Something missing on Lions special teams

One expert says special teams are all about "want to," and the Lions apparently don’t.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- FOX analyst Brian Billick, a former Super Bowl-winning coach, watched the Detroit Lions give up two punt returns and two kick returns for touchdowns in the last two games and came to a harsh conclusion.

Billick believes too many of the Lions’ special-teams players simply don’t have what it takes.  

“Playing special teams is all about 'want to,' and the Lions don’t appear to have enough players with that type of mentality,” Billick wrote in a piece on FoxSports.com.

Danny Crossman, the Lions’ special-teams coordinator, disagrees with Billick’s assessment.

“I don’t think that’s a problem,” Crossman said. “That’s what Brian Billick says. I don’t concern myself with what other people say.”

John Wendling, one of the Lions’ special-teams captains, does think it’s a problem. He was asked, “Is there enough 'want to'?”

“I don’t think so,” Wendling answered. “No, there isn’t enough. We need that. That’s what I think we’re missing.

“Before that ball’s kicked off, there has to be an attitude that each one of us has a chance to make a play and each player wants to make a tackle. We need to have that and haven’t done that.”

Crossman has been under fire with his special-teams units getting blamed for Sunday’s 20-13 loss at home to Minnesota. The Vikings returned the opening kick 105 yards and also scored on a 77-yard punt return early in the second half.

Crossman took full responsibility for all of these failures when he met with the media Thursday morning on the Lions’ indoor practice field.

“I have to do a better job,” Crossman said. “It is my responsibility to get all of that fixed. My name is on it. I will get it corrected.

“I’m a teacher. If you’re a teacher and half the kids are flunking your exams, you’ve got to find a way to teach the kids better.

“They’re your kids. Find a way to get it done. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Crossman was a special-teams assistant for the Carolina Panthers in 2003-04 before getting promoted to special-teams coordinator in 2005.

He was fired by the Panthers following the 2009 season with one-year remaining on his contract. The Panthers finished 31st out of 32 teams in kickoff-return average, 30th in kickoff coverage and 29th in punt-return coverage that season.

Crossman had previously coached in college, including at Michigan State. He was the Spartans’ linebackers/special-teams coach in 2002, the train-wreck season in which coach Bobby Williams got fired.

“When you’re in this business, there’s always adversity,” Crossman said. “The good things, the bad things. They all come, they go. It’s week-to-week in this business.”

The perception is that he's on the hot seat. Coach Jim Schwartz dismissed a question about firing Crossman, but there’s no doubt that these breakdowns need to be fixed or a change will be inevitable at some point.

“There’s no heat,” Crossman said. “The heat is to win games. The heat is outside. We’re going to get it done. End of story.”

Still, the situation has become so desperate that Jason Hanson was forced to start using pooch kicks to avoid more long returns.

That happens in college, rarely in the NFL. Hanson said it was like “conceding defeat.”

The kick-coverage unit Sunday consisted of the following players:  Rookie cornerback Jonte Green, running back Stefan Logan, linebacker Doug Hogue, running back Keiland Williams, rookie defensive end Ronnell Lewis, receiver Kassim Osgood, rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead, linebacker Ashlee Palmer, cornerback Jacob Lacey and Wendling, a safety.

The punt coverage team featured Osgood, Williams, Whitehead, linebacker DeAndre Levy, long snapper Don Muhlbach, Palmer, linebacker Justin Durant, running back Joique Bell, safety Erik Coleman and Wendling.

None were starters except for Levy, Durant and Coleman.

Crossman wouldn’t comment on possible changes to the depth chart for the Lions’ next game, Oct. 14 at Philadelphia, or whether adding more starters is even a consideration.

What makes it more difficult to correct these types of issues on special teams is that they're not practiced at full speed for fear of injuries.

They get a limited number of opportunities in a game. When they do something wrong, it's always magnified.

Crossman would prefer nobody knew his name or recognized his face.

“Love anonymity, love it,” he said. “I tell my kids all the time. They’re like, ‘Daddy, we don’t see you on TV.’

“That’s a good thing. You don’t want to see that.”

This week, he’s been in the news much more than he'd like, and it hasn’t been a lot of fun. But he deals with it.

“I chose this,” Crossman said. “I love it. Good, bad, it’s what I do.”