Niyo: Lions’ search for a winner doesn’t have to be lost cause

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

The players want the same thing the Lions’ fans want. It’s what ownership insists it wants, too.

And if the hard truth in life is that we all want what we don’t have, that’s especially true in the NFL. Which is why each regular season is followed immediately by Black Monday, with coaches and general managers fired and interviews lined up across the league.

But in Detroit, that yearning is part of the city’s football DNA. And that’s something Trey Flowers learned the hard way over the last two seasons, leaving behind a championship team in New England to sign on with some ex-Patriots here in free agency.

Eight wins, 23 losses and one ugly tie later, Flowers was asked Monday for his New Year’s resolution, in a manner of speaking, as the franchise searches for new leadership to fill general manager and head coaching vacancies created when owner Sheila Ford Hamp fired Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia in late November.

“What do I want to see?” the veteran defensive end said, pausing to consider the possibilities. “I guess what everybody in this whole city wants to see: A winner. Or someone who can get winning results. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

And yet it’s the most elusive thing for the Lions, who once again find themselves the market shopping for success, putting in requests to speak with several more GM and coaching candidates Monday, shortly after putting the finishing touches on another disastrous season.

As cycles go, they don’t get any more vicious than this, do they?

Bottoming out

The Quinntricia regime produced the fourth-worst record in the NFL over the last three seasons (14-33-1), a mark that only the Jets, Bengals and Jaguars can beat for futility since 2018.

It also produced one of the ugliest defensive performances in NFL history this season, one that went from merely awful to comically bad near the end of this year’s 5-11 slog. The Lions set franchise records for most points (519) and yards (6,716) allowed in a season, passing the winless 2008 team in Detroit for ignominy in both categories.

And for a franchise that keeps finding new ways to raise the bar for futility — or lower it, I suppose — this comment probably sums it up best.

“I don’t think it necessarily went wrong,” Flowers said of the Lions’ latest swoon. “I don’t think it ever was right.”

Not for very long, at least, and not in a very long time.

So, then, how does Hamp plan to right all the wrongs in her family ownership’s past? And how will she and the search committee the Lions have put together, with team president Rod Wood leading the way, possibly get this thing turned around?

Well, if they manage to screw it up this time, it won’t be for a lack of effort, at least.

The in-season firings gave the team’s decision-makers more time to prepare, for one. And rather than simply hiring a consultant and getting taken for a ride, as was the case when former NFL GM Ernie Accorsi led them to Quinn in 2015 — or when Quinn led them back to his pal, Patricia, in 2018 — they appear to be making good on Hamp’s promise to “make this an extremely thorough and comprehensive search.”

Prior to Sunday’s final game, the team already had interviewed seven GM candidates, including three internal personnel executives, and one potential head coach in Marvin Lewis. And Monday, as expected, their wish list was revealed to be considerably longer.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was scheduled for a virtual interview with Detroit on Monday — he also interviewed with Atlanta earlier in the day — and a formal interview with interim head coach Darrell Bevell was expected Tuesday. San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is on tap for Thursday, a league source said, while New Orleans Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell — another strong candidate who is unavailable due to his team’s wild-card playoff game this week — is slated for next week.

On the GM front, the Lions have requested to speak with George Paton (Vikings), Brad Holmes (Rams), Jeff Ireland (Saints) and Terry Fontenot (Saints), according to Sports Illustrated.

All told, that’s a diverse group, and a far cry from the last time around, when the Lions hired Quinn after interviewing only two other candidates: Kevin Abrams, Accorsi’s former assistant GM in New York, and Sheldon White, the Lions’ interim GM.

And while they’re casting a wider net, the Lions say they also have a better idea of what they’re hoping to catch. As Wood told 97.1 The Ticket recently, “One of the things that I think we’re doing differently — that didn’t occur at least in searches I was involved in with Bob and Matt — is really identifying what we want for a Detroit Lions coach and general manager. Not what some other team may want, but what do the Detroit Lions want.”

What they need, really, is two-fold. The Lions need an experienced GM who’s been through something like this before, unlike Quinn when he took the reins as a first-time GM who’d only known winning in New England. And they need a head coach that possesses not just a winning pedigree, but a winning personality, too, along with a track record that shows his adaptability.

For all the talk about the synergy Quinn and Patricia brought to the table three years ago, one of the fatal flaws of that plan seemed to be their collective myopia. They only knew one way — the Patriot Way — and when that didn’t work, they seemed to be at a loss. And so did their team, as a result.

So it makes sense, what we’ve heard thus far, including Sunday’s NFL Network report that the Lions were planning to make a run at luring Seahawks GM John Schneider out of Seattle, where he has enjoyed a hugely successful run over the last decade but doesn’t have final say over the roster. Presumably, the Lions have made similar overtures to Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who spent a decade in Detroit in the 1990s before establishing himself as one of the league’s top evaluators in his hometown in Pittsburgh. Both are long shots, but worth a try. Others like former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and ex-Texans GM Rick Smith also would be strong choices, both for what they’ve done and for what they’ve undone.

Roll up the sleeves

Clearly, whoever takes the reins here will have plenty of work to do, whether it’s deciding where Matthew Stafford fits in the plans for the future or beginning a defensive overhaul that’ll take time — and money. And yes, there are better horses to ride.

The Jaguars and Jets have the cap space and the draft capital, starting with a pair of 2021 first-round picks apiece, while the Chargers have room to maneuver, a record-setting rookie quarterback in Justin Herbert and plenty of sunshine. The Texans don’t have much flexibility, but they do have DeShaun Watson. The Lions and Falcons? Well, it depends on who you ask, and perhaps more important, what ownership wants to hear. The Lions’ next GM will need a strong voice, in addition to a clear vision.

Same goes for the head coach, no matter how the front office is structured. Or how easily you take Wood at his word when he says, “There’s a reporting structure, but there’s not a meddling structure.”

Someone like Saleh seems ideally suited for this task, and not simply because he grew up in Dearborn and knows the Lions tortured history by heart. He also has proven at several NFL stops what a leader he is, and what a motivating force he can be when given authority.

Just ask Carroll, who had Saleh on his staff when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013:  “He’s got a great brain and great character and stature. He’s got it all.”

Or ask Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers coach who knows he’s about to lose him, whether it’s to Detroit or Atlanta or Jacksonville.

“I’ll be very surprised if we don’t lose him,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with people if they don’t hire him. He’s as good as you can get.”

And as bad as it has gotten again in Detroit, that’s the silver lining, same as it ever was. If the Lions really want to win, the opportunity is there.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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