It was the 2008 NFL season, and the Detroit Lions had just lost their final game of the year, 31-21, to the Green Bay Packers. The loss was the sixteenth in a row, for the franchise, and set a humiliating new NFL record for the most losses in a single season.
The Lions were the butt of all of ESPN’s jokes. They had lost the support of numerous fans, and the respect of their peers. And the worst part was it didn’t look like things were going to get better anytime soon.
There was just one thing that everyone knew: it was time for a change.
Since that dreadful 2008 season, the Lions have been making changes. But there seems to be something different in these, that wasn’t there in years gone by.
One of the main differences has to be credited to head coach Jim Schwartz.
Hired at the beginning of 2009, Schwartz had no head coaching experience at the pro level, and served previously as a defensive coordinator under Jeff Fischer in the Tennessee Titans organization. Before that, Schwartz worked as a defensive assistant for the Baltimore Ravens under Ted Marchibroda, and a personnel scout for the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick.
But despite his lack of experience as a head coach, Schwartz took the job with a quiet, confident attitude, and avoided making any promises of playoff appearances or Super Bowl victories.
Instead, Schwartz set out with a very different mind set than most of his predecessors. Rather than trying to quickly build a team that would win for one year, Schwartz opted to start assembling a team that would have the potential to win for years to come.
He built his team starting with the coordinators, hiring Gunther Cunningham as his assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, and Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator.
Although at the time the Lions roster was meager, Schwartz focused on the few players who made up the backbone of the team, and built around them.
Calvin Johnson was one such player.
So Schwartz alongside the Lions front office drafted Matthew Stafford to quarterback the pliable team. In the same draft, the Lions selected Brandon Pettigrew as their tight end of the future, and safety Louis Delmas to begin working around on defense.
To an outsider, the 2009 season didn’t seem to be anything spectacular, as Detroit went 2-14, but the team seemed to be adopting a new identity, and the city started buying into the idea of building a brand new team.
In 2010, the Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh as a game changer on the defensive line. In addition to him, the Lions signed veteran DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and then combined its new duo with Cliff Avril and Corey Williams to create a formidable front line.
Also in that draft, Detroit selected playmaker RB Jahvid Best as another weapon in Stafford’s arsenal. The Lions also added veteran WR Nate Burleson to help distract some of the attention on Johnson.
The 2010 NFL season proved to hold more improvements for the Lions. The team finished 6-10, but did so mostly without Stafford.
Although Stafford has not yet made it through an entire season, there is no doubt that Schwartz believes in the quarterback, and has no plans of pursuing anyone else for the job.
In 2011, the Lions added Nick Fairley to bolster the defensive line, giving the Lions what some analysts are predicting to be the best D-line in the league this year.
Detroit also drafted WR Titus Young and RB Mikel Leshoure to provide more weapons, and therefore options, on offense.
Schwartz seems to be very confident in all of the guys he has, and that could be another reason why the team carries itself with a little more poise than it used to.
Most recently, this new attitude has shown up in the player practices that have been held during the NFL lockout. Not required, and not league-wide, the majority of the Lions players have shown up to get some work in even though they are currently prohibited to make contact with their coach.
It can’t be determined yet if Schwartz will lead the Lions to the playoffs, Super Bowl, or even a winning season. But there is a talented and dangerous football team in Detroit that wasn’t there two years ago.
A team that is certainly going up, and is looking to stick around when it gets there.
A team led by a coach who believes.