If a football team takes on the personality of its head coach and quarterback, then the Detroit Lions are the NFL's most bipolar franchise.
On one end, the Lions are coached by an emerging sideline madman. Already this season, coach Jim Schwartz has been caught cursing at officials, taunting opposing players and creating a postgame fist-pump that has risen to cult status in Detroit.
On the other end, quarterback Matthew Stafford's unflappable steadiness has lent serenity to the huddle even as the Lions faced 20-plus point deficits the past two weeks. If his biography didn't confirm that he grew up in Dallas, I would swear Stafford spent his formative days surfing somewhere in northern California.
"We take on Matt's personality out there on the field," receiver Calvin Johnson said. "I always say that Matt is cool, calm and collected in the huddle, no matter what the situation is."
Monday night, the nation will see for itself when the Lions host the Chicago Bears at Ford Field.
To be sure, Stafford has displayed the enthusiasm of a 23-year-old during the exciting moments of the Lions’ 4-0 start. More importantly, however, he hasn't hung his head in moments of despair. After throwing an interception to end the Lions' first possession Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, Stafford simply walked off the field, slapped his hands together and checked in with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to explain.
Asked about the pass after the game, Stafford shrugged and said: "It was the right read. Just threw a bad ball."
Asked how he handled a 27-3 deficit in the third quarter, Stafford said: "I think everyone was thinking, we've got to make some plays. That’s the way it is."
I'm sure some people would prefer a more fiery attitude from a team's on-field leader, but I tend to think that Stafford's perspective is a critical element for this team. An excitable young quarterback is far more likely to force throws and make mistakes than one who mostly avoids the emotional roller coaster of a typical game.
That's especially true, of course, when the head coach is going berserk on the sidelines. We first discussed Schwartz’s sideline demeanor after his first season with the Lions, noting he was once the epitome of sideline concentration during his tenure as the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator.
Like many new head coaches who hand off play-calling duties to assistants, Schwartz filled his game-day void by berating officials and falling prey to the disappointments of his rebuilding team. At the time, Schwartz insisted that his sideline icons were Tony Dungy and Tom Landry and said: "When we get this team the way we need to be, you'll see a lot different me. Because if you look at me for all my years in Tennessee, I wasn't that guy with veins popping out of my head. But you can only do that when you have good players and you have confidence in them and they know you really well."
So much for that.
At the end of the Lions' Week 3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, FOX microphones caught him telling referee Ron Winter’s to "learn the [expletive] rules!"
And in the third quarter last week, Schwartz took exception to Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's trash-talking to Lions players during a break in the action while officials reviewed his 34-yard catch. Schwartz had immediately challenged it, and when referee John Parry reversed it, Schwartz took of his headset and pointed at Bryant.
His lips were easy to read.
"Hey, hey," Schwartz screamed. "How about that? Incomplete, you mother [expletive]!"
Asked about the episode Monday, Schwartz smiled and said: "I don't think Dez Bryant had a catch after about midway through the first quarter."
Actually, he caught one more -- a 6-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But the point was taken. Bryant didn’t sustain his hot start, or justify his trash-talking, thereafter.
To be clear, Schwartz’s sideline demeanor has never pushed him over the edge or left him unable to do his job. The Lions’ 4-0 start has been characterized by aggressive but sound game management.
And away from the field, Schwartz has a pretty monotone conversational style. His news conferences suggest he has a future in filibustering if he ever decides to step down from coaching. In reality, he is a young coach whose first head-coaching offer came from what was, at the time, the worst franchise in the league. Like everyone else in the Lions organization, he has taken a special measure of pride in their resurrection this season.
But that's how it has worked so far for the 2011 Lions. The coach gets 'em fired up while the quarterback keeps 'em level-headed. So far, it's been a perfect combination.