By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Veteran running back Reggie Bush expects this year to be different.
Last season the Detroit Lions failed to take advantage of a weak NFC North, losing six of their last seven games and missing out on a postseason berth.
If the Lions fail again in 2014, Bush said it will be the result of shoddy effort, not about the composition of the team.
“Last year, we kind of lacked maybe a little in some areas, with experience, or leadership, but now there’s absolutely no excuse,” Bush said Monday. “If we don’t get it done, it’s just because we didn’t put forth enough effort.
“The good thing is that we have the guys that want to be here that want to win,” Bush continued. “That’s kind of the first step. I’ve been on teams where you feel like guys are just showing up for a paycheck, and it’s tough to win with guys like that. Everybody here on this team wants to win, and they’re all on board on Coach Caldwell’s train to get this thing going.”
One of the factors in any success the Lions enjoy this season will be the offensive line, which surprised many people with its effectiveness last season. There were plenty of questions about that unit during the summer, but the group quickly quieted concerns and even emerged as one of the better groups in the league.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell traced the offensive line’s consistency to the discipline of each individual in the group.
“They always say the mark of a true leader is a man who can lead himself,” Caldwell said. “Every single one of those guys are quality people in every single dimension. They do things the right way. They are tough, physical, smart, and they have great leadership in that line. (Rob) Sims has been around, good experience. Dom [Raiola] in the middle is an anchor and just tremendous for that group. He’s like the gel that holds that group together; he binds them. We have some young guys that have had some opportunity to play a quite a bit of football. Larry [Warford] and [Riley] Reiff and the rest of them, those guys have done well through the years and we expect them to continue to get better.
“In that particular position it takes them awhile to really perfect their craft,” Caldwell continued. “And some of those guys are pretty good already, and I think as you see as time goes on they’re going to get better and better and better because they will see different styles, get accustomed to it, and after a while they will know their opponents pretty well, what to expect and how to best use their skills and gifts and abilities.”
Detroit has an abundance of youth on its offensive line, with projected starters LaAdrian Waddle and Larry Warford coming off their rookie seasons and Riley Reiff entering his third year. Like Caldwell, veteran Rob Sims expects the group will get even better as it plays together longer.
“The three years I spent with Jeff Backus, how we grew over those three years, I think it’s going to be the same thing,” Sims said. “It’s going to get nothing but stronger.”
Warford was one of the best surprises in 2013, and Bush detailed his teammate’s ascent, starting with a label any football would appreciate.
“Larry’s a beast,” Bush said. “He came a long way in his first year. When he first got here, he was a little uneasy. He wasn’t comfortable, as most rookies are. This is a different level, and the game’s a lot faster, so he kind of really came into his own in that first season and really became a dominant player for us and one of the reasons why our offensive line was so successful and the reason why we were as running backs successful last year. He’s a great player. I’m glad he’s on our side because he’s just one of those old-school, nasty offensive lineman that you love to have blocking for you.
“He was always one of the guys finishing – 10, 15 yards down the field,” Bush continued. “Didn’t matter how far the ball was, he was one of the guys that always showed up in the picture, chasing the ball down, and you’ve got to love a guy like that.”
Bush, entering his ninth season in the NFL, recounted one play Warford made at Ford Field in the 2013 preseason game against the New England Patriots.
“We had a screen, and it was to Joique [Bell] – I think it was to Joique, or me – and the linebacker was about to hit the running back, and Larry just came and cleaned him up, and it was one of the loudest hits I heard all year, and the running back took off down the field,” Bush said. “That was kind of who he became throughout the whole season. He was that guy that we could lean on, depend on, whether we were running the ball in between the tackles or down the field on a screen or whatever it was. He was always hustling and always continues to show up on tape.”
Sophomore slumps are common, but Caldwell does not expect Warford’s production to dip after his impressive rookie year.
“He never gets too high or too low and is never full of himself,” Caldwell said. “Jim Collins says in his book [that] how the might fall is arrogance. He has none of that. Also, he doesn’t think he’s arrived. He’s working extremely hard, so I doubt very seriously that you’ll see him slip, so I think you’ll continue to see him progress.”
Fans will get their first real look at any such progress Saturday, when the Lions take on the Cleveland Browns in Detroit’s first preseason game of the year.