After coaching the Detroit Lions for five years, Jim Schwartz faced his former team as the Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator in 2014. The Bills won that day, and Schwartz's players carried him off the field on their shoulders following the victory.
Schwartz is facing the Lions for the second time on Sunday when the Eagles visit Detroit. And though Schwartz acknowledged there were emotions involved when he first coached against the Lions, he insisted this game will not be personal against the organization that fired him even after he inherited an 0-16 team in 2009 and brought them to the postseason by his third year.
"I think you guys would probably be surprised how much I root for the Lions," Schwartz said. "As long as it's not in direct conflict with the Eagles, I want those guys to win every week. I've got too much blood and sweat in that building, and there's a lot of guys there that mean an awful lot to me."
Schwartz drafted starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and top defensive players Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy. He led the Lions to a 29-51 record in five years, and was dismissed after going 7-9 in 2013. He did not stay out of coaching long, quickly taking the job leading the Bills' defense. When he coached against the Lions that year, Detroit was full of his former players and coaches. He counted this week, and only 13 players remained on the roster and one coach on the staff. But there are still people in the organization and throughout the area that maintain connection to the Schwartz family, and he visits in the offseason.
"I don't have very many friends, but my wife has a lot of friends," Schwartz said. "I've certainly enjoyed my time there, and it'll be part of our family's life. . . .You look back, and I think you take a couple years and you can appreciate the good times maybe a little bit more than when you're in the middle of things."
That is a lesson Schwartz learned with the benefit of time. He joked his five years in Detroit gave him more gray hair. But it also allowed him to realize "what's important." Schwartz, like Bill Belichick, is a "small-stuff sweating guy." Every detail matters. That provides an intensity he considers vital to the job – but it also allowed little time to reflect.
"Sometimes as a coach, and I'm not speaking just for myself but probably a lot of other people, you don't enjoy yourself when you're in the moment, and I think I probably enjoy myself in the moment a little bit more now after that experience," Schwartz said. "I think it's a lesson you can only learn if you're in it."
That doesn't take away the sting of how it ended. Schwartz didn't take solace in transforming the organization from the 0-16 despair because he wanted a Super Bowl, and was fired without winning a playoff game. He said he didn't win enough. Most coaches who are fired can offer the same lament.
"Let me put it this way: It doesn't end well for head coaches in the NFL, no matter how much you want it to," Schwartz said. "As much success as Andy Reid had here, it didn't end well for him. You could probably roll up just about any coach that's ever coached in the league. It didn't end well for Tony Dungy at Tampa, but it ended well for him at Indy. It didn't end well for Belichick at Cleveland, didn't end well for Pete Carroll at the Jets or the Patriots. I think when we're in it, we all expect to be that person that's just somewhere for 25 years or whatever, and I think we just realize that it doesn't always work out that way."
Those coaches that Schwartz mentioned all experienced successful second acts. He didn't reference coaches who have failed elsewhere the second time around. That could be a subtle reference to give him another shot, and the Eagles' defensive turnaround glistens on an already impressive resume.
"I'm just trying to stay off the hot seat," Schwartz said. "I think in anything, if you do a good job – if you're a quality control coach, you do a good job with that, maybe you get a chance to be a position coach, maybe you get a chance to be a coordinator if you do a good job with that. The way this league is, you don't have time to think about a whole lot other than doing your job."
Schwartz is leading an Eagles defense that has kept opponents to two touchdowns in three games. He's introduced a totally different scheme to many returning players, and they're thriving under Schwartz. He also has a few new additions, including four players who played for him in the past. The top performer in that group has been linebacker Nigel Bradham, who is excelling on the field but drew the scorn of Schwartz for two arrests in thee months.
"You do dumbass things, pretty soon you're going to be labeled a dumbass," Schwartz said. "He's got a lot of ground to make up because it's not just him, it's the rest of us, also. It's everybody that wears that helmet, all the people in the organization. He represents not just himself, he represents everybody, and . . . he's got to earn some trust back."
Bradham was with the Bills when Schwartz was carried off the field a victor in Detroit in 2014. Schwartz has not brought up his history with the Lions to the players this week, but his players imagined there will be emotions involved – even if Schwartz spun it differently.
"This league moves fast, man," Schwartz said. "There won't be as many familiar faces. But like I said, the relationships don't just go away when you're no longer working for a team or a guy is no longer playing for you."
Eagles defensive lineman Bennie Logan was limited with a calf injury. . . . The Lions had five players miss practice, including defensive end Ziggy Ansah, linebacker DeAndre Levy, and tight end Eric Ebron.