On Saturday, November 28, 2020, the Detroit Lions did the inevitable and fired head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn following a five-day stretch in which the Lions lost 41-25 to the 4-7 Texans and 21-0 to the 4-8 Carolina Panthers. Shortly thereafter, sportsbook BetOnline.ag released their initial odds for the next head coach hired by Detroit, as tweeted out by The Athletic’s Chris Burke.
Is every head coaching candidate on this list a realistic target for the Lions? No. Are there possible candidates that have been left off of this list? Of course. Nevertheless, this initial list should give Detroit sports fans a decent idea of the potential candidates that the Lions will consider for their new head coaching vacancy.
With that said, let’s make things a little more interesting. While this was released the day of Patricia’s firing, two additional websites, SportsBettingDime and SportsLine, have released their own odds. Let’s take the odds from all three sources and composite them to create the official M-FANS odds for next Lions head coach hired, even if nobody can place any bets on these odds.
Detroit Lions 2021 Head Coach Composite Odds
These composite odds, of course, are just the appetizer of this article. Today, we are going to organize the candidates from these betting odds and place into a tier list ranking the candidates from best to worst. The entire tier list is available in compact format below, and as a bonus, I have even included an image version! Fun. Following the tier list below are breakdowns of each candidate from worst to best.
Detroit Lions 2021 Head Coach Candidates Tier List
[S] Home Run Hires: Robert Saleh, Lincoln Riley, Joe Brady
[A] Rock Solid Hires: Arthur Smith, Dan Mullen
[B] Underqualified, But Accomplished: Kellen Moore
[C] Jim Harbaugh: Jim Harbaugh
[D] Deeply Flawed Choices: Darrell Bevell, Matt Campbell, Eric Bieniemy
[E] Underqualified and Under-Accomplished: Byron Leftwich, Kevin O’Connell
[F] The Bill Belichick Coaching Tree: Brian Daboll, Josh McDaniels
Things to Note:
- In tiers with multiple candidates, the candidates are ranked from best to worst within their individual tiers.
- The following criteria have been used to determine the coaches on this tier list:
- 1. If a head coaching candidate was included by all three sportsbooks, they were automatically included on the list.
- 2. If a head coaching candidate was included by two of three sportsbooks and held at least +1500 composite odds, they were automatically included on this list.
- 3. If a head coaching candidate was included by any of the three sportsbooks with better than +1000 odds, they were included on this list. (This only applies to Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.)
- This means that the following coaches were not included in our tier list: Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and former Ohio State Buckeyes and Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer.
- The omission of Matt Eberflus from this list may surprise some, but one specific stat may help explain his slim odds. The Lions have been heavily criticized throughout Matt Patricia’s tenure due to a consistent failure to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While the Colts are a middle-of-the-pack team at generating pressure this year (their 23.1% pressure rate is 15th in the NFL entering December), their 19.3% blitz percentage is second-lowest in the NFL to only the Los Angeles Chargers (16.5%), and sits 2.6 percent below Matt Patricia’s Lions in 2020 (fourth-lowest in the league). It would be quite tone-deaf of the Lions to pivot from one defensive coach who rarely blitzed to another, but then again, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has qualified for the tier list.
- Nick Saban is 1.5 months younger than Seahawks Head Coach and Executive VP of Football Operations Pete Carroll, who is rumored to make around $11 million per year. The Lions would require Saban to be about ten years younger to even consider a deal like this, if they were willing to pay such a high price for their new coach.
- There have been similar calls for Urban Meyer to take up such a post, but the odds agree that it is extremely difficult to see this happening, as well.
- Dabo Swinney would demand a similar deal, but with Saban set to retire in a few years and Swinney’s alma mater sitting in Tuscaloosa, it’s hard to imagine Swinney considering an offer like this from most NFL teams, let alone a team with as little success in the Super Bowl era as Detroit.
- Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s exclusion from the list may simply be because he is too underwhelming of a hire. As a head coach, Frazier led the Minnesota Vikings to 3-13, 10-6, and 5-10-1 campaigns from 2011 to 2013 before being fired (as well as a 3-3 record versus the Jim Schwartz Lions). As Buffalo’s defensive coordinator and defensive playcaller, the Bills have ranked T-15th, 3rd, 4th, and T-17th in yards per play, albeit in Sean McDermott’s scheme. In all likelihood, it’s his tenure in Minnesota that is holding Frazier back. (His age could be a factor too: if Frazier was hired, he would become the NFL’s 8th oldest coach, and could rise to 6th or 7th if coaches such as Romeo Crennel and Vic Fangio are not retained going into 2021.)
