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Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Picking through the mess in Detroit

By Kevin Seifert

Jim Schwartz
The Lions may not have the most talented team, that doesn't excuse the sloppy play under coach Jim Schwartz this season.
A loss to the previously winless Buffalo Bills has sparked a new round of discussion about the Detroit Lions' progress, or lack thereof, under the leadership of general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Lions are 4-21. At this point, you would hope they would have been positioned to beat the NFL's worst team even while dealing with another injury to franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford.

We pushed through a "Have at It" on Schwartz's performance earlier this season, agreeing for the most part that continuity and patience should be paramount at this point in the rebuilding process. As I suggested in Tuesday's SportsNation chat, Mayhew-Schwartz deserve three years to get this team in a position to win consistently.

But that doesn't mean we can't take a closer look at what the Lions are -- and aren't -- doing now. It's only fair to note that an ominous trend has developed, one that has nothing to do with the talent gap left by former president Matt Millen.

Viewed from just about any objective standpoint you can think of, the Lions have been the sloppiest team in football. As the chart illustrates, no team has dropped more passes or committed more pre-snap penalties. The Lions are also in the bottom third of the NFL in turnovers.

In putting those numbers together, I was reminded of something I often heard Mike Tomlin say when he was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator. Tomlin wanted his players to be "good at the things that take no talent."

It's true that Millen left Mayhew and Schwartz a bare cupboard of talent. But can you blame dropped passes on a lack of talent? To me, no. At the NFL level, catching is not a matter of skill but of concentration and technique. (If you can't catch, you never make it in the first place.)

Does it take talent to stay onside until the snap of the ball? I don't think so, and I doubt anyone involved in the NFL would tell you otherwise. Again, it's a baseline skill for any professional player.

Mistakes and talent aren't intertwined in this instance. I won't profess to know why the Lions are making so many unforced errors, as they're referred to in tennis. But whether it's their fault or not, Mayhew and Schwartz have presided over some inexcusably sloppy football this season. It's a programmatic issue that ultimately falls on their shoulders. If anything, the Lions needed to be ahead of the discipline curve to eke out some victories while they close the talent gap. Instead, they are putting themselves even further behind by adding to their already-noted deficiencies.

Again, I don't think this combination of numbers means Schwartz isn't a good coach or that Mayhew has a poor eye for talent. At this point, I'll just fall back on a favorite saying of many in the NFL: It is what it is. The Lions have been sloppy, it's contributed to their 2-7 record and it's something they can't blame on Matt Millen.