ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Three years ago, the last time the Detroit Lions searched for a head coach, it was a drawn-out but somewhat predictable process.
The Lions hired Matt Patricia days after the Super Bowl, a move that was widely anticipated for weeks. Patricia didn’t work out, and the Lions are once again looking for a head coach and a general manager, as well.
The Lions might or might not hire a head coach before a general manager. But they have an idea of what characteristics they are seeking in the people they will hire.
“I won’t share all of them with you but I would say they focus on leadership, culture, teamwork, awareness of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what we’re really looking for is a culture which is open, inclusive, where everybody is pulling together as a team and one where communication is paramount,” Lions team president Rod Wood said. “And everybody is doing the right thing for the Detroit Lions and some of the people that we’re looking for, that we’re bringing in to interview, I think exhibit those traits as we go through the interview process.”
For head coaches, that process started just after the new year as Detroit tries to finally gets its head coaching position correct after decades of largely struggling to find good, successful fits for the franchise. Here’s a look at who they’ve talked with so far this time around.
Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator
When interviewed: Jan. 12
College: North Carolina
Experience: North Carolina (2006 – graduate assistant); Washington Football Team (2007-08 – defensive quality control assistant); Mississippi (2010 – defensive intern); Tennessee Titans (2011 – defensive quality control assistant; 2012 – offensive quality control assistant; 2013 – offensive line/tight ends assistant; 2014-15 – assistant tight ends coach; 2016-18 – tight ends coach; 2019-Present – offensive coordinator).
Pros: Smith is a fast-riser in the coaching profession but has a ton of experience for a coach under 40. He’s worked his way up from a low-level assistant for years to being a coordinator. His offense in Tennessee was fantastic this season, ranking second in rushing (168.1 yards per game), seventh in yards per pass attempt (7.53) and second overall in yards per game (396.4).
Even though he’s been with only one organization for most of his professional career, which would typically be a concern, he has worked with four different Tennessee head coaches, meaning he’s seen a lot of different systems and ways of doing things. In many ways, he’s done the opposite of many coaches. He’s been able to stay in one place even while everyone else around him revolves.
That is a testament to value that someone brings.
And he’s seen what it’s like to go from the bottom-up -- the Titans have had three 10-plus loss seasons while he’s been there and six winning seasons.
When he was the full-time tight ends coach, Delanie Walker was a Pro Bowler in 2015-17 and his four seasons working with Walker, Walker had the best four seasons of his career in targets, receptions and yards when Smith was his coach.
Smith has been praised for his schemes and his innovation while still keeping a heavy rushing attack, something that is valued in today’s NFL. Plus, he’s worked on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball so he would have intimate knowledge of what it is like to handle both sides of things.
Smith’s father is also the founder of FedEx -- so he’s clearly doing this because he loves it and also he’s seen what it takes up close to be a CEO, something clearly attractive to the Lions, who appear to be looking for a coach who can manage a team like one.
Cons: Being in one place for an entire tenure does raise an orange flag considering Detroit’s experiences with its last head coach and general manager, but the shifting around him makes that less of a concern than someone who was only in one spot under one coach throughout the majority of his career.
There would also be a concern with any first-time head coach -- and since he’s on the younger side the Lions should want to know who his coordinators/staff would be to make sure there is an experienced hand or two on there for him to lean on. Most young coaches have someone like that somewhere on their staffs, especially if he’s entering into a situation like Detroit, where winning has not been consistent.
Smith is a good candidate, although sometimes the hot candidates don’t work out -- but there’s little on the face of his career to signal he would be a bad hire.
Dan Campbell, New Orleans Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach
When interviewed: Jan. 11
College: Texas A&M – majored in agricultural development
Experience: As a player (tight end): New York Giants (1999-2002); Dallas Cowboys (2003-05); Detroit Lions (2006-08); New Orleans Saints (2009). As a coach: Miami Dolphins (2010 – intern in coaching; 2011-15 – tight ends coach; 2015 – interim head coach, 5-7 record); New Orleans Saints (2016-Present – Assistant head coach/tight ends coach).
Pros: Campbell is an incredibly intriguing candidate. He has experience from his 12 games as Dolphins head coach after taking over for the fired Joe Philbin in 2015 and kept Miami competitive. The Lions likely have an added amount of respect for that considering they just saw some of what happens when an interim coach takes over.
