Lions lose out on expected top candidate

When the Detroit Lions fired Jim Schwartz on Dec. 30, team president Tom Lewand said he believed his team had the most attractive opening in this coaching cycle.

Not, apparently, for everyone.

Ken Whisenhunt, the San Diego offensive coordinator who seemed destined to be Detroit’s head coach from the moment the team let go of Schwartz, decided to go to Tennessee instead of the Lions.

And by any metric, that is a blow for the Lions, no matter how the team eventually tries to spin it when they do hire a coach. Whisenhunt was clearly their top candidate from the start and had a lot of what the team clearly thought would be attractive to him.

An established quarterback in Matthew Stafford. A star wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. A good running back tandem in Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. A strong offensive line. A relationship with general manager Martin Mayhew.

None of that mattered at the end. Whisenhunt chose Tennessee and that is nothing short of a major question mark as to how good the Lions job really is. This was the job search where Detroit seemed focused on being able to get its first choice, a choice it could sell to its fans as a step toward the future.

A step away from collapse after collapse the Lions have suffered from season to season and from coach after coach throughout the history of their franchise.

So this is a perception problem for Detroit now. Unless the Lions are able to pull off an unexpected, unreported hire, the team will likely be hiring at least their second option -- and considering Bill O’Brien and Lovie Smith moved so quickly off the table, probably a deeper option than that.

ESPN Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen are reporting the Lions are now focusing their attention on the first coach they interviewed in the process, Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

Caldwell has a somewhat similar résumé to Whisenhunt in that he has a quarterback pedigree, having worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, and led Indianapolis to the Super Bowl in 2009, a game the Colts lost to New Orleans, 31-17. Caldwell has many of the same traits as Whisenhunt and does fit the team’s profile.

But Caldwell only lasted three seasons in Indianapolis and when he didn’t have Peyton Manning, the Colts plummeted to 2-14 in 2011, leading to Caldwell’s firing. The Colts, instead of trusting Caldwell with rebuilding the team without Manning, chose to go in another direction entirely.

The one good thing for Detroit here is John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, said Caldwell pitched his organization and what he would do to improve the franchise. So, at the very least, he has a plan.

The other likely candidate at this point is former Tennessee coach Mike Munchak, who was fired by Tennessee last week.

So it is possible Detroit gets a coach who ends up being successful -- and in Caldwell's case, one who coached in the Super Bowl -- but at the start, it'll be a tough sell for the Lions after they clearly missed on who they wanted from the start.