Matthew Stafford proves he can stay healthy, is on pace for Lions’ records


Vikings at Lions | 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox

Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Start with a subplot.

Who had Matthew Stafford getting to Game 13 without missing a start? Outside of the coaching staff and Stafford himself, probably not too many.

Stafford, who started just 13 games in his first two seasons combined, will make his 13th straight start against the Vikings on Sunday.

“I never had any concerns of myself,” Stafford said Wednesday when asked if he felt he’d beaten the “fragile” tag. “You guys can answer that question. I am just where I expected to be — healthy and ready to go this week.”

He’s fought through an ankle injury and a fractured index finger on his throwing hand. He’s also fought through a few erratic weeks. Through it all, he’s on a pace to record the most productive season any Lions quarterback has ever had.

“We’ve never doubted his toughness or his durability or anything like that in here,” center Dominic Raiola said. “That’s never been an issue with us. We have complete faith in his ability to lead this offense and get it where we want to go.”

Stafford has thrown for 3,527 yards this season. That’s 811 yards shy of Scott Mitchell’s 1995 team record of 4,338. He needs to average just 203 yards over the last four games to eclipse the record.

He is five touchdown passes shy of Mitchell’s single-season mark of 32. He’s also in range of breaking Jon Kitna’s single-season completion percentage mark of 63.3. Stafford has completed 63 percent through 12 games.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” Stafford said. “All that matters is winning games.”

Playing for something

Which brings us around to the main plot for Sunday — can the Lions shake off all the injuries, fines, suspensions and negativity they’ve dealt with the past couple of weeks and get back to winning games?

“I think the problem for our team, if there is one, is we don’t think we are 7-5,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “I think if we start thinking that way, we are going to play that way.”

At the start of the week, Cunningham wrote two large numbers on the board inside the defensive meeting room — a seven and a five.

“I said it was about time we start acting like that team,” Cunningham said. “You lose some and you win some in the NFL, but the final result is to get to the playoffs. People need to start focusing on that in our room.

“We’re not some pushover team. We will play anybody at any time. I am not going to make excuses about injuries, but let’s line up our 11 starters against theirs and see what happens. We will get that chance again down the road and I can’t wait.”

For this week, though, Cunningham’s defense will line up without as many as six key players. All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is serving the second of his two-game suspension. His replacement, rookie Nick Fairley, isn’t likely to play because of a foot injury.

Defensive end Lawrence Jackson (thigh) already has been ruled out.

In the secondary, starting cornerback Chris Houston and starting safety Louis Delmas are expected to miss their second straight games with knee injuries.

Outside linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring) didn’t practice Thursday or Friday and he’s questionable.

“Ain’t nothing to it,” veteran defensive tackle Corey Williams said. “We have guys who will step up if other guys can’t play. Gun’s right, man. We have to realize that we do have something to play for. We’re not just trying to finish off these final games. We’ve got a reason. It’s been 11 years since this team has been in the playoffs.

“We had a good week (of practice); crisp and sharp. We just need to get that winning taste back in our mouths.”

Discipline wanted

The Lions started 5-0. They have gone 2-5 since. Yet, they still control their wild-card destiny. If they can win three of the last four, they stand a good chance of getting in. The question is, can they reclaim that “winning taste” they had earlier in the season. Or are they beyond reclamation.

“I don’t know about reclamation,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. “We still have everything in front of us — all our goals that we set out for ourselves. Essentially, our playoffs start this week. We are neck and neck with a bunch of teams, so this is a must-win if we want to keep our playoff hopes alive.”

You have to wonder, though, if they are capable of staying out of their own way. The foolishness has gone on all season.

Going back to post-whistle fouls against Gosder Cherilus and Stephen Peterman in Week 1, to coach Jim Schwartz’s on-field woofing with Cowboys’ receiver Dez Bryant to his postgame verbal shot at Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, to his handshake dustup with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, to a tunnel scuffle before the game against Atlanta, to the team’s open mocking of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, to Suh’s stomp on Thanksgiving Day, to the three post-whistle fouls last Sunday in New Orleans — it’s been one thing after another.

Officials may or may not be watching with a more wary eye, but opponents will certainly be looking to push their buttons and trigger the temper.

“Officials officiate what they see,” Schwartz said. “But as far as other teams pushing the issue, that’s a reality in the NFL and that’s something the last two weeks we haven’t done a good job responding to.”

