December 30, 2012 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions' front office faces difficult issue: What next?

Detroit -- In the end, there was confusion, as you'd expect. And resignation, as Lions head coach Jim Schwartz calmly trotted out to shake hands with the Bears' Lovie Smith, neither of whom left the field Sunday with any public assurance of what comes next.

The Bears won Sunday's regular season finale at Ford Field to keep their playoff hopes alive, if only for a few hours thanks to Minnesota's win over Green Bay, while the Lions fought gamely — stop me if you've heard this one — before losing a close game.

And there was a moment there, after the Lions' eighth consecutive loss capped a 4-12 season, as Schwartz searched in vain for another acquaintance from the Bears' side amid the postgame mob, when he turned and nearly tripped over the Lions' past. His ill-fated coaching predecessor in Detroit, Rod Marinelli, was looking for an old friend, too, and the two nearly collided before each quickly moved on without a word.

Awkward, isn't it?

Yes, it certainly is. All of it, as the Lions begin sifting through the wreckage of this awful season. And most especially for Schwartz, who began the week amid widespread reports of job security and ended it with persistent, unanswered questions about his immediate future with the team.

Sunday morning's report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen didn't say Schwartz was about to get canned despite three years remaining on his contract. It just said his job status is being reviewed by ownership, with the team's image and Schwartz's "management style" the key issues troubling owner William Clay Ford Sr. and his son, Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr.

Between the lines

To me, that ESPN report, surfacing a week after details of Schwartz's offseason contract extension finally were leaked publicly by the same network, sounded like a shot across the bow of the Lions' head coach — Hey, Jim, don't get too comfortable - and a message to the disgusted fan base all rolled into one.

Based on everything I've heard, Schwartz isn't going anywhere, but he's now officially on the clock, as is general manager Martin Mayhew, as they should be after this season — and this grand plan of theirs — unraveled the way it did in 2012.

Mayhew is tentatively scheduled to meet the media Wednesday in Allen Park, while Schwartz will talk again at length today as his players clean out their lockers and go through exit physicals. But on Sunday, Schwartz, who's now 22-42 as a head coach after a third year of double-digit losses in four seasons in Detroit, wasn't about to say whether he'd received any assurances about his status from ownership.

"I wouldn't discuss any private conversations, for whatever purpose they served," he said, "and I've always been that way."

When I asked him if he expected to be back next season, he replied, "I'm only concerned with getting this team back. That's the thing I'm most concerned with."

Asked if he thought he'd get that opportunity, he simply repeated himself, sort of the way his underachieving team did all season.

"I'm concerned with getting this team back," he said. "That's the only thing that I can be concerned with."

Honestly, I'd be concerned with a thing or two if the Lions decided to fire Schwartz six months after extending his contract through 2015. Namely, somebody else above him better get fired, too, in that scenario. But this being the NFL, and this being the Ford family, that kind of reasoning can get you in trouble, I suppose.

So can losing games the way these Lions have, though. And losing control the way Schwartz has, at times. And losing players the way this brain trust has, for a variety of reasons, from Titus Young to Aaron Berry to Jahvid Best.

But when you follow up a breakthrough playoff spot with a top-five draft pick, and when you finish winless in your division for the fourth time in seven years, well …

"Everybody better be nervous," said kicker Jason Hanson, who has seen it all in his 21 years in the NFL. "Because it can't be like this."

A for effort, F for results

One would hope everybody understands that now. And judging by the effort this team showed in playing out the string the last couple months, I have a feeling the Lion's share of them do. As Schwartz put it Sunday, while he's not proud of the record, "I'm proud of the fight of this team."

Still, they can't fight the reality of this situation, with more than half the roster scheduled for free agency and at least a half-dozen assistant coaches, including most of the offensive staff, with expiring contracts this winter. Some of the former certainly will be playing elsewhere next season, and some of that latter group — left in limbo by Schwartz's own contract negotiations last offseason — likely will have to find work elsewhere.

But for those who stay, and play, "I think at some point, it's on the players themselves to be responsible and to put the team first," said veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who wants to keep playing, but likely will be asked to do so at a reduced rate. "I think a lot of that just falls on individual players."

I do, too, as I've said all season. But it rings a little hollow to hear players now pointing to a lack of "accountability" in the locker room, as linebacker Stephen Tulloch did this past week, and as safety Louis Delmas, who battled injuries all season, did after Sunday's loss.

"I just think we got a little too comfortable with last year's playoff (trip)," said Delmas, among the more notable pending free agents.

It was publicly hinted at and suggested at various times this fall, but this team would've been better served by players shouting it for everyone to hear long before now. When asked Sunday how — or when — he saw that uncomfortable attitude setting in, Delmas replied, "When we started going down the drain — 4-10 or 4-and-whatever — that's when I started noticing."

Of course, by then it was too late. And as a result, this season's history, leaving everyone wondering what the future holds.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, left, and coach Jim Schwartz exchange a handshake before Sunday's loss to the Bears. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News