Best head coach opening in NFL: Detroit Lions

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

 ALLEN PARK, Mich. – One thing that becomes apparent as the smoke clears from the ruins of the NFL's Black Monday is that the league's most promising open head coaching position is here with the Detroit Lions.

"I can verify that by the number of calls [from candidates] I've already received," team president Tom Lewand said just a little over two hours after dismissing Jim Schwartz.

The Lions are a great job right now, one that should attract the best candidates.

This is a sentiment perhaps never before uttered about a franchise that has famously won just a single playoff game since 1957 and generally bumbles about the league.

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Jim Schwartz couldn't get over the hump in Detroit. (AP)

This is different.

Detroit fired Schwartz following a 7-9 season in which the Lions should've won 10 or 11 games, captured the NFC North and hosted a home playoff game this week, not a coaching search news conference.

That's should've won 10 or 11, not could've. The Lions could've won even more, of course, but that's only if every break went their way in a league where that doesn't happen.

Detroit was 6-3 in mid November however, atop a mediocre division that saw the other two contenders (Green Bay and Chicago) without their starting quarterbacks. It proceeded to lose six of seven, blowing a fourth-quarter lead in each defeat. Win just half of those and they are in the playoffs.

This team, with this roster, is primed to win and were primed to win not just tomorrow, but yesterday. It's a complete 180 from the last time Detroit went looking for a coach, in 2009 following an 0-16 season with the wreckage of a Matt Millen-produced roster.

Prime candidates wanted no part of such a massive rebuild, leaving the job to Schwartz. He was a defensive coordinator with Tennessee who did an admirable job building things up, but appeared incapable of getting the team to the next level.

This is now a contender in waiting, one that should be on the radar of proven NFL winners such as Ken Whisenhunt and Lovie Smith, or hot candidate Bill O’Brien of Penn State.

This is, franchise history notwithstanding, an ideal opportunity for a competent coach. This isn't a rebuilding. It's a rebranding. Just turn the key.

"We think we are pretty far along in the process and we don't want to start over," Lewand said.

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Getting better results out of Matthew Stafford will be a priority for the next Lions coach. (USA TODAY Sports)

If one message was clear from the Lions on Monday, it's that Schwartz didn't convey a sense of possibility to the players. When the inevitable adversity struck, Detroit too often gave up. A change in mentality is critical here.

"It has to be more than scheme," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "We weren't able to make the plays to get over the hump. We're going to find someone who can bring that mentality that we can get over the hump.

"It has to be a belief that no matter what happens, you can win," Mayhew continued. "It's bigger than Xs and Os. It's bigger than scheme. It's bigger than that."

It's also better than what else is out there.

The only other contender for most-attractive job is Houston, which was a playoff team in both 2011 and 2012 that simply collapsed in 2013. It holds the No. 1 overall draft pick and has plenty of building blocks in place. Owner Bob McNair is considered one of the classiest in the league. By firing Gary Kubiak midseason, the franchise has had a head start on the process.

It may not be built to win immediately like Detroit though. And the expectations here are not to win a Super Bowl, but just make the playoffs, be in the mix, maybe make a run.

Everyone else, though, falls far behind. In Washington you deal with Daniel Snyder, a dysfunctional culture and a lack of future drafts picks due to a trade that delivered the still hobbled Robert Griffin III.

Minnesota is without a quarterback – among other things – and is reliant on a running back with plenty of miles on him. Tampa Bay is in need of a full overhaul following the failed Greg Schiano experiment. Cleveland is, well, Cleveland.

In Detroit the franchise quarterback is in place. Matthew Stafford has regressed at times the past two years but this is still a guy with a rifle of an arm, terrific on-field leadership skills and someone who as recently as 2011 threw for 5,038 yards with 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.

There's a strong belief he needs better coaching. It's certainly too early to give up on his potential.

"We have to get him [back] to that point [of 2011]," Mayhew said.

The offensive weapons are everywhere – from Calvin Johnson to Nate Burleson to Reggie Bush to Joique Bell. The defense centers on the four-man front featuring Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Just about everyone of note is under contract – the biggest potential loss might be tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who is certainly replaceable.

And, once again, Detroit has a top 10 pick in the draft.

About the only drawback is the simple fact that these are the Lions of the Ford family, forever married to mediocrity or worse. The team has never employed a coach who went on to be a head coach again. It's known for spectacularly infuriating collapses. It's been a mess for decades.

Yet the firing of Schwartz was at least a step toward the idea that these may not be the same old Lions. His buyout was reportedly over $12 million but the Fords pulled the trigger, displaying none of the misguided loyalty they did to Millen.

Now a team with so much potential needs someone to come in and make it work.

"The goal isn't to hire the biggest name or the most popular person and to win the next press conference," Lewand said. "It's to win games in 2014."

Detroit should win a lot of them in 2014 just like it should've won a lot of games in 2013. And there isn't a coach in America who shouldn't be intrigued by that possibility.

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