Losing is never fun. As Lions fans, we’ve had our share of not fun over the years, but no time was more dark than the 7 year stretch that Matt Millen was the General Manager of the Lions. Thought to be the worst tenure of any General Manager ever, Millen brought nothing to the table and yet somehow left with even less. Millen created a team that had the worst season in NFL history, and a roster that took years to repair. That the Lions only just now fixed the last of Millen’s bad contracts (Stafford was a result of the 2008 season) in 2013 speaks volumes of just how much damage that many years of mismanagement can do. Now, you didn’t come here to revisit the time under Millen, so I’ll stop reminiscing about how terrible it was. Instead, I’m going to address a common theme amongst distraught Lions fans over the past four years, one that has come to the forefront after the Lions disastrous 4-12 season. Is Martin Mayhew just as bad as Millen? If you’re not one of those that think so, you’ve heard them. “Little Millen” he’s called. MM2. Millen Jr.
It’s fairly simple, really. Martin Mayhew was hired by the Lions in 2001, at the same time as the other guy. It wasn’t until 2004 that he became assistant GM, as before that he worked solely in administration. Since Mayhew worked in personnel, and as the assistant GM, many fans think he was part of the problem, and as much of a reason for the Lions’ failures as Millen. There are several flaws in that logic, which I’ll get to in a minute, so to address it just on the surface it is a valid concern that Mayhew was present throughout Millen’s tenure. Often referred to in hindsight as Millen’s “right hand man”, Mayhew was not a popular choice when he was selected as Interim and eventual full time General Manager largely because of this perception.
The biggest and most glaring difference between Millen and Mayhew is how much control they have. The Lions were not the smoothest or most wisely ran organization in the NFL prior to Millen, and it was former Head Coach Gary Moeller that Millen replaced. Moeller held all the power in Detroit very briefly (as in 0 offseasons) after taking over for the previous Head Coach Bobby Ross who had retired….
Okay, so maybe some back history first. The Lions didn’t have a General Manager from 1989 to 2001. In that time, all power and all decisions were made by the Head Coach, which over that span was in the form of Wayne Fontes and then Bobby Ross. With the team sputtering along under Ross, they made what should have been a highly lauded and intelligent decision to bring in someone to take over personnel operations and shift some of the responsibilities away from Ross (Whose job was already on the line). Then Barry Sanders retired. So Bobby Ross, sensing his job was already on the line with someone being brought in specifically to take power away from him, suddenly retired. Fans were elated. A poor coach was let go and the Lions were finally taking steps to turn the team into a well run franchise! There were even rumors that Sanders would come out of retirement with Ross gone, though those were quickly squashed. Things were looking up! Oh, did I mention that personnel man that was brought in was former Linebacker and color commentator Matt Millen? Then the Lions made the choice to sign Linebackers coach and horrible failure as HC Gary Moeller to a multi year contract. So much for becoming a well run franchise. Millen was hired as General Manager and Team President, he endorsed the hiring of Moeller, and a short time later was endorsing another Head Coach (a sign of things to come) to a five year deal. Fast forward to 2008 and the Lions had amassed a record of 31-84 under Millen, largely considered the worst tenure by any GM for any sport ever. The Lions hired Tom Lewand as Team President , Martin Mayhew as General Manager, and Head Coach Rod Marinelli was allowed to finish the worst season in the history of football before a complete sweep of the coaching staff was made.
Thanks for the stroll down Things We’d Rather Forget Lane. Do you have a point?
Yes. The important thing to note here was the signing of Tom Lewand as Team President, a position the Lions General Manager held under Millen and the Head Coaches held prior to that. Millen had first and final say on EVERYTHING the Lions did, from hiring the coaching staff, to scouting, to every personnel decision. Martin Mayhew doesn’t have such power. When the Lions searched for and eventually hired a new Head Coach in Jim Schwartz, it was LEWAND, not Mayhew, who made that decision, though he did so with input from Mayhew. When it was time to hire Coordinators, it was Head Coach Jim Schwartz that made those decisions when Cunningham was signed on as Defensive Coordinator, signalling that Lewand had made the decision to hire his HC and let him build his own staff. It was Schwartz again when Scot Linehan was hired as Offensive Coordinator. The coaching decisions, in other words, are completely out of Martin Mayhew’s hands as General manager, be it the Head Coach or his coordinators. But what about personnel decisions outside of coaching? That’s where Mayhew comes in.