Road Rage Wrecked the Motor City Revival

After a meteoric rise, it’s rare to see the exact moment when an NFL coach loses his mystique.  But that’s what we witnessed when Jim Schwartz’s 5-0 Detroit Lions played the 49ers on October 15, 2011.  Schwartz had been the talk of the coaching world up until that day.

Schwartz had inherited the worst team ever.  The Lions were 0-16 the year before Schwarz was hired, which is the only winless season in NFL history since the adoption of the 16 game regular season.  Schwartz proceeded to gradually improve the Lions for the next two years, and they had a perfect start of 5-0 entering the game on October 15, 2011.  But it’s been a downward spiral for Schwartz ever since that day, because he did the one thing that is fatal for a coach in the NFL.

This defining moment for Coach Schwartz did not even take place during the game itself.  It happened when he went out for the customary postgame handshake with the opposing coach, a handshake that is supposed to represent sportsmanship. But things did not go as planned for Schwartz.  Instead, he imploded and attacked 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at midfield– that is, if his behavior can be dignified by the word “attack”.

Bad sportsmanship was the least of Schwartz’s problems at that moment.  Coaches get away with bad sportsmanship every game as they berate officials.  In fact, when they do so, it can even gain them credibility to their players who feel like the coach has their back.  Schwartz’s downfall here was his appearance.   He looked the polar opposite of a leader of football players.  During his “attack”, he resembled a gnat jumping around and trying pitifully to get Harbaugh’s attention.  After the initial moment when Harbaugh ignored him and ran on, Schwartz pursued Harbaugh and followed him all the way to the tunnel.  Schwartz covered about 70 yards, but managed only to look like a wounded animal on the Nature Channel who is about to be devoured.  The last thing Schwartz looked like was a football coach.  This image made the loss of his perfect 5-0 record pale in comparison.

As you see in the video here, Schwartz lost his cool and looked almost comical in the process.  This is the same Schwartz who had brazenly mocked Harbaugh from across the field during the game after Harbaugh had mistakenly challenged a play.  This is the same Schwartz whom many people had been Googling the previous weeks wondering in awe, “Who is this guy?   How can he possibly be turning around a franchise from 0-14 to 5-0?”

Schwartz had played linebacker at Georgetown and then built credibility as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans for seven years.  He lost that credibility when his players saw him flailing around trying in vain to get Harbaugh’s attention.  Don’t forget, Harbaugh was a quarterback.  It’s unheard of for a linebacker to be pushed around by a quarterback, and Schwartz was not just pushed around but ignored and dwarfed by the 6’4” Harbaugh.  On a side note, can anybody be surprised now at how little national exposure the Georgetown football program receives?

After this altercation, Schwartz went from a fiery looking leader to the laughing stock of his team.  He broke the code of “NFL toughness”, and that is a genie that sometimes cannot be put back in the bottle.

After that debacle, the Lions went on to finish the 2011 season going 5-6 and they lost a wild card game.  Even worse, since that 5-0 start and “the attack of the gnat”, the Lions have a terrible record:  16-25!  What caused the sudden shift?   The Lions stopped respecting their coach.  Respect is what an NFL coach needs most.  With respect comes the ability to motivate.  Respect in the NFL does not come as easily as it does to college coaches, who wield a lot of power over their student athletes.  The NFL is full of millionaire adults who will give their all only to a leader who commands their respect.

I would venture to guess that the Lions players shared some laughs breaking down that video in weeks to come.  Watching video is part of the NFL culture.  Coaches are known to make light of players by showing videos of mistakes in front of the team.  Well, the video of Schwartz flailing around and being brushed aside by Harbaugh may have been placed on the banned list for the Lion’s film room, but I don’t’ think Schwart’s unorthodox moves left the consciousness of the team any time soon.  Lions running back Reggie Bush is quoted today as saying a key problem for the Lions is that they lack discipline.

That was Harbaugh’s first year as the 49er’s coach and the 49ers, like the Lions, were off to a good start. If the 49ers had lost they would have dropped to 4-2 and the Lions would have been a juggernaut at 6-0.

I wonder what would have happened if Schwartz had simply shaken hands and walked away calmly?

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