I’ve been a big supporter of Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff pretty much since the day he was hired. He and his dudes do all of those big picture things well – they understand how to put together a team, they know how to create a defense that is nasty and provides a ton of pressure, they understand how to move the ball without having to resort to clichéd three yards and a cloud of dust kind of Manball nonsense – but there has been one thing about Schwartz and his coaches that has bugged me almost from day one, and this one thing reared its ugly and mocking head once again in the game against the Buccaneers on Sunday, and that one thing is their clock management. More specifically, it’s their clock management philosophy, and even more specifically, it’s their philosophy when they’ve got the lead in the second half.
I’ve written about this before, several times. (One of the hidden dangers in writing about the Lions for long enough – and really, about anything long enough - is that, after a while, it feels like you’ve already addressed everything there is to address. At some point, it just kind of feels like you’re just repeating yourself and it’s kind of hard to get up for that shit, you know? But I digress.) But I think it bears repeating here, because it’s an issue that just refuses to go away and it’s an issue that I fear will cost us a few times this season. And really, it’s almost impossible to ignore because the way it played out against the Buccaneers was so exaggerated. I mean, it’s one thing to shut it down and start playing to run out the clock with four or five minutes left in the fourth quarter. It’s quite another to start moonwalking your way out of the stadium, nervously glancing at the clock when there are four or five minutes left to go in the third quarter.
I mean, come on . . . really? I said in my post-game gibber-fest that Matthew Stafford looked like he could have thrown for 500 yards in that game and while that is obviously hyperbolic as hell, he was easily headed for 400 and would have almost definitely gotten there had the playcalling not shrunk to “Hey, uh, let’s run the ball into the line and hopefully a wizard will open a wormhole in which time and space is distorted and on the other side the clock will have reached zero. That will work, right? Goddamn, I’ve got to stop dropping acid before games.” That may or may not be a completely accurate transcription of Scott Linehan’s internal monologue on Sunday. I don’t know. It all depends on whether that Creole mind-reader gave me good information. I paid him in beer and frog skins and he looked happy enough but goddammit, I had a hard time understanding him with that ridiculous accent of his.
Anyway, I bring up Matthew Stafford’s possible stats not to whine or bitch because he didn’t get them but to show just how unstoppable he and the offense were during the game up until the point Acid Wizard Run Fest 2011 started. Sure, sure, they weren’t successful on every drive but they were successful enough that it was clear that the Buccaneers couldn’t stop them enough to win. All the Lions needed to do was . . . well, to keep doing exactly what they had been doing up until that point. It wasn’t like they needed to chuck the ball fifty yards down field on every play. I’m not saying that, and it’s that kind of black or white thinking which always clouds the issue whenever this topic comes up. People tend to think that you either have to try a bunch of risky throws or you have to sit on the ball and run it like a frightened turtle. That’s bullshit. All you have to do is play your game, execute your offense and not get bogged down in clock watching. A few screen passes on first and second down would have had the same effect as a strong running game. They’re safe, they’re effective and most importantly, they don’t result in the offense staring down a third and nine after only taking 40 seconds off the clock.
You know what works best in a ball control offense? CONTROLLING THE GODDAMN BALL. That’s the whole point. That is the essence of that particular offensive philosophy. Still, some people get tricked into thinking it means running the ball in as predictable a way as possible. Which is funny, because when you do that, your offense becomes the exact opposite of a ball control offense. It just becomes a predictable, shitty offense which specializes in the oh so exciting three and out and whose most explosive play is the forty yard punt.
Look, I get that this is about identity. This is about Jim Schwartz wanting to be able to show that his team can exert its will late in games, that it can beat down a team to the point that they just lay down and let the Lions steamroll over them, but when your identity is predicated on an explosive passing offense and a mauling, pressure fueled defense, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to completely abandon that in favor of . . . of what, really? Some clichéd idea of identity? Some half-assed 50 year old Lombardiesque aesthetic? I mean, this isn’t 1961 anymore and this isn’t a grind it out, run the ball down their throats league anymore. It just isn’t. It’s a passing league and it has been for a while now.