Schwartz has spoken privately to the team captains and the captains have carried his message to the players. Whether the message has sunk in, the jury is still out.

“I don’t know that it’s a reflection of the leadership or the coaching,” Vanden Bosch said. “I think the mistakes are on the individual. Guys need to understand that you can’t do things because you feel you’ve been wronged (on the field) and go after guys. You have to understand that has an effect on what we’re doing as a team.

“We are an aggressive team and we have a history of not backing down. We need to understand that’s what we are — a physical, aggressive team. But we need to handle that between the whistles.”

As Schwartz said repeatedly this week — it’s down to a four-game season and the margin for error, for selfishness, for any on-field indiscretion is nil.

“We understand we can’t continue to beat ourselves anymore,” Vanden Bosch said. “We’re a good team, we just need to be a little more disciplined. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, and play smart, everything should work out for us.”

Vikings at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Minnesota 2-10, Detroit 7-5

Line: Lions by 91/2

Series: Minnesota leads 66-32-2 (Detroit 26-23, OT, Sept. 25, 2010)

Did you know? Of their four remaining games, the Lions play two teams with winning records (Raiders and Packers).

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

Lions coach Jim Schwartz denies magnitude of Bears game was too much


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Don’t try telling the Lions they’ve lost some of their swagger. Don’t try telling them they’re in a slump, even though they’ve lost three of four.

And don’t try telling them that maybe they weren’t ready to handle the responsibility of being legitimate playoff contenders.

They aren’t buying any of that.

“There is no hitch in our giddy-up,” receiver Nate Burleson said Monday. “We’re ready to get back to work. We are fired up for a big game at home Sunday against Carolina. Our focus isn’t on what’s wrong with us, it’s ‘let’s get back to doing what we do best — winning football games.'”

That apparently was the tone in position meetings Monday following a 37-13 loss in Chicago.

“I have concern because we lost the last game,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “Have we lost confidence? Absolutely not. We still have seven games to play. The important thing is to identify the reasons (for the loss), take the steps to correct those and move on past it.”

The uncharacteristic six turnovers and the poor response to them were viewed as a correctible anomaly.

“It was a little bit off personality for us,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz and the players will fight you if you suggest they were knocked off their personality by the size of the stage and magnitude of the game.

“Nah,” Schwartz said. “Everybody was thinking it was the Chicago Bears, not thinking about the wild card or controlling our destiny or anything like that. It was just the first game of the second half of the season.”

Still, the Bears have played in playoff games and the NFC Championship game. The Lions are playing meaningful games in the second half for the first time in four years, and had a chance to put the rival Bears in their rearview mirror.

Maybe the moment was too big for them.

“Not at all,” Burleson said. “You talk about being fired up. Guys were ready to rock. That locker room was electric. Guys were ready to play ball. It had nothing to do with the type of game it was. It’s more just the situation we put ourselves in with the turnovers.

“You can’t attribute anything to nervousness or guys having high anxiety. It was just one of those games.”

Rashied Davis, who played for Chicago, put it this way.

“You can’t recover from six turnovers against a team like Chicago,” the Lions receiver said. “They are like a pack of ravenous wolves. But we have to shake it off. We lost, but in the grand scheme of things, we are 6-3 and they are 6-3.”

Going forward, Schwartz said there were no additional concerns about the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford. Schwartz didn’t back off his postgame comments — it was the wind that bothered Stafford, not the fractured index finger on his throwing hand.

“He obviously had a glove on,” Schwartz said. “He had a splint on the very tip of his finger so the glove was just so he had a good grip of the ball. He threw the ball well Thursday and Friday. The issue was the wind, and it affected both quarterbacks.

Both completed about 50 percent of their passes and both are 60 percent throwers.

“The difference was, because of the turnovers and the special teams scores, one team had to throw the ball a lot and the other didn’t.”

Stafford wound up throwing 63 passes, Jay Cutler 19.

“Does it feel different (throwing with a fractured index finger)? Yeah. But it didn’t affect his actual throwing,” Schwartz said.

Players don’t look at the record and see 1-3 in November. They see 6-3. Players don’t add up won-loss records to see their three losses — to the 49ers, Falcons and Bears — are to the three toughest opponents they’ve played.

Players also rarely, if ever, admit to losing confidence.

