Last week, when I read the National Football Post declared Detroit Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz the best coach in the NFL, I laughed. Not because the recognition itself seemed ridiculous, but because lost in that honor was the superb job his coordinators and staff have done.
Schwartz's acknowledgement is still huge for a franchise only four seasons removed from 0-16. Until recently, the only press the Detroit Lions were making with regards to coaching was football's equivalent of the comic pages. Naturally, the head coach is the figurehead for everything that happens, both good and bad, but Schwartz's staff—among one of the most experienced in the game—have helped him to look extra special in his young career.
The hard work that Gunther Cunningham and Scott Linehan have done transforming two traditionally bad units in a short period of time has been outstanding. Cunningham, a former head coach often criticized for his team's defensive shortcomings, came in to run a defense which couldn't stop anyone. The only attitude a Lions' defense possessed was defeat. Now, with the help of Ndamukong Suh, his friends and a restructured "attack first" scheme, the Lions have become the aggressors. Some in the NFL to claim the team's defense is dirty. Regardless of the semantics, the Lions have improved under Cunningham's watch with regards to takeaways, third down defense and pressuring the quarterback. The defense has also shown an ability strange to those who have loved Detroit football for ages—getting off the field when they really need a stop.
Linehan, on the other hand, may have quietly been the best recent offensive hire in the NFL. Ironically, he was ousted as head coach of the St. Louis Rams because his offenses failed to deliver. In three seasons, he's transformed the Lions' passing attack into one of the more prolific in football. Linehan has figured out how best to maximize Calvin Johnson's immense talent, and put Lion receivers in routes where they can succeed. His work with Matthew Stafford has been impressive, and his influence has helped the quarterback evolve into one of the top young passers in the game. Though the running game has struggled at times due to injuries, the offensive line has protected far better than in the past, and the team can move the ball and convert on third down. Last season, the offense keyed several fourth quarter comebacks with clutch performances.
Yet, all the credit should not be split equally between the lead coordinators, either. Also deserving a mention are a quartet of young and experienced position coaches. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek's intensity and technique has helped the defensive line become intimidating. Tim Walton, whom the Lions liked so much they promoted this offseason, has done fantastic work with the secondary. Offensive line coach George Yarno has taught a rag-tag group how to stick together and protect, while Shawn Jefferson has silently done a spectacular job tutoring the Lions' young wide receivers.
Both Linehan and Cunningham, once maligned for their offensive and defense failings as head coaches, have found homes in Detroit working for Schwartz. Why? There has been no pressure. Their boss has a clear vision, and has given each coordinator and their staff the ability to execute it in spectacular ways. For that, Schwartz (and even Martin Mayhew) deserve every slice of front page credit they will receive from now until the end of time.
Despite that, just don't forget to remember all the others working tirelessly behind the scenes. Schwartz sure wouldn't want you to, because that's the true nature of why what he's building in Detroit looks fantastic.
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