The Detroit Lions are bad. Everybody knows that. Right now, the Lions are in pursuit of what could be a “perfect” season, as in perfectly awful. They are 0-12, three-quarters of the way to the first winless season in the history of the National Football League. And as the franchise, which hasn’t won anything since the 1950s, twists in the wind, having finally fired General Manager Matt Millen, it’s not a great time to be a Lions fan.

The beginning of the 2007 season had some promise as the Lions got off to a 6-2 start. But all of us lifelong Lions fans were simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. And did it ever — the Lions are 1-19 in the 20 games since that start. The Ford family already has its hands full with a sickly automotive franchise, and has presided over one of the worst professional sports franchises since it bought the team in 1964. In 43 years of Ford ownership, the team has won one playoff game. One.

How did the team get here? The story is surprisingly similar to that of the auto industry in the state: a little incompetence and a penchant to “let the good times roll.” The solution for both is the same, too: bold changes.

For starters, take the Lions’ low expectations. The Lions’ dirty little secret is that because NFL television contracts are such a cash cow, the Fords make money on the Lions every year, win or lose, due to revenue sharing. Moving the team from the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome to its beautiful new downtown stadium, Ford Field, served one major purpose: shrinking capacity. If an NFL team does not sell out its home game, it is blacked out on local television, meaning less television revenue and a need to actually put a quality product on the field. Minus Barry Sanders, the Lions no longer have even one quality product on display.

This is eerily similar to the situation of Ford Motor Co. a few years ago. Ford was making most of its money on large vehicles, like SUVs and trucks, and continued to make shortsighted investments in those areas. This, coupled with poor quality and high labor costs, created an awful mess, where the company is viable in times of extremely low gas prices, but is more than vulnerable in times of medium to high gas prices. But the company made a change at the top when CEO Bill Ford stepped down, brought in a new CEO and now it’s on something like a road to recovery (at least compared to the other Detroit automakers).

Assuming the Fords have had a change of heart regarding winning, and perhaps they do now that they fired Matt Millen (31-93 in his tenure, including this year), there are several steps the team can take to turn things around like it has started to at the auto company. First, it needs to hire a competent general manager. Hiring Millen, right out of the broadcast booth with no managerial experience, was unintelligent to say the least. Millen lacked in the most essential aspect of building an NFL team: scouting.

Similarly, leaders of Ford, and the other domestic automakers, lacked in the most essential aspect of maintaining a successful business: foresight. When times are good, you need to be investing in cutting edge technology and new product, not resting on your laurels as the Big Three did in the late 1990s.

The Lions, given enough financial investment, could try to poach Scott Pioli, the New England Patriots’ vice president of player personnel. He has been rumored to be less than happy in New England, and would surely like to prove it was him and not head coach Bill Belichick who was most responsible for building the Patriots’ powerhouses (the team has been to the Super Bowl four of the last seven years).

If Pioli were hired and started to bring in talent, he would surely try to recreate the stable framework that Belichick and his coaching staff built in New England. Such a framework can bring in such “bad boys” as Randy Moss and turn them into team players. It just so happens that such a coach is currently unemployed. Bill Cowher, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl championship (ironically in Detroit), left the Steelers in January 2007 to “spend more time with his family.” With Pioli and Cowher, the Ford family could start the restructuring of its team, much as it restructured its car company: with new, bold leaders with a track record of success.

Alex Prasad can be reached at atprasad@umich.edu.

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