Niyo: Time runs out on Mayhew, Lewand

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — They were a team from the start, Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew. Tied to each other. But tied to the Lions past, too, which was a truth they couldn’t ignore then. And certainly one they can’t now.

They stood at a podium nearly seven years ago in the aftermath of the sorriest season in NFL history — an 0-16 debacle in 2008 that capped arguably the worst era for any NFL front office — and knew they had to address the elephant in the room. Because they were the elephant.

“We all take ownership, we’re all responsible,” Lewand said that day, as he officially took the reins as team president, flanked by Mayhew, the new general manager.

And then, as Lewand, who’d already spent a decade in the organization at that point, tried to explain why they’d not only survived but received a promotion, he added a line that suddenly — ironically, I suppose — rings true.

“I think you can look at that one of two ways,” he said at that introductory press conference. “You can look at holding everybody responsible and brooming the entire building, or you can say, ‘What did we learn from that?’ ”

Well, what we learned Thursday is what the Ford family should have known all along. The new Lions leaders had a plan, sure. But they also had a past. And, ultimately, this was a truth they couldn’t escape, as both Lions executives were fired Thursday by owner Martha Firestone Ford, who made the announcement in the very same room where this whole thing started. Or continued, as it were.

Ford didn’t take questions Thursday, but the message that was delivered certainly said more than the 227-word statement she read.

If nothing else, this was an acknowledgement that her late husband erred in entrusting this team to a regime that had already failed, by default. This was the first swipe of the broom, and everyone in the building Thursday — reactions ran the gamut privately, though the shock was nearly unanimous, if only for the timing — knows it’s only the beginning of what figures to be a thorough housecleaning.

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That Mayhew took the fall is hardly a surprise, of course. The Lions made two playoff appearances in his six-plus years at the helm, but the team’s overall record during that span was 41-63. And for all the work he put in — it took only a few weeks in ’08 to see he’d be different than his predecessor, Matt Millen, in that regard — Mayhew had surprisingly little to show for his effort as this 2015 season came unglued.

The most recent Lions loss — a 45-10 embarrassment in London, with Ford and a large party of family and friends in attendance — might have been the last straw. But the offense had looked anemic all fall, with a quarterback under siege, on the field and — again — in the media. And with an aging, injured defense starting to play like the Lions of old, Jim Caldwell — Mayhew’s second head coaching hire — seemed to be at a loss as to how to fix any of it.

Dismal drafting

But even beyond the current 53-man roster, Mayhew’s draft record was starting to resemble that of the general manager and former teammate who’d brought him to the Lions in 2001. Only six of the 29 draft picks from Mayhew’s first four drafts made this year’s 53-man roster. And of the 53 players Mayhew has drafted in all, only two ever made a Pro Bowl.

One of those was Ndamukong Suh, the dominant defensive tackle the Lions lost in free agency this past winter. The other is Matthew Stafford, the franchise quarterback whose career trajectory remains as questionable as his accuracy, at times.

And while Lewand’s culpability was always harder to pin down, the Lions salary-cap issues can’t solely be blamed on the old rookie wage scale that put them behind the 8-ball. Nor can Suh’s departure, a negotiating flop on several fronts and a crippling loss to the Lions defensive front.

Quick change

Still, Lewand’s dismissal is another sign of the changes — and changing attitudes — at the top. Lewand, who spearheaded the construction of Ford Field, among other successes, was like a son to the late Lions owner, who stuck by him through his struggles with alcoholism. His father, a prominent local attorney, also worked for William Clay Ford Sr., and Lewand and Bill Ford Jr. are close friends.

But Ford Jr. has seen his role with this team diminished since his father’s death, and Thursday’s announcement only reaffirmed what he’d said last month during a WJR radio interview.

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“She is in charge,” Ford Jr. said of his mother. “She absolutely is.”

And she absolutely has a different view than her late husband, who was loyal to a fault — and knew it. The last time Ford Sr. spoke at length about his team, the summer after he’d fired Millen and promoted Mayhew — only the fourth general manager in his half-century as owner — he was asked if he’d waited too long. He hesitated before answering, “Well, maybe.”

He then admitted his son “might’ve done it long before I did,” and when asked if Ford Jr. had a quicker trigger finger, he chuckled, “I think so.”

After Thursday, I think it’s safe to say his wife did, too.