Jim Schwartz stood patiently at the back of the small press-conference room in a Mobile, Ala., hotel at the Senior Bowl last month, where he was coaching the North team, ready to deliver his final media address before the game. At his side, wrapped in brown protective paper, was a painting by a local artist from nearby Fairhope, Ala., a piece he had picked up during a short layover between the practice and this early-evening meeting.
The painting depicted a pastoral scene, with two dogs in the hunt amid a thicket of trees and woods, eying a far-off prize that is out of sight of the frame. It's something that Schwartz, whose Lions took baby steps in his first season as head coach, likely can relate to after a 2-14 season that saw them fall to the one-win Rams and one that closed with six straight losses.
"I've been coming here for 17 years," he said to a small group of reporters taking note of the latest addition to his collection. "I know all the places to hit around here."
It's easy to forget that the Lions' second-year head coach has been in the NFL that long as an assistant coach, scout and now head coach. He appears young and is young at 43, still in relatively good shape (compared to some of his brethren, to be sure), and is known as a coach who understands and promotes the use of technology and new-wave statistical analysis, which some of his colleagues have yet to embrace fully.
So when Schwartz sends what appears to be a mixed message about his team after last year's performance, you have to keep in mind that he's doing this for a very specific reason. He knows what he's doing when ...
On the one hand, he's quick to pan his team's performance last season.
"We're a 2-14 team," Schwartz said. We have a lot of needs, and our No. 1 need is talent. ... We need to do better than that. I think if we point to anything other than wins as far as grading ourselves, we're looking at the wrong thing. And we've got a long way to go."
But on the flip side, don't you dare question his core of guys, QB Matthew Stafford being chief among them. When asked about Stafford needing to improve his accuracy after a 53 percent and 20-INT rookie season, Schwartz immediately took umbrage and went on the defensive.
"I think he's a very accurate passer," Schwartz said. "With the number of deep passes he was asked to throw, his (completion percentage) is going to be a little lower. We love his toughness, his arm strength and his accuracy. We have no issues with his accuracy."
The same goes for first-round TE Brandon Pettigrew, a player Schwartz clearly loves. Mention Pettigrew's occasional struggles as a rookie, a season that ended with an ACL tear, and Schwartz just might go after your ACL.
"I don't think there are many players who are going to come in and be consistent right away, but I thought he was on his way to an outstanding year," Schwartz said. "So, we weren't disappointed at all in him."
There's a difference, however, between what Schwartz is saying and what an insecure second-year head coach somewhere else might do. What people are starting to realize is the wisdom behind the defense of his young players, especially Stafford.
Schwartz might have been in Detroit for only a year now, but he has been around the league long enough to know the team's history. For years, rumors would spread quickly that the coaching staff (whichever one was in power) was not supporting the quarterback (whichever one was throwing passes), and the team would crumble thusly.
Schwartz won't let that happen on his watch. He has the most important piece in place with his team, even if a dozen other spots must be seriously upgraded. At his end-of-the-season address, Schwartz said the team needed to support Stafford better, which is a not-so-subtle way of saying that as bad as the defense was last season, the Lions are not in a position to load up on that one side of the ball. There are tons of needs on offense, too. In fact, the Lions' top needs haven't changed: Last year, their top need, both Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew said, was talent, and it remains that way.
"We need another draft like last year's," said Schwartz, who noted the strong play by rookies such as S Louis Delmas, although the coach also threw Pettigrew and other rookies into the discussion, players who have talent but need to improve.
"I think the bar was set high with the production of a lot of our other rookies," Schwartz said. "Stafford started right away in Game One, Pettigrew was on his way to a really outstanding season, (LB DeAndre) Levy had an outstanding season ...
"Louis Delmas ... I can't think of adjectives to describe how good I think he is. I just know this: There were a lot of guys we liked that were drafted in the first round last year, and I don't know very many that if that team called up and said, 'One for one, we'll trade (our guy) for Delmas, that we'd make that trade. He's got the attitude that we want. He's the multidimensional player we want, all these different things."
But more than simply paying lip service, Schwartz's defense of Stafford and the young group of players who are becoming "his guys" appears so forceful, so genuine, that you know the coach believes in his kids, especially his QB. Stafford might not be there yet, but you get the idea that Schwartz would stake his job on him becoming one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL at some point.
"He was put in a tough situation, and he handled it beautifully," Schwartz said.
As for the coach and his own self-assessment, he's not into dishing out grades.
"It has nothing to do with me, it's the team," Schwartz said. "I leave my grades to all you guys (in the media). I never graded myself because I am too hard a grader. I am never satisfied with where we are. You're motivated by that fact."
Anyone who saw him at the end of the season knew how hard things were going down the stretch. He blew up after the 48-3 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore, Schwartz's hometown, in which the Lions were not competitive from the opening snap. He got snippy at times with the media and, when talking of his team, often repeated the phrase: "We know what our issues are."
Translation: The talent stunk.
But a bit of rest at season's end and the Senior Bowl assignment appeared to light a mini-fire under the coach. After all, 17 years in the NFL or not, almost no second-year head coach can burn out after one tough season. He's already knee-deep in offseason activities, gearing up for free agency and the draft.
Schwartz also rediscovered his sense of humor, which contains a bit of an edge. It's not quite smartest-guy-in-the-room variety, but it has an air of sarcasm that complements his scholarly-cum-blue-collar personality. And whoever said there's no such thing as a dumb question hadn't heard this gem: "Coach, would you care to give us a little preview of (the following day's Senior Bowl) walk-through?"
"Well," Schwartz said and then paused, thinking quietly for a moment. "You're going to see a bunch of guys moving around slightly faster than I am now," he said, standing perfectly still.
That pause did not exist when he was asked about Stafford or Pettigrew or Delmas. Schwartz knew what he was going to say to anyone who questioned "his guys." There was no delay, no sarcasm. When it comes to defending what he believes in, you are not going to get any of that. You'll get his quickly hardened belief: that there is something to believe in with the Lions.
It remains a distant goal, still out of both reach and view for now, like whatever those dogs were hunting in that painting. But, as Schwartz has adopted as his go-to saying with Stafford, "if you have a quarterback, you have a chance."
And the Lions, believe it or not, have a chance.
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