“We think we could have beaten every team we lost to,” Burleson said. “I feel we are better than Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago. Obviously, after losing to them I can’t say that. They’ve got the upper hand.

“But this is the same team nobody was quite sure about at the beginning of the year. A lot of people were saying we might win five games. We’ve won six and we are well above water. We are a good team and there’s not a guy or a team on our schedule that we are scared of. We are the same confident team we were at the beginning of the year.”

There is a thin line in sports between being confident and delusional. The Lions have seven weeks to prove they are not the latter.

Panthers at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Carolina 2-7, Detroit 6-3

Line: Lions by 7

Series: Carolina leads 4-1 (Carolina 10-0, Nov. 16, 2008)

Did you know? Detroit has a winning percentage of .200 against Carolina, worst against all teams the Lions have played.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

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Lions seventh-rounder Willie Young a keeper


Terry Foster/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Chances are, Willie Young is spending most of his free weekend fishing from a dock off the coast of Florida.

He’ll take his catch home, fry it up for his family and relax.

“I love all kinds of fishing, and when I am free, that is what I love to do,” the Lions defensive end said. “I want to find some fishing holes up there in Michigan.”

Off the field, Young is low-key, searching for the perfect fishing spot.

On the field, he’s confident and excitable.

Young throws his hair back into a ponytail and sports a look of indignation. Young, a seventh-round draft pick in 2010 (213th overall), compiled 20.5 career sacks and 45 tackles for loss (second in school history) at North Carolina State.

But at 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds, he’s built more like a basketball player.

“I ain’t no seventh-round pick,” Young said.

And he’s showing that.

This season, the backup defensive end has 10 tackles and two sacks.

“I don’t feel like I am out of place,” Young said. “I’ve always felt I was in place. I just had to adjust to the business side of things, and once I did that, it has been smooth sailing.”

Hungry on the field

Teammate Corey Williams is one of Young’s biggest boosters and role models.

“All this first round, second round, sixth round, that don’t mean nothing,” Williams said. “If you’ve got the heart to get out there, you belong. Look at how many guys were picked in the first round and were busts. Look how many picked in the first round are not even in the league.

“When you are picked low it doesn’t do anything but make you more hungry. You got to go out and grind it out.”

Young grew up in Riviera Beach, Fla., where it was a challenge every day.

“I come from nothing where nothing was given to me,” said Young, adding that his parents were strict. “When I was growing up I was always hungry. I always wanted more and I took nothing for granted.”

That determination is what continues to drive Young today.

And it doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.

“The young man’s got a lot of potential,” Williams said. “I don’t think he realizes what type of potential he has. Once he settles down and relaxes and lets the game come to him, he is going to make a lot of money in this league. It is hard to find somebody built like that who can get off the ball and play the run and the pass like that. He is special.”

If nothing else, Young is confident.

He admits he needs to improve on his game but also says: “I have no weaknesses.”

‘He is an exciting player’

As a rookie, Young played in two games, but impressed coaches with his energy and length.

This season, he’s making an impact, providing depth on the rush edge.

“He is a different guy mentally,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “Once he understood this was a business as well as a game and he got serious, that is when he started to be a whole different guy. It is great to see him being successful.”

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh also has been impressed with Young’s maturity and ability.

“He is always productive, and he is always ready when he gets out there,” Suh said. “He is an exciting player and makes plays and it is exciting to see him play as he has come into a huge spotlight.”

But right now, Young is just enjoying life.

“I am riding the wave right now,” he said. “I don’t think it has really hit me that I am in the league now.”

terry.foster@detnews.com

(313) 222-1494

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Bob Wojnowski: This Lions team can contend, unlike some others we’ve seen


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park

Go ahead and say it, even if it’s premature, even if it sounds kind of funny and almost never gets said around here.

The Lions are a playoff team. Yep, they are. Or should be. Or will be.

They look like it, they snarl like it, and most important, they go on the road and play like it. The Lions are 6-2 at the bye after spending Sunday in Denver treating their opponent as if picking wings off flies. The Lions have a brutishness about them that makes some people uncomfortable, but is mostly necessary in the NFL.

Hey, if drama addicts want to slap labels of “evil” and “dirty” on the Lions, so be it. Those are much better than previous labels of “irrelevant” and “horrific.”

