plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

>> 12.31.2013 black and white.

Five years and one day ago, I had to go to work.

The temperature was bone-chilling, the snow and ice encrusted everything. Ten soul-searing minutes of bitter cold and grunty sweat, chipping and chipping away at the entombed, lifeless husk of my car. In the frozen darkness, I cranked and cranked the engine of my brand-new Pontiac Vibe; the cold refused to let its little Toyota heart beat.

Finally, the engine turned over, and the radio blurted sports talk Lions angry.

When I got to work I signed up at, sliced open a vein, and bled onto the keyboard:

On this morning, the morning, the morning where the Lions are now officially the worst team in the history of professional football, I have never been more ashamed, despressed, dejected, and disgusted to be a Lions fan. And yet—I am suprised and pleased to discover that I am still a Lions fan. Despite the snow and wind and bitter, bitter cold, a little blue flame still dances and flickers on the ashes of what was once a roaring fire. So . . . now what?

"What" turned out to be the five most incredible years of my life. I saw my children grow from toddlers and infants to 'tweens and elementary-schoolers. My soul-searching became an unpaid part-time job, a hobby that consumed my lunch breaks and post-bedtime hours. My wife became my editor, counselor and career coach. My friends became my sounding boards, and tech consultants. Anyone who shared cider with all of us around the little blue flame became a comrade-in-arms.

The Lions in Winter became everything I'd wanted it to be, more quickly and more grandly than I'd ever dreamed possible. From the coaching search, to the draft, to The Watchtower and Three Cups Deep, to—of course—the Fireside Chats, the crowd that gathered around the blue bonfire swelled and cheered and roared and drank and high-fived and basked in the glory as the Lions went from 0-16 to 10-6 and the playoffs in just three seasons.

When Jim Schwartz assembled his Fellowship, there was cause for excitement and cause for concern. I was particularly revolted by the Linehan hire. When he actually started coaching his team, though, I immediately knew he was the perfect coach for the Lions at the perfect time.

Jim Schwartz embraced the City of Detroit in a way I didn't think possible. "We plan on being in Detroit for a while," Schwartz told Terry Foster. "When my kids grow up, I want them to tell people they are from Detroit." Whoever the Lions hire next won't say that.

Schwartz took his three top rookies—Matthew Stafford,  Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas—to the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant for a two-hour meet-and-greet with workers.

"The other day, Dominic Raiola talked about how he fell in love with the city," Schwartz told Foster. "He said how much he loves the people and I thought it was important for these guys to experience the same feel and things like that. We did not want cameras there because we thought it would have ruined the whole dynamic of it." Whoever the Lions hire next won't do that.

Schwartz snuck into bars during the hockey playoffs to get a feel for the Detroit sports fans. I can't find the story now, but I remember that while celebrating a particularly big Red Wings victory, a fan turned to Schwartz and said "When the Lions win, it'll be better than this." Whoever the Lions hire next won't understand this.

Here is a thing Schwartz said during his first training camp:

"It's hard to be angry at me, so I generally don't get that that. I don't know the best way to put it ... they're guardedly optimistic. I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much. and not become as, you know, I don’t know a good way to put it, but not become as  . . . fanatical a fan.  Is that redundant?  “Fanatical a fan”?  But the one thing is, they keep stepping up.  They’re true football fans in this city; they’re excited about it.  Everywhere I go, I get positive, positive feelings from the fans here.”

Whoever the Lions hire next sure as hell won't say that. Is it any wonder that I ordered up a double of Lions Kool-Aid just before the 2011 season?

The Lions' next coach is also not likely to give a game ball to the fans, which Schwartz did after the greatest night of Lions fandom in living memory. He led the Lions to respectability, he led them to the playoffs, and he led Lions fans everywhere to rekindle their love of the team. At the season-ticket holder town hall meeting prior to the 2012 season, I walked out convinced that the Lions had one of the best decision-making groups in the NFL. I knew Jim Schwartz was the right coach for the Detroit Lions.

Then, of course, came 4-12, and a well-deserved reputation for on- and off-field misbehavior. Schwartz, like the rest of us, utterly lacked solutions to the sudden problems. In one offseason, the Lions went from lovable winners to unlovable losers; even the strongest among us had our faith tested.

