Jim Schwartz did some good things in his five seasons as head coach of the Lions, but he didn’t do enough to earn the right to return for a sixth season.
Whoever is hired to replace Schwartz has to do better – beginning on opening day of 2014.
Winning immediately has to be the mandate from management for the Lions’ next head coach. There cannot be a rebuilding program, or an extended break-in period.
Schwartz, who was fired Monday with two seasons left on his contract, was hired in 2009 to build a team that had made ignominious history in 2008 as the only team in NFL history to go 0-16. The Lions made slow, steady progress in his first three years and reached a peak in 2011 by making the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 record.
In the end, Schwartz couldn’t finish the job. The Lions collapsed badly the last two years. They were 4-12 in 2012 with a season-ending eight-game losing streak and lost six of the last seven this year to finish 7-9. A seemingly certain NFC North title slipped through their fingers.
Also on Monday, the Lions fired offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and assistant Tim Lappano, who coached tight ends for four years and was shunted to receivers this year in a staff shakeup.
As head man, Schwartz never solved the problem of inconsistency that plagued the Lions. Dropped passes, penalties and a consistent inability to produce in the clutch and make defensive stops to hold fourth-quarter leads kept the Lions from reaching the level that their talent warranted.
The next head coach has to instill the discipline in performance, and there cannot be a learning curve for the new man. There is no such thing as on-the-job training in 2014.
A recent ESPN analysis of potential job openings in the NFL listed the Lions as No. 2 as the most attractive for a number of factors – talent, resources and support from ownership among them. Houston was ranked No. 1.
President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew said at Monday’s press conference that the search for a replacement has begun.
"I think this will become one of the most, if not the single most, attractive head coaching opportunities in the National Football League for a lot of different reasons," Lewand said. "It starts with our ownership. The expectation is to bring a consistently winning football team to the city of Detroit immediately."
Lewand and Mayhew did not well at length on what went wrong in the Lions’ collapse.
"The fact is, we are here right now and we finished the season 7-9," Lewand said. "That is not acceptable, and we have to go forward from here."
Schwartz met with the players after being told by management that he had been fired. He departed the Lions’ headquarters facility in Allen Park without speaking to the media or issuing a statement.
Fan unrest grew in the season as the Lions’ skid from a 6-3 start to the 7-9 finish steamed onward. Players sensed that fan reaction played a role in canning Schwartz.
"Hell yes – of course that has a big, major factor," said center
"I think it has some factor in it, for sure."
Previous experience is a bonus but not mandatory for head-coaching candidates. Mayhew is convinced that the Lions can win with the talent they have, given the proper leadership.
"I think that’s something that would benefit somebody we’re talking to because we think we’re pretty far along in the process, and we don’t want to start over," Mayhew said. "We think our talent level is approaching the point where we should be contending, and we’re not there now."
The Lions will follow a process, which includes adhering to the Rooney Rule that mandates interviewing minority candidates before making a decision. The Lions have had African American coordinators and front-office officials – including Mayhew – but not a head coach.
A number of names will surface as potential candidates in Detroit, including some who’ve won Super Bowls but have been out of coaching for a number of years. Among those are Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. All are working in television and have shown no desire to coach anywhere in 2014 – if ever.
More realistic candidates are Lovie Smith, fired last year nine seasons as coach of the Bears; current Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and Penn State Coach Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien and Smith both have interviewed for the vacancy in Houston. O’Brien is regarded as the leading candidate.
There will numerous candidates. The fact that the two offensive coaches – Linehan and Lappano – were fired indicates that management thinks there are more problems on offense than defense, and that the new head coach would focus on fine-tuning the talent of quarterback
Stafford threw 41 TD passes in 2011 and has not been as productive since, with 49 TD passes against 36 interceptions that last two seasons combined.
There have been questions about whether Linehan and Schwartz were forceful enough in how they handled Stafford in some ares. Mayhew addressed the leadership issue as it pertains to the next head coach.
"It’s bigger than X’s and O’s," he said. "It’s bigger than scheme. It’s bigger than that. This guy has to be a leader and has to be able to lead our team."