Q&A with Lions head coach Schwartz + mega-humble Megatron

Jim

My photo of Lions head coach Jim Schwartz at training-camp practice last week.

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — A first-time visitor to Detroit Lions practice might not expect to see so much discipline.

Ya know, considering all the team’s after-the-whistle problems last year, and run-ins with the law this past off-season.

Say what you will about all that, but Lions head coach Jim Schwartz runs a strict, fast-paced practice. He’s clearly the man in charge, and the man whose on-field vision is working.

How else could he have turned the 0-16 team he inherited in 2009 into a dangerous, 10-6 playoff team in 2011?

I sat down with Schwartz early last week for an interview. Some of his comments appeared in my story last week, available here.

The rest of the interview:

The Lions have won one playoff game since the ’50s. You’ve helped to turn them into a good team. But you’re continually raising the bar higher. Just being good isn’t good enough for you, is it?
“Well, we certainly don’t aspire to mediocrity. And we don’t aspire to just be good. We never went out last year and said, ‘Hey, we want to make the playoffs,’ or, ‘Hey, we want to win 10 games,’ or anything like that. We want to play well every week, and every week is a new challenge. And this team does a pretty good job of staying focused that way.
“Our leaders are hard-working guys that don’t look too far ahead. You don’t hear our guys talking about the Super Bowl, or even the first game of the season at this time of the year — because that’s not what we’re working for right now. We’re working on training camp.
“I think it’s easy to keep the guys grounded when you have those kind of leaders. But we certainly aspire to be better than we were last year.”

You mentioned team leadership. I noticed that quarterback Matthew Stafford was leading every stretching and warm-up drill out there today. In Year 4 now, has he taken over one of those key leadership roles on this team?
“He’s done that since he was a rookie. That hasn’t been a development for him. He’s a very consistent guy when it comes to being an example for his teammates. And, ya know, as quarterback that’s part of the job description. You’re a little bit of the face of the team, you’re a little bit of the piece of the offence, you’re a team leader — all those things wrapped up in one. And Matt does a good job of embracing that role, and his teammates notice those things that you noticed.”

At the combine you said that after watching cut-ups of last season’s games, you and the Lions coaches thought defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh actually improved in Year 2, despite getting fewer sacks. Can he continue that improvement in Year 3?
“The thing is, you need to be careful if the only thing you judge a defensive lineman on is how many sacks he’s had. There are a lot of times when you get a sack that you maybe didn’t make a great play; somebody flushed the quarterback to you, or you had great coverage, or the quarterback was trying to do something he shouldn’t do.
“There are other times that you can have a great rush and force, say, an intentional grounding. There’s no sack on that. You can force a holding penalty. There’s no sack on that either. It’s hard to put statistics on those kinds of things.
“We don’t want to gauge him against anybody but himself. He improved a lot from Year 1 to Year 2. His statistics didn’t improve, but I thought he improved a lot as a player.
“We’ve also seen him improve from last year to this. He’s had a great training camp. He comes to work every day. Regardless of whether we get 10 sacks, or we throw for 5,000 yards or anything else — that’s all just side story. The bottom line is, did we do enough to win the game?”

You must be pleased that backup running backs Joique Bell (with 89 yards rushing) and Keiland Williams (with 71) made a good showing in the first preseason game against Cleveland, with Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best still out with injuries. [Leshoure has since returned to practice.]
“You’re never, ever pleased, and that goes back to the tone of this conversation. A lot was made about us not having Jahvid right now, and with Leshoure being injured and also suspended for the first two games (for a pair of off-season pot-possession arrests).
“But we have a lot of other players that are good. Kevin Smith is a young veteran that, when healthy, has proved that he can contribute. Keiland has had a good camp. Joique has too. Even Stefan Logan, who’s used in a little different role, has had a good camp. We’re not going to have difficulty finding somebody to hand the football to. Those guys can all gain yards for us.”

Fans here have been waiting their whole lives for the Lions to win big. Now that there’s hope again, do you feel the tidal wave of anticipation and excitement?
“I felt it when I took over the 0-16 team. There’s not a time you stop for gas, or get something to eat, that somebody doesn’t say that they sat in Briggs Stadium with their father on Thanksgiving Day, or that they cheered for Bobby Layne, or Billy Sims, or Barry Sanders, or whatever.
“We have a very, very strong football base here. This is a very strong sports town…
“The Red Wings have rewarded the city. The Pistons have rewarded the city. The Tigers have been back to a World Series. And it’s time for the Lions to reward the long-time fans. And not just for fans who remember sitting in Tiger Stadium watching the Lions, but also for the kids that are 11 or 12 years old, who never remember when the Lions were a good team. We have just as much responsibility to them.”

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Megatron
Megatron: the mega-humble all-world wideout

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — They might call the Detroit Lions’ all-world wide receiver “Mega-tron.” But they’ll never say he has a mega-ego.

Despite becoming a superstar the past couple of years, and despite becoming the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history (upon signing a seven-year, $132 million deal in March), Calvin Johnson doesn’t act like it.

At all.

Something I saw last week at a Lions training-camp practice reminded me of what Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey told me about Johnson back in March, at the NFL’s annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.

Gailey was regaling me with stories of Johnson’s stint at Georgia Tech University from 2004-06, which coincided with Gailey’s turn there as the Yellowjackets’ head coach. Gailey concluded with this gem.

“The best story about Calvin, to me, is this,” Gailey said. “He’d been all-rookie, all-this, all-that. It’s his junior year, and everybody that comes to practice is watching him. He is a preseason All-American or something — just amazing.

“And the pro scouts are out there asking me what kind of guy he is, and I point. And there’s an overthrow — the quarterback throws the ball, Calvin runs the slant and the ball is overthrown, and the ball goes down there about 30 yards.

“He hits the slant, turns, and runs down there and picks up the ball and runs back. He didn’t wait for a ball boy to go get it. He didn’t ask somebody else to go get it. That’s Calvin.”

When I attended Lions practice a week ago Monday, Johnson sat out team drills, with his left index finger wrapped up. He returned to practice the next day, and last Friday night he played — spectacularly, natch — against the Ravens in Baltimore.

The thing that jogged my memory of Gailey’s story?

Megatron was hanging with the wide receivers for most of the practice, just itching to get involved. And he helped out just about any way he could, even with the most menial of tasks.

There he was, collecting balls for the ball boys. Again. All these years, and tens of millions of dollars, later. (See my accompanying photos, above and below.)

Back in March, I asked Gailey if he had any idea when he recruited Johnson out of high school that Johnson might become one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL.

Megatron“Well, I had no idea his nickname would be Megatron,” Gailey said.

“Somebody said, ‘Did you guarantee him a starting spot? Did he win the spot when he first showed up at campus?’ Nope. It took until Day 2. He wasn’t a starter on Day 1, (but) was on Day 2.

“He was an amazing guy, and an amazing young man. A really humble, nice (guy from a) great family. Everything you could ever want as a teammate.

Gailey said that none of Johnson’s success in the pros has shocked him.

“It was just a matter of him being able to learn it fast enough, and get the nuances of playing (wide receiver in the NFL). Because in college he never saw single coverage — he never saw it. So he had to learn how to beat single coverage. Most people have to learn to beat double teams. He knew how to do that. This guy only had to learn how to beat single coverage.”

He was a quick study.

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