Sports

Jim Harbaugh and the Detroit Lions need each other

Could work.
Illustration: Eric Barrow (AP)

The timing might be a little off, but don’t let that stop you from recognizing that this is a match made in heaven.

Jim Harbaugh needs a new job, a new challenge. And the Detroit Lions need a proven NFL head coach.

The pieces fit.

On Saturday, Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp dumped coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn just days after an embarrassing 41-25 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Houston Texans in Detroit.

The Lions — who have won just one playoff game since 1957 — can’t get this hire wrong. It’s imperative that they hire a coach who knows the league and can restore instant credibility.

That’s Harbaugh.

Of late, the Lions have been a breeding ground for first-time head coaches, including Patricia, Jim Schwartz, Rod Marinelli and Marty Mornhinweg. None of them had a winning percentage over 36 percent.

Marinelli — who won at an awful 21 percent clip — was hired despite never being a head coach on any level. Yep, high school or college. It wound up being a total disaster. Marinelli went on to lead the Lions to an 0-16 record in 2008, the first team to accomplish that dubious feat in NFL history.

This job is too big for novices.

And that doesn’t mean that the Lions shouldn’t do their due diligence, interviewing a number of qualified candidates, including minorities. This shouldn’t be a rush job or a white privilege hire like Patricia appeared to be.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has done a great job with the reigning Super Bowl champs. Most expect him to finally get a head coaching gig after this season.

For sure, he shouldn’t be ignored in the process.

Still, the Lions are in a different spot than most franchises in the NFL. They can’t take a chance on an unproven commodity like some teams have.

The Lions can’t be a training ground. They can’t afford to guess wrong, hope to land the next big thing. This organization, mostly drowning in losses since beating the Dallas Cowboys in that playoff game in 1992, need a proven coach who knows how to win in this league. And not just regular-season games, but playoff ones.

Currently, the Lions have lost nine straight playoff games. Harbaugh was 36-11 in his first three seasons as head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. He took his team to three straight NFC Championship games and made a Super Bowl appearance in the 2012 season.

For sure, all that success seems like many moons ago. The elephant in the room is that Harbaugh has failed at Michigan. Despite success at San Diego and Stanford on the college level, Harbaugh just couldn’t get the Wolverines righted.

Clearly, however, it isn’t a coaching issue with Harbaugh, it’s a teaching issue. He hasn’t been able to reach the kids the way he did in the NFL when the players were million-dollar athletes doing a job.

Just like everyone can’t coach in the NFL.

Alabama’s Nick Saban is the perfect example. He failed in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. But he’s arguably the best-ever college football coach, winning six national championships. Harbaugh — who has just one year left on his Michigan contract — desperately needs a change of scenery. His reputation has been damaged since returning to his alma mater, having quarterbacked at Michigan in the mid 80s.

Just because the fit didn’t work in Ann Arbor doesn’t mean it won’t work 42 miles down the road in Detroit.

Coaches get hired all the time after failed runs. Doc Rivers got hired in Philadelphia after a choke job with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round this past NBA season. Rivers has experience and a championship in his back pocket. It counts for something.

In Harbaugh’s case, winning in the NFL matters. The Lions need their organization — and the culture, for that matter — turned around with someone who both played in the league and has had success coaching in it as well.

There is no time to groom a promising new coach, there are no longer any five-year plans in the NFL.

It’s about winning immediately. It’s about adding water and stirring. But you need the right ingredients — starting with a pinch of Harbaugh.

This fits and could wind up being delicious.

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