Steve Smith needs to stay in his lane. And the last time I checked, that lane doesn’t include Detroit or Allen Park, where the NFL Network analyst has yet to attend a Detroit Lions game or practice this year.
Smith was a hell of a former player, a feisty bulldog who carved out a 16-year career that included five Pro Bowl selections as a 5-foot-9 wide receiver. There’s no doubt he knows football.
But he doesn’t know the Lions, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to his criticism of the team’s coaching staff — specifically, defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, who has done nothing but draw raves from his players this year.
Pleasant is an easy target after the moment that spread across social media during Sunday’s loss to San Francisco, when television cameras showed Pleasant on the sideline yelling, “Do your job!” among other things at cornerback Jeff Okudah after Elijah Mitchell’s 38-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
“We need to stop upping our standards for players and lowering our standards for coaches,” Smith said in a 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.”
Pleasant is an easy target for Smith — and anyone else who didn’t attend the game and wants to believe the worst about the Lions and their new regime. Because if Smith had been at Ford Field, he would have seen Pleasant put his hand on Okudah’s shoulder and on the back of his head to comfort him after Okudah gave up a 79-yard pass to Deebo Samuel in the third quarter.
And since Smith didn’t join me and other reporters at Lions practice Wednesday, he wasn’t able to hear what cornerback Amani Oruwariye said about Pleasant and the exchange with Okudah.
“I’m going to make it real clear,” Oruwariye said. “Everyone has particular relationships with coach Pleasant. He’s came here and really challenged everyone because he sees the potential in everyone, and he really wants to just light that flair under every single guy. And he has different relationships, different ways of going about that with everyone. But at the end of the day, it’s two guys just wanting to be great.”
Ifeatu Melifonwu, a rookie who is expected to start Monday’s game against the Green Bay Packers in place of the injured Okudah, said the same thing Wednesday while supporting Pleasant.
Pleasant has been a breath of fresh air for the Lions’ young defensive backs, who are short on experience and, frankly, talent. No offensive coordinator in the NFL is scared of this secondary. They need to grow and growing can be painful.
That’s why Pleasant’s exuberant and unrelenting coaching style has been fantastic to watch. In fact, Pleasant’s style reminds me a lot of former Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, who Calvin Johnson considers the best position coach he ever had.
I remember one practice this summer when Pleasant was going through drills with the defensive backs. Okudah kept asking for clarification, and Pleasant kept giving it to him, calmly and clearly.
“I feel like me and coach Pleasant are kind of like a match made in heaven,” Okudah said during 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.”
So tell me what you think. Have the Lions given you any reason to believe over the last six decades, give or take, that they need a softer approach? A gentler touch? Maybe Smith would have preferred Pleasant offer Okudah some cookies and a juice box on the sideline instead of a little tough love and hard truths.
I assure you Pleasant is the farthest thing from a raging meat-head coach. He’s intelligent, well-spoken and learned. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wisconsin and a master’s degree in education from Michigan. You think this guy doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing? You think he doesn’t know more about how to handle his players than Smith?
“I just believe the intensity and the passion that I bring as a position coach should be matched,” Pleasant told reporters in Allen Park last week, “and I also think it’s contagious.”
I’m sure Pleasant understands you can’t use the same teaching tactic the same way with the same player all the time. Any person would tune out any message delivered repeatedly the same way.
Coach Dan Campbell did not speak with reporters Wednesday, but during his weekly radio appearance Tuesday he seemed to support Pleasant’s method.
“It’s high emotions, man, it’s high stress,” Campbell told WXYT-FM (97.1). “… 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.”
Melifonwu said Pleasant addressed the exchange with Okudah with the defensive backs, so it’s obviously on the team’s radar. And that worries me a little.
We know how much the NFL loves drama and how it’s constantly worried about perception. So I’m concerned about the message Campbell and the team brass might be giving Pleasant privately. I’m worried they might be asking him to tone things down, especially during a high-profile game Monday night in Green Bay.
We talk all the time about letting players develop and being patient and giving them time. But coaches need that time and space, too. So I hope Pleasant has the green light to keep coaching the way he sees fit, even if that means more yelling in front of a national audience. We have to remember that one moment during a game doesn’t tell you everything, or perhaps even much, about a coach’s relationship with his player.
On Wednesday, while players were speaking with reporters, I looked over at the far end of the field in Allen Park and I saw Pleasant working with a small group of players long after practice was over. They were putting in a little extra time to get a little better.
There was no yelling. There were no histrionics. And there were no cameras to turn it into a viral moment. Just a coach and his players quietly doing their work and trying to get better — together.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.