Anyone who has spoken to Jim Schwartz is likely to come away thinking one thing: He’s a pretty smart guy.
Georgetown educated. Handpicked by Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher. Schwartz was one of the first NFL coaches to dig deep into computer technology and statistical analysis before it became baseline study for teams.
And the Lions knew this when they hired Schwartz in 2009, as part of a crazy offseason coach-hiring frenzy that included big names such as Josh McDaniels, Todd Haley, Rex Ryan, Mike Singletary and Steve Spagnuolo. Only Ryan and Schwartz remain head coaches of the 11 head men hired that year, and Ryan enters a very important season for his future in New York.
Meanwhile, Schwartz is locked in — another sign of just how smart he is.
There was a very interesting (and perhaps a little contrarian) piece written by MLive.com’s Anwar S. Richardson a few weeks ago that suggested Schwartz might have been best suited to wait to sign a new deal, that he was the rare coach heading into the final year of his contract with some real, true leverage.
The Lions are young, and the Lions are talented. They had a 10-6 record and probably were unlucky to draw the white-hot Saints and have to play them in New Orleans in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They enter 2012 as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Richardson’s argument is that Schwartz could have cashed in with a deep run in the playoffs and perhaps a return trip to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. And maybe he gave up a few bucks now by signing his contract extension, which was announced late last week.
But Schwartz did the right thing. For several reasons.
First of all, he has a great thing going in Detroit. By most measures, this team should be good for the foreseeable future. The franchise QB turns 25 a few days after the Super Bowl. The best receiver on the planet turns 27 in late September. The defense features impact players at every level and a potentially dominant line.
The NFC North might be a gauntlet, but better-tested teams tend to be better prepared come playoff time. The Giants last year emerged from the rugged NFC East. The Packers in 2010 had to best the division-rival Bears in the NFC title game to get to the Super Bowl. The Saints had two competitive teams in the division when they won in 2009. If the Lions are going to win it all, they will have to face off against the best and beat them squarely. Schwartz knows this.
But he also knows how much insurance means in the NFL. A week ago, I wrote about the relative comfort level of all 32 head coaches, from least to most, and Schwartz ranked ninth, just behind Gary Kubiak, in terms of being most secure. The fact that Schwartz was heading into the final year of his deal left some tangible doubt, even if everyone knew he’d be back no matter what.
Today, he would be even higher on that list, probably in the top three. Really, you could make the case he’s the most secure coach in the league currently based on the extension, although he certainly wouldn’t want to test that with a repeat of 0-16 from the year before he arrived in Detroit.
The point is that Schwartz is a bird-in-the-hand kind of guy. For a 46-year-old head coach who easily could get washed up in his own ego with the success he has had recently, this was a surprisingly deft, measured and (naturally) intelligent move.
If the Lions win a Super Bowl, Schwartz will cash in with his next contract. He’ll sit on Detroit’s shoulders for the next decade. He can have his endorsements and all that, any country-club membership or first-pitch assignment he wants.
But right now, Schwartz knows he has plenty to prove.
Hard to believe, but his record is still only 18-30 as a head coach. The Lions were in a pretty deep hole when he arrived, and eight victories in two seasons will sully your record a bit, fairly or not.
That’s the thing about losing, too: The collateral damage is quite unfair. If Schwartz and the Lions go out and lay an egg this season — missing the playoffs would qualify — people would question the coach. All of a sudden that record, still double-digit games below .500, would come up. And had he not signed the contract extension last week, Schwartz’s price would have dropped some.
Is there any real worry that the Lions could stumble this season after their meteoric rise from two to six to 10 victories? Well, yeah.
When they were bad last season, they were really bad. They had exactly zero wins over teams with winning records. Against playoff teams, they were 1-6, including multiple losses to the Packers and Saints.
Worse yet, the Lions didn’t appear to be a mentally strong team at times. Tough and physical, yes — but the confidence shown in late-game turnarounds early in the season against the Vikings and Cowboys faded thereafter. They rebounded from back-to-back home setbacks against the 49ers and Falcons but became mentally unglued in losses at Chicago and New Orleans and for everyone to see on Thanksgiving at home to the Packers.
I don’t think Schwartz signed his new contract — which probably pays him quite fairly; he’s notoriously secretive about the details — with the idea that his young team is going to disappoint this season. But I do think he considered the possibility. This might be the kind of club that needs to fall, a la the 2011 Eagles, before it can climb to greater heights.
It’s a win-win. The Lions keep their talented, erudite coach. The fans are happy. Schwartz is well paid. And if the team doesn’t live up to expectations this season, there will be no talk about the coach’s status going forward and the window will remain wide open for playoff runs in 2013 and beyond.
As far as everyone is concerned, it was the smartest thing he could do now.