Now that Martha Ford has shaken the Detroit Lions at their foundation with last week’s firing of team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew, the question is, what’s next?
Ford owns one of the NFL’s sleeping giants. Her franchise has a long history and bountiful resources with the fortune made from the Ford Motor Company, but it also has been among the NFL’s worst teams since last winning a league title in 1957.
One place she might look for a football executive to turn around her team’s fortunes is to her NFC North Division rival in Green Bay. The Packers have been one of the NFL’s most successful franchises dating back to the early 1990s, and five scouts raised in their system are running NFL teams, including their current general manager, Ted Thompson.
Thompson has three high-ranking scouts who could be GM candidates this offseason or the not-too-distant future — Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith and Brian Gutekunst. The Packers also have a front-office executive in vice president of football administration Russ Ball who could be a candidate for Lions president.
The name that’s already drawn prominent mention in Detroit media is Wolf, the Packers’ director of player personnel and son of Ron Wolf, the GM who turned around the Packers’ fortunes starting in 1992. The Detroit Free Press in a story after the firings last week listed 10 potential candidates for the job, and Wolf’s was first. A high-ranking executive from another NFL team told me he could see the Lions looking to the Packers for their GM.
“When you have a divisional adversary who lives in Green Bay across Lake Michigan, why wouldn’t you go to try to strip some talent like that,” the executive said.
At age 33, Eliot Wolf is extraordinarily young for a GM candidate in the NFL, though his scouting experience belies his age. He filed his first scouting report as an intern for the Atlanta Falcons at age 14, worked scouting internships in the summers thereafter and graduated from college at the University of Miami (Fla.) in 3 1/2 years so he could begin work as a full-time pro scout for the Packers as a 21-year old in December 2003.
Whether an NFL team would be willing to hire someone as young as Wolf to run its football operations, who knows at this point? But there are precedents in other sports. Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein became GM of the Boston Red Sox at age 28 in 2002 and won the World Series in 2004.
“If you’re good enough you’re good enough, and if you’re not you’re not,” Ron Wolf said Thursday. “Will people want to take advantage (and hire Eliot)? He’s his own man, so he’ll do what he wants to do. But I would think (he’s old enough). He’s more than experienced enough. He runs that whole (personnel department) there now, so he has that understanding. That seems to be the way everyone is going these days, they want personnel people to pick up and run the thing. So I’d think he’s old enough.”
Of course, no one knows what Martha Ford is going to do.
The Lions’ 90-year-old matriarch reportedly is worth about $1.4 billion from marrying into the Ford Family and as granddaughter of the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
She took over the team after the death of her husband, William Clay Ford, in March 2014. According to the Free Press, she in 1 ½ years has marginalized the role of her son, Bill Ford Jr., whose main interest is the car company but as the Lions’ vice chairman had a strong voice in the organization when his father was alive.
Martha Ford’s primary advisers appear to be her second-oldest daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp; Sheila’s husband, Steve Hamp; and Rod Wood, the CEO of Ford Estate, which manages Ford family members’ investments.
Martha Ford reportedly has hired the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago to help with the hiring of her new president and GM. The question is how much power she and the team’s new president will cede to the next GM.
“I think it’s a very attractive job if they’ll give that individual (full) authority (over football),” said Bob Harlan, former Packers president and CEO. “They’ve got money obviously. I think it could be a very good job.”
Whoever gets it will face a huge task overturning a culture of losing that’s nearly 60 years in the making.
The Lions were one of the NFL’s best teams in the 1950s — in that decade they won two NFL championships and played in the title game a third time. But their last championship was in ‘57. Since then, their .427 winning percentage is worst among the 12 teams that were in the league at that time.
Going back to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the only team with a worse winning percentage than the Lions’ .411 is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.385), who entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1976.
And even since the NFL expanded most recently, in 2002, the Lions’ 70-146 record is the league’s worst.
It’s a given the new GM will be hiring a new coach, and he also might have to start over at quarterback, where former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford has failed to prove he can win consistently in the NFL. Much of the football side of the organization might need an overhaul as well.
That’s similar to the job Ron Wolf stepped into in November 1991 when he took over the Packers. From 1968 through 1991 the Packers had only four winning seasons in non-strike years, and the only teams with a worse winning percentage than their .423 over that time were expansion franchises Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Immediately after the 1991 season Wolf fired the coaching staff, and within a little more than two years he’d added five new scouts and replaced most of the medical and equipment staffs.
“When I got (to the Packers) I spent over a year with those guys before I determined who I was going to keep and who I was going to let go,” Wolf said. “So they had a chance to show me whether in my opinion they could or they couldn’t (do the job well).”
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