Allen Park -- The Lions sit at a familiar crossroad, where the direction matters more than the destination. And on a brilliantly sunny day, Bill Ford Jr. was looking up.
Not many clouds in June, with the season three months away. The Lions are riding an eight-game losing streak that closed a 4-12 season, but ownership sees more of what everyone saw two years ago, when the Lions reached the playoffs.
“I do like the direction, very much,” Ford Jr. said Tuesday. “I think Martin (Mayhew) has done a terrific job of building a very professional front office. I think the addition of (senior personnel executive) Brian Xanders has been an important one for us. And I like the new coaches we have as well.”
You can take Ford Jr.’s positive stance two ways. One is that he considers last season the anomaly and believes in Mayhew, Jim Schwartz, Matthew Stafford and the rest. The other is that he thinks like most of us — he’s not sure which season is the fluke, but he expects to revisit the better one.
This is a telling time for the Lions franchise, an enigma wrapped in an anomaly. William Clay Ford Sr. is 88 and doesn’t speak often in public, so when Ford Jr. does, it means something. It’s good news for the current regime when the owner’s son endorses you. But the unspoken message is, if the Lions are talented enough to be good, well, they’d better be good.
“It’s very early, but I certainly like the talent on the team,” Ford Jr. said. “We have a lot more depth than we did going into prior seasons. … The challenge is to integrate them, but that’s what the coaches are here for. And I’ve got great confidence in them.”
If jobs are on the line this fall, no one is saying it now. Ford Jr. wasn’t willing to talk about the contract status of Mayhew or Schwartz.
The Lions have some star-quality players and have had a productive offseason, signing Reggie Bush, Glover Quin and James Jones. Schwartz juggled his staff, replacing or reassigning seven coaches. The offensive line is being torn down and rebuilt.
Urgency is apparent, even if it’s not verbalized.
“I think Jim’s got a really good staff that he’s put together this year,” Ford Jr. said. “And I think Jim would be the first to admit there have been times where he’s learned on the job. But I think he’s a very, very good coach.”
So is this a make-or-break year for Schwartz?
“I’m not gonna address that at this point,” Ford Jr. said.
It’s safe to say, the Fords feel they’ve invested plenty, doling out big contracts to Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Mayhew was given the freedom to remake the roster, one year after he essentially stood pat.
But since Matt Millen was broomed, the Lions are 22-42 in four seasons under Mayhew and Schwartz. The 10-6 playoff campaign ended in a 45-28 road loss to the Saints, and since then, it’s been stumble after stumble, on the field and off.
Many of the components of the playoff team — Stafford, Johnson, Suh, Louis Delmas, Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Nate Burleson — are still in place, with other pieces added. So frankly, the Lions couldn’t lower expectations if they wanted to. Quick turnarounds happen all the time in the NFL, and their history notwithstanding, the Lions are a candidate.
“We think it’s possible,” Schwartz said. “The balance in this offseason is not forgetting we only won four games, but combining that with realizing how close we were in the other games. I think it makes it more urgent. It’s a lot easier to preach that to the players when you know one play is the difference. We like the talent we’ve acquired, but our margins are small, just like everybody in the NFL.”
While there aren’t any win-or-else ultimatums, there aren’t any give-us-time platitudes, either. The Lions can’t plead for patience because no one would listen, and no one should.
Ford Jr.’s sunny outlook doesn’t mean he’s naively expecting a guaranteed turnaround. It does mean he’s well within his rights to push for it, loudly or not.
“You have to go into every season expecting you have a chance to win, and we do,” Ford Jr. said. “We’ve got a quarterback, and there are teams in the league that can’t say that. And obviously, we have a lot of talent around this quarterback. And I think defensively we’ve added important pieces. I feel very good about the direction.”
Ultimately, the direction is defined by the destination. Once again, the Lions have only one direction to go, and it’s completely fair to demand they take it.