[F] The Bill Belichick Coaching Tree
New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels (Composite Odds: +1500, T-11th)
If there was a logical tier below F-Tier, or even two tiers below F-Tier, Josh McDaniels would fit right in there.
The Lions are looking for a coach to replace former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, arguably the worst failure in the infamous Belichick coaching tree yet, and they’re going to hire one of the other biggest head coaching busts from that tree? In his first year with the Denver Broncos, McDaniels alienated players such as QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall, forcing them out of Denver by season’s end, en route to an 8-8 record (the team had gone 15-17 in the previous two seasons under HC Mike Shanahan). In year two, the Broncos got off to a 3-9 record before McDaniels was fired midway through his second season.
If a head coaching tenure from a decade ago mirroring Matt Patricia’s tenure in Detroit somehow isn’t enough to scare Detroit off from McDaniels, the New England offense in its first season without Tom Brady in twenty years entered week 12 as the #27 scoring offense in the league (20.9 points per game). Despite a disappointing offensive season to date, the Lions currently have the #22 offense in the NFL, scoring 22.9 points per game. And of course, McDaniels famously withdrew from an agreement to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts as recently as February 2018.
Come on, man.
Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll (Composite Odds: +1275, 6th)
The sixth-best odds!? On a Bill Belichick coaching disciple!?
Look. There is an argument to be made that Brian Daboll belongs in the E-Tier instead of the F-Tier, but hey, Daboll is not underqualified: he has five Super Bowl rings, and he won all five as an assistant coach in New England. Now, with the success of Brian Flores in Miami with the Dolphins, it would be foolish to rule out Daboll as a head coach solely due to him coming from the Bill Belichick coaching tree. (The same logic would rule out Justin Fields from being drafted by an NFL team due to him being an Ohio State quarterback, and Fields is almost assuredly going to go in the top-10 of next year’s draft.)
With that said, it would be a comically tone-deaf hire, for one. What would garner a more comical reaction: hiring a second coach in a row from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, or hiring Jim Harbaugh to coach an NFL team whose fanbase consists of Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State fans? I’d argue that the former is worse by a strong margin. The only way to justify such a hire would be to hire a truly can’t-miss coaching prospect. But if Daboll was truly can’t miss, you would think that he would’ve received a head coaching position by now. Over the course of the past decade, he has been the offensive coordinator of four NFL teams (the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Buffalo Bills), as well as serving as co-offensive oordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Yes, in Daboll’s three seasons as Bills offensive coordinator, the team has improved its offense every year. In his first season running Buffalo’s offense, the team finished 30th in the league with 298.6 yards per game. In 2019, that number rose to 330.2 yards per game, good for 24th in the league. And this year, Buffalo has put up 372.5 yards per game entering December, 11th in the league. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the Lions should not hire yet another Bill Belichick coaching disciple, and definitely not one who has led a top-ten offensive or defensive unit to date in his NFL career.
[E] Underqualified and Under-Accomplished
Los Angeles Rams Offensive Coordinator Kevin O’Connell (Composite Odds: +1500, T-11th)
The next two head coaching candidates fall into the same category: former quarterbacks turned offensive coordinators coaching under offensive-minded coaches who are too inexperienced to reasonably take over an NFL franchise.
First up is Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. O’Connell is one of the youngest coordinators on this list, turning 36 in May, and his inclusion in the Vegas odds above is because he is this season’s lucky Sean McVay assistant.
That’s right: O’Connell has worked to lead Rams head coach Sean McVay’s offense for an entire three-quarters of a season. Previously, O’Connell spent three years with the Washington Football Team, working up from quarterbacks coach in 2017, to the same title plus passing game coordinator duties in 2018, to full offensive coordinator in 2019. Current Football Team head coach Ron Rivera chose not to retain O’Connell, however, perhaps because Washington’s 274.7 yards per game in 2019 was 31st in the league to only the Adam Gase-led New York Jets.
