Philip Rivers confers with Ken Whisenhunt during the Chargers' game against the Raiders in December. (Jeff Gross / Getty Images)
Allen Park – The stars appear aligned for San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to be the next head coach of the Lions, even though the Lions have yet to formally interview him.
According to league sources and two media reports, Whisenhunt is the Lions’ primary target. ESPN’s Adam Schefter called it “Whisenhunt’s job to lose.”
The Lions, per NFL rules, had to wait until after the Chargers’ playoff game Sunday to interview him, assuming they were granted permission by the Chargers. Neither president Tom Lewand nor general manager Martin Mayhew were expected to be in Cincinnati for the game.
But they cannot officially hire him until after the Chargers are eliminated, which won’t be for at least another week after they beat the Bengals on Sunday.
“Ken Whisenhunt seems to be now, when you talk to people involved in these coaching searches, the top candidate on the board,” the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said. “The Lions view him as one of their really strong candidates. They missed out on the other two they wanted -- Bill O’Brien and Lovie Smith. They didn’t even interview them so they want Ken Whisenhunt.”
The Lions are expected to interview Whisenhunt as early as Monday.
“The problem is the Lions have some competition: the Vikings and the Redskins have also shown tons of interest in Whisenhunt, and now the Titans as well,” Rapoport said. “I would expect him to try to fit time in his schedule to interview with all of those teams if he can. One thing in common with all of those places: quarterback problems. They think Whisenhunt can fix them.”
Whisenhunt, 51, fits most of the criteria the Lions are looking for – he’s an offensive-minded coach with head coaching experience who has coached two Super Bowl teams, and he’s had great success molding quarterbacks.
“He’s real even-keel; he doesn’t get too high or too low,” said Dave Pasch, the Cardinals’ play-by-play man who covered Whisenhunt’s entire tenure in Arizona. “For the most part, he had the respect of the players. I wouldn’t call him a players’ coach. Sometimes it’s misleading when you say someone is a player’s coach. But he was well-respected by the players.
“Overall, he just has so many qualities of what you want in a head coach. I thought he was going to get a head coaching job last year.”
Whisenhunt was a finalist for the Eagles job. In fact, some have speculated that Whisenhunt was offered the job before Chip Kelly re-entered the picture.
“The guy that came here and took this team to the playoffs two straight years was a really good head coach,” Pasch said. “I knew it wouldn’t be long before he got another head coaching job.”
Whisenhunt has boosted or revived the careers of the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Cardinals’ Kurt Warner and presently the Chargers’ Philip Rivers. They are looking for a head coach who can do the same for Matthew Stafford, whose production has been in decline the last two seasons.
It’s not a coincidence that the top two candidates have been coaches with history of helping quarterbacks. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, has been the only candidate to interview with the Lions thus far.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is also believed to be on the Lions’ short list.
“I think all 32 teams want to have a detailed quarterback coach, someone who is good at coaching quarterbacks and that is certainly part of the equation,” Mayhew said. “Whether that is the head coach who has that experience or somebody on the staff.”
Reportedly, Stafford sat in on the interview with Caldwell, an indication of how quarterback-centric this hiring might be.
“I don’t know that (working with Stafford) is going to be the head coach’s responsibility,” Mayhew said. “It might be, it may not be. We’ll have coaches here that can get him to where he needs to be.
“He’s already been a great quarterback in 2011. He had 41 touchdowns and 5,000 yards passing. We have to get him to that point and beyond.”
Mayhew was asked why Stafford has regressed.
“There are a lot of factors involved,” he said. “The quarterback, as you know, gets a lot of blame when things don’t go well and gets a lot of credit when things do go well. But there are a lot of things around him that take place, as well.
“I think we can do a better job from a personnel standpoint by setting him up for success. Obviously, there are some things that can be done from a coaching standpoint, as well, but it’s not all on him I don’t think.”
It doesn’t hurt Whisenhunt’s candidacy that he already has a professional relationship with Mayhew. They were teammates with the Redskins in 1989 and 1990. Most recently, Whisenhunt’s Cardinals team thumped the Lions 38-10 in 2012.
Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005. It was Whisenhunt who dialed up the famous wide receiver reverse pass – Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward – that sealed the win in that game.
In three seasons working with Whisenhunt, Roethlisberger threw for more than 8,500 yards and 52 touchdowns.
He was the head coach of the Cardinals from 2007-12, taking the team to its only Super Bowl appearance in 2008 with a rejuvenated Warner at the helm of the offense. Warner threw for 11,753 yards and 83 touchdowns in three seasons under Whisenhunt.
And this season, Whisenhunt’s first in San Diego, Rivers threw for 4,478 yards (third most in his career) and 32 touchdowns (second most) with a career-best quarterback rating of 105.5.
“This is Ken Whisenhunt’s offense,” Rivers told ESPN.com recently. “He’s called every snap, every play. He’s run every meeting. Obviously, his background shows a heck of a lot of success offensively, both in Pittsburgh and Arizona. He’s been great.
“I think the one thing I appreciate – and I could have a long list – is his steadiness. He’s intense. He loves ball, but his steadiness and consistency in his approach every day. When we lost and had a tough stretch, he didn’t get all in a panic. He just said, ‘Stay with it.’ And I think that rubs off on the guys. And it’s been fun working with him.”
Whisenhunt does have his detractors, though. He will likely have to explain during the interview process how things ended in Arizona. By 2012 he had fallen out of favor with some of his players who felt he didn’t have their backs when it came to contract issues with owner Bill Bidwell.
All-Pro receiver Anquan Boldin and Karlos Dansby were among those that criticized Whisenhunt.
Whisenhunt was accused, also, of mismanaging quarterback Matt Leinhart and that he and former offensive coordinator Todd Haley were often at odds after the Super Bowl season.
Among the coaches who have been speculated to join Whisenhunt’s staff include Ravens secondary coach and former Michigan assistant Teryl Austin; Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler; and former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who worked with him in Arizona.
On the offensive side, Frank Reich, who is the Chargers' quarterbacks coach, could come with him as the offensive coordinator. Also, Russ Grimm, the Redskins’ Hall of Famer and long-timer offensive line coach, could also be on Whisenhunt’s list.