Detroit Lions: Jim Schwartz Took Team as Far as He Could

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Detroit Lions: Jim Schwartz Took Team as Far as He Could
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Joe Schmidt introduced two things to the NFL: the middle linebacker position and the ziggy.

The former put Schmidt into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the latter became an iconic term for a coach getting fired. The ziggy is as Detroit as Vernor’s, Stroh’s, Uniroyal and Better Made potato chips.

Ironically, even though he coined the term, Schmidt himself rendered a self-ziggy when he quit as coach of the Lions in January, 1973—the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.

“Coaching is not fun anymore,” Schmidt declared on the day he gave himself the ziggy.

To this day, almost 41 years later, Joe Schmidt remains the only head coach of the Lions to leave the job with a winning record in Detroit (43-34-7, plus a playoff loss).

Since Schmidt, the Lions have tried 13 men as coach—a baker’s dozen—and none have been able to get the team over the “hump.” The word is Tom Lewand’s.

Lions President Lewand mentioned the insurmountable (so far) hump several times as he spoke to the media today, explaining the firing of Jim Schwartz after five rough seasons.

The hump, according to Lewand, is what needs to be gotten over, and the Lions under Schwartz just couldn’t quite do it.

I won’t speculate as to who the next coach will be. I’ll leave that to Twitter, Facebook and the area around the water cooler.

I do know this: The Lions job is as attractive as it’s ever been under the Ford ownership, which just completed its 50th year.

Never before on the Ford family’s watch—including when Schmidt resigned after leading some pretty good Lions teams in the early 1970s—has the Lions roster been as rich with talent for a new coach as it is right now.

So, no wonder Lewand's and GM Marty Mayhew’s phones were ringing constantly (Lewand said) with interested agents and coaches after the news broke that Schwartz had been given the ziggy around noon today.

Oh, to have access to those men’s caller IDs, eh?

Schwartz is gone because after five years, the Lions were still shooting themselves in the foot with dumb penalties, ill-timed turnovers and bad decisions—some of them the coach’s. More disturbing is that, in the second half of the last two seasons, the Lions are 2-14 under Schwartz. That is maybe the most damning indictment.

Pay no heed to Schwartz’s players. They spouted the usual tripe after the coach got the ziggy.

It was the usual stuff.

He’s a great guy. He’s a good coach. It wasn’t his fault. We loved playing for him.

NFL players are the last people to know what’s good for them when it comes to coaching. The so-called “player’s coaches” are beloved, sure. You’d like a guy, too, if he rarely held you accountable for your actions.

Listen carefully next time you hear of former players talk about Lombardi, Noll, Walsh, Belichik and Parcells.

You won’t hear a lot of warm and fuzzies. Respect? You bet. Actual “like”? Not so much.

I once asked former Lion Ron Rice what it was like playing for Wayne Fontes.

“Loved it” he gushed. “Wayne was a great guy.”

Well, yeah—nobody is denying that.

You think the Red Wings felt close and friendly with Scotty Bowman? Did any of his players, wherever Scotty coached?

“With Scotty, you hated his guts for 364 days. And on the 365th, you held up the Stanley Cup,” one of his players once said.

Now, the Lions don’t have to hire a jerk. And nice guys can win. Tony Dungy comes to mind.

But the Lions of today don’t need someone they’d have a beer with after the game. They need a leader—and not someone who can turn a postgame handshake into must-see TV or one who will hold the fans more accountable than his players. They don’t need someone who constantly thinks that he’s the smartest guy in the room.

Jim Schwartz, in the end, was the Lions’ transitional guy. Lots of championship teams have had them.

Let’s take Detroit. Might as well.

Alan Trammell. Rick Carlisle. Jacques Demers.

Those are just three examples of coaches who took over the dregs of their respective leagues, with the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings, and brought their teams to relevancy and a level of competitiveness that was respectable.

Each of them was succeeded by someone who took it to the next level, that ancient term.

There’s no shame in being the Lions’ transitional guy. The trouble is, the Lions haven’t transitioned to anything in 56 years and counting.

Schwartz took over a team that went 0-16 in 2008. He was, in many ways, the Lions’ Scotty Robertson.

Remember Scotty?

Robertson was the Pistons coach from 1980-83. The roster he inherited from the destruction of predecessor Dick Vitale was expansion-like in quality. Along with new GM Jack McCloskey, Robertson lifted the Pistons to respectability, taking a team that won 16 games in 1979-80 to win totals of 21, 39 and 37 before being given the ziggy in 1983.

Chuck Daly took over and carved a Hall of Fame coaching career in Detroit.

It should be noted that when Daly took the coaching reins with the Pistons, the franchise had won nothing of note since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957.

The Lions haven’t won anything since 1957, either.

Schwartz took a winless team and improved it (with GM Mayhew’s help, of course), but he plateaued. Four of the five years were losing ones. The 10-6 playoff year of 2011 turned out to be the exception, not the rule.

“Our unwavering commitment is to bring a consistently winning football team to Detroit, immediately,” Lewand said at today’s presser.

The word “immediately” ought to make Lions fans’ hearts warm. Ownership isn’t interested in a rebuilding project, and neither are the paying customers—the ones who Schwartz immaturely and foolishly (and brazenly) called out after the loss to the Giants on December 22.

Schwartz had never been a head coach in the NFL before taking the Lions gig, which isn’t new for a franchise that’s hired guys like Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Darryl Rogers, Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli.

But this time, the Lions coaching job isn’t a dog. This time, the organization should not settle for a coordinator looking for his big break.

Hearing Lewand and Mayhew speak to the media today, it sounded a lot like they were interested in a man with a head coaching resume. We’ll see.

The Green Bay Packers, despite losing QB Aaron Rodgers for extended time and going 0-4-1 in November, are the NFC North champs—with an unimpressive record of 8-7-1.

The fact that the Pack was able to pull that off, when the Lions were 6-3 at one point and in firm control of the division after throttling Green Bay 40-10 on Thanksgiving Day, gave the Ford family great consternation. Opportunities like the one the Lions had this year don’t grow on trees. They fall from the sky, and if you fumble it, you can pay for years.

The Lions let the Packers off the hook, and it disgusted the Fords.

“The fact that we’re not hosting a playoff game this weekend, if not having a bye, is why we’re having this discussion today,” Lewand said at today’s presser.

The next coach will walk into this history: 56 years with one playoff victory and no appearances in the Super Bowl, which is XLVIII years old.

But he’ll also inherit a crazy loyal fanbase, talent at key positions and stable, albeit unsuccessful thus far, ownership.

It’s a plum of a job, frankly.

It was clear after this season’s disaster that Jim Schwartz had taken the Lions as far as he could, which was far from good enough.

It’s the epitaph of every Lions coach that Bill Ford has hired.

The owner is 88 years old. His time is running out, and he knows it.

The next coach the Ford family hires might be the last one before the patriarch passes.

No wonder Lewand invoked the word “immediately.”

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