ALLEN PARK — Eric Bieniemy and Robert Saleh are two of the biggest darlings of this hiring cycle. The Detroit Lions could interview both. Saleh seems virtually guaranteed of at least that much, given his resume in San Francisco and Seattle before that, plus his ties to the area.
But the Detroit Lions have also said Darrell Bevell could work his way into that discussion depending on how his five games go as interim head coach. And after the 34-30 win in Chicago on Sunday, Bevell is now 1-0 heading into this week’s game against the Green Bay Packers.
Which prompts the question: Just how serious of a candidate is Darrell Bevell?
We start there in this week’s mailbag. Once again, and as always, thanks to everyone who participated. We’ll be back next week, and questions can be tweeted to @kmeinke or emailed to email@example.com.
Q: In your personal opinion, what, if anything, would Bevell have to accomplish to become the frontrunner for the HC job? — @steeztabor
A: Win a lot of football games. Simple as that. He just doesn’t have the cache of guys like Eric Bieniemy and Robert Saleh. Bieniemy might be the hottest name in this hiring cycle, while Saleh just might be the odds-on favorite in Detroit. He’s smart, his players love him, his defenses produce no matter how many injuries they pile up, and hey, he happened to go to high school 3.3 miles from Lions HQ. I drive further from that place to go get lunch. And everything I’m hearing is Saleh still has deep connections with the area and would love the opportunity to come home.
That said, I think some folks are too dismissive of Darrell Bevell as a viable candidate as well. I just keep thinking about what Jim Caldwell said the other day about so-called “gurus” as head coaches. “There are a lot of people who get caught up with those individuals that might try to wow you in terms of what they might know in terms of knowledge of the game, from an offensive standpoint or a defensive standpoint, ‘gurus’ and have been labeled as such,” Caldwell said. “But nevertheless, what it boils down to is being able to lead a team, and not everybody can do that. I think more so than anything else, you got to lead by example.”
I think that’s an important lesson for the Lions to remember. After all, they just hired the hottest head coaching candidate in the game last time around, a so-called defensive genius who was supposed to be a home-run hire that took the Lions to the next level. Then the Lions lost more often under him than any other head coach not named Marty Mornhinweg or Rod Marinelli.
Patricia failed not because he doesn’t know the game — he does — but because of everything else. He was a poor leader who fractured his own locker room and drove away some of his best players because of personality clashes. Those are the facts. Leadership matters, and he didn’t have it.
Bevell, on the other hand, might. This country is littered with people from coast to coast vouching for the guy. Brett Favre is one of them. So is Russell Wilson. Bevell was instrumental in bringing Wilson to Seattle and then developing him into one of the game’s best quarterbacks. Then he came to Detroit, where his positive attitude, good energy, and general charisma was a huge draw for players strung out on Matt Patricia. People throughout all levels of the organization go out of their way to praise him for his leadership. He kind of reminds me of Jim Caldwell in that way. They’re different coaches, but the way they treat people and try to lead are similar.
Matthew Stafford has loved the guy from Day 1. He played some of his best ball under Bevell last season, too. Obviously, things haven’t gone nearly as well this year either, and that’s part of the resume too. But I do wonder how much of that is due to Patricia wanting to play so conservatively. Either way, they now have five games to show what they can do without restrictions. And that’s one advantage Darrell Bevell does have in this process — a five-week audition to actually show what he can do.
You never really know what you’re going to get with a new head coach. Just imagine if the Lions could have had a five-week trial run with Matt Patricia, you know? So far, so good too. The vibe has changed so suddenly, so drastically, that it’s impossible to miss. The mood, the energy, everything is just better and healthier already. Don’t just take my word for it either. You could turn on your TV on Sunday and see it all over Soldier Field yourself. The body language and energy were different, and it helped them do things they rarely ever did under Matt Patricia. Like come back from a double-digit deficit, rather than cough one up. Or make second-half adjustments. Or get late defensive stands. Or actually beat the Bears, 34-30, something they never once did under Matt Patricia.
Leadership does matter. So do X’s and O’s of course, but you can’t have one without the other — see: Patricia, Matt — and Bevell has a long line of guys vouching for his. Players love this guy, and they’re already playing better under him.
Of course, the Bears have also lost six straight games and could fire their own coach any day now, which is important to remember too. Ekeing past a dumpster-fire doesn’t prove anything. But now Bevell’s audition will feature four straight games against Green Bay, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Minnesota — each of whom is in the playoff field right now. That’s a hell of a schedule. In fact, it’s the hardest-remaining schedule in the league. And if Bevell were to take over a team that had been blown out four times in five weeks against some of the worst teams in the league, and managed to go 4-1 or 5-0 down the stretch against some of the best teams in the league, how could you not at least give the guy a legitimate shot?
