January 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions look smart with Schwartz

Coach choice reflects back-to-basics approach

Jim Schwartz )

DETROIT -- Solid, sound and smart. That's what the Lions sought in their new coach, and that's what they got. No, those aren't exactly traits worthy of the big marquee, but when you're as historically awful as the Lions, the way to start over is to start with the basics.

Jim Schwartz will be introduced at Ford Field today as the new leader of the Lions, and some will brand it a safe, low-key choice. I'm calling it a solid, sound and smart pick, not just for what Schwartz brings -- defense, fundamentals, physical football -- but for what he doesn't bring.

No gimmicks, no glibness, no goofiness, thank goodness.

Schwartz, 42, doesn't bring baggage (that we know of) from his 10 years as an assistant at Tennessee, the last eight as coordinator of a stout defense that usually had the Titans in playoff contention. There were a few rough patches when the Titans rebuilt, and Schwartz certainly wasn't hired to get fans to swarm the box office.

But when an NFL team is 0-16 for the first time in history -- 31-97 the past eight seasons -- and is shattered and humiliated, there's no such thing as a quick fix. Are there big names who would have been better? Sure. But if terrific out-of-work coaches like Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan aren't grabbing decent jobs, why would they consider coming here?

Schwartz is here because the Lions desperately need to be pointed in the right direction, and the guy knows about direction. He worked at Tennessee under longtime winner Jeff Fisher and developed a reputation for being bright and prepared. One of his first jobs in the mid-'90s was as a scout in Cleveland under Bill Belichick, the best coach in the NFL with New England. Belichick calls Schwartz one of the smartest people he knows.

After his second interview Monday with Lions President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew, Schwartz made it clear he recognizes the holes here and knows it will take time. He sounded ready and eager -- they always do.

"I bring a combination of youth and experience that maybe some people don't have," Schwartz said Monday. "I don't shy away from a challenge, and I think it's important in the NFL to have that kind of attitude on a yearly basis. One of the best feelings in sports is turning something around. Obviously, the system in this league affords us the capability of turning something around."

Schwartz offers chance

It's a system the Lions have squandered unbelievably, especially during Matt Millen's eight-year run of horrible drafting. Let's not kid ourselves -- how the newly appointed Mayhew performs might be more important than how Schwartz performs.

But it's time the Lions took off their well-worn clown suit, and Schwartz -- with an economics degree from Georgetown and a reputation for being a strategic and statistical whiz, not to mention a chess player -- gives them a chance. Yes, only a chance.

For too long, the Lions and their coaches have played the public-relations gimmick game, going back to the Wayne Fontes era, now considered the glory days. Rod Marinelli and Bobby Ross talked tough but were inflexible with the few talented players they had. Steve Mariucci and Marty Mornhinweg were hyped as bright offensive minds but fizzled.

People, listen closely. All this talk of an incurable losing culture? It's not that complicated. All this hand-wringing about using the No. 1 pick on a quarterback? No! It's not that easy.

To revive a franchise, it takes a complete commitment to a proven philosophy, and it takes two strong leaders to implement it -- the GM and coach. The losing culture doesn't change until a team wins consistently, and a team doesn't win consistently until it has a good defense and a solid offensive line. Sorry, but unless you stumble across Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, that's how it works.

Geez, you'd think after four-plus decades owning the team, William Clay Ford would realize that. The NFL's top defenses -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia -- are alive in the playoffs. Now, this doesn't mean Schwartz is the perfect guy; it's always a bit of a guess when an assistant gets his first head coaching gig.

Building up defense is key

Schwartz believes in the right things, but then, we thought Marinelli did too. Marinelli turned out to be way too stubborn and relied way too heavily on former Tampa players he knew and assistant coaches he liked.

I think Schwartz will be smarter than that, and not just because he has a fine reputation. He worked for a decade in a Tennessee system that lost talent for salary-cap reasons -- which led to 5-11, 4-12 and 8-8 records from 2004-06 -- but developed young players and rebounded with defense.

Schwartz's defense has ranked in the top seven the past two seasons, including this year, when the Titans started 10-0 and lost in the playoffs to Baltimore 13-10.

"You've got to be big and strong and be able to run and stop the run," Schwartz said. "I think you need to be built that way."

That's not revelatory, but somehow the Lions have strayed from the philosophy. Now, for what it's worth, everyone in the organization is thinking the same way.

"I believe we need to be a physical football team," Mayhew said when he took over in late-December. "Defensively, we have to get bigger. Smart, tough guys, I believe in that."

I won't dare predict where the Lions go from here. They have a ridiculously important draft and tons of work ahead. After the worst season in history, they were just looking for a place to start over and a way to do it.

Every Lions coach for half a century has arrived bright and left beaten.

At least Schwartz seems smart enough to know what he's getting into. Will he be strong enough to handle the pitfalls and get others to believe in his plan?

He's getting a shot precisely because he has a sound plan.

Of course, for any coach who dares to don the leaping Lions logo, sticking to the plan is always the unsolvable riddle.

You can reach Bob Wojnowski at bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com.

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