ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Helmets were being slammed against the locker room floor. Equipment was being kicked, dressing stalls were being whacked and colorful language was flying through the air.
Then there were the other members of the Detroit Lions who were too stunned to even take off their pads. Rather than react, they sat in silence as if waiting long enough might cause the bad dream to end.
Just minutes before, a victory over the Chicago Bears had been snatched when what appeared to nearly everyone to be a final-minute, go-ahead touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson(notes) was ruled, by the letter of the NFL law, to be an incomplete pass. That the refs were correct didn’t ease the frustration.
The Lions have won two games in two-plus seasons. A victory in Chicago would’ve been their first road win since Oct. 28, 2007 – when they beat the Bears. A team that felt they might turn the corner this year had already seen their star quarterback, Matthew Stafford(notes), suffer a shoulder injury. Desperate for victory, they wound up suffering a brutal, 19-14 loss.
This was a gut-punch of a season opener.
Into this angry locker room walked coach Jim Schwartz. He’s now just 2-15 as a head man. He’s just 44 years old, lacking both the age and championship track record that command automatic respect. He admits an affinity for hard rock and fast food. He calls Queensryche's “Operation: Mindcrime” album "a masterpiece." He isn’t much older than some of the veterans.
And now he was dealing with a nightmare for a coach of any experience. Here was a franchise with a culture of failure and now a locker room that was teetering after a bizarre defeat. Coaches dream of giving rousing halftime speeches, not this.
“Hey, listen, stop what you’re doing,” Schwartz said, according to the accounts and memories of multiple Lions players.
The room went silent. Schwartz stood in the middle of his team. The coach is always selective with his words, the players say. He doesn’t talk for the sake of talking, which they appreciate. As a result, he never sounds canned. They believe that he believes whatever he’s saying, which isn’t always the case in the NFL.
“If anyone talks to the media and blames this loss on the catch, it’s really a coward’s way out,” he said, according to the players. “We had a chance to put the game away and we didn’t.”
He repeated the main point.
“Blaming it on the catch is a coward’s way out.”
With that perfect, "man up" speech and its loaded language, the Lions began to put the infuriating day behind them. They weren’t happy. They were still upset. They didn’t complain though. They weren’t cowards.
They instead focused on Schwartz’s mantra of taking responsibility for the mistakes that allowed the game to be close in the first place. They were on board with the concept that the measure of this team would be how they reacted to the disappointment.
“I can almost guarantee if he went in there and spazzed in the locker room and said, ‘I’m going to contact the NFL. I’m going to reach out to those refs. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they know they made a mistake.’ We would’ve probably followed suit and showed our immaturity,” Burleson said. “Some coaches would’ve gone the opposite route. Some coaches would’ve said nothing.
“That is what creates a new era around here,” Burleson continued. “[It’s] about guys not looking for an excuse or someone to blame. You take on the responsibility of what’s going on and the circumstances that surround you. We know that if we would’ve taken advantage of certain things in the game at certain times, we could’ve won that game.”
Whether Schwartz’s speech can lead to Detroit victories remains to be seen. In the best of times this is still, of course, a work in progress. Having backup Shaun Hill(notes) replace Stafford when the Philadelphia Eagles visit Sunday isn’t anyone's idea of the best of times. Schwartz offered no word on how long Stafford may be out.
That said, from this worst case loss a positive emerged. The Lions were, after all, good enough to have won a divisional road game despite losing Stafford in the first half. When you're mired in a 2-30 stretch, that means something. Their defensive line is formidable. There’s young talent dotting the roster.
And in Schwartz, they may just have the kind of coach who understands how to make this team at least think like a contender.
Throughout the locker room, players commended their coach on righting the ship, demanding better and refocusing everyone’s attention.
Raiola is in his 10th season with the Lions, long enough to have seen virtually every calamity imaginable. The catch/not-a-catch call was new, yet familiar. It’s always been something with this team. It’s not a reach to say entire seasons have been lost over less.
Schwartz preferred to focus on what can still be won. Half the league, after all, is 0-1. He pointed to Cincinnati’s opening game a year ago, when a would-be, game-clinching Bengals interception turned into a bumbling deflected pass that Denver’s Brandon Stokley(notes) caught and raced 87 yards the other way for the game-winning, final-second touchdown.
“I don’t know if you could’ve had a better example,” Schwartz said. “Cincinnati rebounded and went on to win their division. I mean, it’s a heart-breaking loss. But that one play didn’t change the way they had played on any of the other snaps.”
So in the wake of a tough call that set off a national debate on the validity of the rule, the Lions had nary a gripe. If nothing else, they’re following their young coach.
“We’re moving on,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
They won’t be cowards. They won’t, they promise, let one loss cause another. Schwartz said it’s over. How does he know?
“Because you guys [the media] are the only guys who are bringing it up,” he said. “There’s a reason they call it the 24-hour rule. And I’ve probably spoken too much on it right now.”
And with that he went silent.