It sounds good. It often sounds good, in theory, for the Lions.
They hired a young, respected talent evaluator in Brad Holmes from a successful Rams franchise as their general manager Thursday. They talked to at least a dozen candidates, identified their guy, interviewed him a second time and landed him with a five-year contract. Check, check, check.
But this is an odd gamble, a bigger gamble than I thought the Lions would take. Holmes didn’t appear on most candidate lists until late, although the Falcons also were pursuing him. He’s never been a GM, or even an assistant GM. As the Rams’ director of college scouting, he didn’t even work in Los Angeles but ran his scouting operation from Atlanta.
By most accounts, Holmes, 41, is an impressive person, groomed for a job like this, eventually. The Lions jumped the timetable from “eventually” to “immediately,” and you hope it’s a reflection of extensive research and interviews, and not falling for the rising hot candidate. Holmes becomes the NFL’s third Black GM and carries strong credentials, running the last eight Rams drafts and plucking key contributors in later rounds.
My first thought: The Lions are sick of being horrible drafters, and I like the concept of hiring an accomplished drafter. My second thought: After the Quinntricia horror, they desperately wanted someone easier to work with.
“Several weeks ago when we embarked on this process, it was critical that we find the right person to fit our vision for this team,” owner Sheila Ford Hamp said in a release. “It was evident early on that Brad is a proven leader who is ready for this opportunity.”
With any other franchise, you might call this a shrewd, outside-the-box move. With the Lions, who are trying to build a culture they’ve never had, hire a coach, revamp their roster and figure out what to do with Matthew Stafford, you’re entitled to some trepidation. Hamp, president Rod Wood and adviser Chris Spielman didn’t explicitly declare experience as the overriding factor in their search, but Hamp did say in an internal memo the plan was to end up with a “proven head coach/GM team.”
They just hired a proven leader in the scouting realm, but not in the running-an-entire-organization realm. They do have a respected salary-cap executive in Mike Disner, which is beneficial. Do they now need to hire someone with head-coaching experience, such as interim Darrell Bevell, former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, former Jets coach Todd Bowles, or Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell? I’d say probably.
I’d also say there’s a chance they’ll double down on the new-culture angle and tab a first-timer, and that’s where it gets especially risky. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is interviewing with the Lions for a second time, and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is still available and still intriguing. There are reports Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley could jump into the mix, although he can’t interview while the Rams are preparing for their playoff game against Green Bay.
Staley, 38, has an obvious connection, but it seems too narrow and too familiar. Ford Hamp is determined to learn from the organizational mistakes of her parents, and Holmes-Staley smacks of Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia. From the Patriot Way to the Rams Ride? Not inspiring.
In fact, the Lions have done the same thing so many times, it’s hard to break the habit. They’ve hired three GMs since 2001 — Matt Millen, Martin Mayhew, Quinn — and each was a first-timer. They’ve hired six coaches in that span and the rare experienced one, Jim Caldwell, was the most successful.
The Lions have fulfilled their promise of an exhaustive search, but they haven’t yet found a commanding presence with indisputable credentials. It appears they toyed with pursuing a top-notch GM such as Pittsburgh’s Kevin Colbert or Seattle’s John Schneider, but didn’t get very far. They interviewed former GMs and assistant GMs from winning organizations. This is where they ended up, and it’s too early to say they settled, too early to judge much of anything until a coach is hired.
Plenty of NFL teams have won with fresh, young regimes, including the Rams. The overwhelming praise for Holmes from contemporaries and league pundits is notable, and his story is compelling. He started with the Rams as a public-relations intern in 2003, and began writing such detailed scouting reports, he climbed the football ladder.
Lions fans will happily note Holmes was the beneficiary of one of the all-time draft blunders, when the Lions took tight end Eric Ebron at No. 10 in 2014. The Rams then grabbed Aaron Donald three picks later, and he’s on a Hall of Fame track. Ebron has talent and physical measurables but is moody and mistake prone, and doesn’t sound like the type of player Holmes would take.
In a 2019 video, he succinctly summed up his drafting philosophy with the Rams.
“The standard is, first of all, we want to get passionate players,” Holmes said. “We always talk about being good teammates, being a connected team. We talk about being relentless. You know, we want smart players, instinctive players, explosive players.”
That’s what the Rams have collected, putting together a top-four defense to go along with young coach Sean McVay’s offense. They’ve done it without a single first-round pick the past four years, a result of their trading gambits, including a move up to draft quarterback Jared Goff. That deal, executed by GM Les Snead, has produced mixed results, but another deal for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey was a winner. The Rams have compensated for the loss of draft capital by selecting shrewdly in the later rounds, and that’s Holmes’ work.
The Lions have the No. 7 overall choice but only five picks total. That’s problematic. So is the issue of what to do with Stafford, who will be 33, not ideal for a full rebuild. The Lions don’t like using the r-word (rebuild), or apparently the other r-word (retread). They passed up seasoned candidates at GM and could do the same with the coach.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a faulty strategy, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons with the right people. I like the concept of collecting bright, innovative minds. Holmes earns such high praise for his charisma and strong communication skills, you hope the Lions aren’t just making a rebound hire, getting as far as possible from the Quinntricia reign of paranoia, pettiness and player unrest.
For way too long, there’s been a disconnect with the Lions, between coaches and executives, coaches and players, offense and defense. Holmes has proven he can find talent and that’s where it starts, in theory. Now all he has to do is prove he has the savvy to pull everything together, help find the right coach and lead a franchise where it has never gone. For the Lions, the leap from theory to reality is always the toughest one.