From the obvious to the long shots, 25 candidates to replace fired Lions coach Matt Patricia

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

The Lions kick-started another regime change Saturday afternoon, firing general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia. 

And while the team will operate with interims in those roles for the remainder of the 2020 campaign, focus will quickly shift to what’s next for the downtrodden franchise. 

Admittedly, a general manager hiring is almost certain to come first, but let’s takes a wide-angled look at some of the coaching options out there for the Lions. 

More: After three disastrous seasons, Lions fire GM Bob Quinn, coach Matt Patricia

More: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will serve as Lions interim coach for final five games

Top pro coordinators

► Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator

After interviewing for seven jobs the past two years, Bieniemy figures to be one of, if not the hottest candidate this cycle. The former NFL running back has been learning under Andy Reid the past eight years, serving as the Chiefs’ OC the past three.

Known for his game-planning prowess and ability to connect with players, there’s likely to be competition for Bieniemy’s services. Houston is a presumed front-runner with quarterback Deshaun Watson reportedly advocating for the hire.

► Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator

Born and raised in Dearborn, no candidate could bring a greater understanding of the franchise’s historic struggles than Saleh. He would also bring high-energy positivity to the position that the team has never really had from a head coach.

Clearly, players respond to his style, because for everything that’s gone wrong for the 49ers this year, the defense is still producing at a high level. Lions fans will likely salivate looking at the team’s blitz rate and quarterback pressure numbers. 

► Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator

The Lions got an up-close look at what Brady can do this season when he constructed an effective game plan around a quarterback making his first NFL start in a 20-0 victory. And given the current hiring trend of young, innovative offensive coaches, this option certainly fits the bill.

Brady learned under Sean Payton for two years in New Orleans before orchestrating a prolific attack during his one season as LSU’s offensive coordinator. He’s followed that up with decent work in his first season with the Panthers, keeping the offense competitive despite not having superstar running back Christian McCaffrey much of the season.

► Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator

It’s difficult to stay employed in one spot for long in the NFL, but Smith has stuck in Tennessee for a decade, through four different head coaches. That speaks volumes to how he’s perceived by the organization, climbing from a quality control position to offensive coordinator.

In his two seasons running the unit, he’s constructed an effective, old-school offense based around ball control and running the ball. To top the resume, he’s helped revive quarterback Ryan Tannehilll’s career, transforming the discarded Miami passer into one of the game’s most efficient at the position.

► Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator

After a decade-long career as an NFL quarterback, Leftwich began coaching as an intern with Arizona in 2016, working under Bruce Arians. Leftwich quickly climbed the ranks in Arizona, going from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in two years.

He’s now in the same role in Tampa, getting a chance to work with Tom Brady. One concern is his rushing offenses have been ineffective. 

► Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator

After helping Dallas’ defense start rounding the corner as its pass-game coordinator, Eberblus came to Indianapolis and transformed one of the league’s worst units into one of the best. Through 10 games, the Colts are allowing opponents to net fewer than 300 yards and 21 points.

Hiring Eberflus would likely require a personnel overhaul on defense. Patricia has run a 3-4 base with man-heavy coverage concepts, while the Colts coordinator prefers a 4-3 with a reliance on zone.

Interesting side fact, Eberflus played linebacker at Toledo, under Nick Saban.

► Don Martindale, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator

The man they call Wink has worked for Josh McDaniel and John Harbaugh his past two coaching stops, so it’s safe to say he has a good idea what works and what doesn’t work when trying to lead professional athletes.

In his third season running the Ravens’ defense, Martindale once again has a top-five scoring unit. Those defenses are defined by their aggressiveness and there’s little doubt his players love playing for him.

The hire would be reminiscent of when the Vikings snagged long-respected but often-overlooked coordinator Mike Zimmer out of Cincinnati.

► Kris Richard, not currently employed

The Dallas Cowboys defense is awful, but it wasn’t that way the previous two seasons, when Richard was calling plays. He is a high-energy coach, the type to put a pair of cleats on and demonstrate a drill. That intensity and passion resonates with his players

A longtime Pete Carroll assistant, the former Legion of Boom position coach decided to sit out this year after Mike McCarthy was hired in Dallas and cleaned house. Richard didn’t want to settle for a position coach role with another team, which he viewed as a demotion.

► Greg Roman, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator

At three different stops over the past over the past decade, Roman has developed dynamic offenses. His calling card has always been the ground game, where he’s produced top-five team production each of the past seven seasons he’s coached.

That’s because Roman is willing to embrace his quarterback’s mobility, from Colin Kaepernick to Lamar Jackson, while constantly experimenting with non-traditional formations.

