What then can be done about the Detroit Lions? What does their future hold, and what's the bailout strategy for that other longsuffering Motown entity that can't seem to make itself competitive or relevant for years now?
The human piñata known as Matt Millen is gone, and if there's any judgment left in the organization whatsoever, embattled head coach Rod Marinelli and his career 10-32 record will soon be following Millen out the door. But then what? Who do the Lions turn to in their latest attempt to reverse their decade-long standing as laughingstocks of the NFL?
I know where I would start the search for a football savior if my last name were Ford. I'd look around the NFL and attempt to discern whose track record of success is worth banking on, and who might be ready for the league's ultimate makeover challenge. And then I'd take my strongest possible shot at talking three-time NFL executive of the Year Scott Pioli out of New England and into the football decision-making chair in Detroit.
The reasons the Lions should set their sights on the Patriots' vice president of player personnel are at least three-fold:
• There's a recent historical example of why looking in the direction of New England for a hire to head your football operation is the smart way to go. Last offseason, Atlanta, a team in maybe more disarray than Detroit, named little-known Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff its new general manager.
All Dimitroff has done is to make the Falcons winners again almost overnight. He hired head coach Mike Smith off Jack Del Rio's coaching staff in Jacksonville, drafted quarterback Matt Ryan with the No. 3 pick, signed running back Michael Turner in free agency, and helped reshape the image of a losing franchise that had endured a near perfect storm of negativity in 2007.
Dimitroff reported to Pioli the previous six years in New England, and more than anyone else, Pioli deserves credit for molding his approach to personnel and how to build an organization. The Falcons wound up with Dimitroff after deciding he was their next best option if they couldn't land his boss. The desperate Lions, who are the only NFL team to be eliminated from the playoff race after just 10 games this season, need to shoot for the top.
• You win with superior personnel in the NFL, and nobody does consistently better on that front than New England's tandem of Bill Belichick and Pioli. They're not perfect, but they've had a ton more hits than misses in their Patriots tenure. Take Matt Cassel. During the preseason, when the Patriots backup quarterback looked ragged, I was among the critics who suggested New England couldn't live with the 2005 former USC reserve as their No. 2 behind starter Tom Brady.
Then Brady went down and the second-guessing really started. But fast forward 10 weeks or so and discussion is now whether or not the Patriots should slap the franchise tag on Cassel next offseason. Not bad for a guy who hadn't started for anyone since high school and was seen as a reach of a seventh-round pick.
The Patriots lost the NFL's reigning MVP in the first eight minutes of the season, and they're in the thick of the AFC playoff chase, a game out of first place in their division. They've lost Rodney Harrison and Adalius Thomas on defense, and Laurence Maroney and Brady on offense. But they keep winning, in part because Pioli's personnel department keeps the talent coming with the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker in trades, and Jerod Mayo in the draft.
• It can't possibly hurt that Pioli is the son-in-law of that master of the organizational turnaround, Bill Parcells. Pioli must have picked up a few nuggets over the years from Parcells, whose work this year as Miami's new football czar only burnishes his well-earned reputation for quickly making winners out of downtrodden losers (like the Lions).
Miami went 1-15 last year and hasn't made the playoffs since 2001, the longest drought in franchise history. But the resurgent Dolphins are 6-4 under Parcells and his hand-picked head coach, Tony Sparano, and if they can beat New England at home this weekend, they'd be in great position to go all the way from worst to the postseason in a year's time.
From everything I'm hearing around the league grapevine, Lions chairman and owner William Clay Ford appears content to let the team's executive vice president/COO Tom Lewand shape the early stages of the search for a new general manager/team president. And there's some buzz that Lewand would be most comfortable with either current Lions general manager Martin Mayhew -- who was elevated from assistant GM once Millen was fired -- or Philadelphia Eagles general manager Tom Heckert, who has old ties to Michigan and has known Lewand's family for years.
But comfort shouldn't be Detroit's top priority. Or second, or third. This search should be all about getting the best man available, and giving him the best possible chance to reverse the Lions' sagging fortunes. After the decade of losing, ineptitude and dysfunction that Detroit fans have endured, Ford should be focused on nothing less.
The assumption in recent years has been that Pioli is happy to remain in New England, and isn't looking to relocate and make a name for himself elsewhere. He knows the good thing he has going in Foxboro, and isn't itching to jump just to run his own organization. While I believe all of that is largely true, I also believe he'd be open to listening to whatever the Lions had to throw at him. Maybe even intrigued by the idea.
Let's face it, there's no bigger job in the NFL right now than making a winner out of Detroit. If you can turn the Lions around, you've really accomplished something. After helping New England win three Super Bowls and produce the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history, Pioli may be ready for the NFL's ultimate challenge.
Lord knows the Lions are certainly ready for him.