O'Hara's Monday Rundown: There are no guarantees after 10-6

Posted Apr 9, 2012

There is no joy in putting a pinhole in the balloon of optimism. Dimming the party lights doesn't get anyone a round of applause.

The offseason in sports is when rosters are tweaked and hopes are built or renewed, and the Lions are experiencing some of both this year.

They've followed their plan to keep the front-line roster almost intact by re-signing their own players in free-agency, and the draft later this month offers the prospect of adding help at key positions.

There has been a majority view among national analysts that last season's 10-6 record wasn't a fluke. I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but with this note of caution -- take nothing for granted.

It's fine for fans to stoke their hopes on last year's record, but management knows that nobody wins a race by standing still.

I felt that way before two players from last year's draft class – running back Mikel Leshoure and defensive tackle Nick Fairley – were arrested last week in separate incidents for marijuana possession.

There is more work to be done this offseason - specifically on defense - for the Lions to solidify their status as legitimate, consistent contenders in the NFC North, but the Lions of 2011 should not be one-hit wonders.

They have talent, with a core of young players still ascending toward their peak - Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril to name a handful.

But that doesn't guarantee anything. More than any other sport, a pro football season is a week-to-week proving ground. In many ways, the offseason process of building, tweaking and healing is as important as the regular season.

This week's Monday Rundown will focus on the state of the Lions' offseason with the draft less than three weeks away. There's a look at what might be coming in terms of a prime-time TV game when the NFL schedule is released, the impact of the Fairley and Leshoure incidents, and a non-football Off the Grid observation on the most debated, loved and hated baseball player in Detroit history.

We start with the caution flags:
1. Perspective: From any vantage point – my long tenure with The Detroit News and more recently Fox Sports Detroit – one of the hardest lessons to learn is that nothing should be taken for granted.

Long before I landed in this new spot, I saw how so many things can go wrong – accidents, injuries, plans gone awry, bad luck and more often basic human frailty.

Across the entire scope of sports, I've covered teams and events that had shocking endings that became famous or infamous.

In 1980, Rosie Ruiz was the first woman to run across the finish line in the Boston Marathon. It was an amazing story for about an hour – until it was discovered that she was a fraud who jumped into the race near the end.

Tommy Hearns lost a fight when Iran Barkley, little more than a club fighter, landed a wild right hand flush on the Hit Man's jaw, knocking him cold ... moments after the referee was poised to stop the bout because Hearns was giving Barkley such a beating.

The 2004 Pistons were heavy underdogs but ran away from the Lakers on young legs to win the NBA championship in five games.

Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed ('78) won thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown in back-to-back years, opening the gate for it to be a regular occurrence.

No horse has done it since. Favorites have failed year after year going into the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

But this is about football and the Lions, and the perspective begins way back in 1978. The Lions finished strong in Monte Clark's first season as head coach. They were picked to contend the next year but lost their top two quarterbacks to injuries before the start of the season and went 2-14.

More recently, the Lions thought they'd made enough changes on defense in 2008 to improve on their 7-9 record in '07 and contend in the NFC North. Instead, the defense was one of the worst in NFL history, and the Lions became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16.

We all make predictions, but the sports world is unpredictable.
2. Full disclosure dumbbell: I picked the Lions to go 9-7 in 2008. Thankfully, there are no sports books at Detroit's casinos.
3. Atonement: I picked the Lions to go 10-6 last year. Unfortunately, there are no sports books in Detroit's casinos.
4. Work zone: It's hard to look at the last two games and not think they'll have an impact on GM Martin Mayhew's plans. Matt Flynn torched the defense for 480 yards and 6 TDs in a 45-41 loss at Green Bay in the last regular season game.

In the wild card playoff round the next week, Drew Brees dropped 466 yards and 3 TDs on the Lions in the Saints' 45-28 win.

Whether it's the draft, a trade or signing a veteran who gets cut by another team, the secondary has to be a primary concern.
5. Crime and punishment: There are many angles to consider in last week's arrests of Fairley and Leshoure, and fans and media have weighed in across the spectrum on legal, moral and competitive viewpoints.

For those who think marijuana should be legalized, the point is that it isn't legal, and that the NFL has rules and guidelines for punishment that are spelled out clearly.

Smoking pot doesn't automatically make a person a career criminal. The issue for pro football players - Fairley and Leshoure specifically in this case - is that it puts them at risk of being caught breaking a rule that could not be any clearer than knowing Dec. 25 is Christmas Day.

Based on what is known about their backgrounds, I'll be surprised if Leshoure doesn't get a four-game suspension but I don't expect a suspension for Fairley.
6. Draft impact: However the Lions rate their draft, plans should not be influenced to any significant degree by the events involving Leshoure and Fairley.

One draft prospect who should be rated on his own merit is Janoris Jenkins, the talented star-crossed cornerback from North Alabama.

On talent alone, Jenkins might be as well suited to fill a need at cornerback as any player in the draft.

But in terms of character issues, Jenkins would be a high-risk choice in the first round. Jenkins had a history of drug offenses that led to him being kicked out of Florida. He landed at North Alabama.

Jenkins' issues are his own creation.
7. Preseason schedule: Putting the Lions at Baltimore on national TV in the exhibition season was an interesting choice by the NFL.

Expect the post-game handshake between Jim Schwartz and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh to be uneventful – unlike last year's flareup between Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
8. Regular season schedule: An internet blogger released what he claimed was the NFL's full schedule. League officials denied that it was the real schedule, which is likely to be released before the draft.

Frankly, the blogger looked like he had the real thing, and it had the Lions playing three times on national TV – at home against the Packers on Monday Night TV in Week 1; at home against the Seahawks in a Sunday night game on NBC in Week 3; and another Monday Night game at Chicago in Week 14.

There's also the traditional Thanksgiving Day game, with Houston the expected opponent this year.

Having Seattle at Ford Field on Sept. 23 makes the most sense.

There's been a buzz since late last season that NBC wanted a Lions game at Ford Field because of the fan frenzy for last year's Monday Night game against the Bears on ESPN.

Fans began invading downtown Detroit by noon, and the atmosphere inside the stadium and outside in the streets was electric. The Lions delivered on the field.

It all made for good TV, and the peacock network would like to show its colors in Detroit.
9. Off the Grid: Brandon Inge was booed in the Tigers' opener on Thursday, and the reaction reminded me of something the late Tom Kowalski once said in one of the many bull sessions he once dubbed a "meeting of the wise men."

Tom wondered about the logic of the fans trashing Joey Harrington, and then wanting him to go out and play well.

It made sense then regarding Harrington, and it makes sense today for Inge.