Lions head coach Jim Schwartz arrived in Detroit in 2009 following the tumultuous, loss-riddled era of general manager Matt Millen. Schwartz was young and fiery and full of promise, but also inexperienced — he’d never been a NFL head coach.
A day after the final game of this disappointing season, Schwartz was fired leaving the Lions searching for a new coach (though Ken Whisenhunt appears to be the leading candidate). In many ways Schwartz’s tenure reminds me of the sales career of Willy Loman — the main character in Arthur Miller’s famous play, “Death of a Salesman.” Early on, Loman had a promising career. But he became inconsistent later in life, leading to his untimely, yet foreseen demise. Loman had been slipping for years and failed to see it because his sense of reality was far from the truth.
You’re probably asking how does a Pulitzer-winning, 60-year-old play relate to the five-year tenure of Schwartz? It doesn’t. But the demise of Loman does. Barring the literal death (Schwartz is definitely still alive), it’s the similarly long, disappointing, damaged fall of a promising salesman — or coach in Schwartz’s case.
To start, Schwartz never really showed he had complete control. You’d hear players praising his coaching style and announcers say how his intensity was the impetus behind the Lions’ physical play, but what did that translate into? Looking back, it translated into an undisciplined team that took an absurd amount of stupid penalties at the wrong time. Just look at Ndamukong Suh: a terrific player who lacks discipline. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of player we’ve seen on the Jim Schwartz-led Lions.
The issue in football — and for Loman’s sake, the sales industry — is you live and die by results. You can be the best coach in the world, but if your team doesn’t win, you won’t be around for long. In Schwartz’s defense, his team did win once — the Lions went 10-6 in 2011 and made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. But they finished 4-12 a year later, reverting back to their losing ways.
In Schwartz’s five seasons, the Lions went 29-51 under Schwartz. Football’s a game played to win. And the Lions lost. 22 games under .500 isn’t acceptable anywhere, even if you’re traditionally one of the NFL’s worst teams.
The team’s undisciplined nature appeared much more than just in foolish penalties, too. For example, over the last three years the Lions finished 3-12 in the final two months of the season (December and January). Any team can win games early in the season, but the good teams sustain that success and make a strong, late playoff push; something the Lions failed to do.
After starting this year 6-3, they went 1-6 — a collapse of epic proportions. In five of those six losses, Detroit led at some point in the fourth quarter. Whether it was turnovers, bad penalties, etc. the Lions couldn’t win the close ones down the stretch. That falls on the players (obviously), but when it’s a repetitive problem over multiple seasons, you start to point the finger elsewhere.
The final nail in the coffin — in my opinion for Schwartz’s job — was his refusal to take charge. Similar to Loman, he became naïve in his belief that things were sustainable. In a press conference following Detroit’s playoff-eliminating week 16 loss, Schwartz said, “We have come a long way, but we are still not quite there.” As a spectator not involved in the franchise’s inner-workings, “not being there” after five years shouldn’t stand. And it didn’t.
Just like the death of a salesman, the death of a football coach is an ever-working process. Schwartz’s inability to repeat the little success the team had in 2011 was the start of his death as the Lions coach. And the team’s undisciplined style of play combined with an overall sub-.500 record after five years was the last straw.