Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lions Coach Schwartz Has That Winning Look

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

They’ve all had it, from Schmidt to Forzano to Clark to Rogers (who had the look from the moment he signed his contract) to Fontes to Ross to Mornhinweg to Mariucci to Marinelli.

It’s the look of exasperation combined with defeat and humiliation. Sometimes the look is expressed on the sideline, after watching another fumble or completed pass to the other team or a game-killing nine-minute drive by the opponent to eat up the rest of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes the look happens during training camp, when the coach realizes that his players don’t have that thing called talent.

Sometimes the look occurs during one of those post game press conferences, when all the geniuses holding tape recorders and microphones ask, “So what happened?”

The look has claimed some fine football coaches in Detroit, and some clowns.

Schwartz is different, and that’s why I don’t trust him.

When is he going to have the look? And if he isn’t, then I’m really suspicious of the guy.

Schwartz bounced into town in January 2009, just weeks after the Lions pratfall to a still unbelievable 0-16 record. The NFL is a league of parity and, at times, mediocrity is enough to get by.

To go 0-16 in the NFL is longer odds than beating the house at blackjack. But the Lions pulled it off. Someone could have won a mint.

So here comes Schwartz, fresh off a defensive coordinator’s gig in Tennessee, and he had that typical “just hired” look that all the Lions coaches had at one time or another: smiling, at ease, no crow’s feet. He looked like the Presidents of the United States do on Inaugural Ball night, before the job turns them into the gray-haired, wrinkled and crucified.

The cameras snapped and the tape recorders whirred and a beaming Schwartz posed with a football and a Lions helmet and all you could think of was, “That poor, poor man.”

Now, it must be pointed out that to follow 0-16 is like being a singer going on stage after a comedian who bombed; you’d have to be a pretty God-awful crooner to not get applause.

Schwartz’s Lions won three games that first year, in 2009. It was a decent enough honeymoon, especially considering that his starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, missed some playing time due to injury.

Then came 2010 and Stafford goes down just before halftime with a severe shoulder injury on Opening Sunday—surely that would have been time for Schwartz to flash the look.

The Lions gamely soldiered on during that game in Chicago and had a potential game-winning TD pulled back from them by the officials, and all the Lions could do was look on like they were at a dinner table with a sleight of hand artist.

All this happened before the season was 60 minutes old.

Still, Schwartz never got the look.

After 12 games last year the Lions were 2-10 with Stafford having suited up for all of three contests, his shoulders ravaged with injury. Even the backup, Shaun Hill, went down with a bad wrist.

Schwartz kept his cool and his composure. He didn’t fly into a Bobby Ross-like rant. He didn’t talk of pounding the rock like Rod Marinelli. He didn’t wonder, like Darryl Rogers did, what it took to get fired around here.

Schwartz didn’t stand in front of the inquiring media minds and say, “See you at the graveyard,” like Monte Clark did in 1983. Schwartz didn’t take the wind instead of the football, like Marty Mornhinweg.

And he didn’t quit, like Ross did—and had done before and after coaching the Lions—in the middle of the season.

Schwartz stayed the course, working with a third-string quarterback, a second-string running back and a defense that was front heavy and back light.

Then something funny happened. The Lions beat the Packers for their third win of the season. They knocked Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers senseless before halftime.

Then the Lions went down to Tampa and ended a road losing streak that dated to 2007, by booting the Bucs in overtime.

The day after Christmas, the Lions returned to Florida and stunned the Miami Dolphins with a fourth quarter comeback that included the once-light secondary making some big time plays—something we haven’t seen in these parts since Lyndon Johnson was president.

That was three straight wins, and the best part was that not only did Jim Schwartz not have the look, he didn’t have the other look, either—that of someone who thinks he’s accomplished something, when he really hasn’t.

Some of the Lions coaches of the past have had that look, too.

The Vikings came to town on the season’s final weekend and the Lions thumped them, for a season-ending four-game winning streak.

Never before did a 6-10 record look so good in the history of the NFL.

Through it all, Schwartz had a different kind of look.

It was the look of the in-control football coach—the rock steady, steely-eyed man who, when you look at him, you can’t tell if he’s winning or losing by 40 points.

Schwartz may not have always been the perkiest coach during his weekly press conferences. He may have become bristly when discussing injuries. He wasn’t Dale Carnegie.

But he wasn’t a snake oil salesman or a phony, and Lord knows we’ve seen those types on the Lions sidelines, wearing headsets.

The Lions four-game winning streak to cap the 2010 season, along with the anticipated health of Stafford and continued massaging of the roster by GM Marty Mayhew, have caused even the national football observers to look at the Lions as serious playoff contenders.

A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.

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