Steve Spagnuolo, Jim Schwartz, & the Road Not Taken

>> 1.03.2012

Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions head coach

Spags is my #1 choice for the next Lions head coach--and he ought to be yours, too.

That was the closing line of my fifth post ever, the "To Whom it May Concern" for Steve Spagnuolo. I tagged him “Candidate 1A,” thanks to his impressive track record of coaching up defensive backs and harnessing pass-rushing talent. He also had experience in player personnel, making him an ideal fit for a franchise turning the keys over to a first-time GM.

Monday, Spagnuolo was fired.

It’s a visceral reminder of how thin the line between success and failure is in the NFL. It’s a reminder of how “the right” choices and “the right” processes can still lead to bad outcomes. You can make a great coaching hire like Spags, draft great prospects like Sam Bradford and Robert Quinn, sign great free agents like Pro Football Focus darling Quentin Mikell, and still have the wheels fall off. It’s not enough to make good individual decisions, they all have to synthesize into a greater plan—and sometimes, even that isn’t enough.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch eloquently detailed how and why Steve Spagnuolo’s “trying hard” was too hard to swallow:

You don't get four-year or five-year building phases in this league anymore. You don't win seven games in your second season and then revert to being an expansion-team level mess in your third season. There should be zero tolerance for the horror of watching quarterback Sam Bradford regress so alarmingly in his second NFL season . . .

. . . My fear is that a bizarre alternate universe has set in over at Rams Park. It's a place where you can go 10-38 and merrily dish the kind of tributes usually reserved for a team that's gone 38-10.

We've lived in that alternate universe, haven't we, Lions fans?

Spagnuolo got off to a start mirroring Jim Schwartz’s. They both drafted franchise quarterbacks, they both took big jumps from one or two wins to six or seven wins, and coming into this season both had legitimate designs on making the playoffs.

In the end, though, Spagnuolo’s tenure more closely resembled Rod Marinelli’s. Both changed offensive coordinators in year three, both had major regressions on both sides of the ball, and both held a season’s worth of awkward press conferences full of blithering platitudes about building a foundation when the walls were clearly tumbling down.

And now: poetry.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Normally we just hear the last three lines of this poem, because this is America and “just being yourself” is our greatest collective virtue. Doing your own thing just to be different is universally lauded. Being interesting is just as valid, if not more so, than being good—just ask Lady Gaga.

But there are seventeen other lines to this poem, and Frost takes great pains to point out that neither of the two paths is any more or less virtuous. The path the speaker takes was “just as fair” as the other; it had “perhaps a better claim” because it was grassy and not worn down—but he admits both paths had been worn “really about the same.” Both were covered in undisturbed leaves anyway, so he might as well have flipped a coin.

This poem is about the lies we tell ourselves to spin our lives into dramatic narratives, with concrete causes and effects and triumphs and tragedies. The speaker tells himself he “kept the first [path] for another day,” even though in the back of his mind he knows it’s unlikely he’ll ever make this choice again.

The speaker is self-aware enough to know someday, years and years down the line, he’ll wistfully recall this apparently-fateful day in the woods—and tell someone with a sigh he took the road less traveled by, and in the end it made all the difference. He’s foretelling his own revisionist history! The choice, we know, was basically a whim—and whatever events followed it coincidental.

It's tempting to say Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand—or, if he is to be believed, William Clay Ford—were blessed with incredible foresight to let the Rams have the consensus “Candidate 1A” and tab Jim Schwartz to lead the Lions from the absolute bottom of the blackest abyss to the top of the mountain. It’s tempting to believe the Lions, by marching to the beat of their own drummer, got the “right” guy while the Rams foolishly followed the herd and got the “wrong” guy. Who knows? Perhaps it’s true.

But on the face of it, Spagnuolo and Schwartz were both great (and similar) candidates. So many factors go into the success of an NFL franchise that a head coach can be consistently excellent at his job and still fail (see: Andy Reid, who may have to hire Spags to save his own skin). Who’s to say that had the situations been reversed, Spagnuolo wouldn’t be leading the Lions to the playoffs while Schwartz tries to team back up with Jeff Fisher?

Whether it was a stroke of brilliant insight by the Lions executives, or a stroke of sheer luck, the Detroit Lions have a great coach doing great work with the considerable resources at his command. I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have loved the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo, nor can I pretend that if Spags were successful as Schwartz has been I wouldn’t be just as thrilled to have him prowling the Ford Field sidelines.

But the Lions took the head-banging, chess-playing, ref-eviscerating candidate less wanted, and I’m happy to tell myself The Grandmaster has made all the difference.


NorthLeft12,  January 3, 2012 at 3:15 PM  

I am happy to say that Schwartz was my first choice [by a mile] over any other candidate. I think Jim still has some rough edges to smooth off, but so far, so good.

Alex Hoag,  January 4, 2012 at 3:20 AM  

I gotta admit, Spags was my first choice, and why not after watching his Defense dismantle a unbeaten Tom Brady lead Pats in a Super Bowl.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  January 4, 2012 at 9:41 AM  

Yeah, absolutely nothing to indicate Spags wasn't ready to be a head man--and absolutely nothing to indicate he wouldn't at least build a great defense in St. Louis.

Jacob Lazinger,  January 4, 2012 at 8:40 PM  

Something else you should be thankful for...the drafting of Sam Bradford over Suh. It changed everything for the Rams. If they take Suh, they probably take Cam Newton this year.

Anonymous,  January 6, 2012 at 2:04 PM  

This is one of the best sports article's I've ever read. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous,  January 6, 2012 at 9:49 PM  

Excellent, insightful, well written article.

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