Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Fire Schwartz! That seems to be the overwhelming sentiment across the Mitten State after Monday night’s disaster. Most everyone expects the Ford family to engage the killswitch on the embattled coach once the season ends, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that Schwartz is out.
The Lions still have more realistic playoff chances than the bitter, fatigued fan base realizes. Of course those aspirations revolve on the Lions winning against the Giants and Vikings over the last two weeks, which is (rightly) the source of the pessimism.
However, making the playoffs under the current circumstances would show a great deal of coaching aptitude. Navigating these rough waters and sailing into the playoffs would give the Fords a strong reason to consider keeping Schwartz at the helm.
On the presumption that Schwartz and his coordinators, Scott Linehan on offense and Gunther Cunningham on defense, are indeed terminated if the Lions fail to make the playoffs, here are five candidates to succeed him as head coach of the Detroit Lions. They are listed in order of my personal preference.
Currently a pretty solid color man for Fox’s NFL coverage, Billick brings a whole lot to the table. He comes from an offensive background, masterminding one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history during his tenure as Offensive Coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1990s.
You might remember those teams. His final four seasons, 1995-98, the Vikings were an offensive juggernaut. They had a team loaded with skill position weaponry. They ranked near the top in yards and points despite being saddled with the relatively pedestrian Brad Johnson at quarterback. That offense blossomed when Randall Cunningham took over in ’98. In fact, the 1998 team he guided to a NFL record 556 points doesn’t look all that different from what Detroit has right now.
They had a dual attack out of the backfield, with lightning Robert Smith and powerful Leroy Hoard, just as these Lions have Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. They had arguably the most talented and athletically gifted wideout in the game in Randy Moss. Say hello to Calvin Johnson. The Minnesota line was solid; this Lions line might actually be better. A healthy Nate Burleson fills Jake Reed’s role as the dynamic third receiver. Give these Lions a legitimate second option at wideout–those Vikings had a declining but still effective Cris Carter–and all the pieces are in place for Billick to recreate his magic. Think Kelvin Benjamin or Sammy Watkins with a first round pick would do the trick?
Yet the biggest reason why Billick is so appealing is what he did next. As head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, he took over a defensive-oriented team. Rather than try to build the team into what he had in Minnesota, Billick adapted his strategy. He coached to the strengths of his talent, and guided the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship behind a punishing defense and a conservative (some would say lousy) offense.
He’s stayed close to the game in his broadcasting capacity, including calling several Lions games. If anyone can maximize Matthew Stafford’s enormous potential, it’s Brian Billick.
There are detractions. Billick loves to tell everyone he’s the smartest guy in the room, even if the room includes brain surgeons and nuclear physicists. He’s earned a reputation as a micromanager, which can wear thin quickly.
However, he is overdue for a second chance to prove he’s learned from his mistakes. Brian Billick should be at or near the top of any potential coaching list.
No, not his more celebrated older brother. Instead of chasing Jon Gruden with tens of millions to try and lure him from the comfort of the Monday Night Football booth, the Lions would be better off going after brother Jay.
Currently the Offensive Coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Jay Gruden has proven to be a highly competent offensive mastermind. His Bengals offense has similar structure and pieces to what he would inherit in Detroit, with one notable exception: these Lions have Matthew Stafford at quarterback, a potentially significant upgrade over Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
Gruden does have head coaching experience from the Arena League, where he won four titles as a quarterback and two more as a head coach. He also coached the Florida Tuskers to the UFL Championship game in 2010.
Gruden might be the best possible choice to help develop Stafford, who is the centerpiece around which the offense must be built for the next few seasons. If he could bring along some assistants from Cincinnati, notably Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Lions would be in excellent hands.
Currently the head coach at Penn State, O’Brien has proven he can successfully manage a very difficult situation. O’Brien has masterfully calmed the tumultuous waters in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky fall from grace.
What makes O’Brien attractive is his NFL background. He is, like Schwartz, a former assistant under Bill Belichick. He served as Offensive Coordinator in 2011 after several years as Tom Brady’s quarterback coach. O’Brien is a balanced but focused presence on the sideline, and his players clearly revere him.
Notice a prevailing theme here? Getting the most out of Matthew Stafford is the biggest selling point any potential replacement for Jim Schwartz can make.
Detroit isn’t at the top of the line for O’Brien, however. He is reportedly the primary target for the Houston Texans, who have an owner that isn’t afraid of a multi-million dollar buyout at Penn State or a hefty annual contract.
Most folks hold a low opinion of the former Jets and Browns head coach, and perhaps with valid reason. “Mangenius” carried himself with an arrogance that makes Billick seem humble, and his legendary thirst for complete control of everything from picking players to picking salad dressings in the cafeteria cast a long shadow.
His final year in Cleveland showed real growth, despite the unsavory ending. Working under Mike Holmgren in a forced marriage of contrasting philosophies, Mangini forged a surprisingly competitive team out of a roster with nowhere close to the talent he would take over in Detroit. They finished 5-11 but seven of those losses were within a touchdown despite having an offense built around plodding Peyton Hillis taking handoffs from Colt McCoy and the carcass of Jake Delhomme, with Chansi Stuckey and Mohammed Massaquoi as the top receivers. Think of what he could craft with Megatron, Stafford & Co.!
Since then, Mangini has transitioned quite nicely into television. He lost some weight but gained some much-needed humility and humor. His inner tactician is still there, but now he’s improved his people skills. There is inherent risk in trying to sell a wildly unpopular and unsuccessful coach to a perennially skeptical Lions fan base, but Mangini deserves one last chance to prove himself.
Seattle’s Offensive Coordinator figures to be a hot name, especially if the Seahawks parlay their front-running status into a Super Bowl title. The former Wisconsin quarterback has never been a head coach, but he does have years of NFL experience.
Bevell made his name as Brett Favre’s QB coach in Green Bay. Even though he’s actually a few months younger than Favre, he helped spark a relative renaissance in the veteran at the end of his Packers tenure. Bevell became the OC in Minnesota under Brad Childress in 2006. With Favre once again, he crafted a prolific offense that made it all the way to the NFC Championship game.
Since he joined forces with Pete Carroll in Seattle, Bevell has displayed creativity and infectious energy. His work with Russell Wilson has produced one of the best young quarterbacks and leaders in the game. Bevell is noted for his ability to relate with players and to tailor opponent-specific game plans.
Anytime there is a coaching change, many names surface seemingly out of the ether. Brian Kelly from Notre Dame will certainly get mentioned, though he’s better-served sticking in the college game. So will Todd Bowles, the former Dolphins interim coach now serving as Defensive Coordinator in Arizona. He fulfills the Rooney Rule requirement, though he merits a long look regardless.
The man Bowles succeeded in Arizona, Ray Horton, deserves strong consideration as well. Horton is now in that capacity in Cleveland. He’s a 3-4 defensive guru, which might not mesh well with the current Lions talent base on defense, as the Lions seldom deploy more than two linebackers now.
Then are the pies in the sky. Bill Cowher. Jon Gruden. David Shaw from Stanford. Kevin Sumlin from Texas A&M. Even Nick Saban, because nobody really believes he wouldn’t. Forget those sexy names, Lions fans, because they are not going to happen.
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