All you need to do is look around at the rest of the league. The Packers, the Saints, the Patriots, the Colts before Peyton Manning’s neck decided it was sick of supporting his vile head . . . all of these teams are built around the pass. Their coaches might not admit it because coaches are prone to bullshit clichés, but it’s true. They understand, deep down, that the reason their teams win is because of the quarterback. It’s just the way it is now. The teams with the best quarterbacks win. It’s that simple. They don’t win because they play sound, fundamental football that would give ol’ Vince Lombardi a hard-on. No, they win because other teams can’t stop their passing attack when it matters the most.
All you have to do is look at what happened on Monday night. Did the Patriots win because they lined up and ran the ball down the Dolphins throats in the second half? Hell no. They won because Tom Brady threw for eight billion yards and the Dolphins couldn’t stop it. Did the Lions jump out to a two touchdown lead over the Buccaneers because they slammed the ball through the heart of the defense out of the Power-I? No, they took that lead because the Buccaneers couldn’t consistently stop Matthew Stafford and the Lions passing game. So why change that?
It’s maddening and you see it all around the league. You see teams do something that works and then when they jump out to a big enough lead, they quickly switch to that fetishized Lombardiesque bullshit and abandon everything that they had done to build that lead.
And therein lies the irony. The reason Jim Schwartz does this maddening bullshit is because he wants to exert his team’s collective will through the strength of their identity. But in doing so, he completely abandons the team’s actual identity and the result is a fourth quarter that looks like a French army furiously backpedaling in front of a gang of wild–eyed Nazis. The Lions were successful because they exerted their will. They had spent the whole game beating the shit out of the Buccaneers with their identity, both offensively and defensively. Jim Schwartz’s brain tricked him, just like it tricks so many other coaches at the end of games, into believing that Identity and Will are synonymous with Manball, and that everything that had happened up until that point was somehow unreliable and fluky and not to be trusted because it didn’t match that fetishized cliché burrowing in from the back of the brain, which is a cliché that we are brought up to revere, to worship, a cliché that we associate with the concept of good football. It is almost instinct, and I understand that it can be tough to overcome but the good ones eventually do.
But really, that’s only part of the issue. The real issue is that at some point in the third quarter, Jim Schwartz looked at the clock and his objective changed. Up until then, his objectives were to bludgeon the shit out of the Bucs and to not let up until the field was smeared with their blood. This philosophy was evident both offensively and defensively. The Lions attacked, attacked and then attacked some more. But as soon as he looked at that clock and wanted it to start running a little faster, everything changed. As soon as he communicated via the playcalling that his primary objective was now to get the hell out of town with a win, the team’s entire identity changed. They weren’t the Detroit Lions anymore. Now, they were just a collection of dudes watching the clock and trying to hang on. The team went from hyper-aggressive to passive, a nauseating 180 that made watching the fourth quarter a living nightmare.
All of a sudden it felt like watching the Jets game from last year. You remember that game, right? The Lions jumped out to a lead, then Matthew Stafford got hurt, the offense was neutered and the Lions – and all of us – spent the rest of the game just hanging on, hoping that the clock would run out before anything bad happened. That’s basically the same thing that happened against the Bucs. The Lions basically took Matthew Stafford out of the equation, the offense was neutered and the Lions – and all of us – spent the rest of the game just hanging on, hoping that the clock would run out before anything bad happened. It’s a philosophy of failure, a loser’s mentality, and that shit has to stop if we have any hope of taking the next step on this long journey out of hell and into paradise.
The one thing that I’m clinging to right now is that the Lions started their epic sphincter tightening almost immediately after Matthew Stafford limped off the field with cramps. It’s entirely possible that given young Matthew’s sordid injury history that the Lions freaked out and decided to play it as safely as possible and honestly, you can’t really blame them, you know? But shit, at some point you’re going to have to take the training wheels off and let the dude prove that he can take it. Then again, maybe Stafford’s cramps were precluding him from doing much more than handing the ball off on every play. Maybe he was effectively injured, in that purely temporary way that can only be caused by cramps, which effectively hampered the Lions offensive possibilities. I don’t know, but that’s kind of what I’m hoping. After all, when the Lions were forced to throw the ball following the failure of their running game, Stafford seemed gimpy and ill at ease. This is not something to worry about. It was just one of those freak things that happens (And isn’t it funny how those freak things always seem to happen to the Lions? And by funny, I of course mean horrible and awful and GODDAMMIT I’M AWARE THAT I JUST BROKE THIS CHAIR INTO A MILLION PIECES AND YES I UNDERSTAND IT IS FUTILE TO TRY TO STAB MY TV WITH THOSE PIECES BUT THIS AGGRESSION BY THE FAILURE DEMONS WON’T STAND) Hopefully, that’s all that was.
