In Teryl Austin’s first 11 seasons as an assistant, he was never part of a losing team.
Between four years in Seattle and three in Arizona and Baltimore, the worst Austin’s teams finished was 8-8. That happened twice, compared to his three Super Bowl appearances, a win with the Ravens in 2012 and losses with the Seahawks in 2005 and Cardinals in 2008.
Austin’s success continued his first year as a defensive coordinator with the Lions, who went 11-5 last season.
But as the Lions approach their finale against the Bears, they’re already guaranteed to have a losing record, entering the road game at 6-9.
The lack of team success likely won’t hinder Austin’s candidacy as a head coach in the hiring cycle that begins next week, but the 50-year-old has learned from a season in which the Lions started 1-7.
“What you find out about yourself is, all the things that you talk about and preach to your players, can you do it as a coach?” Austin said Thursday. “And I think we did because we stayed the course, we didn’t panic, we kept our composure (and) our guys did. And that’s why we’ve been playing much better football.”
Entering Week 10, the Lions were 32nd in points allowed and 26th in total defense. The past seven games, the Lions have improved to 25th in points allowed and 17th in total defense, and by shutting down opponents’ run games, they’ve regained some of the identity from Austin’s first season.
Last season, the Lions were second overall, and that performance helped Austin earn interviews for top jobs with the Falcons, Bears, 49ers and Bills.
And despite the Lions having a significantly worse performance this year, coach Jim Caldwell expects Austin to be a popular candidate again.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Caldwell said. “(He’s a) talented guy, and I think you’ll see that there will be a lot of interest in him as well.”
Austin was runner-up to Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Although he’s focused on coaching in Detroit’s finale, Austin hopes to have the chance to earn a promotion.
“I’ll cross it when it comes, and if it ever comes, absolutely, I’d love to be a head coach,” he said. “But that’s not my main goal at this point. My main goal right now is to help us get to seven wins.”
The Lions had significant turnover defensively this year. They lost their top three defensive tackles, including All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, and top linebacker DeAndre Levy appeared in one game. But Austin won’t use the losses as an excuse.
“I wasn’t doing as good a job earlier,” he said. “And so we got it right, we fixed it and now we’re playing much better or defense.”
Lions safety Isa Abdul-Quddus said one reason the defense started playing better in the second half — they’ve held opponents under 70 rushing yards in five of seven games — was Austin instilling a renewed focus on fundamentals.
Austin also preaches team defense instead of having each position group try to excel.
“He does a great job of taking command of the room and incorporating everybody,” Abdul-Quddus said. “He doesn’t really play favorites or he doesn’t really just single out (one group) when there’s a problem. He makes sure we address it and fix it.”
Austin showed he didn’t play favorites with some of the lineup changes this year. Linebacker Travis Lewis opened as a starter before Tahir Whitehead earned his job back. Abdul-Quddus replaced James Ihedigbo midway through the year.
If Austin lands a head coaching job, he’ll have to form a staff that could include some of his current co-workers, but he said he hasn’t given that any thought.
With the Lions out of the playoffs, Austin won’t have to divide his time with the team and any suitors. But until he has another job, he’ll keep working on this one.
“We’re trying to win another game,” he said. “We started out poorly and we clawed our way back to respectability, and that’s a big thing for us.”