Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz are now reaping the fruits of Matt Millen's failure as general manager of the Lions. Millen created the perfect storm of ineptitude by piling on eight years worth of bad decisions which finally culminated in last year's disastrous 0-16 season. Now Mayhew and Schwartz are trying to rebuild amidst the aftermath. It's a wasteland as far as the eye can see. The tattered remnants of what was once an average roster now litters the halls of Allen Park. The stench permeates the league and no one in their right mind wants to wallow through muck to search for survivors. How do you rebuild amongst such devastation and failure? Well, management is finding out firsthand that it is no easy task.
As we watched the action from afar over the first few days of free agency, we have all come to realize the daunting task that Mayhew and Schwartz have in luring good talent to the lowly Lions. Players whom the Lions supposedly targeted were quickly gobbled up by better teams for sometimes less money. I guess this was to be expected, but with an excess of $40 million in cap space, the looming uncapped year in 2010 and the massive holes in the current roster, we expected more. Maybe one or two top-tier players that fit what the Lions were trying to do. But alas, it was not meant to be. Most of the top free agents are now signed and it seems that the Lions missed the boat to Redemption Island. But I'll tell you now... it only SEEMS that way.
You might be asking why there is any reason to be optimistic in what at first glance, appears to be a pretty glum free agency effort by Mayhew and Co.? First, let's not downplay the few moves that they have made. Their targets have been very specific. They are keying on players that are young, inexpensive, relatively risk-free and serve a particular purpose on the roster. They knew that they needed a compliment to Calvin Johnson and a back-up to Kevin Smith. So they immediately targeted players that fit those depth positions because they knew that they could find quality back-up players early and inexpensively. These players were easy to lure because other teams were focused on breaking the bank for the high profile players. So instead of wasting resources on trying to entice 30+ year old starters to an 0-16 team, they targeted some of the best second-tier, depth guys early and scored. In my humble opinion, this was a very smart move. No doubt this was frustrating to the fans, but grand scheme-wise... very smart.
The Lions did try to snag a few veterans in some key areas where the holes could not all be filled via the draft. The Dockery move fell apart as did the Ken Lucas trade. "A" for effort, but that doesn't put the players in the uniforms. This is where the repercussions of being the worst team in the league are truly felt. Regardless of who was running this team, the reality of being the worst organization is going to keep you from getting certain players. It is in these situations where a general manager can truly shine. This is where he makes or breaks his career. When the going gets tough, the tough get... creative!
This is what, so far, has set Mayhew apart from other Detroit GM's. He has a penchant for being creative. He pulls out a great trade for a veteran cornerback by moving a 38 year old quarterback we were going to cut anyway. Then we find out about the potential blockbuster trade that would've landed us Jay Cutler. Wow! Can you imagine if he had pulled that off? This is mind-blowing on several levels. First, Mayhew recognizes that Cutler is better than Cassel and that Cassel is a risk not worth taking at this point. Time may tell if that analysis was correct or not, but right now, it looks like a great decision. Second, it tells me that the Lions are perfectly fine not being pigeonholed into drafting Stafford with the first overall pick, BUT... recognize the need to upgrade over Culpepper and seem driven to find a player out there. This trade gone cold gives me the hope that Mayhew will do what it takes to get the RIGHT players on this team. He's shown restraint and patience as well as creativity and aggressiveness. I am truly impressed and indeed confident that this team will be built the right way this time.
Okay, so maybe I am the eternal optimist; the Joey-blue-skies of Lion's fandom. I can't help it. I like what I see right now. And what I see is a staff that is ready to build through the draft and not waste money like the Dan Snyder's and Jerry Jones' of the league. Those bank-buster deals look all shiny and pretty in March, but seldom does that approach work. Snyder has tried this again and again without success. Does handing $156 million to Haynesworth and Hall, two guys that stomp on the heads of other players and publicly call out their head coaches, respectively, sound like a good deal? Not to me. Mayhew's approach will take a few years, but there are no quick fixes with this Lions team. The band-aid approach is not acceptable. This team must be built on young, Detroit-drafted talent and smart, calculated free agent signings. This requires patience on behalf of management and fans alike.
I know that we Lion's fans have been burned so many times before that it's hard to buy into any routine or be optimistic about any strategy. Most of us felt this way last season as well. Maybe I'm just in need of another stint in Kool-Aid Rehab after swearing off the stuff for good last year. Who knows? But Mayhew's moves just seem smart to me. I hope for all our sakes that he gets it right this time.