But even then, I think that probably just made Schwartz pack it in earlier than he wanted to. Had Stafford been able to outrun the tentacled grasp of the heat demons, the Lions probably would have pressed the issue for a little while longer. I think they probably would have still shrunk back with too much time left on the clock because that’s what Schwartz and his dudes have shown a tendency to do from almost their first preseason game. Go back if you can find it somewhere in this wonderland of insanity we call a blog. Watch me bitch about the Lions clock management and general conservatism after the very first preseason game. I have been on this shit since the start and it still feels like a weakness that can be – and very likely will be – exploited.
Look, two touchdowns is nothing in the NFL. The way the game is played today, a two touchdown lead can evaporate almost immediately. That was evident following the very first game of the season, that Thursday night game between the Packers and the Saints. The Packers were in control until – oops! – they weren’t, and the Saints were sitting on the one yard line with a chance to tie things up. Just like that. One long breath and that game had completely and radically changed. It was no different in the Lions game against the Buccaneers. The Lions had a two touchdown lead with only two minutes left to go and yet the last play of the game saw the Bucs doing the Benny Hill Yakety Sax special, and while that shit was hilarious, it was also made possible by the unsettling realization that had it been successful, the game would have been tied and we would have been dead men walking in overtime. Two minutes. That’s all it takes. And sometimes it’s even less than that. Just ask Notre Dame. Shit, just ask the Lions. I mean, all of that happened even though the Bucs failed to recover their onside kick. Sure, a big part of that was because Gosder Cherilus was possessed by a particularly troublesome Failure Demon which caused him to temporarily lose his goddamn mind, but the simple fact is this: the Lions left a window open for the Buccaneers to wriggle through and they almost did. That’s it. Shut the goddamn window. In the aftermath, people were blaming Cherilus and damn right, but the person who left that window open in the first place was named Jim Schwartz. I don’t like it either but there you have it.
I like Jim Schwartz – fuck that, I love Jim Schwartz – and like everyone else, I have smiled dreamily and scribbled his name on my Trapper Keeper, but that doesn’t mean that the dude is perfect. He’s not and, to me, this is the single biggest flaw he has as a coach and it’s a flaw that will very likely kill us dead at some point and that sucks. It’s a flaw that will cause me to write at least one outraged howl against the universe following a completely preventable loss and it’s a flaw that I fear won’t go away any time soon. But I’m hoping that I’m wrong. I’m hoping that all Schwartz needs is some experience with games like this to realize that you have to play to the end, that you can’t sit back and watch the clock and hope the game magically ends quicker than it should. My dude UpHere wrote this following the game:
“They were ACTING like a really good team, trying to run the clock down, playing soft D in the back, but almost gave it away.”
I agree with him in part. The Lions were ACTING like a really good team – or at least what Jim Schwartz imagines a really good team to act like according to some worn out hoary old cliché- but they weren’t acting like the Detroit Lions. They weren’t acting like the team that had gotten them to that point. And in doing so, they revealed a weakness. They revealed a team that wasn’t as confident as they were trying to portray. Really good teams don’t care how much time is left on the clock. They mash you until the clock strikes zero and it comes time for the EMTs to show up and scrape your corpse off the ground. They know who they are and they stick to it, no matter the circumstances. The Lions were playing like a team that was acting like it was lucky to be there, a team that had jumped out to a big lead and was just trying to hold on before midnight struck and they turned into a pumpkin. It’s all about attitude. The Lions have that attitude, but it’s almost like they don’t know how to act when that attitude gets them what they want. In that way, they’re just like the rest of us – confident but still frightened, sure and yet unsure at the same time – and I fear that it will be that way for a while. I think the biggest difference between 9-7 and 12-4 might just be the difference between being a good team and realizing that you’re a good team. And that’s what this season might be all about.