So is the proverbial honeymoon already over for Lions coach Jim Schwartz?
That didn't take long. He's going into his 20th regular season game as the head man in Detroit. And with a 2-14 record last year and an 0-3 mark so far this season, the oh-so-familiar feelings of doubt and dread are beginning to set in with Lions fans.
Schwartz especially took heavy criticism this week for his decision to settle for a field goal rather than try for a touchdown at the end of the first half in last Sunday's game against the Vikings. Going into halftime tied at 14-14, rather than down 14-10, may well have changed the tone of the game. Schwartz maintained that the decision didn't stem from a lack of confidence in Shaun Hill at quarterback. He says he would've done the same thing had Matthew Stafford been in the lineup. (Or if Joe Montana were the Lions' quarterback.)
Yet by playing it safe, did Schwartz send his team (and the fans that suffer with it) the wrong message? As Pride of Detroit put it, a "play to win the game" mentality might be called for right now:
I definitely understand why Schwartz played it safe, but at some point you have to be aggressive and take advantage of the few chances you have to actually score a TD. The move came off as Schwartz playing not to lose the game rather than to win the game. I'm not going to bust out Herm Edwards' phrase or anything, but I would have definitely liked to see Schwartz be aggressive and go for the touchdown. Would we have criticized him had the decision backfired? I don't doubt it, but the Lions need to show some aggression for a change. When you haven't won a road game in more than 20 tries, why not take a chance and see what happens.
Doubt and dread will surely only increase after this Sunday, when the Lions play at Green Bay. As you likely know painfully well (or has numbness taken over?), Detroit hasn't beaten the Packers on the road since 1991. So the chances are pretty good that the Lions will be 0-4. Not only will the team have that collar hanging around its neck, but a 2-18 mark for Schwartz would give him the worst start for a head coach in Lions history.
Really. The worst. That doesn't even seem possible, does it? With all the terrible coaches the Lions have had?
Marty Mornhinweg had a 3-17 record. Wayne Fontes was 9-11. Darryl Rogers and Steve Mariucci were 8-12. Even Rod Marinelli, who I think might be the worst NFL head coach I've ever seen, had a record of 6-14 after 20 games.
Going purely on the eyeball test, Schwartz appears to be better NFL head coaching material than any of those other names. (Except for Mariucci. As terrible as he was here, at least he has a previous track record of success with San Francisco.) He seems like he gets the bigger picture of being a head coach, rather than having his pet projects, as Marinelli did with his beloved defensive linemen or Mornhinweg and Mariucci did with quarterbacks.
Schwartz isn't just a football lifer, pasty from hours watching film. The man has an economics degree from Georgetown. He likes to incorporate statistical analysis into his preparations, which runs against the grain of the typical NFL coaching mindset. The New York Times ran a feature on Schwartz in 2008 regarding this very subject, during his last year as defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.
Within the article, Schwartz balked at being pigeonholed as a stats guy, perhaps afraid of it making him seem too different. But one quote from him might give us some insight as to why he hasn't yet found success as a NFL head coach:
If you ask me, Would you rather have a great fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy on Sunday, a guy who can dial up plays and he’d be the best in league, or a guy who is best in the league from Monday to Saturday preparing, I respect the guy who prepares. You’re not always going to be rolling 7, 7, 7 and be hot every week. But if you prepare well during the week, you’ll be consistent from week to week.
Ideally, of course, NFL teams would rather have both sorts of coaches. Do the two have to be mutually exclusive? The truly great ones are surely excellent in prep work from Monday to Saturday, yet have an innate feel for the direction of a game as it's being played and when taking a risk might be necessary.
Think of Sean Payton calling for that on-side kick in the Super Bowl against the Colts. Or even Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 versus those same Colts last November. (Okay, that might not be the best example, since that didn't work.) Maybe Schwartz just needs to coach against the Indianapolis Colts. Hmm...
But maybe Schwartz is still learning how to be a successful head coach. Belichick crapped out the first time he got the top job in Cleveland. Even in his first year with the Patriots, he was 5-11. Payton was more of an instant success, going 10-6 in his debut season with New Orleans. Part of that was bringing on perhaps the best free agent signing in NFL history, quarterback Drew Brees. And if one player could lead that sort of turnaround, might he have had a decent roster surrounding him to begin with?
Does Schwartz still warrant patience, given the deficiency of talent he has to work with? When he was a hot head coach candidate as the Titans' defensive coordinator, he had players like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jevon Kearse, Keith Bulluck, Samari Rolle and Albert Haynesworth. Vanden Bosch has since joined Schwartz in Detroit, and Ndamukong Suh may eventually be an elite defensive star, but the Lions still have a long way to go in collecting that level of talent. Should he be further along after two offseasons (and two drafts) with which to overhaul the roster?
Maybe one reason that I don't quite get why Lions fans are already so down on Schwartz is because I like the idea of Jim Schwartz more than what he's actually shown as a NFL head coach thus far.
I like that he isn't just a film rat. Or one of those burnout candidates who thinks the only way to succeed is to work 100-hour weeks and sleep at the office. I like that he's tried to figure out different ways to approach and analyze the game, rather than tread the same beaten path. I like that he has a Twitter account. (And maybe some aide posts those Tweets for him, but at least he's familiar with social media.) I like that he and I share the same taste for heavy metal. (I don't think there's ever been another coach with whom I'd imagine cracking open some beers and listening to Metallica's "Master of Puppets.")
But none of that stuff matters if Schwartz doesn't win games. Ultimately, that's all a head coach can be judged on. And Schwartz is seriously behind in that category thus far. As much as I might want to think otherwise, I understand that. But how about we see how the remaining 13 weeks of this season go first?