Last night, the St. Louis Rams claimed Titus Young off of waivers, after having been unsurprisingly released by the Detroit Lions following the fallout of the 2012 season. His season started with a bang, getting into a physical altercation with Louis Delmas, “sucker punching” the Lions’ defensive back, and subsequently, being sent home by the team. During the season, Young was essentially deactivated after a series of conduct issues, including allegedly lining up in the wrong position on the field, purposefully, and then getting into a heated verbal exchange with the Lions’ wide receivers coach, Shawn Jefferson.
Many in Detroit are praising the release of their once promising star, citing him as a cancer within the organization. ESPN’s NFC North blogger, Kevin Seifert, went so far as to call him a “waste,” absolving the production in Young’s rookie season, and venturing to proclaim that “Young will go down as arguably the worst mistake” the Lions’ front office has made in five years. That seems highly unlikely, especially given that Young was a second rounder, taken 13 spots in front of Mikel Leshoure, the Lions’ new starting running back.
It isn’t as if you have to look far to see some of the major failures and potentially problematic selections by Detroit in the draft that might been termed a “waste” or a “mistake.” In 2009, the first full year under new general manager Martin Mayhew, the Lions traded their 2nd round pick, their original 4th round pick, and 7th round pick to Minnesota for the Vikings’ 1st round pick and their 4th round pick in the draft. They used that selection on Jahvid Best, who’s career in the NFL is likely done after starting only 15 games for the Lions’ in three years with the team. In 2011, the same season that the Lions’ picked up Young in the second round, they used the 13th overall selection in the draft on Nick Fairley, a dominating defensive tackle out of Auburn. Fairley played in only 10 games in his rookie year, managing only 15 combined tackles on the season, with one sack and no other significant statistics to mention. In a two month period following the 2011-2012 season , Fairley was arrested twice in Alabama, once for possession of marijuana, and the second time for a laundry list of offenses, including driving under the influence of alcohol, attempting to evade law enforcement officials, reckless driving, and failing to provide proof of insurance. In his sophomore season, Fairley did manage 5.5 sacks from the interior of the defensive line, but was thrown on the injury reserve on December 12th, ending another season with the Lions in a less-than-promising manner. Most recently, and likely most notably, Ndamukong Suh has been front paged for a number of incidents, including the stomping incident on Thanksgiving Day in 2011 that led to a two game suspension by Commissioner Goodell; only to be proceeded by the Matt Schaub groin-kicking incident this past season. Suh was also named the NFL’s “Least Liked Player” by Forbes, as well as “Dirtiest Player” by Sports News, taking the reins from ex-Ram, Richie Incognito, and current-Ram, Cortland Finnegan. However, with Suh, one could argue that his production on the field is more than enough to compensate for the behavioral issues…
When there are multiple players within an organization that continue to have issue, both on and off the field, that is likely a strike on the leadership on the team and, more specifically, on the coaching staff. Not all head coaches have the ability to relate and manage players, especially those that are “red flags” or have previously documented issues in the league on another team, and it appears that Jim Schwartz does not fit that bill. It also may be indicative of a team with little to no veteran leadership, with most of the “star” players having fewer than five years experience in the league, including all of the prominent skill players on the offensive side of the football (Stafford, Johnson, Leshoure, Broyles, Pettrigrew all being drafted since 2009).
Surprisingly enough, Schwartz, at the start of his NFL career, had connections with Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher, both of whom have a reputation for taking a chance on “risky” players and, typically, getting the most out of them. The Mount Rushmore of “Red Flag” players unarguably includes the faces of Albert Haynesworth and “Pacman” Jones, both of which were drafted and nurtured under the wing of Coach Fisher. Haynesworth played for the Titans for seven seasons (2002-2008), and aside from the one major incident in 2006, played consistently dominate football on the interior of the defensive line. Haynesworth averaged 38.7 tackles per season, and recorded 14.5 sacks in the two seasons following the “stomping incident.” After leaving Tennessee, he recorded only 76 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, and, on average, played in only eight games per season on three different teams in a four year span. Even with Adam Jones’ off-the-field issues, Jones was an all-star on the field for Fisher and Co. In two seasons, the troubled star averaged 58 tackles and 11 pass deflections per season, including 4 interceptions in 2006 alone. On top of the defensive numbers, Jones returned 4 punts for touchdowns, and averaged 26.1 yards per return on kickoff. While Fisher might not have been able to completely contain the “Pacman” away from the gridiron, he was able to maintain the craziness during the regular season, supported by the fact that Jones played and started in 30 games in his two seasons with the Titans.
