Justin Simon, DLD Writer
Are the Lions for real? That’s the question everyone seems to be asking themselves this season. Everyone from local and national media, to fans, and everyone in between can’t seem to figure out why the Lions aren’t better than their record would indicate.
They have by far the most talented roster we’ve seen in the last decade. The offense is lead by a more than capable quarterback in Matthew Stafford. They have the best wide receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson. And they finally look to have a dynamic run game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. On the other side of the ball, the defense is also not short of talent. Everyone knows about Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on the defensive line. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are both playing at near Pro Bowl levels. The Lions have their best pair of safeties I’ve ever seen in Louis Delmas and Glover Quin. So what am I missing?
After starting 6-3 and sitting alone atop the division the Lions just can’t seem to get over the hump. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this season isn’t a fluke, it’s a microcosm of life under Jim Schwartz.
Let’s go back to when Schwartz was hired. The Lions were coming off the most demoralizing season in NFL history. The Lions as a team and a fan base were beaten up. They badly needed a change from the previous regime. Enter Jim Schwartz. He was highly thought of around the league as a great defensive mind, and after the disastrous 2008 season in which the Lions gave up the most yards in NFL history up until that point, he looked to be just the guy for the job. He was smart, well spoken, and had an attitude that fit Detroit to a T.
Back to reality. After yet another loss on Sunday, the Lions did themselves no favors in the race for the playoffs. For the past month and a half, they’ve had every opportunity to take reign of the NFC North. Both Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler have been out well over a month. And the Lions have been one of the healthiest teams in football. While they should preparing to host a playoff game for the first time in since 1994, they simply cannot get out of their own way.
It’s my belief that Lions are currently sitting in a disastrous place known as Coaching Purgatory. If you haven’t read it already, you should go read Joe Bussell’s ( @NFLosophy on Twitter) article on Quarterback Purgatory. It will give you a good sense of where this is coming from. Essentially, the Lions coaching staff (headed by Schwartz) has been good enough to get them passed 0-16, but will never be able to get them over the hump, or greatness. He was just the guy they needed to get back relevance, but I have my doubts that he’ll ever be able to put together a consistent winner.
Under Schwartz the Lions have played aggressive football. It was a nice change to see the Lions be the aggressor on the field rather than simply sitting back and getting hit in the mouth. But with that bravado comes an expectation–an expectation to win. You can only talk about being tough and winning games for so long before you have to actually, you know, start winning games. The Lions looked to be on the way in 2011 when they made their first playoff appearance in over a decade. Schwartz looked like a genius in his third year, and he even got a contract extension. Things were looking up in Detroit. But then reality hit.
I’ve had conversations that have compared the Detroit Lions under Schwartz to the University of Michigan basketball program under Tommy Amaker. Amaker took over a team that under Brian Ellerbe, had a combined record 62-60 record in four seasons couldn’t finish better than eighth in the Big Ten his final three years with the team. Amaker was brought in to rebuild a program, and for he did a decent job. Under Amaker the Wolverines had a combined record of 109-83. They made it to the NIT three times in his first four seasons, and they even won it in his fourth year as head coach.
The problem, of course, is that college basketball coaches don’t get paid to win the NIT; they get paid to make to into the NCAA tournament, where much like the NFL playoffs anything can happen.
In his final two years, Amaker’s teams didn’t even make it to the NIT let alone the big dance. He could never get them over the hump. Enter John Beilein. The Wolverines hired Beilein after letting Amaker go. The coaching change has since resulted in a much more consistent team who has made the NCAA tournament four of his first six seasons, and even making it to the final game last season–that, is real improvement.
It’s easy for teams to be competitive in the NFL. The talent gap isn’t that extreme between teams, and the phrase “any given Sunday” is, in fact, true every week in the NFL. The main problem is that for the decade under Matt Millen that phrase didn’t ring true. The Lions talent gap wasn’t anywhere near those of other teams, and it all came to a head at the end of the 2008 season when the team couldn’t even win a single game. Jim Schwartz and his regime have gotten compared to those under Millen, which is nowhere near the right barometer.
This is why I believe regardless of making the playoffs this year that Jim Schwartz should be let go. I’m not saying it will happen, but I am saying it should happen. I happen to believe that Schwartz is far nearer to Amaker than he is Beilein. I’ve been a Schwartz supporter in the past, even after the debacle in 2012. I preached the need for cohesion amongst the players and staff. I preached Schwartz needing to get “his guys”. And I preached a need for consistency. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last five years it’s this: the only thing this team will do consistently is be inconsistent. From play to play, game to game, and year to year I’ve seen nothing but inconsistency.
I think one of my friends summed it up pretty well yesterday, saying, “Today, I saw the Detroit Lions game described as crazy, nuts, and insane. I’d like to add one more adjective to that list: typical.”