Q: Whats your best guess on the return of injuried players on the roster. Can their impact be enough to catch lightening in a bottle and get into the wild card round? — @gavin3000
A: D’Andre Swift will return this week. He actually cleared concussion protocol last week, but missed the final two days of practice with an illness. I think he was healthy-ish by Sunday, but hadn’t practiced fully in weeks and the Lions played it safe. He returned to practice this Wednesday, and while he remained limited, I expect him to play on Sunday.
Kenny Golladay’s situation is less clear. He made the trip to Chicago and was even running sprints in the end zone before the game. That usually means a guy is pretty close. Then again, he’s looked close for a while. He even practiced a couple weeks ago before shutting it down again. On Wednesday, he sat again. I think he’s close, but I think he’s been close for a while and projecting his return at this point is just speculation. I don’t think even the Lions know. The hip just is not cooperating.
Trey Flowers should be ready for practice soon, but I think he’s probably a couple weeks from playing in a game. As for Da’Shawn Hand and Jeff Okudah, who knows. Either way, hard to chalk up this season as anything but a disappointment for the third overall pick.
Getting back Swift will help an offense that just scored a season-high 34 points without him in Chicago. I’m intrigued to see what Bevell can do with a full complement of skill players and no Matt Patricia breathing over his shoulder asking for a conservative game plan. But make the playoffs? They’re one game behind Minnesota (6-6) and Arizona (6-6) with a win in hand against the Cardinals, but all four of their remaining games are against teams currently in the playoff field. It’s the most difficult remaining schedule in the league, and Detroit just needed some heroics to hold off a Chicago team that had lost five straight.
Q: I’ve seen a lot more talk about Saleh being the front runner for the head coaching job. Without a GM in place, couldn’t this go in a completely different direction depending on that hire? — @joshb_916
A: Sure. The coach-general manager relationship is the most important in the entire franchise. The coach has to get the most out of the players acquired by the general manager, while the general manager has to know what kinds of players will fit best for the head coach. So it would be a mistake to stick your new general manager with a coach he doesn’t like or doesn’t believe in or isn’t comfortable with or whatever.
Of course, if the Lions are dead-set on hiring Robert Saleh, they could just pick a general manager who believes in Robert Saleh.
Q: I get the talk about trading Stafford for some picks, blowing up the team and starting over, but shouldn’t we have an experienced QB to mentor a new QB and let the newbie sit on the bench a while? — @jmwhitejmwhite
A: That is definitely one school of thought. It could turn out to be the best path forward, especially if the new regime is high on Matthew Stafford. Which could happen. Because a lot of people around the league remain very high on Stafford. Just look at some of the throws he made on Sunday. Look at that 17-yard pass to Danny Amendola on the 96-yard TD drive, just an inch out of reach for the linebacker. Look at the 49-yard bomb he heaved to Quintez Cephus. The list of quarterbacks who can make throws like him is short, so maybe the new regime will opt to let Stafford have one more go at it while developing a younger quarterback on the bench.
But there are some drawbacks to this approach. For starters, if they’re headed for a large-scale rebuild, the Lions could really use the extra draft pick(s) to expedite the process. The Lions are talent-deficient all over the place on defense, and the best, fastest, most economically viable way back is through the draft. Stafford could fetch an extra first-round pick and then some, speeding up Detroit’s return to competitiveness.
Stafford also turns 33 in two months, and has taken a pounding over the years. I’m not here to say his arm is about to fall off any day now, but he’s a veteran quarterback with a lot of mileage, and there’s no telling for how much longer he’ll be in his prime. So if the Lions are really headed for a long-term rebuild — and again, that could very well be the case — then it might make more sense to get the first-round pick for him while you still can and start that rebuild now, rather than sticking with a quarterback who might be past his prime once the rebuild starts to pay off.
And then there’s the contract. With two years left, his trade value will probably never be higher than it is right now. If the Lions hang onto him, they’ll be in a tough spot where either they trade him for less down the road, let him go for nothing at all, or give him another monster extension, none of which seems ideal.
Just to be clear, I don’t think Stafford’s exit is guaranteed. But I do think it’s a legitimate option for the first time in his career, and what happens will depend a lot on how the new leadership views this organization and just how much of a rebuild will be required.
As Dan Orlovsky told me over the summer: “If they don’t win this year, no matter how he plays, he’s gone. I believe that. He has never said anything — we’re great friends — but we don’t really talk about that. But I can sit here and say I get it. I understand it from both perspectives. I can get it from his perspective — ‘I want to get out, I want my good play to result in more wins.’ But I can understand it from the franchise’s perspective too, that at some point you have to say, ‘It just didn’t work. We’ve done this for a dozen years, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t happen.’”
Q: The salary cap next year is being reduced to roughly $175M. Do you have any thoughts on how the Lions will handle this, and how this may impact the new regime? Seems the Lions are going to have to cut contracts creating a lot of dead money and may not be be able to sign KG. — @RGharajanloo
A: The shrinking cap is going to be a challenge for every team in the league. Bob Quinn did leave Detroit in a strong financial position, with just $361,000 in dead money on the books for 2021. They also aren’t stuck in a bunch of bad long-term contracts.