But it’s apparent they aren’t just some nasty bunch that knock quarterbacks and “quarterbacks” (hello, Tim Tebow) on their derrieres. Ndamukong Suh plans a trip to New York this week to make that point with commissioner Roger Goodell. Suh plays on the edge and occasionally crosses it, but I think his intentions are more about impunity than impurity.

The Lions want their defense to be intimidating, and it can be. What they did to Tebow in that 45-10 pasting wasn’t mean. It was predictable. And linebacker Stephen Tulloch swears no disrespect was intended by his post-sack pose, when he went down on a knee to mimic the “Tebowing” craze.

The Lions push the envelope when it comes to abrasiveness, and they do have to be careful. No sense doing too much “Suh-bowing” or “Elbowing.” But they shouldn’t care what anyone calls them as long as they’re not committing dumb penalties, and as long as they push the pocket as well as the envelope.

The Lions sacked Tebow seven times and are third in the league with 24, behind only the Giants and Ravens.

“I think you get an edge by doing things that are within your personality,” coach Jim Schwartz said Monday. “For us, that’s rushing the quarterback, sacking the quarterback, making big plays. Those are the things we want people to respect about us. Those are the things we want people to fear about us.”

Those are the things that turn middlin’ teams into playoff teams. I’m sure you’re aware the Lions haven’t made the playoffs since the 1999 season, when Bobby Ross was the coach and Gus Frerotte (!) was the quarterback.

Challenges ahead

The schedule toughens considerably now, starting with a visit to Chicago after the bye. There are two meetings with Green Bay and trips to New Orleans and Oakland. But the Lions have won six straight on the road after dropping a tidy 26 in a row.

A mere split of the final eight games makes them 10-6 and a potential wild card. If you’re into all the probability gobbledygook, a 6-2 team has a 79.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Stats, LLC (since 1990). Here’s an even better number: A team that wins its first four road games has a 91.4 percent chance.

And you thought you’d be bored in January. I’m risking looking foolish here, but that’s OK. The Lions actually are loaded with talent, and that’s not a loaded statement. Nor am I loaded right now. On the Fox broadcast Sunday, former NFL safety John Lynch suggested the Lions have as much talent as any team in the league.

Not sure about that, but they do have as much defensive-line talent as anybody. For all the acclaim about Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, don’t overlook Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson. Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew said they’d rebuild by unleashing mayhem upon opposing quarterbacks, and that’s one way — maybe the best way — to win in the NFL.

Times have changed

Having a franchise quarterback is another way, and Matthew Stafford has overcome injuries and bouts with accuracy doubts to put up impressive numbers — 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

A growing dynamic is the way the defense complements the offense.

Against the Broncos, Avril had a 24-yard fumble return for a touchdown, and underrated cornerback Chris Houston added a 100-yard interception return. You could say both bear asterisks because they came against Tebow, but that’s mean.

You know what playoff teams do? They win on the road. They sack the quarterback. They create turnovers, and the Lions are third in the league with 11 interceptions. Their run defense is still a concern (ranked 30th), but interestingly, they lead the league in forcing three-and-outs, a statistic Schwartz clearly likes.

“The ability to get the ball back quickly for our offense is important,” he said. “We have an explosive offense, but we have big-play capability on defense too.”

No one would be goofy enough to guarantee a playoff berth. Not even me. Of course, the Lions were 6-2 in 2007 after blasting the Broncos, 44-7, and proceeded to finish 1-7, which laid the groundwork for 0-16. Other than still playing in Ford Field and wearing the same color scheme, these Lions bear no resemblance to those Lions.

Home losses to the 49ers and Falcons were eye-openers, and evidence a punishing ground game is something the Lions lack, and have trouble stopping. That could be an issue against tougher teams. But the Lions have proven they can win almost anywhere (Tampa, Dallas) and almost any way.

Officially, they’ve accomplished nothing so far, other than building an identity that a lot of people are noticing. It’s what playoff-worthy teams do, in case we’d forgotten.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Lions visit Harrison in hospital; team signs backup


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Lions coach Jim Schwartz visited with Jerome Harrison Friday morning, hours before the running back was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a tumor from his brain.

“He was in very good spirits,” Schwartz said.

Cornerback Eric Wright, who played with Harrison in Cleveland before the two rejoined in Detroit, saw him at the hospital Thursday night and said the same thing.

“This dude got me rolling right now,” Wright wrote on his Twitter page. “Smh he gone be juusst fine.”

