For the Lions, this offseason came down to if they could sign Calvin Johnson to an extension.
Boom. Mission accomplished.
And then on the other side of the coin, they were forced to spend a good chunk of the offseason bailing dudes out of prison.
Furthermore, their lack of maturing was an issue all of last season, dating back to the debate of Ndamukong Suh being a dirty player following by Ndamukong Suh undeniably being a dirty player on national television. They were the second-worst team in penalty yards at 67 yards a game. Their lack of discipline was arguably holding (yeah, pun intended) the team back more than anything else.
The biggest issue was (now former) Lions starting cornerback Aaron Berry was arrested for a DUI and hit and run which he followed up with three charges of simple assault leading to him being cut from the team, creating a hole in an already porous secondary.
Nick Fairley, last season's first-rounder who was expected to be a big part of the defensive line by this year, suffered another setback by getting arrested for a DUI and marijuana possession and last year's 2nd-rounder Mikel Leshoure had two marijuana arrests resulting in a two game suspension to start the year (Fairley's suspension is most likely forthcoming).
Following the Berry release, Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement, "We have repeatedly stressed to everyone in our organization that there will be appropriate consequences when an expected standard of behavior is not upheld."
The idea that the offseason troubles are related to on-field discipline issues might be a bit overblown. As Miguel Cabrera has repeatedly proven with the Tigers, as long as you hit (and not your wife), everything will be forgotten shortly. But football is a game where the ability to control tempers and emotions is much more important than baseball. And given last year's defensive meltdowns, it's easy to see a connection.
Like the Tigers did with Cabrera, Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham said he was going to mentor Fairley personally earlier in camp. Cunningham was critical of Fairley but also noted improvement in him as training camp progressed.
"(Fairley) struggled early when we started camp, and he's starting to get into shape, Nick lacks some of that maturity, and he had to work overtime (in the 19-17 loss to the Browns) in the first half," he said. "You could feel the Nick Fairley I know, and he's run after practice, and he's done a lot of good things to get himself ready to play. And (week two of the preseason), I was really impressed in that first half."
But for the defense to be a success, they'll need to do something they haven't done all of last season, and that's actually stop teams. In the final game of the season when the Lions were fighting for a playoff spot against a Packers team starting a guy named Matt Flynn, they not only turned Flynn into a multi-millionaire by giving up a Lambeau Field record 480 passing yards. Cutting down on penalties will make huge strides for the team, but cutting down on the easy number of pass plays the Lions give up would be equally huge.
But who is going to do that remains to be seen. The Lions can apply pressure to the quarterback with their strong pass rushers up front, but if they don't disrupt the quarterback they're in big trouble. Right now the replacement for Aaron Berry will be rookie Bill Bentley.
Bentley was taken in the third round of the draft. The cornerback out of Louisiana-Lafayette was at practice on 8/22, playing around with his teammates. He challenged Alfonso Smith to a race and beat him by so much he turned around to taunt him toward the end.
"I did a Usain Bolt on him," Bentley laughed. "I'm ready for a rematch."
While the taunting part might not be so great for avoiding penalties, perhaps Bentley can be the answer in the secondary. He's exciting, brash and obviously fast. If that speed can translate into coverage, the Lions might be in decent shape.
"It would be a great blessing and a great opportunity to start as a rookie," Bentley said.
Schwartz says they need someone one who they can rely on at the cornerback spot. And right now they're hoping it will be Bentley.
"It's not just what they do every day here, but doing it against different competition," Schwartz said. "We've seen that with different quarterbacks, different wide receivers, different matchups, and we need to be consistent at the corner. That's a position where consistency is at a premium.
The Lions are a young team still and if Bentley starts, they'll have more unproven guys on the field. Distractions like key players getting arrested – Suh's Stomp Heard Round the Thanksgiving Table is a perfect example – aren't going to help them keep focused during the season, especially if the players are suspended.
Whatever the case may be, the Lions are built around guys like Suh, Fairley and Leshoure. If the team wants to sit at the grown-up table with the Packers and Bears, they need to start acting – and defending – like it. | RDW