Roman was heavily influenced by coaching legend Paul Brown, who he met and worked for as a young child.

► Nick Sirianni, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator

The Colts don’t exactly have a coveted set of players at the skill positions, but Sirianni has led a unit that’s scoring more than 27 points per game. If he can do that with 38-year-old Philp Rivers at quarterback, imagine what kind of success he could have with someone with Matthew Stafford’s skill set.

A big part of the Colts’ success can be attributed to the dominant offensive line they’ve built in recent years. That alone should appeal to the Lions.

► Brian Daboll, Bills offensive coordinator

Daboll should get strong consideration for assistant coach of the year for the work he’s done with quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills offense, developing a unit that ranked 30th in 2018 into one of the league’s most-explosive.

And while Daboll is almost certain to draw head-coaching consideration from multiple teams, it’s going to be tough to make the case for Detroit, despite an appealing resume. That’s because he’s a branch off the Patriots coaching tree and is close friends with Patricia, which would make for an awkward pairing with the Lions. 

On the cusp

► Mike Kafka, Kansas City quarterbacks coach

If the Lions miss out on Bieniemy, there’s still an opportunity to pick fruit from Reid’s successful coaching tree. Kafka, a former NFL quarterback, has been a key figure in the development of Patrick Mahomes into the league’s best quarterback.

Admittedly, it would be bold hire, based on projection, given the lack of coordinator experience.

► Mike LaFleur, San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator

The younger brother of Green Bay Packers coach Matt LeFleur, Mike has been attached at the hip to Kyle Shanahan through his last three coaching stops in Cleveland, Atlanta and now San Francisco.

There aren’t many better offensive minds in the NFL and there’s a reason Shanahan has kept LeFleur close, blocking the Packers from interviewing him for their offensive coordinator job a year ago.

The 49ers’ pass game has been hit-and-miss this season, but that can easily be pinned on a brutal string on injuries at every spot on the offense. 

► Kevin O’Connell, Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator

Plenty of teams are looking for their own version of Sean McVay, the wonderkid coach for the Los Angeles Rams, who has earned two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance in his first three seasons, all before the age of 35.

A former quarterback, O’Connel was a member of the Lions roster for five whole days in 2009. The team claimed him off waivers before shipping him to the Jets in exchange for a late-round draft pick. He didn’t see a snap in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, before transitioning into coaching in 2015.

After spending the past three seasons in Washington, where he replaced McVay as the team’s OC, the Rams coach brought O’Connel to L.A., praising his mastery of understanding offense, as well as his charisma.

Looking for a second chance

► Raheem Morris, Atlanta Falcons interim head coach

Lions fans might be jaded by the inclusion of this name, since their most recent impression of Morris was Todd Gurley not getting down before the goal line in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, allowing the Lions to pull off an improbable comeback against the Falcons.

But take away that blunder and it would have been a four-game winning streak for Morris after taking over for Dan Quinn. There’s little doubt the Falcons are playing their tails off for him.

It’s been nine years since his inconsistent run as the head coach of the Buccaneers ended, and in the time since, Morris has had to claw his way back to another opportunity, serving as a position coach on both sides of the ball the next eight seasons. He finally got a crack at coordinating a defense again this season, but that was short-lived after the Falcons fired Quinn five games into the season.

Morris was one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history when he took over in Tampa Bay, which made holding players accountable a challenge. With more experience, and the wisdom that comes with along with that, it should no longer be an issue for the otherwise well-respected leader.

► Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator

Allen bombed, with a capital B, his first stint as a head coach. But how much blame does he deserve for those three years in Oakland? When he got there, the team was in cap hell and had poor draft equity. By the time the team started adding quality pieces in Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, it was too late.

Returning to New Orleans, where he was a defensive assistant for five seasons, Allen has bolstered his resume for another opportunity. The team’s defense has finished in the top-half of the league in scoring each of the past three seasons and has been at its best in 2020. He’s shown a knack for talent development at each level of the defense, as well as a clear understanding of how to modify his scheme to match that talent.

► Dan Campbell, New Orleans Saints assistant head coach

Lions fans might remember Campbell’s brief stint in Detroit as a player from 2006-07. He last played in 2009 and has been coaching the past decade, splitting that time between Miami and New Orleans.

Campbell got a taste of head coaching in 2015, going 5-7 in an interim role. With the assistant head coach title in New Orleans, he’s had the ability to be mentored by Sean Payton, a continuation of Campbell’s connection to Bill Parcells, who he played for in Dallas.

A hard-nosed coach who puts an emphasis on toughness, Campbell is probably too similar to Matt Patricia in that regard, countering the tendency for teams to look for something different in a coach than they had with the previous guy.

