Monday, December 17, 2007

Lions Need To Start All Over (Maybe With Holmgren?)

First, let me thank DirecTV. They tried to spare me.

For almost an hour after kickoff of yesterday's Lions-Chargers game, DirecTV lost their over-the-air channels, probably due to the bad weather. These included Fox 2, which was showing the Lions. Even my fancy-shmancy NFL Sunday Ticket couldn't help me, because it blacks out games scheduled to air on local channels.

So when the game finally appeared after the technical glitch, the Fox Bar scoreboard along the top of the screen told me that I hadn't missed much -- unless you count 17 Charger points as something worth seeing. So I watched a few minutes, and called it a day.

But today's post isn't about yesterday's game. What is there, really, to say? The Lions are tanking, freefalling like a lead balloon. So best to talk about the future, and to do that it's necessary to analyze the pasts of the other three, more successful teams in town.

I was thinking about this last evening. Why have the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons been able to find success? How have they done it?

Red Wings. They may not live up to the hype every spring, but for about 15 years now, you've been able to look at the Red Wings as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as every playoff has begun -- sometimes they've been the odds-on favorite. Think about that for a moment. Fifteen straight seasons of being considered a possible champion every April. No team in any other sport can say such a thing -- not for 15 straight years, anyway.

How have they done it?

Drafting, scouting, free agency, trades. These are the elements of any personnel department. And the Red Wings have excelled in every area at various times in the '90s and '00s. Have they made some mistakes? Sure. But few of them. Their work in Europe and Sweden has been exemplary. It sounds simple, but one of the reasons the Red Wings have been so good is because they've had some pretty damn good players come through Detroit. And those players were an amalgam of drafts, trades (especially those deadline deals), and free agency -- almost in equal distribution. Amazing.

Coaching. This happened in stages. Jacques Demers took the team to a certain level. Bryan Murray nudged them forward a bit more -- at least in terms of regular season success. Then, finally, Scotty Bowman was brought in to finish things off. Then, after two disappointing playoffs, Dave Lewis was let go and enter Mike Babcock. Today, the Red Wings are again the elite of the league.

Pistons. A bold, sometimes brazen mindset in Auburn Hills, led by President Joe Dumars, has spelled the rise of the Pistons to elite status.

Personnel moves. The Rasheed Wallace trade was one many GMs would have been afraid to make. Not being afraid to admit mistakes and trade bad draft picks like Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White. Letting Ben Wallace flee (wisely). Constantly tweaking the supporting cast. Taking a flyer on Chris Webber. Finding gems like Tayshaun Prince and, it appears, Jason Maxiell. Blending youth in with experience (Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson). Basically, being just restless enough in this area -- and never truly being satisfied.

Coaching. Firing Rick Carlisle (after two 50-win seasons) and bringing in Larry Brown was bold. So was letting Brown go, despite two straight trips to the Finals. Hiring playoff-challenged Flip Saunders wasn't without its risks. Yet the Pistons have managed to make five straight trips to the Conference Finals. Not too shabby.

Tigers. As with the Red Wings and Pistons, boldness and a commitment of money by ownership has turned the Tigers into a powerhouse ballclub.

Personnel. Getting Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, and Fernando Vina to sign here after a 119-loss season was off the charts. Though White and Vina were hardly All-Stars in Detroit, their signings nonetheless made the Tigers relevant again. If nothing else, those guys, plus the acquisition of Carlos Guillen later on, put some bona fide big leaguers on the roster once again.

Since then, the team has fleeced others for Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Renteria, and of course the blockbuster trade with the Marlins a couple weeks ago was another feather in the Tigers' baseball caps. Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson were throw-ins from other trades, believe it or not. Marcus Thames was stolen. For every Neifi Perez trade, there've been many more good ones.

Scouting has brought Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, Brandon Inge, and new potential ace Rick Porcello. And it has helped the Tigers stockpile bargaining chips to use in the aforementioned trades.

Free agency has been used mostly wisely. Vina was a bust (due to injuries), and so was Troy Percival (for the same reason). But other signings have yielded Kenny Rogers, Magglio Ordonez,
and Rodriguez.

Coaching/managing. Do the Tigers go to the World Series in 2006 with any other manager than Jim Leyland? I wouldn't wager on it.

How far the Tigers have come in four years is unreal. Basically, since 2003 they've gone from national embarrassment to possibly the best team in baseball. They reached the Series three years after the 119-loss campaign.

OK, so what is the common denominator here?

The One.


