After years of comic futility under the ham-fisted hand of Matt Millen, the new-look Detroit Lions are the belles of the NFL ball. They're one of three undefeated teams left in the NFL, and their point differential of +55 is the league's highest. Three outstanding drafts led by general manager Martin Mayhew — Millen's replacement in 2009 — and head coach Jim Schwartz have given the team legitimate long-term stars like quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and running back Jahvid Best. In addition, smart dealing has netted the team veteran help from defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and guard Rob Sims.
It's as far away from the 0-16 Lions team of 2008 as could possibly be. But Schwartz, who has a degree in economics from Georgetown and listens to heavy metal on his way to Ford Field, recently warned the Lions' faithful that there's more to look forward to than an undefeated start through three games.
"Our biggest win hasn't come yet," Schwartz said on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Lions came back from a 20-point deficit at halftime to beat the reeling Minnesota Vikings, 26-23, and become the first Lions team to start 3-0 since 1980. "It was a division game, so that is important. It is a road game, so that is important. So I always go on and on about how they all count the same but road counts a little bit different. It is tough winning on the road in the NFL and the Metrodome is a very, very difficult place to play with the crowd noise — and then a division opponent. When you get a win you are always putting a loss on one of your division opponents.
"I think I said a while ago and this maybe goes back a couple years, we don't need to have tickertape parades over regular season wins and I think I still feel that way."
Clearly, Schwartz has bought into the common perception that his Lions are a team with playoff potential; in fact, he's leading that bandwagon, which is why regular-season wins fall under the category of "small stuff." And on the surface, it's clear to see that the team has the talent to make a playoff run.
Suh is an unstoppable force who might be the best defensive player in the game. When Stafford is healthy, he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL — right now, he's just under 1,000 passing yards for the season (977), he's completing 66.9 percent of his passes, and he's got nine touchdown passes to just two interceptions. Calvin Johnson, Stafford's primary target and one of the rare gems of the Millen administration, is as uncoverable as any receiver out there, which the Vikings found out with authority.
Still, with all those stars, Schwartz has to look at the big picture, and the problems that persist from years before. Veteran left tackle Jeff Backus had a rough game against Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, the secondary is still a question mark, the rushing attack isn't always consistently on point, and this young team is still learning to play together all the time.
Primarily, he was annoyed by the fact that the Vikings were able to pitch a shutout in the first half.
"We didn't start the way we needed to, the way that we should," Schwartz said. "We played poorly on offense, defense and special teams in the first-half and had a hard time getting things going. But as poorly as we played in the first, we played well in the second, maybe except for our punt and kick coverage. We started getting defensive stops. We were more active around the quarterback. We started moving the football and then we started scoring. You could feel us get momentum in that game. You could feel things start sort of going our way; getting key third-down stops. I don't think we allowed a third-down conversion in the second half. I think those things were all key in getting that game tied and then making it to overtime."
Backus was set up by Allen on one sack — he started to head back in pass protection, and Allen turned inside for the quarterback takedown. It was a bad moment for a player who's been a fairly consistent point of criticism from fans over the last few years.
Schwartz wasn't taking the bait.
"I think the one time that was probably disappointing for Jeff was that last series: two false starts and then the allowed sack. The rest of the time he is playing against a really good player (Allen) and he was battling. Our quarterback got hit seven times in the game — five sacks. And I think maybe two of those were Jeff. He gets a lot of attention because he is a left tackle and things like that. Your objective is you are an offensive lineman; you never want to get the quarterback hit. Jeff's been through an awful lot of playing experience and he takes a lot of pride in his play. In general terms from the whole offensive line, Jeff can play better and he will play better."
It's a delicate balance when you're learning to win for the first time in over a decade — you have veterans who are used to that futility and new players doing everything they can to add to the negative history. Schwartz seems to strike a good balance between making sure he doesn't throw individual players under the bus, and letting everyone know that the positional units can always play better. Then, it's also about compensating for those units that are inconsistent.
For example, the running game against the Vikings. Best led the team with 14 yards on 12 carries, so it was up to another Mayhew/Schwartz draft product — tight end Brandon Pettigrew — to provide production in ways that the Detroit ground attack could not.
"Brandon was probably … the best way to put it is he was our run game. What we did starting the second quarter is we were adjusting every series. We started spreading them out a little bit more and they were short, controlled passes. He had 11 receptions and none of them … one that was down the seam for a big gainer. Most of the other ones were ball-control plays and that was sort of our run game. The way that they were playing, the way that they were rushing up front and the way their front four — and even front seven — were playing, we needed that. Brandon played very well. Coming off a shoulder injury last week, blocked very well, caught the ball very well, and I don't know that we get in position to win the game without Brandon Pettigrew."
In reality, the Lions thought they had a solution to a running game that was losing power battles at the line of scrimmage in the person of second-round power back Mikel Leshoure from Illinois. But Leshoure suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in early August and was lost for the season.
"Probably our biggest problem in the run-game was taking lost yardage plays," Schwartz said of the Minnesota game. "I think we had 9 lost yards in the run game and that puts you behind the eight-ball. Usually you're running the ball on first down and you're thinking, 'OK, it's going to be second-down-and-7 or second-down-and-8 at the worst.' You're sort of making progress and you're moving. We had too many times we were second-and-13 — some of those things. Jahvid had a couple really good runs, but the lost yardage plays kind of take away and the average doesn't look as good.
"I thought his best run of the day was the one with about a minute to play, when we were close to taking a safety at the end of regulation. He had nothing at the point of attack, bounced it outside, broke a tackle, got the ball out to about the 2- or 3-yard line. Really, really good run. It goes unnoticed in a game like this, but a safety at that point, not a good way for that game to go."
There is better news from a draft perspective, and it comes just in time for the Lions' trip to Cowboys Stadium this week. First-round pick Nick Fairley, the dominant Auburn defensive tackle, is finally ready to participate in individual drills after fracturing his foot on Aug. 1. Putting Fairley next to Suh, if the Lions are able to do so, against Dallas' patchwork offensive line could put Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in harm's way in a way he's never experienced before.
The Lions as the intimidators? The Lions as the bullies? It's a new and exciting feeling for the Motor City.
And for Jim Schwartz, it's not nearly enough.