One play away.
Those three simple words have been used ad nauseam by Jim Schwartz and the Detroit Lions over the last two seasons.
A club that won 10 games in 2011 was just "one play away" a year later, when the Lions stumbled to four wins and 12 losses, nine of which came by one score or less. This season, Detroit threw away a 6-3 start and finished 7-9, with six more losses by eight points or less.
The cumulative effect of those missed opportunities—and the inability to correct the "one play away" trend—ultimately cost Schwartz his job. Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official site confirmed that the team fired Schwartz Monday afternoon, just one day after Detroit lost by one point to the Minnesota Vikings in the season finale.
Schwartz, who leaves Detroit with a 29-51 overall record in five seasons, always had his teams "one play away" from being the caliber most expected from a young and talented bunch.
On Sunday, the Lions continued to spin the company line.
"I am disappointed how this loss sums up the season," center Dominic Raiola said, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. "One play short, them making a play and us not making a play.”
It sounds like an excuse, nothing more than a cliche used to mask the ugliness of another lost season. But in truth, the Lions actually might be one head coach away from fulfilling the promise that this roster holds.
The right hire could finally put all the puzzle pieces together. Schwartz got close but never could hold all the moving parts together.
You can still credit the 47-year-old coach for being the man willing to take on the most daunting of jobs by eventually pulling the most sorry franchise in the NFL out of the ruins and back into the NFL consciousness. The Lions went from 0-16 to 10-6 in just two years under Schwartz, which should be a feat not soon forgotten in this franchise's history.
A 7-9 season hurts, but it sure beats coming up empty in all 16 tries.
The next coach, whomever it may be, will be presented the opportunity to get the Lions over the next hump. It's the most difficult of hurdles to overcome in professional sports—the climb from respectability to elite, from Wild Card to division title, from one-and-done to Super Bowl champion.
“We have to find somebody that can bring that belief that we’re going to get over the hump,” general manager Martin Mayhew said, via Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News.
The pieces are all there. The Lions already have a roster built to win—and win right now.
Any team that wants to consistently win in today's NFL better have a good option under center. For all his flaws, and his obvious regression over the last two seasons, Matthew Stafford still represents such a quarterback.
By the start of next season, Stafford will be just 26 years old. He's under contract in Detroit through 2017. The team's next head coach can be assured of a young, established and secure quarterback waiting for him.
Of course, Stafford isn't perfect. Far from it. After throwing for 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011, Stafford has completed less than 60 percent of his passes with 36 interceptions and a passer rating of just 81.9 over the last 32 games.
Once on the brink of elite status, Stafford has regressed back to mediocrity. He has suffered from accuracy issues and a tendency to force the football in key situations. But a coach with an extensive background in coaching quarterbacks could easily watch Stafford and see a reclamation project primed for the taking.
Accuracy can be fixed via improved mechanics and a restructuring of the play-calling. Interceptions will be harder to corral, especially for a big-armed, gun-slinging quarterback like Stafford. But again, correct mechanics with the right system in place can help tame even the wildest of throwers.
Stafford has everything needed to be one of the game's best quarterbacks. The arm, the athleticism and everything in between. Now, he needs accountability from his offensive staff. And don't discount what kind of energizing effect simple change could bring a quarterback who stagnated in his previous offensive system.
The Offensive Weapons
The best of quarterbacks can make the most of those around them. These players are called elevators, those who raise the talent level and production of everyone around them by simply being in the same huddle.
Stafford isn't quite in that group. But he doesn't need to be, because the collection of offensive talent in Detroit is already pretty good.
Calvin Johnson is an all-world talent and a once-in-a-generation receiver. He has more receiving yards than any other player at his position the last three seasons (5,137). Over the last 46 games, Johnson is averaging almost 112 receiving yards every time he steps on the field.
Even better, Johnson is only 28 years old. And the Lions have him locked up through the 2019 season, which means the Stafford-Johnson connection will live on for at least another four years.
Around Johnson, the Lions have provided two dynamic running backs and a solid offensive line.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell became the first set of running backs in NFL history to each total 500 rushing and receiving yards in a single season. Bush rushed for 1,004 yards and caught 54 passes. Bell, the backup, rushed for 650 and caught 53.
The offensive line, which featured rookies at right guard and tackle, allowed just 23 sacks this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Detroit had the third-most efficient pass-blocking line, behind only Denver and Baltimore. The 150 pressures over 668 passing plays were seventh. The running game also averaged 4.0 yards per carry and totaled nearly 1,800 rushing yards.
The Lions finished the 2013 season ranked 13th in points (24.7/game) and sixth in yards (392.1), but this wasn't an offense running at maximum efficiency. Stafford struggled late, Johnson battled injury and Bush suffered from inconsistency.
There's more to get out of this unit. Adding another receiving threat next to Johnson would help, but a new offensive-minded coach could get the Lions back to the top of the league.
Disruptive Defensive Line
Ask the New York Giants how far a disruptive defensive line can take a football team in January. The Giants rode a clutch quarterback and a front four that consistently created pressure to win two Super Bowls over the last eight years.
The Lions have the potential—at least in terms of talent—to be that good.
Ndamukong Suh might be the most disruptive and feared 4-3 defensive tackle in football, and Nick Fairley, his running mate inside, can be equally troublesome. C.J. Mosley is another up-and-comer at defensive tackle.
On the edge, the Lions can send Ziggy Ansah, who had eight sacks and two forced fumbles as a rookie, Willie Young and Devin Taylor at opposing quarterbacks. Expect Mayhew to add another player to this group at some point this offseason.
Detroit possesses a young, growing defensive line that is only scratching its ceiling. If the scheme is right, the Lions' front four can mask many of the deficiencies that will likely remain in the back seven of the defense.
Finding the Right Fit
The Lions will now begin an exhaustive search to find Schwartz's replacement, the man who Detroit will call on to right the ship and steer a talented football team in the right direction.
Are the Detroit Lions a head coach away from being contenders?
Mayhew already has an idea of what the coach looks like.
“It’s bigger than Xs and Os,” Mayhew said. “It’s bigger than scheme. It’s bigger than that. This guy has to be a leader and has to be able to lead our team.”
Having a clear and transparent goal is a fine start to the search.
The Lions must know how close they really are—and not in a "one play away" sense—to truly becoming a contender. The pieces to win in today's NFL are there but need direction and accountability. The fine-tuning to this football automobile must now come from the man selected next by the Ford family.
If the Lions organization makes the right decision, this franchise could transform from laughingstock to Super Bowl contender overnight. Let the search begin.