The Lions officially put Harrison on the non-football injured list Friday and signed former Eagles running back Eldra Buckley, who had worked out for the Lions on Thursday.

“Hopefully I can do something to help this team,” said Buckley, who is 26. “I am going to try to do everything they ask. I will try to be any kind of back they need.”

After spending two seasons on the Chargers’ practice squad, Buckley carried the ball 36 times for 111 yards in two seasons in Philadelphia.

“He’s a hard runner and he was productive on special teams in Philly,” Schwartz said. “He’s strong and quick; a young player who has some NFL experience.”

Maurice Morris will start. He and Keiland Williams will shoulder most of the load Sunday, but Schwartz said

Buckley would be active.

“We won’t run out of ballcarriers,” he said.

Bob Wojnowski: Lions tough to figure out, but let’s try


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park — Finally, you can do it without being mocked. You can wear your tattered No. 20 jersey in public and loudly suggest this is the year, and not everyone chuckles now.

The debate is legitimate, not merely the slurred rants of Lions fans. You don’t have to be drunk or delusional to suggest this is the year the Lions return to that strange, mythical place known as the playoffs. Lots of people more respected than me have suggested it.

Nothing is more deeply craved in this town than a Lions playoff berth, and like many, I’ve spent the past month batting the idea around. It’s not an easy thing to grasp. The Lions are three seasons removed from 0-16, and are 8-24 under Jim Schwartz. But they finished last season on a 4-0 run, and Matthew Stafford is healthy and so hungry, he might eat the Curse of Bobby Layne.

The Lions hear the playoff talk, appreciate it, but steadfastly decline to wallow in it.

“Honestly, it doesn’t make any difference,” Schwartz said Wednesday. “Does it make it easier to watch TV? Maybe. We have a lot of expectations, we just choose not to make them a big deal. All that stuff is nice, it’s good for our city, it’s probably nice for guys’ moms. But we’re gonna let Sundays speak for themselves.”

Well, let me speak for Sundays then. One moment, I’m positive the Lions will be in the playoff hunt. The next moment, I’m thinking they’re a year away.

At least they’re no longer a decade away. The last season they made the playoffs was 1999. Since their 1957 championship, the Lions have one measly playoff victory, and grown men still shed tears of joy recalling that 38-6 pummeling of the Cowboys on Jan. 5, 1992.

We’ll know something about these Lions right away Sunday in Tampa, where they open against a Buccaneers team that also will scrap for a playoff spot. A year ago, the Lions pulled a 23-20 overtime stunner that essentially knocked the Buccaneers out of the playoffs, even though they finished 10-6.

Playoff debate will rage

Buck up and buckle in because this will be an unpredictable ride, starting in the heat of Tampa and ending in the cold of Green Bay. In between, the debate will rage:

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Stafford’s shoulder is healed, and in fact, surgery and rehab made him stronger. He could be great, as long as his mishaps are quirks of misfortune, not proof he’s injury-prone.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Technically, Stafford is injury-prone. Sorry, but the numbers don’t lie — he’s played in 13 of 32 games.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Have you seen their defensive line?! Ndamukong Suh is a behemoth, Corey Williams is terrific and Cliff Avril gnaws on quarterback limbs.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Opposing teams will counter their fierce pass rush with quick passes and draws. That will frustrate Suh to the point he swings a quarterback over his head and flings him through the goalposts, earning a $20,000 fine.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: They have stars or potential stars in Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Suh and Williams. That’s a nice core.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: You still have to run the ball and stop the run, and they haven’t proven they can do either. The offensive line pass-protects better than it run-blocks, and the loss of rookie back Mikel Leshoure is huge, putting a lot on Jahvid Best.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: GM Martin Mayhew has significantly upgraded the talent by making shrewd acquisitions, drafting well and not being Matt Millen. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch is a crucial addition.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: This year’s top rookies — DT Nick Fairley, Leshoure — won’t make an immediate impact due to injuries. And the secondary still lacks big-play talent.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Lots of NFL teams leap up suddenly. Last season, Tampa Bay went from 3-13 to 10-6. Why not Detroit?!

