‘Hard Knocks’ just revealed what could be a big problem with Detroit Lions’ D’Andre Swift

Detroit Free Press

That’s much better, “Hard Knocks.”

HBO’s NFL training camp reality series decision-makers must have read  to my constructive, mildly critical column about its weak debut episode about the Lions that felt like infomercial fluff.

Clearly bothered by my scathing, yet entirely fair and pinpoint accurate analysis, the producers and directors surely huddled up in a panic, redoubled their efforts and gave us an excellent second episode Tuesday night.

There were several great, authentic moments Tuesday night that came about because of HBO’s inside access to the team and in meeting rooms. That access is something the series didn’t utilize well in the debut. But this time it paid off.

The show did well to go beyond surface-level hero praise for rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who is have the training camp of all training camps. In a linebackers meeting, position coach Kelvin Shephard used film of the rookie’s great technique to light a fire under veterans.

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Third-string quarterback David Blough fumbled a snap that cost the Lions the game in the preseason loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Blough is as well-liked and respected as any player on the team, so it was heartbreaking to watch him and his wife, who was at the game, deal with the disappointment that could lead to him losing the backup job to Tim Boyle.

But give Blough — and the Lions — a mountain’s worth of credit for not protecting him from the cameras in the locker room or in the postgame greeting area with family, when all he and his wife could do is hug each other and take turns quietly saying “I love you.”

I don’t know if Blough will be a successful NFL player. But I have no doubt he will be a successful human, because that kind of character is extremely uncommon in the sports world.

The most revealing moment of the episode involved D’Andre Swift. There was a clear and consistent message shown in several segments that was delivered to the talented, promising, third-year running back that he is capable of more. A lot more.

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In a large meeting, running backs coach Duce Staley told head coach Dan Campbell and a room filled with the entire coaching staff how special Swift is as an all-purpose back.

“I need him to know,” Staley said, “one-on-one, no matter if he’s running a route or has the ball in hands, no one can guard him or tackle him.”

Staley said he wants Swift to ask Campbell for the ball as often as he can and wants him to believe he’s special.

“And I’m going to try my hardest to get that (expletive) out of him,” Staley said. “I ain’t gonna try, I’m gonna (bleeping) get it out of him because he can be so special.”

Staley saying he’s going to pull greatness out of Swift is a big problem and possibly an uncomfortable truth about Swift’s ceiling as a player.

Many coaches make players better, but no coach ever forced a player to be great. Greatness, or even the desire to be great, is inborn. It is an inherent trait that needs no coaxing from an external entity.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a  player who ever decided it was time to be great, time to be one of the best, because someone drilled it into them. Yes, good coaches instill confidence, they inspire and instruct. But they don’t change the fundamental nature of a person, especially that of a third-year pro athlete.

[ Jared Goff talked his way into playing in Lions preseason opener: ‘It’s a trust’ ]

Swift has a laid-back personality, but so did Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders. There isn’t one kind of personality that makes a player more successful than another in the NFL.

But there’s clearly something more — and likely a lot more — that coaches want out of Swift. They want him to be hungrier and greedier on the field, more vicious and more willing to play through injuries. In June, Staley said he spoke with Swift about the difference between being injured and hurt and how he must will himself to fight through some injuries.

Injuries in the NFL have always been a gray area. I remember a time when  players openly laughed about concussions. But I would trust that Staley, an NFL running back for 10 seasons, knows enough as a former player and cares enough about his current players that he would recognize when someone shouldn’t be on the field.

In Tuesday’s episode, Staley was also dogged in his approach to telling Swift to be a more focused and aggressive player. During the preseason game, he told Swift to keep running inside. But running inside means certain and more direct contact with tacklers, versus the glancing blows a running back typically gets when he cuts outside to the edges.

In one film session, Staley showed Swift in a team scrimmage taking a handoff near the red zone. Swift ran to the edge and got pushed out of bounds around the 10-yard line by safety DeShon Elliott, who had a great angle on him.

Staley stopped the tape.

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“You can’t out run him from right there, right?” Staley said. “So what’s up?”

Staley paused for a beat.

“You got to do something, Swift,” he said emphatically. “Because guess what? If you would’ve stiff-armed right there, you might have (bleeping) scored.”

Campbell spoke with reporters Wednesday in Indianapolis and downplayed any concerns about Swift. But for the Lions to allow “Hard Knocks” to air this much of a sustained narrative about Swift and how much his position coach is imploring him to be much better says an awful lot. It says the Lions playing chess, not checkers, with their young and talented running back.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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