Lions working to restore order
Detroit needs to prove that off-field distractions won't undermine its lofty goals
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The first day of the Detroit Lions' training camp ended with head coach Jim Schwartz stepping away from a throng of reporters and trudging toward the first padded beam he could find inside the team's indoor facility. Plagued by an aching back that had pained him at the end of practice, he exhaled audibly as he gently leaned against the support and slid to the turf. In some ways, Schwartz looked as exhausted as the players who'd just been running full-tilt for the previous two hours. His visible relief also must have been the result of something equally satisfying: The focus on the Lions finally was back on what they were doing on the field.
The same local fans who couldn't watch that first practice -- severe thunderstorms forced the action off the outdoor fields -- certainly knew all that had happened to one of the NFL's rising teams this offseason. A handful of off-field arrests created the impression that Detroit might not be ready to continue the progress that came with its first winning season since 2000. Every person involved with the franchise had to be bracing for questions related to those issues as training camp opened. Those inquiries also might not end until the Lions prove that such distractions really won't undermine their goals.
Wide receiver Nate Burleson captured the sentiment surrounding the team when he said, "There are a lot of people out there waiting for the Lions to screw up. The spotlight on us is much hotter now than it's ever been."
Schwartz, however, sees things differently. "If you look at all the incidents that happened, not one involved a player who was actually in Detroit at the time," he said. "Every guy was in another place. That speaks to the accountability they have to the team while they're here. And while it's something you have to address, we also know we have six months with them before they leave again."
An Unsettling Offseason
- Jan. 23: Johnny Culbreath charged with marijuana possession in Orangeburg County, S.C. He paid a $412 fine.
- Feb. 18: Mikel Leshoure cited for marijuana possession in Michigan. He pleaded guilty to use of marijuana March 1 and paid a $485 fine.
- March 12: Mikel Leshoure arrested for marijuana possession. He pleaded guilty in May.
- April 3: Nick Fairley arrested for marijuana possession in Mobile, Ala.
- May 27: Fairley arrested for driving under the influence in Mobile, Ala.
- June 23: Aaron Berry arrested for driving under the influence in Pennsylvania.
- July 21: Berry arrested and charged with simple assault in Harrisburg, Pa.
Don't take Schwartz's lightheartedness as evidence that the coach doesn't see the gravity in his players' transgressions. This is a man who is such a no-nonsense stickler for details that he actually had cars towed out of the players' lot when the franchise hired him in 2009. Schwartz wanted his team to understand there were consequences for not doing something as simple as parking an automobile between two white lines. Imagine how he reacted when a variety of police reports kept landing on his desk over the spring and summer.
The Lions earned a 10-6 record and a wild-card playoff spot in 2011 mainly because they had enough talent and desire to escape the despair that had gripped the franchise for well more than a decade. Their ongoing prosperity depends largely on how consistently their stars perform and how quickly their young players mature. That second factor is what makes Detroit's problems troubling. All of the issues involved players with two years or less experience, including the two biggest jewels of their 2011 draft.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, last year's first-round pick, was arrested twice in his home state of Alabama (once for marijuana possession, then for driving under the influence and attempting to elude police). Running back Mikel Leshoure, a second-round selection, was arrested twice in less than a month, both times for marijuana possession. Throw in 2011 seventh-round pick Johnny Culbreath, an offensive tackle also arrested for marijuana possession, and you have to wonder how much the Lions overestimated the maturity of players who had significant red flags hovering over them entering the draft. At least the problems surrounding wide receiver Titus Young -- another second-round pick who was banned from the team for part of the offseason after sucker-punching safety Louis Delmas during a workout -- could be explained away as a kid losing his cool.
Those issues were enough for the team to silence those involved -- "I can't talk about any of that stuff," Young said -- and also take harsh actions in a couple of cases. Last month the team released both Culbreath and third-year cornerback Aaron Berry, who also had been arrested twice this offseason. Berry was arrested on suspicion of DUI on June 23, but his last strike involved three charges of assault while in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., a few days before camp. Police said Berry allegedly brandished a weapon during the incident.
Schwartz called the decision to drop Berry extremely tough because Berry was competing for a job as a starting cornerback. But Schwartz also said the player, like all members of team, had ample warning.
"Everybody left here [after offseason training ended] with very specific expectations of how to handle things," Schwartz said. "A lot of young guys make mistakes, but what you start to really look at is the mindset. If a guy is making bad decisions in moments like that, you wonder what he'll do in a big game."
