NEW ORLEANS – From the start of the rebuilding process, the Detroit Lions' mantra has been simple: play tough and play as a team. Ground would be stood. Teammates would be backed. They'd hit through the whistle.
It's a reasonable concept until the Lions found themselves here, losing for the fifth time in seven games: a 31-17 defeat to the New Orleans Saints, buried as much by a blizzard of foolish penalties as Drew Brees'(notes) bombs. This club is an undisciplined mess, seemingly unaware of time and situation.
This loss was a testament to unnecessary and unlikeable play: 11 penalties for 107 yards, one seemingly both dumber and more backbreaking than the next. Beating the Saints in the Superdome is tough enough; it can't be done this way. Wild play is a coincidence that keeps on happening to Detroit, although at least they are starting to admit it.
"We had one last week and that was a selfish play that put four points on the board and took one of our players out of the game," coach Jim Schwartz said of star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's(notes) Thanksgiving game stomp that led to an ejection and a two-game suspension.
"It's my job to make sure the trend stops right now," Schwartz said
How that happens is anyone's guess. It's not like it hasn't been discussed ad nauseam in meetings, locker rooms and the sidelines. Schwartz's suggested next step: "Don't play guys who get penalties."
Realistically though, the team is already decimated with injuries and suspensions. It still had its moments on both sides of the ball – holding the Saints to seven points in the second half and watching the offense rack up 466 yards.
"We kept shooting ourselves in the foot," quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) said. "You can't have it. I don't know how many times we had a 20-plus yard pass play called back for something. It seemed like every big chunk we had in the first half was coming back for something."
The question is whether this is a culture that can be fixed on the fly. If anything, the Suh suspension and the 10 days of endless talk about it should've pounded home the message.
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Instead there was Burleson with a facemask penalty (and three offensive pass interferences flags). There was Titus Young(notes) with a brain-dead post-whistle unnecessary roughness penalty. There was a terrible unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Stefan Logan(notes).
"The after-the-whistle stuff is selfish," Schwartz said. "If you're a selfish player you won't be playing."
What part of that is selfish and what part is, as Burleson described, a feeling of being selfless, of sticking up for a teammate in a post-whistle scrum only to cross the line?
"We've got to find that fine line," Burleson said.
Detroit should be a feel-good story. Even with the predictable mid-to-late season fade they are still on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Just three seasons ago they went 0-16. They play a fun style.
Instead, this is simply infuriating to watch. Every step forward comes with a crushing mental mistake. While none of the Lions had a specific example, none would rule out that the Saints were eager to bait them into bad penalties.
So everyone in the league knows the Lions play stupid.
Detroit insists it's talked and talked and talked about doing it differently. It hasn't worked. Schwartz looked furious. Stafford frustrated. There are only four games left, a season-defining stretch where the Lions need wins over Minnesota, at Oakland and San Diego before finishing up at Green Bay.
There's a difference between winning some games and becoming a playoff team – as any club that starts 5-0 and boasts this much raw talent should aspire. Part of it is mental.
New Orleans committed just three penalties for 30 yards, committed no turnovers and put in a workmanlike effort that made the game easy.
"Smart football teams play in January," Stafford said. "Teams that make smart decisions and don't beat themselves are going to be where they want to be."
Detroit isn't a smart team. They better learn how to become one soon or this entire renaissance will be for naught.
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