December 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Chris McCosky

Jim Schwartz lifted Lions out of basement, but that's no longer enough

Coach Jim Schwartz brought the Lions out of the dark ages of the Matt Millen era. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park -- It’s probably too soon to offer a calm-headed, rational assessment of Jim Schwartz’s five seasons with the Lions. Nobody wants to hear it right now. The wounds from this latest collapse are still too raw. The only balm that can soothe this angry fan base are expressions of outrage, frustration and betrayal.

But at some point, hopefully, Lions nation will be able to see Schwartz’s tenure for what it truly has been — the first steps, however wobbly and faltering, out of the darkness. Schwartz, along with general manager Martin Mayhew, have accomplished the only realistic expectation he signed up for five years ago — changing the culture of this franchise. He gathered up the ashes left by the Matt Millen era and in three years had the Lions in the playoffs.

That he wasn’t able to sustain it is why he most likely will be fired after the season. But he has brought this team out of the abyss, took it from dismal to decent. He didn’t just give this franchise hope, he gave it legitimate expectations. We are so angry at this team today because we fully expected to finally see a playoff game at Ford Field, and the failure to do so has broken our hearts.

But I would submit the pain of failed expectation feels better than the numb emptiness of having no expectation at all.

Bringing stability

Schwartz was the right man for the job in 2009. He was young and brash, cocky enough not to be intimidated by the enormity of the task or easily discouraged through the early stages of building the program.

His steadfast belief in his methods, his system, his schemes, coupled with meticulous organizational skills and almost maniacal attention to detail were exactly what this franchise needed. He and Mayhew unwaveringly sought players who fit their system, even at the expense of passing on a more skilled player. They weren’t going to try to fit square pegs into round holes.

That, and being able to retain the offensive and defensive coordinators for the entire ride, allowed the Lions to establish a foundation and some stability with the roster. Mayhew’s draft record has been criticized, but over the five years he’s vastly upgraded the talent level of this team.

Schwartz and Mayhew took over a team that was 0-16, a team that changed systems and personnel seemingly every time the wind blew. And five years later the Lions are a team that was two wins from winning the NFC North.

That’s why Schwartz couldn’t get himself to say this season was failure. How can he look at how far this team has come and say it was a failure? This season ended in failure. For 31 teams, the season will end in failure.

But, big picture, was Schwartz’s tenure with the Lions a failure? That would be a harsh assessment.

Detroit has seen this before

As I said, Schwartz was the right guy in 2009. He was the guy to take this franchise from bad to good. He may not be, however, the right guy in 2014. He may not be the right coach to take them from good to great.

In many ways, Schwartz has done for the Lions what Rick Carlisle did for the Pistons in the early 2000s. Carlisle, like Schwartz, was a first-time coach and was criticized for being cocky and brash and for lacking certain professional protocols. Carlisle, like Schwartz, had a clear vision for how he wanted his team to play and was maniacally organized and prepared. Carlisle, like Schwartz, didn’t go out of his way to ingratiate himself with the media or with certain segments of the organization.

But, Carlisle changed the culture of the Pistons. From a collection of journeymen and castoffs he forged a competitive team on the verge of being a legitimate contender. He, like Schwartz did for the Lions, built the bridge that led the franchise out of the dark ages. But Carlisle wasn’t, in Joe Dumars’ opinion, the guy to get them to the renaissance.

Larry Brown, a veteran, proven, been-there-done-it-all coach, ended up being that guy.

The Lions should now be looking for their Larry Brown.

Carlisle went on to win a championship with the Mavericks, and as time has gone on, history looks upon his tenure with the Pistons in a softer light. Who knows what Schwartz’s future as a coach holds, but hopefully, his time here will also get the appreciation it deserves.

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