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: “Why not the Lions?!” is a mantra passed down from generation to generation. This franchise long has defied all statistical trends.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: NFL experts such as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and SI’s Peter King say they will, and both sound very authoritative on TV.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Most Las Vegas books still have the over-under on Lions victories at 7.5, and Vegas is a more-authoritative king than King.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: The NFC requires six teams to qualify. Four are quasi-givens — Green Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia and whatever slug wins the West (St. Louis, maybe). That leaves New Orleans, the N.Y. Giants, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit and Tampa Bay battling for two wild cards, and none are especially imposing.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Green Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans and New York will.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: They’ll go to Green Bay for the Jan. 1 finale 9-6 and the experience and swagger to finally smite the ghosts of Lambeau Field!

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Green Bay doesn’t need ghosts when it has Aaron Rodgers. The Packers will win 20-14 to end the Lions season at 9-7.

That’s not what you wanted to hear, I know. But take solace in this: The mocking is over, and the debating has just begun.

Bet on it

Bodog.com odds for the NFL season:

Super Bowl XLVI

NFC

Lions cut running back Aaron Brown


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park –One day after making the initial 53-man roster, running back Aaron Brown was waived by the Lions.

His agent, Jordan Woy, announced the move on his Twitter account, saying the Lions had released Brown to add another player they claimed off waivers.

Neither Woy nor the Lions have revealed that player. Calls to Woy went unreturned.

Brown, who had a strong training camp, amassed 189 yards on 44 carries in his two seasons with the Lions. His only touchdown came on a pass reception in 2009.

The Lions have added three players to the practice squad thus far – receiver Nate Hughes and safety Ricardo Silva, both cut by the Lions on Saturday, and offensive tackle Casey Bender (6-5, 295, South Dakota State), who was cut by the Browns.

The Lions won’t officially announce the full eight-man practice squad until Monday.

Lions rookie Nick Fairley says injury is no setback


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Rookies, even those drafted 13th overall, can ill-afford any setbacks in this condensed, post-lockout training camp.

Thus, there was a high level of concern throughout the organization when defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s sore left foot was in a walking boot Tuesday, the first day the Lions were full pads.

“It’s not a (setback) at all,” said Fairley, as he walked past reporters after practice. “I am doing what I can to get back as soon as I can.”

The fact that neither he nor coach Jim Schwartz could accurately say when he might be back, or what the full extent of the injury was, heightens the concern.

Schwartz said Monday, after Fairley injured the foot on a special-teams drill, preliminary X-rays were negative. Yet on Tuesday, the Lions medical staff was examining the foot for a possible stress fracture or other complications.

“We are still doing some tests,” Schwartz said. “We are having a lot of different people look at it. He’s down for now.”

When asked if he’d term it a long-term or short-term injury, Schwartz said, “I really can’t say right now.”

Fairley, like the other rookies, already was working from behind because all the offseason team work was canceled by the lockout. He didn’t have the benefit of a rookie orientation, rookie minicamp or team OTAs.

“Rookies have a lot on their plate,” Schwartz said on the eve of training camp. “Usually they are here on May 17 or before that. They have a rookie orientation, they get to mix in with the vets and work out at the facility. They are learning the system and going through OTAs and minicamps and by the time they get to training camp they are familiar with the system and we know they are in shape. They know their teammates and they know their way around. They have all that stuff under their belt and they can go out to training camp and compete for spots and playing time.

“What happens now is, they have to learn the system while all of that other stuff is going on. They are starting from zero. It’s a lot to manage.”

Even before the foot injury, Fairley was not expected to come in and start or make an immediate impact like Ndamukong Suh did last season. He was working in as the fourth or fifth defensive tackle behind Suh, Corey Williams, Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen.

So, though the injury is a concern, it’s far from a deflating blow to the team’s optimism.

“He can pick up some things from watching on the sidelines,” Williams said. “He can watch the technique of some of the vets. There’s some stuff he can do while he’s out, but it’s no replacement for actually being out there doing it.”

Dealing with injuries is an inevitability of any training camp, but without the offseason work, teams are forced to make tough decisions on when they can bring players back. Case in point: starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus, coming off microfracture knee surgery, hasn’t practiced the last two days. He’s dealing with soreness and the coaches aren’t quite sure how much to push him.

“We would have liked to see him bounce back,” Schwartz said. “Guys coming off knee surgery, you know it’s going to get sore but you want to get past it. You don’t want to put them out there when it’s still sore but you want to push them through.

“In the past, we’d push them through (the soreness) in OTAs and figure out the best way to handle it then.”

