December 23, 2013 at 1:23 am

John Niyo

Parting words say it all for Lions' Jim Schwartz, fans

Reggie Bush fumbles away the ball during the second quarter. It was Bush's fourth fumble lost out of five fumbles this season, and the Giants cashed in with a touchdown. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Detroit — The Lions were halfway to the offseason — not the playoffs, but the offseason — when they decided to run out the clock.

Twice, as it turned out.

And for a group whose coaching mantra became “We ain’t scared” this season — right about the time the wheels started to come off this playoff-bound Ford product — this was hardly the kind of exit strategy most fans wanted to see.

The victory was still there for the taking, at least in theory, and so was the postseason. But having barely survived another blown fourth-quarter lead, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz wasn’t taking any chances.

In a vacuum, it probably made sense. Matthew Stafford afterward called it “the smart play.” And in his calmer moments as the Lions boss, Schwartz liked to talk about erring on the side of caution and about discretion being the better part of valor. And so on.

But in this moment, the Lions still had two timeouts left, and a desperate crowd of 60,000-plus inside Ford Field urging them to do something — anything — with 23 seconds on the clock. Safety Glover Quin had just rescued the flailing offense again, cradling an errant throw by Eli Manning at the 25-yard line.

But the first-down call was a running play. A handoff to third-stringer Theo Riddick, in fact. And it was clear Schwartz, in what might have been his final home game as head coach, was playing it safe.

“At that point, I liked our odds in overtime, as opposed to trying to take a chance,” he explained.

Getting fired up, or just fired?

What he didn’t like, however, was the crowd’s reaction.

The boos rained down again, just as they had when Stafford understandably took a knee with 4 seconds left at the end of an awful first-half showing. And then flipped the ball — underhand, of course — several yards over the head of the referee, in one of those slapstick moments the TV cameras often miss.

This time, though, the Fox crew caught Schwartz’s angry response, turning his head toward the stands and barking something that amateur lip readers seem to have had little trouble interpreting from their couches at home. Especially since he repeated it once more as the clock ran down.

Schwartz later admitted he “was disappointed to hear boos” and he didn’t deny using an expletive in his double-barrel outburst. (To be fair, he didn’t confirm it, either.) And his postgame explanation that he wasn’t yelling at the fans — the ones who’ve been calling for his job en masse in recent weeks — was about as believable as the Lions’ late-season collapse.

“I wasn’t addressing the crowd,” he said afterward. “I was just trying to get our team fired up. I mean, that’s a difficult situation. We’re getting ready to go to overtime to try to win the game. And we want our fans to support us — our fans have been great for us.

“But I thought the psyche of the team in that point, we needed to have that spark. We needed to feel like, ‘Hey, we’re going out here in overtime and we’re gonna go win it.’ And that’s the only thing I was doing there.”

Well, whatever he was doing, I’m guessing his superiors weren’t impressed. And if the on-field meltdowns from his team weren’t enough to seal his fate this season, another sideline tantrum from a coach whose five-year tenure has seen its share of disciplinary issues — including his own — probably won’t help a week from now when the season’s officially over.

I mean, it’s one thing to scream at the referees, and another to taunt an opposing coach (“Learn the rules, Harbaugh!”) or an opposing coach’s player (Dez Bryant). But most business owners frown on employees yelling at the paying customers. Especially when you’re giving them bad service to begin with.

Blame aplenty

I understand some of Schwartz’s frustration. And as much as everyone tries to pin this late-season collapse on the head coach, the danger there is that it absolves so many others of blame.

There’s the quarterback who lost his mojo and the front office that failed to give him the right targets, something Calvin Johnson’s injuries only amplified in the loss to the Giants.

There’s the defensive line that waited too long to make its presence felt — where was that second-half effort last week against Baltimore, or two weeks ago in Philadelphia? — and the injury-riddled secondary that couldn’t make a play when it was needed most.

There’s Reggie Bush fumbling again and getting benched, and the offensive line getting flagged for holding just when the chain gang was getting ready to move.

You want to know why the fans were booing? I mean, besides the 50-plus years of football futility from this franchise? Well, that’s why the fans were booing — all of it. And the fact the Lions were re-gifting another present they’d been handed, with Pittsburgh on its way to beating Green Bay to give Detroit’s playoff hopes a boost, only made it worse.

“I get it,” said Nate Burleson, the veteran receiver who was among several players saying after the game that Schwartz shouldn’t take the fall for this team’s shortcomings, which is neither surprising nor all that relevant.

“I’ve been playing long enough where I don’t get upset if the fans boo,” Burleson continued. “You pay for your ticket, you buy your jerseys, you have the right to go out there and show your emotions.

“But when the fans are booing that loudly for the home team, and you still have an opportunity to win the game, sometimes it comes out. I’ll be honest with you, I wanted to turn around and say something on more than one occasion.”

He paused, and I asked him, “But did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” Burleson replied, before quickly adding that he understood both sides of that argument.

That’s the problem, though. Coaches coach, players play, fans boo. And when the first two do their jobs well enough, they don’t have to worry about the third party. Or their employment status.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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