The new Lions coach will work under a guy who worked under Matt Millen (left) and owner William Ford Sr. (Brandy Baker/The Detroit News)
ALLEN PARK -- Of all the crimes the Lions have committed against football humanity, one has endured way too long: They never outsmart anyone.
It's a malady that starts at the top, of course, with owner William Clay Ford Sr. It's more publicly represented in the bumbling of longtime general managers Matt Millen and Russ Thomas. And it's reflected in the coaches, decent men who flailed here, seldom were savvy enough to adjust, then never landed another NFL head-coaching job.
The Lions need someone bright, which is why I'm intrigued by Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who showed up Monday for a second interview. He seems like a smart choice, double-meaning intended.
Speaking with reporters before he headed off to meet with Ford, Schwartz was low-key but concise, and mentioned his connection with whiz Bill Belichick several times (smart guy, like I said). It was a positive impression partly because Schwartz wasn't trying to make an impression.
Is he a front-runner? The Lions won't say, and they rightly will continue exploring other candidates, but he should be.
"I don't shy away from a challenge," Schwartz said. "One of the best feelings in sports is turning something around."
Ah, and the Lions just happen to present the biggest challenge imaginable. It's up to new GM Martin Mayhew to determine if Schwartz's intelligence and defensive plan make him ready to navigate the hallways of the NFL's most amazingly dysfunctional team.
Sense and sensibility
Schwartz makes sense to me, possibly the most sense, at least as much sense as the other touted defensive coordinators -- the Giants' Steve Spagnuolo, the Chargers' Ron Rivera and the Vikings' Leslie Frazier. Don't get me wrong. I wish the Lions had aimed higher for an established winner, but realistically, I doubt the top ones -- Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, Marty Schottenheimer, Brian Billick -- would come to Detroit. The odds plummeted when Mayhew and Tom Lewand got the top jobs, forcing the new coach to work under a guy who worked under Millen.
Supremely smart, or ...
OK, let's get the joke out of the way: You can't be that sharp if you want to coach an 0-16 team. True enough. To covet the job with the Lions, who have no proven hierarchy, little talent and virtually no history of success, you'd have to be:
B.) Supremely confident
C.) Supremely dumb
D.) Supremely smart
The Lions must hit on the latter, and believe it or not, it's possible. Schwartz, 42, touts the right things, the philosophical traits Mayhew and Lewand say they want, elements that make teams such as the Titans and the Steelers consistent contenders.
Schwartz has been in Tennessee for 10 years, the past eight as defensive coordinator. He was a college and pro scout under Belichick with the Browns in the 1990s, and Belichick has called Schwartz "probably one of the smartest people that I've been around."
The Titans' defense almost always is tough, and was second in the league in points allowed. You might recall, the Titans did narrowly edge the Lions, 47-10, on Thanksgiving Day.
If the Lions have learned anything, it's that a great defense can compensate for an unremarkable offense. The Steelers, Ravens and Eagles rank 1-2-3 in the NFL in defense and one of them will win the Super Bowl. (As much as it would further humble the Lions, there's no way the Cardinals win twice more.)
So there was Schwartz, talking about building a team that's "big and strong and able to stop the run." He preached the importance of sacking the quarterback (what a concept!) and even tossed a bouquet to those who pine for the Lions to draft a quarterback, although he certainly didn't commit to it.
"It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne," he said with a smile, knowing the Lions haven't won since the days of ol' Bobby.
Assistants like Schwartz, Spagnuolo, Rivera and Frazier have everything except a head-coach track record. But in the NFL, the biggest name isn't always the best indicator, evidenced by the coaches still alive in the playoffs.
Ken Whisenhunt is a first-time head coach in his second season at Arizona, and he already has lifted the Cardinals past their historic cellar-mates, the Lions. The Ravens have a first-year head coach in John Harbaugh, and the Steelers' Mike Tomlin is a first-time head coach in his second season.
It's impossible to say if Schwartz or Spagnuolo or anyone is the perfect guy for the Lions. Good qualities in an assistant don't always translate to leading a team. I can only say Schwartz fits the mold, and he sure doesn't appear to be a dunderhead.
He loves strategy, statistical analysis and sound defense. He has an economics degree from Georgetown and likes to play chess, on and off the field. With all due respect, the Lions were lucky if their previous coaches could handle a spirited game of Yahtzee.
Is it fair to say Rod Marinelli wasn't the sharpest game-manager? Yep. Is it fair to say Steve Mariucci's West Coast offense was outdated by the time he brought it to Detroit? Yep. Was it fair to say Marty Mornhinweg could call plays better than he could lead players? Yep.
The Lions need loads of talent and a coach who prepares feverishly and adjusts cleverly. Sound and smart is how other teams win. The Lions should give it a shot.
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