Head coach Jim Schwartz should be done in Detroit, mercifully ending a regime filled with laziness, ineptitude and sloppiness.
Following a Week 16 loss against the equally moribund New York Giants—who were playing for nothing of note as they had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs—the Lions are now out of the playoff hunt and find themselves searching, once more, for what went wrong.
If the coaches have any honest bones in their bodies, they'll start by looking at the men in the mirror.
It's worth noting, too, that while the Lions have seemed to possess strong leadership since 2009, reports have surfaced that Schwartz' job was actually on the chopping block last season, per ESPN's Ed Werder. Despite missing the playoffs, Schwartz was kept around so as to not eat too much money off of a contract with years left on it.
The Giants game was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong in Detroit. If "Lioning" were a verb, it would be defined as handing a football game over to one's opponent through a series of brain farts, unforced errors, stupid play calling and overall-terrible play compared to one's usual level of talent.
To use it in a sentence: The Lions lioned so hard on Sunday afternoon.
In 2009, the Lions hired Schwartz as coach following the culmination of the Matt Millen era in Detroit. With general manager Martin Mayhew in control, the idea was to hire a smart, young defensive mind and give that coach as long a leash as possible to "restore the roar" to a Lions team that had seen more whimpers in the past decade than anything resembling ferocity.
Schwartz took that long leash and, in the course of five years, hung himself with it.
Putting Schwartz' Tenure as Lions Head Coach in Perspective
The crazy juxtaposition for Lions fans is that Schwartz is—far and away—the best coach this team has had in recent memory. Even with a career winning percentage south of .500, Schwartz is far better than guys like Rod Marinelli, Steve Mariucci and Marty Mornhinweg.
Arguments could be made for 1980s and 90s stalwarts Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, but the long and short of the situation is that Schwartz was a bit of an oasis in a desert of terrible coaching.
Better than bad isn't necessarily good.
Much like Dallas Cowboys embattled head coach Jason Garrett, Schwartz was a star coaching candidate. He had interviewed for head coaching positions in San Francisco, Washington, Miami and Atlanta. As a star pupil of now-St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher with links to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick in his resume, the Lions landed what they assumed was an awfully big fish.
At the time, it certainly seemed that way to everyone else as well.
Schwartz even had his cheering gallery in the media as he was known as a brainiac and numbers guy. He was an economics major at Georgetown and had spoken with Aaron Schatz and Football Outsiders about statistical analysis.
So, he's going to be smart, right? He's going to make good decisions!
Then, within moments of being announced as head coach, it became known that Schwartz was a genuine guy who enjoyed heavy metal music and didn't enjoy the normal coach-speak that so many others in the NFL seemed to have coming out of their pores. He hung out with Detroit royalty like Kid Rock and tweeted out his workout playlist.
No one expected a quick turnaround. How could it have been?
Millen and his rogues gallery of coaches had run this team into the ground further than any other team in history. 0-16 isn't just bad, it was historically so. The talent (using that term with its loosest possible definition) on the team was atrocious. It was a menagerie of poor fits in numerous schemes as the coaching turnover and front office lack of scouting ability had brought plenty of simply useless people to a roster that needed a total overhaul.
Schwartz assembled his staff—offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham—giving him an all-star duo with plenty of experience to lean on. They assisted the new front office with bringing in their types of players as guys like defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and wide receiver Nate Burleson quickly became Lions stalwarts.
It's no question that Schwartz helped pull this team out of a quagmire that plenty of coaches wouldn't have been able to, but this team has stagnated around him.
In a NFL that is centered around the idea of "what have you done for me lately," Schwartz' five years has been more than enough time to make the case to stay. However, while the team has gotten better, it hasn't gotten good. In that time, the Lions had only one playoff appearance and one winning season.
The Lions Team Has Too Much Talent to Be This Bad
A cursory look at the Lions roster reveals a number of players at or near the top of the NFL at their respective positions. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are probably the best interior defensive line tandem in the entire league. Calvin Johnson is the top receiver. Stafford, still only 25, is one of the best young quarterbacks.
