Posted January 14, 2014

Detroit Lions’ search for a ‘safe’ hire may have been a fool’s errand

Detroit Lions, NFC North
The Lions lost six of their last seven games en route to missing the playoffs for a second straight year.

The Lions (7-9) lost six of their last seven games en route to missing the playoffs for a second straight year. (Paul Sancya/AP)

When the Detroit Lions went searching for a head coach in 2009, they focused squarely on the assistant coaching ranks — Leslie Frazier, Todd Bowles and Ron Rivera among the names considered then alongside Jim Schwartz, who they eventually hired.

The focus this time around — though GM Martin Mayhew insisted he would not “pigeon-hole” himself in such a way — appeared to be on those with head coaching experience, like Gary Kubiak and Mike Munchak. For a Lions organization which feels it can contend for a playoff spot and has whiffed on its last three rookie head coaches (Schwartz, Rod Marinelli and Marty Mornhinweg), that approach presented itself as a more unassailable one.

And therein may lie the issue with Detroit’s coaching search, the team’s sixth since 1997, which ended Tuesday with the pick of Jim Caldwell: There is no such thing as a “safe,” slam-dunk hire in the NFL.

Bill Belichick tanked in Cleveland before eventually landing in New England. Pete Carroll was a bust with the Jets and Patriots, only finding his footing with Seattle more than a decade later. The Lions certainly are hoping — especially after Whisenhunt fell out of the mix — that Caldwell can find similar success in his second go-round as head coach. But is there any guarantee he will? Conversely, is there any assurance that Whisenhunt has a brighter future in Tennessee than any of the options Detroit was considering after he chose San Diego?

Hardly.

“Obviously, experience as a head coach is important,” Mayhew said. “It doesn’t matter what side of the ball it is. I also think we can take into account a coach’s ability to change our culture a little bit. It has to be something bigger than just scheme that somebody’s bringing to our table.”

So, how was a franchise that’s tried just about everything supposed to avoid repeating its mistakes of the past?

Short of plucking a head coach from college, a risky venture in its own right, the Lions have banged down every door over the past decade-plus. They hired the grizzled and experienced veteran (Bobby Ross); a promising offensive mind who was being groomed to be a head coach (Marty Mornhinweg); the big-name star (Steve Mariucci); a well-traveled defensive guru (Rod Marinelli); and, finally, the up-and-coming, coveted rising talent (Schwartz).

Only two, Ross and Schwartz, were able to even make the playoffs. Neither won once there.

All signs pointed to Whisenhunt being the Lions’ No. 1 choice during their ongoing coaching search. But he — as Caldwell does now — would have arrived with his own pluses and minuses. Clearly, Whisenhunt’s work with the likes of Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers have provided him a little extra credibility, and he took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl not that long ago. He also failed to replicate his winning ways post-Warner and then lost that job.

Caldwell made a Super Bowl appearance himself in Indianapolis, then ultimately failed there despite being Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor. Kubiak’s Texans fell apart, Munchak underachieved in Tennessee.

Safe? No such thing.

The Lions’ real focus circles back to that notion of “culture” that Mayhew tossed out after Schwartz’s release. Results are no guarantee in the NFL, but maybe, Detroit’s clearly thinking, if someone can get the roster to straighten up and fly right, those wins will follow. And at least in Whisenhunt, Caldwell and Kubiak, the Lions pinpointed three coaches who had earned a great deal of respect, both within their organizations and around the league.

Still, arguing that a group of experienced head coaches is superior to, say, the coordinators still in the playoffs who might be head coaching candidates — Denver’s Adam Gase, Seattle’s Darrell Bevell, San Francisco’s Greg Roman — ignores NFL history. The four coaches still alive in this season’s playoffs (including Belichick and Carroll) all took different paths to their current stops.

Given how the Jim Schwartz era collapsed so spectacularly, one hardly can blame the Lions for wanting a more cerebral leader. Without question, this is a roster in need of stability, of a steady-handed captain to keep the ship on course when the waters get choppy.

Maybe Whisenhunt would have been that guy. Maybe Caldwell will be. Pretending that anyone — least of all the Lions with their history of misfires — knows for sure is foolhardy. Detroit can hope only that its decision to opt for a known quantity like Caldwell does not blown up in its face.

There is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that it might.

104 comments
htmurgatroid
htmurgatroid

Stafford is so much like Favre they should have gone after Holmgren or Sherman. or both.

BarrySoetoro
BarrySoetoro

Without Peyton there would be no Dungy or Caldwell.

DennyCrane
DennyCrane

Much like Dungy's TB team, the Lions need a no nonsense ash kicker like a Chuckie.It was clear Dungy's player friendly approach would never work with that crew who held him in contempt. Once the big stick arrived they won the SB.


