It’s transition time in the NFL with the annual change of coaches, and the Lions are prominent players as they begin the process to replace Jim Schwartz as head coach.
Looking back, where did Schwartz fall short? And more important, what qualities should the Lions look for in a new head coach, and what other changes are in order to lift the Lions from a team that hasn’t been able to close out games and seasons to one that can win?
Mike: The next head coach has to be a man with total command -- not control, but command, and there’s a difference. Control is something that is specified in a contract. Command is an inherent quality that sets winners apart.
A leader with command walks into a room and has everyone’s attention because he’s the boss. That does with the job title, but it does not guarantee that the message will make an impact.
When he walks out of the room after delivering his message, he has everyone’s respect and attention because he has left them knowing that they’ve been given a clear, realistic plan for winning. That’s command, and the message never gets old.
The Lions need a leader as head coach, and he has to pass it on to his key players. I'm sure we both have specific candidates in mind.
Tim: I agree 100 percent that the next head coach needs to have a presence and a command over both his coaching staff and the locker room.
It’ll also be important that he’s had success and has a resume of winning football in his past. You can have terrific presence and great command, but if there isn’t proof that message has led to success, it’s sort of hollow.
The next head coach needs to be someone who’s had success as a head coach, someone who’s proven he can win big games and someone who can clearly communicate his expectations to his staff and players.
The Lions need a leader.
So who’s No. 1 on your list?
Mike: Ken Whisenhunt’s resume fits what I’d look for, and a lot of teams with openings are certain to contact him as soon as the San Diego Chargers are eliminated from the playoffs.
For the Lions, the sooner that happens, the better.
Whisenhunt was the Cardinals’ head coach for six seasons and had only two losing records for a franchise that finished above .500 only once in the previous 23 seasons. Under Whisenhunt, the Cardinals went 8-8, 9-7 and 10-6 in his first three years, made the playoffs twice and went to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season.
He was fired after a 5-11 record in 2012 when the Cardinals lost all of their quarterbacks because of injuries.
Before that, he was an assistant coach and offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he spent 2013 as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.
In Pittsburgh, he helped develop Ben Roethlisberger. In Arizona and San Diego, he rebuilt Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers.
In Detroit, he can get the most out of
Tim: It isn’t often we’re in complete agreement about something, but this is one of those times, Mike.
Whisenhunt fits exactly the profile the Lions are looking for. He has head coaching experience. He’s been a part of two winning organizations – Pittsburgh and Arizona – and guided Arizona to a Super Bowl as its head coach.
I like the fact that he spent six years as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh under Bill Cowher. Whisenhunt said in the past how much he learned from Cowher about being a leader.
Here’s a quote from Whisenhunt in the New York Daily News before the Cardinals played in the Super Bowl in 2009.
"When Coach Cowher used to stand up and talk, I wrote all of that down. I told Coach Cowher that I have notebooks with little tabs in there from when he spoke before the championship game, when he spoke before the Super Bowl, when he spoke at the minicamp meeting, all of those things. I'd go back and look at those things and get ideas of where he was and what he was thinking about.
"I use those things (that Cowher said) to help me get an idea of what direction I'm going, but I also think about our football team and where we've come from and what we've accomplished.
“Our guys are ready to play. I don't know that I have to say anything to get them ready to go. But I do believe that I've had a lot of help, some very good mentors, and that's kind of where I derive a lot of what I say."
Whisenhunt served under one of the most respected coaches in the NFL in Cowher and he paid attention.
Mike: There are a couple other things to consider about Whisenhunt. In Pittsburgh, he worked for an organization that won before Cowher was head coach, won while Cowher was head coach and continued to win after Cowher departed. Winning is ingrained in Pittsburgh’s organization.
Whisenhunt can’t be the only candidate, though. For one thing, if he’s as hot as we both think he is – and we’re right on this one – other franchises will court him, too.
There will be good candidates for this job, and from candidates with different backgrounds – with former head coaching experience in the NFL and college, coordinators and position coaches.
No matter who takes over, the question is whether the Lions are ready-made for someone to step in and win.
Tim: No question about it. Detroit is the most ready to win job of all the current openings in the NFL.
They have a franchise quarterback in Stafford, who’s two years removed from a 41-touchdown, 5,000-yard season.
The next head coach will be tasked with getting that kind of production out of him once again. The good news is that coach, whoever he is, knows it’s in there somewhere.
It also means there won’t be any grace period for the new guy. He’ll be expected to make an immediate impact. Winning the NFC North and hosting a playoff game is the minimum expectation from the Ford Family and the front office for next season.
Mike: When you say hosting a playoff game next season it leaves a chill, because the Lions should be playing downtown in the wild-card round this week.
The fact that they aren’t represents Schwartz’s biggest failing as a coach. His team could not close the deal. When things started going wrong, there was no answer to get the team back on the rails.
Offensive turnovers continued. Failures to get fourth-quarter stops in key situations in the fourth quarter continued. Special teams breakdowns popped up at the worst time.
The Lions didn’t do enough little things under Schwartz to win games. That’s why another coach search is on, but with some hope for the New Year.
Tim: It’s almost fitting this column runs on New Year’s Day.
It’s the first day of the New Year and the Lions are quickly trying to turn the page on 2013 and set the wheels in motion for a successful 2014 and beyond.
Make no mistake, though, this next hire is crucial for that to happen.