That stat is all you need to know. Yes, the 2020 Los Angeles Rams offense is better than the 2019 Washington Football Team offense, but a lot of that credit has to go to the offensively-minded head coach running the show.
O’Connell may establish himself as a worthy NFL head coaching candidate in the near future, but he is not one right now. Perhaps O’Connell can follow in Matt LaFleur’s footsteps and leave his position for a different offensive coordinator position in which he is able to call plays in 2021. (In LaFleur’s one season as a play caller in Tennessee back in 2018, he only finished with the 25th yards per game offense in the league, so O’Connell likely would not have to do particularly well to land a job from there.)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich (Composite Odds: +1300, 7th)
Next up is Byron Leftwich. In two years as Bruce Arians’ offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Leftwich has had a decent amount of success running an offense. 2019’s Buccaneers offense was good for 397.9 yards per game, third-most in the league. Of course, that offense was marred by Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions.
This year, the Buccaneers, entering Week 12, have fallen to 357.8 yards per game with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski entering the fold. That mark puts Tampa at 18th in the league, which isn’t much better than the 22nd-ranked Detroit Lions and their 347 yards per game including their Week 12 matchup on Thanksgiving. And once again, the offense in Tampa is primarily Bruce Arians’ system. Leftwich, 41 in January, may be a strong head coaching candidate soon, but with even less experience than O’Connell (Leftwich didn’t even begin coaching in the NFL until 2017) and arguably a slightly better track record, they are very similar candidates. The tie goes to Leftwich for calling Tampa Bay’s plays.
[D] Deeply Flawed Choices
Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy (Composite Odds: +625, 2nd)
This is undoubtedly the most controversial ranking on this entire tier list, so let’s break this down.
Since 2018, Eric Bieniemy has served as the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chief, helping to lead one of the most high-flying offenses in the history of the NFL. Because of the absurd success of this Chiefs offense, Bieniemy earned multiple interviews in last year’s head coach hiring cycle, and he will undoubtedly land multiple interviews this year.
But here’s the catch: Eric Bieniemy is this cycle’s Matt Patricia. This time, instead of a defensive coordinator for a recent Super Bowl champion team coached by a legendary defensive mind (Bill Belichick), we have an offensive coordinator for a recent Super Bowl champion team coached by a legendary offensive mind (Andy Reid). Now, the Kansas City Chiefs offense is undoubtedly better right now than the New England Patriots defense was coming off its 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. But simultaneously, Matt Patricia actually called plays in New England, and did so from 2010 to 2017! Bieniemy is not calling the plays in Kansas City, as Andy Reid handles their play calls. (And I’m not even going to get into the character concerns that some have with Bieniemy from years as a player and an assistant at Colorado, but here is a separate article if you’d like to go down that rabbit hole.)
The only way I could be sold on an Eric Bieniemy hire is if the rumors that Bieniemy will likely be a package deal with former Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey are true. Dorsey, of course, holds a very strong NFL Draft track record. His first-round selections between Kansas City and Cleveland? OT Eric Fisher, DE Dee Ford, CB Marcus Peters, QB Patrick Mahomes, QB Baker Mayfield (not as good as the other players listed, but certainly better than QB Sam Darnold and QB Josh Rosen, who were also considered with this selection), and CB Denzel Ward. Notable picks in the second round and later from Dorsey include DT Chris Jones (2016 second round), RB Nick Chubb (2018 second round), TE Travis Kelce (2013 third round), RB Kareem Hunt (2017 third round), and WR Tyreek Hill (2016 fourth round).
Yes, Eric Bieniemy undoubtedly deserves credit for his work as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator and head coach Andy Reid would be happy for him to stick around. And yes, Bieniemy has a much stronger resume than both Byron Leftwich and Kevin O’Connell. Nevertheless, the only thing keeping Bieniemy in this list’s D-Tier is the sheer possibility of John Dorsey coming with him. Color me skeptical.
Iowa State Cyclones Head Coach Matt Campbell (Composite Odds: +1325, 8th)
Matt Campbell is a compelling head coaching candidate… for a blue-blood college football program. The Iowa State head coach has won three Coach of the Year awards in the past six years. He took home Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2017 and 2018 in consecutive 8-5 seasons, and won the 2015 MAC Coach of the Year award after posting a 9-2 record leading Toledo.
