Can Lions finally get it right?

by | Dec 31, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

MITCH ALBOM: Schwartz is gone, but those who picked him will choose successor

Can Lions finally get it right?


No win, no stay. It’s been that way elsewhere in the NFL, and it is finally true here in Lions Land. Jim Schwartz is gone. Fired Monday. Look no further than this: His team lost six of its last seven games and missed the playoffs.

Or this: His December record the last two seasons is 0-9.

Or this: His five-year record is 29-51, with one playoff game, a blowout defeat.

No win, no stay. But then, we said the same thing when Rod Marinelli was fired in 2008, after going 0-16 (and you can’t “no win” any better than that). The two men in charge of changing things back then, and who weeks later were using the word “thrilled” when introducing Schwartz as their new coach, were the same two men somber-faced in announcing Schwartz was axed Monday.

Tom Lewand, the Lions’ president, and Martin Mayhew, their general manager.

No win, no stay. But they are still here – and so is the owner. “We need to change the culture,” Mayhew said Monday. No truer words were ever spoken.

But time will tell if changing the Lions’ coach really changes a culture of losing any more than changing filters changes the culture of smoking, or changing record labels changes the culture of rap music.

After all, Lewand, in his 19th year with the Lions, and Mayhew, in his 13th (seven of which were under Matt Millen), both emphasized how seriously “the Ford family” – their bosses – wanted things to alter.

“They very strongly want to bring a consistently winning football program to the fans of Detroit,” Lewand said.

However, no member of the Ford family was present at the news conference or issued a comment. When one reporter asked whether “the Ford family” meant William Clay Ford Sr. or Bill Ford Jr., he was told by Lewand that “Mr. Ford has always been involved in the process … beyond that there is no need to specify.”

What is this, ‘The Matrix?’ Which Mr. Ford? Are all Fords interchangeable, like special agents in dark suits? Who is in charge of this team? If you can’t get that simple answer, you wonder how clear the hiring of a new coach is going to be.

A team with talent

This much should be clear: The Lions need a man with NFL head coaching experience, preferably with playoff and (dare we ask?) Super Bowl credentials. This is not 2008. The cupboard is hardly bare. When you have four recognizable superstars (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Reggie Bush) and a feared if underperforming defensive front, you are not starting from scratch. There is a lot of talent and a lot of money on the table already, and what it needs is direction and discipline. Those are two things you can gauge from a head coach’s track record and two things impossible to gauge from an assistant’s.

Which is what Schwartz was when he was hired in January 2009. A highly acclaimed defensive coordinator. But that was then. Remember, an 0-16 team isn’t exactly Want Ad grabbing material.

As Lewand correctly stated Monday, this job now is “one of the most, if not the single most, attractive head coaching opportunity in the National Football League.”

At least from the coach down.

The players are attractive. The division is attractive. Working for Lewand and Mayhew? Who knows how that plays with potential candidates? Top-notch coaches often want player personnel control, and that is always a quiet issue when a GM is involved in the coach’s hiring. You never know how much one guy or the other senses his fate might be too intertwined. How many guys look elsewhere – on both sides – when feeling threatened?

Mayhew, in my opinion, has done a decent job of assembling talent, given the perennial high-draft picks he has gotten. Stafford and Suh were no-brainers, Ziggy Ansah looks promising. Other moves involving linemen, receivers and running backs have been more suspect.

But there sure seemed to be enough talent on the team to win the NFC North this season, and that is the single biggest reason Schwartz, 47, is gone.

Downward spiral

It began to come apart in the 10th game of the season, on a rainy day in Pittsburgh with the 6-3 Lions winning by four and setting up for an easy field goal in the fourth quarter.

Schwartz, for reasons still unknown, went for a fake, the ball was fumbled, and the Steelers wound up re-energized, scoring two touchdowns in the final five minutes – aided by a Stafford interception – to lower the Lions’ record to 6-4.

That set off a string of fourth-quarter collapses that went from coincidental to characteristic under Schwartz. A three-point home loss to lowly Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers securing the victory in the closing seconds when Stafford’s pass to Calvin Johnson was intercepted near the Tampa Bay end zone. Record: 6-5.

A blown game in the snow to the Eagles, in which Philadelphia scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Record: 7-6.

A Monday night collapse to Baltimore, iced by a 61-yard field in the closing minute. Record: 7-7.

An overtime loss to the Giants, at home again, on a field goal, 23-20. Record: 7-8.

And the coda – not that it mattered – a closing defeat to a Vikings team that didn’t even dress Adrian Peterson, 14-13.

Record: 7-9.

You don’t deserve to keep the team after a collapse like that, because it has been poisoned by a mentality that is all too common around here, one summed up by a famous Ray Charles song:

“Born to Lose.”

Starting over (again)

“It’s a mentality,” Mayhew said in describing the quality a new coach must bring to the collective mind-set. “It has to be a belief that no matter what’s happening, you have an opportunity to win. You can’t put yourself in a situation where you get a fatalistic attitude.”

He could be describing any long-suffering Lions fan. But he’s right. When the bug bites you that you aren’t meant to win, you find ways to blow leads, ways to muff chances, ways to drop passes, miss tackles, surrender third-down conversions, fail to come up with that critical interception.

There is a reason that pretenders win in September and October and championship teams win in November and December. If you had a nickel for every 4-2 team that didn’t end up making the playoffs, you’d be rich.

But in a year where Green Bay lost Aaron Rodgers and Chicago lost Jay Cutler, the Lions had Stafford start all 16 games, and still watched those other two teams play for the NFC North title Sunday. That was unacceptable.

No win, no stay. Schwartz was a nice man away from news conferences. He was smart and insightful. He did take a lowly team and give it a taste of victory.

But his teams lacked discipline (too many penalties), did not improve in familiar trouble spots year after year (hello, secondary?) and seemed to peak in his one winning season, 2011.

Consider this: The year Schwartz was hired, 11 teams changed their head coaches. All but one of those men – Rex Ryan – has since been fired. So it’s not like everyone guessed right five years ago and the Lions didn’t.

But now consider that since that year, three of those same teams have been to the Super Bowl or NFC or AFC championship games (San Francisco, Indianapolis and the New York Jets) and two of them (Seattle and Denver) are poised to get there this year. This means, for roughly half the teams in the same boat as the Lions five years ago, roughly half of them found a good way out of it.

The Lions have not.

Change the culture. That’s what has to happen. We will see whether the same two men charged with doing it last time can somehow do it now. And if the consistently quiet (and now even mysterious) ownership is any wiser in its decision making.

No win, no stay. That applies to everyone – except the guys who write the checks.

It makes you wonder how much that is part of the problem.

Video analysis of what happened and what’s to come at


ALBOM: Those who picked Schwartz will get to try again


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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