Detroit Lions head coach search: ESPN picks best and worst matches, including Jim Harbaugh

Detroit Free Press

Marlowe Alter
| Detroit Free Press

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ESPN debuted an enjoyable NFL coaching carousel on Wednesday, matching head coach candidates with teams who have vacancies.

The Detroit Lions, of course, are one of the three teams so far (Houston and Atlanta are the others) who will look to hire a new head coach this winter — though there will likely be more openings after the regular season ends Sunday and Black Monday arrives.

Candidates on the list include Robert Saleh, Arthur Smith, Brian Daboll and Michigan football‘s Jim Harbaugh among others. So, who is the best match, according to ESPN?

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Good fits

Robert Saleh, the Dearborn native himself, tops the list by earning a “B-plus.”

“He has Michigan roots and the support of the state legislature,” ESPN NFL Insider Dan Graziano wrote. “Some vets on defense could help implement his scheme quickly.”

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The San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator is a hot name around these parts, having been to a Super Bowl last season, and keeping his defense on point this season despite numerous injuries.

On Saturday, the 49ers went on the road to upset the playoff hopes of the Arizona Cardinals, 20-12. They pulled the same feat at the Los Angeles Rams one month earlier.

• Also earning a “B-plus” is Marvin Lewis, who went 131-122-3 in 16 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003-18. The big knock on Lewis? And 0-7 record in the postseason.

“Teams often like to replace an outgoing coach with someone opposite,” Graziano wrote. “Lewis, who has a background on defense, likely keeps things calmer in the locker room than Matt Patricia did.”

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Lewis, the Arizona State co-defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards, interviewed for the Texans’ job a week ago. He would bring a wealth of experience to the Lions, something owner Sheila Ford Hamp may value after the Matt Patricia debacle as a first-time head coach.

• In a surprise, Jim Harbaugh is a solid “B” match for the Lions, though it seems so far-fetched.

“He wouldn’t have to move far, which is good. And maybe the right defensive coordinator gets this turned around quickly?” Graziano wrote. 

Harbaugh gets a perfect “A” fit with Houston and quarterback Deshaun Watson, and a “C-plus” with Atlanta.

Harbaugh, who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl in four seasons before an unceremonious exit to Michigan after the 2014 season, is in slow-moving extension talks with Michigan, as his current deal expires following the 2021 season. Defensive coordinator Don Brown was fired last week, seemingly the fall guy for the Wolverines’ failure to beat good teams under Harbaugh, and likely clearing the way for a new deal for Harbaugh.

He is 49-22 in six years with the Wolverines — though against his chief rivals he has been outcoached numerous times: He’s 3-3 against Michigan State (1-3 at home) and 0-5 against Ohio State.

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No other coach earned better than a “C-plus” match for the Lions’ job (given to Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris and Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus).

Bad fits

Eric Bieniemy, perhaps the hottest name for the past few years who remains a Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, is not seen as a fit for the Lions, according to Graziano. He gets a “D-minus” the worst grade of the 10 coaches in ESPN’s carousel. 

“The new coach in Detroit is going to have to oversee a transition from Matthew Stafford to whomever is next at quarterback — maybe in his first year.”

Bieniemy is an “A” fit for the Texans, where he’d get to work with Watson, a fellow standout from the 2017 draft class who was picked two spots after Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes.

• Brian Daboll, another hot name as Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator, gets a “C-minus” from Graziano.

“The Lions are a bigger project than many might like to take on, though they rarely seem to be that far away from contention.”

• Also getting a “C-minus” match is Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. The Lions saw his talents up close a few weeks ago, when they got shellacked, 46-25.

“There are pieces in place in Detroit for a strong run game that could form the foundation for Smith’s offense,” Graziano wrote.

Play ESPN’s coaching carousel for yourself.

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Follow Marlowe Alter on Twitter: @Marlowe Alter

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