| Detroit Free Press
Assessing Detroit Lions’ coach, GM searches as regular season ends
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez debate Jan. 4, 2021, who the Detroit Lions should hire as general manager and head coach.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
When it comes to the hiring process of NFL general managers and coaches, let me start off by saying this: No one knows anything.
Sorry, but that’s just the harsh, dim reality of the NFL.
Not exactly inspiring words, eh? Especially not as the Detroit Lions embark on yet another search in yet another attempt to change the fortunes of their woebegone franchise.
I’ve covered the Lions for 15 seasons, which means two things: I’m up for early parole release in a few years, and this will mark the third GM and the fifth coach the team will hire during my time on the beat.
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There are two candidates who would be home run hires for the Lions.
And they’re both GMs for one simple reason: They last longer than coaches.
That means the next Lions GM probably won’t have his future tied to the next Lions coach. He could have the luxury of learning about the organization and learning from his mistakes if the coach flames out quickly. While I think a coach can make a significant difference, I don’t believe most coaches do.
But a GM who can find talent throughout the draft, swing trades and acquire free agents at the right time and for the right price? That is irreplaceable and probably one of the reasons high-ranking personnel people move around less than coaches in the NFL.
So here’s who the Lions should hires: Seattle Seahawks executive vice president and general manager John Schneider and Pittsburgh Steelers vice president and general manager Kevin Colbert.
Schneider is my top pick for one simple reason: age. He turns 50 in May, which means he has easily more than a decade of work left in him. If he comes to Detroit and builds a winner, he could oversee it and sustain it for a long time. It feels even crazy to write such a sentence, but that’s Schneider’s potential.
He also has the most important quality of any potential GM hire: championship experience as a GM.
I don’t value the experience of a scout or personnel director on a Super Bowl champ too much. Schneider was the GM in charge when his team won Super Bowl 48. And, if not for Pete Carroll’s historic blunder of failing to call a run play for Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl 49, Schneider would have been the GM of two Super Bowl champions.
And speaking of Carroll, he’s the reason Schneider might consider leaving the Seahawks. Carroll has ultimate say on roster decisions, not Schneider. NFL Network reported Sunday the Lions are planning to pursue Schneider and hiring him would have to come with complete roster authority.
Schneider more than deserves that authority. He’s an NFL lifer and worked for the Green Bay Packers from 2002-09 before Seattle hired him in 2010. Since 2011, 25 different Seahawks have made the Pro Bowl.
But here’s the key reason for Schneider’s hiring: Russell Wilson. He drafted Wilson in the third round in 2012, which is probably the best quarterback steal in the NFL draft since Tom Brady.
The Lions happen to be confronting an existential question that centers around quarterback Matthew Stafford and his future. And Schneider could be the guy to work his draft magic and find Stafford’s replacement — either this year or next.
In 2011, Seattle signed Tarvaris Jackson but he didn’t have a great season. In 2012, the Seahawks gave themselves options. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million deal. Then they selected Wilson in a draft that had only one truly outstanding quarterback prospect in No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck.
I wouldn’t expect Schneider to find another Wilson in the third round for the Lions. But I would trust his judgment with the seventh overall pick to either take a quarterback or wait another year.
Colbert would be my second home run choice, but only because he’s 64 and nearing retirement.
That’s too bad because Colbert is bound for the Hall of Fame as one of the gold standards for GMs. He also happens to work for one of the NFL’s gold-standard franchises. The Rooney family and the Steelers do just about everything the right way.
Colbert has been a huge part of the Steelers’ success since he joined them in 2000 after he served as the Lions’ pro scouting director from 1990-99 under the late Ron Hughes, who finished his career working for Colbert as a draft and scouting adviser.
How good has Colbert been? His mic-drop biography in Pittsburgh’s media guide is a miniscule 321 words. Even Schneider’s is 960 words. Bob Quinn’s was 1,051 words.
Colbert’s tiny eight-paragraph bio only says this about his accomplishments: “Colbert has helped assemble teams that have won two Super Bowls (XL and XLIII), three AFC Championships, nine division titles, earned 12 playoff berths and recorded at least eight wins in 19 seasons.”
There are three other key reasons I would love the hiring of Colbert. One starts with his dedication to communicating well within the organization and listening to everyone’s input.
“It can’t just be about one guy, and Kevin embraces that,” Hughes told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2017. “Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin were the same with me as Chuck Noll was. They listened. I think that’s a big part of what makes it work there.”
And let’s not forget team president Rod Wood mentioned this exact quality Tuesday when he said what the Lions are “really looking for is a culture that is open, inclusive, where everybody is pulling together as a team, and in one word, communication is paramount and everybody is doing the right thing for the Detroit Lions.”
Colbert also could be an invaluable addition, if even for a few years, through his ability to realign the way Lions do things throughout their organization and set them up for future success after he retires.
Lastly, it’s the quarterback issue again. Colbert selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in 2004 draft. While the New York Giants and the San Diego Chargers were haggling over Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, Colbert took the best of the three quarterbacks who started as a rookie and won a Super Bowl his second year.
Roethlisberger is the shining example of Colbert’s brilliance. But if you just look up and down Colbert’s draft history, it’s chock full of excellence.
“When you do it that long, and you’re that successful,” Hughes told the Post-Gazette, “I think you know what you’re doing.”
According to a CBS Sports report, the Lions “covet” Colbert, even though the chances of him leaving his native Pittsburgh are supposedly slim.
Swinging for the fences
Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s rare, if not impossible, to pair a great GM with a mediocre or sub-par coach and still win.
But acquiring talent and building a sustainable roster should give most NFL coaches a chance to succeed. I think that’s where it starts in the NFL. As the old saying goes: It’s not the X’s and the O’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes. That’s why either of these two men would be a home run hire for the Lions.
Unfortunately, home runs are statistical improbabilities. They shouldn’t happen. And honestly, neither should the hiring of either Schneider or Colbert. There are very good reasons for why neither would want to come to Detroit and start the long process of rebuilding an organization that has seen very little success in the past 60 years.
But, like an actual home run, it could happen. And it would change the game.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.