Were the Lions to hire Campbell, they would clearly be hoping for him to be the next Matt Rhule. Despite a 4-8 record entering December, Rhule has led the Panthers to perform relatively well to their preseason expectations. The two coaches had similar starts to their career. Rhule built Temple up from a 2-10 team in his first season with the team in 2013 to a 10-win team in both 2015 and 2016 before departing for Baylor. Campbell did not time to rebuild Toledo: the team went 9-4 in his first full season coaching the team in 2015, regressed to 7-5 the next season, then won nine games in both 2014 and 2015 before Campbell left for Iowa State.
Where these coaches diverge is their performance at their second school. While Campbell won Big 12 Coach in the Year in 2017 and 2018 after posting a 3-9 record in his first season with Iowa State in 2016, the Cyclones had a disappointing 2019 season in which they finished 7-6 and lost 33-9 to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 2019 Camping World Bowl. Matt Rhule, meanwhile, experienced linear improvement at Baylor, posting a 1-11 record in 2017, a 7-6 record in 2018, and an 11-3 record in 2019. In fact, Rhule’s 2019 Baylor squad came one overtime period in the Big 12 Championship game versus Oklahoma away from a College Football Playoff appearance.
While Campbell has undeniably succeeded at both Group of Five and Power Five conference schools, he has not come particularly close to the College Football Playoff like Matt Rhule did in 2019. With college coaches having relatively low success in the NFL as head coaches compared to NFL coordinators (of the NFL coaches with a winning record through Week 12 in 2020, only Pete Carroll and Kliff Kingsbury were hired from a college team), hiring a non-superstar college coach such as Matt Campbell would automatically be a deeply flawed hire for the Lions.
Detroit Lions Interim Head Coach / Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell (Composite Odds: +950, 4th)
Only four coaches in the M-FANS composite odds have better than +1000 odds to become head coach of the 2021 Detroit Lions. interim head coach and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is the first of the four coaches to appear in our tier list analysis.
You may have noticed that Darrell Bevell sits atop our D-Tier. First and foremost, in all fairness to Bevell, the Lions offense was on fire prior to quarterback Matthew Stafford being injured last season. Prior to Stafford’s injury following a Week 8 matchup versus the Oakland Raiders, the Lions offense was posting 6.1 yards per play, tied for 5th-most in the league with the elite 2019 Baltimore Ravens offense and the Deshaun Watson-led Houston Texans. For context, the team posted only 5.1 yards per play in 2018, making them the 6th-worst offense in 2018. (This year, their 5.5 yards per play mark sits in the middle and is tied for 17th in the league.)
Darrell Bevell’s placement at the top of our D-Tier is because he is, at the moment, a deeply flawed hire. Aside from a year off in 2018, Bevell has been an NFL offensive coordinator since 2006 and led prolific offenses in Minnesota, Seattle, and, for eight games, in Detroit. Given the inevitable up-and-down nature of his success over time—he was not retained in Minnesota when Leslie Frazier took the team over in 2011, and he was dismissed by the Seattle Seahawks following the 2017 season—his resume is not as sharp as some of the top candidates under consideration. It is important to emphasize the inevitable nature of these results, of course. Bevell has been leading NFL offenses for a long time, and it is surprising that he has not earned an opportunity to run a team already.
Of course, this is Bevell’s chance. If the Lions succeed in their final five games under Bevell, a slate that features games against all three divisional opponents and two future playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bevell may earn himself the head coaching title. Is this likely? No. Would it get him hired? Possibly. Would it bump him up into the B-Tier of this list, and maybe even the A-Tier? Yes. Bevell has stated before that he hopes to one day lead an NFL team: now is the time for him to prove he is worthy of a head coach position.
[C] Jim Harbaugh
Michigan Wolverines Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (Composite Odds: +675, 3rd)
Next, we come to the guy with the highest Vegas odds of anybody listed thus far. Bear with me here.
44-19-1 and 5-3. Those are Jim Harbaugh’s NFL regular season and postseason records, respectively.
2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 10th. Those are the San Francisco 49ers scoring defense ranks in Harbaugh’s four seasons as head coach, in order from 2011 to 2014. (Offensive ranks? 11th, 11th, 11th, and 25th, also in that order. That 25th mark in 2014 isn’t good, but many fans called for offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s firing, not Harbaugh’s.)