Detroit has talent, it's just undisciplined and out of focus, much like the late coach. The team does not need "cerebral"; it needs a coach who refuses to accept/allow the kind of on-field crap the players excel/revel in. Especially Suh. My memory of Caldwell is a Colt team with a steeply degrading performance from a SB year to a successful "Suck for Luck" campaign while Caldwell stood on the sideline with a gobsmacked look on his face and the inability to coach anything other than disaster.

JahliSuwaghaman
JahliSuwaghaman

Maybe Jim Caldwell is the right guy at the right time for the Lions.  However, as a Colts fan, I'll tell you I'm much happier with the Dungy/Caldwell "strong presence" being replaced by Chuck Pagano's more emotionally passionate approach to coaching.  After seeing many years of uninspiring, unemotional, unrewarding games from my Colts, I'm not entirely sure that the Dungy approach is the best for most teams.  Again, maybe for THIS team in Detriot it's exactly what they need. 

ChrisJDecker
ChrisJDecker

Great coaches had great quarterbacks. Belichick has Brady.  Landry had Staubach. Knolls had Bradshaw, and the list goes on. Stafford is supposed to be a great quarterback. To win a championship you have to have both. You can't have one without the other. Last year, Caldwell led the defending Super Bowl Champs with their Super Bowl MVP quarterback to 29th in offense. Joe Flacco certainly didn't have his full cast around him this year, but then neither did Tom Brady, who still won. Stafford did have his cast around him and he lost.  The litmus test will come from his assistant coaches as much as it will from the players.  Good coaches clung to the coat tails of Tony Dungy.  Certainly, past coaches and players have called in their endorsement of Jim Caldwell.  It's not his credibility I'm worried about, it's his reliability.

dabinsk11
dabinsk11

Detroit panicked and settled for Caldwell. There is a really good crop of coordinators-bright, creative, natural leaders and most are still untouchable because their teams are still in the playoffs. This includes Denver OC Adam Gase, Bengals DC Mike Zimmer, 49ers OC  Greg Roman, and both Seahawks coordinators Dan Quinn and Darrell Bevell. ALL would be better picks than the re-treads the Liedowns were interested in: Whisenhut, Caldwell, Kubiak and Munchak. Watch, Minnesota will be patient and hire one of these guys and they will hurdle the Lions next year.  Pathetic excuse for a franchise.

 

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

Not sure how hiring a known loser is "safe".  How much worse can it be ... they hired perhaps the worst head coach of the past twenty years.

zeebaneighba
zeebaneighba

The problem with the Lion's safe hire is that they are the Lions. Nothing they ever do makes any difference. The only exception was when they hired Matt Millen, who took a mediocre franchise and turned it into one that was downright execrable.


I'm not a superstitious person, but the Lions make me think there might really be such a thing as curses.

gary41
gary41

Competent, but not exactly inspiring leadership.  Overall better, but not the best choice.  The Lions never quite make the right choices.  In any case, the cupboard is not exactly bare.  Be concerned about the coach, but more concerned about the organization.  

Mike26
Mike26

I just want to know what JoeCabot thinks about this article and this hire by the Lions.


Oops, JoeCabot doesn't have the capacity for original thought - just critiques of everyone else's.  Shocking!

X X
X X

Anyone (ie: the author of this article) who says "Pete Carroll was a bust in New England truly doesn't know football and had no credibility in my book.. His GM Bobby Grier was terrible at judging talent. Bobby Grier is why Parcells quit. Remember his "cook not getting to pick the groceries" quote. Pete Carroll did as best he could with want he got for players-Sedrick Shaw anyone?    Anyway Belichik went 5-11 in year one after Pete Carroll. It was Bobby Grier's mess. Pete Carroll knows how to coach football.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

The only thing I can figure is that Mr. Ford must be thinking is that Peyton is coming with Caldwell....

slickwilly
slickwilly

"Safe" is good because it means that you're hiring a proven, veteran coach. I wouldn't say that hiring Caldwell was safe though because he hasn't really proven anything yet.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

In 2007, the Lions started 6-2, and finished 1-7.  This year, 6-3 and 1-6.  Totally different front office, coaching staff, and roster; near-identical futility.  They have been terrible for almost six decades.  

William Clay Ford, Sr., was a meddler from the time he bought the team in 1958, until handing control to his son.  Junior's main resume item is almost burying Ford Motor Company about 10 years ago.

The problem is in the owner's box.  Nothing else explains an elite franchise of the 1950s collapsing to just one playoff win in the six decades since. 

Don't expect the media to tell the truth.  Ford buys an enormous amount of advertising during NFL games.

