Watch those catchy Chrysler television commercials heralding the rebirth of the Motor City — you know, the "imported from Detroit" series with the Eminem vibe, and Ndamukong Suh pulling up in front of his mom's house with his sparkling, fresh wheels — and it's hard not to make the connection to the Lions.
Not to slight the Tigers, who as this column was being written, were only one win shy of advancing to the American League Championship Series. But it's probably the resurgent Lions, winners of eight straight games dating to the final month of the 2010 season, who likely best embody Detroit's nascent renaissance.
And while ol' buddy Jim Schwartz should command plenty of deserved accolades for staying the coaching course, and never really wavering from his ethic and his beliefs, Mayhew has earned his share of the credit.
Maybe, pardon the intended pun, the Lions' share.
"It's a different feeling," allowed center Dominic Raiola, one of the team's relative graybeards, after Detroit's improbable comeback victory at Dallas on Sunday. "But I think you could see it building for a while."
And it's Mayhew, who hasn't yet been on the job four full years, who cemented most of the building blocks in place.
Yeah, give a nod of sorts to Mayhew's predecessor, Matt Millen, who presided over one of the most futile periods of NFL history, but whose first No. 1 pick (Jeff Backus) and last one (Gosder Cherilus) comprise Detroit's bookend offensive tackles. And it's impossible to ignore Millen's penultimate first-rounder, Calvin Johnson, perhaps the NFL's premier wide receiver. But Millen missed on five first-round choices, none of whom are with the team anymore, and two of whom are out of football. And that left a big hole in the Lions' roster.
Mayhew has not only drafted well, but has used the other methods available to him for acquiring talent (including 20 trades) to construct a solid roster. That is not to suggest Detroit is a finished product by any means — the Lions have to run the ball a lot better, for instance — but it's not by accident that the team is the first club in NFL history to overcome 20-point deficits in consecutive weeks.
Said Backus: "We've developed some character here."
The Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980. It bears mention that the last time the franchise started a season 4-0, with Monte Clark as coach, the Lions finished just 9-7 and out of the playoffs. But there is a sense that this edition of the Lions has more staying power and is a viable playoff threat.
Over the previous 10 seasons, Detroit averaged a measly 3.9 victories. Five times in that stretch, the Lions won three or fewer games. Not since 2000 have the Lions had a winning campaign.
As noted earlier, Johnson, who has multiple touchdown outings in each of the first four games, is special. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has one of the most facile arms this columnist has ever seen, has stayed healthy. And the defense, which has been Schwartz's area of expertise, is tough and suddenly opportunistic.
It would be easy to surmise that the success of the Lions starts with Stafford and Suh, at least nominally the leaders of the offense and defense, respectively. But again, no one should dismiss the work Mayhew has accomplished in resurrecting the once-proud franchise from the NFL scrap heap. In speaking with rival general managers or personnel men around the league early this week, Mayhew's name, and admiration for the work he has accomplished, came up often.
And he has done it — not just in terms of rebuilding the Lions, but also in acquiring the kind of background necessary for such an architectural undertaking — the right way. Mayhew, 45, played nine seasons in the NFL, so he has a pretty good sense for what it takes to be a winner. But he also began his post-football career at the entry level, as a personnel intern in Washington, and worked his way up.
In the business world, it might be the equivalent of the guy going from the mail room to the executive penthouse. There were no short-cuts for Mayhew along the way. He wasn't fast-tracked to the top. There were no bail-outs.
But at every step of the way in his climb up the football management ladder, he apparently learned his lessons well, and now Mayhew has a shot at the top rung.
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