Then again, they have an important decision to make on Matthew Stafford, and trading him — a real possibility if the new regime jumps head-first into a rebuild — would ring up about $20 million in dead money for next season. With about $175 million already on the books in commitments to player contracts, well, you can see the problem here. Money could get awfully tight, awfully fast, which makes using the franchise tag on Kenny Golladay more difficult.
Of course, they could agree to a long-term contract and spread out that money over multiple years. But Golladay and Bob Quinn weren’t especially close after months of negotiations, and now there’s no general manager in place at all.
For the record, I did hit up Joel Corry about it. Corry is a former agent who now writes about contracts for CBSSports. His reply to your question: “The new regime will need to decide whether to keep or try to trade Matthew Stafford (first). I’m anticipating a franchise tag for Kenny Golladay regardless of where the 2021 salary cap is set.”
Q: Did you dread having to cover Patricia’s press conferences? Seems like he made reporters jobs miserable? — @trulapaugh
A: First, I don’t dread anything about this job. (Especially now that I don’t have to see that scoundrel Justin Rogers every day.) I get paid to fly around the country writing about football for a living, and eating a whole lot of free food along the way. You will get no complaints from me.
Second, I think it’s important to note Matt Patricia did get better over time. Yes, that first year was a downer for everybody. That includes reporters. Patricia could be prickly and standoffish. Perhaps you remember Slouchgate? Perhaps you remember the 900-word opening statement where he defended practicing in the snow heading into an indoor game? Even when you did ask softball questions about who was playing well or whatever, he still wouldn’t play ball.
Plus, he was late. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes by quite a lot.
After that 2018 season, Patricia was, shall we say, encouraged by folks above him to change some of his ways with players and the public. It was a pretty toxic situation made worse by Patricia’s dismissivness of too many people. And to his credit, he did get better. He started showing up on time for his own meetings and press conferences. He still didn’t say a whole lot, but he was respectful and collegial every day. And he remained so this season, even while facing a barrage of tough questions almost every day. Give him credit for that.
Q: Is Romeo Okwara a surprise this season and is he a priority piece for the next GM for a new contract? — @spleen95shortbr
A: Trey Flowers and Jamie Collins were supposed to lead this pass rush, and Detroit spent a third-round pick on Julian Okwara as well. Instead, it’s Julian’s unheralded older brother that has led the way. After his sack of Mitchell Trubisky on Sunday — a play that teed up Adrian Peterson’s go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds — Romeo Okwara is now just a half-sack out of the top 10 in the league. The advanced metrics love him too, with ProFootballFocus ranking his pass rushing 11th and ESPN ranking his pass-rush win rate 10th.
At $2.75 million, Romeo Okwara is a huge bargain. But that deal is up after this year, and it could be difficult for Detroit to hang onto him. Because in case you hadn’t noticed, pass rushers aren’t cheap. Top-10 edge players earn around $17 million these days. Okwara won’t come close to that, but still just 25 years old, he’s headed for a big bump. And the Lions just might not be able to afford it once they settle the Stafford and Golladay situations. It’ll be hard to sink more serious money on the edge with Flowers already occupying so much of the cap at that position.
Q: Should Lions fans be concerned with Rod Wood’s position with the team, and will his role affect the search for the next GM and/or Head Coach? — @rayray12222
A: Rod Wood has become something of a flashpoint for fans. He’s a money guy who got this job because he made the Ford family a lot of money. That doesn’t sit right for many who have seen poorly qualified people — often family friends of the Fords — drive this organization into the ground. I understand that fear, given the history of the team. And Wood did himself no favors when he just came out at his introductory press conference and said he was a non-football guy who was unqualified for any other job besides this one.
I think those comments have drawn more criticism than they deserve because Wood wasn’t hired to make football decisions — he was hired to lead the organization’s business ventures. You don’t have to know anything about playing 5-technique to make money. I think his best achievement has been his work at Ford Field. The lighting is better, the sound is better, the video boards are better, even the field is better. Everything about the experience there is better. You can even get a reliable internet connection these days. Welcome to the 21st century, guys.
And if Wood’s aerospace remained confined to non-football stuff, there would be no reason for concern. The problem is he does seem to be adding football responsibilities. Most notably, he seems to have the Fords’ ear in their search for a new general manager and coach. That’s a red flag for me. Sheila Ford Hamp is in her first year as an owner. Her team president and right-hand man is an investment banker. I’m sure they’re drawing expertise from football people within and outside the organization, but I also think it’s fair to have some concern about the lack of football knowledge leading these efforts.
I’m less concerned about Wood’s role in roster decisions. Yes, he’s in the six-man group that is looped into transactions. But he’s not driving decisions to cut Marvin Hall or whatever. Without a general manager in place, he’s simply the man to whom everyone is answering.