By Ashley Dunkak
Writing that a perennially hapless Detroit Lions team that went 4-12 in 2012 will play for a conference championship in 2013 takes a considerable measure of vision and optimism. Apparently Profootballtalk.com’s Mike Florio possesses those qualities in spades because in his preseason predictions last week, Florio did exactly that.
With a 34-24 win over Minnesota last weekend, the Lions are making Florio look good so far.
“At least for now, I feel like I’m not an idiot,” Florio said to Karsch and Anderson on 97.1 The Ticket on Tuesday, “but I may feel differently in December, and there’ll be plenty of people who remind me of that if that happens.”
What gave Florio some confidence in the Lions is what made many people cautiously optimistic – the addition of running back Reggie Bush to replace the dual threat that Jahvid Best provided before concussions ended his career.
“The Lions were 5-0 with Jahvid Best in the lineup in 2011, and then when he suffered his most recent concussion, they’d gone 9-19 since then,” Florio said. “The moment they signed Reggie Bush, that’s when they landed on my radar screen.
“There’s a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best receivers the game’s ever seen in Calvin Johnson,” Florio continued, “and I thought the Lions just needed, more than anything else, a weapon that could complement Johnson and take advantage of all the open space underneath that is created when two and three players are covering Johnson everywhere he goes, especially when he goes down the field, and it worked.”
Like others, Florio realizes how heavily the offense leans on Bush and in how much trouble it would be for the Lions if Bush were to be sidelined with injuries. To Florio, though, injuries are a given for the position and a matter of endurance. Because Bush has dealt with injuries and subsequent limited playing time in the past, he might be better equipped to play through injuries now than other running backs, particularly those in his age range.
“He surprised people the last couple years with his ability to run between the tackles for [Miami], and he stayed largely healthy, although he’s been banged up, but he’s played through injuries, and that’s really the key for any running back,” Florio said. “You’re going to get injured. Can you still be effective when you are injured?
“It’s all about being available week in and week out, and I think Reggie realizes that,” Florio added, “and I think he’s fresher now at this stage of his career in his eighth NFL season than he would have been if he’d been a workhorse early on with the New Orleans Saints.”
Of course, while Bush can elevate the Lions, some of Detroit’s old habits may still stand between the team and its potential. One of the biggest issues might be penalties, particularly ones after plays.
While the Lions did not rank anywhere near the worst in the league for the number of penalties or penalty yardage in 2012, they have a way of committing indiscretions at bad times, negating big plays and shooting themselves in the foot. In the home opener Sunday, one penalty wiped out a touchdown and another wiped out a forced fumble. Either easily could make the difference in a game.
To make matters more interesting, one of the team’s newly proclaimed leaders is one of the worst offenders when it comes to dirty penalties – defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. With a long history of dirty hits and fines from the NFL, Suh just received the largest fine for an on-field incident ever when he got hit with a $100,000 fine for an illegal low block against Minnesota’s John Sullivan. Florio said he thought the play might have merited even more punishment based on what the NFL has meted out in other situations.
“When you consider his history, I’m surprised he wasn’t suspended,” Florio said. “I think the NFL at least considered suspending him because of his history. It was a low hit that is not legal at any level of football. It was away from the play, although there’s a certain angle that shows Jonathan Sullivan was a little bit closer to DeAndre Levy than the end zone angle would suggest, but it was an unnecessary play, it was a dirty play, you can infer intent.
“The thing that bothers me,” Florio continued, “is when you look at how the Saints were hammered last year for talking about injuring players, when you have video of a player apparently intending or trying – or at least engaging in reckless behavior that could injure another player and you don’t suspend for that, there’s a disconnect between what the league did to the Saints and what the league did to Suh.”
Penalties have been part of the Lions’ personality for years, particularly during the tenure of head coach Jim Schwartz. Florio said that, in his opinion, the recurring penalties and physical-bordering-on-questionable style of play comes back to the coach and what he wants players to be doing.
“When you see players continuing to engage in illegal hits, continuing to have that chippy play, there’s an organizational question and there’s a coaching question,” Florio said. “We see with Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams a lot of guys who kind of live on the edge and they like that. There were multiple illegal hits and late hits for the Rams on Sunday against the Cardinals, and at a certain point, it’s a reflection on the coaching staff and/or the personnel function because you’re bringing guys like that to town, and you’re not taking that edge out of them, but you want that edge.
“That’s the line that every team is trying to strike,” Florio continued. “You want someone that will hit a guy in the mouth, sometimes when he shouldn’t, because that guy is more likely to step up and make a big play or at least provide that intimidation factor every snap that he’s on the field. And yeah, at some point it does stick to Schwartz, and Schwartz was with Fisher all those years in Tennessee, so I think there’s a philosophy that’s at play here where you want guys who will do things like that because ultimately football is a physical game, and if you have physical players who can intimidate, you’re in a better position to win.”