November 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

Chris McCosky

Leadership group's firm grip steers Lions out of choppy waters

Lions' Calvin Johnson, here running into the end zone for a touchdown Thursday, is a member of the team's leadership council. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — The problem with providing a forum for a former player — which many media outlets, this one included, did last Wednesday for Lawrence Jackson — is that player hasn’t been around the team to see how it’s changed and grown in his absence.

This isn’t going to be a character assassination of Jackson. This isn’t even meant to be a rebuttal of what he said, which is that he had no respect for coach Jim Schwartz because, in part, he doesn’t hold all players to the same standards and that he lied to him.

There are two sides to the story, however. And there is the reality of what the Lions’ locker room is like now in terms of the leadership and the way it was the last couple of seasons when Jackson was here.

The veteran leadership, the cohesiveness and accountability between all three units, the selfless and single-minded pursuit of winning, is as strong in this locker room as I have ever witnessed.

It is very reminiscent of the Pistons’ Bad Boys teams. Although Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars had the utmost respect for coach Chuck Daly, they took it upon themselves to control the locker room. Daly and his staff did the game-planning and preparations and managed the egos, but the actual policing of the team, establishing the work ethic, making sure guys were doing what they were supposed to be doing — Thomas, Laimbeer and Dumars handled that.

And Daly was smart enough to trust them to do it.

Transformation of Suh

I see a lot of that with this Lions team. There is a group of veterans — including Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Reggie Bush, Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Rashean Mathis and Louis Delmas — who know their window of opportunity to play on a legitimate playoff contender is shrinking.

There are also two maturing and ambitious stars in Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford entering the prime of their careers who want to make their mark on this city and this league.

With no disrespect to Schwartz or the authority of the coaches, this leadership council, if you will, has taken control of the locker room. They have said, essentially, “This is on us. The coaches will coach; we have to play. We can’t let anything get in the way of where we’re trying to go.”

We all got a glimpse of how united this team is this week. After two potentially crushing losses, there was postgame talk of a players-only meeting. Once the emotions cooled, the leaders convened, talked it out, set the agenda and each took the message back to their respective position groups.

No panic. No fracturing. Just renewed focus.

“What really happened in our building is that our players knew the reasons we lost the past couple of games,” Schwartz said. “They are a prideful group. They worked hard and they came out and had a good, short week of preparation and we were able to accomplish our game plan.”

That didn’t happen much when Jackson was here. With leaders were either hurt (Burleson, Corey Williams), or not playing effectively (Kyle Vanden Bosch), and with Stafford and Suh not ready to assert themselves, the locker room threatened to collapse in 2011 and it fell like a house of cards last season.

When Jackson was here, he was Suh’s closest friend on the team. He may have been Suh’s only friend on the team. Since Jackson has been gone, Suh has seemed to come out of his shell. He transformed himself from a moody and aloof presence in the locker room to an open and gregarious teammate, and an undisputed leader of the defense.

I think there is some cause and effect there.

The last couple of years there was great tension between the offensive and defensive lines. Players on the two units barely spoke to each other. This year, thanks in part to new defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s efforts and Suh’s transformation, that’s all changed. There is a spirit of brotherhood between those two vital positions now.

LoJack's skewed perception

Jackson wouldn’t necessarily know any of that. Nor would he know that it was Schwartz that always fought with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on his behalf. Cunningham was befuddled by Jackson. He felt Jackson thought too much, questioned too many things. “Just play,” was Cunningham’s constant message to Jackson.

Had it been up to Cunningham, Jackson wouldn’t have lasted three seasons here.

The lie that Jackson said Schwartz told him? Here’s the incident I think he’s taking about.

Jackson had a deep thigh bruise that kept him out for six weeks toward the end of the 2011 season. The Lions, making a playoff run, opted not to put him on IR. He wanted to go back to California while he recovered.

Maybe Schwartz initially told him he could go. But ultimately he decided it would be best for Jackson and the team to stay at the facility where he could still go to meetings and train with the team’s trainers and medical staff.

As for Jackson’s comment about Schwartz holding players to different standards, probably true. I have heard that from other players, reserves and role players. I have heard that same complaint about every coach I’ve ever covered in any sport. It’s just a fact of life that Johnson and Stafford are going to be treated differently than other, lesser players.

There is an old story about Jimmy Johnson when he was coaching the Cowboys. A reserve running back fell asleep during a meeting and he immediately waived him. Johnson was asked if he would have waived Emmett Smith if he’d fallen asleep.

Johnson said, “Hell no.”

No implosion pending

Whatever the players think of Schwartz on a personal level, I have talked to enough of them to know they feel like they are well-prepared each week. They have confidence in the game plans they are given on each side of the ball, and that’s really all they are asking for from the coaches. Just put us in a position to win.

All the other drama that arises — players unhappy with their roles, players upset because they are getting picked on in meetings, players who aren’t giving maximum effort at practice — all of that falls under the jurisdiction of the leadership council.

And they have been masterful at cleaning up those messes and keeping it out of the public eye.

You know, we are conditioned to be cautious with these Lions. Decades of losing have taught us not to walk too far out on the limb with them when things are going well. We’ve all seen it snap too many times.

But I am going out there. I don’t see them collapsing now. It’s because of the talent, for sure. But it’s also because of the way the leaders have taken ownership and have held themselves accountable.

Put it this way: If they do lose, it will be for tangible reasons. It will be because of injuries or physical football mistakes. It won’t be because of immaturity or some kind of internal implosion.

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