He has the locker room understanding of a former player and he played for the Lions for three seasons. He understands the unique issues that exist in Detroit. Maybe more so than any other candidate -- including Robert Saleh -- he gets the history of the Lions because he was on the 2008 team that went 0-16, and he played in the final three years of the Matt Millen era.
So if you’re looking for a candidate who specifically understands the challenges of the Lions organization, Campbell might be your guy.
He’s a good motivator and spent the past half-decade working under Sean Payton, which has been a benefit. As he told ESPN’s Mike Triplett in 2018, the allure of learning under Payton was part of what drew him to New Orleans.
“I would tell you that was No. 2 on the list," Campbell said. "No. 1 was I know Sean, and I have a history with Sean. So I just knew about him as a person and as a coach. So to be reunited with him meant the world to me."
In that same story, defensive end Cameron Jordan described Campbell as “an alpha,” but who also helped Jordan learn how to play against tight ends. At worst, he’s a guy worth talking to for the Lions, who have a better handle of what they want in a head coach than they did last time around.
Cons: The first -- on an optics level -- is bringing anyone associated with the 2008 team back to the franchise as its coach considering the Lions are closer to that level of team than they had been at any other time since 2010. This could be a positive, too, considering he also lived it and knows what happened positively and negatively during that tenure.
The other is how Campbell can handle a true rebuilding scenario. Yes, he can easily lean on his three-quarters of a season as interim head coach, but he’s never quite been in a scenario like the Lions as a head coach. When he was with the Dolphins, they were 8-8 twice, 7-9 twice and 6-10 once before the 2015 season, when he took over as interim head coach and went 5-7.
So he’s seen a build before, but not one like what Detroit might have to do.
He does check a lot of boxes for Detroit in its search, though, and he could be an under-the-radar surprise to potentially get the job.
Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator
When interviewed: Jan. 7
College: Northern Michigan University
Experience: Michigan State (2002 – offensive assistant/tight ends; 2003 – defensive assistant/defensive line); Central Michigan (2004 – defensive assistant/defensive line); Georgia (2005 – defensive assistant/linebackers); Houston Texans (2005 – intern; 2006-08 – defensive assistant; 2009-10 – linebackers coach); Seattle Seahawks (2001-13 – defensive quality control coach); Jacksonville Jaguars (2014-16 – linebackers coach); San Francisco 49ers (2017-Present – defensive coordinator).
Pros: He is the choice of locals – at least the local politicians, who took a rare step in drafting a letter to Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp campaigning for the team to hire him. He’s also a local himself, having grown up in Dearborn, Michigan, and still having a lot of family in the area.
Those ties only go so far. It’s Saleh’s work as a coordinator that should land him a job in Detroit, or elsewhere, this offseason. His defense helped get the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season and ranked second in yards allowed per game (281.8) and was the best pass defense in the NFL (169.2). He is versatile and aggressive in his schemes.
Moreover, he still put together a Top 10 defense in 2020 despite injuries across his defense -- finishing fifth in yards allowed per game (312.0); seventh in rushing yards allowed (105.5) and fourth in passing yards allowed (206.5). They were also the fourth-best team in preventing third down conversions last season (36.4 percent). This all happened with Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt and Kwon Alexander all missing significant time due to injury.
“You’ve got to give Saleh an abundance of credit, you have to give him an unusual amount of credit and I don’t think he’s getting enough credit, not only here but the league in general,” Sherman told reporters in November. “To have the injuries that we’ve had week after week after week.
“He never makes an excuse. And statistically we’re still a top-five defense in almost every category.”
Saleh is a passionate leader who knows how to motivate. He fits a lot of what the Lions are looking for. And Saleh knows the history of the Lions and the franchise’s rough history perhaps better than any other candidate. That knowledge is an intangible in his favor, so he would theoretically know what he’s walking into.
Cons: There is an element of concern with him returning to Detroit, though. Not from any of his abilities or possibilities as a head coach, but the human side of it. If Saleh were to return home and fail, it could permanently alter how he’s viewed in his hometown.
Fair? No. But when you’re in a high-profile position and it doesn’t work out, that tends to follow you if you did it where you grow up and where your family still lives. Does he want to burst that bubble?
