November 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm

John Niyo

Lions, and their coach, need to get over themselves

You could argue coach Jim Schwartz has cost his team two wins this season two wins thatd put the Lions squarely in the playoff picture in a top-heavy NFC. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

The problem with thinking you're the smartest guy in the room — something Lions coach Jim Schwartz routinely acts as if he does — is that often you're right.

But when you're wrong, you risk losing a little credibility.

Likewise, the problem with acting like you're better than everyone else, as even some of Ndamukong Suh's teammates think he occasionally does, is that often it doesn't really matter.

And when it does, it's not always to your benefit.

There are lessons to be learned here — again — in the bitter, post-Thanksgiving leftovers of another Lions' loss, not to mention what appears to be another lost Lions season.

But as the team gets back to work today, Suh included, after the NFL announced he won't be suspended for his Thanksgiving Day groin shot on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, there's a question they first need to ask of themselves.

Why should anyone, to borrow an NFL executive's phrase regarding Suh's case, give them the benefit of the doubt?

And by anyone, I'm including the Lions themselves, because that's about the only conclusion you can reach after watching this team go about its business in 2012.

Almost from the start, it's as if they felt they were owed something more than they were, and that they'd earned something they hadn't yet. Only they weren't. And they hadn't. Surely, they must realize that now, right?

More than just Suh

This isn't just about Suh stepping into trouble on national TV again, well aware his rap sheet would turn it into a circus, if not a suspension. (Three penalties, no personal fouls in 15 games since last year's Thanksgiving stomp, by the way.) This isn't just about Schwartz blowing another fuse on the sideline, either.

It's also about Titus Young's second team-imposed exile in a matter of months and the team's slew of offseason arrests. It's about the nagging problems with penalties and dropped passes and turnovers and untimely mistakes.

And it's about time they quit talking about a lack of respect — as Dominic Raiola was a couple of weeks ago — and start talking honestly about how they can earn it.

The Lions are 4-7 with a month left to go in a season that almost assuredly won't end with a return to the playoffs. But if it ends with a little more humility and a little less of a sense of entitlement in Allen Park, that'll be progress, in a way.

Because salary-cap concerns aside, the only way this team and this franchise are going to take the next step — the toughest step to take in the NFL — is if they figure out how to get out of their own way.

It was nearly a year ago, after laying into his team following a prime-time unraveling at New Orleans, that Schwartz reminded the Lions it was time to stop playing pretend. A playoff run? "Well, guess what?" he said then. "We're in one right now. And we need to act accordingly."

Almost 12 months later, they still don't with any real consistency. And that has to be cause for concern as the Lions spend the next couple months trying to figure out who'll stay and who'll go — eight of 11 defensive starters are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this winter — from a roster that's still paying far above market price for premium talent.

Schwartz at fault, too

Schwartz isn't immune to criticism anymore, either. He's on his second contract now, and he's coaching a roster that's certainly talented enough to be 7-4 rather than 4-7 heading into December. In fact, you could argue the head coach has cost his team two wins this season — two wins that'd put the Lions squarely in the playoff picture in a top-heavy NFC — if you add the botched fourth-down play in overtime at Tennessee to last week's ill-advised challenge flag against the Texans.

The irony in that last gaffe, of course, is that it also was last year — in a bitter home loss to San Francisco — that Schwartz was caught on camera mocking the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh for making the very same mistake. ("Learn the rules, Harbaugh!" he yelled across the field.) Since that moment, the Lions are 9-14, while the 49ers are 18-4-1.

To his credit, Schwartz fell on his sword after Thursday's defeat — "That's all my fault," he said — and again Monday night on his weekly radio show. ("I just overreacted to it," he reiterated. "I've got to be smarter.")

And while he blamed his error partly on a failed challenge earlier in the game — he admitted, "You just need to not react in the future to something that's happened in the past."

Look, Schwartz knows the rules, forward and backward. And he's as detail-oriented as any coach in the NFL. Yet his team too often hasn't reflected that, hasn't reacted the way it should.

Why? Is it the relative youth at so many key positions, or a lack of accountability in a locker room that hasn't done enough winning to insist on it? Is it the players taking their cue from the coaching staff, as well as a front office that has been loathe to criticize or police its own, at least publicly? (There are times when general manager Martin Mayhew's silence speaks volumes, and there are others — like with Young's persistent troubles — where it's absolutely deafening, if you ask me.)

I'm not sure what the answer is there, other than that it goes beyond — as the players keep insisting — that they're just coming up a few plays short every week.

This team looked as if it finally arrived last season, and then they acted like it. If they're smart, they'll admit that might've been their first big mistake.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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