Assessing the Detroit Lions' Coaching Search: Who Is the Frontrunner?

Scott RiegerAnalyst IJanuary 8, 2009

The Detroit Lions' freshly promoted front office have laid the groundwork for the type of coach they are looking for: namely a quality coach that will agree to come in and earn a big paycheck rather than getting a huge payday prior to turning things around.

They were adamant about the fact that they weren't going to throw a lot of money to a new head coach and that the coach will not have a say in personnel matters.

Those particular restrictions tend to automatically rule out certain prospects, like Mike Shanahan and other established guys.

They have already interviewed or intend to interview Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator; Steve Spagnuolo, New York Giants defensive coordinator; Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator; Jim Schwartz, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, Miami Dolphins Asst. Head Coach; and Jerry Gray, Washington Redskins secondary coach. They also requested permission to speak with San Diego Chargers Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera but were turned down until after the season.

Jerry Gray, who interviewed after Spagnuolo, and said "They're going to interview the rest of the guys and to me that's only fair because you want to get it right. The position they're in, they want to get it right. You take as long as you need. To me, you got to be thorough.”

Bowles doesn't have any head coaching or coordinator experience, and I believe that after not achieving positive results with Rod Marinelli, they will be looking for someone with that experience as a minimum.

Jerry Gray was a defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills but I believe he is being brought in by Mayhew based on thier previous relationship and not as a top candidate.

The candidates that I feel are realistic possibilities are profiled below with the current pulse or rumor mill, the coaches resume, and the likeliness that the Lions hire that particular individual.

Please leave your comments on my assessments of the coaches and whether you think I am on track with the predictions/probabilities.


1. Jim Schwartz, Defensive Coordinator/Tennessee Titans


The veteran defensive coach has been in this position many times and had interviews in previous seasons for head coaching vacancies with the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins. Known as one of the better coaches in the league and is on many teams radars.



Became Tennessee's defensive coordinator in 2001. Is known for playing aggressive schemes and always fielding a stingy defense that doesn't allow much in the way of yardage or points. During his tenure as defensive coordinator, two statistics have been at the heart of the team’s success—third-down defense and rushing defense.

Over the last seven seasons, the Titans rank sixth in the league in third-down defense (36.3 percent conversion rate) and eighth in the league in rushing defense (105 yards per game). Currently, the Titans defense have allowed only eight 100-yard rushers in the last 56 home games.

Also has experience as a college and pro scout.



I think this is a distinct possibility. The Lions had trouble against the run and also weren't great at getting off of the field on third down. These are Schwartz's strong points.

Also, one potential target for the Lions in Free Agency is Albert Haynesworth, who has flourished under Schwartz in Tennessee. The hiring of Schwartz makes that signing a likelihood rather than an outside possibility.


2. Jason Garrett, Offensive Coordinator/Dallas Cowboys


Interviewed with the Lions and has been reported as the frontrunner. Even though he was basically designated as a coach in waiting for Dallas, the feeling is that Jerry Jones has had a change of heart regarding Garrett's future after a tumultuous season.



Garrett has only been a coach in the league for just four seasons and only two of those years at the coordinator level. He is widely considered a bright mind and up and coming HC prospect, but didn't have the great year that was expected in Dallas, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.



Rumors are that Garrett has withdrawn his name from consideration for the position but I don't buy that at all. Garrett isn't guaranteed the Dallas job next year, especially not with Shanahan and Cowher still out there without jobs.

He also must realize that he is a relatively raw coaching talent without much experience and his time may come and go, especially if Dallas were to struggle again next season. 

On the other hand, he makes $3 million a year to coach offense in Dallas and won't get any more than that from Lewand and Mayhew so it's possible he takes a pass. I'm still listing him as No. 2 right now but it could change in the coming weeks.


3. Leslie Frazier, Asst. Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Minnesota Vikings


Soft-spoken veteran coach who is thought highly of by his former players and coaching peers. Eagles coach Andy Reid has the following to say about Frazier:

“He’s a great football coach but probably an even better person. [He’s a] great individual and a great family man. He has a very strong work ethic. When he was here (1999-2002) he was very quiet but he wanted to know everything.

"And the players, and this wasn’t just because he was a good corner in the National Football League, but you could see that the players respected him for what he was as a person and coach. He deserves a head coaching shot and if he got one, an owner is going to get a very solid, solid person and coach."



Leads a very good, sometimes dominant Minnesota defense who also did a great job as a defensive backs coach with Philadelphia from 1999-2002. He also was Cincinnati's defensive coordinator for two years from 2003-2004 and was surprisingly let go.

No reasons were given but the belief is that Marvin Lewis wanted a more "emotional, fiery" coach to lead his defense. His next two season were at DB coach for the Colts before coming to Minnesota as DC. At all stops though, Frazier is a well-respected coach who known who stresses fundamentals and discipline.



Frazier definitely has a chance at the Lions opening but I believe he'll need a year or two more as a solid coordinator before a team gives him his chance. He's cut from the same cloth as Tony Dungy in that he is laid-back and doesn't believe that he has to scream to get his point across. Unfortunately, I think the Lions need a motivator to captain this turnaround.


4. Ron Rivera, Defensive Coordinator/San Diego Chargers


Rivera's is a hot prospect but has declined all requests for an interview until after the Chargers' season. So, if they continue a long playoff run, it could be three weeks until the Lions could interview him. I think in principle, it's the right thing to do and shows that he is committed to his team which is a redeeming quality, however the long wait may hurt his chances.



After his contract expired following Chicago's Super Bowl XLI loss to Indianapolis, Rivera joined the Chargers as linebackers coach.

He was promoted to defensive coordinator when Ted Cottrell was fired midway through this season, and successfully scaled back a defense missing its best player, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. The Chargers closed the year with a four-game winning streak and beat the Broncos in the regular-season finale to win the AFC West title.

He won a Super Bowl as a player with the Bears and has worked in a variety of defenses, from Cottrell's 3-4, to Lovie Smith's Tampa Two, to Jim Johnson's blitz-heavy scheme in Philadelphia, all with great success.



Right now, I believe that the Lions want to speak to him but because they aren't able to, he is no better than the fourth choice right now.


5. Steve Spagnuolo, Defensive Coordinator/New York Giants


Interviewed with the Broncos, Jets, and Lions. He went from being a position coach two years ago with the Philadelphia Eagles to running the defense for the New York Giants last season and became the league's hottest head coaching prospect.



Spagnuolo essentially runs the same defensive scheme as Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson with success. That scheme is blitz heavy and puts a ton of pressure on opposing offenses.

Because of the significant improvement New York's defense made during the 2007 season and being that the team won the Super Bowl, Spagnuolo got big recognition for the team's success.



NFL Networks Michael Lombardi reported that Spags had poor interviews with the Jets, Lions, and Broncos, but other reports had him impressing Detroit's brass. I believe that if he leaves, it will be for the Jets job.