Coach shows lots of fight; Lions needed a bit more

Contrary to YouTube, the story at Ford Field on Sunday was not Jim Schwartz versus Jim Harbaugh in The Battle of the Postgame Handshake. True, you don’t often see one coach, Harbaugh, so pumped up he almost whacks the other coach, Schwartz, into next week. And true, you don’t often see one coach, Schwartz, chase 25 yards after the other coach, Harbaugh, until a skirmish breaks out near the tunnel and players are putting their helmets back on.

(On a side note, it is nice to see two NFL coaches in that kind of shape. Can you imagine Rex Ryan trying to chase down Andy Reid?)

“What happened?” Schwartz was asked.

“I went to congratulate Coach Harbaugh … and I didn’t expect an obscenity at that point …” he explained in terse sentences. “I’m sure it’s on video.”

Yes, it is. Everywhere. But so is this. Fourth-and-goal, under 2 minutes left. San Francisco 6 yards out, Alex Smith whips a quick slant pass to tight end Delanie Walker, and Louis Delmas wraps him but can’t stop him.

The ball just breaks the plane.

Touchdown.

That was the reason the Lions are no longer undefeated – that and some weak special-teams play, an inability to stop huge runs by Frank Gore, an inability for the receivers to break free, and too much pressure allowed on Matthew Stafford by the offensive line.

None of that is as sexy a coach fight.

But it has a lot more to do with the outcome.

49ers 25, Lions 19.

Punt return so costly

“OK, so we won’t go 16-0,” Schwartz said to start his news conference (before the WWF questions began). And nobody really expected that. In fact, many in Detroit anticipated a post-“Monday Night Football” letdown.

Which makes Sunday, in my mind, even more frustrating. Because the Lions had the chance to pull this out and stay perfect. It was a seesaw game of surge, field goal, stutter, punt, surge, field goal, etc. The Lions stretched to a 19-15 lead early in the fourth quarter on a sweet pass and catch from Stafford to Nate Burleson.

But that was the last of the gas. After a few traded go-nowhere series, Detroit’s special teams let Ted Ginn Jr. slice through for a 40-yard punt return. The Lions were less-than-great on kicks and punts all day, allowing Ginn 177 return yards.

But that one was the killer. The 49ers pushed to within the goal line, the Lions pushed back. It got to fourth down, 1:56 left.

One play, and the Lions are 6-0.

Didn’t happen.

“Turning point of the game?” Delmas said. “Yeah, I’d say. … It’s my job to keep him out of the end zone. Obviously I didn’t do it well enough.”

Time for players to show fight

Still, the Lions had all three time-outs after that and only needed a field goal to tie. But on what strikes me as their worst offensive series of the season, they managed a short completion and three misfires. They trotted off looking too much like older Lions teams, not like this new one.

“That’s a good defense,” Stafford admitted afterward, and having been sacked five times, he’ll have the bruises to prove it. You held your breath whenever when he went down Sunday, something the Lions have mostly avoided all year. We’ll soon find out if Sunday was an anomaly or a reality check.

Meanwhile, personally, I wouldn’t make any more of the Harbaugh-Schwartz thing. Schwartz is right when he says, “There’s a protocol that goes with this league.” And there’s no excuse for an obscenity at that moment.

But Harbaugh is a freshman in the NFL. And as someone who has known him since he was a freshman at Michigan, his overenthusiasm does not surprise me. This is a guy who would leap from his seat at a pizza joint and scream, “PEPPERONI! YES!”

At U-M, I remember his favorite word as being “jacked.”

Obviously, it still applies.

Worry less about Harbaugh’s exuberance than the reason for it. He knows he stole one. And Schwartz knows Detroit let one go. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, but when you got something, you protect it. Schwartz and the Lions have something this year, something worth fighting to keep.

Although next week it would better if the players did it, not the coach.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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