Tracing the Detroit Lions’ mistakes that brought them to brink of another witching hour

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

Martha Firestone Ford had the best of intentions in mind when she marched into the Detroit Lions’ Allen Park practice facility one November morning five years ago and fired Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand.

But with all due respect to the Lions’ then-90-year-old owner, Ford didn’t know what she didn’t know at the time, and there’s a direct line from that hasty decision to where the franchise is today.

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At 1-7 at the midpoint of the 2015 season, and coming off an embarrassing overseas loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, there certainly were reasons to clean house and start anew. The Lions stopped short of that, though, and with the organization once again approaching its witching hour, it’s important to revisit that decision so Ford’s daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp, the team’s current owner, can learn from her mistakes.

In firing Mayhew and Lewand a mere 10 months after an 11-5 season, Ford started a chain of events that saddled the Lions with the current regime that’s won just 10 of its past 36 games.

Rod Wood took over as president with no prior NFL experience, and because he admittedly was “not a football guy,” ownership outsourced the hiring of its next general manager to consultant Ernie Accorsi.

Accorsi has a long and respected history in the NFL, but his general manager search was something short of thorough. He vetted and considered many candidates, but ultimately settled on interviewing three: Sheldon White, who finished the 2015 season as interim general manager but never seemed to have a real shot at the job; Kevin Abrams, who was the New York Giants’ lead contract negotiator and assistant GM under Accorsi; and the man who ultimately got the job, Bob Quinn, a chief lieutenant for Bill Belichick, who himself had a long history with Accorsi, having been Accorsi’s hire to run the Cleveland Browns in 1991.

[ Lions stock watch: Matthew Stafford regressing, D’Andre Swift rising ]

Quinn inherited a coach in Jim Caldwell who was widely respected in the Lions locker room, but who he never quite felt comfortable working with. 

Ford noted her love for Caldwell at the time, and Quinn kept Caldwell around that first season largely because the timing of his hire a week into the offseason prevented him from doing what he really wanted.

Arranged marriages don’t last, in real life or the NFL, and everyone who followed the Lions knew it was only a matter of time before Quinn brought in his own coach, Matt Patricia.

In 2016, Caldwell steered the Lions to the playoffs, which once again forced Quinn to stand pat. But when things went south a year later, Quinn finally got his chance to run the coaching “search” he’d been waiting for.

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While that search was more inclusive than Accorsi’s GM search two years earlier, in reality it was just as narrow. Quinn, who handles all football business for the organization, had long talked up Patricia to Wood and others, and when he finally had the chance to hire Patricia, there was no doubting what he would do.

To be clear, both Quinn and Patricia were worthwhile candidates when they were hired, given their roles in New England’s dynasty. The Patriots are the premier organization in all of sports over the past two decades, and losing teams naturally want to poach from winners as they try and duplicate their success.

But that doesn’t diminish the cronyism that led to their hires, and the blinders that everyone wore during the past five seasons can’t be ignored given the rut this franchise is in now.

Accorsi set the Lions up to hire a friend of his friend, who then hired his own friend, who alienated a good majority of the locker room he inherited — and brought in many of his own friends — because he was incapable of change.

This Lions regime isn’t the only one guilty of falling into that trap. It happens everywhere, in every walk of life, and has happened to the Lions before.

One of Caldwell’s greatest failings, in fact, was that he was too loyal to his friend, assistant coach Ron Prince, who was disliked in the locker room and a big part of the team’s struggles on the offensive line.

It’s rare, in fact, that people step out of their own comfort zone when it comes to making big decisions, but successful people and successful organizations do — read up on Mike Tomlin’s hire as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach — and that’s the spot Hamp finds herself in now.

The Lions enter this week’s bye with a 1-3 record and little hope for the season ahead. Yes, they have a favorable schedule the next two months, but their defense has not improved in three seasons under Patricia and Matthew Stafford has regressed as a quarterback.

Even if they string together a few wins and compete for the third wild card spot, they’ll have a hard time convincing anyone they’re anything more than mediocre.

I don’t think Hamp will make any drastic moves this week like her mother did during the bye week in 2015, nor do I think she should.

But I do know the time for change will come eventually, maybe later this fall, or after the season, or who knows when down the road. When it does, the organization will be better positioned to make the right hires for the right reasons that will — hopefully — set it on the right course for the future.

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Both Wood and Hamp, who essentially served a six-year apprenticeship before taking over as owner in June, know their way around the league much better now than they did in 2015, and don’t need to rely on the advice of a consultant for their next move.

They can see what’s happening, and what’s happened already. They were a part of history. They should know how not to repeat it.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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