Lions coach Jim Schwartz and Travis Lewis watch as a recovered fumble is reversed by officials due to an illegal use of the hands penalty on Willie Young in the third quarter of Sunday's loss to the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — The Lions hate being compared to previous versions of themselves. That’s understandable, based on those historically ugly versions.
But if they don’t want to be defined by their past, they’d better redefine themselves quickly. It’s too early to say the Lions are in dangerous denial, but before fixing a problem, it does help to admit it.
Jim Schwartz doesn’t think they have a discipline problem, not even after eight penalties contributed to a 25-21 loss to the Cardinals. He was in deflection mode Monday, which was predictable. The Lions are 1-1, and to be fair, it’s probably best the coach doesn’t set his hair on fire, at least not publicly.
But as the Lions prepare to face the wounded Redskins in Washington, a place they’ve never won, repetitive patterns must be snapped. Reggie Bush is ailing, although reports on his knee sound positive. Playing sound, smart football will be even more important, and that isn’t exactly the strength of the Lions.
If they want to be considered more than a collection of a few great players scattered amongst a mish-mash of others, they must pay more attention to detail. Through two weeks of the NFL season, there have been a record number of close games, and the Lions aren’t the only team with a key player injured. But their second-half collapse in Arizona without Bush was troubling.
When a few fundamental plays had to be made, the Lions whiffed. The final fourth-down pass from Matthew Stafford to Nate Burleson came up a yard short. The key play of the game — a fumble the Lions recovered at the Cardinals 26 — was nullified by Willie Young’s sloppy hands-to-the-face penalty.
On the next play, Israel Idonije hit Carson Palmer below the knees, drawing a personal foul. A 21-13 Lions lead evaporated and an old phrase was resurrected. Former Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who grew up a Lions fan, said it on TV — Same Old Lions.
Same old story
It may be trite, but it’s a zing that always stings. Personally, I’d use variations of S.O.L. — Same Obstinate Lions, Seldom Orderly Lions.
“We probably had four physical plays in the game that we gotta find a way to make, and if that means it’s the same old Lions, then he’s entitled to his opinion,” Schwartz said. “(Dungy’s) criticism means about as much as anybody else’s. We know exactly where we need to improve. We can’t underreact to a loss, but we also can’t overreact to a loss.”
There’s a reason the perception persists, locally and nationally. And no, it’s not entirely the current regime’s fault. But again, how do they fix what they claim not to see?
Young’s penalty was blatant, and he has exhibited poor judgment before. On cornerback Bill Bentley’s late pass interference at the goal line, he was beaten by Andre Roberts and flat-out panicked. Those are the plays that ultimately define a team, overshadowing Calvin Johnson’s 72-yard touchdown reception or Ndamukong Suh’s dominant play.
Schwartz’s defiance sounds like a defense mechanism, but he’s correct on this point — penalties don’t always suggest a lack of discipline. Good teams commit them too, but overcome them. Through two games, the most-penalized teams in the NFL are the 49ers and Buccaneers with 23 each. The Broncos have 21 and the Lions are alongside the Seahawks with 19.
Drawing a line
Draw whatever conclusion you wish, but please don’t say the Lions are comparable to the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos.
“It’s certainly too many (penalties) for us, but we’re two games into the season, and there’s probably a dozen teams saying the same thing,” Schwartz said. “There’s some really good teams that get penalized an awful lot. Last year our penalties decreased significantly and we won four games. The year before, we had a lot of penalties and went 10-6. Again, I don’t want to make it sound like we’re trying to get penalties, because we’re certainly not. But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
No, that would be criminal. And Suh showed again Sunday why his tremendous ability outweighs his penchant for over-aggressiveness. But sticking with the baby analogy, the Lions sometimes don’t even admit the bathwater is dirty.
Players policed themselves last week, running gassers after practice for the penalties. Schwartz generally defends his players and is reluctant to bench penalty-prone guys, and part of that speaks to a lack of depth. But part of it is tied to a coaching staff that wants a feisty edge, and doesn’t necessarily want to temper ill tempers with loud condemnations.
“I don’t know if public execution solves the problem,” Schwartz said. “There are some penalties that will drive any coach crazy. We want to play as physical as we can, but we want to draw that line.”
Now they lug the heavy baggage to Washington, like it or not. Schwartz points out he’s never coached there and Stafford has never played there. True enough. But if the Lions don’t want to be penalized by the past, they can start by avoiding the mistakes of the present.