It’s not often Detroit Lions fans are treated to a William Clay Ford press conference.
When the Lions owner, generally reclusive in nature, does step into the limelight, no matter how briefly, it’s difficult to determine what to take from it.
He says the right things for the most part.
He wants to win. The fans deserve better. Things are changing for the better. He’s the one accountable for the team.
And so on. He’s mending fences, at one of the two times per year he typically does so: when the season has gone down the tubes and he expresses mild disappointment (akin in severity to the disappointment expressed when one fails to win the lottery, only Ford plays with 1/32 odds every year), and now: the season ticket marketing blitz.
This year is no different. After the Lions started a heart-wrenching 0-3, and his own son, Bill Ford Jr., came out in the media saying Millen should be fired, Ford Sr. did just that within days, addressing the media appropriately. And then? Nothing, until now, the hot time for season ticket sales.
So obviously, Ford’s aim is to come out and inspire confidence in the fans that this team is going to make Detroit proud and win some games, right? Presumably, but many of his comments can be analyzed under different lenses to derive different conclusions.
He may be sincere. He certainly sounds like a nice enough old man, and he is at least verbally committed to keep the Lions in Detroit, despite the possibility of a stronger market elsewhere, particularly one that isn’t on the verge of total municipal collapse.
He could be offering some subterfuge, some clever words to cover up his ineptitude. He says he’s accountable, but what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean he owes the fans an apology after a few more 4-win seasons? Or is he going to do something about it?
Finally, he could just not really know what he’s saying. As fans have suggested for years, he could just be a man whose only qualification to own an NFL franchise is lots and lots of money. As nice of a person as he may be (which I hear all too often), he could just be stupid, ignorant to the ways of NFL ownership.
Honestly, I have no earthly idea which of the above three is the case… so the only thing left to do is to analyze his comments from every angle. You be the judge.
Ford on His Desire to Win
"I want it, I can promise you that."
"I thought it was horrible every time we’d lose. I’d go ‘Oh, geez.’"
"The thing I liked really (about Wednesday’s minicamp) was the player attitude. I mean, they’re going at it like, you know, we can win, which is great."
"Of course, [the fans] want us to win, and so do I — more than anything. But I think if they realize that we’re going to go down with our guns blazing, I think that’s a positive thing to have happen."
How to take this? He says he wants to win, but he doesn’t exactly seethe confidence.
So in this instance, Ford:
A) Really, truly wants to win, and though his "Oh, geez," at Lions losses may pale in comparison to a million fans’ stream of relentless obscenities at the field/TV screen, his commitment is nonetheless solid (albeit with a few bad decisions).
B) Wants everyone to think he cares, because when it’s obvious the owner doesn’t care, the tickets don’t sell. At the same time, he’s tempering expectations while sounding optimistic by effectively saying that he wants to win, but will settle for "going down with guns blazing," which is to say still losing, but competitively, perhaps in high-scoring games.
C) Has absolutely no idea what to expect, but vaguely knows that winning is a good thing, and has decided that’s something he wants to do. He also thinks it’s "great" that the players on the team "feel like, you know, they can win," in kind of the same way a grandparent thinks it’s great that his overweight grandson who can’t hit or catch tries out for the baseball team.
Ford on Lions Fans
"I feel so sorry for the fans of Detroit. I give them full marks for being loyal and showing up and we didn’t perform the way we should’ve performed or the way we could’ve performed. I really felt worse for them than I did for myself."
"For the guys who stuck through it, for the fans who stuck through it, I can’t tell you how great that makes you feel. For those who walked away, I couldn’t blame them. It really wasn’t much fun to watch."
"By and large, you pay attention to [fan criticism]. If there’s a noticeable decline in attendance and the comments are not favorable, you pay attention to it. As I’ve said, the fans are the ones we want to please out here."
Well, this is pretty straightforward stuff, right? Perhaps. Ford here feels like:
A) He has let the fans down, and for all the loyalty they have shown the team, he wants to turn this thing around and start winning again. He is grateful for those who have stuck with the team through both hard times for the Lions and Detroit itself.
