Niyo: Don’t be surprised if new Lions GM keeps Caldwell

John Niyo
The Detroit News

It was New Year’s Eve, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick was in a surprisingly chatty mood with reporters, joking about social media and outdoor hockey and a few other non-football topics before the conversation turned to thin ice and what it means for NFL coaches.

Chip Kelly had just been fired in Philadelphia, Black Monday was only a few days away — promising another handful of vacancies — and Belichick, the dean of NFL head coaches, admitted he found it all “really disappointing.”

“There are a lot of examples, but pretty much everybody is on a one-year contract in this league,” said Belichick, perhaps the lone exception in his 32-member fraternity. “I don’t know how you build a program in one year.”

So this is the question now for one of Belichick’s proteges, Bob Quinn, the newly hired general manager of the Detroit Lions, and it’s one that runs deeper than the decision he has to make about whether or not to retain Jim Caldwell as head coach.

How do you build a program here that’ll last? And where — or when — do you start?

Because that’s the elusive goal and the stated mandate from ownership, as new team president Rod Wood reiterated last week following the Lions’ season-ending win in Chicago.

“We’re looking for somebody who can come in and help build a winning program for the long haul,” Wood said.

Taken by itself, that was a rather nebulous statement, particularly coming from an executive who a month earlier had volunteered at his introductory news conference, “I am not a football guy.”

But the Fords, who hired former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi as a consultant in their search for a new GM, have smartly decided to keep the 74-year-old on the payroll in an advisory role going forward. And as he discussed on a conference call Sunday just how quickly the Lions zeroed in on Quinn, Accorsi, with 40-plus years of NFL experience, made it clear this was a football guy’s decision. Even if it was only a “recommendation.”

“You want somebody that’s going to win and you want somebody who can be a leader and that people can work with,” said Accorsi, who was a consultant on recent GM searches in Chicago and Carolina, as well. “That’s basically the criteria I used. I mean, that’s what I wanted. I wanted somebody that was going to be successful for them, but (also) somebody who would be a credit to the organization.”

Go ahead, then, and credit this organization for finally going outside the family for help, something they’ve rarely done and never with any success.

But just the same, don’t be so quick to discredit the new hire if he decides to give Caldwell a chance.

Look, it’s easy to understand everyone’s inclination to hit the reset button after another losing season in Detroit. But is now really the right time? That’s the fully loaded question Quinn has to answer before he does anything else.

Wood, speaking on behalf of ownership, has said more than once that the Lions don’t view this “as a rebuild.” And while we’ve yet to hear from Quinn on that subject — he’ll be formally introduced at a news conference Monday afternoon — it’s a safe bet he’ll say the same.

Not just because there’s ample talent here, with or without Calvin Johnson, who’s mulling retirement. And not merely because the Lions are only a year removed from an 11-5 season and a playoff berth.

‘You have to change culture’

It’s also because Quinn, 39, surely understands the value of continuity in an organization, the very thing his now-former boss — and chief recommendation in Detroit — was talking about the other day.

Belichick won a Super Bowl his second year in New England, but even he insists it took him a few years to get his program in place.

“Just because of everything,” he said. “You have to change the culture.”

Quinn's hiring as Lions GM had 'unanimous' support

And that’s impossible to do if you keep changing the coaches the way they have in Cleveland and Oakland and Miami and, yes, Detroit. Really, it’s true of just about everywhere outside of New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore — the only three franchises that’ve hired just one coach since Belichick was hired by the Patriots in 2000.

Those three franchises have had just five losing seasons combined in that 16-year span. The Lions have had 13 by themselves, one fewer than the Browns, who are about to hire their fifth head coach in seven years.

In fact, of the seven head coaches hired by NFL teams in 2014, three already have been fired: Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee), Mike Pettine (Cleveland) and Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay). Of the other four, three made the playoffs this season, and the other — Caldwell — was the only one to take his team to the postseason a year ago.

Evaluation comes first

So if you’re Quinn, a first-time GM taking a leap of faith in leaving New England for Detroit, maybe there’s some value in seeing what you’ve got firsthand before you decide to roll the dice, presumably with a young, first-time head coach. (And yes, the pool of candidates should include more than just the Patriots’ coordinators, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, though either of them —maybe both — still could be available a year from now.)

Maybe it makes sense to see if you can build around what’s here rather than blowing things up. Because that’s what inevitably happens in this league, as Belichick was saying and we’ve all seen.

“The coach that comes in usually has a different philosophy than the coach that left, so you have to try to implement that philosophy,” Belichick said.

And more often than not, that means you turn over the roster, change the staff and the schemes and ask the fans to be patient: Please excuse our mess while we’re under construction.

Maybe Quinn is ready to do that before he’s even settled in his office. But I don’t think his former boss would blame him if he decides he’s not. Not yet, anyway.

“It takes some time to go through that,” said Belichick, the master architect. “I don’t think there is any shortcut to it.”