Lions fans have gotten used to going to bed on this night knowing that the Lions won’t be making headlines in the morning. Last year at this time, the mantra was “right player, right price”—and we saw that mantra repeated as players like Grady Jackson and Philip Buchanon were signed to modest, short-term deals.
In fact, this has always been the plan. At the press conference introducing Mayhew and Lewand as the new GM and Team President, Mayhew said:
We will build this thing through the draft - okay. We're not going to be jumping out there in free agency and throwing 30 million bucks at somebody on the first day at midnight. I think the way to do it is through the draft and we do it through young guys and you develop your guys, and you spend time training your guys. You don't give up on your guys. You hang in there with them and a lot of the good organizations in this league - that's what those teams do.
That sounded pretty trite and tired to Lions fans desperate for change. It was true that the Lions’ roster was devoid of young, quality veteran talent —and truer that such talent is rarely available, or affordable, in free agency.
After all, free agents are by definition players whose original teams didn’t think they were worth the money.
Still, Lions fans had to either accept that this would be a long, slow process, wherein rookies and veterans would try to bridge the gap between 0-16 and competitiveness, or get all ARGLBARGL about why the Lions aren’t going after any difference-makers.
The 2009 draft class offered little in the way of victories, but a lot of hope for the future. The youngsters even beat the would-be Pudge Of The NFL, Albert Haynesworth, when he and his $100M contract came to town in Week 3. By now, most Lions fans have come to realize the shocking dearth of talent on the Lions’ roster can only be rebuilt the slow, steady way: through several years of consistently excellent drafting. Tom Lewand told Killer so just today:
We'll be ready to be on the phone after midnight.Wait, what?
We'll see where it takes us. We're prepared. We've done a good job of getting ready and we're looking forward to it starting.Wow. That’s far from the “right player at the right price” bargain-hunting philosophy that’s been the hallmark of the last several free agent signing periods. It’s partially due to a hearty stock of talent at a couple of key need positions: runningback, and defensive end. It’s partially due to the strides the Lions managed to take with just one draft class, and where they hope to be after one more. But partially, it’s due to this.
The Lions are struggling to sell tickets. They’re cutting prices. They’re going All-You-Can-Eat. They’re coming up with every scheme under the sun to get people to come to Ford Field. But after a decade of complete and total futility, many fans won’t invest their emotions, their time, or their money, until the Lions prove that they’re competitive.
Let me be clear: the Lions have a direction. They have a foundation. They have a brand-new coach, staff, quarterback, and front office. These men have a ‘pass’ for at least this year and next; they’ll be justly given a chance to succeed before they can be blamed for on-field failure. Ownership understands that these men cannot produce instant results with the tools they’ve been given.
But while the coaching staff answers to the front office, and the front office answers to the ownership, ownership answers to the fans—and we fans have reached the limits of our grace; we have no free passes left to give to anybody.
Above all, the Lions are a billion-dollar business, and you and I are the customers. We buy the tickets, the gear, the brats, and the beer that keeps the lights on at Ford Field. If we don’t go to the games, there’s no money coming in the door--and we won’t go to the games unless we have hope of seeing a win.
I’m not saying that the Lions are looking for a “quick fix”—they’re not about to ditch their long-term construction project and put up a yurt. But the timetable is accelerated: they’re going to have to go over budget, bring in more contractors, and maybe lobby for some tax breaks or bribe an inspector or two.
They can’t cut corners—they won’t weaken the concrete or cheap out on the fixtures—but the Lions are going to push with everything they’ve got to prove to you and to me that they really are building something special under all those tarps, and all that scaffolding.
Tomorrow is going to be a very interesting day. The salary cap will evaporate; that the old barrier to trades, the accelerated cap hit of prorated signing bonuses, will be gone. Players and picks can be swapped at will, and the only financial considerations will be if the team can afford to pay the players’ game checks.
You may or may not see the Lions drain the piggy bank to sign a Kyle Vanden Bosch or a Thomas Jones; Mayhew indicated they have a couple of specific targets and will be aggressively pursuing them. But Killer and I both think the real headlines will come from the trades that Mayhew has doubtlessly been pursuing.
Either way, I am positive that 24-48 hours from now, the Lions’ roster will be different—perhaps very different. Will that help rekindle the blue flame in the hearts of those who’ve turned away? Will it inspire the fans to go on shopping spree for gear and season tickets? Will it ensure the Lions play before a full house, and a full TV audience, game after game after game?
We can only hope.