January 16, 2009 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Gut reaction: Lions finally got it right by choosing defensive coach

Jim Schwartz is a defensive coach, which is a good first step. (Velvet S. McNeil/The Detroit News)

The gut of any pro football champion, along with its heart and soul, is its defense. That is cemented into the history of the sport.

And Jim Schwartz knows history -- an appealing aspect to the newest head coach with the terrifying mission of repairing all that has been broken for the Detroit Lions this past half-century.

"It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne," Schwartz told the daily beat guys in a preliminary gab session at Allen Park the other day.

He brings a bit of a witty nature to the Lions, which is fine.

But more important, he brings a philosophy -- "building from inside-out."

That means defense, not the glittery show of offense.

And Schwartz is a defensive specialist, perhaps some sort of guru.

At age 42, he is aware that the last time the Lions did win a championship they were a team solidified by defense.

It was way back in the distance of 1957. Years before Jim Schwartz was born.

One of my precious memories through the decades is of Lions fans -- the granddaddies of today's paper bag-wearing gripe artists -- carrying one athlete off the field the day of the most recent championship. They bounced him atop their shoulders, bobbing him around, refusing to allow him to escape from this joyous scene.

He was the pillar of this football dynasty that won three championships in six years of the 1950s. The athlete was not Layne, who was injured and did not play that frosty afternoon in '57. It was not Tobin Rote, who threw four touchdown passes.

It was Joe Schmidt, team captain, All-Pro, the man who defined the middle linebacker position. Schmidt was the anchor of the nasty defense that included two other Hall of Famers, Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary and Pro Bowler Jimmy David.

Attention to defense

It starts with defense -- building from inside-out. It has been a truism through the years, the decades, from Vince Lombardi and George Allen and Chuck Noll right up to Bill Belichick himself.

They all went to Super Bowls with excellent quarterbacks and magical offenses. But those offenses required possession of the football -- and it was the mighty defenses in Green Bay and Washington and Pittsburgh and New England that seized the ball back.

I started this critique by using the word "GUT."

It is a vital word, in my vocabulary. I believe in gut instincts, along with my reliance now on history. And it is my gut instinct that William Clay Ford has made the right choice. Finally!

Finally he has rejected his own theory, his long-ago statement, "I want to see Roman candles shooting from the sidelines."

Schwartz is the 17th Lions head coach since I walked into Buddy Parker's office after a victory in 1956 with a rookie's dumb question.

"So you think you won it on defense?"

And all the hangers-on in the coach's office giggled and then guffawed. A lesson was learned.

Now he needs players

Schwartz is the right choice, according to my gut instinct. But a new, defense-oriented coach is merely the first choice.

He must have nasty players to coach.

The Lions possess two choices in the first round of the 2009 draft, the first and the 20th.

For once, the Lions must ignore all the urging from fans and some media to pick a quarterback in the first round -- Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez.

They might be glitzy and glamorous pro quarterbacks on draft day.

So were Joey Harrington, Andre Ware and Chuck Long.

That, too, is part of history.

But the Lions need most urgently to replenish their gut -- a middle linebacker and a guy who scares the bejabbers out of glitzy quarterbacks with his pass rushing tendencies.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his Web-exclusive column every Sunday at detnews.com.