Wojo: Maybe, just maybe, Lions finally are building a staff who can click

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
 
| The Detroit News

You’re starting to think it. You might even say it. But every instinct, formed by decades of being fooled, tells you to wait.

So yes, we should wait. Before we suggest the Lions might have finally charted a possible path to success, we have to see what they get in trade for Matthew Stafford. (Advice: It better be a haul). And who they draft. And who they sign. And heck, maybe see if they win a game or two.

It’s way too early to declare that Sheila Ford Hamp, president Rod Wood and new adviser Chris Spielman have unlocked the mystery of the franchise’s misery. But they just might have the makings of what could, against historical odds, actually be called a braintrust. They compiled promising young leaders — head coach Dan Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes — complemented by experienced football minds. The Lions officially added former Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey as a senior personnel executive Wednesday, as well as assistant GM Ray Agnew, who was director of pro personnel for the Rams.

They landed people that other teams wanted, and that’s usually a good sign. Campbell loudly and irreverently said he had no ego, he just wants to win, then went out and showed it. He hired an offensive coordinator — former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, 52 — and a defensive coordinator — longtime player and assistant coach Aaron Glenn, 48 — more experienced than him. Campbell doesn’t consider himself an offensive or defensive guru but a leader and a communicator, and he smartly landed respected, seasoned support.

I’ve heard fans in the past week say this is the best they’ve felt about the future of the Lions in decades. They say it without evidence of intoxication or distress. And they say it while the team is in the midst of trying to trade its longtime star quarterback.

It’s all fun and giddy on cold January days, but the truth is, we have no idea if these people from different backgrounds with different ideas can meld into one collaborative winning vision. Who knows, maybe they hired too many strong minds. Maybe they didn’t hire enough, or the most coveted.

Learning from mistakes

It’s too early to say they’ve cleaned up the mess left behind by Quinntricia, a mess that has been fermenting for decades. But you can say this with confidence: They’re admitting mistakes, and their decisions indicate they’re determined to correct them.

Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia were a disaster, on the field and in the building. Hamp’s mistake was keeping them for Patricia’s third season. The correction was to fire them after 11 games, then construct a front office with shared power.

The Lions’ mistake has been to ride Stafford’s right arm and agreeable demeanor as long as they could, without developing anything else. Never a running game, almost never a top defense. The correction was to publicly acknowledge and agree with his request to be traded. Lots of players get frustrated and seek an exit, but the Lions could’ve done what they’ve done before and ignored it. They could’ve ridden Stafford into early retirement like they did with Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.

The Lions’ oft-repeated mistake has been listening to the wrong people, whether it was NFL consultant Ernie Accorsi nudging them toward the Patriot Way, or Matt Millen doing whatever he pleased. The correction: They scoured and scrubbed the league and interviewed 12 GM and five coach candidates.

The hires may appear unorthodox and risky, but it wasn’t done on a whim.

They took a chance on an impressive talent evaluator in first-time GM Holmes. They took a chance on a rising leader in Campbell, heavily endorsed by former teammates and players in New Orleans, where he was assistant head coach under Sean Payton.

Hamp and others are vividly aware of how dimly their franchise is viewed and took basic steps to address it. The Lions haven’t been an embraceable team for a while, and not just because of the losing. Patricia practically mocked media and fans with his arrogant demeanor, and wrecked relationships with players. Jim Caldwell could be needlessly abrupt with media, which was his right, but it created an atmosphere of defensiveness and paranoia.

When launching their search, Hamp and Wood put an emphasis on people who communicate effectively, who win respect and loyalty from players and fans. Wood specifically said they were seeking a coach who could provide “a positive voice for the entire organization with the media, the league, colleges, staff and our fans, and the ability to assemble an excellent staff.”

That’s what they appeared to get with the uber-exuberant Campbell and the smooth, sharp Holmes. But wait — where’s the experience we were promised?!

Experience required

Before that could legitimately be branded a mistake, the Lions hired Dorsey, as experienced as anyone. Then they added Lynn, as experienced as anyone. OK, they made their point.

The Lions hoped Campbell’s reputation and personality would be attractive to assistant coach candidates, and that certainly appears to be the case. Lynn had a 33-31 record in four seasons as the Chargers’ head coach and reportedly was wooed by others to be offensive coordinator. Glenn coached defensive backs in New Orleans and has a long connection with Campbell. More important, he’s highly touted and reportedly chose the Lions over the Bears.

Same thing with the expected hiring of assistant head coach Duce Staley, who was a popular member of the Eagles staff for 10 years. When Philadelphia tabbed Nick Sirianni as head coach, Staley asked out of his contract and immediately gained the attention of the Lions and Bears. He seemed pegged for Chicago, where has a connection with Matt Nagy, but instead opted to join Campbell, and it was viewed around the NFL as a Lions victory.

If they collect a few more victories like that, maybe they can raise an “2021 Offseason Championship” banner at Ford Field. First, they have to pull off the Stafford blockbuster. For Holmes to gain instant credibility, he needs to land a first-round pick and more. If he plays it right and gets a few teams — Colts, Patriots, 49ers, Washington — to bid, two first-round picks should be the goal. Then will come the next credibility test: Finding a quarterback, possibly at No. 7 in the draft.

Oddly, the Lions’ history of disarray could help them in trade talks. Teams could reasonably determine Stafford, only 32 with two modest years on his contract, was derailed by the Lions’ ineptitude and could flourish with a contender. One report indicated a third of the teams have inquired about Stafford’s availability, and you can bet Indianapolis is a major suitor.

Holmes had better keep his phone charged. He might hold the key to another team’s Super Bowl hopes and should treat it as such. It was a calculated move to announce Stafford was on the market, designed to flush out all possible suitors.

We’ve long been conditioned to assume a “calculated” move by the Lions won’t work. I say this at great risk of being duped and ridiculed, but in the next few months, we might have to do the once-unthinkable and actually change our thinking.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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