By: Jamie Samuelsen
2012 started with the Lions gearing up for their first playoff game in over a decade and the belief that the future was bright. 2012 ends with an eight-game losing streak and the fear that the future as every bit as dark as the past.
It’s not that morbid. The Lions know who their quarterback is (Matthew Stafford). And they have bona fide NFL stars in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. (Don’t let the Suh background noise distract you. He had a Pro Bowl caliber season and was left off the team only because the Lions were 4-12 and players on other teams don’t like him very much.) But beyond those three players, everything else in Detroit is completely up for grabs.
There are 24 free agents on the roster and while you’d love to have some of them back (Louis Delmas, Chris Houston, Corey Williams, Justin Durant, Cliff Avril), there’s not a single player who is a must-sign. Part of that is a reflection on just how many holes the Lions need to fill in the off-season. And part of it is an indictment of what a poor job GM Martin Mayhew has done assembling standout talent on the roster. People can credit Mayhew for taking an 0-16 team and guiding it into the playoffs four years later. But if he gets full credit for that, he gets full blame for allowing that roster to sit idle following the 2011 season. You can’t blame this on Matt Millen anymore. Not when the Colts rebound from a 2-14 season to make the playoffs this year with a rookie quarterback. Not when the Seahawks rise up from 7-9 to make the playoffs with another rookie quarterback. And not when the Patriots roll over their roster year after year, and still ride the greatness of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to the postseason seemingly every, single January.
The biggest questions revolve around Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. While both figure to be back next season, neither has earned it. Mayhew arrogantly figured that the roster was set after last year and used his draft picks for depth instead of need. Mayhew drafted seven players last April and they made 14 starts between them for a 4-12 team. And even that stat is a bit misleading because Riley Reiff is down for eight starts while seven of those came as a sixth offensive lineman. Only once did he start in one of the traditional five starting offensive line positions. That chops the total starts down to seven. And that’s unacceptable, particularly on a team with as many injuries and as many holes as this team had. To be fair, two of those injuries were to Ryan Broyles and Bill Bentley, but neither player was making a huge impact when they went down.
As for Schwartz, it just gets harder and harder to argue for his return, not that it’s anyone’s job to do so.
Here’s what Schwartz has in his favor.
1) The Lions improved in each of his first three years as head coach from 2-14 to 6-10 to 10-6.
2) They made the playoffs just three seasons after going 0-16.
3) They played their way into NFL relevancy, earning four prime time games this season.
4) From the end of the 2010 season through the start of the 2011 season, the Lions put together a nine-game winning streak, which is extremely difficult in this parity-driven era of the NFL.
5) He’s the head coach for a team that’s run by Mayhew. It’s unclear whether both are on the same page of the “best player available” philosophy, but it’s clear that philosophy has not helped upgrade the talent Schwartz gets to coach.
Those are the positives. The list of negatives is longer.
1) Schwartz is 22-42 overall. And if you remove that nine-game winning streak, his record is 13-42, nearly thirty games under .500 in just four seasons. I understand that you can’t simply remove nine games from a coach’s record. But it is a bit like taking a hot streak away from a Major League hitter. You do get a better sense of just where he stands.
2) The Lions are 4-20 against the NFC North under Schwartz and have lost their last seven divisional games.
3) In the last two seasons, the Lions have just one win against a team that finished with a record above .500 (Seattle this season). And they beat just two teams that made the playoffs (Seattle and 8-8 Denver in 2011).
4) The off-field distractions are well known. Ultimately, it’s the fault of Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure, Johnny Culbreath and Aaron Berry for their actions away from the team. But clearly a lax culture exists that lets the players believe that their actions aren’t punishable. It wasn’t until Berry was cited for a second episode; this time a gun-related arrest that Schwartz and the Lions finally put their foot down. Too little, too late? I’ve never been one who believed that there was a correlation between off-field discipline and on-field discipline. But this season did a lot to change my mind.
5) In terms of on-field discipline, Schwartz has hardly led by example. The two highlights (or lowlights) are the Jim Harbaugh episode from last year and the red flag disaster from the Thanksgiving Day game. The Harbaugh dust-up cost the Lions nothing other than some embarrassing headlines. The Texans blunder cost the Lions a game, plain and simple. It’s one thing to find points in games where Schwartz’s coaching acumen has pushed the Lions over the top. It’s another to see a clear example where a lack of emotion cost his team a win. Again, unacceptable.
6) It’s a players game, and that’s something that Schwartz mentions quite frequently. But when his players keep making the same mistakes in games and lack total attention to detail, that begins to fall on the head coach. The Lions are third in the NFL over the past two seasons in penalties (231). To be fair, their total dropped from last season (128) to this (103). But they still made far too many errors in far too many critical spots.
7) When Schwartz was named head coach back in 2009, there was talk that the Lions were getting the Billy Beane of the NFL. This was a man that looked at football in a different way and would push the Lions to practice and prepare in ways that we’d never seen before. Well, four years later, we’re still not seeing it. Whether it was the sloppy quick snap that cost them the game in overtime in Tennessee or the stubborn decision to run the ball on third-and-five against the Colts when the Lions proved they couldn’t run for five yards, these Lions have looked like the team of old. They haven’t looked at all like some forward-leaning, trend-setting operation.
As the clock wound down on the season, radio play-by-play man Dan Miller said on the airwaves that the Lions couldn’t overreact to this 4-12 season. But he also said that they couldn’t under-react either. I think that’s exactly right. Schwartz and Mayhew will most likely be back. Whether they deserve to be is another question, but it’s probably a question for another day. What we do know is that both are entering a do-or-die season with the team. And with that comes pressure that both richly deserve. It’s hard to argue in Schwartz’s favor. It’s up to he and Mayhew to try to make it easier.