Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is a hardcore hard-rock fan who often lets his followers know what he's listening to on the way to work every day via his Twitter account. And given his musical fanaticism, the import of this fact would not be lost on him. The last time the Lions won a playoff game, it was January 5, 1992. Nirvana's "Nevermind," the album credited with bringing an entirely new wave of music to the mainstream, debuted as the #1 album on the Billboard Album Charts just one week later.
At that time, Schwartz was the linebackers coach at Colgate, and he was just one year away from a three-year stint with the Cleveland Browns and then-head coach Bill Belichick. Working for Belichick gave Schwartz his first real concept of what it would take to manufacture NFL success, but few coaches would have been up the challenge Schwartz faced when he was hired in early 2009 to coach a Lions team that had gone 0-16 the year before. It was the end of a hellish seven-year stint in which Matt Millen proved himself to be the worst personnel executive in his history of sports, and the team Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew inherited had few key cogs left. However, through shrewd drafting and the addition of important free agents, the Lions have rebuilt as drastically as the music business did after Nirvana hit the scene.
When the Lions beat the San Diego Chargers, 38-10 at Ford Field on Saturday, it insured a set of unlikely events so soon after the franchise's darkest hour — the first 10-win season since 1995, the first playoff berth since 1997, and a chance to play in the season finale for a home playoff game. For Schwartz, who had been through his share of controversy this season, the result was a pure validation of his approach to team-building. Just getting to the dance is not good enough.
"There's going to come a time when we don't celebrate going to the playoffs or getting into the playoffs, but that's not going to be tonight," Schwartz said after Saturday's game. "It's been a long time coming and obviously it's something that we haven't done as an organization for a long time. Especially to do it at home in front of a great home crowd on Christmas Eve. My kids have that little application to find out where Santa is — he was at Ford Field tonight."
Schwartz took time to slap hands with the fans after the win, a welcome reward to the faithful for all the down years. "Unless something really strange happens, it's probably the last home game that we're going to play this year. So our crowd's made a big difference. We've said a lot about how they don't just go to the games, they participate in the games. I'd like a few less waves when our offense has the ball when we're holding the lead and we don't want to get any penalties, but our crowd's been great and they deserve to celebrate it and that's why we stayed out."
The aggressive attitude that got Schwartz in a tiff with Jim Harbaugh earlier this season, and has had defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in all kinds of trouble with the NFL, was seen ina more positive light on the Lions' first offensive play — quarterback Matt Stafford hit receiver Calvin Johnson deep right for a 46-yard gain, and the Detroit offense was off to the races. When the team's rushing attack faded (as it's done through much of the season), offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's turned to his secret weapon, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and used different passing concepts to maneuver the ball down the field when the Chargers were playing the pass.
"We've done that sometimes this year," Schwartz said of the play. "Haven't connected on them or sometimes the coverage dictated that we didn't throw the ball, but they gave us a good coverage for it, we had a good play called and we were aggressive with our play calling the whole game. We've got a good quarterback; we put it on him. When you've got a chance to go to the playoffs and you're at home, you need your quarterback to play good and Matt did. I'm sorry for all the people who want us to run the ball 40 times a game, but we're going to put the ball in No. 9's hands and he's going to make plays for us like he did today."
Stafford agreed. "Yeah that was our plan," he said. "You know, let's go out there, let's be aggressive on both sides of the ball—offense and defense—and Scott called a great game. When we had to check it down, guys made plays with it after they caught it, so (it was) a total team effort. Man, it was awesome."
That "awesomeness" transferred to a defense that shut down Philip Rivers and the San Diego aerial attack — defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had warned earlier in the week of the challenges brought by receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates. And though Gates set a team record for career receptions in the game, the Jackson-Gates combo managed just six catches on 13 targets for 80 yards combined.
But it was the sometimes hidden diversity of the Detroit offense that was the story of this game, and that's a factor that makes the Lions a very dangerous playoff team. Stafford talked about the depth of the playcalling, and the fact that this offense is about far more than just throwing the ball in Johnson's area and waiting for the jump ball to happen. The Lions aren't quite the Patriots or Packers, but when everything is rolling, they do present a formidable set of targets to any defense.
"Every time we got into the red zone they would double either Calvin/Nate [Burleson], Calvin/Pettigrew, Calvin/Titus [Young], and guys with the one-on-ones won the match-up," Stafford said. "Pettigrew did a great job, really all game—had an awesome game—was getting open for me when they were trying to take away the outside really the whole game. [Pettigrew] ran a great route, threw a ball down there, made a tough catch, and that started us off. That was a third down, we get three there, you never know. We got seven and really got the crowd into the game, made it tough on them, and really jumped ahead early which is what we needed to do."
The final regular-season challenge comes against the NFL champion Packers, and there's no question that the Lions will be playing for a potential five-seed in the NFC, Such thoughts would have been inconceivable in recent years, and hope has been dormant for this team for so long. Now, as Schwartz intimated, the idea is to expect more than arrival to the elite.
As one of the new franchise pieces, Stafford is both celebrating the new success and reflecting on the journey. "It's been a long road, that's for sure. For me personally, for our team, for everybody involved. [There are] a lot of mentally tough people in that locker room—a lot of people (that) have been through a lot of hard times to get to this point and you know, I'm just happy to be a part of it and glad I got to share it with the guys in the locker room there. They're a great bunch of guys and it's just fun to be a part of."
Was this to be expected? "I knew we were going to put the work in," Stafford said. "I knew we had the people with the right mindset [and] dedication to get it done. We weren't happy where we were a couple years ago and from the front office down—getting great players in here, guys buying into the system that the coaches have, and guys going out and executing and believing in each other, it takes everybody and we were able to do it. Hopefully I'll be standing in front of a podium for a couple more weeks now. So, I think we're excited about making the playoffs and I think, more so than that, just the opportunities that can come from that."
Stranger things have happened, and we've seen more unlikely entrants at the top of this and other fields. Who would have thought that a band from Aberdeen, Washington would ever have the top album in the country?