Lions Look: A Tale of Two Fords

By Curtis Clayton
Oct. 06, 2019

As the Detroit Lions enjoy their bye week and prepare for their Monday Night matchup in Green Bay to face the Packers, this weekly entry by your humble scribe is going to delve into some painful realities about this franchise, but also provide that hope that the present and future are something to be excited for.

First, we begin with a proclamation that many of the Lions faithful probably instinctively know, and that is Detroit Lions are the worst franchise, at least in terms of wins and losses, in the National Football League. The numbers, as they say, do not lie. The 317-439-4 overall regular season record (.420 winning percentage) since the 1970 merger is the worst among non-expansion franchises. Their 1-12 playoff record is far and away the worst. To illustrate this point, the Houston Texans, who began in 2002, have 3 postseason wins in 5 trips. The next lowest number of playoff victories amongst NFC teams is the Arizona Cardinals, who have 6 out of 8 playoff berths. The Lions also have won the fewest division titles in nearly 50 years with 3 (1983, 1991, & 1993). Only the New York Jets have fewer with 2 and are tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars, by the way, began play in 1995. The next lowest total amount of division championships in the NFC are the Cardinals with 5. Over the years, they been dominated by all their divisional rivals to the point that fans of the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings consider their series of games against Detroit as a rivalry to be polite, if recognized at all. Most others in the league often mark W's on their own team's schedules when the Lions appear, and they would be right 58% of the time. And wins where the Lions traveled to those games were near locks, as their road record since the merger (116-261-3, .309 winning percentage) only tops the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions would set two road losing streak records, 2001-03 (24) & 2007-10 (26). And speaking of losing streaks, the Lions claim to fame among this generation of football fans is the 2008 team becoming the first to go winless in a season since the NFL expanded the regular season to 16 games. As the NFL has grown in its size and scope in American popular culture, the Detroit Lions have largely remained irrelevant except for their annual Thanksgiving Day game.

So where does the blame for such a long period of outright misery lie? With the only constant throughout this stretch: William Clay Ford.

Ford became majority owner in 1963 when a fight between two majority owners of the Lions at the time were battling for control, and Ford bought out the remaining team shareholders, which was more than 100. The board ratified Ford's purchase of majority ownership on November 22, 1963. That date may sound familiar, as that was the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (if there ever a bad omen...). Ford's first year as majority owner would be in 1964, where the Lions would go 7-5-2, a decent fourth in the West division, but they would not be able to build upon it, as they would be a middling team for the balance of the '60's. In 1970, with the new look NFL was merged with their once bitter rival, the American Football League, the Lions would post a 10-4 regular season, good enough for second place in the newly formed National Football Conference Central Division. But instead of being dismissed from the postseason as would have normally been the case, Detroit was the beneficiary of a new concept called the wild card, an at-large playoff berth awarded to the team with the best record in a conference that did not win a division. This concept would be expanded in later years, but the Lions were the first NFC wild card qualifier. They would face the Dallas Cowboys, a 10-4 club that would get this matchup because of the league's custom to rotate playoff home games between division winners instead of based on regular season record and a rule that forbade teams in the same division to face one another outside of the conference championship game. The Lions would lose to the Cowboys by the baseballesque score of 5-0. The Lions would only play past the regular season two more times (1982 & 1983) in that twenty year span. In 1991, the Lions would win 12 games in a season, a franchise record. They would also win the NFC Central title, their second one, and earn a first round bye in the NFC side of the playoff bracket. That would be a factor in their 38-6 triumph over the Cowboys, but were soundly beaten by the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, 41-10. While the Lions would earn playoff berths 5 times in the remaining 8 years of the 1990's, they would be sent home in the wild card round every single time. The 2000's, simply referred to as the Matt Millen era (the former linebacker turned broadcast analyst turned Lions president and general manager), was the Dark Ages for this franchise as they struggled to compete against their NFL peers. This would turn the Lions into a laughingstock, the butt of many jokes. And that seemed to continue even after Millen was fired early in the infamous 2008 campaign, as Ford hired former assistant GM Martin Mayhew and promoted chief operating officer Tom Lewand to the role of president. For a franchise in dire need of a thorough housecleaning, Ford was content with a light dusting.

And how Ford handled the aftermath of that ignominious winless season was a microcosm of his five decades of stewardship of the Detroit Lions. While he may have desired to have a winning franchise, the methods he employed along with his detachment from all other parts of the organization gave the impression that he was dispassionate about the Lions on field results, essentially running them as a public trust. The people he hired were as what one would consider qualified: knowledgeable about the product while being an individual of fine character. What was lost on Ford was the fact that the NFL is a results based business. No matter how one feels about their subordinates, they must be let go if cannot perform the job at an expected level. Had the Lions been successful, then this entire narrative surrounding both the owner and the franchise gets turned on its head. The continuous losing and long droughts between playoff appearances wore fans patience completely out. For the entirety of Ford's tenure as owner, the Lions were close to a championship once. They would be looking up at their divisional rivals practically every single season. The Lions would never be taken seriously as anything other than fodder for their opposition, whether it was an opponent on Sunday or competing in the NFC Central (now rebranded the NFC North after realignment in 2002) in the standings. Lions fans, who have been the most loyal amidst having so little to be proud, carry a compartmentalized relationship with this club; many love the team, love the players, love their fellow fans, but despise the owner. This complicated relationship would come to an end once Ford passed away on March 9, 2014.

The Lions would enter a new era when Martha Firestone Ford would assume the mantle of ownership after her husband's passing. For those remaining bitter over William Clay Ford, this would be a continuation of the same mediocrity. However, Mrs. Ford has been conducting business in a way that can be seen in a more optimistic light. Yes, their divisional championship (25 years) and playoff victory (27 years) droughts still persist. But in five complete season under Mrs. Ford's watch, the Lions have posted 3 winning seasons and qualified twice for the playoffs. They have posted a decent 42-38 overall record entering 2019. It may not be the desired outcome for the hardcore Lions fan, but it is not an embarrassment, either.

But unlike her husband, she has employed people to assist in building the team instead of going it alone. She hired the highly respected Ernie Accorsi as a consultant and utilized a league assembled commission to recommend general manager candidates after dismissing Mayhew in 2015. That recommendation led to the hire of Patriots pro scouting director Bob Quinn as GM. That in turn would lead to the hiring of Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach in 2018. Does it guarantee that the Lions will finally turn it around and become factors in the NFC? Absolutely not, but at the very least, Mrs. Ford is making a concerted effort while remaining objective in the process of building the Lions into a sustained winner. The brain trust of Quinn and Patricia may be the tag team to bring gridiron glory to the Motor City, but they may not. Only time will tell to see if they can.

Martha Firestone Ford wants to accomplish something her late husband was unable to do, and that was make the Detroit Lions into a winning franchise. William Clay Ford tried to run his football organization like Ford Motor Company; hire good people who have knowledge and let them work. The results were never there. Mrs. Ford made the smart decision to hire people who were more knowledgable about football matters. Smart decisions from the top are the foundation of winning cultures in professional football. Let's hope for all our sake as loyal members of The Pride that trend continues.