Retaining Jim Schwartz would be rare exercise of patience in NFL

USA TODAY Sports

If the Detroit Lions decide to bring back Jim Schwartz for a fifth season, they would be exercising patience not often seen in today's NFL.

In the National Football League, patience is uncommon. With so much money on the line and so much pressure from fans to win, most coaches don't have a very long shelf life. Owners rarely give coaches more than a few years to turn a team around, and they don't hesitate to make a change at the first sign of trouble. You can be on top of the world one year and out of a job the next.

With all of the talk about how Jim Schwartz very well may find himself in this situation, I started to wonder this past weekend about just how rare it is for a head coach to actually make it to a fifth season with the same team. Further, I started to wonder about just how rare it is for a head coach with a decidedly losing record to see a fifth season with the same team.

With this in mind, I decided to go back and look at every head coach in the NFL who started a new tenure since 1990. (If somebody came into 1990 as a head coach, that tenure wasn't considered. I had to establish a cut line or I would have had to go back to the 1970s.) While the game is always changing, I figured 1990 was a good spot to begin this study about how many coaches actually make it to a fifth season. Also, I figured it would provide enough data to show just how rare it is for coaches with a losing record to make it to year No. 5.

Immediately, I discovered that, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of coaches don't make it beyond four years with their team. Actually, many don't even make it that long. Especially in the last decade, patience has become rare for coaches trying to turn around a losing team, and intolerance of any kind of losing has taken over the NFL. Again, this isn't surprising one bit, but it's pretty remarkable that there have only been 45 coaching tenures of more than four seasons going back to 1990.

After sorting all of the coaching tenures of more than four seasons, I recorded the record each coach had in his first four years, along with how many Super Bowls his team appeared in, how many playoff appearances his team made and how many titles he won in his first four years. Also, I took a look at what happened after the first four seasons of each coach's tenure. This is what I found (with what Schwartz has done through almost four complete seasons included for reference):

Coach Team First 4 years Wins in first 4 Losses/ties in first 4 Super Bowls in first 4
Titles in first 4
Playoffs in first 4 What happened after first 4?
David Shula Bengals 1992-1995 18 46 0 0 0 Fired in 1996 (1-6 after)
Jim Schwartz Lions 2009-2012 22 40 0 0 1 To be determined
Vince Tobin Cardinals 1996-1999 26 38 0 0 1 Fired in 2000 (2-5 after)
Norv Turner Redskins 1994-1997 26 37-1 0 0 0 Fired in 2000 (23-22 after)
Dick Jauron Bears 1999-2002 28 36 0 0 1 Fired after 2003 (7-9 after)
Dan Reeves Falcons 1997-2000 30 34 1 0 1 Fired in 2003 (19-25-1 after)
Bill Belichick Browns 1991-1994 31 33 0 0 1 Fired after 1995 (5-11 after)
Gary Kubiak Texans 2006-2009 31 33 0 0 0 Still head coach (28-18 since)
Mike Holmgren Seahawks 1999-2002 31 33 0 0 1 Retired after 2008 (55-41 after)
Jeff Fisher Oilers/Titans 1995-1998 31 33 0 0 0 Fired after 2010 (110-82 after)
Ken Whisenhunt Cardinals 2007-2010 32 32 1 0 2 Still head coach (13-17 since)
Dave Wannstedt Bears 1993-1996 32 32 0 0 1 Fired after 1998 (8-24 after)
Marty Schottenheimer Chargers 2002-2005 33 31 0 0 1 Fired after 2006 (14-2 after)
Jack Del Rio Jaguars 2003-2006 34 30 0 0 1 Fired in 2011 (34-41 after)
Dick Vermeil Chiefs 2001-2004 34 30 0 0 1 Retired after 2005 (10-6 after)
Jim Haslett Saints 2000-2003 34 30 0 0 1 Fired after 2005 (11-21 after)
Marvin Lewis Bengals 2003-2006 35 29 0 0 1 Still head coach (42-51-1 since)
Tom Coughlin Jaguars 1995-1998 35 29 0 0 3 Fired after 2002 (33-31 after)
Tom Coughlin Giants 2004-2007 35 29 1 1 3 Still head coach (47-31 since)
Herm Edwards Jets 2001-2004 35 29 0 0 3 Left for Chiefs after 2005 (4-12 after)
Steve Mariucci 49ers 1997-2000 35 29 0 0 2 Fired after 2002 (22-10 after)
Tony Dungy Buccaneers 1996-1999 35 29 0 0 2 Fired after 2001 (19-13 after)
Jon Gruden Buccaneers 2002-2005 35 29 1 1 2 Fired after 2008 (22-26 after)
John Fox Panthers 2002-2005 36 28 1 0 2 Contract not renewed after 2010 (37-43 after)
Lovie Smith Bears 2004-2007 36 28 1 0 2 Still head coach (43-35 since)
Brad Childress Vikings 2006-2009 36 28 0 0 2 Fired in 2010 (3-7 after)
Brian Billick Ravens 1999-2002 37 27 1 1 2 Fired after 2007 (43-37 after)
Jim Fassel Giants 1997-2000 37 26-1 1 0 2 Fired after 2003 (21-27 after)
Mike Holmgren Packers 1992-1995 38 26 0 0 3 Resigned after 1998 (37-18 after)
Mike McCarthy Packers 2006-2009 38 26 0 0 2 Still head coach (35-11 since)
Dennis Green Vikings 1992-1995 38 26 0 0 3 Fired in 2001 (59-36 after)
Sean Payton Saints 2006-2009 38 26 1 1 2 Suspended (24-8 since)
Bill Belichick Patriots 2000-2003 39 25 2 2 2 Still head coach (110-32 since)
Andy Reid Eagles 1999-2002 39 25 0 0 3 Still head coach (91-66-1 since)
Bobby Ross Chargers 1992-1995 39 25 1 0 3 Left for Lions after 1996 (8-8 after)
Dave Wannstedt Dolphins 2000-2003 41 23 0 0 2 Resigned in 2004 (1-8 after)
Norv Turner Chargers 2007-2010 41 23 0 0 3 Still head coach (13-17 since)
Jack Pardee Oilers 1990-1993 42 22 0 0 4 Resigned in 1994 (1-9 after)
Mike Smith Falcons 2008-2011 43 21 0 0 3 Still head coach (12-2 since)
Mike Sherman Packers 2000-2003 43 21 0 0 3 Fired after 2005 (14-18 after)
Bill Cowher Steelers 1992-1995 43 21 1 0 4 Retired after 2006 (106-69-1 after)
Mike Tomlin Steelers 2007-2010 43 21 2 1 3 Still head coach (19-11 since)
Mike Martz Rams 2000-2003 43 21 1 0 3 Fired after 2005 (10-11 after)
John Harbaugh Ravens 2008-2011 44 20 0 0 4 Still head coach (9-5 since)
Mike Shanahan Broncos 1995-1998 47 17 2 2 3 Fired after 2008 (91-69 after)
Tony Dungy Colts 2002-2005 48 16 0 0 4 Retired after 2008 (37-11 after)

