Top Replacement Candidates for Jim Schwartz in Detroit

Jeff RisdonContributor IDecember 30, 2013

Top Replacement Candidates for Jim Schwartz in Detroit

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Black Monday struck in Detroit. After five seasons, Jim Schwartz was fired, per Adam Schefter of ESPN, as coach of the Detroit Lions. Schwartz went 25-51 in his Detroit tenure, producing just one winning season. 

    Now the search is on for the next coach of the Lions. With team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew still around and leading the search, Detroit has already begun the process of sorting out candidates.

    Here are some potential replacements for Jim Schwartz, in no particular order or preference:

Brian Kelly

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    Current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is a name which has been mentioned in connection with the Lions job for quite some time. Last June, Pro Football Talk reported that Kelly would draw interest from Detroit.

    His name has been cited by several sources on Twitter, including Rotoworld:

    ND host: DET has their eyes on Brian Kelly

    — Rotoworld NFL Draft (@Rotoworld_Draft) December 30, 2013


    Kelly spent many years in Michigan, primarily building a D-II powerhouse at Grand Valley State in Allendale, near Grand Rapids. He also found quick success at Central Michigan in Mt. Pleasant and at Cincinnati before heading to South Bend.

    Kelly made his name at Grand Valley with a relentless defense that continually forced turnovers. He was excellent at establishing a demanding culture of winning. He pushed his players hard, and they responded.  

    Martin Mayhew should find that appealing. During Monday's press conference, he talked about changing the culture of the team, as reported by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:

    Mayhew: "We have to take into account a coach’s ability to change our culture a little bit" in coaching search.

    — Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) December 30, 2013

    He's an outwardly confident coach who isn't afraid to get in his players' faces. He demands excellence and personal responsibility.

    Much like Pete Carroll in Seattle, Kelly is an equal-opportunity coach. Depth charts and starting positions are ordered by competition, not draft status or contractual implications. If the sixth corner from the old regime is practicing better than the presumed starter, Kelly would have no problem making a change.

    With Notre Dame's season recently concluded with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers, Kelly figures to get an interview quickly—if he is indeed interested.


Ken Whisenhunt

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Ken Whisenhunt is currently preparing the San Diego Chargers offense for its Wild Card Round contest in Cincinnati this coming Sunday. 

    In his first season as offensive coordinator in San Diego, Whisenhunt helped resuscitate quarterback Philip Rivers from a declining veteran into a worthy Pro Bowler and dark-hose MVP candidate.

    Prior to his Chargers tenure, Whisenhunt did something that would seem to make him very attractive to Detroit. He led the perennially disappointing Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl berth.

    They darn near won that Super Bowl, losing the 2009 edition 27-23 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    One of Whisenhunt's best qualifications for taking over in Detroit is his work with quarterbacks. Aside from spearheading Rivers' renaissance, his success in plucking Kurt Warner off the scrap heap and forging a potent offense around him led to unprecedented heights in Arizona. 

    Prior to rehabbing Warner, Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. While there, he groomed Ben Roethlisberger into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. 

    One of the primary focuses for any new coach in Detroit is maximizing Matthew Stafford's considerable talent. Whisenhunt has a proven track record of bringing out the best in a variety of different quarterbacks. 

    The concern with Whisenhunt is his record. He finished 45-51 in six seasons in Arizona, with two 5-11 campaigns in his final three years. Struggles in constructing an offensive line and developing lesser talents like John Skelton and Kevin Kolb at quarterback pockmarked his final years.

    Those would not be issues in Detroit, however. He should be viewed as a leading candidate. 

Lovie Smith

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Lions fans know Lovie Smith well from his nine seasons at the helm of the rival Chicago Bears

    Smith forged a pretty successful run in the Windy City, compiling a record of 81-63. In addition, his Bears won the NFC North three times, including in his second and third seasons.

    The 2006 Bears advanced to the Super Bowl after finishing with a 13-3 record, led by a play-making defense and the versatile running back duo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.