Fast forward to this season, and it only took half of the year to see Fisher work his magic with two other young stars; Chris Givens and Janoris Jenkins. Both players saw their stock drastically fall in the 2012 NFL Draft due to “red-flags” and character issues, especially Jenkins, who was widely considered a Top 5 talent and the best man-to-man cover corner in the draft. Following the Rams’ trip to London and the bye week, Fisher baffled analysts and fans when he deactived both players for violating “team rules,” and forcing both to run the stairs of the stadium before sitting on the bench against the San Francisco 49ers. While we have had only half a season since that benching to analyze the effects of Fisher’s handling of the situation, both players’ performance at least speak, to some degree, about the effectiveness of the coaches actions. Following the “punishment,” Jenkins nabbed 3 interceptions in a six game span, all of which were returned for a touchdown. He also broke on a Colin Kaepernick wild-toss, scooping up the fumble and rolling into the endzone, which propelled the St. Louis Rams to victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Givens, on the other hand, had the two biggest performance of his career immediately after the benching, including an 115 yards, 1 touchdown performance against the Cardinals and an 11 reception, 92 game against the 49ers.
Whatever your feelings are about Jim Schwartz and Titus Young, the coach-to-player relationship was clearly not strong enough to evoke a positive, productive response upon the players’ return to the field after the incident. There was not enough leadership in the locker room to be able to resolve the situation after it had occurred, and not enough respect among teammates for the situation to have not arose in the first place. St. Louis is an entirely different world. Jeff Fisher, and his staff, are veteran coaches, all of which have experience and success in handling young, talented players with issues; whether they be on the field or off of the field. More importantly, there is established leadership on both the offensive and defensive side of the football, with veterans like Steven Jackson, Harvey Dahl, Cortland Finnegan, and Quintin Mikell, as well as several players with maturity and leadership “beyond-their-years,” in guys like Danny Amendola, Chris Long, Sam Bradford, and James Laurinaitis. Not to mention, he will be reuniting with his Boise State teammate, Austin Pettis, who could become a crucial part of Young’s development in St. Louis.
Most importantly of all, Young will have a quarterback who prides himself on his ability to find the “open” receiver, as opposed to one who has targeted one particular player on 363 pass attempts in the last two season. In 2012, no single player on the St. Louis Rams’ offense was targeted on more than 18% of Bradford’s total attempts for the season. Whereas, in 2011, Young’s last “full” season with the Lions, nearly 72% of Stafford’s attempts went to one of only four different players on the offense (with Young being at the bottom of the that group, receiving only 12.6% of the total targets). For comparison’s sake, you would have to include the top six targeted players on the St. Louis Rams this season to match that 70+% mark. If touches are the biggest issue in Young’s mind, he will undoubtedly see them increase with Sam Bradford at quarterback and with no Calvin Johnson anywhere in sight.
St. Louis was the obvious landing spot for Titus Young, supported by the fact that no other team even put a claim on the troubled talent. He fills an immediate need, gives Bradford another weapon on offense, and will likely come at bargain price. If he doesn’t work out, then no big deal; Young will be next year’s Steve Smith. However, I can think of another player that started his career by being cut after a couple of seasons due to “character issues,” and got claimed off waiver by another team. He became the team leader in receptions the following year, made the Pro Bowl within three years, and would go on to finish his career as an eight time Pro Bowler, three time All-Pro, and have his bust enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame. Sometimes, it is less about the player, and more about the people around the player…