Martin Mayhew Must Go


Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Another listless loss leaves the Detroit Lions at 1-6, another lost season at Ford Field. After the 11-5 outburst and playoff near-win in January, this was supposed to be the year of pride, the roar restored to levels not seen since Bobby Layne’s heyday. Instead, the derogative Same Old Lions have roared back to dismal reality.

The man primarily responsible for assembling these Lions is General Manager Martin Mayhew. Now in his seventh full season as the franchise architect, Mayhew’s relative failure is too glaring to excuse any longer.

I’m reminded of a lyric from Dream Theater’s Prophets of War

"Is it time to make a change? Are we closer than before?"

The context of that song is George W. Bush and the Iraqi invasion, which wasn’t exactly playing out as those responsible for it envisioned. While the Lions aren’t the literal life and death proposition of that political football, the underlying question is pertinent. And the answer is a resounding “No”.

It’s not that Mayhew has been terrible. He’s not Matt Millen, not even close to that level of ineptitude. If anything, Mayhew is snake-bitten by bad luck impacting what appeared to be good decisions.

Take the offensive line. Mayhew has prominently addressed the front five with significant draft capital, acting on the theory that offensive success starts up front. That’s a sound philosophy. Perhaps a bit antiquated in a bubble, but a good line should bolster the ability of the skill position players.

Here is the Lions line from left to right:

  • Riley Reiff, first round 2012
  • Laken Tominson, first round 2015
  • Travis Swanson, third round 2014
  • Larry Warford, third round 2013
  • Revolving door, undrafted free agents in 2013 and 2014

Four of the five starters come from the first three rounds of the draft in the last four years. That is a significant investment. Only Dallas, with three first-rounders in four years, and Cleveland with four first or second-rounders starting up front have done more to try and build a dominating front.

Reiff is an average left tackle, a perfect extension of the man he succeeded in Jeff Backus. Warford was fantastic as a rookie, but the Pro Bowl promise has faded with injuries and a terrible schematic misfit for his skills. LaAdrian Waddle, the nominal starter at right tackle, has followed a similar course, outstanding as an undrafted rookie, an injury-ravaged disappointment since. The book is not yet written for Swanson and Tomlinson, both first-year starters, but the early returns are not positive; Swanson has earned a Pro Football Focus grade of -12.2, Tomlinson -7.1 through seven games. Debate the merits of PFF’s scoring if you will, but their positional rankings of 30th (of 34) and 64th (of 80) accurately reflect their play so far. 

Next: Detroit Lions: This is the End

Running back is another position where Mayhew has made what seemed like smart, prudent decisions at the time only to see them blow up in his face. Trading up in the 2010 draft to select Jahvid Best addressed a glaring need for a home run hitter with speed out of the backfield. Best paid immediate dividends. Detroit actually won 9 of 10 spanning the end of his rookie campaign and the first six games of 2011. Then Best got hurt, as he had in college, and ultimately never played again.

Mikel Leshoure. Second round pick in 2011, selected as a perfect stylistic complement to Best. Tore his Achilles and never got his burst back. Reggie Bush. Prime free agent signing in 2013, acquired to fill the void left from Best’s unfortunate (but predictable) concussion issues. Rushed for 100 yards three times in two seasons, none in a dismal 2014 where he averaged 3.9 yards per carry and had more drops (5) than plays gaining 20 or more yards (4). He limped off the field with various maladies more often than quantifiable.

Both Leshoure and Bush were good ideas and greeted pretty widely as smart choices, but just didn’t work out. The same appears true with 2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, a nifty weapon but one who simply cannot hang onto the ball.

It’s not that Mayhew has been terrible. He’s not Matt Millen, not even close to that level of ineptitude. If anything, Mayhew is snake-bitten by bad luck impacting what appeared to be good decisions.

His choice in coaches is what will ultimately doom Mayhew in the end, however. Jim Schwartz was the right man for the job when the team was 0-16. It’s easy to forget that now with the hindsight of how out of control his tenure spiraled, but initially Schwartz was a strong hire. Mayhew, with obvious direction from above, held onto the prickly know-it-all one season too long. Schwartz was the tow truck driver necessary to get the Lions out of the winless ditch, but he wasn’t the mechanic needed to restore the team into competitive racing form. He should have been fired after 2012.

Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

General Managers typically get a second chance with coaching hires. As with Schwartz and so many other of his decisions, immediate payoffs quickly dulled into catastrophic disrepair. Caldwell’s seeming lack of a pulse was initially a welcome change from the bombastic Schwartz, but once the team acclimated and needed a strong presence to maintain momentum, Caldwell was clearly in over his head. His refusal to do anything to the schematically ridiculous offense authored by Joe Lombardi is gross negligence. Not firing Lombardi is understandable; Caldwell is renowned for his loyalty. But not implementing tweaks other than moving the Offensive Coordinator upstairs on game days is a sign the Head Coach doesn’t understand why his team is 1-6 going on 3-13.

There is way too much talent on the offense for the struggles to be so obvious. If Caldwell won’t shake things up, and he clearly will not, it is incumbent upon Mayhew–his boss–to either force his hand or make changes himself. Mayhew is responsible for acquiring Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron and friends, and they are indeed an impressive collection of skill players.

Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The investment in them is astronomical. Johnson is due over $44 million in cap charges the next two seasons thanks in part to Mayhew and Team President Tom Lewand (who must be axed too) overestimating the wideout market. They set the market and they guessed too high. They did the same with Stafford’s extension, to a lesser severity. Mayhew painted himself into a corner with Ndamukong Suh and got caught sniffing the fumes as Suh departed. He has publicly admitted he botched that situation. The mea culpa is respectable but it doesn’t change the fact Mayhew and Lewand have mishandled too many contractual and roster issues.

Back to Dream Theater, a band that knows something about making a very difficult change and coming out even stronger on the other side…

"It’s time to make a change?Time for changeFight the fear, find the truthTime for change"

It’s time, Mrs. Ford. Time to make the change. Don’t be afraid. It’s time.