December 31, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions GM Martin Mayhew at critical crossroads

Allen Park — Another coach tried mightily, another coach failed. But at least this Lions’ spin of the old wheel is slightly different. Jim Schwartz is gone because his team collapsed two years in a row, because bad habits couldn’t be broken and because the Lions swear they have a really good team that needs stronger guidance.

OK, time to test that theory. This now rests squarely on GM Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand, who made the right move in firing Schwartz and now must make a bigger move to prove their point.

There’s no sense belaboring obvious reasons for the dismissal, from Schwartz’s 29-51 record to the just-completed free-fall from 6-3 to 7-9. But what about Mayhew? There’s a reason he’s still here and the Fords again resisted the urge to toss everything out. Yes, they generally err on the side of safe, which certainly has contributed to the franchise’s numbing 56-year title drought.

But this time, the Lions believe they have pieces worth keeping and the talent to turn it around immediately, and they might be right. Mayhew has made mistakes, especially with wide-receiver picks, but also has drafted better lately, signed solid free-agents and astutely rebuilt the offensive line with two unheralded rookies.

That’s why the pressure is enormous on Mayhew and Lewand, because this hire is far more important than the Schwartz hire in 2009, when the Lions were coming off that 0-16 gem. This actually is an attractive job now, with Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and a potential — still only a potential — franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford. There’s also a top-10 draft pick and an owner willing to eat $12 million of Schwartz’s contract. If Bill Ford Jr. gradually is assuming control from his father, that’s a decent sign.

It’s also not the time to get tricky with some hotshot assistant. The Lions need a respected, experienced leader, preferably one who has been an NFL head coach. Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who took the Cardinals to a Super Bowl in six seasons there, makes a ton of sense.

Fatal distraction

No more learning curves, no more gambles on unprovens — Schwartz, Rod Marinelli, Marty Mornhinweg, etc. And here’s the thing you might find encouraging: The Lions know it. In a semi-startling admission Monday, they subtly copped to an ailment they’ve long denied even existed. It’s known by legions of loyal fans as Same-Old-Lionitis, an insidious, mysterious disorder with no known cure.

Listen to what Mayhew declared was a key characteristic he’d seek in a coach: “It’s a mentality that no matter what happens, you have an opportunity to win. You can’t put yourself in a situation where you get a fatalistic attitude and you get the belief you can’t get over the hump, so to speak.”

There it is. Fatalistic. Like, when things started going wrong last season, the Lions lost their last eight. And when things started going wrong this season, they lost six of their last seven, and blew fourth-quarter leads in each defeat.

In case anyone missed the message of a culture change, Mayhew closed his remarks with a reiteration.

“Again, it’s bigger than Xs and Os, it’s bigger than scheme, it’s bigger than that,” he said. “This guy has to be a leader and be able to lead our team.”

Frame it however you wish, but the Lions need their Scotty Bowman, or Larry Brown, or Sparky Anderson, fearless leaders. Schwartz wanted to be known as a bright young coach, and when the Lions went to the playoffs in 2011, he was. But he seemed more interested in outsmarting people than stamping accountability and instilling discipline in his players.

"The window's now'

Stafford has obvious ability, but desperately needs to be refined and reined in. The thing is, this isn’t just about the quarterback. That’s been the problem for too many years here, the hunt for the easy answer. Hey, try the West Coast offense! Hey, get the glib TV guy! Hey, put everything on Barry Sanders, or Joey Harrington, or Stafford! They’re borderline gimmicks, not nearly as fruitful as getting a tough, established coach.

That’s the step that has to be taken. Mayhew definitely has upgraded the roster, which is why players were still puzzled Monday upon hearing the news from an emotional Schwartz. They weren’t shocked he was fired, just shocked it had to happen.

“I still can’t believe we’re standing here talking about this,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “Windows close quickly, and whoever comes in has to take advantage of it now. We have a lot of talent in this locker rom. The window’s now.”

For all their broken windows, the Lions don’t deny it. Lewand said, “The bottom-line message from ownership is, we are unwaveringly committed to bringing a consistently winning football team to this town immediately.”

That’s a fair mandate, and Mayhew and Lewand should be held to it. Schwartz once famously declared he wasn’t scared, and tried to prove it. The Lions need to find a coach who isn’t scared and already has proven it.

Lions president Tom Lewand, left, and general manager Martin Mayhew talk about the firing of coach Jim Schwartz and the search for a new head coach during a press conference Monday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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