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Lions' issues have Goodell's attention, obscuring growing promise on field

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Goodell, despite the off-field problems, says the Lions are moving in the right direction. (AP)  
Goodell, despite the off-field problems, says the Lions are moving in the right direction. (AP)  

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Commissioner Roger Goodell's training camp visits can be a bit mundane at times, but his pit stop with the Lions on Thursday was eagerly awaited. With all of the offseason trouble Lions players have gotten into, including six arrests, with some repeat offenders, Goodell was peppered with questions regarding player conduct.

For all of their gains last season -- and make no mistake, this franchise has made massive strides, including a playoff appearance -- the Lions are threatening to overshadow it with their bad boy image. The primary storyline of their training camp centers on their collective lawlessness and whether this young team can handle its dalliance with success. Some wonder if the organization is showing a firm enough hand with its discipline (though the team quickly released Aaron Berry following his second arrest), or if they're not prizing character enough in the talent evaluation process.

From the league's standpoint, with Goodell putting such an emphasis on curbing alcohol and domestic-related crimes -- as pointed out to our Mike Freeman on Wednesday -- this situation is troubling. One of the NFL's longstanding franchises, climbing out of decades of poor play with what should be a bright future, reenergizing the fan base in a sparkling new downtown stadium, is undermining that progress with off field issues.

Goodell had some time to caucus players, coaches and execs about what has been transpiring here as well as comment on the league's policies on concussions, with Lions running back Jahvid Best now out roughly nine months due to them.

"You try to understand what is going on, what are the trends, what are the issues," Goodell said. "Obviously, the Lions have made it very clear what they're all about, their standards, and what they expect their players and other people in the organization to be held to, and they're backing that up. ...

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"I think anytime you have these issues it detracts from the people doing great things. There are so many great players on this team and through the league, and when these incidents occur they reflect poorly on all of us. I think that's the reason the Lions want to make sure their standards are upheld."

Goodell planned to talk to running back Mikel Leshoure and defensive lineman Nick Fairley after practice. Leshoure is already facing a two-game suspension after missing all of last season due to injury. Fairley could be facing discipline sooner rather than later for his transgressions. What Goodell intended to tell them was in essence what they already know -- they aren't upholding their off-field responsibilities.

"It's the same message as it's been all along," Goodell said. "You're an NFL player and you have to conduct yourself in a certain way and hold yourself to that standard. We're going to expect that, and the club is going to expect that."

Coach Jim Schwartz chose not to address the disciplinary elephant in the room with Goodelll present -- "I don't have any comment on that," he said when asked if Goodell might have any particular messages for the Lions given their offseason tumult, and in general the Lions players seem to want to distance themselves from all the controversy. On a roster that stands at 90 now, and will eventually be pared down to 53, it's unfair for the actions of a couple of players to reflect upon the entire locker room. But the arrests, when coupled with Ndamukong Suh's suspension for stomping on an opponent last season, have certainly colored the national perception of this team.

The coaches are doing their best to make this camp all about football and nothing else. The structure of camp should make it more difficult for players to get in trouble, what with long work days and bed checks at night. Best, meantime, is restricted largely to the meeting rooms and watching practice as a spectator. His rookie year was cut short due to concussions and he still is far from even being able to practice.

The Lions have no firm timetable for his recovery -- "We're measuring Jahvid in weeks and not days," Schwartz said -- and the league and team are calling upon a bevy of head and brain experts to treat his condition beyond the scope of just the team doctors.

Goodell praised the Lions' "very cautious approach," with Best.

"The medical care our players get is extraordinary," he said. "Jahvid has seen a number of doctors outside the Detroit Lions organization and they're all focused on making the best decision for Jahvid Best."

The short- and long-term future for him seems murky at best.

Schwartz said he didn't have any further questions for the commissioner regarding concussions and the team is in lockstep with the league on the issue. "We all feel very comfortable with the parameters of the concussion protocol," Schwartz said.

On the field, the Lions are trying to sort out a starting running back -- Kevin Smith for now by default, with Leshoure hurt again, and a move to sign a free agent like Ryan Grant isn't out of the question. Veteran tackle Jeff Backus was sporting a big cast on his right hand, but neither he nor the coaches seemed all that concerned about it. The secondary needs shaping up as well, with corner a concern and top safety Louis Delmas likely out quite some time nursing a knee problem.

But they will certainly be an exciting, explosive team. They can score points in bunches and attack the quarterback. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson may go down as a legendary combination.

"The potential is definitely there," Megatron said. "But there's a lot of work to be done."

They are far removed from any of the remnants of that 0-16 season in 2008.

No one is lining up to play the Lions anymore. No one is grousing about them playing on Thanksgiving anymore. Their fortunes have turned drastically, and it has been a very welcome sign at the league office. If the procession of Lions getting called into the commissioner's office stops, then all the jokes about the Lions should subside because the on-field product is no longer a thing of folly.

"This organization is moving in the right direction," Goodell said. "You can see it. You can feel it."


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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