Now, precious work days are being lost while they try to work Cherilus through the soreness.

In other injury news, running back Maurice Morris left practice Tuesday because of a sore left hand. The results of X-rays were not available after practice.

Linebacker Zack Follett (neck) had a scheduled day off. Cornerback Jack Williams (knee) and rookie linebacker Cobrani Mixon (unspecified) also missed practice.

Rookie receiver Titus Young (leg) and starting left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral muscle) are on the non-football injury list.

With Backus and Cherilus out, Schwartz has had to be creative with his line drills. Second-year tackle Jason Fox has taken some reps at guard. Veteran guard Donald Thomas has worked some at tackle. And rookie Johnny Culbreath has gotten way more work than would be normal for a seventh-round pick.

“It’s not experimental, it’s by necessity,” Schwartz said. “With Backus and Gos out, and with (tackle) Corey Hilliard, (guard-center) Dylan Gandy and (Tony Ugoh) still unable to practice (signed free agents), it’s forced guys to do double duty and cross train at other positions. We are getting a good look at some of these guys.”

Camp update

Lions training camp practices today (9:15 a.m.) and Thursday (4:15 p.m.) are open to the public. Gates open a half-hour prior to the start time; access is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

John Niyo: Lions LB Zack Follett is back, thankful and pumped up


John Niyo

Allen Park — The first time the lockout ended — and the doors closed almost as soon as they’d opened in April — linebacker Zack Follett was one of a handful of players who managed to get into the Lions practice facility.

“He showed up and then they shut it down about two hours later,” laughed Matt Burke, the team’s linebackers coach. “So I actually saw him for about five minutes is all.”

That was enough, though. Enough for Follett to show not that he was ready to play football again — he wasn’t, he readily admits now — but that he was still hoping to be.

And after the team had extended him a contract offer before the lockout in early March, he figured that was the least he could do.

“I wanted to show them that, since they gave me this opportunity, I’m going to be diligent and do what I need to do,” Follett said. “I’m not going to be slacking off.”

Friday, he showed them he’d made good on that promise, at least. Nine months after suffering a career-threatening neck injury that left him momentarily paralyzed, Follett was back on the practice field as the Lions kicked off training camp.

“I never thought I’d have a helmet on again,” said Follett, who received full medical clearance Thursday after meeting with the Lions medical staff and passing a conditioning test. “This is a big blessing, and I’m very thankful.

“It felt good, running around and getting back on the field, something that when this all happened I thought wouldn’t be a possibility. And to be honest, because of the way my neck felt earlier this year, I was ready to hang it up.”

Follett was ready, if not willing, because his body wasn’t — or so it seemed — months after he took a blindside hit from Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul while covering a kickoff last October. The hit left him without feeling in his extremities, and it was only after he’d been carted off the field on a backboard and taken to a local hospital that he regained full movement in his arms and legs.

His season was over, his career in jeopardy.

Heart trumps doubt

“Something serious like that, I definitely wasn’t even looking to play football anymore,” said Follett, a 2009 seventh-round pick out of Cal who quickly became a fan favorite in Detroit, as much for his brash talk as his reckless style of play, including that highlight-reel hit on Rams receiver Danny Amendola as a rookie.

Follett, wearing his homemade “Pain Train is Coming” T-shirt in the locker room Friday, acknowledged as much as he thanked the fans for their support, saying, “With them believing in me just over pretty much one hit in my career, I mean, it shows a lot.”

The neck injury, though it didn’t require surgery, did require months of rehabilitation. Follett saw a specialist in North Carolina and another in Ohio after consulting with team physicians in Detroit. He worked with a rehab specialist near his offseason home in Fresno, Calif., as well. But persistent pain this winter left him seriously doubting his future, even after the Lions offered him a one-year contract as an exclusive-rights free agent.

“I signed right before the lockout, and it got me all gung-ho, so I went into the weight room and tried to lift weights and it still didn’t feel right,” he said. “So I got discouraged.”

And if you know Follett — this Gospel-spreading, freestyle-rapping free spirit — you know that didn’t feel right.

“You know the type of kid he is, that he’s going to want to do whatever he can to get back,” Burke said. “But it was a pretty big unknown. We were sitting in meetings talking about guys and it was like, ‘What about Follett?’ Nobody really knew. But I was really happy to see him out there today. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

Ready to win spot

There were many happy returns Friday in Allen Park. Football’s back in business, and the players — most of them, anyway — are back to work. But no one’s more pleased than Follett, though he’s well aware all he has been given is a chance to keep playing.

