For a decade, the Detroit Lions were the laughing stock of the NFL. Before that they were merely irrelevant. When discussing your glory days means reliving the fifties, people don't get too worked up about your team.
When Martin Mayhew took over as general manager and hired Jim Schwartz as head coach, they decided they wanted to change the culture around the Detroit Lions. They wanted that change to resonate around the league.
Well, the league no longer calls them soft.
Uncontrolled. Undisciplined. Thugs. Dirty. But soft, no.
Following a series of unwise choices both on and off the field, the Lions developed a reputation. Is it true? Is it fair? Are the Lions really a dirty team or are they just aggressive?
Who cares? The fact is that in today's NFL, perception is reality.
When you get flair-ups in OTAs, practices, and meetings, it suddenly becomes national press. People start writing articles such as this one stating that you have great promise if you can manage not to shoot yourself in the foot. Players begin dragging out stories and opinions on how horrible you are and what terrible things you do and how they struggle to rise above it all every time they play you.
The Lions will no doubt tell you they don't care. They are about winning football games. All of this background noise is meaningless.
That is a very noble concept, but short-sighted.
You may not care about the perception, but the teams you play do. It is an exposed chink and your opponents will look to exploit it. You no longer only have to figure out a way to play better than the other team. Now you have to do so while performing for an Oscar. You have placed yourself in a position where opponents will start flying backwards, doubling over, and crying in agony without being touched all in the hopes that you will be blamed. There is not a boundary for words that won't be crossed. You are quite likely to receive all of the cheap shots you are accused of.
When it works, don't bother complaining. Yes, the officials may end up calling things that aren't there just because they think they are seeing the end of something. They are human, too. As much as they try not to judge going in, inevitably, they do. The reputation that has been building and that the Lions are trying so hard to ignore will ultimately make their mountain that much harder to climb. It is unfortunate but self-inflicted. This is not a result of a bad decision but rather a pattern of them, followed by little response.
So at some point rather early into the season, the Lions will be outraged. They will cry foul. They will claim they are being unfairly treated and it will likely all be true. At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter.
The Detroit Lions are about to learn a cold, hard fact.
In the NFL, perception is reality and reality bites.