Three out of 13. That is how many seasons a Jim Harbaugh-led collegiate team has ranked top-5 in the AP poll at least once during its season.
The pattern is clear: Jim Harbaugh has a much stronger sample as an NFL coach than he does as a collegiate coach. Michigan woes aside, if you take out his stellar 12-1 season in 2010, Harbaugh went 17-20 in his first three years at Stanford.
So why is Jim Harbaugh only a C-tier hire? Simply put, Harbaugh has blatantly underperformed at Michigan since losing to Ohio State in embarrassing fashion two seasons ago.
Harbaugh’s first two seasons at Michigan were stellar and lived up to the hype, culminating in an extremely tight and controversial double-overtime loss to Ohio State in Columbus instead of a Big Ten title game appearance and possible College Football Playoff appearance. 2017 was a down year, but hope glimmered as Harbaugh’s Michigan team came one competent quarterback short of upsetting the Buckeyes and finishing with a solid 9-4 season. In 2018, Harbaugh was a win against the Buckeyes away from winning the Big Ten East and taking Michigan where it felt that it deserved to go in 2016. Instead, the team allowed 62 points.
Incredibly, Jim Harbaugh retained defensive coordinator Don Brown following that game and an embarrassing 41-15 loss to the Florida Gators in the Peach Bowl. In fact, Don Brown is still at Michigan, and sure enough, the team has consistently regressed since this pivotal moment in Harbaugh’s tenure.
Jim Harbaugh could very well be a great coach for the Detroit Lions for the next few seasons. He turns 57 in December and would not quite crack the top ten oldest head coaches in the league, and he would likely attract a pair of strong coordinators to work under him. With that said, Harbaugh’s stubborn loyalty to Greg Roman led to San Francisco’s offensive regression in 2014, and his stubborn loyalty to Don Brown has led to Michigan’s defensive regression since the team’s peak during its 2018 “Revenge Tour.” As a Michigan fan who wants Harbaugh out of Ann Arbor as soon as possible, I sincerely think he could win a playoff game for Detroit, and that would be the biggest step in a positive direction by any coach in Honolulu Blue since Barry Sanders was in town. Therefore, I must acknowledge Jim Harbaugh as a decent choice for the job.
[B] Interesting, But Risky
Dallas Cowboys Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore (Composite Odds: +1575, 13th)
Back to quarterbacks turned offensive coordinators. Moore is the youngest candidate on the entire list, turning 33 next July, and would become somewhere between the sixth-to-eighth youngest head coach in NFL history should he become a head coach this offseason. His company would be poor, to say the least: Sean McVay, the youngest coach ever hired, has been a success to date. Lane Kiffin, Raheem Morris, Dave Shula, and Josh McDaniels, however, were all busts. The Lions would be gambling on Moore succeeding in a similar fashion to McVay, and while the odds are historically poor, there is reason to consider that gamble.
Kellen Moore has the best track record of the trio of quarterbacks-turned-coordinators on this list. In 2019, his Cowboys offense posted by far the most yards per game of any team in the NFL with a stellar 431.5 mark (the 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson-led Ravens only put up 407.6 yards per game). With an injury-decimated team, Moore has managed to keep a top-ten yards per game offense through Thanksgiving this season, posting 379.8 yards per game so far in 2020. These stats don’t tell the entire story, however, as Moore has coached under two offensive-minded coaches (whether Jason Garrett or Mike McCarthy are good coaches is a whole other story), and the Cowboys have disappointed in the standings both seasons.
Comparing Kellen Moore to Sean McVay, McVay was younger than Moore is now when he was hired by the Rams, and Moore’s performance in Dallas has already outperformed McVay’s tenure in Washington on paper. Moore put up a #1 yards per play offense in 2019, while McVay’s best offense in Washington in 2016 finished 3rd in the league in yards per play. All in all, Kellen Moore’s overall effectiveness to date places him multiple ticks above Kevin O’Connell and Byron Leftwich, and makes him a legitimate head coaching candidate.
[A] Rock Solid Hires
Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullen (Composite Odds: +1350, 9th)
Three years ago, Dan Mullen’s name was not coming up in the NFL head coach rumor mill. While it was true that Mullen had developed multiple star NFL talents, including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and former Lions cornerback Darius Slay, during their college careers at Mississippi State, that fact alone was not enough for NFL teams to give Mullen serious consideration.
