Wojo: New GM signals change from Lions’ same old ways

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The future of Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) is one of several issues new general manager Bob Quinn will have to tackle during the offseason.

It only took about 50 years, but the Lions just snapped a famously flawed pattern. They hired a new general manager Friday night, and I’m guessing you won’t recognize him. That’s a good thing, because they finally opted for something other than familiarity or flash.

In hiring Bob Quinn from the New England Patriots, the Lions plucked young talent from the best organization in football, the most-compelling sign yet they’re serious about profound change.

Quinn has never been a GM and is only 39, so obviously there’s risk here. Several former Patriot coaches and executives have struggled away from the Bill Belichick empire, another note of caution. Most notably, Scott Pioli was Belichick’s chief talent lieutenant but failed as the Kansas City Chiefs GM.

But this is the type of move the Lions absolutely had to make, and they did it swiftly. Quinn worked 16 years with the Patriots and Belichick, the past four as director of pro scouting. Are we sure he can fix a long-broken culture and make the right decision on the head coach? With this team, there’s no guarantee of anything. But on the surface and in the credentials, Quinn fits the profile.

Lions, Patriots' Quinn reach deal to become new GM

No. 1, he comes from the Super Bowl champions. No. 2, he has no previous connection to the Lions.

Why is this so important? Because in 48 previous years, the Lions never hired a GM with football-evaluation experience away from another team, any team. Let me repeat that: Never.

If you’ve been a Lions fan since 1967, every single player you’ve cheered for was acquired by one of four men: Russ Thomas, Chuck Schmidt, Matt Millen or Martin Mayhew. Thomas was replaced by his assistant Schmidt, and they covered a 33-year span under late owner William Clay Ford Sr. When the Lions missed the playoffs in 2000, their bold move was all about flash, hiring Millen right out of the broadcast booth.

When Millen finally was fired in 2008, he was replaced by his assistant, Mayhew. When Mayhew was fired this season, he was replaced by Sheldon White. With all due respect to White, the bond had to be busted, and it was.

Martha Ford and team president Rod Wood said they’d conduct a national search, with the help of consultant Ernie Accorsi, and they zeroed in on Quinn. They said they were sick of losing, sick of settling, and they would’ve looked like charlatans if they tabbed White.

Quinn’s arrival doesn’t wipe away all the skepticism, but it is completely different, and we’re about to find out how different. He has vast experience in pro and college scouting, a major plus. His first big decision involves Jim Caldwell, and because the Lions moved quickly — making the move less than a week after the season ended — there’s more time for evaluation. Seven NFL teams with head-coach openings have yet to make a hire, so candidates aren’t picked over.

Bob Quinn

Caldwell, 18-15 in two seasons here, made a legitimate, late case to keep his job by going 6-2 after a 1-7 start. From one standpoint, it makes sense to keep him, especially after coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and Matthew Stafford developed a connection. But if this truly is a whole new way of doing things, the Lions have to trust Quinn’s judgment, no restrictions.

As a first-time GM who never has hired a coach, Quinn might be inclined to keep Caldwell and work through personnel issues. Or he might opt for the full blowout, fire Caldwell, and bring in Patriots co-offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The concern there is, McDaniels also is 39, and that’d be a mighty youthful combo at the top.

McDaniels is another bright, young Patriot who bombed in his first stint as head coach, going 11-17 in 2009-10 with the Broncos. That’s always the question: Does the New England system, long led by Belichick and Tom Brady, inflate the worth of others, or are they integral parts of the success?

With Quinn, we won’t know for a while, until we see how he drafts and how he handles tough roster decisions, including one involving Calvin Johnson, who’s mulling retirement. But the Lions tried the same-ol’ way for most of the last half-century and never came close to a Super Bowl title. It’s impossible to know if this will get them closer, but it’s easy to see it was the direction they had to take.