Though there were perfectly good explanations for everything and nothing was ever quite anyone's fault, nothing quite got fixed either.

From Titus Young's mental health issues to Jahvid Best's medically forced hiatus, everything that had been coming together quickly fell apart. There was little beauty or joy in anything, and the ironclad assurance we had that Schwartz knew what he was doing and Stafford was en route to being the greatest Lions quarterback of all time.

...okay, that's a low enough bar for Stafford to jump over that he's nearly already there at the age of 25, but Schwartz's brilliance became know-it-all-ness, and then insufferable arrogance as he not only refused to fix the problems on the field, but acknowledge they even existed.

Even as this season, the Lions' rivals all but sent them an engraved invitation to a  twenty-years-in-the-making NFC North championship, Schwartz refused to address anything that was going wrong. Possession after possession, game after game, the Lions kept blowing chances and missing opportunities. Schwartz's bizarre, delusional insistence that 20 teams would switch positions with them after they blew their last chance at clinching a playoff berth was hard to swallow.

I still thought that Schwartz should be given one more chance, right up until halftime of the game against the Giants. When the Lions had one, last, final, last chance to salvage the playoffs, facing a subpar team with nothing to play for, and sleepwalked their way to a 13-3 halftime deficit, that tore it.

The players would no longer listen to Schwartz, or play for Schwartz. He was no longer the right coach.
Now the search for a coach begins again, and many have asked me for my thoughts on who the Lions should hire. The short answer, "the right coach," isn't satisfying, so here's the long version.

Head coaches come in all different sizes, shapes, colors and kinds. Everyone wants the "hot" candidate, the brilliant schematic innovator making guacamole out of guano as a coordinator or college coach. But that guy—a Kevin Sumlin—is in short supply after a run on them last season, and that "hot" candidate isn't always the right guy.

There's a lot more to being a coach than being a rockstar at the whiteboard; just ask Charlie Weis and Mike Leach about how a "decided schematic advantage" trumps everything else. Just as in any other profession, coaching talent is not the same as coaching ability; some of the best head coaches in the NFL excel at things other than Xs and Os.

Head coaches are part of a franchise's senior management; they're executives who set the tone and direction of a franchise, guide the lower-level managers in tactics and strategy, interface with public and community relations staff and run a lot of meetings. Not to mention work dieticians, strength and conditioning coaches, facilities and maintenance folks...
Sometimes, being good at those things is more important to the success of a football team than wowing a packed coaching conference with your brilliant new playbook wrinkles.

Jim Schwartz was the right coach; the right coach at the right time. He was smart and firey, innovative and inspirational, built a base of talent around philosophies designed to dominate the next ten years of football and reconnected the soul of the franchise to the soul of its fans. He just couldn't handle all the other stuff.

Now, the Lions need a coach who can lead a championship-ready roster to a championship... ideally, one who's done it before.
I've said multiple times that the Lions should pursue Brian Billick. He's not "hot," he's not "sexy" and he's not a brilliant schematic innovator. He is a brilliant, well-spoken football mind with championship credibility and tons of experience. He's broadcast a lot of Lions games, and you can almost hear him salivating over the chance to work with that kind of talent.

Yes, he's a "retread," but if you take a look around at today's NFL, you'll see many of the most successful coaches are on their second or third stop. Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, John Fox... sometimes, it seems, you can't be a great NFL coach without having failed at it.

Sure, there's a lightning-in-a-bottle college guy like Chip Kelly, and "hot" coordinators like Sean Payton, that have been just as successful. But those guys went to places with perfect talent for their system (and not accidentally). The Lions have offensive talent that should be able to execute darn near any system... what they need help with is the preparation, focus and discipline required to execute.

I'll always be sad that Schwartz wasn't the coach to take the Lions to the Super Bowl, just as I'll always be sad that Steve Mariucci couldn't bring the Lions back to respectability. Ironically, Schwartz succeeded where Mariucci failed, and Mariucci's skill set might be perfect for leading these Lions to the Promised Land.