Of course, Mullen has taken his coaching to a whole level since 2017. In his three years at Florida, Dan Mullen’s Gators have posted 10-3 and 11-2 seasons, finished top-7 in both the Coaches and AP polls both seasons, and his 2020 squad appears to be his best team yet.
The most appealing part about Dan Mullen as an NFL head coaching candidate, of course, has to be his track record with quarterbacks over the past five years. Dak Prescott has been a successful quarterback on the field and a very successful quarterback on paper since debuting in the NFL (as a fourth-round selection, too!), and Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has suddenly shot up draft boards with his breakout 2020 performance. Additionally, Dan Mullen-coached collegiate squads have developed multiple NFL cornerbacks, including the aforementioned Slay as well as Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback C.J. Henderson.
The Lions have a struggling top-3 selection in cornerback Jeff Okudah, and they would be wise to draft a rookie quarterback in next year’s draft to give its new regime more money to invest into the rest of the team. Thus, a coach with a history of strong quarterback and cornerback play such as Dan Mullen makes for a logical head coach. With that said, Mullen’s sub-.500 conference record at Mississippi State combined, with the relative lack of successful college-to-pros coaches in today’s NFL (as mentioned in Matt Campbell’s profile), mean that he is a coach that comes with a moderate amount of risk. Overall, Dan Mullen would be a very solid hire for the Lions, if not a home run hire.
Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith (Composite Odds: +1450, 10th)
We are looking for a head coach for the Detroit Lions. The Lions are not looking for a coach who can hold a significant role in an already well-oiled machine: they are looking for a coach with the talent to turn mediocrity into greatness. And while Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator appears to be capable of doing this on paper, the results haven’t exactly translated at game-level yet. Arthur Smith, however, has miraculously transformed the Tennessee Titans offense.
After inheriting the Titans offense from Matt LaFleur once LaFleur departed Tennessee to become Green Bay’s head coach, Smith had plenty of work to do. As I mentioned in Kevin O’Connell’s profile while discussing LaFleur earlier, the Titans offense in 2018 finished 25th in yards per game, though the Titans finished 9-7 thanks to a top-three scoring defense led by defensive-minded head coach Mike Vrabel. (Perhaps the Lions should have been worried when Vrabel’s defense vastly outperformed Matt Patricia’s defense during their simultaneous debut as head coaches.) In Arthur Smith’s first season as offensive coordinator, what did he do? Oh, not much, except for craft an offense that allowed Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and Jonnu Smith to all break out at the same time. And to cap it all off, Smith’s creative play-calling, paired with Mike Vrabel’s lockdown defense, led the Titans to a 28-12 win over the high-flying Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round.
Smith was likely not hired to a job following the Titans postseason elimination due to his inexperience. After all, it was only his first season as an offensive coordinator, and many pundits believed that Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry’s breakouts in particular were unsustainable. So, Arthur Smith is running it back. Entering December, the Tennessee Titans have scored 29.5 points per game, sixth-best in the NFL, and posted 385.7 yards per game, eighth-best in the NFL. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Titans have posted over 30 points in six of their 11 games so far this season. Or is it more impressive that they have three games with over 40 points this season, with the latest being a 45-point effort against a strong Indianapolis Colts defense?
The primary concern that comes with Arthur Smith is his heavy reliance on rushing. Tennessee ran rushing plays 48.79% of the time in 2019, third in the league behind Baltimore (54.07%) and San Francisco (51.39%). Entering Week 13, the Titans have upped their rushing rate to 50.35% in 2020, fourth in the league behind Baltimore (52.28%), Cleveland (52.07%), and New England (51.30%). While all three of the 2019 squads on this list led massively successful offenses, the top-three teams by rushing rate in 2020 rank 23rd, 18th, and 21st in yards per game, respectively, whereas the Detroit Lions offense sits 20th in this statistic. Smith has managed to be the one offensive coordinator to garner consistent success from such a run-heavy system in both seasons, but it is worth noting how run-heavy the Lions offense would become. Is D’Andre Swift durable enough to handle such a workload?
