There’s a collection of short stories on Jim Schwartz’s desk. That’s a first. I’ve met a lot of Lions coaches. None had a short-story collection on his desk (or, in most cases, literature of any kind), let alone one nominated for the National Book Award. The title is catching. It’s called “Like You’d Understand, Anyway.”
And really, who among us could understand what Jim Schwartz is up against? We’re the other side of the tidal wave. We’re the ones pushing, straining, wishing, hoping, demanding, bemoaning and waiting-waiting-waiting for Lions success.
Schwartz? He’s the guy who has to deliver. Some would say this is like asking a mailman to pass through a dog pound. Schwartz doesn’t seem fazed. Eminently confident and generally relaxed, he seems to know more than his limited experience would suggest. This, after all, is his first head-coaching gig, he has won two games in the NFL – total – and he’s only 44, an adolescent in the pro coaching world. His secure demeanor seems to come from his lineage, not just Mom and Dad, but Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher, Kirk Ferentz, Nick Saban, Marvin Lewis, Scott Pioli – all of whom he worked for or with.
He says his “PhD in football” came in the mid-1990s, when, as a low-level assistant with the Browns, he lived in a cramped apartment near the end of the Cleveland airport runway, where he put in 15-hour days, 350 days a year.
Now, like a student well prepared for a test, he has a cautious optimism. He thinks he can win. He thinks he has assembled a good roster. He thinks things are looking up. I have come to ask questions, skeptical, like any Lions fan, hopeful, like any Detroiter, and curious, as a human being, how a guy who seems this smart can be this content with what has long been an elephant graveyard of coaching.
Like I’d understand, anyway.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Mitch: What have you learned about this franchise since you’ve been here?
Jim: Well, on the outside looking in for the last 10 years, the Lions changed course way too often. It seemed like every year there was a new slogan. Every year there was a new banner. One year it was we’re gonna be tough and we’re gonna run Â no, now we’re gonna pass and do this. I think the important thing is having a philosophy and sticking to it – but your philosophy needs to be flexible enough that you can adapt to what you have.
Mitch: How does that work with your style of coaching? You get tagged with being “intellectual.”
Jim: Well, I’ve got a lot of photos of me with veins bulging out of my forehead. (He laughs.) I think the key to coaching in the NFL is trying to maximize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and put your players in position to be able to make plays. You can’t say, “Hey, this is what we’re gonna do come hell or high water!” Like: “We’re a run ‘n’ shoot team!” Well, hell, if you don’t have the personnel to fit that, then you’re probably not a good run ‘n’ shoot team.
I learned from Belichick. Â He had a great saying when he prepared for a team’s offense or defense. He’d say, “We have to make ’em play left-handed.” Meaning, whatever they do well, we have to take that away. And if they’re gonna beat us – they’re gonna beat us doing something else.
Mitch: But don’t you need the personnel to do that?
Jim: No doubt. It’s one thing to put a player in position. It’s another thing for that player to have the talent to make the play.
Mitch: What can you do while you’re developing that personnel?
Jim: You have to have the confidence to stay the course. Jeff Fisher, his strength as a coach, is that he doesn’t change. He doesn’t cut and run. He doesn’t start 0-5 and say, “Hey, we gotta change everything.”
Mitch: Talk about Matthew Stafford. In the NFL, it seems to begin and end with the quarterback.
Jim: Well, last year, we actually held Matt back. Matt was well ahead of our offense. Â His play-calling at the line of scrimmage, his ability to recognize what defenses were doing – all that stuff – but he didn’t have enough talent around him to take advantage of that. A quarterback can’t do it on his own. Â
When Matt got hurt last year and we made a decision to put him on IR, he was sitting over in one of those chairs. And I told him, “We’re gonna get you some help. I’m not going to subject you to this (again).”
Mitch: You’ve addressed that?
Jim: Yeah. Unlike last year, he has Calvin (Johnson), but he also has Nate Burleson, he also has Tony Scheffler. We get Brandon Pettigrew back, and now Bryant Johnson moves into one of the third wide receiver positions. Â
Mitch: Was Stafford upset about being put on IR?
Jim: Matt is extremely self-aware. Matt would be a very good coach because he right away knows when he’s screwed up and when things are outside of his control. In Denver (in the exhibition game), when he took a sack Â second down and goal, I think, from the 9. If it’s incomplete, we got third and goal from the 9 – we still got a chance to score a touchdown. When he takes the sack, it’s like third and goal from the 14, and you’re not converting. It’s probably a field goal. So by taking that sack, that was basically a four-point play. And he came off, and I said, “You’ve gotta burn that ball. You’ve gotta throw it away.” And he said, “Yeah, I know, but the guy was on my hip and I was afraid that if I switched hands to throw it that I might lose it. And I didn’t wanna lose the field goal.”
