After going 4-12, the Detroit Lions need to make changes to their coaching staff for 2013. While "Plan A" would be for a head coaching change, that is far from the only option the Lions have.
The status of the Detroit Lions coaching staff has become a hot topic the last couple months. As losses have piled up, so too has frustration with head coach Jim Schwartz and his coordinators. I've hinted at my desire for changes to be made as of late, but I opted to wait until the end of the season to take a clear-cut stance. While I've pretty clearly been leaning in a certain direction, I wanted to see the entire season play out before making a final conclusion one way or another.
Now that the season is over and I've seen what's happened over the course of the last 16 games, I feel comfortable in saying that I do think changes need to be made. Just how drastic should those changes be? This is where I feel like my assessment will disagree with what the Lions ultimately end up doing.
If it were up to me, I would change head coaches. I realize that Schwartz took the Lions to the playoffs just last season, and I realize that I was fully on board with giving him an extension just last summer. However, 2012 seems like more than a simple step back. This season has taught us just how hard it is to sustain success and make it to the playoffs in consecutive seasons in the NFL, and even before the season I didn't think the Lions would return to the postseason in 2012. I expected some form of a step back, but never did I think we would see the Lions revert back to their old ways quite like this. This was more than a simple setback; this was a complete collapse.
While my desire for a coaching change ultimately stems from the Lions finishing the season with eight consecutive losses and a 4-12 record, it's more complicated than that. It's based more on how the Lions managed to go on such a long losing streak. Perhaps the most frustrating part was that it wasn't just one specific problem consistently dragging the Lions down. It was a team-wide failure all season long. It seemed like whenever the offense was clicking, the defense couldn't come up with a stop, and whenever the defense was playing dominant football, the offense couldn't move the chains. Throw in an occasional special teams gaffe and you have a recipe for losing more often than not despite keeping most games competitive.
On the one hand, the fact that the Lions were competitive in most games suggests that they weren't as bad as their record. Along the same lines, it does need to be said that injuries and bad luck occupy some of the blame for the Lions going 4-12. Not having Jahvid Best at all and losing Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley, Bill Bentley, Jacob Lacey and Amari Spievey to season-ending injuries were tough blows to the Lions. It was also an unfortunate situation to have Titus Young morph into the world's worst teammate midway through the season.
On the other hand, the Lions were far from the only team to deal with injuries and bad luck. The fact that they couldn't overcome adversity speaks to a larger issue with the team and the coaching. Throughout the season the Lions seemed to lack an ability to adapt, and perhaps that is because there is a certain stubbornness from Schwartz and others. Just look at Stefan Logan not being benched until Week 17. It took him taking a knee at the 4-yard line on a free kick for Schwartz to realize what fans had concluded months ago -- that Logan wasn't getting the job done.
This stubbornness goes along with the notion that there is a lack of accountability and discipline with the players. I still don't buy that Schwartz could have prevented the stupidity that was displayed by a select group of players away from the team last offseason. However, perhaps there should have been a stronger reaction internally to those and other incidents, especially with Young after he allegedly sucker-punched Louis Delmas during workouts. That was a sign of real trouble, and although Young seemed to get things turned around after returning from a one-week ban from the team's facility, he reverted back to his old ways during the season. The fact that Young still got one more chance after allegedly trying to sabotage the offense makes it seem like the Lions still weren't tightening the leash enough, especially when he managed to blow that chance as well.
The other giant caveat with the injury and off-field issues is that the Lions just haven't been doing a good job of drafting players. They have taken a lot of risks on guys with red flags (for character and injuries), and they seem to be backfiring more often than not. Also, the fact that the Lions haven't been able to plug in new guys when injuries arise speaks to a general lack of talent across the roster. The Lions returned most of the same contributing cast from their playoff run in 2011, but their flaws were really exposed in 2012. Coaches certainly play a part in drafting, but Martin Mayhew and company deserve part of the blame as well.
So what was so much different from 2011 to 2012? Throughout the season, perhaps the most common mantra from the coaches was that it's up to the players to execute. It's certainly a fair point. It is up to the players to hold up their end of the bargain by executing, and there were many moments during the season where untimely turnovers, dropped passes and other sloppy mistakes could have been prevented by simply executing. The flip side, of course, is that it's ultimately the coaches' responsibility to get the players to execute. If the talent isn't there, it's not as simple as simply benching guys who don't execute, but eventually the lack of execution is on the coaches and what they're doing. If the same problems persist throughout the entire season, perhaps there is an issue with the teaching rather than simply the players.
Record aside, perhaps the biggest concern 2012 brought to the surface is the notion that the Lions have already hit their ceiling under Schwartz. In other words, you might get occasional playoff appearances, but there will be down seasons in between. Sure, you could say 2012 was a flukey season, but what about 2011? It's starting to feel like that was just as flukey and that the Lions are just an average team under this coaching staff. I just don't see signs that the Lions will compete for division titles or become an elite team. I've mentioned this before, but it really does remind me of Michigan basketball under Tommy Amaker. He took over a mess and got Michigan back to respectability, but his inability to get them to make that next jump as a program ultimately cost him his job. It's just starting to feel like the Lions aren't going to make that next leap with Schwartz at the helm.
Of course, firing Schwartz doesn't mean the Lions' problems are all magically solved. It's not that simple. You have to actually go out and replace him with someone who is capable of taking the Lions to that next level. You can throw names like Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden out there, but that doesn't mean they will come to Detroit. The reality is that fans go into most coaching searches with expectations that are far too high. While the Lions would likely target proven winners, the risk of striking out and having to settle is a real possibility. I do think the pieces are in place for the Lions to attract a top coach, but that doesn't mean they would actually land one. It really comes down to whether you think the risk is worth starting fresh, and I do believe it is since this doesn't have the feel of a complete rebuild like in years past.
While I think a change should be made at head coach, I'm fully aware that one is unlikely given Schwartz's contract. Even so, I still think changes can and should be made elsewhere on the coaching staff. The time has come for new voices, and don't take this as me calling for change for the sake of change. Think of it as a chance to retool without completely blowing up the operation. This takes me to another Michigan basketball analogy. A few years ago, Michigan followed up its first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade by having a below-.500 season marred by chemistry issues and a lack of leadership. In response, head coach John Beilein brought in a new set of assistants. In the first season after these changes, Michigan returned to the NCAA tournament. In the second season, Michigan won its first Big Ten title since the 1980s. Now, in the third season, Michigan is undefeated and ranked second in the country.
This is really my compromise with the Lions. I would prefer a new head coach, but I'm willing to give Schwartz another chance if changes are made elsewhere. This would show an ability to mix things up and an openness to change that we haven't really seen before with this regime. While my desire is greater for larger changes, I do see some potential for this to be salvaged with Schwartz remaining head coach. He needs to change who he has surrounded himself with, though. I just can't accept everybody from a 4-12 season returning.
Either way, 2013 will be a make or break season for Schwartz if he does indeed return. One playoff appearance can only buy you so much time in the NFL, especially when you follow it up with a 4-12 season. Schwartz should be commended for taking the Lions to the playoffs just three years after they went 0-16, but now he has to show that he can take them to that next level -- one where 4-12 seasons are truly a distant memory and the Lions compete for playoff appearances and division titles on a yearly basis. Occasional playoff appearances certainly beat the alternative we grew to know during the Matt Millen era, even with seasons like this mixed in, but we shouldn't let the past continue to lower our standards going forward. The Lions should strive for more than that. While that may be easier said than done, I do think there is some real potential with this team. What I'm now far less sure of after this season is whether Schwartz has the ability to actually get the Lions to realize their potential.