Finally, it currently seems very unlikely that Smith would choose to come coach in Detroit. The odds don’t seem to think there’s a strong chance of Smith choosing the Lions, and it’s hard to blame him given their sheer ineptitude over the past sixty years. Detroit needs to rebuild its reputation back to late-1950s form to attract a hire with no significant ties to the area, and while the team was on the cusp following the firing of Jim Caldwell, the failure of Matt Patricia has put this team back to square one. They’re more likely to land Eric Bieniemy, a coach I consider to be fool’s gold in comparison to these A-Tier coaches, or Jim Harbaugh, who spent his formative years 45 minutes from Detroit in Ann Arbor but whose time is short as a collegiate head coach. Our composite odds reflect this sentiment.
(Fun Fact: Arthur Smith’s father, Frederick W. Smith, founded FedEx. Not very relevant to the article, but you could argue that it is good to know that intelligence runs in the family of your head coaching candidates.)
[S] Home Run Hires
Carolina Panthers Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady (Composite Odds: +1650, T-15th)
Last year, 31-year-old Joe Brady received the 2019 Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football each season, for his masterful work as LSU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach during their unforgettable 2019 national championship campaign. In Brady’s one season at LSU, the team was the college football equivalent of a shooting star, as Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow posted the greatest season by any college football player of all time in an offense innovated by Brady. It undoubtedly helped Burrow that he was throwing to wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Jefferson has posted a rare stellar rookie season as an NFL wideout, while Chase is projected to be a top-5 selection in the upcoming NFL Draft (in fact, in their most recent mock draft, CBS Sports projects the Lions will select Chase at #9 overall. I would like a quarterback in this loaded quarterback field after the Lions skipped out on Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert in last year’s draft, but I digress).
Brady’s all-time great season as an assistant coach landed him the offensive coordinator position on former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers staff this season. Entering the season, Sports Illustrated predicted that the Panthers would finish with a 3-13 record. Despite this, through twelve games this season, the Panthers have posted a 4-8 record, mostly without their best player in running back Christian McCaffrey. Now, let’s be clear: this year’s Panthers are not world-beaters. Their 354.8 yards per game through 12 games this season rank 19th in the NFL, one slot ahead of the Lions’ 20th-ranked offense. But of course, the Panthers outscored the Lions 21-0 with an XFL quarterback (2019 XFL MVP P.J. Walker) leading their offense.
Given his young age and his ability to outperform expectations at every stop, Joe Brady would be a home run hire for the Detroit Lions. He does not quite have the NFL offensive success of Arthur Smith, but he is 7.5 years younger than Smith. He has not been the head coach of a College Football Playoff team like Lincoln Riley has, but Riley hadn’t even begun coaching at Oklahoma when he was Brady’s age. When Robert Saleh was Brady’s age, he was an assistant linebackers coach for the Houston Texans.
Joe Brady has the highest upside of any coach on this list, and now that Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has paved the way for young head coaches to receive a shot leading an NFL team, it is only a matter of time until Brady gets his shot. Arthur Smith, Dan Mullen, Jim Harbaugh, and even guys like Darrell Bevell and Matt Campbell have larger resumes with more sustained success, but Brady’s sheer efficiency thus far in his career vaults him into our list’s top tier. Congratulations in advance to whichever team wins the Joe Brady sweepstakes, as the odds do not seem to think that the Lions will not be the lucky team bringing Brady home (see Arthur Smith’s profile above for some possible reasoning there).
Oklahoma Sooners Head Coach Lincoln Riley (Composite Odds: +1100, 5th)
Few names have come up more in the NFL head coaching rumor mill over the past couple of seasons than Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley. In his four seasons at Oklahoma, the 37-year-old protégé of now-Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops has eclipsed the brand name of both of his mentors by turning quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman award winners and #1 overall selections in the NFL Draft.
First, let’s address Lincoln Riley’s key weakness: defense. It is true that Riley’s teams have struggled immensely on the defensive side of the ball, that shortcoming did not stop Kingsbury from being hired to Arizona once he was fired by Texas Tech. Kingsbury’s Red Raiders teams gave up absurd point totals in the 50s and 60s, such as when Texas Tech fell to Arizona State 68-55 in 2016 and allowed running back Kalen Ballage to tie the NCAA record for most touchdowns in a single game with seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. Riley’s Sooners, meanwhile, gave up a record seven touchdown passes in a half in their 63-28 loss to the eventual national champion LSU Tigers in the 2019 Peach Bowl. The difference? The 2016 Arizona State Sun Devils went 5-7, and Joe Burrow posted arguably the single greatest season in college football history in 2019. The Arizona Cardinals defense, entering week 13, is #12 in the league in yards allowed per play.
