ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Jim Schwartz was hired to turn around the Detroit Lions and he did it for three seasons.
He failed to keep the Lions going in the right direction the next two years — and it cost him his job. The Lions fired Schwartz on Monday, one day after their late-season slide ended with a loss at Minnesota. He had two years and nearly $12 million left on his contract.
Schwartz informed the players of the decision during a team meeting. "I feel awful for him," Lions center Dominic Raiola said. "I feel like we let him down." Team President Tom Lewand said the search has begun for what he thinks is one of the most — if not the most — attractive opportunities for a head coach in the NFL.
"I can verify that by the number of calls we have already gotten since the announcement was made," Lewand said. "Going through a thorough process is extremely important. That doesn't necessarily it has to be a long process."
San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is among the potential candidates. Whisenhunt led the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl during a six-year run as their coach and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is a former Washington Redskins teammate.
The Lions also let offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and wide receivers coach Tim Lappano seek other jobs, saying the rest of the staff is under contract, including some assistants for the 2014 season.
Detroit flopped to a 7-9 record this year after a 6-3 record start put the franchise in a position to win a division title for the first time since 1993. "That is the reason we are sitting here having this conversation," Lewand said.
Schwartz was 29-51 over five seasons, including a 10-6 mark in 2011 that lifted the Lions to their only postseason appearance this century. The former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator was hired in 2009 when Detroit was coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season.
"Jim inherited a very tough job," Mayhew acknowledged. Schwartz led the Lions to two wins in his first year, six the next and to double digits in victories two years ago for the first time since 1995 to help them end an 11-year postseason drought.
The Lions lost their last eight games last year after a .500 start. They collapsed again this season with four straight losses and six in a seven-game stretch — blowing fourth-quarter leads in each setback — after they took control of the NFC North race. Detroit and the 2000 San Diego Chargers are the only NFL teams since 1940 to lose fourth-quarter leads in seven games in a season, according to STATS.
"From where we were in 2008 to where we are now it's a big difference," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We owe a lot of that to him. He's a really smart guy and helped us get to where we are. Obviously, we didn't win as many games as we needed to or as we should have this year."
The Lions took on the personality of their demonstrative and emotionally charged coach and that wasn't always good news for them. When Detroit ran the ball instead of having turnover-prone Stafford throw late in regulation of its 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants in Week 16, the crowd reacted with a loud chorus of boos. Schwartz responded by looking away from the field and screaming something toward the stands.
Schwartz negated a video review and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct by angrily throwing a challenge flag last season when Houston's Justin Forsett scored after two Lions tackled him, leading to a defeat during an eight-game, season-ending slide. The previous year, Schwartz had a heated exchange with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and had to be separated following their postgame handshake.
"The stuff that happened with Harbaugh just was an incident," Detroit guard Rob Sims said. "The stuff with the fans just was an incident. That's not an everyday occurrence." Schwartz was 12-32 in games in November or later for a .273 winning percentage that was the worst for a coach in five-plus straight seasons with a team since Denver's Lou Saban won one-quarter of those late-season games from 1967-1971, according to STATS. His .363 winning percentage overall with the Lions is the worst by an NFL coach in his first five full seasons since John McKay won fewer than 30 percent of his games with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1976-1980.
The Lions gave Schwartz an extension entering the 2012 season, when he had one year left on his four-deal worth about $11 million. The second contract made him the longest-tenured coach the franchise has had since Wayne Fontes led the Lions from 1988-96.
Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron — on an interim basis — and Rod Marinelli all had a chance to lead a franchise with only one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title before Schwartz got a shot to be a head coach for the first time at any level.
The Lions would like to hire someone, who runs a 4-3 defense and has head coaching experience, but they're not going to overlook assistants who fit the profile they're looking for. "The goal isn't to hire the biggest name or the most popular candidate and win the next press conference," Lewand said. "It's to win football games in 2014 and to win a championship."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/larrylage