When a player -- any player -- wags his finger in the face of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the football world takes notice. Fair or otherwise, that has been the effect of the poor decision by Detroit Lions defensive end Willie Young to taunt Brady in Thursday night's preseason game at Ford Field.
Officials called Young for a personal foul and coach Jim Schwartz benched him for the rest of the Lions' 40-9 victory, but the play drew new attention to an old Lions problem. In three preseason games, according to the NFL's official game information system, the Lions have collected eight penalties that I would classify as the type that have unfortunately characterized much of Schwartz's tenure. The count:
Unnecessary roughness: three
Personal fouls: two
Roughing the passer: one
Unsportsmanlike conduct: one
Those eight plays have cost the Lions 97 yards in field position, according to the league. It's true that there isn't much of a correlation between penalties and win percentage in the NFL. But this type of infraction is part of a larger comment on a team's ability to play smart, to focus on its assignments and to avoid mistakes. Those traits do in fact impact the outcome of games.
In ESPN.com's most recent NFL Today podcast, host Robert Flores wondered why the Lions persist in this "fake machoism kind of stuff." Matt Williamson suggested that NFL teams aren't going to be intimidated "by the biggest bully on the block," and Flores questioned Schwartz's sincerity in trying to cap the behavior.
"The amount of defensive personal fouls penalties on this Lions team is just astounding," Flores said. "… If I was a Lions fan, I would just be stunned. This is something that has hampered this team throughout the years, certainly under Jim Schwartz's tenure. Why Jim Schwartz can't get a hold of this, or refuses to get a hold of it, I don't know. It's beyond me."
I think this issue represents an important intersection in Schwartz's tenure. When he arrived in 2009, the Lions were quite frankly a soft team. They had gone 0-16 in 2008 and were neither tough, fast nor physical. Schwartz needed to change the culture and he did so -- with gusto. His early Lions teams were angry, aggressive and played hard. They wanted to change the tide.
Now, however, the franchise is in a different mode. It has more talent and higher expectations than those earlier teams. This is a time for polishing the product and fine-tuning its approach. The Lions need to pull themselves from the underdog role, the kind that causes grown men to celebrate preseason success, and start acting like they've been there before.