By Matt Tropman
The Lions won the game against the Texans on Thanksgiving, but ended up with another mark in the “L” column thanks to a foolish replay rule and Jim Schwartz’ hasty red flag. Nevertheless, the season’s playoff aspirations, which were on life support already, were officially declared dead last Thursday. After an exciting playoff run last season, expectations were high this summer. But what has been true of the Lions for a generation remained unchanged this year: high expectations are always met with poor results.
And yet, something does feel palpably different about the Schwartz/Mayhew/Lewand iteration of the Honolulu Blue. There seems, or at least seemed, to be a general air of competence. But as year four draws to a close, maybe it was an illusion caused by the easy comparison to the complete failure that was the Matt Millen era. By that measure, Schwartz and Mayhew look like miracle workers. But by the standards of solid, consistent NFL teams, are they really holding their own?
The primary way to rebuild a decimated franchise is, of course, through the draft. Coaches can motivate and free agents can help, but the draft is where great teams start. Looking at some of the more notable draft picks since Schwartz took over, it is difficult to offer a positive assessment. The Lions have a history of drafting players with “high upside” – an NFL term that usually means “baggage” in real life.
Players with injury histories like Jahvid Best and Ryan Broyles are two examples. Best probably will never play again, and his issues were well known when the Lions drafted him. They gambled and lost. Regrettably, Best is exactly the type of high-character guy the Lions need. With Broyles, who has showed flashes in his rookie season, the jury is still out.
Beyond the injury issues, and perhaps more significantly, the Lions have made several risky picks on players with serious character issues and have paid a steep price in every instance. Mikel Leshoure and Nick Fairley both were arrested in the offseason on marijuana charges; Fairley sped through a residential neighborhood, evading police.
Nick, they will catch you. They have radios.
Fairley awaits legal proceedings in the off-season. Second-year wide receiver Titus Young was dismissed from the team prior to the Thanksgiving game for undisclosed violations of team rules. Earlier this season he punched oft-injured safety Louis Delmas in the head during practice.
Of course the most glaring example of questionable character is Ndamukong Suh. Taken with the #2 overall pick in 2010, his stellar rookie campaign has given way to head stomps, groin kicks, vicious tackle related fines, car accidents and other brushes with the law. Suh remains an enigma who says all of the right things and does almost none of them.
Yet privately, those who knew him well at Nebraska said that his temper is his Achilles heel. It has proved easy to expose for opposing offenses. Bait him, and he bites. Or kicks. Or stomps. The problem with drafting so many players with character issues is that when you put enough knuckleheads in the same locker room, you create a knucklehead culture.
Since the team Schwartz and Mayhew inherited was by any measure awful, they of course needed time to rebuild. But remember: awful teams get high draft picks. Can you really credit them for making decent selections with top 5 picks? With four years to look at, the combination of injury prone and questionable character gambles is an obvious trend, and one that has certainly not paid off. It is easy for fans to play Monday-morning-GM with the draft and point out bad picks. But with Mayhew and Schwartz, it isn’t just one or two. Their clear trend of gambling has left the team lacking both character and talent.
Free agent signings have not faired much better. Schwartz first choice upon being hired, whom he ardently pursued and signed, was defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch. Often described as a “motor guy” whom the Lions coaches purposely sit during Wednesday practices to save his energy for gameday, “KVB” has been a clear disappointment.
Schwartz identified Vanden Bosch as a cornerstone signing around which to build through the draft. Not only has his production been lacking relative to his salary, there is no evidence he has been able to mentor troubled young stars like Suh and Fairley. What exactly is the value of an aging journeyman who cannot positively influence younger players?
Four years into their tenure, Schwartz and Mayhew have yet to make any major upgrades to the worst defensive backfield in the league, often signing and dressing players off the street week-to-week discarded by other teams. How much more time is needed?
Schwartz own emotional outbursts from time to time bely his cool exterior. Chest bumps with opposing coaches, and the recent challenge flag deployment costing his team 7 points. Is it any wonder his team implodes under the pressure of high expectations? And, it isn’t just the pressure. It is the smug self-satisfaction the team allowed itself going into the season. They weren’t hungry, they were entitled. And they played like it. Michigan and Ohio State are famous for refusing to utter the other team’s name. Perhaps “playoffs” should be a banned word in the Lions locker room.
Schwartz and Mayhew have been gamblers the past four years. Now coasting to the end of another season that will likely end under .500, it is clear their tactics are not working.