Despite the fact that everything is in place for the Detroit Lions to make a bold move upward in the National Football League -- Ford Field is the best stadium in the NFL, the fan base is and has always been there, they have great financial support from the Ford family and Ford Motor Company -- there is no guarantee that they will move upward at all, in fact the team could fall to depths never previously seen.
The reason is the leadership, or lack of it, at the very top of the franchise. The fact that this organization could go either way over the next year or so is evidence of how important the next decision the Ford family makes really is.
The question is will the Lions become the Cincinnati Bengals or the San Francisco 49'ers?
You know what the Cincinnati Bengals are; a hapless franchise that has not had a winning season since 1990. It all coincides with the day Mike Brown, son of the legendary Paul Brown, took over the franchise as President and General Manager.
You also know what the San Francisco 49'ers are. After finding themselves hamstrung by the NFL's salary cap rules, the 49'ers tore it all down and rebuilt themselves on the fly.
Sure, they suffered back-to-back losing seasons (4-12 in 1999 and 6-10 in 2000) but since that time, the 49'ers struck gold with a 12-4 season last year, and are 7-4 so far this year.
The return to prominence of the 49'ers all coincides with the day the legendary Bill Walsh returned for a second tour of duty as vice-president and general manager of the franchise in 1999.
Walsh had previously rebuilt the franchise upon his first arrival in 1979. Over a period from 1979-1988, Walsh led the 49'ers to 10-straight winning seasons (1983-92) and three Super Bowl championships (1981, '84 and '88).
The Ford's will have to decide if their President and General Manager Matt Millen is Mike Brown or Bill Walsh.
The area that Millen has had the most impact on as General Manager of the team is in acquisition of veteran talent.
Despite the fact that Detroit has very capable pro-personnel director Sheldon White on its staff, Millen has virtually made every major decision when it came to which free agents to sign and which to let go.
Millen quickly jettisoned older veterans like Mike Compton, Allen Aldridge, James Jones, Herman Moore and Kurt Schulz. Some were lost to injury like linebacker Stephen Boyd and safety Ron Rice. It was also easy for Millen to release underachieving players from the previous regime like Bryant Westbrook and Aaron Gibson. But then, Millen went further with very questionable decisions on players like Charlie Batch, Terry Fair, Johnnie Morton, David Sloan and Jeff Hartings.
With that much of the core departing, who would replace them as key players in the lineup?
Joey Harrington was Detroit's first round pick, but Millen argued for keeping 6th round pick Mike McMahon as the starter and taking Quentin Jammer, who's struggled for the San Diego Chargers.
Millen felt acquiring un-sure handed Bill Schroeder for Johnnie Morton would be a personnel 'win.' Moore would be replaced with speedy Az-Zahir Hakim. Former pro-bowler Sloan would be replaced with career backup Mikhael Ricks, Hartings with journeyman Brenden Stai.
After Stai flopped in his one-year tenure with the team, he was traded to the Washington Redskins for a conditional draft pick, a move that cost the Lions dearly in salary cap dead money. 39-year old Ray Brown is now in Stai's position.
The results of Millen's moves have been a resounding thud. Detroit went 2-14, depths not seen on this franchise since 1979. Currently, Detroit is 3-9 and it is anybody's guess where Detroit will finish this season. The one saving grace of the Millen regime has been the success of director of personnel Bill Tobin.
Tobin's drafts have yielded several success stories. Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola are both starters, Kalimba Edwards appears to be penciled in as a started next season. Sixth round pick Chris Cash has been a steal and 3rd rounder Andre Goodman is progressing steadily. Joey Harrington is the quarterback of the future.
In fact, Tobin's drafts look as successful as the 2000 draft of San Francisco, which yielded 11 players, and five starters including 6th round pick Tai Streets of Michigan.
Meanwhile, Millen's free agent moves more closely resemble those of Brown. Brown signed wide-receiver Michael Westbrook, quarterback Gus Frerotte, cornerback Jeff Burris and re-signed their own Artrell Hawkins. The results? The Bengals struggled to get their first win of the season against expansion Houston. Cincy stands at 1-10, expansion Houston, in their first season, is 3-8.
This is not about Marty Mornhinweg. That's a subject for another day. This is about the direction at the top of the franchise. No team can win with poor or inept leadership at the top. Some are even questioning Ford Mr.'s ability to lead and his lack of visibility in the midst of yet another losing streak.
Anyone can tear a franchise apart; it takes real skill and know-how to build it into a winner.
Mike Brown of Cincinnati is the best example of how to tear it apart. Cincinnati is the only NFL team (save expansion Houston) not to make the playoffs in the last ten years. Bill Walsh is the best example of how to build it up. Ten straight winning season and three Super Bowl championships is evidence of that.
To their credit, Detroit has some of the pieces in place to be successful. Tobin with the draft, White with pro personnel, perhaps even Mornhinweg as head coach. However, if Millen overrides their best recommendations and continues to make questionable and bad decisions combined with outrageous and detrimental comments, the franchise will be doomed to failure.
The next turn in the road for Detroit is the most important one they will make in the franchises recent history.
Will Detroit become Cincinnati or San Francisco?
Mr. Ford, the choice is yours.