December 31, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions are clear in their win-or-else mentality about next coach

Lewand and Mayhew on Schwartz
Lewand and Mayhew on Schwartz: Lions president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew talk about the decision to fire Jim Schwartz.

Allen Park — There was no sense dwelling on the path that led them here, because if there’s one thing the Lions want to avoid, above all else, it’s their own history.

And as one of the NFL’s most-downtrodden franchises bid farewell to another head coach Monday, firing Jim Schwartz after a five-year rebuilding job failed to create a consistent winner, there was a quick pivot to the future.

The search for his replacement officially began in earnest Monday. But it was clear from the brief press conference held by team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew this was not a decision that required much discussion a day after the Lions finished their regular season with a 7-9 record, losing six of seven down the stretch.

And while the day was not without emotion — Schwartz fought back tears as he broke the news to his players in a team meeting shortly after noon — it was also typical of the NFL’s cold-hearted, win-or-else mentality.

“The simple fact is we are where we are,” Lewand said. “We did not win the division title. We did not win enough games. We made the changes today that we think are necessary to get us to those goals.”

The goals are different now than they were five years ago, when Lewand and Mayhew — freshly promoted to their current positions — began the search that eventually led them to Schwartz, then one of the game’s bright, young defensive coordinators.

And so is the help-wanted ad, obviously, as veteran center Dominic Raiola, one of the few roster holdovers from that winless season in 2008, noted Monday.

“Who wants that job?” Raiola said of the one Schwartz inherited. “A complete rebuild, a complete overhaul. Nobody wants that job. But he took it. He took (it) as far as he could take it.”

Now comes the really hard part, though: Finding someone who can take it the rest of the way.

As Mayhew put it Monday, “We’re trying to get to another place, trying to get to another level.”

And to get there it seemed clear — at least to those at the top of the Lions’ organization, including vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. — it was going to take something more than what they had in place. Or something different, at the very least.

Mayhew was quick to thank Schwartz and his staff — some of which remains in limbo — for its work ethic as they all tried to assemble something football fans in Detroit would only scarcely recognize, if at all. And the GM did acknowledge, “There are some things we could’ve done better from a personnel standpoint.”

“But,” he added, “we think our talent level is approaching a point where we should be contending. And we’re not there now.”

So how do they get there? Or more specifically, who do they hire to lead them there?

Mayhew wouldn’t “pigeon-hole” himself on the criteria, but he agreed that prior head-coaching experience is “important.”

“Because we think we’re pretty far along in the process,” he explained, though that’s a debatable point based simply on the Lions’ record (11-21) the past two seasons. “And we don’t want to start over.”

Of course they don’t, since doing that honestly would require a clean sweep in Allen Park, the front office included. But clearly there’s enough talent here to attract some quality candidates. And if the Fords were willing to pay nearly $12 million to send Schwartz packing — if he lands another job amid the NFL’s annual coaching carousel, they could be off the hook for some of that — the assumption is they’re prepared to pay a premium to replace him.

They’d better be, because by Monday afternoon there already were six vacancies around the league. And perhaps one about to close with the Houston Texans close to landing Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, according to multiple reports.

The Lions insist theirs is among the most attractive, and that’s an opinion shared by many in the NFL. But if you were listening carefully Monday, I think you heard quite a bit about what the front office felt they were lacking.

Mayhew talked about the need for a coach with the “ability to change our culture a little bit” and getting past a “fatalistic attitude” that certainly seemed to be the Lions’ undoing. For whatever reason, Schwartz’s reckless, mistake-prone teams were 6-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less the past two seasons, and they managed to blow fourth-quarter leads in seven of their nine losses in 2013 — something only the San Diego Chargers in 2000 had ever done.

The Lions’ GM also talked about finding someone who can get the most out of the player who remains the franchise cornerstone: quarterback Matthew Stafford, who despite setting myriad franchise passing records hasn’t fully harnessed his raw talent.

“That’s certainly part of the equation, whether that’s the head coach who has that experience or somebody on his staff,” Mayhew said.

So maybe it’s a candidate like former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who helped develop Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and rejuvenate Philip Rivers in San Diego this season as a coordinator. (He’d be my first choice.) Others with similar offensive minds — but without head-coaching experience — that could draw interest include Cincinnati’s Jay Gruden, San Francisco’s Greg Roman and Denver’s Adam Gase.

Or maybe it’s a defensive-minded coach like Lovie Smith, who reportedly will bring ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford with him as an offensive coordinator.

But there can’t be any debate now that Stafford’s stalled progression had a direct correlation to the Lions’ own glass ceiling. The GM declined to weigh in on the criticism that Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan were guilty of coddling their star quarterback. (“I can’t really comment on that,” he said.) But he didn’t exactly dismiss it the way he did some other reports Monday.

“He’s already been a great quarterback in 2011,” Mayhew said of Stafford. “But we’ve got to get him to that point and beyond. It hasn’t happened the last two seasons. … But he certainly has the ability to be that guy.”

This guy, that guy. The Lions can’t seem to shake their age-old identity crisis. But they’re about to try again. And if there wasn’t a sense of urgency before, there had better be now.

“The longer you wait, that window closes,” veteran linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “So whoever comes in here needs to hit the ground running and take us over that hump. We can’t wait any longer. We’ve got to find a way to get to that next step.”

Lions president Tom Lewand walks into Monday's press conference with general manager Martin Mayhew. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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