July 26, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions' Jim Schwartz knows job is at stake if team falters

Allen Park — Jim Schwartz studies numbers and appreciates how important they are. So surely he recognizes the daunting figures as he enters his fifth season as Lions coach.

He’s 22-42 here, and if he doesn’t show drastic improvement, his job is in jeopardy. No one has said that publicly, and nobody has declared a playoffs-or-bust mandate. But Schwartz is a smart guy who knows how the league works. His Inheritance Tax — taking over the worst team in football — has expired, and it’s completely fair to demand more now.

That’s the harsh reality as the Lions open training camp today. The good news is, Schwartz sounds like he has the means (and the players) to fight back.

“I’m the most confident I’ve been in my four years here as a head coach,” Schwartz said Thursday. “We’re confident in our players, we’re confident in our system. Everybody’s optimistic right now, all 32 coaches, but I think the thing that’s different with us is, we have tangible reasons to be optimistic — some of the players we got back from injury, some of the players we added, some of the lessons we learned.”

If a losing season was all about learning lessons, the Lions would be the smartest team in football. Schwartz admitted to being humbled by the 4-12 collapse last season, and if you know him, that admission was approximately as painful as passing a kidney stone.

But this wasn’t a pained, defensive Schwartz lamenting last year’s off-field troubles and on-field woes. It was a laser-determined Schwartz, with less talk about long-term plans and more talk about what has to happen now, with a roster upgraded in key areas. His optimism starts with the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson combo and includes a productive offseason that landed free agents Reggie Bush, Glover Quin and Israel Idonije, and rookie pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah.

An important season

The Lions lost eight games last year by seven points or fewer, suggesting they’re not so far from their 10-6 playoff team. Schwartz isn’t dodging the importance of this season — his contract runs through 2015 — despite the Ford family’s renowned patience. Of the 10 NFL teams with the worst records last season, the Lions were the only one that didn’t dismiss their coach or front office.

“As coaches, we’re used to that kind of scrutiny,” Schwartz said. “It’s stuff that media and fans and other people talk about, but it doesn’t affect at all how we go about our daily business.”

For the ultra-confident Schwartz, 47, this is a glimpse at his own coaching mortality, perhaps symbolized by the increasing gray in his hair. Maybe he still hears the words of vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. earlier this year, when he offered conditional support.

“I think Jim would be the first to admit there have been times where he’s learned on the job,” Ford Jr. said. “But I think he’s a very, very good coach.”

The perception has been that Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew are linked because they took over at the same time (although Mayhew was in the organization under Matt Millen). Owner William Clay Ford Sr. has not publicly addressed job security, but Ford Jr. was very supportive of Mayhew. There also were national reports of a rift between Schwartz and Mayhew, brushed aside by both parties.

Defense must improve

A turnaround by the Lions looks possible but it’s unclear how dramatic it can be, especially with unproven players vying for three offensive line spots. The truth is, a bounce-back has to happen where Schwartz was supposed to make it happen — on defense. He built a sterling reputation in eight years as the Titans defensive coordinator, but in four seasons here, the Lions have finished 32nd, 21st, 23rd and 13th in yards allowed.

They lost their final eight games last season in every way imaginable, including the occasional coaching blunder, such as Schwartz’s infamous referee challenge that gave the Texans a touchdown. They also lost because their defense steadfastly refused to make big plays. In the playoff season of 2011, the Lions forced 34 turnovers and scored seven defensive touchdowns. Last season, they forced 17 turnovers and scored no defensive touchdowns.

That’s an astonishing dropoff, heaping the pressure on Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. They’ve picked up help — Quin was a prize, and could form a terrific tandem at safety if Louis Delmas ever stays healthy. Ndamukong Suh should rebound in a big way, and creates a fearsome twosome with Nick Fairley. Ansah was drafted not for the future, but to crack quarterbacks immediately.

The long-maligned secondary should be better, with Chris Houston and a batch of decent cornerbacks. The upgrades had better work, because the only way the Lions will win consistently is with a staunch defense. It was the reason Schwartz was brought here, and five years later, he’s chastened but not beaten.

“I think (last season) was humbling for me personally,” Schwartz said. “I think it was humbling for the team.”

I still think Schwartz could be a good coach, but the reasons for doubt have grown. Only a few numbers matter now, and he knows which ones.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, here talking with referees during the team's minicamp in June, is aware this is a pivotal season in his tenure. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News