Detroit Lions' search for a 'safe' hire may have been a fool's errand
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?
"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?
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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.