Lions' Jim Schwartz has tough case in proving his team isn't 'soft'


That's a four-letter word in football, a slander that carries a lingering stain. You don't want your team labeled as soft during the preseason, let alone during the stretch drive of a playoff run.

Yet that's the word applied to the Detroit Lions on Sunday – by two of their own players.

A week before the biggest game of their season – a Monday night tilt against the Ravens – DeAndre Levy and Louis Delmas called the Lions' play last weekend against the Eagles "soft."

What's more troubling is how coach Jim Schwartz reacted to the term.

The Lions fell apart in the second half on Sunday in the snow, blowing a 14-0 lead late in the third quarter to lose in a 34-20 runaway. Levy was blunt afterward.

"It's not fun to lose and go out there and play soft," the linebacker said. "We just played like crap in the second half."

Levy said the Lions were "mentally and physically soft" Sunday, when several inches of snow piled on the field throughout the game and players huddled by heaters on the sideline.

Delmas, another team leader, seconded it:

"I totally agree with him. For a defense to go in the first half and not even give up [100] yards and then have the running back lead the game with 217 yards, setting a record, we definitely played soft. Softer than we've ever played before."

That word should set off alarms for a team that has lost three of its last four games. Schwartz, however, took issue with it.

"Players can characterize it any way they want, but when you say that word [soft] it becomes sort of an inflammatory word," he said. "I think you look over the course of the season with us and I think that we are a big, tough and physical team."

This is the heart of the problem with Schwartz. He has built a team that is physically tough but prone to bouts of mental lapses. That's what Levy was saying: physically and mentally soft. The Lions have been mentally soft on too many occasions since Schwartz took over in 2009. That distinction seems lost on Schwartz in this case and in general. And that's why a highly talented team is now on the brink of a collapse that could cost Schwartz his job.

The Lions have been soft for the better part of a century. Detroit hasn't won its division since 1993, nine years before the NFC North came into existence. The team has been so historically awful that Tom Brady has played in more postseason games (24) than all of the Lions teams combined have played since 1930 (18). In the last half-century, there have been four postseason games played in Michigan, and half of them have been Super Bowls played by other teams. In a league designed to promote parity (hello, resurgent Kansas City Chiefs and rebuilt Carolina Panthers), those are astounding feats of futility.

Schwartz was feted after he got his first win as a head coach not because of the personal accomplishment, but because the Lions had been the worst team in NFL history (0-16 in 2008) leading up to his hire. So a December with a clear shot at a division title is a rare occurrence in the D.

Now Schwartz and his team are fumbling that clear shot away. A 6-3 record after a season sweep of the Bears is now a 7-6 metaphor for mediocrity. Over the last four weeks, Detroit has a league-worst minus-11 turnover differential. They are literally giving away the division to the Bears and Packers, who have lost their franchise quarterbacks to injury.

All three of the most recent losses – which includes at Pittsburgh and home to Tampa Bay – came after Detroit held fourth-quarter leads.

Unforced errors have been as much a hallmark of the Schwartz era as the building of a ferocious front four, and this season is another sterling example. The Lions have a franchise player in Ndamukong Suh who is both highly disruptive to quarterbacks and so out of favor with referees that he seems to draw flags even when he hasn't done anything obviously wrong. Schwartz's inability to create consistent discipline grows more ominous by the week. Even in Detroit's easy Thanksgiving Day win against the Packers, it looked as if the Lions were playing against themselves rather than the visitors. It's hard to look back at the last five years and pinpoint a key win in which Schwartz made a game-saving decision. He's 29-48 in Detroit, and even in his 10-6 season, the Lions were 4-4 after the bye.

All that said, it's impossible not to see the upward trajectory of the franchise. Getting an appearance on "Monday Night Football" was an accomplishment in itself before Schwartz arrived. This was a rare Thanksgiving when we didn't hear about how the Lions don't deserve the holiday showcase anymore. Even if the Lions get back into the playoffs this month, that will mean two out of three postseason appearances for the first time since 1997-99. And a division title? There have been three of those banners in Detroit since 1957.

The difference has been in the drafting. The first four picks of the Schwartz regime in 2009 were Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Delmas and Levy. All four are now major contributors (despite Pettigrew's tendency for drops). The next year brought Suh, Jahvid Best (who had to retire due to concussions) and Willie Young in the seventh round. The next two first-round picks were Nick Fairley and offensive lineman Riley Reiff. And this year's draft looks strong so far, with Ziggy Anseh, Darius Slay, Larry Warford, Devin Taylor and Sam Martin all contributing. Detroit has also added Glover Quin and Rashean Mathis as free-agent pickups for a weak secondary and Reggie Bush to give new life to the running game.

That bounty, ironically, is now putting extra pressure on Schwartz. It's general manager Martin Mayhew who has been a revelation (at least by Lions standards) and it is Schwartz who has yet to transform the team into an NFL power. The Lions are playing beneath their potential, while other teams like, well, the Ravens, cobble together winning seasons with less talent and more resilience. It's time for the Lions to show that kind of resilience.

Next week's Monday night game matters in a way that December games haven't mattered in Detroit in a long time. The difference between 8-6 and 7-7 is enormous.

Kind of like the difference between physically tough and mentally soft.