Plenty Denial, but No Discipline, in Detroit

September 11, 2013 by Don Banks
Jim Schwartz needs to get Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Lions in line, or his job can be in danger this offseason.
Jim Schwartz needs to get Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Lions in line, or his job can be in danger this offseason. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It’s a pure coincidence that the words Detroit, denial and discipline all start with the letter D, but I’ll bet you can already see where I’m going with this.

When Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz watches his notoriously undisciplined team quickly re-enforce its reputation in its Week 1 win against Minnesota, then says there’s nothing to apologize for, he’s in denial about his role and responsibility.

When Ndamukong Suh delivers a block that’s been illegal for years in the NFL, but says he didn’t mean to injury Vikings center John Sullivan with the blow, he’s in denial and missing the point.

And when we’re just 72 hours after the first Lions game of the season and again talking about this team’s glaring lack of discipline, there’s absolutely no denying the problem still exists—and has existed for years now—in Detroit.

Suh is $100,000 lighter in the wallet after the NFL came down on him Tuesday for his illegal block in the first half of the Lions’ 34-24 win over the Vikings at Ford Field, but that should not be the end of this story. He has been fined before, and even suspended, and his reckless behavior continued, so why should we believe this time is the charm? With repeat offenders, even ones who have been recently named a team co-captain and lauded for their increased maturity, words are meaningless and only actions count.

But to beat up on Suh alone for the Lions’ flag-filled opener against Minnesota (11 penalties for 88 yards) leaves us guilty of not standing back far enough to see the big picture. This is a larger problem than Suh in Detroit, and it won’t go away until someone in the Lions organization realizes the issue has to be corrected from within. Detroit’s players and coaches have to care enough about the pattern of chronic discipline failure and self-inflicted wounds to address it, police it, and bite the bullet of accountability when need be.

Call me skeptical that any of that has been taken as seriously as it should be in Detroit in the first four-plus seasons of the Schwartz coaching era. Like any other problem in life, admitting the issue exists is taking a big first step toward solving it. And it’s pretty clear the Lions still don’t fully grasp their responsibility for the controversial label they wear.

As Lions receiver Nate Burleson said on Tuesday, in reaction to Suh apologizing to his teammates for putting them in the position of having to battle back from his mistake: “He also said, with him having a target, and people looking for him, they’re looking at us in the same light. So as a team we’ve got to understand that the microscope is on us.’’

Hard to miss the sense of denial and unmistakeable persecution complex in that statement. If Suh has a target on him, it’s because his repeated actions have earned him one, egregious infraction by egregious infraction. The microscope is on him and the rest of the Lions for a very good reason, and it’s not because the league or the game officials had a meeting and decided to make Detroit’s life as miserable as possible. Even in his apology, Suh underlined his basic lack of understanding of how he got to this point. The actions create the reputation, which attracts the extra attention. That’s the way it always works, and always has. It is not a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg type of debate.

The search for the root cause of Detroit’s discipline failures has gone in a lot of different directions in recent years. But I know I’ve heard one particular theory more than once in talking to people around the league who have insight into the Lions’ team culture, and it’s that veteran defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s take-no-prisoners coaching style could be part of problem.

(Gunther Cunningham) doesn’t want to do anything to reel in the passion of his players, but he also needs to remind them that they’ve got to live within the rules.

Cunningham, the veteran NFL coordinator and former Chiefs head coach, is a widely respected and in some cases beloved figure in the game. But he’s also a highly emotional, old-school, won’t-back-down style coach, and the most succinct way to describe his approach to the game is passionately unapologetic. He’s going to do what he thinks is right, and coach his way, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of his methods. His nickname is “Gun,’’ and he’s been known to shoot from the hip.

Players routinely love playing for Cunningham, but his reputation is as a tough, no-nonsense guy, and he can be rough on his players. He’s vocal and demonstrative, can be volatile, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Players feed off his energy and intensity, but sometimes that edge can cut both ways. Some league sources I’ve talked to think that Suh and other Lions defenders could be getting something of a mixed message from Cunningham. His coaching stokes the passion of his players, in order to get their sell-out best on game days, but then he doesn’t always offer enough words of caution on when to take their foot off the accelerator and stay on the safe side of the yellow line.

