The Detroit Lions fired their president and their general manager Thursday, and I suspect this news will not fully be appreciated around the country. The Lions are 1–7, and 1–7 teams fire people. End of story.
But in Detroit, this is not the end of the story. It could be the beginning of a story that Lions fans have been waiting to hear for decades.
You have to understand: The Lions have been one of the most backward-thinking organizations in sports for half a century, and I’m not just talking about all the losing—that was a product of how they operated. For years, the Lions didn’t even have a budget. If employees wanted to spend on something, they asked the owner, William Clay Ford Sr., for approval.
That’s how the Lions have been run: There was nobody in the driver's seat, despite being owned by people who ran a car company. Ford Sr., who died last year, wanted to win. His widow, Martha, wants to win. Their kids want to win. But nobody has ever really declared, “This is HOW we’re going to win.” There was no mandate to have the most college scouts, the best-paid coaches, to stockpile linemen, to hoard mid-round draft picks ... there are a hundred ways you can try to win in the NFL, but the Lions never had somebody at the top saying, “THIS is who we are.”
And as a result, the Lions have been the epitome of an organization where everybody reaches for a little more power, or tries to save their own jobs. Martin Mayhew, the deposed general manager, got his job because he was already there, as a deputy to Matt Millen. Tom Lewand, the deposed president, is actually a very good president in many ways—the Lions are a well-run business now, and they connect better with the community than they once did. But Lewand also got to oversee the football operation largely because he was already there (he oversaw the Ford Field project) and close to the Fords.
I like Lewand and Mayhew. They’re good people, and they are pros. But the NFL does not hand the Vince Lombardi Trophy out to the team with the nicest people.
The best teams have a vision, and people don’t acquire power unless they earn it. Everybody in New England knows what Bill Belichick wants, and they know they are supposed to do their job (literally, they credit Belichick with that phrase there: “DO YOUR JOB”) and not try to angle for another one. It’s like that in Baltimore with Ozzie Newsome. If you work for the Ravens, you know how they do business.
The Lions? They are reactive instead of proactive. Their coaching hires have been one reaction after another: Marty Mornhinweg supposedly brought fresh ideas, but when that didn’t work, the Lions reached for the experienced Steve Mariucci. When Mariucci was considered too passive, they hired the fiery Rod Marinelli, who connected well with players but was not meant to be a head coach. They then hired Jim Schwartz, who had the magnetism of a head coach (and may yet be a successful head coach), but when Schwartz’s team’s fizzled because they lacked discipline, the Lions hired the ultra-steady Jim Caldwell.
One rumor circulating around the league involves Bill Polian, the longtime Colts executive. When I asked Polian about it Thursday, he was understandably noncommittal: “I never speak about a job that’s open or not open.” I asked if he would be interested in a GM or president’s job with any team, and he said, “That’s a hypothetical.”
Polian is one of the best NFL executives ever. He knows how an organization should be run. He is also 72, and he turned down a role with the Buffalo Bills last winter. The best-case scenario for the Lions might be hiring him as consultant, even if it’s just for a year, to help put a management team in place.
It sounds strange to say that the Lions got a fresh start on the day that a 90-year-old woman spoke for the organization. But this may really be a fresh start. If you look closely, the Lions have made some fundamental changes at the top since Ford Sr. died, and this was true even before Martha Ford announced Thursday’s firings.
All four of Ford Sr.‘s children—Martha, Sheila, Elizabeth and Ford Jr.—are now Vice Chairmen. Before, it was just Ford Jr., who spends most of his time with the Ford Motor Company. There was a time when Ford Sr. did what he wanted (often, this meant rewarding people he liked). Sometimes, Ford Jr. sometimes tried to intercede. That’s how Matt Millen was hired and finally fired.
Within the organization, power was already shifting in the past year. It would not be surprising if Sheila Ford Hamp, who lives in Ann Arbor and is not currently running a major automobile company, essentially becomes the Ford who leads the organization.
Will this be a better arrangement? Well, put it this way: It can’t get much worse than the last half-century. (The Lions have won one playoff game since 1957. That remains one of the most astounding sentences in sports.)
Martha Ford said some very smart, very simple things Thursday. She said Sheldon White will be the “interim” general manager. That word is important, because under the old Ford leadership, the interim often became permanent—simply because it was easy, and Ford Sr. liked people who were close to him. She also said she will conduct a national search for Mayhew’s replacement.
From the moment Millen was fired, Mayhew and Lewand were the favorites to take charge. This feels a lot different.
Ford was also wise to keep Caldwell as coach for the rest of the season. Firing him would have made the whole day feel like a public-relations move—“Look at us! We’re getting rid of everybody!” There is no logical reason to fire Caldwell now. It would not make the team better or give Matthew Stafford a better chance to succeed. If the next general manager wants to fire Caldwell, that’s fine. And if it seems unfair for Caldwell to coach when the world knows his job is in danger, guess what? That’s life in the NFL.
The Lions really need somebody above general manager—somebody to set a direction for everybody, and make sure people stick with the plan in difficult times. This is a complete overhaul—not because the Lions are terrible (they are probably better than their 1–7 record), but because an overhaul is overdue.
You can’t run a business in 2015 the way you ran it in 1975—especially when it didn’t run that well back then, either. Unlike most companies, the Lions never had to adapt, never had to be forward-thinking, because there was never any danger of going out of business. They never felt that pressure to be the best to survive.
One of my favorite Lions-isms is the one I heard dozens of times through the years, about longtime owner William Clay Ford Sr. Every year or so, somebody would point out that Ford was “respected” or “admired” or “well-liked” in the league. And I would just laugh. He supported the league, he paid his dues, and his team got its butt kicked most of the time. OF COURSE the other owners liked him!
The Lions have been well-liked by their peers for long enough. It’s time to start beating them. Maybe, just maybe, Thursday was the first page of that story.