EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jim Schwartz’s aggressive tendencies helped turn the Detroit Lions from the laughingstock of the NFL into a playoff team in three years after becoming the team’s coach in 2009 following Detroit’s infamous 0-16 season.
That aggressiveness had been heralded in pulling a team out of a playoff drought that had spanned 12 seasons. The Lions went 10-6 last year, earning a wild-card spot in the NFC and prompting nearly unprecedented optimism in Detroit heading into this season.
But a season that held so much promise has been derailed so far, in part because of Schwartz’s aggressiveness.
Looking back on Sunday’s craze-filled 44-41 overtime loss at Tennessee, Schwartz knows he might have gotten a little too fancy when he had his offense line up for a fourth-down play in overtime trying to draw the Titans offside. In field-goal range, where longtime veteran Jason Hanson could have extended the game, the Lions lined up and miscommunication caused center Dominic Raiola to unexpectedly snap the ball. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill tried to dive forward for the one yard needed, and Tennessee won because of the botched try.
“I think as a coach I was probably a little too aggressive there,” Schwartz said Wednesday during a teleconference with Minnesota media, later adding: “From a coaching standpoint, it’s my job to weigh the risk and reward of everything. Something that I thought had no risk, just attempting to draw them off if we get a penalty, fine, we’ll move back and the ball is still down there tight and we can kick a field goal. But, the reward was significant. Unfortunately, so was the risk and something that we didn’t anticipate. I need to do a better job in those situations of weighing the risk and reward, and we need to be able to execute that play better.”
The play has exemplified Detroit’s strange season.
During last week’s loss, the Lions lost their starting quarterback and punter and trailed Tennessee by 14 points with just 19 seconds left. But Hill — playing for an injured Matthew Stafford — connected with Calvin Johnson for a touchdown. Detroit then recovered an onside kick. A Titans’ interception could have ended the game but was negated by a personal foul, and Hill followed with a Hail Mary tipped by a Tennessee player into the hands of Lions receiver Titus Young forced overtime.
In overtime, Tennessee had the first possession and kicked a field goal, aided in part by a missed spot on a personal foul against Detroit in which the replacement officials marked off 27 yards that helped set up the eventual game-winning field goal. On the Lions’ possession, with a chance to keep the game going, the missed fourth-down play was the end of the line.
Now, heading into Sunday’s game with the surprising 2-1 Minnesota Vikings, Detroit isn’t sure if Stafford’s injury will allow him to play. Punter Ben Graham was lost for the season and Hanson had to punt three times in last week’s loss.
“Going through the ups and downs of any particular year and having good success as well as some turmoil, it’s always going to make you stronger and give you a better perspective that the NFL’s a long season” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said Wednesday. “And you really want to be playing your best football toward the end of the season. As you’ve seen, a lot of the past Super Bowl teams have not started out the greatest in the beginning of the year but played extremely well and good football at the end of the year when it counts the most.”
Detroit’s hope is it can follow the same pattern after a disappointing start. The Lions own the league’s second-ranked offense and are 15th in defense. But they’ve been burned by big plays, such as Sunday when Tennessee scored five touchdowns of 60-plus yards. Detroit gave up a 61- and 71-yard touchdown passes, the longer one coming after the ball went off the back of Lions cornerback Jacob Lacey. The Titans added touchdowns on a 65-yard punt return, a 105-yard kickoff return and a 72-yard fumble return in which Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew simply had the ball ripped out of his hands.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lions were the first team in league history to allow five touchdowns of 60-plus yards in a game.
But Detroit believes it’s been through enough in the past year-plus to prepare it for the highs — such as winning the season opener with a go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left — and lows of this season. Including last year’s playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Lions are 6-9 in their past 15 games dating back to a 5-0 start last year.
“We have a little bit of experience from last year, in sort of the ebb and flow of a season,” Schwartz said. “We started off 5-0. We lost a couple in a row. We had to battle our way to the end. So, we understand what this league is about. Getting guys attention, on Monday or on a Wednesday, to get ready for the game play, particularly when you have an NFC opponent that is 2-1 and coming off a big win like the Vikings did.”
Detroit isn’t panicking after a couple of tough losses. A win Sunday would certainly change the outlook. And Schwartz will be ready to be aggressive to help the Lions dig out of another hole.
“There are a lot of highs and lows in a season,” Schwartz said. “There’s win streaks. There’s lose streaks, there’s everything else. The thing you need to concentrate on is improving, putting mistakes behind you and moving on. And I think that the good teams, over the course of 16 games, can do that. Teams that don’t respond well are the teams that let something from the week before, two weeks before, carry over into the next week.”