B) It’s time to pay attention to fan criticism and act accordingly… but only now, because there’s been a noticeable decline in attendance. Maybe if he comes out and addresses the masses, then he can cure what ills the fanbase, like the Hand of God (of Ticket and Merchandise Sales).
C) The fans don’t seem to like him too much. Why is that? Oh well, the ones still hanging around make him feel warm and squishy inside, and that’s all that really matters.
Ford on Why Things are Different Now
"Well, this is going to sound a little egotistical, and maybe it is, but because [hiring GM Martin Mayhew, President Tom Lewand, and Head Coach Jim Schwartz] was solely my decision."
"It wasn’t … not bicker, but arguments that [Ford and Matt Millen] might have had in the past — if that’s the right word. Maybe it’s a little strong, but it was a difference of opinion that we’d had in the past."
"Everything’s different, including our front office personnel here[...] The head coach is different. The whole thing’s just a new setup."
Ok, then. If you’re like me, the part about him making decisions on his own is frightening. The man has owned the club since 1964, so you mean to tell me he’s never made a decision in 45 years, and now that he is, things are going to get better?
Enough poisoning the well, try to figure out if Ford:
A) Is really serious about this, and his hiring decisions are now solely his own, which could make a huge difference, because he wasn’t really high on hiring Rod Marinelli or Steve Mariucci… or even Millen himself.
B) Is throwing Millen under the bus, by effectively deeming him not only responsible for the Lions’ recent shortcomings, but also a tyrant who made his own decisions without consultation. And he didn’t want to hire him, some serpent’s tongue in his ear told him to. Not a terrible stretch, but it sure sounds like deflection of blame.
C) Thinks that even though he hired Millen, the guys he hired after Millen, who worked under Millen, will be better than Millen, because he picked them all by himself. That’s why, when Commissioner Goodell called and asked if he wanted help restructuring, providing a list of available football execs, Ford’s response was, "no thanks, I’ve already got my guys."
Ford on Accountability
"If Jim Schwartz doesn’t work out, you can blame me 100 percent. I just have confidence in him."
"Starting with Jim and on out, as far as my livelihood goes, I’m going to shoulder the responsibility for any mistakes we made. I don’t mean every play or stuff like that, but if things go sour and the fans turn against us, I’ve got nobody to blame but me, and I’m aware of that. That’s a nice challenge to have. I’m going to try to keep them happy in bad times."
You know what Ford’s saying here, but is he thinking:
A) After Millen painted himself as a scapegoat in the media, the fans need someone to be accountable for their franchise, and I’ll step up and be that guy, so if the team flops this time, they know just who to point to. If they have to deal with a bad football team, they should at least know whose fault it is.
B) The fans are looking for someone to blame? Millen’s acting like a scapegoat? Fine, might as well say it’s my fault. What are they going to do, anyway? It’s not like they can force me to sell the team. Sure, I’m accountable for the team that I own and can do whatever I want with, wonderful.
C) Maybe if I say I’m accountable "from here on out," I can get people to forget the fact that I’m also accountable for the last 45 years I’ve owned the team, too.
Now, let's check your results.
If you said mostly A’s, you think Ford is a sincere old man, who has been misguided in the past, but is making a real effort to right the wrongs now, because that’s what good, loyal Lions fans deserve.
If you said mostly B’s, you think Ford is effectively a sinspawn, brought to this earth for the sole purpose of running car companies and NFL franchises into the ground, embarrassing the state of Michigan in both cases.
If you said mostly C’s, you don’t really think Ford is a bad guy, he’s just not a good owner, and doesn’t quite know what to do with his team. To the extent that he thinks, he thinks he’s doing right by the fans, but it could also be that he is just spouting off with no idea what he’s actually talking about.
If you think all the answers have a little truth to them, then you think Ford is a guy who sincerely wants the Lions to win, but also… and perhaps even more so… sincerely wants to sell tickets and make money off his franchise. And he has absolutely no clue at all how to address either issue.
And you’re probably right.
Dean Holden is the "Voice of the Lions" on NFLTouchdown.com. Check it out for in-depth analysis on the Lions and all 31 other NFL teams.