Over the weekend, word broke that the Lions didn’t give Nick Fairley a playbook in the short not-quite-two-days they were allowed to contact him. They flew Fairley to Detroit, let him meet the fans, had him tour the facilities . . . but never gave him a playbook? They passed up a chance to get their new thoroughbred up to speed? What’s up with that? Per the Freep, Schwartz didn’t think it was a thing:
"Our blood pressure's pretty low on stuff like that," Schwartz said. "We don't want to rush things. You give somebody a set of instructions without being able to communicate with them, it really might not do a whole lot of good so we haven't done a whole lot."
Schwartz explained the raw playbook isn’t going to be of much use to a rookie who hasn’t had the instruction to back it up. That’s doubly true for Fairley, a defensive tackle in a system where DTs play a conventional role. It’s not as though he has three positions to learn, like a wideout or a linebacker. Unlike Ndamukong Suh, there’s no chance Fairley will be asked to play every snap he physically can; Fairley will play situationally. The most important thing for him is being ready to answer the bell—which is exactly what Schwartz said:
Schwartz said Fairley won't have as much to learn as some rookies when football resumes -- "We're not real complicated up front," he said. "It's more of a physical game than it is a mental game for him."
Yes, but what if the lockout extends deep into the summer and then the lockout is lifted with only a short training camp possible before the regular season begins? Won’t Fairley be hampered because the Lions didn’t give him the opportunity to familiarize himself with the material when they had the chance?
Schwartz’s decision makes sense to me on a few fundamental levels. First, I’ve dug up some pro and college playbooks for study purposes—and even with an explicatory “Here is what we are trying to do” foreword, it takes an awful lot of digestion for a layperson. Without the experience of a coach explaining it, without physical demonstration or film study backing it up, it’s almost impossible for a layperson to understand why the squiggles and arrows and dashed lines are any more significant for going this way than any other.
Of course, Nick Fairley isn’t a layperson—he was the cornerstone of a BCS National Championship-winning defense, drawn up by one of the best defensive minds in college football, Gene Chizik. Fairley’s been reading playbooks for years; he knows what all the lines and squiggles mean and can pick it up, no problem—so why not let him memorize everything now?
Because that’s not the important part. Nick Fairley will indeed pick up the “who am I supposed to kill, on what play” part quickly; as Schwartz said the Lions aren’t complicated up front. What Fairley needs is the coaching: the physical demonstrations of how they want their linemen to hit the hole, the film study of last years’ team executing the defense, the coaches’ explanation of the philosophy behind each arrow and dash in that playbook.
I remember when Jim Schwartz took over, he talked about defensive line technique. Marinelli coached his players to “get skinny in the hole,” ($) to attack gaps with a shoulder and penetrate blocks. Schwartz, meanwhile, prefers his D-line to engage their blockers, to attack and control with their arms, to get pressure without losing containment. It meant Schwartz had to coach all the linemen to do, essentially, the opposite of what they’d been doing. Nick Fairley can memorize “On this play I go here,” right now—but if he’ll have to re-learn how to “go there” from scratch, what’s the point? Schwartz would rather Nick Fairley be lifting and running sprints than poring over a playbook—so when it’s really time to learn the defense, he’ll be as ready as he can possibly be.