For the next month, Detroit Lions fans will be frantically researching every head coach candidate under the sun, searching for the next person who will undoubtedly be the one who finally turns this franchise around. You’ve already seen plenty of outlets drop their top 10, 15 or 25 candidates for the Lions job, despite the fact that Detroit won’t be able to interview many—if any—candidates for another five weeks or so.
But rather than just publish a list and leave it at that, we’re going to track these guys over the next five weeks.
Introducing: our Detroit Lions head coach candidate power rankings. This list is not meant to be my personal preferences, but more like a tracking of the most buzzworthy coaches in the news right now. The better these coaches perform on a week-to-week basis, the higher they jump in the power rankings. A coach may drop off completely and a new one may take his place.
So let’s kick this thing off.
1. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh
Saleh is the current favorite to become the Lions next head coach, and I went into detail why he should be earlier in the week. While the 49ers haven’t been nearly as relevant as their Super Bowl run last year, San Francisco is certainly in the playoff hunt right now with a relatively favorable schedule ahead.
Saleh is getting tons of hype right now—especially due to his Michigan ties. But it was Sunday’s win over the Rams got him a ringing endorsement from cornerback Richard Sherman.
Any franchise looking for a HC should listen to Richard Sherman's take on Robert Saleh pic.twitter.com/FQFwGADNqO— Billy M (@BillyM_91) November 30, 2020
The 49ers held the Rams to just 308 total yards of offense and 13 points on offense. This year, Los Angeles is averaging 389 yards per game and 23.9 points per game.
2. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy
Bieniemy has been a leading candidate for any head coaching vacancies for a few years now. He’s already had several interviews in previous offseasons, and he’s coming off a Super Bowl title. This year, the Chiefs offense continues to be one of the best in the league.
However, it’s hard to imagine Bieniemy shaking some obvious concerns. Does he deserve credit for the Chiefs offense, or is that the work of head coach Andy Reid and future Hall of Fame quarterback Patrick Mahomes?
3. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith
The Tennessee Titans just hung 45 points on a Colts defense was that was widely considered one of the best in the NFL, including 35 in the first half alone.
While Smith isn’t running the most innovative of offenses in Tennessee—and he has the benefit of a guy like Derrick Henry—he also deserves a lot of credit for the Titans success. Look no further than the progression of Ryan Tannehill in the past two seasons. It appeared Tannehill’s career was nearly dead in Miami, and Smith turned things around completely for the former first-round pick.
First 6 seasons in Miami: 62.8% completion, 7.0 Y/A, 123 TDs, 75 INTs, 87.0 passer rating
First 2 seasons with Titans: 67.4% completion, 8.6 Y/A, 45 TDs, 10 INTs, 111.7 passer rating
There is understandably some concern that Smith may not succeed without a dominant back like Henry and that he may be over reliant on running the ball in a passing league, but with D’Andre Swift looking promising thus far, that may not be a bad thing.
4. Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley
Lions fans desperately searching for an innovative offense are understandably turning immediately to Riley. While the team is a slightly disappointing 6-2 on the season so far, they are averaging 45.5 points per game, which is sixth in the nation. In Riley’s five years with the Sooners, they’ve never averaged fewer than 42 points per game and never finished below sixth in the nation in scoring.
However, the main concern with Riley is that there is little motivation for him to go to the pros. He received a contract extension back in July that has him signed through 2025. It’s not uncommon for college coaches to break a contract, but Detroit would have to throw the vault at him to pry him from a comfy—and much more secure—job in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma had the week off, so no trending this week.
5. Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell
Iowa State is currently 7-2 with a couple of impressive wins on their schedule, including one over the Riley’s aforementioned Sooners. This week, they took down No. 20 Texas in Austin.
Campbell has an offensive background, and now has a history of turning around two minor college programs in Toledo (35-15 overall record) and Iowa State (from 3-9 in 2016 to 7-2 today). That’s a good indication that Campbell can do a lot with limited talent.
As a young up-and-comer, he’s a calculated risk with no NFL ties. But for those craving the next young thing from college, Campbell is the next hot name.
6. Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus
Prior to Sunday, Eberflus was one of the hotter names out there. With just an average roster, he’s managed to turn the Colts defense into one of the most feared in just a few seasons.
The Colts are allowing just 23.0 points per game (ninth), 3.8 yards per carry (fourth) and a passer rating of just 84.3 (fourth). They tend to just do everything well.
Of course, that perception all changed this week when the Titans quite literally ran all over them. That being said, it’s important to put that performance in context. Star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner missed the game, as did underrated defensive tackle Denico Autry. However, Lions fans aren’t eager to hear injury excuses for a poor performance.
7. Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer
Since 2001, Urban Meyer racked up a combined record of 187-32 with Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. He proved he can win at the big and small levels, and his affinity for spread offenses would bring Detroit’s offense back to the 21st century.
However, it’s unclear if Meyer has any coaching aspirations left in him, let alone any NFL dreams. He’s stepped away from college coaching twice for health reasons, and he seems quite content with his current role as an analyst on FOX.
8. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady
It wasn’t the best of weeks for the Panthers offense against an improving Vikings defense, and it’s never exactly inspiring to pluck a coach from a team that is currently 4-8. But if Detroit wants to take a swing at a true up-and-comer, you can’t get much more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as 31-year-old Joe Brady.
Brady turned previously unknown Joe Burrow into the best quarterback in college in his one year at LSU as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. Sure, he doesn’t deserve all the credit, but look at this unbelievable jump in production from Burrow:
2018: 57.8 completion percentage, 7.6 Y/A, 16 TDs, 5 INTS
2019: 76.3 completion percentage, 10.8 Y/A, 60 TDs, 6 INTs
For his work, Brady won the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in football, and he earned himself an NFL job. Having already spent a couple years in New Orleans under Sean Payton, he brings some connections to the big leagues, suggesting he may be able to build a solid coaching staff despite his young age.
9. Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman
Trending: Slightly down
The Ravens offense hasn’t been nearly as exciting as it was last year, as some question whether the league has “figured out” Lamar Jackson. Still, for someone as tenured as Roman (he’s been in the NFL since 1995), it’s impressive to see him help mastermind a truly innovative offense with a spectacular player like Jackson.
Plus, unlike a lot of candidates on this list, Roman has plenty of NFL experience and connections. Rather than handing the keys to a first-time NFL coach or a 30-something year old, Roman would step into the building and know exactly what is expected from him on Day 1. And his track record with the 49ers, Bills and Ravens all have shown some serious signs of success on offense.
10. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll
The Bills are 8-3 and could be headed for their first division title since 1995. Daboll deserves a ton of credit for that, turning Josh Allen and a modest roster into a top-10 offense right now. That being said, Allen has cooled off a bit as of late, throwing just six touchdowns and four interceptions in the past five games combined.
Additionally, Lions fans will be quick to dismiss Daboll for his Patriots connections, having cut his teeth as a defensive assistant from 2000-2001, then as a wide receivers coach from 2002-2006. He spent a second stint with the Patriots from 2013 to 2016, as well.
However, unlike Matt Patricia, Daboll has spent plenty time elsewhere. Though he’s mostly followed around fellow Patriots alumni in Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel, he’s also worked under Tony Sparano, and, now, Sean McDermott.