Jim Schwartz is coming to the end of his fifth season in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Let's face it -- Jim Schwartz had a tough job ahead of him when he was hired as the Detroit Lions' head coach on Jan. 15, 2009. The former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator was taking over a team that had posted the first and only 0-16 season in NFL history the year before, and the franchise had been driven into the ground by Matt Millen's ineptitude. Schwartz was one of the new wave of bright guys in the league -- a man noted for his attention to sabermetrics with a degree in economics from Georgetown, and it seemed that he might have the right balance of old-school toughness and new-school acumen to turn the Lions around.
With one game left in his fifth season, Schwartz has posted a 29-50 record, though the 2-14 record in 2009 was hardly his fault. In 2011, his Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs -- which seemed like it might have been the precursor to greater things. But it hasn't been. That is the only non-losing season the Lions have had under Schwartz, and even if the team wins its regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, the best the Lions can do is 8-8, and they were eliminated from postseason contention in Sunday's overtime loss to the New York Giants.
The Lions have frustrated their fans with their combination of high-level talent and low-level discipline, and that frustration spilled over as the seconds ticked down in regulation of the Giants game. With a 20-20 tie, Schwartz's team came off the field, refusing to play for the win at that point. The home crowd started to boo, and Schwartz turned to express his feelings about that reaction. Suffice to say, it was not pretty. Schwartz appeared to use at least one obscenity -- depending on how your lip-reading skills are -- and it was one more ding against a man who certainly seems to be on his way out as head coach.
After the Giants' Josh Brown kicked a 45-yard field goal with 7:32 left in overtime, Schwartz tried to explain his side of the story.
“There was what, 19 seconds, 23, in that situation," he said about not calling a timeout in regulation. "We didn’t have great field position. We tried to run a trap and hope to break it and try to get a first down right there. If we got a first down we would have been ready to jump on it, but we didn’t, and at that point I liked our odds in overtime as opposed to trying to take a chance. At that point, after the thing right there you have to weigh everything and the chance that we take a sack or have a negative play right there could have ended the game right there. We still ran a play that we thought could break it. We tried to break it out there. I think if he would have gotten a first down we could have been in a position, but after that play didn’t get a first down we were going to go in to overtime.”
As for his response to the boos?
“I was disappointed to hear boos. We were getting ready to go in to overtime right there. Our crowd is great for us and they support us. I thought our team needed a lift right there. We didn’t need to feel bad at that point. We just intercepted the ball that got us to overtime. I thought that just trying to get our team ready and that’s a tough situation when your players are getting booed, you want to keep them fired up and that’s what I was trying to do right there.”
But shouldn't his focus be on the field at that point? After all, fans frequently boo when their team takes a knee or leaves the field in certain circumstances. And none of his players had that response -- as receiver Nate Burleson told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
“I’m not mad at him for doing it because as many times as I wanted to I kind of stopped myself from saying something to a fan or two that I probably shouldn’t have. But it’s frustrating when you hear them boo because the same fan will turn around and praise you when it’s all good.”
Schwartz, however, insisted that his attention was not diverted.
“At that point we were taking a knee and we were just letting the clock run out after we didn’t get the first down in that situation and we were trying to gather the troops and get ready for overtime. I think at that point it wasn’t like we were running another a play in that situation and I was doing that. We were getting ready to go in to overtime. Our fans have been great for us. We needed them on our side in overtime and there was a reason we did what we did at the end of the game."
That Schwartz couldn't see the importance of keeping his composure in that situation embodies his time with the Lions, and the Lions themselves during his tenure. There's always been a lack of impulse control, and whether it's Detroit's large number of penalties and plays outside the rules every season, Schwartz's misunderstanding of challenge rules, his postgame fracas with San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh, there seems to be a disconnect with Schwartz between what he wants to do as a head coach and what he's supposed to do as a head coach.
"Speculation isn't my job," he said, when asked about his future. "Coaching is enough of a job for me."
If the Lions fire him at the end of the season, that could sum it all up in one sentence.