ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When some Detroit Lions players dissect the way head coach Jim Schwartz has turned around this franchise, they don't first talk of deft personnel moves or inspired strategies. They start with parking spaces. They go back to the days following Schwartz's arrival in 2009, when the Lions, still reeling from an 0-16 record the previous season, didn't even have enough discipline to park their cars correctly in the team's lot. Not only did Schwartz find many vehicles abandoned at bizarre angles, but some were even occupying handicapped spots most days.
So Schwartz decided one of the first lessons his team had to learn involved respect. Every time he found a car parked illegally, he didn't ask a team employee to have the player move it. He simply called the nearest towing company. The way Schwartz figured, there was only one way to educate his team on the proper manner of doing things. The faster his players learned, the quicker they could move on to more important matters.
Nearly three years have passed since then, and Schwartz hasn't mellowed in that stance. What has changed is the culture around a franchise that hasn't sniffed the postseason since 1999. These Lions are more disciplined, more detail-oriented and more determined than ever to prove that they have the same undeniable edge as their no-nonsense coach. As center Dominic Raiola said, "There's a certain toughness that Coach demands and you can see it all around this locker room. If you looked at our roster, you wouldn't find one guy that you'd call soft."
That toughness will be essential as the Lions (7-3) enter the final six weeks of the regular season. After a first half that included a fast start (they opened with five straight wins) and a brief slump (they lost three of four at one point, all to playoff contenders), they face the undefeated and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day. The good news is that Detroit is in the thick of postseason contention. The scary news is that it has been here before and imploded down the stretch.
In 2007, the Lions started 6-2 but won only once the rest of the season. The difference this year, according to everyone in the organization, is a 45-year-old head coach who likes to quote Shakespeare in news conferences and study art in his spare time.
"Our biggest challenge going forward is [maintaining] our focus," Schwartz said. "It's about taking every week as it comes and not looking ahead. What got us here is being a resilient, hardworking team. That's what we have to continue to be."
One thing Schwartz doesn't have to worry about from his team is faith. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch so believed in his head coach -- who also served as Tulloch's defensive coordinator in Tennessee -- that he chose to sign a one-year deal as an unrestricted free agent with the Lions rather than pursue a long-term contract elsewhere. It didn't matter to Tulloch that the Lions didn't have the funds to offer him more money at the time of his signing. He simply felt a bond with Schwartz, who had fought to give Tulloch a shot at starting for the Titans when he was an unheralded fourth-round pick.
Other players say loyalty isn't the lone defining quality of their coach. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill said Schwartz's intelligence is so impressive that "he's the only defensive-minded head coach I've ever met who actually is able to sit down and talk about offense." Cornerback Eric Wright added that Schwartz is comfortable enough in his own skin that "he has total confidence in his coaches and allows them to do their jobs." Raiola also said Schwartz is so detail-oriented that "he doesn't even like to see the locker room get too messy. But he's able to take that approach and apply it to what we do on the field."
Said Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham: "We have a joke when we present our game plans that the fonts have to be right. If not, we have to do it again ... I've never been around a more meticulous guy."
Building a foundation
Schwartz also has proved adept at spotting talent. After wallowing in the mire that was the vision of former Lions general manager Matt Millen, Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew have assembled a solid personnel foundation. The draft has produced blossoming talents such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, free safety Louis Delmas and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Free agency has delivered quality veterans such as Tulloch, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and wide receiver Nate Burleson.
So far the result is a team blessed with an offense averaging 30.1 points a game and the league's ninth-ranked defense. Not bad for a franchise that had an overall record of 39-121 from 2001 to 2010.
"Jim had a plan when he got there and you can see that vision coming together," said Titans senior assistant coach Dave McGinnis. "He knew what he had to do because that team had hit rock bottom. But he was ready to deal with it."
Said Schwartz: "Martin and I had the same vision for this team and that's made it a lot easier. We haven't tried to force square pegs into round holes here. We've said we have a job description for a defensive end, a running back, a wide receiver -- or whatever the position is -- and we have a plan for the players we get. Our feeling is that if you want to build something to last, you don't take shortcuts. Everybody wants immediate gratification but I also feel good knowing that we've had the discipline to not reach for players."
Schwartz's overall understanding of how to succeed isn't hard to trace. His pragmatic, bottom-line style comes from growing up with eight siblings and a father who worked 32 years as a Baltimore County cop. His ability to see both the short-term and long-term possibilities for a team has more to do with his experiences in the game. After playing linebacker at Georgetown -- where he graduated with a degree in economics in 1988 -- he bounced around some low-level college jobs before landing an unpaid position in the Cleveland Browns' scouting department in 1993.