As you can see by the above table, which is sorted by fewest to most wins in a coach's first four seasons, only one coach with more losses than Schwartz saw a fifth season. That was David Shula, who made it to a fifth season with the Bengals despite going 5-11, 3-13, 3-13 and 7-9 in his first four seasons. He was fired in 1996 after starting 1-6.

To provide a better comparison, perhaps we should look at Vince Tobin. He went 7-9 and 4-12 in his first two seasons in Arizona before leading the Cardinals to the playoffs with a 9-7 record in his third season. In year No. 4, Tobin's Cardinals took a step back with a 6-10 record, and he was fired after a 2-5 start in his fifth season.

Amazingly, of all the coaches who made it to a fifth season despite tallying fewer than 30 wins in their first four seasons with a team, only Norv Turner survived to see a sixth season. The rest were either fired midway through their fifth season or at the conclusion of their fifth season. The Redskins, which are now known for having little patience with head coaches, didn't fire Turner until his seventh season. Interestingly, they fired him when the Redskins were 7-6.

So what does this all mean for Schwartz and the Lions? If he isn't fired, he will have the second-fewest wins of any head coach going into his fifth season with a team since 1990. In other words, based strictly on his record, the Lions would be exercising patience not often seen in today's NFL by bringing Schwartz back. While he did take the Lions to the playoffs last season, he has racked up a lot of losses in four seasons as head coach.

With all that said, there are some caveats. For starters, it's important to remember that Schwartz entered a very unique situation when he took over the Lions in 2009. They were coming off of the worst season (0-16) in NFL history, so it's not like there was an expectation for a lot of wins early in his tenure. What's more, Schwartz was without Matthew Stafford for large chunks of his first two seasons because of injuries. That also greatly contributed to Schwartz's ugly 8-24 record through two seasons. Even if the Lions had gone 14-2 this season, Schwartz still would have only hit .500 for his career record as a head coach.

While there are a lot of similarities between certain coaching tenures, none are exactly the same. In each situation, there are different circumstances, as evidenced by Schwartz taking over a team that went 0-16. That had never happened before, and the circumstances have changed again with the Lions following up that dramatic turnaround with a down season this year.

What I'm trying to say is that numbers don't tell the whole story, and I don't mean that as someone who favors a fifth year for Schwartz or as someone who thinks he should be fired. I'll save my thoughts on that for another time. For now, my main point is simply that it's not often you see a coach get to a fifth season with a record like Schwartz's. Whether the Lions choose to look to 2011 as a reason to keep Schwartz around or look to 2012 as a reason to fire him remains to be seen. All we know right now is that if you go by the numbers, it would be a rare move for patience if the Lions do opt to go into a fifth year of the Schwartz era in Detroit.

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