Scouting the college ranks

► Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach

A former college defensive lineman turned offensive coach, Campbell has become one of the hottest names in college coaching. After a stretch at Toledo where he won nine games three times in four seasons, Campbell landed at Iowa State in 2016.

Not exactly an easy place to win, he’s got the Cyclones to bowl games each of the past three years and has the team on track to finish this season ranked for the first time since 2000.

The NFL has rang in recent years, with multiple teams reaching out, but Campbell has declined those overtures. It begs the question, why would he answer the phone for the Lions? 

► Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma University head coach

Riley has lost a little bit of the shine he had a year ago, but there’s still plenty of appeal for the coach groomed under the tutelage of Mike Leach and Bob Stoops.

The most-exciting thing about Riley is his offensive innovation, which he’s been able to aggressively deploy working with a string of Heisman-caliber quarterbacks at Oklahoma. That said, he’s shown he can do it without 5-star recruits, developing a high-octane attack at East Carolina before joining the Sooners.

Riley could probably have his choice of jobs, and the frustrations of navigating COVID in the far more disorganized world of NCAA football might be the push he needs to try his hand at the next level.

► Luke Fickell, University of Cincinnati head coach

A 15-year assistant at Ohio State, Fickell took over the Bearcats in 2017 and has turned them into one of the better programs outside the Power 5 conferences, winning 11 games each of the past two seasons and having them undefeated and in the playoff conversation in 2020.

Other schools have already explored trying to pry him out of Cincinnati, and with continued success those offers are going to keep coming for the former defensive tackle.

Like most college coaches, there’s a buyout attached to his contract, but while $4 million might be a road block for another program, it’s a drop in the bucket for a serious NFL suitor.

► Ryan Day, Ohio State head coach

In what would be one of the boldest swings the Lions could take, the franchise would certainly need to make a commitment larger than the seven-year, $60 million deal the Panthers gave Matt Rhule a year ago.

Taking over following Urban Meyer’s retirement, Ohio State didn’t skip a beat under Day’s guidance, going 13-1 in 2019. Plus, there’s previous NFL experience on the resume, working as a quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly in both Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Is there reason to leave Ohio State, a perennial powerhouse, for the arduous task of trying to turn around the Lions? Outside of money and ego, probably not. But we know, based on past comments, he prefers the NFL to college, so it’s at least worth making a call.  

► Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator

NFL teams are regularly scouring the NCAA ranks for the next great offensive mind, but Venables, one of the level’s elite defensive coaches, also merits consideration.

One look at the players he’s sent to the league since starting with the Tigers in 2012 will tell you all you need to know about his ability to develop talent. And his scheme has found a way to consistently bottle up the high-octane spread offenses at the college level, holding opponents to fewer than 20 points per game seven of the past eight seasons.

The biggest question, based on his reluctance to leave Clemson in the past, is could the Lions even get him to entertain an interview?

► Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator

A Clemson man through and through, he went from walk-on to captain as a player before working his way up to offensive coordinator after initially joining Dabo Swinney’s coaching staff in 2011. In the five seasons he’s been the play-caller, the team has never averaged fewer than 33 points, ranking in the top-five in scoring each of the past two seasons.

Elliott rejected an interview with the Panthers last year and laughed off rumors the Dallas Cowboys were interested in him for their vacancy. It’s unclear if he would entertain any NFL offer, given the entirety of his football experience is rooted at the college level.

► Graham Harrell, USC offensive coordinator

Harrell played for and coached under Mike Leach before taking a coordinator job at North Texas in 2016. The year before he arrived, the Mean Green were one of the worst offenses in the country, but were a top-30 point producer in 2017 and 2018.

That success led to the offer to make the jump to USC in 2019, where he increased the team’s point production 24.5 percent in his first season.

Harrell wasn’t interested when the Philadelphia Eagles called about a coordinator position this past offseason, but a head coaching job? That would be tough to pass up for the up-and-comer.

The pipe dream

► Urban Meyer, currently unemployed

One of the great college coaches of this era, Meyer stepped away from Ohio State in 2018, citing health reasons. And he did the same thing when leaving Florida in 2010. So there’s a lot of risk in even exploring the possibility.

In terms of name value, good luck finding a bigger option, but what would be the draw to come to Detroit? How about this: The Toledo native knows all too well the Lions’ history of ineptitude. The idea he could succeed where all others have failed would cement his legacy as one of the greatest coaches, at any level, could be enough to stoke any ego.  

Unlike many of the other names on the list, Meyer would probably push for a significant level of personnel control. That typically backfires, but it’s not like anything the Lions have tried the past six decades has worked out, so why not?

Twitter: @justin_rogers

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