December 30, 2013 at 1:28 pm

John Niyo

Lions' Schwartz awaits fate on NFL's Black Monday

Minneapolis — Jim Schwartz cited “unfinished business” as the reason he wants to return for a sixth season as the Lions’ head coach.

His bosses, if they’re so inclined, probably will point to the same thing as the reason not to bring him back.

Either way, Black Monday — as the day after the regular season has come to be known in the NFL — figures to be a dark and dreary one in Allen Park, where changes are expected — and soon. The only question is how extensive they’ll be in the wake of a hugely disappointing 7-9 finish, capped by another blown fourth-quarter lead against the Vikings in the final game at the Metrodome.

Because while the future was in doubt late Sunday afternoon, there was no arguing the present felt a lot like the Lions’ shameful past. In fact, five years to the day after Rod Marinelli was fired following this franchise’s historic 0-16 debacle, Dominic Raiola, one of two roster holdovers from that winless team, admitted this 2013 crash landing felt worse.

“Yeah, of course,” Raiola said after the 14-13 loss to the Vikings — the Lions’ sixth defeat in seven games after seizing the NFC North lead with a 6-3 start. “Everything that needed to happen, or that could’ve gone our way, went our way. And we did not take advantage of those opportunities.”

Assuming the Ford family feels similarly — and all indications are it’ll be vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. calling the shots this time, not 88-year-old owner William Clay Ford Sr. — it’s hard to imagine a justification for bringing Schwartz back, that eight-figure contract buyout notwithstanding.

“I know the way this business is — we all do,” said Schwartz, whose overall record fell to 29-52 with a fourth losing season in five years in Detroit. “But we can’t worry about decisions that we don’t make. We’ve got to try our very best week in and week out. And if we do, then we can accept any decision that’s made.

“But I’d certainly like to be back. I think we have unfinished business here. We’ve come a long way in these years here, but we still have some ground that we can make. And I’m anxious to have a chance to be able to do that.”

Given the chance to say why he felt he deserved that chance, Schwartz politely declined, saying, “If I have to do that, I wouldn’t do that publicly. I think I’d do that privately.”

And when I asked him if he thought he’d get that chance, either later Sunday night or early today, Schwartz admitted he didn’t know.

“Right now,” he said, “I don’t have any direction on that.”

Another collapse

But what direction are the Lions headed under Schwartz? That’s a question that’s easier to answer after this year’s collapse seemingly validated the one that preceded it.

The Lions lost eight straight to finish the 2012 season, months after the Lions handed Schwartz a three-year extension. Then they inexplicably lost six of their final seven in 2013 — despite holding fourth-quarter leads in each game — to fumble away the NFC North title while Green Bay and Chicago were immobilized by injuries, including both teams’ starting quarterbacks.

How bad was it? The Packers went 0-4-1 in the month of November, yet they still won the division with an 8-7-1 record after beating the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.

So who pays the price for that in Detroit?

Surely, it needs to be more than just the offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, who was destined to take the fall for quarterback Matthew Stafford’s confounding play down the stretch.

And while nothing is ever certain with this franchise, it’s no stretch to wonder if the tab won’t run a little higher.

Is general manager Martin Mayhew’s job safe? Or will there be wholesale changes, including a front-office restructuring?

Because for all the talk about the Lions’ talent upgrade the past couple of seasons, glaring personnel issues remain. And if the stated plan five years ago was centered on continuity and a single-minded focus, here we were Sunday with the NFL Network reporting “some serious dysfunction” in Allen Park.

Unfinished business? I’ll say.

Lions president Tom Lewand declined to comment on any of the speculation prior to Sunday’s game, for what it’s worth.

But the bottom line with Schwartz has to be the bottom line. Lions haven’t won a game in December since they clinched their playoff berth on Christmas Eve in 2011. And while there’s no denying the enormity of the rebuilding project he inherited five years ago, there’s also no denying this: The Lions were 14-26 in Schwartz’s first 40 games in Detroit, and they’re 15-26 in the 41 games since, including that lone playoff loss.

Viewed in those terms, they’ve gone from embarrassing to, what, irrelevant? At the start of Sunday, 13 of the 16 NFL games on the schedule carried playoff implications. The Lions-Vikings tilt was not one of them, despite the fact the visiting team held the NFC North lead from early November through mid-December.

And it’s that reality, more than anything else — whether it’s Schwartz’s abrasive management style or his team’s past disciplinary issues or the fans’ obvious discontent — that should seal the coach’s fate.

“Obviously, we didn’t win enough games this year,” Schwartz said. “And there’s no standard really to judge other than that. And I understand that, in this business.”

In this business, if you leave something undone, you’re finished. The Lions proved that as a team this season. Now all that’s left is to see whether it’ll be their coach’s undoing, too.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Lions head coach Jim Schwartz jogs off the field after the game. Detroit lost 14-13 to Minnesota, dropping Schwartz's record to 29-51 as Lions coach. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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