Detroit Lions' New Coaching Staff May Be Perfect Fit For Success

Francisco E. VelazquezCorrespondent IMay 20, 2009

DETROIT , MI - JANUARY 16:  Jim Schwartz head coach of the Detroit Lions talks during a press conference after being introduced on January 16, 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Part of the sunlight from the dawn after a historically bad season for Detroit is the fun job of rebuilding from the ground up. Yay!

William Clay Ford and the Lions chose to begin that job even before September was over by firing former GM Matt Millen.

Eventually initiating team senior vice president Martin Mayhew into his present position as the team’s new general manager, Ford allowed Mayhew to begin his walk on the journey by sticking (for the most part) with staff changes before making any major moves to the roster.

The Roy Williams trade to Dallas was an exception, but it did provide Mayhew three additional picks in the recent draft to build on.

Looking for improved personnel to roam the sidelines and fill the booths, all three main coaching positions will have a new face. With Rod Marinelli, Jim Colletto, and Joe Barry all out of Detroit (safely), the new-look Lions doesn’t merely represent their fiercer teeth-filled symbol.

Jim Schwartz is the new head coach while Gunther Cunningham and Scott Linehan will serve as defensive and offensive coordinators.

“[Schwartz’s] football resume speaks for itself. He’s been a scout, he’s been a position coach, he’s been a coordinator and he’s been very successful at all of those things.” Mayhew said when introducing Schwartz as the franchise’s newest head coach. “We think that he’s going to be the guy to take our football team to where we’re trying to get to.”

However, not everyone with a Lions headset last year is gone. Some coaches were indeed spared their jobs in Allen Park, let alone their heads.

Still, only seven of the 19 coaches listed on the team website are returning.

So, who are all the key minds amidst the fresh faces that surround the Lions’ roundtable of personnel?


Head Coach Jim Scwhartz

As you can tell from Mayhew’s recommendation, the 42-year-old Schwartz has indeed done quite a bit in his relatively short 14 years in the NFL. And he has done it from entry-level on up.

Serving as a college scout for the Cleveland Browns in the early ‘90s, Schwartz brings with him player personnel experience along with his coaching expertise—a unique blend. This will prove important when a major task of bringing prosperity to the franchise is developing the talent.

“What it’s done from a coaching (standpoint)—it’s given me a lot more patience, it’s given me a lot more long-term view. I think that will benefit me in those (personnel) conversations,” Schwartz said as he was introduced as the Lions’ new head coach.

Still, Schwartz has plenty of coaching experience on his resume.

Starting out as a graduate assistant and positional coach at several universities, Schwartz entered the NFL in a scout position with the Browns in 1993 under Bill Belichick. Sticking with the Browns organization when they moved to Baltimore in 1996, Schwartz jumped into coaching with a position as a Ravens’ defensive assistant.

But much of Schwartz’s success came during his time in Tennessee from 1999-2008. After serving as a defensive assistant and positional coach in his first two years there, Schwartz showed enough experience by then to become defensive coordinator under a premier coach in Jeff Fisher.

The decision to promote Schwartz was a relatively good one as he soon soared.

Since his initial year as coordinator in 2001, the Titans have ranked fifth in rushing yards per game (103.5) while only allowing nine 100-yard rushers during the past 64 home games.

Beyond stats, Schwartz’s defenses have helped the Titans earn two AFC South titles (2002 and 2008) while finishing with 10 wins four times, which include the last two years.

In that span, Schwartz has stamped himself as an elite coordinator. Over the past two seasons, the Titans’ .719 winning percentage is the third-best in the NFL—definitely opening up Schwartz’s name for head coaching vacancies.

Successfully, Schwartz has not tailored to one style or scheme. Using his personnel experience, Schwartz has been able to adapt his defenses based on players and game strategies.

“They play zone; they play man; they zone-blitz, they play (Cover 2) – they do it all. That’s what I like about him,” Mayhew said of Schwartz’s defenses.

Though recently implementing a 4-3 at Tennessee, Schwartz is already showing his versatility as he is not opposed to implementing a 3-4 in Detroit—depending on how they view their player’s (especially the rookies) strengths. He’s not stubborn.

He is successful. So, it is no surprise that, with his successes, his unique background, and his ability to adapt, the Lions decided to stay with a defensive mind to rebuild this franchise from the ground up.  He has done it before…with himself.

As for what defensive scheme to use, he’ll have to talk it over with Ol’ Man Cunningham.


Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham

Although Cunningham has only spent double the amount of time in the NFL Schwartz has, Cunningham’s resume is just as impressive having spent 40 years coaching altogether. Cunningham has been fortunate to work with players like Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, and Jared Allen.

Starting in 1969, Cunningham spent the next decade in positional coaching jobs at several universities—with stints in Oregon, Arkansas, California and Stanford. After a one-year stint in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Cunningham broke into the NFL with the Baltimore Colts in 1982.

There, he served as the defensive line coach for the sixth time in his career and linebackers coach for the fourth until after Baltimore moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

After the move, Cunningham returned to California to fill several more defensive line coach vacancies with the San Diego Chargers and then the Los Angeles Raiders. It was also with the Raiders in 1992-93 that Cunningham first served as a defensive coordinator professionally in the NFL.

Yet it was his next stop in Kansas City from 1995 to 2000 where Cunningham moved up the chain into a head coaching position after Marty Schottenheimer resigned following the 1998 season. Promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, Cunningham led the Kansas City Chiefs to a combined 16-16 record in 1999 and 2000—eventually replaced by Dick Vermeil.