When Schwartz wasn't driving coaches to the airport, picking up coffee or sharing an apartment with up-and-comers such as current Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and former NFL head coach Eric Mangini, he was treasuring every second he spent filing scouting reports for a team led by current New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He used to say that he was getting a doctorate in football-ology during that time," McGinnis said. "That's what he called it."
Schwartz didn't take long to rise once he moved back into coaching. He spent two seasons as a defensive quality control coach in Baltimore (1996-98) before former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher hired him in 1999 and promoted Schwartz to defensive coordinator in 2001. Schwartz's defenses were known for their athleticism and their ferocity, with the vicious front four stoking the unit's personality. Whether it was freakishly gifted pass-rushers like Jevon Kearse or feisty unknowns like cornerback Cortland Finnegan, Schwartz knew how to get the most out of players.
When it came to an enigmatic talent like former Titans Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Schwartz was so grounded that he could reach Haynesworth by talking about their shared love of boating. When it came to a controversial player like former Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, Schwartz knew how to push buttons without being a pushover. Jones learned that after falling asleep in a meeting a few years ago. Schwartz was so irritated that he fired a pen across the room that bounced off the wall above Jones' head and startled him out of his slumber.
Schwartz also wasn't afraid to use any resource possible to become a better coach. When the Titans hired McGinnis -- who made his name as a defensive coordinator and had been the Arizona Cardinals' head coach from 2000 to 2003 – as linebackers coach, McGinnis worried that Schwartz might view him as a threat. Instead, the two became fast friends, with Schwartz constantly picking McGinnis' brain for new ideas. Schwartz was similarly intrigued by the theories of Aaron Schatz, the creator of the numbers-crunching website Footballoutsiders.com. At one point, Schwartz even invited Schatz to Nashville to compare notes.
Cunningham said the relentlessness that Schwartz brings to his job is a quality that Belichick also exudes.
"Jim and I would often talk after defensive staff meetings [in Tennessee]," said Cunningham, who has spent 29 years in the NFL and was a Titans assistant from 2001 to 2003. "It was just small talk but from my understanding, those talks were really important to him. That's Jim. Everybody he's around, he's going to soak them for positive information. That's what makes him so special. When he came in here, he knew what to do."
Up to the challenge
Schwartz has joked that his father, Jim Sr., would've been disappointed if his son backed away from a challenge, which may explain why the son was so attracted to the Lions. Schwartz's impact can't be denied. Even though the Lions suffered through ugliness (they lost 24 of their first 28 games under Schwartz) and devastating injuries (Stafford missed 13 games in his first two seasons), there was a sense of optimism growing within the franchise. That hope only increased when Detroit won four consecutive games at the end of last season.
Anybody who didn't fully believe in the coach's vision up to that point had to be a convert by then. As Raiola said, "That really started everything. We went to Tampa and won and that was huge. We wound up winning nine straight games [including five this season]. These were all defining moments."
Added Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera: "They're a good football team and they're growing. They're making the kind of noise that is making everybody feel like they're a team to look out for."
When the Lions started fast this season, Schwartz knew it wouldn't all be easy. As exhilarating as some of the big wins were -- including a 34-30 victory at Dallas when Detroit overcame a 24-point deficit -- there have been a few humbling moments as well. The sight of Schwartz chasing and eventually confronting San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after Detroit's 25-19 loss on Oct. 16 comes to mind. So does a 37-13 loss to Chicago two weeks ago, when the Bears dominated the action and forced Stafford into four interceptions, two that Chicago defenders returned for touchdowns.
It's times like those that surely have Lions fans wondering if Schwartz can succeed where predecessors Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli failed.
"We're a young team but we also have players who have been through some tough times in this league and won," Schwartz said. "I think about guys like Tulloch and Vanden Bosch. We've got Eric Wright and we just picked up [former Bears safety] Chris Harris. And we also have the guys who went through that 0-16 season. Once you go through something like that, you don't take anything for granted."
The Lions will echo that claim by saying this team works harder than any other in recent memory. The offense still can explode at any time despite a depleted running game, with Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson providing the major highlights. The defense can still intimidate with Suh leading the way. But more than anything, the Lions' hopes of reaching this postseason depend heavily on how well Schwartz can keep selling his team on the only message that really matters: consistency.
"When we took over here, we always talked about philosophy," Schwartz said. "The object wasn't to turn the team around. It was to work the process. To me, it's like trying to lose weight. If you go on a crazy diet, you gain the weight back eventually. But if you cut your calories and get on that treadmill, you get better results. That's all we're trying to do here. We're just working the process."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.