Now that the Detroit Lions general manager search has come to its conclusion, all focus turns to the team’s head coaching search. With options narrowing after Robert Saleh has found a new home in New Jersey, things should heat up quickly.
That being said, the Lions’ candidate list is looking pretty small. With all signs pointing to Arthur Smith landing in Atlanta (or Philly), that leaves the following coaches on Detroit’s short-list of people interviewed: interim head coach Darrell Bevell, long-time Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. With Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles expected to interview with the Lions on Friday, that leaves their candidate list at just five people, none of whom have interviewed a second time.
For the past month or two, I’ve been power ranking Lions head coaching candidates based on hype and likelihood of landing the Lions job. Now that Detroit’s list has narrowed, I’m going to power rank based on my personal preference completely.
1. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley
Okay, I’m cheating right off the bat. Staley hasn’t interviewed with the Lions and as of Friday morning, they hadn’t requested an interview with him. However, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, his name came up in their in-person interview with now-GM Brad Holmes.
First, let me address the common concerns with Staley. I’m not oblivious to the optics of this looking like another Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia pairing. However, Staley and Holmes have only been together for a single season. This is not another buddy cop movie. Both of these guys have reached this point in their career on their own merits and without the connection between each other.
The other concern is that Staley is too green for this. He’s only been a coordinator for a year, and he’s only been in the NFL coaching ranks since just 2017. This is a legitimate concern, and it’s probably multiplied by the fact that Detroit has a first-time GM in place now. That’s a whole lot of inexperience for a team that specifically said they wanted an experienced crew to right the ship.
But Staley’s resume warrants a meteoric rise. The Rams are first in scoring defense, fourth in defensive DVOA, and top five in just about every statistical category. Sure, the Rams defense is talented, but Wade Phillips wasn’t able to turn this into the best defense in the NFL.
Staley is a brilliant defensive mind who is on the cutting edge of building gameplans. He’s being touted as the defensive Sean McVay, and he’s earned the complete respect of tough personalities like Jalen Ramsey. If you need any more convincing that this should be the guy, read the several profiles on him that have emerged over the past month or two. His philosophy would take Detroit’s defense into the right millennium.
2. Former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis
No matter what I write in here, some of you won’t be able to get past the 0-7 in the playoffs thing, and I get that. Detroit is not looking to just get to the playoffs. They want to be able to put real accomplishments hanging from the rafters.
However, after our conversation with Joe Goodberry, I believe there’s reason to believe ownership limited Lewis’ ability to succeed. With an incredibly small scouting department and an even smaller budget to build a team, Lewis did just about as well as you can reasonably expect.
Additionally, I don’t think it’s particularly fair to just judge Lewis on his playoff record. Sure, his overall record of 131-122-3 isn’t great, either, but the man made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons and won the extremely competitive AFC North four times.
More than any other coaching candidate on this list, I trust Lewis to build a solid staff around him. He’s got the connections, and he’s got a very good hiring history.
3. Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell
There’s a pretty considerable drop-off after Lewis here, but Campbell has been getting head coach hype for several years now and nearly got the job in Indianapolis in 2018.
There’s not a ton of information on Campbell out there, other than he’s a tremendous leader that the players absolutely have fallen in love with. He brings some head coaching experience from his interim days with the Dolphins, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s been side-by-side with Sean Payton for the past five years.
My biggest concern with Campbell is his coordinator hires. It’s unclear who exactly he would nab to fill out his coaching staff, but those hires would be extremely important, because Campbell has never been a coordinator and isn’t really an Xs-and-Os guy.
If he were the hire, I’d have to withhold judgement until he fills out the rest of the coaching staff.
4. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles
Bowles is a great leader and maybe an even better defensive mind. Just about everywhere he’s gone as a defensive coordinator, a good defense has followed.
2013 Cardinals: 10th in DVOA, 7th in scoring
2014 Cardinals: 19th in DVOA, 5th in scoring
2019 Buccaneers: 5th in DVOA, 29th in scoring
2020 Buccaneers: 5th in DVOA, 8th in scoring
But, man, it’s hard to ignore his tenure as the Jets head coach. Bowles went 24-40 in four seasons with the Jets and finished last in his division three times. And it’s not like his defense was doing particularly well over that span, either.
2015 Jets: 6th in DVOA, 9th in scording
2016 Jets: 23rd in DVOA, 28th in scording
2017 Jets: 22nd in DVOA, 22nd in scording
2018 Jets: 22nd in DVOA, 29th in scoring
5. Interim head coach Darrell Bevell
Bevell would definitely be the least inspiring of the hires, but he would come with an offensive system that has proven to be at least somewhat successful in Detroit. It’s also clear he earned the respect of a lot of the players in the final few weeks of the season.
However, it wouldn’t exactly be thrilling if the Lions—after a thorough search—decided their best candidate was from their own backyard. It’s also unclear how Bevell would address Detroit’s biggest problem: their defense.
6. Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy
For yet another coaching cycle, we’ve seen Bieniemy’s hype completely fade away. He went from being one of the most hyped candidates to complete silence, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened. At this point, you have to wonder what exactly is happening during these interviews.
But even putting that aside, I was never personally too high on Bieniemy. Andy Reid’s coaching tree has been inconsistent at best, and Reid is still the one primarily responsible for the offense in Kansas City. Throw in some ugly skeletons in Bieniemy’s closet, and I just think this is an option best to be avoided. I get the appeal of a young, offensive-minded coach, but I don’t think Bieniemy is that guy.