Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC North [Print without images]

Thursday, December 18, 2008
Fixing the Lions

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

So the Lions are two games away from infamy. Exactly 120 minutes of football time separate them from a perfectly awful 0-16 season. It's one record no NFL team wants to reach, and we're here to help.
More on lousy Lions
•  Merrill: Lions, city struggle
•  Jemele Hill: Go for 0-16!
•  Scouts: 10 Lions to keep
•  Wickersham: Honolulu Blueprint
•  Watch: Fantasy vs. reality
•  Football Today: Lions talk

As part of ESPN.com's Thursday Hot Read on the topic, we hereby offer 16 suggestions for fixing the Lions:

1. Dispatch the denial. Stop counting the near-misses and lamenting the "few plays here and there." Admit you're broken in a fundamental way. With few exceptions, the NFL's competitive model puts most teams relatively close to one another. There's a reason you hear so much about "any given Sunday." For one team to start 0-14, and lose 21 of its past 22 games, indicates an overhaul -- not a tweak -- is necessary.

2. Start at the top. No one knows exactly how the Lions' ownership runs the team. But we got a glimpse this season when vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. publicly campaigned for the firing of president/general manager Matt Millen. Two days later, chairman William Clay Ford did the deed. All indications are that the elder Ford continues to wield final say, but it's time for Ford Jr. -- whose judgment on Millen far surpassed his father's -- to take over.
Leon Halip/US Presswire
Rod Marinelli has a 10-36 record in his three seasons in Detroit.

3. Put Rod Marinelli out of his misery. Marinelli might be a good football coach, but no one can lose so many games in a such a short period while maintaining credibility inside or outside the organization. I know, Marinelli hasn't been blessed with the NFL's best personnel. But it's hard to convince anyone you're moving forward with a coach who has lost 36 of 46 games over a three-year tenure.

4. Before hiring the next head coach, settle on a front-office structure that provides checks and balances to avoid a repeat of the unchallenged mistakes Millen routinely made. Most people assume that chief operating officer Tom Lewand will retain a prominent business role, which is fine. On the football side, however, the Lions need a general manager and coach tandem that understands each other's philosophies and will consider contradictory thoughts. The current model is in Atlanta, where general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith are said to work exceptionally well together.

5. Thank interim general manager Martin Mayhew for his eye-opening work after replacing Millen. And then send him on his way. This is in no way a comment on Mayhew, who in other circumstances would make a fine general manager for the Lions. But remember our general premise: This is not an organization that needs tweaking. It needs to be rebuilt in a big-picture sense. You can't convince your fan base, free agents or even coaching candidates that you're making fundamental changes if Millen's top assistant replaces him -- no matter who it is.

6. Throw a bone to fans -- not a gimmick or a marketing slogan, but something that genuinely invites their interest. A 10 percent cut in ticket prices might be a start. Or, perhaps, a real barnstorming tour that allows fans to ask unedited questions of the Lions' football decision-makers over the course of the season. Transparency and honesty during the rebuilding process, while not comfortable, will help re-connect to a fan base that has lost faith in the team's ability to operate effectively.

7. Rebuild both lines. The Lions, especially on defense, get pushed around on the line of scrimmage far too often for an NFL team. It's the most basic requirement in football: You must be able to move people out of your way. The Lions can't, at least not often enough. (Evidence: They rank No. 32 in the NFL in rush defense and No. 31 in rush offense). This is a difficult task and could take several drafts to complete. But if they focus on nothing else, the Lions must address this physical mismatch.
Tom Pigeon/Getty Images
Charles Rogers is just one example of a Detroit first-round draft pick who didn't pan out.

8. Because they need such a talent influx on the line and elsewhere, the Lions should trade down in the 2009 draft and perhaps in 2010 as well. For now, focus on numbers rather than blue-chip possibilities. Trades don't happen too often at the highest levels of the draft, but the expected class of 2009 quarterbacks should entice someone to make a deal.

9. Establish a practice of drafting safely at the top end of the draft and take your risks in lower rounds. The Lions are a case study in the impact of missing consistently with high, and at times, risky draft choices. (See Rogers, Charles; Harrington, Joey; and Williams, Mike). If you have the proverbial choice between Jake Long and Darren McFadden, take Long. No need to swing for the fence when average is a big improvement.

10. Resist the temptation to draft a blue-chip quarte
rback immediately.
The Lions are a year or more away from being the 2008 Falcons, who selected Matt Ryan No. 3 overall and inserted him immediately into what surprisingly turned out to be a playoff-caliber lineup. They should use their picks to create a good environment for any young quarterback they eventually draft. These days, teams can't draft a blue-chip quarterback and sit him on the bench for three years. And remember, for every Ryan there is a Harrington.

11. To that end, sift quickly through the Lions' five-man quarterback roster to determine if they have anyone capable of bridging the position for a few years. Both Daunte Culpepper and Dan Orlovsky could fit that role. Having a veteran quarterback on a young team can help everybody move forward.

12. Search for a centrist philosophy. Don't try to build a fan-friendly, dome-oriented team based purely on speed. Yes, the Lions will play at least nine games every year indoors -- their home schedule and once at Minnesota. But there are too many instances in the NFC North where power trumps speed. To be a consistent winner, an NFC North team must have the speed and precision to win indoors and the power and toughness to play in Green Bay and Chicago during times of poor footing and/or bad weather.
Leon Halip/US Presswire
Finding a complement to Calvin Johnson should be a priority for the Lions.

13. Do whatever it takes to keep place-kicker Jason Hanson in Detroit as long you can. Hanson is the NFL's best long-distance kicker and is an invaluable weapon for an offense that figures to be in development for a while. With Hanson, the Lions are in realistic scoring position every time they get inside the 40-yard line. He'll do his part to make sure they squeeze every point they can from their drives.

14. Make it a priority to find a capable No. 2 receiver opposite of Calvin Johnson. We've seen how Johnson can beat a double team by simply reaching over smaller defenders. But the Lions could benefit more from that double coverage. A competent No. 2 receiver, or even a top pass-catching tight end, could clean up while playing next to Johnson. A good coach could build his offense around the idea that he'll always have a mismatch somewhere in the passing game.

15. Evaluate any structural changes that can make Ford Field a better home-field advantage. Even when the Lions are playing well, the place is pretty quiet for a dome. That could be mere hesitation from fans, or it could be the function of an acoustically-challenged building with a high roof. Can anything relatively affordable be done to make Ford Field louder? It's probably worth an architect's fee.

16. Whatever you do, keep Theo Spight on the payroll. Mr. Spight is the gentleman who sings the most rousing fight song ("Gridiron Heroes") in the NFL. (Forward down the field/A charging team that will not yield...) It's currently the best thing about visiting Ford Field.