And Cunningham has been a bit quick to view the NFL as an us-against-the-world environment at times, bemoaning that the league or the game officials are out to get whatever team he’s working for, without counter-balancing that approach with enough doses of reality. As one close observer of the Lions told me: “He doesn’t want to do anything to reel in the passion of his players, but he also needs to remind them that they’ve got to live within the rules. At times, what the players also need to hear is, ‘Look, this is the way it is, and we have to conduct ourselves accordingly.

“We don’t have to like it, but we have to do it. Because when we don’t, it leaves our whole team vulnerable.’ I think that’s a legitimate concern in Detroit at this point.’’

Interestingly, Cunningham is coaching back upstairs in the coaches’ box this season, not on the sideline as he has the past three seasons in Detroit (he also spent the 2009 season up in the box as coordinator). It’s nothing more than conjecture, but some believe it’s a move that indicates Schwartz knows Cunningham’s emotional sideline demeanor can serve to fan the flames of the Lions players at times, and not in an always helpful way. For a team with a well-known discipline problem, less might be more when it comes to game-day emotions, and removing Cunningham from the sideline environment might be a step in the right direction.

Ndamukong Suh has a long list of controversial NFL moments, but none more so than alleged groin kicks he laid on the Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith (left) and Texans' Matt Schaub in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Ndamukong Suh has a long list of controversial NFL moments, but none more so than alleged groin kicks he laid on the Packers’ Evan Dietrich-Smith (left) and Texans’ Matt Schaub in 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Andrew Weber/US Presswire :: Paul Sancya/AP)

Ultimately the Lions won’t shed their reputation for routinely hurting their own cause until they stop routinely hurting their own cause. There can be no more taunting penalties like the one safety Louis Delmas committed in the second quarter against Minnesota, when he ran over to seemingly help break up a scrum on the Vikings sideline and wound up head-butting a receiver and drawing a flag. That play, Schwartz said, more than anything else last Sunday, hacked him off in regards to his team’s lack of composure.

Somewhat ironically, Suh and fellow Lions co-captain, quarterback Matthew Stafford, reportedly led a players-only meeting last week and talked about having a greater sense of accountability to each other this season, and being responsible enough to eliminate a lot of the mistakes of over-aggressiveness or a lack of self-control. And then last Sunday unfolded, and Suh wound up right back in the headlines. Go figure.

Schwartz, himself a former Titans defensive coordinator, is said to be spending more time and energy on that side of the ball this season, and is trying to be more involved on defense, seeking to empower his players to take control of the discipline issue. Not to make a comparison in terms of severity, but perhaps Schwartz learned from Saints head coach Sean Payton’s mistake of not keeping better track of what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was preaching on defense in New Orleans in 2011, the year before the team’s bounty program surfaced. The Lions coaching staff this week even told rookie tight end Joseph Fauria and running back Joique Bell to tone down their end-zone celebrations after both put on over-the-displays against the Vikings — a sign that attempts are being made to work on the self-control issue.

What that tells me is that Schwartz fully comprehends the urgency of 2013, and the tenuousness of his job security. He and his staff know the discipline issue could wind up being the tipping point, and the mistakes of last season can’t be repeated if they hope to see a sixth year on the job. The Lions need to win again, as they did in their breakthrough 10-6, playoff-berth 2011 season, and they need to clean up their act and prove they’ve learned their lesson when it comes to beating themselves.

But Week 1 against the Vikings convinced no one that Detroit can play with self-control, even if the Lions did win by 10 points. Instead, they looked and sounded like they still believed the rules don’t completely apply to them, and their issue is more about how they’re perceived than how they actually play.

In Detroit this season, the denial has to end. It can’t be the same old Lions, playing the same old undisciplined game. The problem is only theirs to fix.