Now, I have to go to work. My job, thanks in part to the success of this blog, which was due in part to the success of Jim Schwartz, is to write about football for a living. I do my job in the warmth of my house, in my padded leather chair, even in toasty flannel pants if I feel like it. The real ice outside has never fallen more thickly or harshly, though, and Winter in the Lions-y sense hasn't been this cold in a long, long time. I may have to bust out the To Whom it May Concern series, and the "the coaching search" tag again.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fortunately, thanks to the the work Jim Schwartz has done, and the work of everyone who reads this blog, the blue flame of Lions fandom still burns brightly. People still proudly wear Lions gear, still happily sell out games, and still tweet support and kind words to all of their favorite players.

Lions fans answered Schwartz's challenge, and the Lions organization met our expectations in return. Now, though, expectations of the fans, front office and owners are much higher, and Schwartz is a victim of his own success. Maybe when it's his turn to be a "retread," he'll finally finish what he started.


Fireside Chat: Post-Fiasco Meltdown/Breakdown

>> 12.23.2013

Video streaming by Ustream


Would-be Kings, Under the Mountain

>> 12.16.2013

On the third morning Caradhras rose before them, a mighty peak, tipped with snow like silver, but with sheer naked sides, dull red as if stained with blood.

 There was a black look in the sky, and the sun was wan. The wind had gone now round to the north-east. Gandalf snuffed the air and looked back.

 `Winter deepens behind us,' he said quietly to Aragorn. 'The heights away north are whiter than they were; snow is lying far down their shoulders. Tonight we shall be on our way high up towards the Redhorn Gate. We may well be seen by watchers on that narrow path, and waylaid by some evil; but the weather may prove a more deadly enemy than any. What do you think of your course now, Aragorn?'

In the 2001 movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship attempt to pass beyond Caradhras and are foiled when Saruman, the corrupted wizard, conjures a brutal snowstorm.

In the book it is the mountain itself that turns back the Nine with heavy snow and falling rocks, possibly possessed by a shadowy evil of "the Enemy," Sauron. With the sun-lit way closed to them, the Fellowship are forced to proceed under the mountain—through the dark, deep, deadly mines of Moria.

In last Sunday's all-consuming blizzard, the Lions were turned back by the inclement weather, the Philadelphia Eagles, and their own mistakes. Another afternoon of head-slapping fumbles, blooper-reel mistakes and missed opportunities was punctuated by a complete and total defensive collapse.

It's tempting to write off the loss as a freak occurrence of nature, and yet both teams had to play in that snow.

The Eagles fumbled just once that day; the Lions seven times. Matthew Stafford physically could not throw deep enough to find an often-open Calvin Johnson; Nick Foles had no trouble throwing to (even overthrowing) DeSean Jackson.

These are freak occurrences, except they happen every week. They lead to unfortunate losses that have nothing to do with fortune. The Lions have thrown away possession after possession, drive after drive, opportunity after opportunity, game after game—and now the easy road is closed to them.

I've invoked the imagery of Gandalf facing the Balrog once before on this blog, and now it seems applicable again: There is evil in this football world against which Stafford and these young Lions have not yet been tested, and they are going to have to defeat it, toe-to-toe, from here on out.

In the dark of night, the Lions will face the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.

It's fitting that they'll play a team named after an ill omen. It's fitting that they'll be playing until midnight, or nearly so. They will have to take the deepest, darkest road of all to and through the playoffs: From tonight at midnight, through two more must-win games, then three playoff rounds—each more difficult than the last, likely against three foes against whom the Lions will be massive underdogs.

In order to scale to the top of the NFL mountain and claim the Lombardi trophy for their own, the Lions will have to play six consecutive games all but flawlessly. Given how they've played to date, that's asking the impossible.

Yet, that's what is asked of them. That is the task that lays before them. Anything less is failure, and failure of the quest at this point would likely mean the dissolution of the Fellowship—or at least, the coaching staff that has led the Lions to this point.

All of this blog, all of my personal and professional journey from fan tormented by unending disappointment to member of the Pro Football Writers of America, all of my time as keeper of the little blue flame of Lions fandom, all of it has come with this coach, this quarterback, this band of Lions united by a common quest: The top of the mountain, the Super Bowl championship, and the precious Ring that comes with it.

It's hard to say how much the success of this quest means to me, to you, and to all Lions fans everywhere, and now it stands on the edge of a knife. Waver but a little, and it will fall.

What is the true character of this coach, this quarterback, this team? They have the talent to fulfill their destiny, but have they the will? Have they the tenacity?

We find out tonight.


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