Detroit — It’s the oldest question in Detroit sports, and I hear it all the time.
“Hey Wojo, you think the Lions will ever make it to the Super Bowl? And how old will I be haha?!”
OK, I’ll play. Yes, and you will be 89. (That’s what I tell the youngsters.)
But perhaps it’s time, during Super Bowl week, to ponder the question more seriously. Using mathematical odds, historical data and the growing life expectancy of the average human, there’s a chance you’ll be around if the Lions get there. Or your great grandchildren will.
But how will the Lions do it?
More precisely, how is it possible they’ve never done it? Just for fun, let’s examine the issue instead of mocking it.
The overwhelming factor is the Ford ownership, obviously, the fabled One Constant. They’re not bad people at all, just bad business people who created a culture of comfort, while diligently avoiding risk and controversy. They hire nice, non-threatening employees, decline to fire them when necessary, and lack the competitive ruthlessness more commonly seen in self-made businessmen and women. The Fords were born into this, weren’t burnt with passion for it.
That’s the pattern that must be broken. The problem is, it’s unlikely the lineage will be broken, from William Clay Ford Sr. to Martha Ford in 2014, with more family members — daughters Sheila Hamp, Martha Morse and Elizabeth Kontulis, son Bill Ford Jr. – in line. We can plead for them to sell the team — they’ve resisted all overtures — or we can urge them to try something different, and not be afraid of repeating one horrific mistake.
The last time the Lions were profoundly bold was when they hired Matt Millen from the TV booth in 2001, at the urging of young Bill Jr. It was forward-thinking and risky, and the intentions were honorable, to break the sad cycle of sameness. It just happened to be an unprecedented disaster. We can recount the embarrassment that ensued, capped by the 0-16 season, but let’s not belabor it for this reason: They shouldn’t be scared to be bold again.
Super Bowl LIV between Kansas City and San Francisco is Sunday, and believe it or not, there’s nothing tangible preventing the Lions from making it before Super Bowl LLIV. You can play the curse card, or use the curse words, but every team in the league, from the best to the dimmest, has found its way there except four — the Lions, Browns, Texans and Jaguars. The Lions won the NFL championship in 1957 and have precisely one playoff victory in the 63 years since, a product of awful and passive leadership.
The key is putting the right people in charge, which only happens if you exhaustively look for the right people. Team control often was passed down like a family heirloom, given to whomever was loyal enough to earn it. It’s staggering that since Ford Sr. officially took ownership in 1963 — on the very day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, hence the curse angle – there have been only four permanent general managers, and Bob Quinn is the first hired from another NFL team.
Russ Thomas was the longest-serving GM, an astonishing 21 years (1967-88), while going to the playoffs three times. Thomas begat in-house successor Chuck Schmidt, more of a business guy than a football guy. He lasted 11 years and preceded the leap to Millen.
The Fords generally play it safe, with that notable exception, patient and loyal to a fault. They love their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who’s an upstanding citizen and a fine player but not gifted enough to carry a team. It’s compounded because the Lions almost never build a reliable strength, on defense or on the offensive line. Now Stafford is about to turn 32 and has suffered back injuries two years in a row, and there’s no evidence the Lions have a plan for the future.
They cratered to 3-12-1 because they didn’t have a viable option after Stafford went down midway through last season. If the Lions are truly determined to bust the cycle and be bold again, this is the move: Draft Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the No. 3 pick.
Of course, Tagovailoa’s recovery from a dislocated hip must be thoroughly vetted, but for the Lions, it’s not necessarily a bad break. He was the consensus top pick a year ago, and the only reason the Lions might have a shot is because of the injury. They still might not have a shot, because if Tagovailoa’s workouts and medical reports are good, he could join LSU quarterback Joe Burrow atop the draft at 1-2.
The NFL isn’t strictly a passing league but it is an offense league, which is why the top teams do everything possible to develop an elite quarterback. The Chiefs had a solid one in Alex Smith but drafted Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in 2017, and under offense-minded coach Andy Reid, he’s blossomed into a superstar.
The 49ers were building a solid defense and running game but they needed the trigger. In the middle of the 2017 season, they acquired Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s replacement-in-waiting, from New England. Under another brilliant offensive mind, Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl one season after going 4-12. Based on Quinn’s and Matt Patricia’s comments, the Lions still very much support Stafford. And to be clear, Stafford is not the reason they’ve lost. He is the reason — his large contract, his face-of-the-franchise status — the Lions haven’t dared to seek other options. There’s a middle ground if they drafted Tagovailoa. The rookie could sit behind Stafford and fully heal, then be ready in a year, the formula the Chiefs used with Mahomes.
All of it sounds so un-Lions-like, it’s hard to fathom it happening. But reports pop up weekly that the Lions are exploring the quarterback market. Could it be a smokescreen to stir interest in the No. 3 pick and allow Quinn to trade down? Sure. But the status quo isn’t working, and with Quinntricia on quasi-notice from Martha Ford to contend for the playoffs, playing it safe seems dangerous.
In some ways, the Millen debacle still haunts. He’s a nice guy who was so charismatic, he stayed seven-plus years, despite a 31-84 record. Millen was the first outside-the-box front-office hire by the Fords, and he sent them right back into their box.
Millen’s second-in-command, Martin Mayhew, took over and did a decent job in seven seasons, and he’ll be at Super Bowl LIV as a vice-president for the 49ers. When the Fords fired him in 2015, at least they recommitted to breaking the line of succession and hired from outside.
When you hire from within, or hire inexperienced people — Quinn had never been a GM — they tend to hire people they know and like, because they lack a network of contacts. Millen signed the first candidate he meshed with, Marty Mornhinweg. Then he hired another nice, affable guy, Steve Mariucci. Then he hired another first-time head coach, Rod Marinelli, who helped author 0-16.
Quinn hired his New England buddy Patricia, and the Lions are 9-22-1 since. Hey, I would never completely quash the hopes of Lions fans. The NFL is too unpredictable and parity-stricken to write anybody off. One expert, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, thinks the Lions could be primed to make a 49ers-like leap next season.
We’ve heard that before. At times, we’ve believed it before. But we won’t trust it until we see someone strong enough and smart enough to break the cycle of safety sameness. In the meantime, I suggest Lions fans try to live as long as humanly possible.