Niyo: Lions' Quinn must be mighty sure of next move

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s not over yet.

Jim Caldwell made that point more than once Tuesday when he met with the media, avoiding questions about his job status, which is certainly his right, while postponing others about where this Lions season went wrong.

But only Bob Quinn can say for sure if the end is near. And while a decision on Caldwell’s future is expected quickly after the Lions’ season finale Sunday against Green Bay, what happens next is unclear.

To us, at least. There should be no hesitation on Quinn’s part, though, and assuming he has full autonomy — as promised and professed — the franchise-altering decisions that will play out over the next few weeks better proceed with similar conviction.

The Lions’ succession plan the last time around didn’t quite go as planned, with their No. 1 choice to replace Jim Schwartz — Ken Whisenhunt — ending up in Tennessee and Caldwell landing in Detroit as a perceived Plan B, no matter how the brass tried to polish it. Maybe that was a good thing in hindsight, as Whisenhunt didn’t even make it through Year 2 of the Titans’ rebuild.

But with Black Monday promising to be as dark as ever this winter — there could be 10 or more coaching vacancies a week from now — it’s all the more reason the Lions need to know exactly what they want. And how they’ll go about making sure they get it.

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Quinn has been nothing if not deliberate in his first two years as a general manager, sticking with Caldwell initially when many expected him to bring in his own head coach in 2016, then adding a guaranteed year to Caldwell’s contract after last year’s playoff spot. If this was an audition, it wasn’t a short one. If Caldwell wanted a chance to prove himself to his new boss, he got it.

But now Quinn has to know this is his chance to prove himself, doing something he has never done before in a place it’s arguably never been done well. He’s a first-time GM whose entire career was spent in a place the face of the franchise hasn’t changed since the turn of the century, at least until he came to Detroit.

And if he’s about to fire the first Lions’ head coach to boast a winning record in nearly a half-century, as many around the league expect, the standards officially will have changed here.

More is needed

Again, fair or not, that last part would be a positive step that’s long overdue. But it certainly would up the ante for Quinn, whose own five-year deal is tied directly to whoever is coaching this team next season. As it should be, since he’s the one responsible for most of the talent on this roster now. Two years in, fewer than two dozen holdovers remain from the Martin Mayhew era, so a nonexistent run game and an anemic pass rush are on him and his staff, not someone else.

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And it might well be that this was part of Quinn’s long-range thinking, building his own roster and letting Caldwell play things out before bringing in his hand-picked successor, with current Patriots coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel among the likely candidates.

Surely, the list is longer than that, and more varied. But you get the idea: Quinn better have a good one — a great one, really — if he’s ready to pull the plug. Not just a vague idea about what’s missing, as has been the case so often in the past with the Lions.

They sought accountability and an even-keeled leader at the end of Schwartz’s tenure, as well as a coach who could rein in Matthew Stafford’s erratic talent, and they largely found that in Caldwell. But Quinn needs more than that, and if doesn’t know that by now, he probably should.

Frankly, even the timing of the leak about Caldwell’s contract extension — the NFL Network reported his “multiyear” deal is guaranteed only for 2018 the week after that crushing loss in Baltimore — seemed deliberate. A reminder to everyone that the mandate was playoffs or bust this season.

No guarantees

Caldwell wasn’t interested in rehashing any of that Tuesday. Nor was he going to lobby for his job. That’s just not the way he’s wired, or the way he operates, whether it’s about a call that goes against his team or calls for his head.

He also didn’t offer any excuses for the inconsistent play that has led his team to this predicament, “where we’re just average, at best,” as Caldwell put it.

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Again, though, this league is full of that, which is something New England expatriates often learn the hard way once they leave Foxborough. And something Quinn surely will have to consider as he plots his next moves.

Of the seven coaches hired after the 2013 season, only four made it past two years — “Whiz” wasn’t the only one who fizzled out fast — and only one will be coaching in the playoffs this season. That’s the Vikings’ Mike Zimmer, who’ll have the same number of playoff appearances as Caldwell but two more NFC North titles to his credit.

Besides Zimmer, who is 38-25 in four seasons in Minnesota, only Caldwell (35-28) is above .500. And of the group, only Bill O’Brien — who could be a candidate in Detroit if he’s let go in Houston next week — has won a playoff game. (Even that comes with an asterisk as the Texans beat up on an Oakland team that had rookie Connor Cook making his first career start.)

All of which is to say there are no guarantees here, no matter how easy Sean McVay (Rams) is making it look in Los Angeles this season or how quickly coaches like Dan Quinn (Falcons) have taken average teams and turned them into Super Bowl contenders.

No, the only thing close to a guarantee is that this next step will be the most important one Quinn takes.

And as Caldwell deflected questions about his own fate Tuesday, he probably said it best: “We’ll see.”