For the still unproven Detroit Lions and their still unproven head coach, this is an offseason on the brink.
The recent rash of off-the-field trouble – DUI arrests, marijuana charges, speeding tickets – has changed the narrative in Detroit and transformed a steady climb into something precariously close to a freefall.
The Lions are on the cusp of making a run at the Super Bowl-champion Giants, yet flirting with becoming the old Bengals. They seem poised to hatch the next generation of young superstars or deliver the next generation of wasted high draft picks. They could easily win their second playoff game in more than 50 years this season, but could just as easily miss the playoffs.
And right in the middle of all this is coach Jim Schwartz, the man who has restored order to this wayward franchise and the man who doesn't seem to know how to prevent further anarchy.
The pattern this offseason is beyond troubling. Defensive back Aaron Berry was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence last weekend. (Who's Aaron Berry, you ask? He's the guy who told Lions fans on Twitter to "go back to being Broke & Miserable" after the team got crushed by the Saints in the playoffs. Glad to see he's grown up over the summer.)
Not long before that, defensive lineman Nick Fairley was driving 100 mph when he passed a state trooper in his home state of Alabama. He was arrested on charges of driving under the influence and attempting to elude police. That followed an April misdemeanor marijuana possession charge when cops were called about Fairley speeding in Mobile. In March, running back Mikel Leshoure was found with marijuana in his mouth at a traffic stop in Michigan. (He was caught with pot a month before, as well.) Leshoure was suspended two games by the NFL. And backup offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath was caught with marijuana at a hotel in January.
None of these individual incidents threaten the fabric of a team, although anyone who gets behind the wheel in an altered state risks reputations, professions, and lives. But the breakdown in discipline is greater than a few ill-advised late-at-night decisions.
Evidence of that showed up when star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomped Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day and then deflected blame after he was ejected. It showed up when the Lions personal-fouled their way to an unsightly primetime regular-season loss to the Saints. And it showed up when Titus Young allegedly sucker-punched Louis Delmas during OTAs last month.
Need more? Let's not forget the last two games of the Lions' 2011 campaign, in which the defense gave up a season-high 45 points to Matt Flynn and the Packers (who were resting vital starters) and then gave up another 45 to Drew Brees and the Saints in the first round of the playoffs. That's 90 points in two important games, followed by an offseason in which the defense created almost all of the current embarrassment for the franchise. Not good.
Schwartz, you'll recall, is the defensive mind, hired following a long stint with the Titans to rebuild a team that hadn't shown front-four teeth since the Shaun Rogers era – and yes, that's a fond memory for Lions fans. He is much like his team: talented but volatile. He's the economics major with hints of the Moneyball mentality who also loves heavy metal. He's the guy who coolly insisted making the playoffs shouldn't be considered monumental, and he's the guy who nearly came to blows with Jim Harbaugh after a too-aggressive post-game handshake. Schwartz seems a little on edge, and so is the team. That's not a completely good thing.
Schwartz's role is especially important because the Lions are so young and aggressive. Yes, they have Kyle Vanden Bosch, a trusted veteran, but even he tends to overpursue on the field like a younger player. Suh would seem like the natural heir, but he nearly cost the team the playoffs with his infamous "Suh Stomp" on Thanksgiving. To make matters worse, Suh was ticketed for going 91 in a 55-mph zone this offseason. He was not impaired, but the last thing the Lions need is for their defensive superstar to act above-the-law at a time when so many teammates are acting lawless. Suh was troublesome for opponents early in the 2011 season, but toward the end he was contained and frustrated.
On the offensive side, there's Calvin Johnson, who is as classy and level-headed as they come. He's a quiet leader, the first guy on the field for practice and the guy who hustles even when it's not needed. But he's the straight-A student in a class of rascals: clean as a whistle but not the type who will put miscreants on blast. Quarterback Matthew Stafford seems much the same way – a ferocious leader in the fourth quarter, but fairly mellow otherwise.
That brings us back to Schwartz, who must show even more leadership than the average NFL head coach. The Lions are lacking discipline, and although the team issued a strong statement Tuesday after Berry's arrest, the statement should come from Schwartz himself. His behind-closed-doors demeanor must be much more stern than his public vibe following the Young incident.
What's at stake? Quite a bit. The Lions had a 10-win season, nirvana in Detroit, but you can argue the Bears would have taken their playoff spot if Jay Cutler stayed healthy. He's back now, and he has Brandon Marshall with him. Meanwhile, opposing teams have plenty of film on the Lions, which is something they didn't have coming off Stafford's injury-filled 2010 season. The Lions have swagger, but confidence can quickly corrode when a young team starts acting out and pointing fingers. The destiny for the team and the franchise starts not in training camp, but right now. It starts with Schwartz.
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When Jaguars first-round pick Justin Blackmon got a DUI earlier this month, the team held a press conference with Blackmon, new coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Gene Smith. Teammates chimed in as well, with Laurent Robinson telling the Florida Times-Union, "You gotta grow up," and Eben Britton saying "He let his teammates down, and he let everybody in the building down and his fans down." That kind of public shaming sent an emphatic message about what won't be tolerated on a young team trying to build a winning tradition. Is enough of that message being delivered in Detroit? Just hope it goes away, the Lions seem to say. But then it doesn’t. No, the only thing going away is the Lions' sudden credibility. And if someone doesn't fill what appears to be a discipline vacuum, the good feelings brought on by one good season will vanish along with it.
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