Cool
Cool

I will assume that when Mr Burke gets to grade the newly hired coaches he will give none of them an "A" because he knows nothing is a sure bet.  Oh wait, he already gave that grade to Tampa Bay when they hired Lovie Smith.  

But since he insist on playing this little game I would like to play along.  I believe that the Lions will do better under the guidance of Caldwell than the Titans will under the guidance of Whisenhunt.  

Mrkirk62
Mrkirk62

Yes, that's true, but I wouldn't necessarily call Mr. Shanahan a genius as most people do. In essence, Caldwell and Whisenhut might be in the same situation, given when they  had great quarterbacks to work with, they succeeded. In Caldwell's case, when the Colts went 2-14, they were in the process of "Suck For Luck"ing. So he, in my opinion, was the sacrificial lamb on that team. I mean, Curtis Painter???(Kerry Collins was also on that team, but he got hurt.) 


I'm just saying that the quarterback/coach success rate is true for many NFL teams. 

Joe R2
Joe R2

They fired a hot head and hired a pushover...  Caldwell isn't a great hire but he's still an upgrade over Schwartz...

Mrkirk62
Mrkirk62

And nobody is mentioning that Mike Shanahan didn't do so well without Elway. 

Fox
Fox

The Lions have just committed to another 5 years of losing.  NOTHING in this guy's resume says Head Coach.  NOTHING!

maca13
maca13

Carroll had more wins in his 3 years at NE then in his first 3 with Seattle and the Jets only gave him 1 year, how was he a bust??? Imagine if USC had been as impatient after they went 6-6 with a loss in the Las Vegas bowl! And Belichick was building a dynasty in Cleveland before Modell pulled the rug on the whole city. The Browns were coming off an 11 win season and were 3 - 1 when all hell broke loose with the announcement of the move. Belichick had assembled an amazing staff that included Ozzie Newsome, Scott Pioli, Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, Thomas Dimitroff and...Jim Schwartz. Anyone who thinks Belichick tanked and Carroll was a bust doesn't know coaching. The lesson should be about patience in allowing talented coaches to weather tough times, like the Steelers did with Cowher when they didn't make the playoffs for three straight years from '98-'00.

Mrkirk62
Mrkirk62

I am not sure if either Caldwell or Whisenhut will succeed based on their past experiences. Belicheck failed miserably in Cleveland and at first his hire in NE was thought of as a joke. A lot of people were down on Andy Reid in KC, and a lot of people thought Pete Carroll(I do have an issue with Mr. Burke's assessment that he failed in NE. He actually had a better regular season winning percentage than Bill Parcells) would fail in Seattle. 


Conversely, Rich Kotite was a highly thought of candidate at one time(I'm aging myself, I know), and everyone thought Nick Saban would be a great NFL head coach. 


They must have said something in the interviews that stuck. If they fail, then I would definitely say it's on the GMs of Detroit and Tennessee. I would like to give both the benefit of the doubt(easy for me to say, I am not a Lions or Titans fan...).

PWINGS
PWINGS

I think Caldwell is too easy going to enforce any discipline (on or off field) with the Lions. Adequate coach in the wrong situation. Mike Zimmer of the Bengals would have been a much better choice for the Lions players and their problems.

pcwhite2
pcwhite2

@JahliSuwaghaman 


But Dungy and Caldwell (and Peyton) won a SB, and Caldwell took them to another.


Let's see Pagano match that, then we can talk.

skyline225
skyline225

@dabinsk11The Lions didn't panic and settle. Remember they interviewed him first. He may have actually been the choice simply because the defense he utilized in Indianapolis is similar to the front used in Detroit. This will also allow the Lions best position group D-Line to play at their natural positions. Whisenhunt utilized 3-4. Also, remember that Schwartz was a bright, creative, up and coming star in this league prior to the Lions signing him and we see how it turned out. Pete Carrol and Bill Belichick both know failure before they won. I'm not saying Caldwell will be the man, but give him a chance to prove himself before you bash him. We all called for Schwartz' head and we got it. That has to count for something because he was under contract and Detroit could have retained him just as easily. Remember that the expectations for whoever the Lions hired is playoffs or bust. That's a tough position for any new coach coming in. Cowboys are in a similar position. Too much talent to underachieve every year. Be glad our owner didn't commit to Schwartz in the same manner Jerry Jones committed to Jason Garrett.

skyline225
skyline225

@RobertSmithWorst in the past 20 years? He actually took a team to the superbowl. Yes, it was Dungy's team, but he went nonetheless. I know another coach in the past 20 yrs that did that... Jon Gruden anyone? And just think, people were wanting the Lions to hire him. Also, when you say worst coach in 20 yrs, did you forget about the atrocity that was Marty Mornhinweg?? Correct me if I'm wrong, but he won like 9 games in 3 yrs. Then there's Marinelli... he let a 6-2 Lions team collapse to 8-8 and then went 0-16 before being fired. Just think about it...

