Can Jim Schwartz Tame The Lions?

May 29, 2012; Allen Park, MI, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz during organized team activities at Lions training facility. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

With a number of arrests this offseason, the Lions are getting a bad reputation. Can Jim Schwartz reel in his team and the perception of the Detroit bad boys?

Detroit rising became a "thing" in recent years. The American auto industry came back from the brink of certain death. There was the Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler. Even the Detroit Lions caught a breath of rejuvenation. After finally bottoming out with a winless season in 2008, better drafting and a chip on their shoulder have the Lions on the verge of something special.

Before being rebranded, Detroit was infamous for its crime rate, the result of deep-seeded structural. Unfortunately, the Lions have more recently grabbed that mantle with a series of arrests this spring. The rap sheet ranges from absurd to dangerous, from MIkel Leshoure gobbling down marijuana upon his second pot arrest within four weeks to Nick Fairley driving drunk and recklessly.

Other Lions players have found opportunities to create distractions without getting the law involved. Titus Young disappeared for a week after sucker punching teammate Louis Delmas in OTAs. Ndamukong Suh's exploits, both on field where netted a two-game suspension for stomping on a Green Bay Packers player, and off where he has had repeatedly driven dangerously -- have sullied a prodigious start to what could be a very special career.

As isolated incidents, these incidents might not be more than an offseason punchline. Taken together, it creates an easy narrative of a team run amok, a group of players led by the hot headed Jim Schwartz letting his team's Lazarus tale go up in smoke.

Never give sports writers an easy narrative, because eventually it takes hold, fair or not. Schwartz railed against that with his public apology this week, insisting that it was unfair to let the actions of a few taint the reputations of the others. He has a point, but guilt by association is one of those things that can be difficult to unwind. Reputations aside, the actions of a few Lions are going to be costly to the team on the field.

Said Schwartz:

"Well there certainly is accountability, and that's always been the case, and there's a lot of different layers to that. There's a personal conduct policy, which is a league matter; there's team rules, there's team discipline; there's also a substance abuse program which is a league matter. So there's a lot of different layers to that discipline process, but I think what we have here is a case of a few guys tainting the reputations of a lot of others."

The arrests will almost certainly result in suspensions according to the NFL's personal conduct policy. Still unknown is how long Roger Goodell will put Fairley, Leshoure and Johnny Culbreath on the shelf. Back-to-back arrests do not bode well for the second-year defensive tackle and running back.

Having those players out of the lineup hurts the team, including those other players that Schwartz doesn't want you lumping in with the scofflaws. As a role player last season, Fairley was somewhat productive. He generated eight quarterback pressures, three hits and a sack in just 274 snaps. He should be competing for a starting job in August.

LeShoure missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. Despite an explosive offense, the Lions struggled to add a running dimension to their game. Leshoure's presence on the field was missed, and it will be for a short period of time again this season, perhaps for as many as four games.

Those arrests and the resulting suspensions will also come with a financial toll, up to $200,000 in fines from the league. For an NFL team in a multi-billion business, the money matters less than not having a pair of potential starters on the field.

Suspensions are hardly the only problem facing an undisciplined Lions team this season. In two games without Suh, the Lions allowed a relatively unmolested Drew Brees to throw for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the team's fourth loss of the season. The next week, again without Suh, Detroit managed to beat the hapless Minnesota Vikings, who know a thing or two about the costs of losing players to legal issues, by just six points.

Detroit drew 119 penalty flags last season, the fifth most in the league, costing nearly 1,000 yards. The Lions had 11 flags in the previously mentioned loss to New Orleans, which breathed new life into that easy narrative of Detroit as an undisciplined team. In each of Schwartz's three seasons as head coach, the Lions have topped the 100 penalty milestone.

It sounds specious, but those penalty stats feed their reputation. It certainly is not going to get them the benefit of the doubt on any close calls. The tiniest sliver of margins matter in the NFL, and with games this season against the Packers, Texans and 49ers, details will matter.

The Detroit players making headlines this offseason all come from the team's 2011 draft class. Of the five players selected last year, only linebacker Douglas Hogue has managed to stay out of the spotlight. Is the potential of these players jeopardized? Missing games won't help them. More importantly, as Albert Breer pointed out on Wednesday at NFL.com, the Lions drafted three players in Fairley, Leshoure and Young that all came with prior character questions. Those players' recent troubles make it fair to wonder whether or not Schwartz and his staff are capable of taking on challenging young players. This is not a team far enough along in its new course that it can afford to lose this kind of potential that will be needed in future seasons.

Implications for the Lions' discipline issues go beyond the Motor City and right to the heart of the ongoing squabbles between players and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. One subtext in the recent run of lawsuits and appeals battles in the Saints bounty case, and other issues, is the issue of Goodell's power as judge, jury and executioner.


Related: Saints Bounty Hearing On Wednesday


On Wednesday, the NFLPA was appealing the Saints' bounty punishments, their second appeal, to get the matter before the arbitrator as a cap violation rather than a personal conduct violation, which places seemingly limitless power in the hands of Goodell.

Last week SB Nation's Andrew Sharp compared Goodell's reign over the league to that of a dictator. If you learned anything in your history courses, few things facilitate a power grab like a bout of lawlessness. A feverish round of arrests, no matter how trifling they seem, combined with suspension-inducing penalties only makes Goodell's heavy hand look like the only thing separating professional football from anarchy.

Schwartz is correct in pointing out the layers of player discipline beyond the team's control, but that overlooks his duty as the head coach, who should be the first and most important arbiter of his team's conduct on and off the field.

At Pride of Detroit, SB Nation's Lions blog, Sean Yullie noted the obvious comparison for the Lions along with the potential risk of the team unraveling because of the cascade of problems.

The Lions are now being described as the "new" Cincinnati Bengals because of their off-field issues, for example. The Lions actually had a very good off-the-field record before this offseason, but now all of the good they did in the past is being thrown out the window with the arrests and other issues this offseason.

Schwartz and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew are both in their first stints on top of an organization. What they have managed to do with the Lions over the last three years is nothing short of remarkable, a bona fide turnaround in a city in desperate need of renewal. They need act fast to make sure things stay on track.

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