5 candidates to replace Matt Patricia as Detroit Lions coach

Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett highlights five head coaching targets for the Detroit Lions, who fired Matt Patricia after two-plus seasons on Saturday. 

Eric Bieniemy

Current position: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator.

Why he makes sense: As offensive coordinator for Andy Reid, Bieniemy has served as good an apprenticeship as there is in the NFL. Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy and Brad Childress all followed that path to become a head coach, and Bieniemy is ready to do the same. He played running back at Colorado, spent nine seasons in the NFL and has been an assistant in the college and pro ranks for almost two decades. He does not have the quarterback pedigree of some of the game’s top coaches, but he is respected in the Chiefs locker room and should be the most sought-after candidate this hiring cycle. Already, he has been linked to the vacant Houston Texans job.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been an assistant coach in the NFL for 13 years. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II has credited the coach for helping develop him in the NFL.

Robert Saleh

Current position: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator.

Why he makes sense: Injuries have led to a disappointing season for the 49ers, but that has not taken any shine off Saleh’s star. He’s 41 years old, a Michigan native who played at Dearborn Fordson and Northern Michigan, and he was runner-up for the Cleveland Browns job last year. NFL teams have favored offensive hires as head coaches in recent years, but Saleh’s fiery sideline demeanor has been a hit in the Bay Area and he’d bring a much more aggressive tone to the Lions defense. If the Lions plan to keep Matthew Stafford in 2021, and continuity on offense is important, Saleh worked with current Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell with the Seattle Seahawks, so perhaps there’s a fit there.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 29: Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles #45 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh after intercepting a pass by the Los Angeles Chargers during the preseason game at Levi's Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Urban Meyer

Current position: Fox analyst.

Why he makes sense: Meyer is one of the most successful college coaches of this generation, and there have been persistent rumors that he’s looking to get back into coaching since he left Ohio State. Meyer needs to answer for protecting an abusive assistant coach, which helped lead to his exit with the Buckeyes. But after what the Lions went through in the months following Patricia’s hire, that seems easy enough for the organization to overlook. Meyer is 56 and has had health problems in the past, but there is no doubting his coaching acumen. The Lions probably won’t have the cache to lure top college candidate Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, but Meyer has Midwest roots and a brilliant coaching mind, and if the team values previous head coaching experience like it did two searches ago, there aren’t many candidates more qualified than Meyer.

Coach Urban Meyer tries to fire up his team after a touchdown in the CFP semifinal game against Alabama.

Arthur Smith

Current position: Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator.

Why he makes sense: Smith’s best selling point might be to turn on the tape of Ryan Tannehill, who was on his way out of football after six so-so seasons with the Miami Dolphins before becoming an MVP candidate in Tennessee. An ex-college offensive lineman and the son of FedEx founder Frederick Smith, Arthur has worked his way up from the lowest coaching rungs. He spent time as a quality control assistant on both sides of the ball and was so well thought of in Tennessee he survived three coaching changes. Since replacing current Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur as play caller, he helped the Titans come within a win of reaching the Super Bowl in 2019 and has them back as the team to beat in the AFC South.

Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith walks across the field during NFL football training camp Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool)

Joe Brady

Current position: Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator.

Why he makes sense: NFL teams searching for the next Sean McVay went out of their way to hire innovative, young offensive assistants in 2019, no matter their track record, and some of those moves — the Packers hiring of LaFleur, for instance — have paid big dividends. For teams determined to follow that blueprint this hiring cycle, Brady is an interesting candidate who at least deserves an interview. He rocketed to stardom last season as LSU’s passing game coordinator, when he helped make Joe Burrow the No. 1 pick in the draft, and his profile has continued to ascend this year with the Panthers, who’ve been competitive despite a talent deficiency and after losing Christian McCaffrey to injury. At 31 years old, he might be too young to get a job. Then again, the Rams hired McVay two weeks before his 31st birthday and that worked out just fine.

Others to watch: Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator; Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator; Jason Garrett, New York Giants offensive coordinator; David Shaw, Stanford head coach; Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach; Dan Campbell, New Orleans Saints assistant head coach; Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator; Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator; Tony Elliott, Clemson co-offensive coordinator.

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