July 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Accountability will be the Lions' mantra this season

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Allen Park — They’re promising to call each other out now, without prejudice or pretense.

And that serves a dual purpose as the Lions begin again, with a new coaching staff hounded by the same, stale skepticism.

For one thing, presumably, it’ll save the rest of us the trouble if — or when — things don’t go right. For another, it’s a big part of what seemed to be missing the past two seasons as a talented roster failed to live up to expectations.

All that promise we saw in the playoff breakthrough in 2011 for the Lions was left battered and broken by the fourth-quarter failures and late-season collapses and the seemingly blameless decision-making — on and off the field — that ultimately spelled the end of Jim Schwartz’s five-year tenure in Detroit.

Now it’s Jim Caldwell’s turn, and unlike most of his predecessors, he starts from a position of strength, with a talented roster that is, as veteran center Dominic Raiola reiterated Sunday on the eve of training camp, “built to win right now.” Caldwell has said much the same, starting from the day he was introduced as the Lions’ new head coach in January.

That pronouncement undoubtedly rings hollow to a fan base that’s been through this far too many times — even more than Raiola, who is beginning his 14th NFL season with his fifth head coach. (His sixth, actually, if you include Dick Jauron’s interim stint back in 2005.)

But it does set the right tone, at least.

No excuses

Because it says there’s no wiggle room here. Win, or they’ve failed. And if it’s anything but the former, we’d better not hear any excuses. We’d better hear an honest appraisal of why, starting with the coaching staff and the “cornerstone” pieces everyone in Allen Park keeps pointing to as the biggest reasons for optimism.

Illusory injury reports are one thing. Caldwell helpfully explained Sunday defensive end Ziggy Ansah will be back on the field “whenever the Lord says that he’s healthy and healed.”

But insulating some players from criticism — something Schwartz and his staff were rightfully accused of doing, most notably with quarterback Matthew Stafford — is another. And when asked if those days are over, Raiola replied frankly Sunday, “Yeah, you could say that.

“I know he does treat everybody the same,” he said of Caldwell. “He’s not afraid to single somebody out.”

As long as that applies to everybody — and by the sounds of it, it has this offseason, with Stafford and other entrenched starters put on the spot in team meetings — that’s a positive step.

Of course, it’s easier said and done now than in September when the games count, something Caldwell himself acknowledged Sunday. But the coach insists what his players have seen is what they’ll get — and then some.

“They don’t know me that well at this point,” he said. “They have a decent feel for me, but they don’t know me. Just like I don’t know them. … Things don’t get real tight during the offseason, right? It’s kind of the honeymoon. But when the season starts, it’s a little bit different. Things get a little bit more intense.”

Signs of improvement

So does the scrutiny, of course. Particularly for Stafford, whose erratic play down the stretch last season helped seal the Lions’ fate. It wasn’t all on No. 9, obviously. But of his 14 turnovers in the final seven games, too many were unforced errors. And too often that fact seemed to get glossed over by Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Take that last-minute interception in the loss to Tampa Bay, for example. Sure, it came off a third-down drop by Calvin Johnson, but lost in the postgame analysis was the fact Stafford missed a wide-open Joique Bell on the other side for an easy first-down gain or possibly even the winning touchdown.

Same goes for some of those botched shotgun snaps in the snow in Philadelphia. Or the forced throws in the Monday night loss to Baltimore. And so on.

For now, Caldwell says he has been “impressed” with the progress Stafford has made in picking up a new offense — no easy task, to be sure. The quarterbacks reported early for camp, along with the rookies, in order to get a head start after more than a month away from the training facility.

“But he did not miss a beat,” Caldwell said of Stafford. “He’s a very smart guy. You can tell he’s worked at it. … And in every facet, I could see improvement — footwork, accuracy, timing, command of the offense, all of those things. So now we get a chance to see if he can put it all together.”

And if he doesn’t? Well, then we’ll get a chance to see — and hear — if the coach really means it.

“The guy has been around Peyton Manning,” said Raiola, noting Caldwell’s extended time in Indianapolis with the five-time league MVP. “So I think Matthew knows what his expectations are. And Jim will call him out, no different than anyone else. Or (offensive coordinator) Joe Lombardi will call him out. And that’s a good thing. That’s accountability.”

And for this team, as it begins another chapter, that’s where it has to start.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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So far, Lions coach Jim Caldwell is treating all his players the same, something that didn't always happen under Jim Schwartz. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News