I want to start this post off with the fact that I really like Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. I've met him a couple times at scouting combines, and I have always found him to be a genuine guy with a total devotion to the game. I also know that he's a serious student of advanced stats as they apply to football. The holder of a degree in economics from Georgetown, Schwartz is a longtime fan of the Football Outsiders website, a site I contributed to for six years. In each of the last few issues of the annual Football Outsiders Almanac, you'd see his testimonial on the back cover: "The most accurate insight into why teams really win and lose."
And as a lifetime fan of the more aggressive kinds of music, I was even more sold on Schwartz when I discovered through his Twitter account that he frequently listens to Pantera on his way to work. Anybody who subscribes to the wisdom of the Cowboys From Hell is all right in my book.
However, with his team seeming to fall apart around him this year, more focus is being put on Schwartz's own responsibility to turn certain situations around, and I'm finding it more difficult to excuse his seeming inability to point the finger where it belongs — in his own direction. When defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is suspended for two weeks after stomping on an opponent in a Thanksgiving game, and then gets in a car accident (which he then reportedly lies about) … and then when the Lions, one of the most-penalized teams in the NFL this year, fall apart completely in front of a national audience in a 31-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints … well, Schwartz is going to have to understand that the questions about how he's implementing authority will be coming harder and faster with every incident.
On Monday, Schwartz likely didn't win many converts to his idea of what's really going on at Lions HQ. Asked what he has to do to address overall discipline as the overseer of the team on a daily basis, Schwartz talked about different kinds of discipline.
"You can look at two different ways," he said. "One is a lack of focus discipline. If a team continually jumps offside or is making mistakes that are unforced errors, you know, pre-snap penalties. I don't think that is us at all. Up until this game, I don't know where everyone else is in the league, but we had one in the opener with Gosder Cherilus, which we addressed. Obviously, last week's [Suh's penalty] was addressed from a team standpoint but also from a league standpoint. We didn't wait until after the game with this one, either.
"Obviously, everything on the field is a reflection of the organization. It's a reflection of the head coach, it's a reflection of all the coaches and reflections of the players. That's not a presentation we want. It's something that puts the team in a bad position. Selfish play won't be tolerated."
But will it? When asked about receiver Nate Burleson's multiple offensive pass interference calls in the Saints game, Schwartz stopped short of taking responsibility for what is becoming a bit of an epidemic issue with the team. "I think one of them was a very good call," he said of the penalties against Burleson. "There were two others that I have seen not get called a bunch of times. We're not here to talk about officiating or do anything other than take responsibility for what we did. You can't get those penalties, but one of them in particular was poor technique by him and it's going to get called every single time."
The Lions have embraced a culture of toughness and intimidation on the field — it's one of the reasons for their impressive turnaround as a franchise. But what happens when the mindset is endorsed too often, too regularly, and all of a sudden, you have some sort of "thugishness" endorsed by proxy? All of a sudden, Bob Costas and Tony Dungy are railing at you from their pulpits, and you've got a target on your back from every officiating crew in the league. How does that get started, and how is it stopped? Schwartz didn't seem to have any easy answers.
"There are things that are going to happen in the course of a game. You're going to get a clip or a hold or one of those things. I don't see those things — I see those things happening because a guy is out of position or is in a physical mismatch or one of those kind of things. It has nothing to do with discipline.
"I think that we've been much improved when it comes to our pre-snap penalties. But these post-snap, particularly the last two weeks, we had one in the opener, we addressed it, and we went a pretty long time without them. The other thing is, we haven't had any player that's got more than one of these, you know. We had Gosder, we had Suh, we had the three guys this week. There haven't been repeat offenders, but as a team, we've been repeat — we've had five this year and that's way too many."
Too many, indeed. Per Football Outsiders' penalty database through Week 12, the Lions rank fifth in the NFL in accepted penalties with 84, behind the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions racked up four unnecessary roughness calls through the first 12 weeks (half as many as the Raiders and Tennessee Titans), but they have been among the league leaders in roughing the passer and face mask calls.
However, before we accept the narrative without question, remember that the Lions had just one unsportsmanlike conduct call and one general personal foul call all season before the Saints game threw everything out of whack. That doesn't absolve Schwartz of his responsibility in the matter, but it could also be true that in the need to create an easy and neat tale, the Lions' specific penalty issues have been slightly overblown.
"In every game there's going to be ups and downs; there's going to be things that happen over the course of the game that you have to put behind you, you have to address, you have to move on from and you have to find a way to win that game. For seven games this year, we've done that," Schwartz said. "For five, we haven't.
"We have four left to go and we need to make sure that, in those games that, if we're not ahead in the score, it's not because of something we did, it's something that our opponents did. This is the National Football League; there's outstanding players on both sides of the football. Every opponent has outstanding players. There are opponents that are going to make plays. What we need to make sure is that we make our plays and that we also don't negate our plays with penalties."
Step one is to insure that he's the man in charge at all times. For Schwartz at this point in his career, and with this specific team, that's really "the most accurate insight into why teams really win and lose."