As time expired at the Metrodome Jim Schwartz must have felt the end fitting. Another loss, yet another uninspired performance from a team that left many outside observers scratching their heads this year. Schwartz will likely walk the plank after his meeting on Monday.
He deserves to. The Lions need a new man in charge.
The habits they formed in 2011, in what turned out to be Schwartz’s pinnacle, turned into the cancer that rotted the team to the core in the past two years. Sloppy play, uneven output, and penalties at the worst possible time. The Lions lost to the Vikings by one point to end the season, against a Minnesota team that didn’t have Adrian Peterson.
It wasn’t always like this. Lions fans proudly viewed Schwartz and his staff in 2011 as second half wizards. They seemed to make the right adjustment in the locker room every time. A listless first half would be followed by a dominating second half. That pattern won 10 games in 2011. The Detroit professional football fan base is the definition of long-suffering. They’ve packed the stadium every year regardless of the evidence. They were stuffed and happy with 10 wins in that apex year under Schwartz, which is ten more than they got at the end of the Millen era 2008. Little did they know the bloom was coming off the rose after the season’s halfway mark that year.
In 2011, the third year under Schwartz, the Lions prepared to play Denver on the road. Tim Tebow was named the starting quarterback for the Broncos. At that point, Suh was coming off his rookie season, he drew comparisons to Reggie White—a monster on the field and a soft-spoken gentleman off it. He joked with Mike and Tony on PTI. There were only whispers of Ndomukong Suh as a “dirty” player.
NFL.com featured the game a matchup between good and evil, juxtaposing Tebow’s image as an enthusiastically pious person, and Suh’s reputation for aggression. While some bristled at the comparison, others embraced it. Many looked at Schwartz, who himself was only two weeks removed from his near fist-fight with Jim Harbaugh in the tunnel of Ford Field, as the perfect leader for Detroit’s new version of Sega’s Mutant League Football. At the time all seemed tongue-in-cheek.
Ndomukong Suh’s stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith ended that. The Lions turned heel on national TV, a real life equivalent of professional wrestling’s “folding chair of betrayal” bit. What followed was a career defining moment for not only the Lions as an organization but for the head coach himself, when the team stuck behind their superstar defensive tackle and Schwartz waved away the concerns of dirty play—dismissing it as part of the game. They continued to embrace their attitude as aggressive players, playing on the edge of the rules in the name of tough defense. There was seemingly no bone-headed penalty or act of violence that could get you benched in Detroit. Distractions aside, the Lions rode their 2011 season into the playoffs.
That re-definition of the Lions as dirty stuck. Ndomukong Suh bristled at his sudden status as the NFL’s enemy number one. The media turned on him, and he seemed ill-equipped to deal with the sudden shift in narrative. He was barely a year removed from being the toast of the NFL, it must have hit him hard to be cast as the villain. Lebron James struggled with it after his disastrous “Decision” broadcast—Suh must have felt the same.
The Lions off-season in 2012 was nothing short of a disaster. Mikel Leshoure was cited for marijuana possession. Nick Fairley was arrested on a DUI, Aaron Berry had a pair arrests within than a month and was released before the season. Titus Young’s meltdown apparently started in 2011 but came to a rolling boil by the half-way point in the 2012 season. The Lions, along with Schwartz, continued to embrace the image of the NFL’s bad guys but by the end of the 2012 season they were drowning in it. “Can they maintain their composure, both on the field and off the field?” asked Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings during the 2012 off-season in an interview with the NFL Network. “They’re a very talented team, but they have struggles on the field containing their composure, and definitely, the things we’ve heard of, them being in the media with off-the-field problems and off-the-field issues. Can they maintain their composure? Can they be a professional ball club for 16, 17, 18 solid weeks throughout the regular season?”
The arrests dried up, but the reputation remained. The Lions were victims of phantom calls in the 2013 season. The problems they developed during the 2011 season endured for the next two years, and were joined by others. Sloppy penalties were joined by sloppy play in 2012 and turned into turnovers and uninspired performances in 2013.
The word “undisciplined” is now forever etched on the Schwartz’s time with the Lions. He can’t untie that knot himself. His tenure with the Lions is especially depressing, because he’s the only coach in Lions history that will actually leave an improved team in his wake. The lessons learned in his time in Detroit will be valuable to Schwartz down the road, but it’s too late for him to be effective here. He can’t change the culture he helped create. The threads that led to this season’s late collapse started long ago, and he only has himself to blame for leaving those small, mendable wounds to turn into scars.