    Forcing takeaways from the base Tampa-2 defense is Smith's hallmark as a coach. Per Pro-Football Reference, his defenses ranked in the top 10 in takeaways in eight of his nine seasons in Chicago. 

    Smith's defenses also ranked in the top five in scoring defense four times, including his final year in 2012. 

    While Smith's Chicago teams were often excellent on both defense and special teams, they were notorious for struggling offensively. Smith burned through a succession of offensive coordinators without ever finding someone competent. 

    If the Lions want to secure Smith's services, they might need to act quickly. As Adam Schefter reported: 

    Former Bears HC Lovie Smith is considered the favorite for the Buccaneers HC job, based on multiple league sources.

    — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 30, 2013

    Smith has also already interviewed with the Houston Texans for their vacant head coaching position, as reported by  





Brian Billick

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    Billick might not be one of the more popular names, but he certainly has strong appeal. 

    The current Fox NFL color commentator won a Super Bowl as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. His Ravens team had a legendary defense that suffocated opposing offenses relentlessly. 

    But Billick earned his coaching stripes as an offensive mastermind. Prior to taking over in Baltimore, Billick was the offensive coordinator of the historically prolific Minnesota Vikings. His 1998 unit set the NFL record for most points in a season (since broken). 

    It's Billick's ability to transform himself from high-flying offensive guru to leading a defensive-oriented team to Super Bowl glory that makes him so appealing. I recently wrote about his accomplishments at Detroit Lions Draft, noting: 

    His final four seasons, 1995-98, the Vikings were an offensive juggernaut. They had a team loaded with skill position weaponry. They ranked near the top in yards and points despite being saddled with the relatively pedestrian Brad Johnson at quarterback. That offense blossomed when Randall Cunningham took over in ’98. In fact, the 1998 team he guided to a NFL record 556 points doesn’t look all that different from what Detroit has right now.

    Billick is an outwardly confident man, often derided for needing to prove he's the smartest guy in any room. Still, he fostered a culture built around dynamic personalities in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and kept the train on the tracks. 

    His career record of 80-64 is one game lower than Lovie Smith's, but Billick found more playoff success. He has been out of coaching since being fired from the Ravens after a 5-11 campaign in 2007. 


Bill O'Brien

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    Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel waiting line. He's popular for good reason.

    O'Brien inherited a scandal-plagued disaster at Penn State and guided it to immediate success. In his two years with the Nittany Lions, he took a very difficult situation and made it positive.

    Since losing his first two games, O'Brien has won 15 and lost just seven. That is in spite of NCAA sanctions and on the heels of one of the biggest public relations disasters in sports history. 

    O'Brien has been the calm to the storm. He's thoroughly prepared and almost preternaturally calm on the sidelines. His teams are fundamentally sound and disciplined, which sounds like sweet music to Detroit fans' weary ears.

    Before heading to Happy Valley, O'Brien worked in the NFL for five years with the New England Patriots. While there he served as wide receivers coach, quarterback coach and eventually offensive coordinator. 

    Of course those Patriots had Tom Brady, and O'Brien helped Brady achieve amazing heights. In his one season as offensive coordinator (2011), the Patriots led the league in scoring and secured the top seed in the AFC, advancing to the Super Bowl. 

    His ability to push Brady to being even better is mighty appealing with Matthew Stafford already on the roster. At Penn State he molded Matt McGloin into a NFL starter as a rookie in Oakland and quickly developed true freshman Christian Hackenberg into an accomplished passer. 

    As SI's Michael Rosenberg notes, the Lions are not his only suitor. From his excellent piece:

    Mostly, Detroit has a still-young quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who could be an All-Pro if he gets some better coaching. O'Brien is the guy to do it. He is both a quarterback guru and a proven head coach, and very few men in the NFL are both.

    He makes a compelling case for a compelling candidate, though it's questionable whether the Ford family would care to get involved in a bidding war for a coach for their Lions.