ALLEN PARK, Mich. Jim Schwartz had taken the Detroit Lions franchise from the laughingstock of the NFL 0-16 in 2008, the season before he became coach to 10 wins and the playoffs in just three years.
There was steady progress, legitimate optimism and growing expectations, leading to what seemed to be a well-deserved contract extension.
That was a year ago. The mood is considerably different these days, at least on the outside, as the Lions begin practice Friday afternoon.
Coming off a dreadful 4-12 season, the pressure is on Schwartz to win now or probably get fired.
The Lions will have an eight-game losing streak hanging over them heading into the new season.
A lot of lessons you can only learn through experience, Schwartz said Thursday during a news conference to open training camp. That was a tough experience. I think it was humbling for me personally. I think it was humbling for the team.
It takes a lot to humble Schwartz, but three years of progress were wiped out by one bad season. Welcome to the National Football League. Perceptions change abruptly, from week to week, even play to play.
Schwartz tries to ignore the negative chatter, but he knows that his name has shot right to the top of coaches on the hot seat for 2013.
That happens when you take such a big, disappointing step back while losing nine games by eight points or less.
As coaches, were used to that kind of scrutiny, Schwartz said of the perceived hot seat. Were used to high expectations. That doesnt change our confidence. That doesnt change the way we do things. It doesnt even enter our thoughts.
Its stuff that people in the media or fans or other people talk about, but it doesnt at all affect how we go about our business on a daily basis.
For the record, Schwartz insists hes never felt better about a team since coming to Detroit than he does with this one.
That seems unrealistic considering what happened last year, but Schwartz sees that he has a superstar in receiver Calvin Johnson, a quarterback with another year of experience in Matthew Stafford, players returning from season-ending injuries such as receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, along with promising young cornerback Bill Bentley and perhaps even safety Louis Delmas.
He also feels good about defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh coming off the best spring hes had, not to mention the addition of running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin, both free agents, and defensive end Ezekiel Ziggy Ansah, the No. 5 pick overall in the NFL Draft.
Whats more, most of the distractions from a year ago the endless stretch of off-season arrests to the in-season Titus Young saga have disappeared, for the most part.
Im the most confident Ive been in four years here as a head coach, Schwartz said.
Its that time of year, you know. Every coach, every player in the NFL is as optimistic as Schwartz about their chances.
The high hopes of July and August, however, turn into a harsh reality for many by November and December.
The thing thats different with us, Schwartz explained, is we have reasons to be optimistic. We have tangible reasons.
We made some good acquisitions, both in the draft and in free agency. Were on track to get a lot of players back from injury that missed significant time last year.
Some of the lessons we learned (from last years struggles) I think were a better team, better individuals as a result of all that. I think were in a much better place right now.
Still, there are major questions facing this team, starting with whether the offensive line, with three new starters, can protect Stafford; whether the defense can actually force some turnovers; and whether a rookie punter, Sam Martin, can become an asset.
Then theres Schwartz, who enters his fifth year knowing he has to put all the pieces in the right places to get this club back into playoff contention. Or else, perhaps.
The best coaches learn from whats happened in the past, Schwartz said. I think I have.
Whether or not Im a better coach, that will be determined in the future. Its not going to be determined through OTAs and training camp. Its going to be in the record this year.
Schwartz plans to give Delmas (knee problems) numerous days off during training camp.
Well try to be preemptive and try to keep something from flaring up, Schwartz said. But we need to get Lou and Glover together on the field and create that camaraderie and synergy between those two guys. We just need to balance that with (not) overextending it.