Steve Smith: Sideline blowup shows Detroit Lions ‘a train wreck waiting to happen’

Detroit Free Press

When Steve Smith saw the heated sideline exchange between Detroit Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant and second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah in Sunday’s season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, it immediately made him question whether the Lions’ purported culture change has really changed at all.

“We need to stop upping our standards for players and lowering our standards for coaches,” Smith said in video conference Tuesday. “We need to have them on the same playing field. We need to start revoking some of these dumb-ass coaches’ opportunities because that shit show they got in Detroit, it’s a train wreck waiting to happen and I’m sitting there, got my popcorn waiting for it.”

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Smith offered his thoughts on the exchange unprompted Tuesday after being asked a question about how the Chicago Bears are using rookie quarterback Justin Fields early in the season.

He said fellow NFL Network analyst Joe Thomas has relayed stories about how the Browns mismanaged and ruined the careers of young quarterbacks during Thomas’ playing days, and said the Lions might be doing the same with Okudah.

“I think it kind of goes to something that we need to address,” Smith said. “The DB coach or the pass coordinator for the Detroit Lions, how he was dog cussing that third overall pick with the Detroit Lions. I thought that’s interesting. We can say we want to take and handle Justin Fields with delicate hands, but we’re going to dog cuss the DB?

“He put his name in the draft. He didn’t say pick me as the third overall pick. And I find it interesting, that young man obviously is in over skis. He can’t be — he can’t cover people man-to-man. Why in the hell are the Detroit Lions putting that man in man-to-man coverage? They need to protect him the same way they need to protect a quarterback because we all know if the way that coach was talking to him, if Jeff would have responded in a way that, that coach was, they’d be suspending (him) and saying that, that player is detrimental. So I think we need to start holding coaches accountable and … start calling some of these coaches out to show that you can’t expect us players to be a certain way and then you not be that certain way.”

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Smith expanded on his comments in two lengthy phone calls with the Free Press later Tuesday, saying that exchange — his first glimpse of the Lions under first-year head coach Dan Campbell — “is not what football is about” and reiterating that it has him doubting this regime’s ability to lead a turnaround.

“Man, I don’t believe in that culture change they keep barking about,” Smith said. “It’s worse. Their actions don’t follow through. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We question teams’ ability to play well every year. Well, part of their ability to play well is what are they getting fed psychologically. Not just football knowledge, right?

“I mean, at the end of the day, here’s where it was a little disheartening: As men and women, what we all experience, we ask ourselves, who are we? Are we more than just football players? You can love someone and love on someone, but then when the rubber meets the road like in that game, what did that display about how they felt about Jeff Okudah, which is, if he doesn’t perform well, this is how you’ll be treated. And you can say, that’s not the culture. What is a picture worth?”

Fox television cameras captured Pleasant yelling vociferously at Okudah on the Lions sideline after Elijah Mitchell’s 38-yard touchdown run early in Sunday’s second quarter.

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Pleasant repeatedly yelled, “Do your job,” at Okudah as he held a tablet in his left arm.

Lions safety Tracy Walker came over to quell the confrontation, and linebacker Alex Anzalone stepped in front of Pleasant as Okudah sat on the bench.

Asked about the exchange in his weekly Tuesday morning appearance on WXYT-FM (97.1), Campbell said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t dislike it.”

“It’s what goes on, on the sideline,” he said. “It’s high emotions, man, it’s high stress. There’s — and sometimes it’s the only way to communicate, at times. You have to get through, you got to break through that barrier and sometimes there’s players and there’s coaches, when you get one blowup, now you can finally get some work done if that makes sense. And it just happens that way, naturally. I don’t want disruption, but at the same time I know this, that things got cleaned up after that and so, it’s just, that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Pleasant, in his first year with the Lions, has been roundly praised by players, including Okudah, for his energy, enthusiasm and teaching acumen this summer.

After their initial sideline exchange, TV cameras caught Pleasant in a more nurturing moment with Okudah, pulling the young cornerback’s head to his after Okudah got beat for a long touchdown.

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“I feel like me and Coach Pleasant are kind of like a match made in heaven,” Okudah said during training camp. “My game’s always based around technique, being a technician. And that’s something that he’s brought to the table every single day. He’s someone that’s really detail oriented. He understands that I’m going to ask a lot of questions, so he never really gets frustrated, answers my questions. And that’s been pretty big, just to be able to have a coach that’s willing to embrace the kind of player that I am and like I said, put his full belief and confidence in me that I can become the player that he envisions me being.”

Several former NFL players shared their thoughts on social media after the Pleasant-Okudah exchange.

Will Blackmon, who played for Pleasant in 2015-16, tweeted video of the second interaction and wrote, “So y’all not gonna show this part?” Former Lions safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo were more critical, with Ihedigbo writing on Instagram that Pleasant was “way outta line.”

Smith said he did not see the second exchange between Pleasant and Okudah, and said chalking the incident up to Pleasant’s fiery nature as a coach is “just making excuses.”

“Again, I question the culture,” he said. “Has it changed? Nah, it hasn’t changed. And probably after this article, Coach is going to say I’d love to have Steve come and observe. Bro, I don’t need to observe. That’s who you are. The same thing a player gets, I’m throwing it and flipping it and giving it to the coaches. If that was a player, he did that, he don’t get a second chance, and you and I both know that’s true.”

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One of the most prolific receivers of his era, Smith was known for his temperamental nature and was once suspended for fighting a teammate. He opened up about battling depression as a player in a 2018 essay on, and said his personal experiences — including being a parent of four and rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2015 — are part of why he feels so compelled to speak out about Sunday’s incident.

Okudah ruptured his Achilles tendon Sunday and will miss the remainder of the season.

“I think a lot of men, young men, saw that very threatening,” Smith said. “And here’s the thing, I’ve had an Achilles tear. Jeff is going to embark on nine months of mental anguish. And now every time he remembers his 2021 season, that’s what he’s going to pull up. How do you think that’s going to play out? That’s very encouraging to come back and play, and then Coach is going to try to hug it out to say, ‘Hey, man, my bad.’ I just find that, man, it’s just tough. I really think that’s tough, and we talk about culture with the Detroit Lions, and I want to ask the Detroit Lions is that a culture change?”

Smith played one season after his Achilles injury, a double rupture where the tendon tore and ripped off the bone, and caught 70 passes for 799 yards.

He said Okudah, the No. 3 pick of the 2020 NFL draft, is young enough to recover from his injury and go on to have a successful career.

“I hope he comes back, personally, just because of my mental makeup,” he said. “I hope he comes back and kills it, bro. Just destroys it. Like, he becomes that corner that they all hope he would be. But here’s the caveat, I hope not in Detroit, bro.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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