With head coaching experience, Cunningham then moved on to Tennessee where he served as assistant head coach under Jeff Fisher, who at the time had a Jim Schwartz coordinating his defense. Cunningham also served his current head coach as the Titans’ linebackers coach from 2001-2003.

Cunningham soon returned to Kansas City. As the defensive coordinator yet again, Cunningham’s thorough experience benefited the Chiefs defense in several ways. Known also as a strong motivator, Cunningham’s aggressive defenses were also very tactical. 

Particularly in 2007, the Chiefs’ defense was impressively among the top five in nine different categories, including negative plays forced (121).

Having worked with Cunningham several successful years before, Schwartz could not have tabbed a better choice from his network of past colleagues for his defense in Detroit. Prying Cunningham from Kansas City, the Lions have a good blend of experience and youth just in these two alone.

Someone who will be making the transition easier for Cunningham, not only to the Lions, but to the NFC is defensive assistant Don Clemons. Clemons may have a bit of input in the decision making as he has spent the last 25 years in Detroit and thus is very familiar with the division.

Hopefully for Detroit, Schwartz is looking for Cunningham to mentor another Pro-Bowler—something the Lions haven’t had too many of lately.


Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan

Only having spent eight years in the NFL, much of Scott Linehan’s career has been spent on campuses across the US. However, Linehan comes directly from his prior head coaching job in St. Louis. Enjoying relatively rapid success, it didn’t take Linehan long at all to get there.

Also starting out as a positional coach (WR) in 1989 at his alma mater, Idaho (he was quarterback from 1982-86 for the Vandals), it only took Linehan three years to break into his first coordinator job.

As the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Idaho in 1993, the Vandals offense actually led the nation in scoring (47.5 PPG) and total offense (532 YPG).

Since then Linehan has continued to receive offers to coordinate offenses across the country.

Linehan would move on to bigger programs at Washington and Louisville, totaling 13 years as a collegiate coach. In that time, Linehan’s teams won five conference titles and played in seven bowl games.

It wasn’t until 2002 that Linehan reached the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings as their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Now with the Lions, Linehan will re-join an old quarterback he mentored in Minnesota: Daunte Culpepper.

Under Linehan’s coordination, Randy Moss also gained much success, enjoying career highs with Minnesota after Cris Carter retired. Together along with Culpepper, the trio set franchise records that still stand, including total yards and first downs in a season.

Many Lions fans remember those years well. Through his three seasons of play-calling in Minnesota, the offenses ranked ninth, fourth, and third, respectively.

But his improvements were not limited to the pass.

In just two years from his arrival, the Minnesota running game went from 25th in the league to an astounding first, with Onterio Smith and Michael Bennett carrying the ball. Those improvements eventually led to a Minnesota playoff berth in 2004.

After a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator in Miami, where Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown combined on the ground for 1,650 yards and 10 touchdowns, Linehan got his first and only crack thus far as a head coach with the St. Louis Rams in 2006.

Stephen Jackson, shouldering much of the offensive load—he got the ball 346 times for the most by a St. Louis player in 20 years—earned his first career Pro Bowl selection under Linehan. QB Marc Bulger also had career years under Linehan posting a career-high 4,301 yards in 2006.

Yet despite all the offensive accolades, Linehan just couldn’t put up enough wins. In three years, Linehan’s record in St. Louis was a combined 13-35. He was fired last season and replaced by Jim Haslett.

Coming with Linehan from St. Louis is quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton. Given the task of grooming Culpepper back into form and, more importantly, developing Matt Stafford, Horton should have some crucial input in when Stafford is ready or not.

If Stafford is ready and takes snaps this season, Horton would also undoubtedly have some input in the play-calling as he will know what Stafford can do best with this playbook.

As for Linehan, maybe a change of scenery is just what he needs. Perhaps with a switch of towns and roles, Linehan can sit comfortably in a job he has been accustomed to filling. Also in this position, he’s been accustomed to succeeding—yet again something the Lions desperately need.


Spawned and Spared

With 12 new coaches in Detroit, many of them are filling positional roles just as the three mentioned have in the past. You never know which one or several are going to be successful. The Lions are banking that most, if not all, do.

An interesting choice for linebackers coach is Matt Burke. Also coming from Tennessee, Burke served as an administrative assistant. He will be another person to have personnel and coaching experience. It doesn’t hurt when your linebackers are Ernie Sims, Julian Peterson and Larry Foote either. I’m sure Burke will also learn quite a bit.

But as stated, seven of the 19 positions are filled with members of the last administration.

Notably, special teams coordinator Stan Kwan and his assistant, Brad Banta were kept on. Receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and running backs coach Sam Gash are also staying in Motown. But no one has been sparred more than defensive assistant Don Clemons who, as stated, is entering his 25th season with the Lions.

Looking back, I feel that the Martin Mayhew has done a tremendous job already. There is a firm mix ff ambitious youth and seasoned experience. Also, there seems to be a mix of aggressive teachers with passive tacticians—people who can feed off each other on the sidelines.

I was skeptical at first, but putting in the research showed me that these guys want to win. For the most part, they have been successful in a number of areas. One of those areas, they hope, is not a stat but rather a city.

It’s a monumental task and I don’t think they will be successful right away. But the youth in the booths allows Detroit some time. The question is, however, how long will Mayhew and the fans give Schwartz and his colleagues?