So he was aware of everything. He knew right away.
Mitch: What are his other strengths?
Jim: His strengths are many. (He chuckles.) He’s got as good an arm as there is in the NFL, and that’s deep balls. Â He can also drive the ball through the wall. He’s got a great, great arm. He’s got classic mechanics. He’s got a quick release. In the (first few) preseason games he looked like Dan Marino.
Mitch: So you expect bigger things out of him this year?
Jim: Well, this will really be, I don’t wanna say the tale of the tape, but we need to support him better from a defensive standpoint. It’s a bad situation to play quarterback in this league when you’re down three scores in the fourth quarter. It’s not so bad being down three scores in the first quarter. We were down, 24-3, against Cleveland. He brought us right back. But when it’s 6 minutes left in the game, and you’re down 17 points, you’re not much of a threat. You’re desperate. So we’ve got to support him better.
Mitch: That would bring me to the defense. It has consistently been bad, especially in the defensive backfield. Am I right?
Jim: Well, I don’t wanna say that, but I think that we’ve devoted more resources, and we’re probably further along on offense than we are on defense, excluding the defensive line. We expended major resources there. We went and signed Kyle Vanden Bosch, we went and traded for Corey Williams. And we drafted Ndamukong Suh. Â When we went with our second group out there in preseason games, and you saw that drastic drop-off from the first group? Remember, some of those guys were starting last year.
Mitch: How about the defensive backfield? You probably don’t want to label any area an Achilles’ heel – but what phrase would you use?
Jim: “A work in progress.” That frames it as a positive. Our best player in the secondary is Louis Delmas. Our best player at linebacker is DeAndre Levy. Guys that were rookies last year. Â I think that our talent level is higher than it was last year. The biggest thing with the secondary – it’s not about individual performance. It’s about a whole group of players. And one weak link in that secondary chain makes the whole secondary look bad. Â
I think the pass rush will help. Last year, we had to blitz way too much, cause we could not pressure up front. Well, when you blitz, you’re gonna make some plays, and you’re also subject to giving up big plays. We gave up way too many plays that way. So if we’re improved on defense, the up front will help our secondary.
Mitch: You’re clearly a smart guy. Is there such a thing as being too intelligent for football?
Jim: I don’t think there’s ever a situation where being smart is a detriment. I do think it’s important to see the forest for the trees. Â Sometimes more information isn’t good. I’ve seen guys that have been paralyzed by (information). This is a quick game, and you need to be able to move quickly.
Mitch: It used to be that coaches said, “Football is a simple game.” The trend now seems to be to make it more complicated.
Jim: I think the big change came when the NFL went to a computer-based video system. Â A lot of those old-time coaches say the same thing: “This used to be a great job until videotape came in.” Then all of a sudden Joe Gibbs started sleeping in his office and Dick Vermeil was burning out – all because the video opened up an instantaneous view of practice. Back in the old days, they had to develop the film. A lot of coaches went home and picked it up in the morning. Â When I was at the University of Maryland, we had film clips taped to the wall.
Mitch: You hung film on the wall?
Jim: Yeah. You were running the projector Â you said, “OK, this is Â30 Bob.’ ” You got the end of the play, you sliced it with scissors. When you were done, you took all those clips, and you put them in a machine and you spliced them.
Mitch: That was your job?
Jim: Oh yeah, yeah.
Mitch: When you first got to Detroit, was there a desire to clean house to get rid of the losing mentality?
Jim: You do need to change things. Â I think that when you’re coming off of 0-16, when the players came back, they needed to know that things were different. So we obviously changed some. We turned over most of the coaching staff. We turned over the offensive and defensive coordinators. There was also stuff like taking down pictures, changing the configuration of the locker room. I didn’t want the returning players coming back from 0-16 and going to the exact same locker.
Mitch: Did you try other ideas?
Jim: Yeah, I famously assigned parking spots. I didn’t think that was a big deal, but obviously it was. Â The system in the past had been hey, first come, first served. But I was like, hey, look, everybody’s got a parking spot. Park in your own spot. It’s just signaling things are different.
You remember that movie “Dead Poets Society”?
Jim: Remember when Robin Williams had those students stand on their chairs? Because sometimes you need to change your perspective? We did a little bit like that.
Mitch: OK, so you went from 0-16 to 2-14 last year. Did you feel the necessity to make big changes again?
Jim: Not really, because then, to me, it looks like your coach is grasping at straws. Â Like I said – a little bit what’s happened here in the past is that we’ve changed courses so many times. You can’t keep doing that.
Also, when the players come back in and you have Kyle Vanden Bosch in the locker room and you have Nate Burleson in the locker room and you draft well, I mean, the players know. Players are good scouts. They know when you acquire good players. They see it on the field. And they see it in the locker room.