He doesn’t have head coaching experience, although that might be less of a deterrent than initially thought considering who the Lions have largely been talking with. He’s also a defensive-minded head coach, so if I’m the Lions I want to understand both his offensive plan and who his planned coordinator and quarterbacks coach were going to be.
Because if you’re hiring Saleh and you get the hire right, you want to make sure they are prepared to replace Matthew Stafford at some point -- one, two or five years down the road.
Darrell Bevell, Detroit Lions interim head coach
When interviewed: Jan. 5
College: University of Wisconsin
Experience: University of Wisconsin (1992-95 -- player, quarterback, 1992-95); Westmar University (1996 -- passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach); Iowa State (1997 – graduate assistant); Connecticut (1998-99 – wide receivers); Green Bay Packers (2000-01 – offensive quality control assistant; 2002 – offensive assistant; 2003-05 – quarterbacks coach); Minnesota Vikings (2006-10 – offensive coordinator); Seattle Seahawks (2011-17 – offensive coordinator); Detroit Lions (2019-Present – offensive coordinator; 2020-Present – Interim head coach).
Pros: Bevell is the internal candidate and knows the roster better than any other coach the team will bring in. He also earned respect in the locker room for how he handled the final month of the season after Patricia was fired. The record -- 1-4, although one of those losses came with him sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols – isn’t good but he kept the Lions playing hard and competitive in the games he did coach. Quarterback Matthew Stafford clearly enjoys working with him and he gained the trust of the entire team.
“I love working with Bev, man,” safety Duron Harmon said. “Before he got the interim head coach, obviously we had interactions and talked but I didn’t really get to see him lead a group of men and he’s done a tremendous job with his energy each and every day, making practices competitive, having it be a place where everybody was excited to come to work and that’s what he wanted. He’s a great leader.”
Bevell also showed he was willing to make hard decisions by firing special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs for calling an unauthorized fake punt in a loss to Tennessee. Overall, Bevell did the best he could in a very difficult situation.
Cons: His wins-and-losses as the interim head coach is something to notice although it’s tough to pin it on him. While he viewed this as a five-game “audition,” he might have been better served had Detroit fired Patricia earlier and given him more of a chance to remake the team in his mold.
Also, and this is the way it would be with any internal candidate, but being part of the last staff of a poor regime will not help his case. It would also not play particularly well with the fan base. And while that shouldn’t be the arbiter of making a coaching hire, Detroit has been committed to being thorough and getting this right. If that ends with sticking with the guy you already have, that isn’t necessarily the best look.
It’s not the most fair thing, but it’s also part of reality. Bevell has the potential to be a really good head coach. It just might not be in Detroit.
Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City offensive coordinator
When interviewed: Jan. 4
College: University of Colorado
Experience: Playing: Colorado (1987-90); San Diego Chargers (1991-94); Cincinnati Bengals (1995-98); Philadelphia Eagles (1999). Coaching: Thomas Jefferson (Colo.) High School (2000 – assistant coach); Colorado (2001-02 – running backs coach; 2011-12 – offensive coordinator); UCLA (2003-05 – running backs coach); Minnesota Vikings (2006-09 – running backs coach; 2010 – assistant head coach/running backs coach); Kansas City Chiefs (2013-17 – running backs coach; 2018-Present – offensive coordinator).
Pros: Bieniemy might be the most sought-after coaching candidate in this cycle and comes from a Kansas City Chiefs offense that is among the most innovative in the NFL. He’s been in a multitude of systems as a player and a coach and has seen things done well -- and not so well -- in multiple places. He also has the experience as a player, and a successful one, in the NFL. That helps when it comes to instant locker room credibility because it’s someone who has been in their spot before.
Players enjoy playing for him, which would fit in with what Wood and Hamp are seeking in a head coach.
“He’s a hell of a coach. He’s a hell of a person and he’s a hell of a motivator,” said Lions linebacker Reggie Ragland, who played in Kansas City. “Anybody would be lucky to have him as a coach, man. Last year, when I wasn’t playing, he kept my spirits up and he kept me motivated until I got my time to go out there and play and I appreciate him a lot.”
That’s significant because Ragland is a defensive player, so it shows Bieniemy had interaction and a feel of an entire team even when it wasn’t necessarily one of the players he was in charge of having an issue. It exhibits one of the qualities Wood said they were looking for -- leadership.
