Niyo: Lions believe new GM Brad Holmes can deliver on winning message

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

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If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: The Lions are convinced they’ve finally figured it out.

But if you’re searching for hope in this latest attempt to turn Detroit’s NFL franchise into a winner, maybe it’s in the word they kept coming back to Tuesday, as owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood formally introduced Brad Holmes as the team’s new general manager.

Far from a coronation, this is all about a “collaboration.” And after the Lions’ ill-fated attempt at recreating the New England Patriots’ success here failed to do anything but create division and discontent the last few years — from the front office to the playing field and, yes, with the fan base — that’s an understandable about-face.

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Whether it’ll work or not will depend on a variety of factors, of course. Not the least of which was the smiling face that stepped to the podium in Allen Park — a face Lions ownership didn’t even know until a month ago — where Holmes, the former Los Angeles Rams college scouting director, spent the next half-hour outlining his vision “to serve a great football product to this great city of Detroit.”

“Anybody that’s been to another introductory press conference, you’re probably saying, ‘I’ve heard it all before,’” said Holmes, fully aware he’s facing a skeptical audience in this town. “But I will say this: There will be no ego in this process. There will be no ego in the culture. Everything is about the team. Bottom line. We will be extremely collaborative, very intentional, and thorough and diligent in our process to truly earn it.”

Not standing Pat

Intentionally or not, that’s the contrast the Lions are trying to draw for you here. And for themselves, for that matter, after what we all saw play out as former GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia insisted on the Patriot Way. Egos were involved, and the culture — clearly an acquired taste — is one that didn’t sit well, or for very long.

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So off the Lions went again, searching for another oasis to show their perennially-parched customers. A new GM, a new coach, a new approach.

Holmes talked a lot about “process” Tuesday, and certainly the Lions was better this time around. Five years ago, they simply took the recommendation of former NFL GM Ernie Accorsi and hired Bob Quinn after interviewing just one other external candidate for the job. This time, they put together their own search committee, interviewed a dozen potential GMs, along with a half-dozen coaches, “and I think that’s what gives me the confidence that we got this right,” Hamp said Tuesday.


Sheila Ford Hampe, Rod Wood on GM Brad Holmes

Lions owner Sheila Ford Hampe and president Rod Wood talk about new GM Brad Holmes on Tuesday.

The Detroit News

She and Wood had talked at the outset about a desire to lean on experience with one of their two hires, but instead they’ve decided to bring in a first-time general manager and a head coach — the New Orleans Saints’ Dan Campbell is expected to be introduced later this week — whose previous experience in that role amounts to a 12-game interim stint in Miami five years ago.

“I think we kinda decided we wouldn’t have both positions be complete rookies,” Hamp shrugged. “But in the case of Brad, he just blew us all away, honestly. It was amazing.”

Added Wood: “Usually within two or three minutes of every interview, I’d write a quick note to myself on what was my first impression. And my first impression of Brad was, ‘This is the guy.’”

So he is, and at 41 years old, Holmes is now the NFL’s third-youngest GM in the NFL behind Cleveland’s Andrew Berry and Atlanta’s newly-hired Terry Fontenot. Not coincidentally, those three join Miami’s Chris Grier as the league’s only Black general managers at the moment. And the significance of that certainly isn’t lost on Holmes, a proud HBCU grad and the son of a former NFL player who knows the league’s uncomfortable history and its still-inequitable reality on that front.

But in Detroit, Holmes is also now part of what the Lions hope is a dynamic duo, joining VP of football operations Mike Disner, who was part of the four-person interview team along with Hamp, Wood and Chris Spielman and now will carry added front-office responsibilities beyond contract negotations and managing the salary cap. Holmes’ job will be to find the talent and build the roster, while both execs will report to Wood and Hamp. And it’s worth noting that it was Disner who first touted Holmes as potential GM candidate here.

The revamped front-office structure is somewhat similar to the one the Los Angeles Rams have utilized in recent years, and since that’s the only organization Holmes has known for his nearly two decades in the NFL, he sounds more than comfortable with it. Same goes for the “collaborative” control of the 53-man roster Wood talked about him sharing with the next head coach.

“They’re each going to have input,” Wood said. “As we’ve talked about, we want a culture where everybody is working together.”

To Holmes’ ear, that sounds like Rams GM Les Snead’s approach, where “he treated us all as one group, basically — he often referred to us as a basketball team.” And Holmes, who draws rave reviews across the league for his keen scouting eye and his passionate work ethic, also brought up Sean McVay, the wunderkind who took the Rams to the playoffs in his first year as head coach and to the Super Bowl in his second.

“When Sean first came on board in 2017, I’m sure as you probably heard, the theme was ‘We not me,’” Holmes said. “That really permeated through the entire organization. … I mean, everything was such a collaborative approach, and that truly was a big ingredient for the recipe of success that we had and that quick turnaround that we had.”

Time will tell if something like that can happen here, for a team that’s coming off a third consecutive season with double-digit losses. Or if it’ll happen at all, because as former NFL GM Michael Lombardi noted on his podcast this week, “I think it’s gonna be interesting to see how all these people interact with one another.”

Voices carry

The addition of Spielman to the mix as a special assistant to Hamp and Wood adds another voice in the front office. And that probably gave some GM and coach candidates pause, even though Wood made it clear when Spielman, the former Lions’ All-Pro, was hired from the broadcasting booth a month ago that he “won’t have any direct supervisory responsibilities” going forward. Hamp says they began each interview by explaining Spielman’s role “so there was no confusion.”

Holmes, for his part, laughed as recalled his first conversation with Spielman, who’d reached out even before the initial interview earlier this month.

“He was so wanting to help … I thought it was a setup,” Holmes said. “I was like, ‘Is he trying to set me up before the first (interview?)’ But, truly, the more we spoke, he just has a heart of gold, and his sole purpose is to make the Lions better.”

Wood’s entrenched power probably makes some fans shudder, too, as does the Lions’ well-documented history of dysfunction.

But those who’ve worked with Holmes in Los Angeles say he’s uniquely qualified to navigate all this. And maybe even to synthesize all this, in a way others before him have not. 

“One of the things I’ve always liked about Brad, that I think is a great skill set for any leader to possess, he’s got great emotional intelligence,” McVay said. “And what I mean by that is he’s got such a great way about … even if he might not agree with you, it never feels confrontational. And I think that’s why he’ll do a great job in Detroit, building safety amongst the people he works with, where you’ve gotta be able to have the comfort to disagree but work toward solutions. I think his even-keeled demeanor, disposition, how steady he is, will be a real winning edge.”

It’s one the Lions are counting on, to be sure. All of them, together, in case you didn’t get the message.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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