Well here we are… Two short weeks (and one god-forsaken blizzard) removed from “you know, these next two games are kinda tough – but I think they might be able to run the table!!” And now, with the season for holiday family gatherings upon us, we find the Lions assuming their annual spot at the head of the Kiddie table.
This type of a 180 turnaround can sometimes seem like the work of black magic or voodoo. It can be easy to turn to curses, systemic lack of accountability, ownership and everything else I’ve heard from Lions fans. But the Saints cried about their owner for years, the Red Sox were cursed, and accountability only gets you so far. (Unless you think a WR pointing at himself saying “My Bad” after dropping a ball is earth shattering stuff. I don’t.)
When assessing the Lions current struggles, it is important (AND THIS IS THE PART THAT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR FANS TO DO) to remove the Matt Millen era from the conversation. I know you are angry. I was there for the chorus of boos on Monday night. But, to boo Reggie Bush for Mike Furrey’s ineptitude doesn’t make sense. To scream at Jonte Green for Dre Bly’s arrogance (and lack of man cover ability) is counterproductive to everything they’re trying to do. I know you’re frustrated but next time your kid brings home a bad report card, try pointing at them and screaming. See how it works out. Better yet, boo your younger child for all the mistakes their older brother made. I promise you, this will not bear the outcome you are hoping for.
To the true point of this article (and I promise there is one); it can be hard to keep track of where the blame should fall when you are balancing current production with years of Honolulu Blue baggage. It can be easy to get teary eyed and see John Kitna when you thought you had Troy Aikman. It can be tough to trust an organization when they tell you they have talent when they were saying the same thing about the likes of Dewayne White and Paris Lennon six years ago.
When you’ve been fed dog food and been told it’s steak for long enough, it can be tough to believe when you’re finally enjoying a nice Rib-Eye. But this team has one absolute differentiation – The 2013 Lions have Super Bowl talent. They really do. This is a fact that Jimmy Johnson and Jon Gruden have both recently echoed. One more time; The Lions, as currently constituted, have a Super Bowl roster. Full Stop.
So where does this leave us? Are they playing perfect? Hell no. Are drops and turnovers and dumb penalties inexcusable? Hell yes. But where does it all lead back to? In my, ever-so-profound opinion, Jim Schwartz has run his course as the leader of this team. ESPN’s Michael Rothstein had an interesting quote in his post press-conference article on the Lions’ coach. To sum it up – Schwartz made reference to a continual process of self-evaluation and growth that he has been engaging over his tenure as coach. Upon reading this, I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, poured myself a nice warm cup, and then spit it out in shock.
Jim Schwartz is either extremely stupid or he thinks we are if he wants anyone to believe he has grown as a coach. Either that or he learned how to self-evaluate from Kanye West (Hahhhhhhhhhh). No, in looking at Schwartz’ lack of growth, I want to zero in on one unique perspective. The penalty issue will not be the one. No, on penalties Jim has remained steadfastly defiant. For whatever reason, he does not see them as an issue. And when Jim does get uniquely upset about dumb penalties, he just chooses to bench Willie Young and all his worries melt away. The turnover battle will also not be our focus (a story for another day). No, for this example we will assess a facet of the game that Schwartz’s Monday Night counterpart, John Harbaugh, is exceedingly familiar with; Special Teams.
Jim Schwartz Lack of Growth: Exhibit A
Punters are not Place Kickers
In November of 2011 the Lions had found a, much needed, new Punter in the form of undrafted free agent, Ryan Donahue. Donahue was in no way rewriting the record books with his performance, but he certainly wasn’t a noticeable drop off from the Nick Harris of 2010 (Harris and he both Netted 35 yards/punt). What happened though, when an aging Jason Hanson required light knee surgery to clean up his knee and was going to miss a little time? Schwartz decided he would have Donahue kick Field Goals in practice to save the roster spot. The result from this experiment was a tweaked hamstring and the end of Donahue’s career.
I am in no way saying that Sam Martin’s tight groin is going to be career threatening. This would be a tragic loss of talent. This kid can flat out punt. What I am saying, is that Schwartz had a unique opportunity for a learning moment this pre-season. Would he:
A) Find a young Kicker who could handle kick off duties and provide a reasonable expectation that he can kick field goals in a live game situation?
B) Sign an aging Kicker coming off bad hip injury (hips don’t matter in kicking anyway) and ask his ROOKIE punter to also handle kick off and holding duties on FGs and PATs?
We all know how which answer Jim went with. And here we sit, week 16 upon us, reflecting on: A botched hold on a PAT, 2 blocked FGs, 3 outright missed FGs, 1 of the worst fake FGs ever attempted, a missed PAT, increasingly inconsistent Kick Offs…(catches his breath)… and one of the best Punters in the league now nursing a sore groin. WELL DONE JIM. You really out-kicked your coverage on this one (#funwithpuns).
I know that special teams are not sexy to scream about. It is much easier to point to interceptions from Stafford, because well that’s what people do. But every team makes mistakes. Football is an imperfect spot and that’s why we love it. But on this particular Monday night, even with all the mistakes they made and all the knucklehead penalties they took, Matthew Stafford led them on a game winning drive. During that drive he threw the ball well, targeted 5 different players and completed passes to 4 of them, including the (would be) game winning touchdown.
Like it or not, the offense came to life when it was needed most on Monday. Where the Lions failed as a team, was on the ensuing kickoff. With Martin unable to kickoff due to a tight groin, the Lions were left with no other options than to have David Akers to handle the duties. This led to a shallow kickoff to the, always dangerous, Jacoby Jones. Jones, in turn, took the kickoff to the Ravens 33 yard line. Jones’ return left the Ravens’ needing just 22 yards to put the Ravens in Field Goal range and win the game.
This is how narrow your margin for error is as an NFL coach. A seemingly insignificant decision to allow your punter to handle kickoff duties made in the preseason, can wind up losing you a must win game in December. The mistake could have been excused once (and it was) but to make the same type of mistake twice within three years, shows the coaches lack of growth, which has handcuffed the Lions as a team.
Following the 2008 season, Jim Schwartz was exactly the coach this team needed. At that point, they were the Little Giants. They needed someone to come along and give ‘em some Alka-Seltzer work up a little intimidation and fart in the other team’s face. But his style is not going to take them to the next level. And at this point, that is the level a team of this caliber needs to be on. Will they learn from this? Yes. Should people stop calling in and commenting about trading Suh/Stafford/Calvin? Yes.
It’s time to move on from Jim (and Scott and Gunther – but theirs is also a story for another day) and when they do, there will be great things ahead. And just like your kid will still invite you to their graduation even though you screamed at them when they got knocked out of the geography bee in the first round, they’ll still let you back on the band wagon.