Bieniemy’s view as what a head coach is should also be appealing to the Lions.
“When you talk about being a head coach, it’s about being a leader, leading men, compelling men to do something that is uncommon,” Bieniemy told the Denver Post last year. “You have to make sure, when you take that stage, they can feel who you are. That’s what defines, in my opinion, a head coach, not somebody who is the play-caller. Can he hold the room accountable and to a higher standard?”
If the Lions wanted to retain Bevell as offensive coordinator, Bieniemy could express interest in doing that since the two worked together in Minnesota -- although it’s not clear how that dynamic would work and Bevell could, and should, have offers elsewhere.
Cons: Every coach and every system is different, but after the Lions’ experience with Patricia, taking the highly touted coordinator from the very successful program without any head coaching experience could give Detroit some pause.
He hasn’t been the primary play-caller the majority of his time in Kansas City, but that is an overrated quality that successful head coaches. Especially for franchises that envision their head coaches to be more overall leaders and CEO types, which the Lions seem to want.
Bieniemy does have a past he would need to explain to Wood and Hamp in interviews, including an arrest in 1993 for harassing a parking lot attendant in Colorado that led to a campus ban. He also had a DUI arrest in 2001. After being surprised by Patricia’s past months after his hiring, Bieniemy would be smart to be upfront with what happened in each incident.
But there is a lot to like in Bieniemy, who should get a head coaching job this cycle, whether it’s in Detroit or elsewhere.
Marvin Lewis, Arizona State defensive coordinator
When interviewed: Week of Dec. 28
Hometown: McDonald, Pa.
College: Idaho State
Experience: Idaho State (1977-80 -- player, linebacker; 1981-84 – linebackers coach); Long Beach State (1985-86 – linebackers); New Mexico (1987-89 – linebackers); University of Pittsburgh (1990-91 – linebackers); Pittsburgh Steelers (1992-95 – linebackers); Baltimore Ravens (1996-2001 – defensive coordinator); Washington Football Team (2002 – defensive coordinator); Cincinnati Bengals (2003-18 – head coach); Arizona State (2019 – special advisor; 2020 – co-defensive coordinator).
Pros: If the Lions want experience, Marvin Lewis is their guy and there are few who can come close who might be available. Lewis has 16 years of NFL head coaching experience, going 131-122-3 in Cincinnati, including six seasons of 10 wins or more and winning NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2009. He won four AFC North titles and made seven playoff appearances. During his time in Cincinnati, he had six losing seasons out of 16.
His name will carry instant gravitas and weight within the locker room and the qualities he has -- experience, leadership, being able to bring a team together -- will be valued by Detroit.
That he did this in Cincinnati, which is a tough place to win in the NFL, should not go unnoticed. Since Lewis left, the Bengals have gone 6-25-1. Before Lewis arrived, the team had losing seasons in 11 of 12 years and its best season was a .500 year in 1996. In his first season with the Bengals, he improved the team from 2-14 to 8-8.
In his time in Cincinnati he also had just two seasons of 10 losses or more -- the Lions have lost 10 or more games the last three years. So he knows how to turn around organizations in a fast manner and he understands the league.
Hiring Lewis could also see some of Detroit’s current coaches being retained, including running backs coach Kyle Caskey, who worked under Lewis in Cincinnati.
Cons: Lewis wouldn’t be the flashy hire and his playoff record -- 0-7 -- is an eyesore, especially for a franchise that will be entering its 30th season without a playoff win in 2021. And while the consistency would be nice for the Lions to have and he could be a culture driver, the question would remain whether or not he can be a coach who can win you a Super Bowl.
His age, at 62, would be another question. Not that he’s too old for the gig but how much longer he would like to coach and what is his long-term plan? Just six of the league’s head coaches are 60 or over -- the oldest being Pete Carroll, who turns 70 this year. Of those coaches, just two took over their current jobs after age 60 -- Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay and Vic Fangio in Denver. This isn’t a deterrent or an eliminating factor by any stretch, but if I’m the Lions, I would want to know he plans on coaching more than two or three more seasons.
The Lions should also inquire about how he handled Vontaze Burfict during his time in Cincinnati and the draft process around Joe Mixon to get insight into how he views players with questions in their past and his player management.