Martha Ford swept out the front office Thursday, and seemingly caught everyone off guard. Besides the owner herself, no one had higher places in the organization than president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. After reports came out that the two had been deposed, Ford made it official by reading off a one-minute statement and walking off stage. No questions. The Lions are moving on.
It was callous. Detroit beat writers understandably hated the brief presser -- it'd have been nice if the organization gave them a heads up before making them drive into Allen Park. For Lions fans, however, the swift approach may have been cathartic. They still don't have any reason to trust ownership, but at least Thursday's culling suggests that the top of the organization saw the same things they did. Ford didn't take questions in part because there was nothing to say. No one had been briefed. There hasn't been much thought of the consequences yet.
The Lions have a history of tolerating incompetence for too long. They were 36-44 in the final five years of Chuck Schmidt's 12 years as GM. He gave way to Matt Millen whose best season was his last, a 7-9 record and another year without the playoffs. Mayhew was with Millen throughout those seven years. He was named assistant general manager in 2004. When the Fords fired Millen years after fans wanted him gone, they hired the guy standing right next to him. Now midway through what was Mayhew's eighth season, the Lions are 1-7.
History may be repeating. Ford promoted vice president of pro personnel Sheldon White to interim GM, mirroring Mayhew's interim promotion in the midst of the 2008 season. For now, Ford insisted that they'd be conducting an rigorous search.
"As of today, we are beginning a national search for the best leadership to manage our team going forward," Ford said. "I want to assure our fans that we intend to identify and hire the very best leadership in order to produce a consistently winning football team."
White could be a fine GM, but the Lions need to break out of the rigors of their past. Ford may be the person to do it.
No more attitude adjustments
The Lions have had a habit of hiring coaches in reaction to the previous regime. Marinelli didn't even have coordinator experience before being made the Lions' head coach. Millen's reasoning was that the Vietnam vet would instill a hard edge on a team that had gone "soft." Marinelli was fired after the team's 0-16 campaign in 2008.
Jim Schwartz was considered a cutting-edge hire, a fervent practitioner of statistical analytics. The Titans defense he coordinated had just finished No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed. He came into Detroit as the anti-Marinelli, as someone who knew better than to coach by the seat of his pants.
And things were good for a bit. The Lions went from two wins to six to 10-and-a-playoff-berth during Schwartz's first three seasons. But if the Lions hired Schwartz in part because he was an iconoclast, they didn't consider the personality that might be attached. Schwartz was undisciplined and the team reflected it. It committed the most turnovers (67) and 12th-most penalties (213) over his final two years, and won just 11 total games. They always faded late, during games and seasons. They couldn't keep their cool, like the coach who ran after Jim Harbaugh because he felt snubbed by a bad postgame handshake.
Jim Caldwell reconciled the shortcomings of Marinelli and Schwartz. He had a cool demeanor and a resume with stops at every level in every position in coaching. The problem is, his track record didn't really sell him. His biggest successes came when he was strapped with Peyton Manning -- and make no mistake, Manning got better under Caldwell as a quarterbacks coach -- but when stripped of a Hall of Fame quarterback, there isn't much to see. The Colts went 2-14 in Caldwell's third year as a head coach after losing Manning for the season. The Lions have gone one step forward and two steps back in a season and a half.
Martha Ford needs to be a badass
The Lions have long had a cultural problem. Barry Sanders and Bobby Ross were both scarred by it and abruptly quit on the team in the 90s. The franchise has only been worse since. It feels a lot like apathy. A lot of it probably has to do with the Ford family.
William Clay Ford, Sr. bought controlling interest in the franchise in 1963 and the Lions have had just one playoff win since. Like a lot of owners, the Fords didn't make their money from the team. And like a lot of owners, they assume their acumen applies to all industries. Which isn't to say the Fords have been meddling, but Millen and Mayhew were very much their hires, and it's plain that those men weren't very good at evaluating coaches and players.
ESPN's Adam Schefter told the Detroit Free Press' that the Lions are planning to hire a search firm, and, though columnist Mitch Albom suggests otherwise, that may actually be a good thing. The best case is to have a owner who always knows what's right. But barring that, an owner should have a good understanding of what he or she doesn't know. The Lions, under William Clay Ford, didn't have that humility. At the most important point in the year and a half of Martha Ford's charge as the Lions' owner, it appears she may be willing to do what her predecessor didn't and step aside.
And Martha Ford is very much in charge. She knows the players, she's a staple at practice and she went to every single game during the 2014 season. She has been involved, and can remain involved for as long as she wants. For the sake of Lions fans, she just needs to know what she knows and know what she doesn't.
She knew that the Lions were sick. She seems to know that the organization is going to have to get out of its own head space for leadership if things are going to get better. Then the Lions can move on to addressing Jim Caldwell, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the defense. First, the Lions need to get things right at the top.