possession recently, seventh-round defender Johnny Culbreath has one of those charges in his recent record, and receiver Titus Young has his own disciplinary issues -- he started a fight in practice by sucker-punching safety Louis Delmas, and his lax attitude has been a point of concern in certain team circles.

On Tuesday, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who had been relatively quiet about these issues of late, finally aired it all out.

"I'm a lot of things; concerned, angry — there's a lot of different words," Schwartz said, when asked if he felt that a few players were discrediting the Lions organization. "It's disappointing also when our story is not about guys like Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Jeff Backus, Rob Sims… and I can keep going on. But that's the majority of this team. Unfortunately with situations like this, we all take ownership of problems that come to light that affect everybody."

Regarding Fairley, Schwartz was limited in what he could say publicly. "I have addressed it with Nick and I did talk to the team about it this morning. But beyond that, I really don't have any comment. I don't want to confuse 'no comment' with a situation like that which is a pending matter, with, 'we don't take it serious,' or anything else. We do take it serious, but I don't have a comment on it right now."

And it's not that Schwartz doesn't take this stuff seriously -- of course, he has to. But there's an increasing perception that the Lions don't have a guiding, authoritative voice who can take control of these situations. It's dangerous to bring a group of players into an environment like that, and the Lions' 2011 draft class had a pretty decent history of collateral damage in college.

"The signs and the flags were there -- it's not like they didn't have issues," one AFC personnel executive told NFL.com's Albert Breer. "It shouldn't be a huge surprise that these guys are having decision-making problems. Off the field, on the field, the flags were there. And it goes back to this: 'What's your philosophy on character risk? How do you approach the risk? Will it need to be significantly policed?' Those are the questions you need to answer."

Young is an excellent example. The talented receiver spent a healthy amount of time in Chris Petersen's doghouse at Boise State, and this was a well-known fact. Schwartz and his coaching staff are known to want guys who play on the edge and to the whistle, but that's a very fine balance. Young practiced Tuesday after issuing an apology via statement, but Schwartz said that his return doesn't eliminate past problems.

"I think you've got to take each case individually," Schwartz said of Young's draft class on Tuesday. "Some of the issues that this class, so to speak, has had, have been things that were on the radar with them, but then also, we've had other incidents with things that are not part of their past. Then again, we've had some other guys that have had issues in the past that have been able to put them behind them. I think that we are talking about young players; we're talking about guys that were rookies last year. We certainly don't want to excuse it just because their young, but we've seen the actions of a few have affected the reputation of the whole."

Well, that's the problem. The actions of a few will come to affect more than the reputations of the whole if these things continue -- it will affect another season in which the Lions could easily blow a pretty good playoff shot. In 2011, they were eliminated in the wild-card round by the New Orleans Saints, and that was after losing a few exasperating regular-season contests in which they simply couldn't stay out of their own way. It's clear that Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have built a team that can compete with any other on any Sunday. Question is, can they transcend their own foibles?

"That's the thing that is most concerning about it," Schwartz said. "There's a lot of guys that have an issue in the past. There's a lot of guys that have maturing situations and lessons they've learned from. I think that goes for everybody. That goes for me, that goes for everybody here. There's things that you do when you're young that maybe you're not proud of but you learn a lesson and it doesn't happen. We've had a couple situations here where it has happened twice. It certainly calls for concern that they haven't learned it and it puts more focus on it from our standpoint. It's how I talked about the other situation. I don't think it's going to be behind them right away. There's going to be some process involved in a lot of these situations."

Schwartz talks about diminishing returns, but he needs to make it about more than lip service, as well. Right now, the pressure is on him to change the culture.

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