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Published: Monday, 12/30/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Sanity and lunacy

Schwartz, Chudzinski out, questions of moribund franchises in

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Jim Schwartz got five years in Detroit.

Rob Chudzinski got what seemed like five minutes in Cleveland.

Both are unemployed NFL coaches today, and while one decision seems understandable and fair, the other is ludicrous.

The Lions had a pretty stocked roster and were trendy playoff picks even before Chicago and Green Bay lost their starting quarterbacks for long stretches. The door to a division championship was wide open, and Detroit tripped over the threshold.

With so many fourth-quarter failures and with quarterback Matthew Stafford seemingly regressing, the prickly Schwartz could not and did not survive five late-season losses, three at home, to other nonplayoff teams.

Give Schwartz credit for digging the Lions out of the deep, dark despair of 0-16 and erasing the culture of losing that long permeated the Ford family’s ownership, but he was done in by an inability to turn the corner and the culture into one of consistent winning after the 2011 playoff run.

The next coach in Cleveland, whoever that poor sap may be, will step smack dab into the NFL’s most bacteria-infested culture. And, like Chudzinski, aside from play selections and defensive schemes, he will have little or no say in how the operation is run.

Owner Jimmy Haslam, whose business problems extend beyond his football team, was embarrassed by a 4-12 debut season and made an emotional, hair-trigger decision to axe Chud.

When Haslam staged a news conference Monday at the team facility in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, Joe Banner was still sitting by his side. Banner, the CEO, and general manager Mike Lombardi run the football operation from soup to nuts, and that should be a concern to any prospective head coach.

Not that there isn’t a plan in place. There is. And it has been apparent since last spring’s giveaway draft through just about every subsequent personnel move that the unstated plan was to sacrifice the 2013 season.

Maybe not a 4-12 sacrifice, but a sacrifice nonetheless.

The good soldier, Chudzinski bought into the plan and when it spun out he became the front office’s scapegoat.

He was forced to start three quarterbacks, the best of them no better than average. He made the most of one superb receiver and could do little about the remaining lack of talent and depth at wideout. The running game was a joke.

Sure, trading Trent Richardson, the starting running back, less than three weeks into the season looks like an inspired move, but what message did it send at the time? Forget 2013; we’ll look to build for ’14.

The Browns poised themselves for the future and invested very little in the present. Vast salary cap space went unused. Chudzinski was left with no choice but to ride it out as best he could and try to build with the pieces he had.

Instead of being appreciative of the effort, Banner had the nerve to point out, “There are three teams that picked at the top of the draft last year that have new coaches [and] are in the playoffs right now.”

What a ridiculous comparison, considering those three coaches didn’t have their legs cut out from under them at every turn.

Less than one calendar year ago, Haslam and Banner touted Chudzinski, the Toledo native and lifelong Browns fan, as one of the bright young minds in coaching. Now they feel they whiffed on the choice of a rookie coach after failing to make a “splash” hire and, thus, needed to make an immediate move to get it right.

It was all done in the name of loyal and deserving fans, they said. Trust us, they said. Why?

Maybe Haslam gets points for decisiveness but what he did to Chud was despicable despite a reported 10.5 million parting gifts. Did the St. John’s Jesuit grad have the stuff to be an NFL head coach? We don’t know. He never had a chance.

Schwartz was given a chance in Detroit where, frankly, ownership isn’t the problem it was for so many years after William Clay Ford, now 88, purchased controlling interest in the franchise in 1963 and ran it mostly with benign neglect.

The Lions remain the only NFC team to never appear in a Super Bowl, but the Ford family’s investment in draft picks, free agents, and long-term contracts to top talents has been sufficient in recent seasons.

Schwartz’s record, and a perceived lack of discipline, was not. A 10-6 mark in 2011 figured to be the start of something special, but instead the Lions are 11-21 since. Things came unglued late as Detroit lost eight straight to end 2012 and was 1-6 down the stretch this season.

Schwartz built enough equity to get one pass, but not two.

Chudzinski didn’t get even one, and Haslam must know his franchise continues to come across as utterly dysfunctional.

“We understand there will be skepticism until we get it right and, candidly, we deserve it,” the Browns owner said.

Amen to that.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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