Henning: Maybe this Ford can finally get it right

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Martha Firestone Ford reads her statement Thursday at Allen Park.

Allen Park – Martha Ford appears to have processed a simple truth that for 52 years eluded other family members.

The Lions have failed because never during the Fords' ownership have they had a skilled front office.

Other teams, virtually all of them, figured it out. The Lions invariably didn't.

Until now, anyway.

With an apparent decisiveness and, Lions fans hope, vision that hasn't been part of Detroit's pro football picture since the 1950s, Ford acted Thursday, firing team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.

What the Fords must know, and in fact seem to have finally gotten, is that hiring a GM who is shrewd at assessing and collecting personnel has been the failing that accounts for a single Lions playoff victory in 50-plus years.

Lions fire president Lewand, GM Mayhew

This isn't a complicated mission. It is simply that the Fords – the late William Clay and his son Bill Jr. – never were able to identify savvy personnel people who would have brought victories, hired coaches who weren't destined to be blamed and fired, and built rosters that would have succeeded in a league designed to make its teams competitive and, on occasion, champions.

It was, and always has been, about a front office. Like the Chicago Cubs who finally got it right when they hired GM Theo Epstein, the Lions have missed on the fundamental task of hiring a capable front office.

They have over the decades blown too many draft picks, signed too many free agents who didn't work out or make a difference, and invested too many dollars in too many individual players (an old rookie salary cap was a culprit here, no question), all of which are realities plenty of clubs absorbed minus the calamities that have so regularly visited Ford Field, the Silverdome, and dating to the days when Detroit's pro football team wove soap-opera seasons at Tiger Stadium.

William Clay Ford had a soft spot for old GM Russ Thomas. And the owner paid an exorbitant price from the '60s into the '90s for loyalty that wasn't deserved.

Bill Ford Jr. had, in theory, a potentially bright idea 14 years ago when he was given his way and decided a pro football heavyweight with Matt Millen's record as a player would be the answer when Millen was so knowledgeable of other NFL teams, coaches, scouts, players, etc.

Millen, though, lacked too many essential ingredients for a job so intricate. He was a smart football man and a charming chief, at least in the Fords' view. But his ultimate ill-fit blew up on the Lions and destroyed another decade of pro football in Detroit.

The Fords then compounded problems seven years ago in predictable fashion. They waited too long to fire Millen and even extended him.

Then, reviving an old family habit, they handed the job to incumbents and in-house people they liked: Lewand as president, and Mayhew, a Millen assistant, as the team's new GM.

And people wonder why this team hasn't for two generations been able to gain any kind of competitive beachhead, not on a sustained basis.

Martha Ford may in fact understand how close she now is to making the Lions elite. And they can be. They lack for nothing, and never have under the Fords' ownership, nothing material or financial, anyway.

All they have lacked is a general. Now, with the rest of the NFL world abundantly aware of what the Lions need and the bright lights who are there just salivating for this job in Allen Park, Martha Ford can allow a careful and comprehensive search to deliver her, and this town, NFL leadership.

Here's how easy it would have been seven years ago to do just that:

The Lions' history of blowing its front-office moves was detailed in a December 2008 Detroit News report. A list of high-voltage GM candidates was listed.

One of those names listed and whose biography was presented was an assistant GM who then worked for the Packers under the great front-office general Ron Wolf.

He waited, longingly, for the Lions to call for an interview.

They never did.

A year later, he was hired by another NFL club and has since created something of a dynasty.

He is John Schneider of the Seattle Seahawks. His success was no surprise.

Except, of course, to the Lions, who can't afford, again, to miss in 2015.