Throw in a second tier of guys like running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin, linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, and all of a sudden, it's difficult to understand how the Lions aren't a playoff team.
Any time Johnson or Bush were even the tiniest bit less than 100 percent, the offense stagnated. Linehan seemed unable to produce anything without every single one of the weapons in his offensive arsenal. Even when the bare yardage was there, it's turning the ball over, or settling for field goals instead of touchdowns that often put Detroit behind the proverbial eight ball.
On defense, the Lions are build around Schwartz' philosophy that a solid defensive front can mask deficiencies in the defensive backfield. In reality, that may be true, but the defensive line hasn't actually found its stride against the pass, ranking 23rd in the NFL against the pass coming into Week 16.
Jim Washburn was brought in as an assistant defensive line coach/pass-rush specialist, but his presence hasn't seemed to have any substantive effect. Suh and Fairley are singular talents at what they do and top draft picks. Washburn and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek may be highly regarded, yet it's easy to wonder if they don't have some of the easiest jobs in football.
Since 2009, the talent on the roster has steadily improved. The results have not.
Detroit had a lock on the divisional title and a spot in the playoffs this season, but lost three straight and five of their last six. With losses to the Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, it's clear that it isn't just the top teams the 7-8 Lions have trouble beating.
That is why this change needs to be made.
Mayhew has done his job. Schwartz has failed at his.
Key Talent Has Not Improved or Been Put in Positions to Succeed
Schwartz has not held this team accountable.
Now, no one here has any idea what Schwartz says in meeting rooms or behind the closed doors of the coaching film sessions, but publicly, there has been almost zero accountability in the past five years. Instead of accountability, Schwartz has offered excuses and an almost institutional martyr mentality that exudes the idea that something must be wrong with every single referee rather than with the Lions.
Once upon a time, it was the excuse that encroachment and offsides penalties were necessary evils in Schwartz' wide-nine scheme. Stafford's interceptions were acceptable because of the high percentage of high-risk throws. Unnecessary roughness was OK because players should always play "to the echo of the whistle."
Then, over the years, the penalties continued and the intended positives never really showed up.
It's a false bravado—perhaps borne from his academic prowess or simply inherited from Belichick—that believes what everyone else knows as fact as false. No, Schwartz knows the better way...a higher knowledge of football "strategery."
Suh needs a coach who can take his raw, physical potential and turn it into something even more. It isn't that Suh hasn't been good in 2013. He has. Pro Football Focus ranks Suh as the No. 2 defensive tackle in all of football this season (subscription required). Even Fairley, at 25, is an impact player. Yet, Suh is still defined more by his mental errors and personal fouls than anything else.
Stafford is quickly becoming one of the most effective quarterbacks in Lions history. He's on track to have hold of every team passing record well before he's ready to hang up his cleats. Yet, he's starting to be mentioned in the same breath as Tony Romo when it comes to lacking mental toughness or the will to win in crunch time—both in-game and late in the season.
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew has become an also ran at tight end. Safety Louis Delmas went from supposed-building block to just another guy in a mistake-prone secondary. Cornerback after cornerback floated through town and none have really stuck in a meaningful way.
Having talent is something Lions fans don't take for granted, but Schwartz can't just lean on what he has. He's supposed to make it even better. Because of the talent on this roster, the Lions job will be at or near the top of the list when candidates look around the league. Outside of (maybe) the Houston Texans, there's no opening that could potentially spring toward the top of the league with better coaching.
A talented quarterback mind like Penn State's Bill O'Brien or Stanford's David Shaw could potentially work wonders with this offense. A defensive coach like Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer or the Cleveland Browns' Ray Horton could get more impact out of this bevy of talent.
Whoever the next is, Schwartz has proven he's not the person to take this team to the next level. He needs to go, and he needs to go now.
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