Why the Detroit Lions might have a superstar GM in Brad Holmes

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Mike Disner was scrolling through the NFL’s internal website last month, watching long-ago, league-produced interviews with potential candidates for head coach and general manager openings when one video made him stop in his tracks.

While most candidates give off a witness protection program vibe on the videos through no fault of their own, answering canned questions for a person off camera, Brad Holmes showed enough charisma and enough depth of understanding the position and how he would do it, that Disner, the Detroit Lions’ vice president of football administration, immediately went to find team president Rod Wood.

“You’ve got to come watch this guy,” Disner told Wood for the first and only time during the search.

Holmes was loosely on the Lions’ radar as a potential replacement for Bob Quinn at the time. A few weeks later, after a Zoom interview with Wood, owner Sheila Ford Hamp and adviser Chris Spielman, he emerged internally as the clear favorite for the job.

At 41 years old and having never served a capacity higher than college scouting director before, Holmes became one of the youngest and least experienced GMs in the NFL when the Lions hired him Thursday.

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In that regard, the Lions made a risky move. Their love affairs with first-time GMs have never worked in the past, and Holmes — who cut his teeth as a road scout and currently makes his home in Atlanta — has barely been in a building let alone run one.

But much like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ hire of Mike Tomlin as coach in 2007 and the Los Angeles Rams’ hire of Sean McVay as coach four years ago, the Lions are gambling that Holmes is a superstar in the making and willing to live with whatever learning curve he endures on the way up.

Tomlin is a future Hall of Famer and the third-longest tenured coach in the NFL, but he was a surprise hire when the Steelers picked him over Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm to replace Bill Cowher.

For years, people around the league have held Tomlin’s hire, and the Steelers’ search, as proof that casting a wide and diverse net for filling high-level jobs can produce great dividends.

Tomlin had been a coordinator for one season before he was hired at 34. The Steelers won a Super Bowl in his second season and have never had a losing record under his watch.

Similarly, the Rams gambled on McVay in 2017, when they made him the youngest coach in modern NFL history at 30 years old. He was considered a wunderkind at the time, a brilliant offensive mind with an unquestionably bright future, but too green for most teams’ tastes.

Two years later, McVay had the Rams in the Super Bowl — with the help of players Holmes helped acquire in the draft.

Before Thursday, Holmes had spent his entire NFL career with the Rams, staying on through two regime changes and a relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles to emerge as one of the bright young scouting minds in the game.

He spearheaded the Rams’ efforts to draft Aaron Donald in 2014, taking multiple trips to scout the All-Pro defensive lineman at Pitt and texting his mother, “I got him,” in celebration after the pick. He oversaw drafts that produced Todd Gurley and Jared Goff, two cornerstones of the Rams’ Super Bowl run. And more recently, with no first-round picks since 2016, he helped stock L.A.’s young roster with mid- and late-round contributors that have the Rams playing a playoff game Saturday against the Green Bay Packers.

The Lions liked Holmes’ eye for talent, of course, but as Rod Wood noted last month, being a GM is about much more than acquiring players.

Successful general managers surround themselves with great people and have the interpersonal skills to galvanize a building. They’re smart, forward-thinking and open to new ideas, like the Rams’ cutting-edge approach to the draft.

Kevin Demoff and Les Snead, the Rams chief operating officer and general manager, gave Holmes high marks in conversations with Wood, McVay vouched for his work to Spielman, and when the Lions finally got a chance to sit with him they saw enough of his charisma and ability to think critically and answer multi-layered questions that they offered him the job.

To the Lions’ credit, they appeared to run a wide-ranging GM search. They interviewed 12 different candidates and, at a minimum, toyed with making a run at one sitting GM, the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert.

Some of the candidates the Lions interviewed were extreme long shots to be hired. Most would have cost significantly more than the Lions are rumored to have paid Holmes. Others left with unanswered questions about the Lions’ reporting structure, though perhaps not enough to deter them from taking the job.

In the end, though, the Lions made the hire they did for the right reason: They saw in Holmes the potential for greatness, and to lead the organization there, too.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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