tbost4321
tbost4321

@X X 

I'd agree.  Carroll didn't exactly set the world on fire in NE, but he wasn't terrible either.  27-21 with a division title, a wild card and a 1-2 record in the playoffs won't get you to Canton, but it's not worthy of being called a "bust" either.  

salvaje50
salvaje50

@X X Many of the core players that Belichick won with in 2001(besides Brady) were already on the roster when Bill took over.  So you can say that Pete just knows how to coach but he certainly didn't know how to coach and win with the same players that Bill won his first Super Bowl with.

ronsweet99
ronsweet99

@slickwilly ..oh really , what do you call taking a team to the superbowl,and  how many of the 32 current coaches can say that.if you can come up with 75% i will concede the point

ChrisJDecker
ChrisJDecker

@Cool That would be the ultimate irony.  The Lions don't get their man and do good.  Sounds about right.

davetheG
davetheG

@Joe R2 Lions lacked discipline under Schwartz, penalties and turnovers are a lack of execution and lack of execution does rest with players but the coaches have to discipline. In the end penalties and turnovers show a lack in the coaching dept for allowing it.  A bar needs to be set and not the one where you buy drinks. I think either coach has a good shot at success because one team i set, the other the coach has room to mold.

Rick57
Rick57

@Mrkirk62 There's always some moron who brings this up. How well did Elway do without Shanahan?

Jamm90
Jamm90

@Mrkirk62 I think Shanahan is and always was overrated, but he did find some kind of success with Plummer.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@Fox Nothing in the last 50 yrs or so in Detroit says winning either!  Regardless of who their coach has been.



scBlais
scBlais

@maca13Thank you!  Roll my eye's every time I hear or read someone say that Carroll was a bust and Belicheck tanked in Cleveland. 

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@Mrkirk62The benefit of the doubt doesn't work with the screamers and fantasy football GMs that hang around here.  If it were up to them, it seems that no NFL team would actually have a head coach because there are no worthy candidates anywhere on the planet.

davetheG
davetheG

@PWINGSWhy isn' Zimmer in the mix? Does the guy wear dresses, eat gummy bears while singing tip toe through the tulips? Does he kick puppies and kittens? Zimmer would and should be given a shot based on what he has done with what he has. Zimmer would be my pick for any of the teams with openings.

BY
BY

@salvaje50 @X X Carroll appears to be doing pretty well now. He must have gotten some  smart pills. Not being as good a coach as Bill Parcells covers a LOT of guys.

newshamg
newshamg

@ronsweet99 @slickwilly He didn't take a team to the Superbowl. C`ldwell was also the butt of jokes amongst other NFL coaches as being out of his depth.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@skyline225@MidwestGolfFan 

How much is Junior paying you?  Or do you work for Caldwell?

Hands-off?  You've got to be kidding me.  They hired Matt Millen, who turned out to be a chump, then kept him around long after it was clear he was incompetent.

GMs?  They're the OWNERS.  If you're going to be a troll, at least get your facts straight.  Or is accuracy not relevant to whomever is paying you?

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@Rick57@Mrkirk62 

Elway went to 3 Super Bowls with Dan Reeves.  He may not have won, but he got there.  Or are you saying that 3 AFC Championships are not relevant?

PWINGS
PWINGS

@davetheG@PWINGS  While I can't speak with any authority, my guess is that he doesn't present himself as "diplomatically" as some would like. He's outspoken and wouldn't be afraid to tell his boss he screwed up. Probably got a little bit of Bill Parcells  / Jimmie Johnson in him and we know how that turns out with some owners. Mind you, I'm not saying Zim is wrong or that teams are correct in not hiring him. But there's just no bs about him. In Cincy, at least he has a buffer between him and Mike Brown in HC Marvin Lewis who IS a "yes man". As for being the right fit for any NFL HC job, I hope that he doesn't get the Vikings job because I wouldn't wish that train wreck of an organization on anyone. Regrettably, it looks like that's where he's going to end up.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@skyline225@newshamg@ronsweet99@slickwilly 

Yes, Caldwell-troll (only 5 comments ever at SI, all nastily pro-Caldwell) -- you forget that he went 2-14 his last year.  

Losing Manning is no excuse.  If he's the great coach you claim, he wouldn't have gone from 10 wins to 2 (0-13 at one point).

skyline225
skyline225

@newshamg@ronsweet99@slickwillyum yes he did... he took the Colts to the superbowl the year after Dungy retired... hmmm... and also, how did you get to the inner circle of NFL coaching conversation?