January 3, 2013 at 9:20 pm

John Niyo

Lions brass needs to fix what's ailing team -- and do it quickly

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew understands the sense of urgency in turning around the team's fortunes. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Allen Park -- In a brief moment of levity Wednesday, Martin Mayhew began his postmortem of the Lions' season by comparing it to a reality TV show.

And to some, that'll no doubt reinforce the notion this team's ownership is living in fantasy land, retaining the services of the bulk of its coaching staff, including Jim Schwartz and all three of his coordinators, as well as Mayhew, the team's general manager, after a 4-12 season that showed, above all else, the Lions weren't ready for prime time. Not even close, actually.

But that's exactly what the plan is, "as far as I know," Mayhew said Wednesday, as he met with reporters in Allen Park for nearly an hour to discuss what went wrong for a franchise that went from a rare playoff berth in 2011 to being arguably the NFL's biggest bust in 2012.

"It could be like 'Survivor,' you know, where you go back and you write somebody's name down and you think that they're going home?" joked Mayhew, who did have a postseason conversation on the phone Monday night with owner William Clay Ford Sr. and Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. "But, no, as far as I know, we're going to be back. I've spoken with Mr. Ford and Bill and we talked about our plans going forward. And we're certainly working on getting things right."

If they don't, Mayhew, who was promoted from within after Matt Millen was fired as GM in September 2008 and then retained after that winless season, knows he may not get another opportunity beyond 2013.

Changes clearly needed

Mayhew declined to discuss his contract status Wednesday — Schwartz's recently extended deal runs through 2015 — but his record is the same as Schwartz's the last four years (22-42) and that won't cut it, even in Detroit, where winning has mostly seemed incidental for much of the last half-century or so.

"I mean, we were the fourth-best team in a four-team division," said Mayhew, whose teams are 5-19 against the NFC North since 2009. "We didn't beat anybody in our division the whole season. So clearly we're not good enough. So we've got to make some changes."

Schwartz already made some, cutting ties with a few of his assistant coaches. Mayhew said Wednesday he didn't expect any more subtractions there, but he did say there's a chance of more changes in the front office. ("That could possibly happen," he said.) And he made it clear he felt the biggest problems had less to do with the coaching than they did the personnel — the players on the field, as well as the ones not on it.

He answered a series of questions about Titus Young, the exiled No. 2 receiver who was in Allen Park — with his parents — for his annual exit physical Wednesday. But Mayhew, who met briefly with Young, didn't shed much light on his future with the team.

Young's unquestionably a talent the Lions were counting on this season — "I think he really unlocked our offense in 2011," Mayhew said — but he finally was banished for insubordination in November after repeated clashes with coaches and teammates. As for bringing him back, Mayhew said, "I think it has to be the right situation for him and for us."

Mayhew acknowledged he erred in thinking running back Jahvid Best — the real key to the Lions' offense beyond quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson — would be cleared to return after another concussion ended his 2011 season.

"Probably the biggest mistake that I made last year was counting on Jahvid Best to come back," Mayhew said, adding that all the medical reports pointed to his return and "I can't think of a single player with a head injury who was asymptomatic that wanted to play that wasn't allowed to play. I think he's the first one, ever."

And yet, he admits, "We didn't have a real plan to replace him."

Figuring out flop

They didn't plan on their expected starting secondary — cornerbacks Chris Houston, Jacob Lacey and Bill Bentley, along with safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey — only playing one game together.

I don't think many of us expected much from that group, either. But regardless, Mayhew did plan on getting much more from his defense. And when I asked him if the Lions had "overestimated" their talent coming off the 10-6 playoff breakthrough a year ago, he said, "That's quite possible."

"I certainly thought we were going to get some better performances," Mayhew said. "I mean, who on our defense played better than they did last year? Of the 10 starters that we brought back, probably Ndamukong was the one guy that played noticeably better."

It's up to Mayhew and Schwartz, with whom the GM insists he has a "great" relationship, now to figure out why. And to figure out how in the world they'll fix it — given the salary-cap constraints and a roster that features two dozen free agents — in short order.

"I think that's the nature of the NFL," Mayhew said. "I think you have to win. You're here to win football games.

"So anytime you only win four, you better have a sense of urgency that you better get it turned around (and) you better get it going in the right direction quickly."

Because this being the NFL, which is just show business in shoulder pads, the reality is — even in this depressed market — somebody's going to have to pull the plug soon if the ratings don't improve.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Lions coach Jim Schwartz already has cut ties with assistants Shawn ... (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)