Mitch: When you look back now on your first game last year, were you nervous? First moment as a head coach in the NFL?
Jim: No. The only thing that screwed me up a little bit is my sisters and my dad came down to see the game. I was like, “Why are you coming all the way to New Orleans? We’re playing at home the next week. Why don’t you just come up for that?” They said, “Because it’s your first game.” I said, “It might be my first, but hopefully it’s not my last.”
Mitch: So that put extra pressure on you?
Jim: Yeah, pregame. But once the game got started, it was over.
Mitch: What did you learn from your parents that still applies?
Jim: Well, there’s a lot of signaling that goes into coaching as well as parenting. I read a lot, because my mom read a lot. I always thought my mom was a bookworm. She’d have a baby in one hand and a book in the other. One of my prized possessions is her public library card. I got it out of her coat pocket after she passed away. It has been through the washing machine probably 20 times. Â It’s tattered and everything else. Â But we didn’t have enough money to go buy books, so we wore out our public library cards. Â
My dad was a cop. And when he came home from work, he worked on our house. Our house was 80 years old. He did all the work himself. So you just get those signals. You learn consistency from your parents. Hey, if bedtime is 8, it’s 8. It’s not, well, tonight it’s 10; tomorrow it’s 8 – then it’s 11. You just need to be consistent.
Mitch: What have you learned about Detroit and its fan base that you didn’t know when you got here?
Jim: I know it’s a football town. Most blue-collar towns are. I worked in Cleveland, and I saw the way that people there embraced the Browns. They went to Cleveland Cavaliers games, they went to Indian games, but dressing up like dogs and barking in the end zone and having a bad day at the office Monday if the Browns lost on Sunday – I see a lot of that same thing here.
Mitch: There have been a lot of bad Mondays around Detroit.
Jim: Well, there’s definitely the dynamic here that people have been disappointed. It’s hard to keep giving your heart and getting it crushed.
Mitch: But you know that Detroit has great sports fans.
Jim: Oh, yeah. Last year, I think, in the second round of the hockey playoffs, I was living over in the hotel and I got back to the room and the hockey game was on. Â It was Game 7. And I’m sitting in the hotel room by myself watching the game – in Detroit – Hockeytown – and I said well, I don’t need to be sitting in a hotel room watching that game, so I found a sports bar and I thought I’d just sort of sneak into the background and watch it. Â Well, I wasn’t as incognito as I thought.
But I remember the Red Wings scored a goal, I think it was about 4 minutes left in the third period to go up in that game, and this bar just erupted! I mean, it was as if that was the game-winner for the Stanley Cup! I said, “This is unbelievable. I can’t believe the environment here!” And someone said to me, “That’s nothing compared to what it’s gonna be like when the Lions win.” I’ve heard that a bunch of times.
Mitch: But to counter that, you’re like my eighth coach since I’ve been covering this team. Inevitably, the others reached a point where they felt avalanched by the past.
Jim: I got it last year when we lost our second game to Minnesota. I did the Monday morning press conference and somebody said, “You’ve lost 19 games in a row. You’re closing in on the NFL record.” And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’ve lost two games in a row. That’s bad enough. Â We don’t need to carry the burden for what happened in years past.”
It’s part of the equation Â it’s part of sports and why people like it and why people want to talk about it. It adds no pressure to what I do, because I do not read or listen to sports chatter. Â You’ll never catch me listening to sports-talk radio. It’s not meaningful to me.
Mitch: Does that go against your normal intellectual curiosity? You don’t strike me as the type who puts his head in the sand.
Jim: It’s not putting my head in the sand. Â I understand the media’s role. But if I allow public sentiment or media to affect the way I coach the team, then I become reactionary rather than proactive. And there’s nobody that can make me feel worse when we lose. Â There’s no way to say it without sounding arrogant or sounding cocky. It’s Â they don’t really know, so I don’t really let it affect me.
Mitch: You’re as inside as it gets?
Jim: Yeah. Â So I think I would do a disservice if I reacted to things Â If I’m gonna react to something, it’s gonna my agenda, not someone else’s. What happened in the past is part of the landscape here. Â It shows you how good the fan base is that (it has) stuck with it for so long. Â
But here’s the dealÂ my objective isn’t to bring back the fan base here. My objective isn’t to do anything other than win.
Mitch: To that end, could you be satisfied with a losing record this year – even 7-9? Can you be satisfied with anything that wasn’t over .500?
Jim: Coaches are never satisfied. I know a lot of coaches that have won a lot of Super Bowls and most of ’em never wear their Super Bowl rings. Because it’s not about what you did in the past – it’s about the next challenge. Â
So – satisfied? No. As long as you have another game, you’re never satisfied. That’s one of the beauties of the NFL and coaching in general Â it’s never a perfect thing.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.