So, Lincoln Riley’s number one weakness is more specifically a problem at the college level. So what positives can he bring to the table? In short: a hard-to-top history of quarterback development, a four-year track record of coaching elite offenses, youth (at 37 years of age, Lincoln Riley would be the second-youngest coach in the NFL to only Sean McVay), and an unparalleled allure that would help bring a strong GM, strong free agency hires, and a strong coaching staff to Detroit.
As was mentioned in Arthur Smith’s profile, it’s hard to see a downtrodden franchise such as the Detroit Lions hiring a coach with as much recent offensive success as Smith or Lincoln Riley. Nevertheless, the odds from BetOnline.ag and SportsLine seem to believe that the Lions have a very legitimate shot at landing Lincoln Riley. If Sheila Ford Hamp is serious about turning the franchise’s fortunes around, she will have a blank check ready for Riley. He would undoubtedly be the flashiest hire possible.
San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh (Composite Odds: +525, 1st)
Finally, we have reached the top candidate of 2020 for the Detroit Lions head coach vacancy: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (pronounced SAH-lah).
Born on January 31, 1979 in Dearborn, Michigan, Robert Saleh grew up in Dearborn, attended Northern Michigan University and starred as an all-conference tight end for their football program, and began his football career as a defensive assistant at Michigan State in 2002 upon graduating from Northern. After two years in East Lansing, Saleh spent a year as a defensive assistant at Central Michigan University before breaking through into the NFL as a defensive intern with the Houston Texans in 2005.
Saleh’s ascent through the NFL ranks has been a slow and steady climb, unlike most of our candidates, which means that Saleh has served in numerous positions on defensive coaching staffs. He served as a defensive quality control coach for Houston from 2006 to 2008 and for Seattle from 2011 to 2013 (winning a Super Bowl along the way), as an assistant linebackers coach for Houston from 2009 to 2010, as linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2014 to 2016, and as 49ers defensive coordinator since 2017.
Now, experience is not everything when it comes to succeeding as an NFL head coach in today’s league. The key to landing in an NFL head coaching position are results. Now, whether you earned those results for yourself or not (ahem, Matt Patricia) depends on the competency of the ownership/general management hiring a coach. But thankfully for Robert Saleh, he has both 15 years of NFL coaching experience and four years of stellar results as an NFL coordinator. Robert Saleh has been a dominant defensive coordinator over the past four seasons, especially considering that his 2018 and 2020 defenses would look significantly better had the 49ers not suffered so many injuries (San Francisco 49ers suffered the worst injury luck in the league by cap percentage in both 2018 and 2020).
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All in all, Robert Saleh is the equivalent of an 85 mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle in this coaching hire. He’s a hometown guy, he has 15 years of NFL coaching experience, and he has multiple years of sustained top-tier success as a defensive coordinator. Additionally, as if things could not get any better, SB Nation’s Niners Nation has speculated that a Robert Saleh hire could lead to the hiring of a top-level 49ers executive such as Vice President of Personnel Adam Peters, and of running game coordinator Mike McDaniel to lead Saleh’s offense (the 49ers rushing attack, of course, has drawn heaps of praise over the past two years). The article also points out that Saleh has successfully adapted the 49ers defense over the past few seasons, making key adjustments whenever necessary to improve performance. (Of course, that sounds intuitive, but it is much more difficult in practice than in theory.)
Robert Saleh is quickly drawing buzz as perhaps the top head coaching candidate of this year’s hiring cycle. If the Lions want him, they will have to act decisively and quickly. Sheila Ford Hamp gave Lions fans hope when she fired Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn following a miserable Thanksgiving performance and a shutout at the hands of the 4-8 Carolina Panthers. Should she listen to Michigan legislators and hire Robert Saleh (yes, that is a real ESPN article), perhaps she and Saleh can do what her mother and father could not and build the Lions up from a perpetual disappointment into a perennial winner.