December 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm

John Niyo

Self-destructing Lions lack self-awareness

Allen Park -- Everything looks good when you're winning, including the touchdown dances.

But as the losses mount, everything gets viewed differently in the NFL. Even those end-zone celebrations.

And as we start piling on the Lions in a season that's all but buried now, with a 4-9 record and five consecutive defeats, I suppose there's a metaphor — and a bad joke or two about this team's inglorious past — to be found in there somewhere.

Rod Marinelli and the 2008 Lions had their shovel, right? And now so do these Lions, who still haven't figured out that when you run into trouble, the best solution isn't just to keep digging.

It probably isn't to keep dancing, either.

When Matthew Stafford connected with Tony Scheffler for a second-quarter touchdown at snowy Lambeau Field, giving the Lions a surprising 14-0 lead over the Packers, Scheffler did what he always does. (Or what he always used to do, I guess. That was Scheffler's first score this season.)

Scheffler launched into a pre-planned routine, mimicking snow-shoveling, among other things. And before it was over, running back Joique Bell grabbed a shovel and joined him, caught up in the excitement of it all. That drew a flag for "excessive demonstration" and, as you'd imagine, it resulted in another exasperated response from the Lions coach after the game.

A day later, the reaction from Jim Schwartz was more of the same.

"Not very smart," Schwartz said, though he made it clear he was referring to Bell's participation. "The league has always given leeway (on celebrations) for guys that make plays, as long as you're not taunting or suggestive or anything like that. You can celebrate, one person. One person can Lambeau Leap, all the other stuff. But when you get into choreographed stuff, then they draw a line."

Losing makes it worse

Now, some of you would prefer the coach draw a line of his own there. Act like you've been there before, right? Scrap the scripted performance and join your teammates, or simply flip the ball to the referee the way Barry Sanders used to, week after week. Every week, my inbox is full of angry fans suggesting the Lions' selfishness and foolishness manifests itself in the individual celebrations — first downs, sacks, touchdowns, and so on.

But that's just not the way this team is wired, from the coach on down, as I tried to explain early last season when these celebrations first started drawing attention. ("It keeps you on edge, having fun with it," Scheffler said then.)

The argument also ignores the fact the Lions really don't do anything different than most of the other 31 teams in the NFL, whether it's Aaron Rodgers' commercially-endorsed title-belt display or Victor Cruz's salsa dance. Frankly, I enjoy it, and I think most fans do, too.

It's just that when you lose, it looks stupid.

When you lose, a lot of things look worse. And that's worth remembering as we try to dissect what went wrong for the Lions this season and how they can or should or will fix it this offseason.

The answer isn't to fire all the coaches and replace all the free agents. (That's a dozen starters, including kicking-game specialists, by the way.) That's not necessary, nor is it even feasible, though it's fair to say this winter better bring more change — yes, even with the coaching staff — than the last one did in Allen Park.

Missing the moment

But if there's one thing this Lions team is sorely lacking, beyond the obvious personnel issues — especially in that defensive secondary — it's self-awareness. And that was evident again after this latest loss in Green Bay, as Schwartz bristled at questions ranging from Ndamukong Suh's costly personal foul to Stafford's play to that ill-fated celebration.

Why not just ban your players from any choreographed moves to avoid the possibility of a 15-yard penalty? Schwartz made mention of Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey's attempt to do that this season, offering up money to charity for every dance-free touchdown by his team. (Schwartz didn't note the Jaguars rank 30th in the NFL in scoring this season, but I will for him.)

"Here's the thing: Emotion, excitement, it's a part of this game," Schwartz continued. "And if your guys make a touchdown and nobody high-fives each other and they walk off the field, everybody's probably saying, 'Hey, they're playing with no emotion. They're not even happy. They're not even celebrating.'"

Well, here's the thing: I don't think everybody would be saying that. I'm not sure anybody would, really. And nobody's suggesting they eliminate high-fives — or excitement — though I do get his general point.

Sure, it's a dumb rule. (Rule 12, Section 3, if you want to look it up.) But it's a dumber penalty, one that ultimately cost the Lions three points and a bit of the momentum that soon slipped away entirely when Stafford fumbled and the Packers returned it 43 yards for a touchdown.

"It wasn't choreographed," Schwartz said. "That's one guy coming in and just missing the moment right there. And not making a good decision, not realizing the way it would be interpreted."

Interpret that however you'd like. But there's no question, the Lions have missed the moment. They've taken the goodwill created by a once-in-a-generation playoff berth and thrown much of it away, first with their off-field mistakes and then with their in-game meltdowns.

And each week, as you watch them stumble and fail in the critical moments, beating themselves even when it appears their opponents won't — "I've been playing a long time, and I haven't seen this," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said — it's only natural to question: Why, exactly, is this team celebrating?

john.niyo@detnews.com

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The Lions saw their momentum slip away Sunday after an excessive celebration penalty and this Matthew Stafford fumble the Packers returned 43 yards for a touchdown. / Associated Press
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