Martha Ford attempts to tame the Detroit Lions

Sep 6, 2017 at 1:00 am
Martha Ford.
Martha Ford. Photo courtesy

People within the Detroit Lions organization know to keep the golf cart powered up and ready to drive.

That's the preferred mode of transportation of 91-year-old Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford when she visits the practice facility to check up on things, or to fire people who are not keeping up.

She is a more hands-on owner than the previous owner, her late husband William Clay Ford Sr. And she is less patient.

She doesn't visit to simply check up on practice or exchange pleasantries with quarterback Matthew Stafford or General Manager Bob Quinn. She is there on business, and people know that.

The Lions may be guided by a woman's hand, but that does not mean a soft or gentle touch.

This isn't to say that the Lions are champions yet, but the owner and front office team of Ford and Quinn is perhaps the best in Lions history. Where that leads is anybody's guess, but with the stench of the Matt Millen era becoming ever more distant, this franchise has joined the top half of NFL teams in terms of organization and competition.

However, a gap remains between the Lions and elite franchises. That was apparent last season, when the Lions failed to beat a big-time opponent down the stretch let alone win a playoff game, something they've done just once since 1957. Ford wants the Lions to be tougher on the field, which is one reason she would reportedly love to see her team play home games outdoors in the future.

She's not afraid to make tough decisions, even removing her son Bill Ford Jr. from the decision-making process because he was responsible for bringing in Millen as team president, a move considered by many to be the worst front office decision in professional sports history.

Millen ran the Lions from 2001 to 2008, and wasn't removed by William until the third game of a historic 0-16 season in 2008. During his run, Millen guided the Lions to an NFL low 31-84 record (27 percent) and received a contract extension because the senior Ford said the front office was better organized. Embarrassed by her team, Martha took it out on her son and prevented him from getting back into the front office. It is something her husband, who died in 2014, would have been unwilling to do.

If nothing else she's shown the ability to make changes when things are not working out. William often gave employees second and third chances. She shook things up in 2015 when she fired longtime president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.

The move was wildly applauded.

There is a flaw the Ford family must overcome in today's sports world. Owners and star players are viewed as partners. The Fords still stick by the employer-employee relationship. For instance, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson both walked away from the Lions in frustration after a combined 19 years and just one playoff win between them.

They were never viewed by the Fords as partners, and were never as vested in the team as John Elway was with the Denver Broncos, or LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Neither were willing to become leaders because they didn't feel they had as much skin in the game as other superstars. Teammates begged Sanders to meet with the Ford family to give his input, but he never felt comfortable with the relationship and kept his thoughts to himself.

James often has a rocky relationship with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, but both men seem to understand the importance of having a working relationship. Pittsburgh Steeler players were tight with owner Art Rooney, and former Pistons owner Bill Davidson enjoyed a close relationship with superstar point guard Isiah Thomas during their championship run.

It is something Martha Ford has yet to do. Will that change now that quarterback Matthew Stafford signed the richest contract in NFL history? History would tell you no.

The biggest asset of Martha Ford is she doesn't try to be the smartest person in the room. The NFL offered to find front office help for the Lions, but William Clay Ford turned it down because he believed he was the best decision-maker regarding his team. Meanwhile, he allowed Kevin Colbert, who worked in the organization for nine years, to escape to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he has helped build two Super Bowl teams and recently signed a two-year contract extension as the team's general manager.

Instead, Martha Ford listened to a team of NFL owners and front office people and hired Quinn, who appears to be an up-and-coming general manager. He enjoyed a solid 2016 draft by selecting left tackle Taylor Decker from Ohio State and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson out of Alabama. The Lions often swing and miss after the second round. But third-round selection Graham Glasgow is a solid center, and fourth-round pick Miles Killebrew is viewed as a valuable safety, as is sixth-round pick Anthony Zettel, who will replace Jason Jones as linebacker.

To be sure, decades of bad management cannot be erased in a couple of years. We won't see dividends this season. The Lions are a hit-or-miss playoff team, as they are most years. But better decisions are being made, which should pay off in the future.

In the meantime, followers of the team are still waiting.

"I don't think they are ready yet to take that next step," says former Lions offensive lineman Larry Lee, who worked briefly in the Lions front office under Chuck Schmidt. "They will continue to do what they do. That is 9-7 and in and out of the playoffs. They are not cellar-dwellers. They are a little better than average. They have a few steps to go."

"All I know is she wants to win," says Ernie Accorsi, who was hired to help in the GM search. "She wants this so badly. She really does. She's tired of losing."