NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — In 2011, Detroit players held well-attended workouts during the lockout. They entered the season focused, and after a 5-0 start, the Lions made the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.
The next offseason wasn’t nearly as positive. A number of arrests and off-field problems put the Lions on the defensive. What followed was a 4-12 collapse for what was supposed to be one of the league’s top young teams.
“Any time that you take focus away from the game that’s coming up, or the process of OTAs, or the process of training camp and the urgency to improve and you divide players’ attention, I think it can have an effect. The biggest thing is that it affected the image of the team,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “That dye was cast, and it became an item with players and dealing with the media and everything else. That’s the unfortunate thing — it just divided the focus of the team.”
Schwartz met with reporters for about a half-hour Monday, a day after his team finished the season on an eight-game losing streak. Detroit still has a trio of young stars that could make any team envious: quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But the Lions fell apart down the stretch.
The team did not announce any immediate changes, but running backs coach Sam Gash and wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson told The Associated Press on Monday night they would not be back with the staff next season. Gash said he enjoyed his time with the Lions, but that his contract was up and he was ready to move on. Jefferson, whose contract was also up, said he was looking forward to the next stage in his life.
“I was able to coach the best wide receiver in the league,” Jefferson said.
Among the players, the focus is on a better offseason.
“You hope that guys learned,” wide receiver Nate Burleson said. “Understand that the distractions that followed us into training camp hurt us a little bit, and if you’re going to be that guy, you most likely won’t be putting on a Lions jersey in 2013.”
Detroit finished third in total offense and second in passing, but yards didn’t always equal points. The Lions finished with a minus-16 turnover differential; it was plus-11 the previous season. Detroit also allowed 10 touchdowns on interception, fumble, kickoff and punt returns.
Mistakes like that can make all the difference in a close contest, and the Lions lost nine games by eight points or fewer.
Detroit’s running game remained hampered by the absence of Jahvid Best, whose status is uncertain after he missed the whole season with concussion problems. The receiving corps was also banged-up. Burleson and Ryan Broyles went down with knee injuries, and Titus Young was exiled for what Schwartz said were behavior problems.
“He’s still on our roster and everybody that’s on our roster is still on our roster for a reason,” Schwartz said. “He’s a very talented player. Obviously he made a difference when he was on the field.”
Johnson finished with a record 1,964 yards receiving, but he didn’t have much help and faced all sorts of defensive looks designed to prevent him from getting open.
“We started to get a clear understanding that teams are playing us a lot differently,” Burleson said. “This isn’t 2011, where teams kind of let us run around. They were bold enough to give us one-on-one coverage, and run in between zones. They didn’t do that coming into this year.”
Defensively, Suh made an impact again. Tackle Nick Fairley began to show his potential after offseason run-ins with law enforcement. End Cliff Avril had 9½ sacks, but he can’t be sure what his future holds. He signed a one-year franchise tender before the season.
“I would love to be here, but I know how this thing shakes out. I know how this works,” he said. “Just take it in stride.”
Burleson also says he’d like to be back, and his value may have increased because of Broyles’ injury and Young’s problems.
“I love this team, and I feel like this is my best chance to win a Super Bowl,” Burleson said. “Even after 4-12.”
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