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Different Old Lions [BLOG]

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DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 22: Dominic Raiola #51 of the Detroit Lions sits on the steps with a coach after the Lions lost in over time to the New Yrok Giants at Ford Field on December 22, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The Giants defeated the Lions 23-20. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Dominic Raiola #51 of the Detroit Lions sits on the steps with a coach after the Lions lost in over time to the New Yrok Giants at Ford Field (Credit, Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Ericface Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas spent most of his career in Flint working as a rock r...
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Word went out on the internet: the meeting began around 11 a.m. on Monday. Jim Schwartz was in the Allen Park facility, meeting with Lions’ ownership on the subject of his future with the team. Reporters and fans alike flocked to social media sites and held their noses inches away from their illuminated screens, waiting for word of Jim Schwartz’s fate. They hit reload dozens of times, holding their breath each time the update wheel spun. A clever few noted the similarity to a papal conclave, though no one took the analogy so far as to figure out what color the smoke from the chimney would be if Coach Schwartz was staying or going.

The tension was palpable as the meeting stretched on, with no word from inside the offices of the Lions’ Allen Park facilities as we waited. The observers typed into Twitter nervously with presumably sweaty fingers, their messages displayed clear signs of a meltdown. “Firings don’t take this long!” brayed one, “He’s staying! The length of the meeting confirms it!” said another who apparently doesn’t understand the meaning of the word confirm.

It’s an odd end for Schwartz, considering his first few years. He looked like ‘The One’ in 2011. He was the fiery Belichick disciple who’d won the first five games of the season with the Lions after incremental improvement in his first two years. He wore his emotions like a sleeve of tattoos. He exuded cockiness and confidence while working for an organization that had known only losing. Kid Rock endorsed him. Schwartz’s ego seemed excessive for someone who hadn’t accomplished anything yet—but in the beginning, it was almost like he knew something we didn’t. He’s got this, many of us thought. We shouldn’t worry so much. This is how Belichick does things.

Over the course of the past two years, our faith eroded. The Lions and Schwartz developed un-fixable problems. There was that rash of arrests in the 2012 off-season. Schwartz tacitly endorsed the personal foul penalties, calling them the product of tough defense, then he waved away the penalties that happened after the whistle. The Lions slumped to four victories in 2012 without any major injuries, and there was little explanation from the head coach other than a shrug. Ups and downs of the NFL, he seemed to suggest. The Lions crested to six victories in 2013, only to collapse again, under the same penalties, same sloppy play, and they won only one game out of their last seven—a result previously unthinkable to everyone but only the most sadistic of Lions cynics.

Nerves frayed on Twitter while we awaited the verdict from Allen Park. Reports from Sunday indicated Bill Ford Jr would make this decision. Conflicting reports had the Lions leaning toward keeping their fifth-year head coach, other reports claimed ownership would bounce the entire organization. Minutes agonized along with no word.

News cracked across the screens like a blink. Jim Schwartz was fired. There was a nearly audible sigh around the proverbial Lions fan campfire. Friends texted friends. Family called family.

In letting go of Schwartz, the Lions broke with their history. They didn’t let him cook another year on the hot seat, unlike what happened with Matt Millen or Wayne Fontes or others. They didn’t fire him last year, when people could have accused them of a knee-jerk reaction. They fired him and shouldered a 12 million dollar burden, proving their willingness to eat a whole lot of money in the name of winning. The team’s history of sticking with a someone long after his effectiveness has turned sour had been broken. This was not the same old Lions.

*****

“Let’s keep this in mind…these are the Lions. They’re not going to get rid of him.”

“Knowing the Lions, they’ll probably sign him to a six year extension.”

“Ownership doesn’t care about winning.”

It was fair to doubt. The Lions’ past loyalty to inept coaches and general managers is well documented, the memories live on in cynical comments among friends in bars and angry rants in comment sections and vitriolic spews on post game call-in shows. The decision to let go of Jim Schwartz won’t change that perception, the ink has dyed deep in those opinions, but the events surrounding the Schwartz decision should give you pause. It was different.

