June 13, 2014 at 2:10 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions coach Jim Caldwell preaches playing smart, not scared

Allen Park — The Lions have talent, the Lions have attitude, the Lions have promise. We’ve heard it all before, so anyone who makes a firm assessment right now should consider a new career as a tackling dummy.

We don’t know if Jim Caldwell’s strong professionalism will sink in, or if Joe Lombardi’s offense will make Matthew Stafford appreciably better, or if the maligned secondary can be rebuilt. As minicamp ended Thursday, it was essentially the last day of school, and the next time we see the Lions at the end of July, truer assessments can be made.

But the first step was identifying the problem, and I think Caldwell has. The Lions have been one of the NFL’s enduring enigmas for many reasons, but this is the fixable one: recklessness.

It grew under Jim Schwartz, who let players push boundaries, on and off the field. It festered with Stafford, who kept flinging the ball and making poor decisions without repercussions. The Lions were horrific in the turnover department — committing them and not creating them.

When you wonder whether the Lions can challenge the Packers and Bears in the NFC North, you begin with one question: Are they done being dense? Some teams make dumb mistakes trying to compensate for talent deficiencies, and that was the problem with the Lions for years. But as they added better players, this became a function of inattention and slovenliness, bad habits that can be broken, at least in theory.

“I thought they did a nice job of lessening the number of mistakes (in minicamp), fewer and fewer as our practices went on, which is the way it’s supposed to be,” Caldwell said. “It’s kind of a simple phrase — we play smart, and not scared. You gotta be aggressive, but you also have to take calculated risks.”

In other words, maybe you don’t fake a field goal on a slippery field in Pittsburgh with a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. Maybe you don’t force throws to Calvin Johnson at any cost, or tolerate penalties and fumbles no matter how high they pile up.

Much is on the line

Stafford threw 19 interceptions and the Lions lost 15 fumbles last season, and their minus-12 turnover differential was fourth-worst in the league. Their 110 penalties were eighth-most. On the other side, the secondary’s woes made for a passive defense. The Lions recovered only seven fumbles and collected 33 sacks, ranking 28th. Seriously, you need look no further to explain their plummet from 6-3 to 7-9.

Las Vegas odds peg them between 12th and 15th in the league with an over-under victory total of 8.5, same as the Ravens, Bears, Falcons, Panthers and Steelers. Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid guzzlers aren’t the only ones who think the Lions have decent talent.

Players seem to have a genuine respect for Caldwell, who has been to Super Bowls with the Colts and Ravens. You hear one mantra so often — “he treats us like men” — it almost sounds rehearsed. Caldwell has been clear in his win-now approach, and while proclamations mean little, the onus is on the players.

Stafford’s reputation is on the line. Johnson’s legacy as an all-time great is on the line. Reggie Bush’s impact is on the line. Two key members of the defensive line — Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley — could be playing for new contracts this fall.

Safety James Ihedigbo came over from the Ravens with a winning reputation and is trying to take charge of the young secondary. Cornerback Chris Houston fell apart last season and is off somewhere rehabilitating a toe injury. Safety Louis Delmas was more talk than tact, frequently so eager to make the big hit he blew assignments, and he’s gone.

Expectations high

No one was more impressive in minicamp than cornerback Darius Slay, a second-round pick from Mississippi State who was burned often as a rookie, and eventually benched. The Lions are optimistic he can rebound, and if he does, the secondary could go from bendable to serviceable.

When the Lions drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round instead of a cornerback, Lions fans gasped. Slay smiled.

“They showed trust in me,” Slay said. “I feel more fluent now, I ain’t nervous about nothing. Last year wasn’t painful; I was more upset with myself because I know I’m capable of making way more plays than I did.

“Right now, I’m on top of my game and I’m ready.”

He might not have a choice. With Houston’s uncertainty, Slay and Rashean Mathis, 33, could be the Opening Day cornerbacks, which is either scary or encouraging. If that unit, along with solid safety Glover Quin, actually gets repaired, the Lions defense suddenly could look considerably smarter.

It’ll start to sort itself out in about five weeks. In the meantime, the new coach isn’t altering initial perceptions one bit.

“Nothing’s changed my mind in terms of what I believe in the talent level — what we’ve seen only confirms it,” Caldwell said. “There’s a very, very strong nucleus of guys that can play the game, and we anticipate and expect them to do extremely well.”

Is it a mistake for Caldwell to set expectations so high? Nope. The mistake is repeating mistakes, the painful pattern the Lions must break.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Jim Caldwell, in his first season as Lions coach, watches over minicamp practice Thursday at Allen Park. 'You gotta be aggressive,' he told his team. 'But you also have to take calculated risks.' / Daniel Mears / Detroit News