Wojo: For Lions to land right GM and coach, follow this aggressive plan

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

The Lions have tried every path and made every mistake imaginable when hunting for a new leader. They’ve gone for offensive gurus and defensive gurus, experienced guys and first-timers, well known and little known.

So how could they possibly get it right this time? Maybe, just maybe, because they’ve tried every path and made every mistake imaginable.

I know, not a lot to go on. But at some point, logically, they have to learn something. Historically, the Lions — specifically the Ford family — have fallen for the okey-doke, for a hot name or a popular name or an easy choice. And the common denominator among seven failed coaching regimes since Wayne Fontes’ ouster in 1996 is this: The Lions had no idea what they were looking for, based on the fact they changed every 3-4 years. How do you instill a winning culture when you don’t know what it looks like?

That’s why the general manager hire is so important and why he needs to be experienced, unafraid to blast fresh energy into Allen Park, and also capable of identifying talent and character — including in coaches. That’s why fresh eyes were vital, and why Chris Spielman joined owner Sheila Ford Hamp and president Rod Wood’s search team.

As the Lions head into the final stretch of their GM/coach search, they’ve fulfilled their promise of diligence and patience. They’ve interviewed a reported 11 GM candidates, and yet two highly successful ones still out there are the premier options — Seattle GM John Schneider and Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. Why would they come here? Well, they’d have an opportunity to pull off an all-time turnaround in a city starved for football success. That’s not enough incentive? OK, if I’m Ford Hamp, I get aggressive and offer a top-five salary and complete personnel control, something Schneider doesn’t have in Seattle.

If those guys are long shots, quality candidates with varying degrees of experience include: Former GMs Rick Smith and Thomas Dimitroff, Vikings assistant GM George Paton, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick and others. It’s easy to identify names, hard to separate hype from reality.

Learning game

Bob Quinn thought he had all the answers and ended up using the desperate Lions as lab rats, to see if the Patriot Way could work outside the Bill Belichick test tube. Martha Firestone Ford was a novice boss and her committee interviewed only three candidates, with flimsy advice from NFL consultant Ernie Accorsi. Later, Quinn convinced them Jim Caldwell wasn’t good enough and brought in a buddy, Matt Patricia, who was awful. First-time GM hiring a first-time head coach, uh, not a smart idea.

Now many are clamoring for 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and the Dearborn native makes perfect sense, not just because he’s a Dearborn native. He’s respected and connected with his players, and his defense ranked second in the league in 2019 when San Francisco reached the Super Bowl. Despite a slew of injuries, it was fifth this season. If the Lions don’t hire him, one of the other five teams with openings — Jaguars, Texans, Chargers, Falcons, Jets — will. Ideally, the coach is signed after the GM, but circumstances can dictate a quicker leap.

Saleh is only 41 and would be an extremely popular choice, and knowing what we know, I’d fully endorse it. The hometown-hero angle can be tricky, though, and he’d be stepping into a pressure cauldron with no head-coaching experience. Same with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who carries the offensive genius label.

There was a bit of irony last week that means nothing, but makes you think. On the very Thursday that Saleh interviewed with the Lions, two former Lions head coaches, Jim Schwartz and Marty Mornhinweg, left their assistant jobs with the Eagles. Schwartz stepped away from the game, for now, and Mornhinweg’s contract expired.

Failed Lions head coaches don’t become head coaches anywhere else, which says something. At one time, Mornhinweg was the hot offensive guy, and when he was fired, Steve Mariucci was a popular hire. Then came Rod Marinelli, a touted defensive guy, followed by Schwartz, another touted defensive guy, followed by Caldwell, the safe experienced guy.

There’s no template guaranteed to work, but the Lions have made safe, comfortable hires for too long. They need someone with a commanding presence who can bind a team and connect with players. That means more these days than an Xs-and-Os expert like Patricia, who was miserable at communication and motivation.

Saleh is an energetic alpha type, and he inspires a talented 49ers defense to play at a fever pitch. No pretense, no apparent arrogance. The only recent Lions coach who was a motivator and leader more than a strategic schemer was Caldwell, and he was the most successful.

No posers

He’s similar to two candidates the Lions have or will interview — Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. Neither would wow Lions fans, but this is not about winning the press conference; it’s about winning the locker room. The Lions must explore all options and not be tied to narrow thinking, and that also means Matthew Stafford’s future should be up for debate.

 “We developed very specific criteria for both positions that we’re looking for that are unique,” Wood said last week. “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 that is open, inclusive, where everybody is pulling together as a team. In one word, communication is paramount and everybody is doing the right thing for the Detroit Lions.”

In other words, avoid the self-promoters and don’t get enamored with flashy systems. A young head coach can succeed but he needs a stable organization (that’s not the Lions) or a shrewd, experienced GM (that can be the Lions, for a change). Before Quinn it was Martin Mayhew, who was “tutored” by Matt Millen and elevated during the 0-16 season, the least-inspired move possible. Before Millen, there were Russ Thomas and Chuck Schmidt for an astonishing 33 years, during which the Lions won one playoff game.

If Ford Hamp is different, we need more proof. Since 1967, the Lions have had five permanent GMs, and only Millen and Quinn broke the lazy in-house shuffle. It’s an ever-lasting shame it wasn’t properly executed in 1999 when the Lions kept Schmidt and let a sharp talent evaluator leave for Pittsburgh. Colbert, 64, has been part of two Super Bowl championships in 11 years as GM there but works on year-to-year contracts, which makes his availability open to speculation.

Too often, the Lions hire someone who tells them what they want to hear, and he, in turn, tells fans what they want to hear. Spielman provides a new voice, and hopefully, it’s loud enough and insightful enough to help. The Lions are looking everywhere, at everybody, and that’s encouraging. There’s tough competition for the top candidates and the Lions must be creative and aggressive — financially and otherwise — to land them. History says, it’s the one path they’ve never truly tried.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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