Lions Coach Jim Schwartz, a Georgetown Graduate, Is Charged With Rebuilding a Losing Franchise
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The first changes were obvious, the kinds of things any new coach might do when finding himself suddenly in charge of a team that went 0-16 the previous year. So Jim Schwartz did the predictable upon his arrival to the Detroit Lions last winter. He assigned the players parking spots. He pulled down all the motivational signs in the locker room that had obviously not worked. And he declared his new team would no longer use weight training machines. They needed to get stronger, he said. They were going back to a more old-fashioned kind of weight training.
This way, when the Lions players came back here to the team's headquarters in March for offseason workouts, there would be nothing that was the same from before. New paint. A new locker room arrangement. New uniforms.
But superficial alterations alone will not reverse a disaster. Powerlifting won't make the worst team in the history of the NFL suddenly shine. You must rebuild a culture. And this is always harder to do.
"There are no miracles here," said Jason Hanson, the team's longtime place kicker. "This is the NFL."
Late last week, Schwartz folded himself into a chair in the back of a players' meeting room and placed his feet on a table. This was four days after the Lions had lost their first game of the year, their 18th in a row dating from 2007. In a matter of days the streak would extend to 19, leaving him 0-2 as a coach and his team a defeat against the Washington Redskins this Sunday away from making it only the second NFL franchise in history to lose 20 straight games.
Yet the futility does not faze him. There is a confidence to him, an assuredness in the way he holds his head back, eagerly anticipating each new question before snapping off answers that leave a sense with people that the 43-year-old with an economics degree from Georgetown sees himself as the smartest man in the room.
"People in the NFL don't look at what happened to you last year," he said. "They look at opportunities."
So when the Lions called in January and everyone else saw a roster ruined by Matt Millen, the team's previous president and general manager, Schwartz saw ample room under the salary cap with which to sign new players. While most could only see a string of losing seasons, he noticed top draft choices upon whom to build. And while the image of Detroit has become one of abandoned factories and boarded-up storefronts, he chose instead to look at the team's large and passionate fan base that only needed to be reignited.
Schwartz's coordinators, Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham, are former NFL head coaches. Pedigrees like this can often be intimidating to rookie coaches who find it safe to defer to experience.
"This is a very difficult program," Schwartz said. "My standards are very high. Yes, I challenge my coaches almost as much as the players. I think that's my job as a head coach, to set the pace and not let people be complacent, to set high standards and to follow up all the time."
And while most head coaches stick to their expertise, whether it is offense or defense -- Schwartz's is defense -- he insists on reviewing everything his coordinators do. Each scheme is run across his desk. Every card containing plays at practice must be personally approved to make sure it accomplishes a goal, that it fits what Schwartz wants the Lions to do.