Ask any NFL fan what they think of the Detroit Lions, and you're likely to hear a lot of optimism heading into the 2012 season, and with good reason. Martin Mayhew and the Lions front office have been making all the right moves and have put together an incredibly talented, young football team.
That being said, most people still thinks the Lions are at least a year removed from a deep playoff run despite being heralded as one of the most prolific offensive teams in the NFL. So why the skepticism? It's not due to their defense, which has been steadily improving the past few years, and features one of the most feared defensive lines in the league, so what's the deal?
In short, the Lions need to grow up. They're a very young team, and despite what appears to be excellent leadership, they continue to make the same mistakes that prevent them from being viewed as a truly great team.
If the Lions' talented young players can get their act together and break some of the bad habits they've become known for and show a modicum of maturity, then there's no reason they can't make a deep playoff run and become Super Bowl contender as soon as this season.
The areas with the most glaring room for improvement are listed below.
1. The Off-the-Field Issues Have to Stop
This really goes without saying, but the 2012 offseason has been absolutely ridiculous in terms of bad decisions made by Lions players. Both Mikel Leshoure and Nick Fairley have been arrested multiple times for driving under the influence. That's two first-round picks, players that are meant to become backbones of Detroit's offense and defense respectively. Leshoure has already been suspended for the first two games of the season, and a suspension for Fairley is likely to be handed out soon as well. Oh, did I mention that Fairley's 1st round pick rookie paychecks apparently weren't enough for him to afford car insurance?
It would be bad if those were the only incidents from the offseason, but Titus Young, another early draft pick from 2011, allegedly got into a fight with fellow Lion Louis Delmas during a practice earlier this year. While these things tend to happen in football, it's disturbing that head coach Jim Schwartz went so far as to hold Young out of a number of practices after the incident. This implies that it wasn't just your average scuffle between teammates.
Not to be outdone, despite what I'm sure was a disciplinary onslaught from the entire Lions front office, CB Aaron Berry got himself in on the action most recently with a DUI of his own. While Detroit's secondary is a weak link, Berry was beginning to look like a bright spot at the end of the 2011 season. It's almost inconceivable how stupid Berry must have felt after sobering up, considering that he was likely told on a daily basis to stay out of trouble.
It's this lack of discipline that can cost the Lions in crucial situations throughout the season, and even if it doesn't manifest itself in the form of tangible mental errors, that's still three important players likely to be suspended for at least a couple of games.
2. Execution Needs to Improve
As many great plays the Lions had on both sides of the ball last year, they had just as many dropped balls and missed tackles that cost them dearly. I only have to look back to the playoff game against New Orleans to remember just how badly the Lions coverage and tackling can be. Darren Sproles broke tackle after tackle all game long and made the Lions defense look like Swiss cheese.
While the simple lack of talent in the secondary has something to do with it, poor execution and lack of fundamentals contributed as well. When multiple Lions get their arms wrapped around a player, only to then see him break away and get a first down, there's something very wrong with that picture.
The offense isn't off the hook either, the primary culprits being Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young, who both dropped a whole lot of passes that should've been caught. Both of these players are very young, so they should improve as they mature, but being a primarily passing offense, dropped passes are a luxury that the Lions can't afford if they want to make the playoffs in a very tough NFC North.
3. Stop With the Stupid Penalties
While there's nothing wrong with having a mean streak in football, it becomes an issue when that mean streak turns into a stomp and suspension. I'm looking at you, Ndamukong Suh. Suh's stomp is only the most glaring example of a team wide penalty problem. Titus Young, whose name seems to be coming up an awful lot, had multiple idiotic penalties for retaliating, usually with something resembling a punch to the head of the opposing player.
It's not just the obviously stupid penalties that hurt, though. It's the sheer volume of offsides, pass interference, holding, clipping, roughing the passer, etc. that all add up over time.
The Lions will never become the elite team they should be if they can't get disciplined and drastically reduce the number of penalties they receive. It's just too hard to compensate for giving up over a hundred penalty yards a game.
4. Play Four Quarters of Football
If it weren't for some late-game heroics and some miraculous comebacks, the Lions record would've looked a whole lot worse than 10-6. The fact is that the Lions came out of the gate looking flatter than hell last year, and it could have easily cost them a playoff berth.
Take the win over the Cowboys as a prime example of this. The Lions were getting blown out of the water before scoring two defensive touchdowns in a matter of minutes. Honestly, that was more the implosion of Tony Romo than the outstanding play of the Lions. It was luck. Granted, Stafford and Megatron made some huge plays as well, but if it weren't for some really horrendous passes by Romo, that game is a loss and the Lions never even make the trip to the Super Dome to finish the season.
I'm not sure if it's a coaching issue or just a lack of preparation by the players, but if the Lions play four quarters the way they're capable of, they should be able to make the playoffs for the second season in a row. Here's just hoping they don't have to rely on multiple double-digit comebacks to do it this time.