Niyo: Buyer beware, as Lions sell another search for success

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

There will be a lot of talk about package deals in the weeks ahead as the Lions begin another search for a new general manager and head coach following their latest purge in Detroit.

Now that the franchise has cut loose Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia with two-plus years remaining on their contracts and more than a month left in another disastrous season in Detroit, we’ll hear speculation about GM candidates with preferred coaching pairings, and vice versa. Mike Borgonzi and Eric Bieniemy from the Kansas City Chiefs, perhaps. Ed Dodds (Indianapolis) and Robert Saleh (San Francisco) are often linked. Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst with a NFL personnel background, has pitched a partnership with Josh McDaniels (New England) in recent years. And so on.

It’s the way the NFL often operates at the top of the organizational food chain. A buddy system that has its benefits, to be sure. But also its flaws, something the Lions learned the hard way by trying to replicate the Patriot Way here the last few years.

But what about the package deal that’s still in place in Detroit? The one that held an awkward and rather uninspiring Zoom call Saturday afternoon to formally deliver the news that Lions fans had been clamoring for all this time, with Sheila Ford Hamp, who officially took control as the Lions’ principal owner back in June, fielding questions from the media and Rod Wood, the team president, nodding his approval.

That’s the package that still needs to be unwrapped and inspected here, before anyone can have any confidence that the next hires will deliver to Detroit as promised.

Hamp was frank, at least, in admitting Saturday that “you’re going to have a lot more questions than I have answers to,” before proceeding to prove her point. And to be fair, those who know her insist the second-eldest of Martha Firestone Ford’s children will be true to her word about keeping an open mind and conducting a thorough and exhaustive search as the Lions try, try again to chart a new path forward.

Hamp’s also keenly aware of the more than half-century of failed leadership she’s trying to correct, having moved from steerage to the stern over the last several years.

“We can’t hide our past, that’s for sure,” the 69-year-old Hamp said Saturday. “But I think I’m very dedicated to turning this ship around and really making a difference, and hopefully we won’t have to look back very much. We’ll just look forward.”

What is different?

Fair enough, but a word of caution to long-suffering Lions fans. Look twice before you make that leap of faith again. And when you do, tell me what you see that makes you sure this time really will be different.

Seriously, I don’t know how it works in your house. But in ours, you don’t get any praise for cleaning up your own mess. Just a thank you, for doing what was expected.

That’s the general reaction I’ve gotten, too, from most Lions fans upon hearing this weekend’s news, that Patricia was finally gone after compiling a 13-29-1 record the last three seasons and that Quinn, who’d enabled every bit of that failure, was out as well. Never mind that these moves — as drastic as they might’ve seemed internally — came a year too late for most interested observers, probably including some of those who actually play in the games on Sundays.

So while it’s understandable that Hamp doesn’t want to dwell on past failures, it’s actually quite relevant at the moment, especially since she reiterated Saturday the monumental task ahead is one she’ll be tackling in tandem with Wood.

“Yes, mistakes have been made,” Hamp said. “I’ll be the first one to admit when I’m making mistakes, too. I’ll look at that. But I really would rather look forward and try to really dig into what’s in front of me and make this hopefully a home run for us. But it’s going to be a lot of work. Rod and I are rolling up our sleeves already, and we’re going to get to work immediately.”

Subscription: Justin Rogers ranks the biggest mistakes in Bob Quinn’s Lions tenure

Just how much encouragement you take from that depends on your level of cynicism, I suppose. It’s entirely possible they’ve learned from their mistakes, and the last 4-5 years of experience — both in the day-to-day team operations and networking within the league — will guide them in the right direction now.

But everything that’s boiled over on the stove here has happened on their watch, whether they’re willing to take full responsibility or not.

Remember, it was Wood — the Ford family financial adviser who’d openly admitted, “I’m not a football guy” upon getting hired as president — that helped orchestrate the Lions’ last GM search at the end of the 2015 season. He brought in former NFL GM Ernie Accorsi as a consultant — league commissioner Roger Goodell made a personal appeal on the Lions’ behalf — and then sat in on the interviews with the then-90-year-old Ford.

And while it was the matriarch who was making the final decisions at the time, it was Hamp and her husband, Steve, who’d become the most influential voices in the family’s football business following the death of William Clay Ford Sr. in March 2014. When his widow began cleaning house in Allen Park midway through the 2015 season, firing Martin Mayhew as GM and Tom Lewand as president, Bill Ford Jr., who’d had his father’s ear for so many years and through multiple flops, also was effectively pushed out of the picture, though he retained a vote as one of the franchise’s vice-chairs.

They were wrong before

It remains that way now, to the puzzlement of some around the league. And yet for all the changes they’ve made — and Wood has done plenty on the business side since taking the reins, for what it’s worth — here they are again, sailing back to port for major repairs.

You might recall it was Wood, at an event for Lions’ season-ticket holders a few months after Quinn was hired, who gushed about how impressed he and the elder Ford had been with the new GM’s interview, even if it was the first one of its kind for both. “But Ernie said, ‘Well, take my advice, that was the best general manager interview I’ve ever done,'” Wood recalled.

Subscription: Wojo: After Quinn-Patricia debacle, can Lions ever break the sins of their past?

And so they did just that, taking Accorsi’s advice and hiring Quinn, after interviewing only two other candidates: Kevin Abrams, Accorsi’s former assistant GM in New York, and Sheldon White, the Lions’ interim GM in house.

Presumably, they’ll dig a lot deeper this time around, both in searching for the right football evaluator to lead their franchise — they’ve given themselves ample time for that, at least — and then vetting the candidates he’s touting to coach the team. The Lions failed miserably on both counts last time around, which is a big reason why they’re where they are today: a less desirable job in what figures to be a more competitive market.

Hamp and Wood both indicated they’ll likely utilize a search firm in addition to seeking help from the league — “We’re not going to just rely on one avenue,” Hamp said — and that’s encouraging. So is the fact that Hamp left the door open for “some organizational chart moves” that might restructure the way the football operations are run, though none of that means anything until it happens.

Likewise, if Hamp & Co. feel like they were sold a bill of goods five years ago, that’s understandable. But they have only themselves to blame for that, right? They’re the ones who bought what Accorsi and Bill Belichick and others were selling. And they’re the ones that ultimately paid Jim Caldwell to go away so Quinn could bring in his Patriots pal to do all the dirty work they both felt was needed to shake all the losing out of the Lions.

They were wrong, of course. But so were the people that hired them. Now they’re asking you to believe they’ll get it right this time. Buyer beware.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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