A roster spot, he’ll have to earn. And he’ll have his work cut out to do that, a year after he was essentially handed a starting job in training camp. The Lions already have added one free-agent linebacker in Justin Durant, who’ll likely start alongside DeAndre Levy, and they may add another soon, with veteran starters Nick Barnett and Stephen Tulloch among the possibilities.

“Coming in my rookie year, I had my head on backward,” Follett said. “Coming in my second year, trying to start and having that pressure was tough. … Now, there’s really no pressure. No one expects anything of me because of where I’m coming from. So I have no monkey on my back. I can just go out there and play.”

But can he still play the way he used to, flying down the field on special teams or filling the gap in run support, knowing what he knows after last fall’s scare?

“Anyone could have that one play that puts ’em in the hospital or whatever,” said Follett, who checked in at 238 pounds Friday and “looked good,” according to coach Jim Schwartz. “But I definitely feel like I’m protected. I wouldn’t be coming back if I didn’t feel that way.

“I’ll try to be smart keeping my head up, but as far as going out there and playing soft? I read that in an article that he’ll probably be playing scared, and they obviously don’t know me. I got here not on my athletic ability, but on my heart and desire and love for the game. If that was a question in my mind, then I wouldn’t come back. But I feel good and I’m ready to go out there and prove it.”

john.niyo@detnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Chris McCosky: Roger Goodell misses chance to heal old wound for Lions fans


Chris McCosky

Allen Park— In all honesty, it probably wasn’t a fair question.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spent 30 minutes answering questions from Lions season ticket holders via teleconference on Thursday. He’s either trying to reassure fans that there will be football in 2011, or trying to brace them for the opposite reality — it was tough to tell with all his talk about time being short.

Anyway, there was the commish, up to his neck in labor relations stress for the past five months, and one of the first questions he received was about the non-catch ruling against Calvin Johnson and the Lions in Week 1 last season.

“When you make bad calls,” a season-ticket holder wanted to know, “what are you going to do about it?”

Goodell took a deep breath. He probably knew that Lions fans would still be bitter about that call, but he couldn’t have thought he’d have to address it in this forum, during a lockout.

Are you kidding me?

Maybe he was caught off guard a bit — give him a slight pass for that — but he totally blew the answer. He missed a golden opportunity to heal a wound and to assuage a feeling around here that the Lions are the league’s favorite floor mat.

At the very least, he could have been empathetic. Even if he believes the rule is just and the call was right, he could have said it was tough way to start a season and praise the team for the resiliency it showed in winning its final four games.

He would have been better served by simply saying that the competition committee upheld that ruling and this wasn’t the right time or place to discuss it.

Instead, he served up the same batch of verbal slop the league spewed back in September. He explained the three elements of a catch — secure and control of the ball, maintaining control of the ball once two feet or another body part hits the ground and “you have to make sure you control the ball long enough after the first two elements have occurred.”

I am sure a collective “Ugh” went out through every person listening to the teleconference. Control the ball long enough — could that be any more vague or subjective? There isn’t a 6-year-old on the planet who would look at that play and say Johnson dropped the ball. But you get a bunch of officials together and fill their heads with vague guidelines and they can no longer recognize one of the most basic elements of the game — a catch.

Let’s be consistent

Fox 2’s Dan Miller, who hosted the teleconference, gave Goodell a chance to ease the fans’ pain by asking a leading follow-up question — trying to get him to acknowledge why the fans are bitter — but he was rejected.

“What people want is consistency and any time there is judgment, that’s sometimes when you get the inconsistency,” Goodell said. “If you are a fan of one team you look at it from one perspective. If you are a fan of another team you look at it from another perspective. You want to make it as black and white as possible and be as consistent as possible.”

Good grief. The Lions looked at it like they got robbed. The Bears looked at it like they got a gift. And as far as the rule being black and white and consistent, it is absolutely neither.

But that is beside the point here.

If it was Goodell’s intent to foster some goodwill with Lions fans, he blew it. He said a lot of interesting things during those 30 minutes, but the only thing most fans will take out of it is how he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that a mistake was made, one that cost the fans around here a good deal of anguish.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489