Since September, the Lions have parted ways with team president Matt Millen, one assistant personnel director and third-year coach Rod Marinelli. Other than that they have prepared for this weekend's NFL draft with essentially the same scouts and decision makers who assembled the worst team in league history.
Martin Mayhew, Millen's former assistant, was promoted from within. He seemed like a sharp, reasonable person when he met the media here Tuesday.
"We need some talent," he said. "That's what our real need is, talented football players."
Who can argue with that; especially from someone who was part of the front office that created a roster in need of talent?
The familiar faces can do one thing that will immediately signal that the "new" Lions are beginning to operate like a real NFL franchise.
It isn't using the top pick on Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford rather than Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry or Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith (or vice versa). Any of those players could be stars, any could be busts. There are varying risks – the track record of first-round QBs, for instance, is particularly poor – but no one will know for a few seasons.
The most immediate sign of potential legitimacy would be signing whomever their pick is before Saturday's draft.
When building a team, calm and continuity – rather than a potential protracted contract dispute – is more valuable than getting one particular player. That's especially true this year, when there is no obvious differential in talent at the top of the draft.
Consider the last two teams with the No. 1 pick.
In 2007, the 2-14 Oakland Raiders picked LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell without agreeing to a contract. Russell held out the entire training camp and even the start of the season, not signing until mid-September. He didn't get into a game until December. The Raiders' season was shot, the team finishing 4-12. Russell's long-term development was held back an entire year.
In 2008, the 1-15 Miami Dolphins hired Bill Parcells, who reportedly settled on a few top selections and decided he'd only pick a player who would sign before the draft. That turned out to be Michigan offensive lineman Jake Long, who went through the entire offseason program, training camp and started all 16 games en route to the Pro Bowl. The Dolphins finished 11-5 and reached the playoffs.
Extreme scenarios, of course; but it isn't a coincidence that one franchise is run by a proven winner and the other by a dysfunctional owner.
The Lions are the Raiders, only without the proud tradition. The fact Mayhew said there is a "very good" chance they'll sign their pick and avoid Oakland's example is a sign of hope.
"If you have the opportunity to get [the pick signed], then you know you have that player throughout the entire offseason," Mayhew said. "You don't have a contentious situation with the player. You don't have a hold-out.
"We plan on getting something done prior to making that selection."
It's not much, but after a winless season produced promotions for nearly everyone, it's all there is.
Other than coach Jim Schwartz – who will have veto power on all picks – everyone in the Lions' war room is the same. Some would call this the definition of football insanity, but the Lions are unapologetic.
"Let me just say this: I think [director of college scouting] Scott McEwen has done a phenomenal job as far as setting the board this year, as he has in the past," Mayhew said. "I think he's just a tremendous evaluator. I like our college scouts."
You wonder how they lost every game.
"There have been some mistakes made in the past, and there has been a lot of noise in the system, so to speak," Mayhew admitted.
Millen was presumably the "noise in the system," whatever that means. You hope Mayhew and Co. learned from him – in this case by absorbing what not to do.
Apparently that addition by subtraction is enough for Detroit to go from producing annual draft day disasters to smart, efficient, effective selections.
At the very least, they appear ready to sign the No. 1 pick, end the drama and avoid having their season held hostage by a college kid and his agent.
At this stage, call it progress, because if you're going to finally get rid of Matt Millen, you don't want to start acting like Al Davis.
- Matt Millen
- Martin Mayhew