Maybe the single most important determining factor of the success of that coach—no matter who is selected to replace Jim Schwartz—will be the continued development of Stafford, who has deviated from his preordained quarterbacking path.
Once believed to be on the brink of elite status, the young and still-moldable Stafford has since regressed to the middle of the pack. And that unforeseen regression has played a major role in the Lions winning just 11 games over the last two disappointing seasons.
Now, Detroit is dead-set on making sure the relationship between head coach and quarterback is one that will aid in Stafford's development.
According to Mike O'Hara of the Lions' official site, via Mitch Albom of WJR-AM in Detroit, the Lions have decided to allow Stafford in on the interview process. He was part of the original interview with former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell last week.
"It’s something, however much they ask me to be a part of it, I’ll be a part of it," Stafford said. "I’m not knocking on the door. They asked me to sit in on that one. I’m sure I’ll have some involvement in that process."
Just how involved Stafford is during the process isn't exactly clear. He certainly won't be handpicking the next coach, but the Lions obviously want the next head coach to have a working relationship with the team's most important player.
And this kind of involvement isn't uncommon. Jay Cutler met with Marc Trestman before the Chicago Bears hired him last January, and Robert Griffin III is doing the same for the Washington Redskins to kick off this offseason.
The premise is pretty simple.
A quick look at many of the top offenses reveals a prevailing trend: Between the quarterback and head coach, there is an understanding, synergy and respect.
Stafford now needs his Payton or McCarthy, an experienced offensive leader capable of getting the best out of a top physical talent.
The Lions' job should be one that is inviting for a strong offensive mind.
"I think any job that has a quarterback the level of Matthew Stafford is going to be viewed as an attractive job," former head coach Brian Billick said, via Justin Rogers of MLive.com. "To have a quarterback the caliber of Stafford, kind of puts you ahead of the curve."
Getting the job might involve wooing Stafford, but keeping it will depend on getting the best out of the 25-year-old quarterback.
While not the only reason, Schwartz's inability to do so over the long term eventually cost him his job. He got close, but the pieces never fit all the way together.
The Lions went 10-6 and made the postseason in 2011, when Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. But in 2012 and 2013, Stafford completed less than 60 percent of his passes, tossed 36 interceptions and had a passer rating of just 81.9.
|Matthew Stafford: A Tale of Four Seasons|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Predictably, the Lions went 4-12 in 2012 and then stumbled to a 7-9 mark in 2013.
A team as talented as Detroit, especially at quarterback, receiver and along the defensive line, should have won far more than 11 games over the last two seasons. Schwartz took the fall.
Refining the quarterback position will be the major test of the next head coach.
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer believes that Stafford needs a ringleader much like a young Brett Favre needed in Green Bay. A gun-slinging interception machine early in his career, Favre eventually blossomed into a three-time MVP quarterback who made back-to-back Super Bowls under Mike Holmgren.
“What Mike did with Brett was (set) boundaries,” Dilfer told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free-Press. “Brett Favre was as reckless as any quarterback ever early in his career, and Mike wanted the good stuff that came out of Brett Favre, so he didn’t want to squish all that by turning him into a robot."
How can that be done? By maximizing the good and minimizing the bad.
"He wanted all that (good) to come out and to minimize the recklessness, and that was by creating boundaries and awareness," Dilfer said. "The awareness of the ramifications of what happens to everybody in the building when you get reckless."
Holmgren was able to get through to Favre, who threw 51 interceptions over his first 45 starts but only 42 over his next 48, a stretch that also saw Favre win three straight MVP awards. The Green Bay Packers won 37 of those 48 games.
Like Favre, the interceptions might never be completely eliminated from Stafford's profile. In Detroit's seven wins this season, Stafford tossed nine picks. In the nine losses, he threw 10.
But managing the risk will be a big part of the development process awaiting the next coach.
Stafford threw 13 interceptions over the second half of 2013. His passer rating plummeted from 94.8 over the first eight games to 72.1 over the final eight. And six of his 19 picks came in the fourth quarter with the game tied or within one score.
Overall, Stafford's 19 interceptions and 58.3 completion percentage were the most since his rookie year. He also fumbled 12 times, losing four.
The Lions must now pick the right man to blaze the redemption path for Stafford. That coach's legacy in Detroit will be directly tied to whether or not he can accomplish that task.
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