The One is the person who's presided over all these successful machinations. The Red Wings' resurgence started with owner Mike Ilitch's very first hire: former Islanders super scout Jimmy Devellano. Jimmy D. had a rough first few years as he found his footing, but then he hired Demers, and the franchise was reborn. Devellano was also the driving force behind the team hiring Bowman in 1993. A steady, efficient front office was started with Devellano's hiring, and has led to unheard-of stability. The trio of Ilitch, Devellano, and current GM Ken Holland have been together forever, it seems. Bowman's stint as coach/GM was wildly successful, and the passing of the torch to Holland, promoted after the 1997 Cup, was seamless.

So right now Holland is The One for the Red Wings, but he was set up for success by the work of Jimmy D. and Bowman, who were each The One in their own time.

The Pistons have Joe Dumars as The One. The team was treading water when Dumars stepped out of his basketball sneakers and into the wing-tipped shoes of an executive, back in 2000. Dumars then began acting as if he was born to be a GM. It was spooky, how good he was right out of the gate. Reminded me of Jerry West, but even West served as coach for a few years before rising to GM status. Dumars is almost making more noise as a GM than he did as a player -- and this is a Hall of Famer and FInals MVP we're talking about here.

The Tigers were going absolutely nowhere until they hired Dave Dombrowski in November 2001. After a rough start (mainly because of what he inherited) that included the 43-119 bottoming out, DD has been King Midas.

Dombrowski is clearly The One for the Tigers. I shudder to think where the franchise would be if Ilitch followed up the Randy Smith Era with another bad GM hire.

The Lions. I'm not trying to be funny or a smart ass here, but the Lions have possessed NONE of the stuff I've talked about here that breeds success in professional sports. No boldness, no guts. Wanna know the difference between boldness and foolishness?

Hiring Scotty Bowman was bold. Making Joe Dumars a GM so soon after his playing days was bold. Luring Dombrowski from Florida and giving him complete control was bold. Hiring Leyland to manage after seven years away from it was bold.

But being bold means taking calculated risks. It doesn't mean just doing something out of the box for kicks.

Hiring Matt Millen from the broadcast booth wasn't bold. It was foolish. There was nothing calculated or researched about it. The only thing that would have made it bold was if Millen was brought in with the mandate to immediately surround himself with sound, solid football people. If he was ordered to form a coaching search committee consisting of such minds. Then maybe it's a bold move. Instead it was just plain misguided. It created excitement for a while, but that doesn't have long shelf life if the clothes have no emperor.

Personnel? HA! Poor drafts, questionable (at best) free agent signings, and curious trades have made the Lions the antithesis of their three sports neighbors in Detroit.

Coaching? Bad hires here, of course. But the Tigers (Luis Pujols, Phil Garner), Red Wings (Harry Neale, Brad Park), and Pistons (Alvin Gentry, George Irvine) have all had their warts in this department, too. But they were able to learn from those mistakes. The Lions have been making strange coaching hires since 1974. And as much as I want to like Rod Marinelli, this current six-game slide/surrender has made me wonder about him, too.

Lack of The One. The Lions have never, EVER, come close to employing The One. I hate to say it, but you really have to go all the way back to Nick Kerbaway, GM of the 1950s, to find The One. Russ Thomas lasted way longer than Matt Millen has, but his decades of tenure produced nothing. Since Thomas, the Lions have been managed by Chuck Schmidt (please), Jerry Vainisi (he was never given a real chance), and now Millen. Ugh.

You win in any sport with good players, I understand that. But someone has to procure these players, no?

So here's the deal: the Lions will never mimic the rise of the Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers (all of whom were in the depths of their sports at one time or another) unless they do one of two things -- have a change in ownership, or a change in paradigm. Since the former is unlikely, then let's look at the latter.

The Lions need to find The One. Somewhere out there in the NFL, such a person exists. I believe that. Is he a former player? Unlikely, especially if we're talking recent former player. It's asking a lot to expect a recently-retired player to become a successful NFL GM. Dumars did it, but the NBA is different than the NFL. Far fewer players, for one.

Is he a former GM? Well, maybe, but hopefully not one who's been out of the league too long.

Most likely, The One is employed by another NFL team currently, possibly as an assistant GM or in a similar position in the personnel department. What I would do is look at perennially successful teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Colts, and maybe even the Cowboys and raid their front office for their bright, young executives.

I don't know as many front office types in the NFL as I do in other sports, so I don't have a lot of actual names to throw around here. So in lieu of that, I mention traits and backgrounds.

But if you want a name, here's one: Mike Holmgren.

If you can get him out of his contract in Seattle, maybe Holmgren would come here as a GM-only guy. If he feels he has the coaching bug out of his system, that is. He's still young enough, he clearly has been around winning organizations, and he's made sound personnel moves in his career. Just a thought.

Matt Millen obviously isn't The One. And the Lions will continue to wallow until they find that person. Because it all begins there -- as the other teams in town have illustrated.

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