Setting the right tone
Added Burleson: "The good thing about this team is that they intervened early and let everybody know this wouldn't be tolerated. The thing is, some guys have to fumble to learn good ball security. In this case, some people fumbled and got another chance to carry the ball. Other guys fumbled and lost that opportunity."
Burleson actually has a unique perspective on how quickly off-field problems can corrupt a franchise. He was a third-year veteran with the Minnesota Vikings when he joined 16 other teammates on two yachts on Lake Minnetonka in October 2005. It was going to be a fun-filled night with plenty of booze, strippers and wild ideas of how to make the most of the party. It turned into a circus that got so out of hand that four players later were charged with misdemeanors in what eventually became known as the "love boat" scandal.
Although the Lions' troubles don't come close to that controversy, Burleson learned a lesson that he hopes rings true for his younger teammates. "Once that happened, guys got caught up in it and eventually people were leaving town," Burleson said. "That made me understand that this isn't college anymore. This stuff isn't going to be in the school newspaper. It's going to be on ESPN. The thing with our guys is that I don't see cancers or bad picks. These are good kids. But what they have to realize is that it's not about who you are or how nice you are. It's about what you did."
The Lions also can look to the Cincinnati Bengals as proof of how legal run-ins can derail a promising team. At one point that franchise had nine different players arrested during a 12-month period between 2006 and 2007. It reached a point that older veterans were incensed about having to answer questions about teammates and commissioner Roger Goodell felt compelled to visit the team. The Bengals also fell apart on the field. After winning the AFC North in 2005, they didn't post another winning record until 2009.
Goodell hasn't reached out to the Lions yet, but he did send a missive to all teams earlier this offseason stressing the importance of personal conduct. The commissioner specifically emphasized that players needed to start showing better judgment in the wake of offseason arrests in other cities. Schwartz preached a similar message before the Lions finished offseason training and again when they met before camp started. As he addressed the team Thursday night, his message could be summed up succinctly: "Don't be that guy."
A foundation of leadership
Those same veterans also represent the biggest reasons for the optimism around Motown. Stafford set team records with 5,038 yards and 41 touchdown passes last season. Calvin Johnson became the most dominant wide receiver in the league. Even with a nonexistent running game and a mediocre defense, Detroit managed to fight its way into the playoffs with a fast start and critical late-season wins.
However, that same running game remains in question now that Leshoure (who missed last year with a torn Achilles) is suspended for the first two weeks of the season and Jahvid Best continues to struggle with concussion issues. Fairley's offseason issues only created more questions about his potential impact, especially because injuries plagued him most of last season. He promised to be more prepared this fall -- "I want to come in and help any way I can, even if it's just to give guys a breather," he said -- but he remains a backup for now. The starting cornerback job opposite Chris Houston also is up for grabs now that Berry is gone.
The Lions have enough talent to overcome some of these problems. The veterans also feel like the players who got into trouble have been contrite. Center Dominic Raiola said, "You could see how bad they felt about it when they came back here." Raiola added, "This might be the kind of thing that brings us closer together. I know the way last season ended [with a playoff loss to New Orleans] left a bad taste in our mouths, and there's no sense of complacency here. Guys are still hungry."
Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings actually raised that point during an NFL Network interview earlier this month. "Can they maintain their composure, both on the field and off the field?" Jennings told the network. "They're a very talented team, but they have struggles on the field containing their composure, and definitely, the things we've heard of, them being in the media with off-the-field problems and off-the-field issues. Can they maintain their composure? Can they be a professional ball club for 16, 17, 18 solid weeks throughout the regular season?"
The Lions can't answer that question today. Until then, they'll have to appreciate the positives around the organization. When they finally reached the outside practice fields on their second day of training camp, a huge crowd filled the stands to watch the action. Fans lined up to purchase team merchandise, and supportive cheers rang out as the players trotted off the field. Tight end Tony Scheffler -- a native of nearby Chelsea and an alum of Western Michigan -- said, "It's nice to see everybody excited about the organization after all the rough years here."
Those good vibes are precious indeed. So much so that the Lions' veterans have reminded their younger teammates that this franchise didn't win a game in 2008. That means everybody needs to understand that even the smallest mistakes can lead to bigger consequences.
"We can preach as much as we want, but guys still have to be responsible for their own actions," Raiola said. "We can't come to their houses, take their keys and watch everything they do. Some of these guys weren't here when we were 0-16. They don't know what it's like to be at the bottom of the barrel."
"We've all obviously been concerned by what's happened," Tulloch said. "It has to be addressed, and I'm sure the older players will talk to the younger guys about it as training camp goes on. The one thing we all have to understand is that we're always wearing our jerseys whether we're here or in the public. We have something special going on here. We don't want to blow it."
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