O'HARA'S BURNING QUESTIONS: How important is the mental aspect of the game?

Posted Jun 13, 2014

In addition to physical conditioning and learning new schemes on offense, defense and special teams, how important is it that the Lions improve from the neck up?

Burning questions with minicamp ending the Lions’ offseason workout program: How head coach Jim Caldwell stresses the mental part of the game, the potential effect of Ndamukong Suh’s ongoing contract negotiations, positions that have been strengthened and what kind of season to expect from Matthew Stafford:

Q. Mind game: In addition to physical conditioning and learning new schemes on offense, defense and special teams, how important is it that the Lions improve from the neck up?

A. They didn’t play smart football at times last year, and it was part of why they didn’t win the NFC North when they had a lock on the division title with a 6-3 record and seven games left.

When he was hired in January Caldwell spoke of the importance of the Lions not beating themselves. It was not empty rhetoric. They worked on situational football in the offseason to prepare for what they’ll face in the regular season.

“He stressed it a lot, just about as good as any coach I’ve been around,” Reggie Bush said. “There’s a big emphasis on the mental part of the game – making sure we pay attention to the details and do the little things right.

“Every practice, we’re working on situations.”

Q. But does working on it practice in the spring and summer mean it will carry over to the fall and winter?

A. There are no guarantees about anything, but teams don’t automatically get smarter when the season starts. That’s why Caldwell never lets up on practicing situations that come up in games.

“Every practice,” he said. “You see at the end even, we go through a couple mock situations that we try and cover anything we can possibly think of or anything we’ve seen that has come up in recent times and games that we need to make certain that we have an answer to – that we understand how to function in that situation.

“We try to put them in those situations as often as we can because those are things that will make a difference in ballgames for you. The more knowledge they have in those, and how well they execute in those situations, are going to make a difference.”

Q. Suh contract: What does it mean that the Lions and Suh have not reached an agreement on a new deal? He is going into the final year of the five-year rookie contract he signed in 2010. Is there any reason to worry that he really doesn’t want to remain with the Lions?

Ndamukong SuhDT Ndamukong Suh (Photo: Detroit Lions)

A. Suh has been consistent in saying that he wants to remain with the Lions, and sources who’ve had close contact with Suh say that remains the case.

However, it’s my feeling that there is always concern – or uncertainty at least -- in any contract negotiation until a deal gets done.

Q. Could it be a distraction for Suh if a deal isn’t done before the start of training camp, or the regular season?

A. Some players could get distracted by it, but Suh doesn’t appear to be one of them.

I’d rate it as a one-percent chance that Suh’s performance would be affected by outside issues when he puts his mind to something. Playing football is one of those instances. There aren’t many players who have the same focus as Suh. He’s a destroyer on the football field.

Q. Rising stock: Are there any players who stood out, or helped their cause, in the offseason?

A. The front-line players are always ready to go. That’s why they’re stars and starters.

Having said that, Calvin Johnson looks strikingly healthier than he did at the end of last season. He barely practiced in the second half of the season. In minicamp, he looked as unstoppable as ever – maybe even more so.

In terms of rotation players, there won’t be much playing time left at running back behind Bush and Joique Bell, but Theo Riddick looked sharp. Jeremy Ross could get more snaps as a third or fourth receiver in addition to handling returns. He has given himself a chance for a bigger role.

Darius Slay looks ready to take a step forward – at least -- in his second year at cornerback. It was clear that he’s doing a better job of reacting to the ball. There is no doubt about Slay’s physical ability. He can run, and he’s strong. He needed some time to develop and get comfortable with the pro game.

Q. Secondary issues: Doesn’t the whole unit have to play better?

A. Yes, and it should. It would be a mistake to underestimate how much better play the Lions can get at safety with Glover Quin healthy for a full season and the addition of James Ihedigbo. Ihedigbo knows the system from playing under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore.

Louis Delmas was a warrior and gave everything he had, but knee problems limited his practice time. Ultimately, that affected his performance.

The Quin-Ihedigbo duo, with Don Carey as the third safety, should make the safety position a strength.

Q. The Stafford file: Finally, what should we expect from Stafford? How will he adapt to the new offense, and what will constitute a good season or him?

A. At this stage of Stafford’s career, going into his sixth season as the starter, winning is the only thing  that will qualify as a good season. It doesn’t matter if the Lions run the Wishbone or the spread formation with five receivers on every play. It’s all about winning.

The offense is more structured than what was used under the previous staff. He’ll have the option to change plays, but within those plays are some firm rules on where to go with the ball.

There is no question about Stafford’s ability or work ethic. This offense should suit him and his receivers.

I’d expect him to have a big season.

Q. A winning season?

A. Yes.