The former head coach was only two years removed from a lucrative contract extension. He turned around a team that went 0-16 and steered them into the playoffs. He would have been a candidate for coach of the year had Harbaugh not overshadowed him in 2011. When someone finds some level of minuscule success with the Lions, that person was usually anointed. Their mistakes were forgotten and missteps were forgiven regardless of evidence falling from the sky. Matt Millen won 16 games in four years when he was signed to a five year extension in 2005, largely because he brought in Steve Mariucci—a move that earned the team the league’s only “Rooney Rule” fine from the NFL—the same coach he fired after the Thanksgiving game later that same year. Schwartz’s firing with years left on his contract and a playoff appearance on his resume was a sea change for the organization, and dismissing it would be a mistake.
Lions fans have long talked about ownership—they don’t have the best track record, to put it kindly—but there has always been a name that Lions fans have latched on to: Bill Ford Jr. When talk of the team’s ownership came up, many Lions fans looked to him as the future change that would turn around the team.

‘When the son takes over,’ many said, ‘that’s when things are going to change.’ Ford Jr had long been a beacon of hope in the distant future. He rarely comments to the media, but when he does he seems to speak for the fans. He doesn’t tolerate ineptitude. He put Matt Millen on blast three games into the 2008 season, remarking to reporters that “if it were in my authority, which it’s not, I’d make some significant changes.” Millen was gone less than a week later. Before the final game of the 2013 season, the reports were that Ford Jr would be making the decision on Schwartz himself.

Looks like it’s in Ford Jr’s authority now.

*****

Many Lions fans have approached this decision with a sick stomach, because they see the path ahead. If anyone knows head coaching changes, it’s fans of the Detroit Lions. The echoes on social media are from the not-so distant past. Fans are preparing themselves for a three year rebuilding process; they plan on enduring a two or three win season next year while Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson adjust to the new system, whatever it is.
It’s understandable, because that’s how it was in the past—but that’s why this time is different. The Lions usually hang on to a head coach until the last dog dies, when players are hopelessly and irrevocably damaged by their collective lack of confidence and frustration. Past coaches have walked into the job like the Omega Man, finding a post-apocalyptic hellscape of broken dreams and botched draft-picks. A new coach usually has only himself to build around, and the agenda always the same: get a quarterback, find some good players that fit your new system through the draft and free agency, and build around them. That part has already been done for the next head coach.

The Lions have the most attractive portfolio of talent of any available head coaching job. They immediately become the destination team for a coach looking to win now. That’s never happened here before. Even when Bobby Ross inherited the Lions for the 1997 season, the Fontes team finished 5-11 in the previous season and had a massive question mark at quarterback. The next coach gets a quarterback with four full years experience, save Stafford’s second injury-plagued season, and in two of those full years he threw for 5,000 yards. The new coach gets the best WR in the game, Reggie Bush, an offensive line that has proven itself capable and a defensive line that is among the elite in the NFL—and the number ten overall pick in next year’s draft.
Fans have often said that the Lions can’t attract good coaches, and they’ve been right in the past. The Lions have had to settle for the second or third best coordinator available, because no one with a good resumé would step into this snake-pit. The Lions aren’t far away right now, with only two gaping holes left to fill—at wide receiver and cornerback. The Redskins and Vikings have a player or a few players you can build around. Detroit has Pro-Bowl talent on both sides of the ball.

The Lions have done things the hard way for decades, build it up and watch it fall, over and over, year after year. Rebuilding since 1957. For the first time since anyone can remember, the Lions are built and looking for someone to take them the rest of the way.

*****

The future looks bright when you zoom out. If the Lions would have kept Schwartz, the ghosts of seasons past would have been impossible to ignore. They would have risked their current crop of talent.

That didn’t happen. They cut Schwartz loose and the search for a new coach has already begun. They recognized that their coach had taken them as far as they were going to go. Whatever well of success he’d built up had been poisoned by the last two years of undisciplined and sloppy play.

The Lions have a chance to bring in a professional head football coach with credentials and respect. In the last five years, they’ve managed to make it back to the mediocrity they had before Matt Millen ruined the franchise. They played meaningful games in December. They won on Thanksgiving. They made the playoffs. Schwartz didn’t get them to the top, but he got them back to the middle—and that’s better than any coach they’ve had in the past ten years. Now it’s on ownership and management to learn from their past mistakes and use them to make better choices in the future. There’s no reason to hire the hot new scheme this time. This is different. They don’t need to re-invent the wheel. Build on what you have and the Lions could be the 2014 version of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Baby steps. It was a good decision for the Lions. If nothing else, it proved the ownership’s willingness to eat money and give the fans what they’ve been craving for so long. They deserve a round of applause today.

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