Five years ago, when the Detroit Lions completed the first and only 0-16 season in NFL history, it was hard to imagine a situation where they would even be competing for a playoff spot in the next few years. However, with Martin Mayhew in charge as the general manager and Jim Schwartz leading the way as the head coach, the Lions didn't just compete for a playoff spot, they actually made the playoffs just three years later as a 10-6 team.
After being eliminated by the New Orleans Saints in their first trip to the playoffs in a long, long time, it was hard to imagine a situation where this team would fall flat on its face in each of the next two seasons. The talent seemed to be in place, and the Lions finally seemed to have a coaching staff ready to take this franchise to the next level -- a level where being in the playoffs was the norm and not a rarity.
The Lions were not able to take that next step, unfortunately. They had an embarrassing offseason filled with arrests and then had an even more embarrassing season on the field by going 4-12. They lost all eight of their games in the second half of the 2012 season, and they ended up back in the top five of the NFL Draft as a result. It was more of the same for the Lions, and their trip to the playoffs was starting to look like a fluke rather than a sign of things to come.
Despite how awful 2012 was, the Lions kept the main parts of their coaching staff in place going into 2013. There were minor changes involving certain assistants, but Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham all returned. The Lions went on a bit of a spending spree in free agency, adding key players like Reggie Bush and Glover Quin, and they put together an outstanding draft and an outstanding group of undrafted free agents. With the Lions getting to 6-3 after a big road win in Chicago, and with Aaron Rodgers going down with a collarbone injury, it looked like the stars were aligning for Detroit's first division title in two decades.
Fast forward to now and instead of a division title, a home playoff game and a spot in the playoffs, the Lions are now 7-8 and eliminated from playoff contention. Since winning in Chicago, the Lions are a dismal 1-5, and they blew fourth-quarter leads in all five of those losses. Quite simply, they have collapsed in the second half of the season for the second year in a row, and this collapse is even worse than last year considering they basically had the NFC North handed to them. Between Rodgers' injury and all of the injuries in Chicago, the NFC North was there for the taking, but the Lions basically did everything they could to give it away. Even after their Monday night disaster they still had a chance to be in control of their own destiny in the NFC North title race with the Green Bay Packers losing at home and the Chicago Bears getting blown out in Philadelphia this week, but they couldn't beat a terrible New York Giants team at Ford Field.
At this point, it's clear that the Lions are not going to take that next step under Jim Schwartz. Actually, that's not accurate. At this point, it's clear that the Lions are not going to even get back to the level of play we saw in 2011 when they actually made the playoffs. That trip to the postseason was a fluke and not a sign of things to come, after all. An 8-24 record in Schwartz's first two seasons was the true sign of things to come, as evidenced by the Lions' 11-20 record in his last two seasons. Forget about becoming a perennial playoff contender; under Schwartz, simply finishing with a record above .500 on a regular basis is apparently too much to ask.
I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to write this column, and back when the Lions were 6-3 and leading the NFC North, I didn't think it would be necessary, especially before Week 16 was even over. Based on all of the things that went right in the NFC North for the Lions, the division should have been wrapped up by Week 16. Instead, thanks to a countless number of turnovers and an inability to finish games down the stretch, the Lions aren't even alive in the NFC North title race at this point.
Of course, Schwartz doesn't deserve all of the blame for the Lions being in this position. Certain players were especially awful in the second half of the season, including Matthew Stafford. And some of the game plans from Scott Linehan, for example, didn't seem to put the Lions in the best position to win. As a whole, the offense came up flat in the second half of the season, and the defense's inability to create turnovers on a regular basis put the Lions in a difficult position.
However, at the end of the day, the responsibility for this type of a collapse goes back to the head coach. Some may view this as Schwartz taking the fall for the mistakes of others, and some may even think he is the scapegoat here. But this is year No. 5 of his tenure we're talking about. By now, mistakes that were prevalent years ago should no longer be an issue, both for him and his players. It's true that he isn't the one out there fumbling or throwing interceptions, but this goes beyond a boneheaded play here or there by his players. The Lions' culture of losing still exists. It looked like he was going to change that after the 2011 season, but the last two years have shown that he hasn't.
To make a long story short, Schwartz now has a career record of 29-50 as head coach of the Lions. Even if you want to discount the first two years of the rebuild, Schwartz's record is only 21-26. That's simply not good enough, especially with the way the Lions folded down the stretch this season. On paper, the Lions seemingly have the talent to compete with the very best in the NFL. The problem is that far too often, they play down to their competition and are unable to put together four consistent quarters of good football. Fair or not, that's on the head coach for continually letting it happen, and that's the main reason why it's time for the Lions to fire Jim Schwartz. He's had more than enough time to change the culture surrounding this team, and he's had more than enough time to show us that he can sustain success as head coach of the Lions. At this point, it's clear that he failed with the former, and it's clear that the latter is not going to happen. Quite simply, it's time for a change, and it's time for someone else to get a chance to coach this team.
I don't care if the Lions fire Schwartz tonight or wait until after the regular season is over, but there's no sense in keeping him around for a sixth season. He's run out of chances to prove that he deserves another year as head coach, and there's just no point in seeing if things will finally change for the better in 2014. The best thing for this franchise is to thank Schwartz for his time, pay him for the final two years on his contract and hire someone else to lead the Lions going into the 2014 season.
As Lions fans cope with another disappointing season, we'll soothe ourselves with the refrain that there's always next year. However, for the Jim Schwartz era in Detroit, there should be no next year. It's time for Schwartz and the Lions to go their separate ways.