The Detroit Lions know a thing or two about negative perception.
The Lions were a punching bag on the field and a punch line off of it as they struggled to achieve mediocrity – let alone success – through the turbulent 2000s.
This decade of despair, culminating in the league’s only 0-16 season in 2008, shone a burning light on an organization that was often cited as one of professional sports' worst.
After transforming 0-16 to 10-6 in three short years, the perception changed from Detroit Doormats to Detroit Developers; a team that hadn’t quite arrived but that was torridly progressing towards contention.
The NFL draft was the principal factor in the Lions turnaround and altered perception but – in a cruel twist of fate – the 2011 draft class seems to be altering the franchise's perception yet again.
After multiple offseason arrests (three players accounted for five arrests), repeat occurrences of misconduct and reports of fighting amongst teammates all from the team’s 2011 draft class, the Lions are now considered self-control-lacking villains.
If you’re keeping track; it goes underperforming to up-and-coming to undisciplined, all in a couple years.
The problems begin with the Lions’ top selection in the draft, defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
Fairley was arrest for Marijuana possession earlier in the offseason and then once again this past weekend for speeding while allegedly impaired.
The problems continue with the team’s second choice, receiver Titus Young, who demonstrated an edge during games last season (most notably receiving a personal foul penalty in a contest against the New Orleans Saints) and now has been accused of “sucker punching” a teammate.
The Lions third selection, running back Mikel Leshoure, was arrested twice during the offseason and the team’s last selection, offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath, rounds out the group with an offseason arrest of his own.
This is not a desirable position for the Lions to be in but there shouldn’t be a Detroit déclassé because of the actions of a few individuals.
“Well there certainly is accountability, and that’s always been the case, and there’s a lot of different layers to that,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “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.
“We have 90 guys out here working, most of which are doing a very good job and working with a good goal in mind. But the actions of a few have affected the reputations of not just the other guys in the 90, but also the organization as a whole and that’s not a good situation.”
There is no question that there is a solid veteran presence in the Lions’ locker room, which is comprised of many high-integrity players, who are far less likely to make headlines for their conduct.
“Concerned, angry – there’s a lot of different words,” said Schwartz. “It’s disappointing also when our story is not about guys like Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Jeff Backus, Rob Sims… and I can keep going on. But that’s the majority of this team. Unfortunately with situations like this, we all take ownership of problems that come to light that affect everybody.”
The locker room’s good Samaritans are often forgotten and the ire of a fan base is provoked in these situations.
The cause for such angst is not related to one’s fear for a player’s well-being but rather fear for a team’s well-being. With that understood, it is important to realize that to ostracize these offenders won’t necessarily solve the problem. It is also important to realize that these actions won’t necessarily debilitate the team.
The Lions – believe it or not – have a roster with significant veteran leadership and a coaching staff that demands higher standards (on and off the field) from its players that will collectively and internally handle these issues. The operative word being “internally”.
At the end of the day, winning is the desired goal and that will be treated as the paramount item.
The Lions will work with their troubled to help put them in a position to have successful careers in hopes to see the returns on the field.
If it is established there can be no on-the-field contributions, that the player’s actions are too detrimental to the team or their off-the-field actions prevent them from getting on the field then the line will be severed. Just ask the head coach.
“I think with anything in life you reach a point that it's diminishing returns," said Schwartz when asked when enough is enough.
The NFL is a business and its players are professionals. A small handful of Lions have not lived up to that title.
The good news? A reputation can change quickly.