Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Allen Park — So there you have it, Lions fans. Jim Schwartz accepts your apology.
Wait. Huh? What?
Oh, never mind. ’Tis the season, I suppose. Better to give than receive, and all that.
And besides, with the Lions’ season unofficially over now, following Sunday’s overtime loss to the New York Giants, there’s no sense debating how it all went wrong. At least not with a guy who simply refuses to admit he’s ever wrong.
Honestly, if this was Schwartz’s last Monday press conference as the Lions’ head coach — and it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t given the way this season has unraveled — it was just about perfect.
Schwartz parsed words, deflected blame, filibustered with flair and, in the end, offered no apology. At least not any genuine one.
Not for another year of unmet expectations from this football franchise. Not for failing to nail down Detroit’s first home playoff game in 20 years. (Forget contract buyouts. That’s an eight-figure loss right there.) And certainly not for indirectly cursing the fans who dared to express their disapproval when the Lions ran out the clock at the end of regulation Sunday.
In fact, near the end of his half-hour session Monday, it took five questions — “Just to be clear, no regrets?” I finally asked — to pry even a smirking acknowledgment that he “probably” shouldn’t have reacted the way he did.
“That would probably be — if you’re going to label it a regret — just don’t verbalize it, just keep it back in there,” he said, somewhere among more than 600 other rambling words.
Even for Jimmy Schwartz, the straight-A student who once fought the lone blemish on his report card — a ‘B’ in honors French as a sophomore — this was some Grade-A stuff. (By the way, he won, too, his father told me years ago, but “the teacher had left the school, so they wouldn’t change the grade.”)
“But it doesn’t make us think any less of them,” Schwartz said of the fans’ booing. “I certainly don’t think any less of them because of it.”
So no hard feelings, OK?
OK, but before everyone decides to go their separate ways here — “One Pride” for one more week, perhaps — whoever’s making the decisions now in Allen Park better heed the words of veteran receiver Nate Burleson from Sunday’s postgame locker room.
He, too, was speaking to the fans when he said, “Be careful what you ask for.” But he might as well have been speaking to ownership.
“I’ve seen teams blow things up from the inside, and the next year or two or few isn’t what they want — the organization or the fans,” Burleson said.
Trust me, this organization — and these fans — have seen it, too.
Schwartz, who carries a 29-50 overall record into Sunday’s season finale at Minnesota, is only the latest in a long line of head coaches — the 16th, including those with an interim tag — in William Clay Ford Sr.’s 50-year tenure as Lions owner.
That he has lasted this long — longer than all but two coaches (Monte Clark and Wayne Fontes) in the last 40 years in Detroit — speaks to the front office’s reluctance to go find another. Of the nine first-time head coaches hired or promoted by NFL teams in 2009, only Schwartz and Rex Ryan made it to a fifth season.
The Lions — like the New York Jets — probably feel compelled to make it a clean sweep now. But where the Fords go from here remains to be seen.
My hunch is they already have a pretty good idea. And if there’s a change — and assuming general manager Martin Mayhew isn’t packing his bags, too — I’d think the name of San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is near the top of the wish list.
He fits the obvious criteria for any Lions search, starting with the fact that he took the Arizona Cardinals — and Bidwills, the NFL’s other First Family of Football Futility — to a Super Bowl. (In fact, he did it the same year the Lions went 0-16.) And but for that team’s cap issues and quarterback misses in the draft, the Whiz — a former teammate of Mayhew’s with the Redskins — probably would still be there.
Instead, the well-respected offensive mind is in San Diego helping QB Philip Rivers flourish again.
And as everyone but Schwartz seems to admit, at least publicly, jump-starting Matthew Stafford’s stalled progression is crucial to getting the Lions where they want to go. (“I don’t think that he needs anything other than to keep playing,” Schwartz insisted Monday.)
A better perspective
If Schwartz goes, there certainly are plenty of others who’d make sense as a successor, from a former head coach like Lovie Smith to a coordinator like Cincinnati’s Jay Gruden or a college coach like Penn State’s Bill O’Brien.
But I thought of Whisenhunt on Sunday night as I watched Schwartz try to rationalize another of his juvenile sideline outbursts. It was just last December that Whisenhunt spoke to reporters in Detroit on a conference call, with his fate in Arizona all but sealed.
Apples to oranges, I know, but he was asked about the fan reaction he anticipated with the Lions coming to town and his team coming off its ninth consecutive loss — a 58-0 laugher in Seattle.
Boos? Sure, there were gonna be boos, he admitted.
“But that’s what this business, the NFL, is all about,” Whisenhunt said calmly. “As fans who pay money to support you, they certainly have their right to voice their opinion. We understand that.”
Four days later, all he heard were cheers, though, as his team demolished the Lions, 38-10, in one of the most embarrassing efforts of Schwartz’s tenure.
Life, as the saying goes, is a long lesson in humility. Coaching is, too.