The 4th annual Detroit Lions Town Hall Meeting

>> 3.20.2012


“In 20 years in the NFL, that Monday Night Football game was the best football atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of.” That’s what Jim Schwartz told me and over 700 fellow Lions fans Monday night—at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he said, because the last few words were nearly drowned out with applause.

I was lucky enough to be present at the fourth annual Season Ticket Holder Town Hall Meeting. The event was exactly as you see it pictured above: a panel of Tom Lewand, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz, moderated by Lions radio voice Dan Miller. The entire event consisted of the three men running the Lions talking about running the Lions. It was outstanding.


My phone couldn't capture it, but Ford Field at twilight had a surprisingly intimate feel. The simple nature of the event, the mostly-empty stadium, and the mood lighting contrasted sharply with every other experience I’d ever had at the venue. Men in blazers and slacks rubbed elbows with jersey-clad fans carrying beers from the single open concession stand. The few staff present were extremely friendly and welcoming.

As I began to Tweet my early impressions, a Lions executive politely asked me to stop. The event was a special privilege for season-ticket holders; the team wanted those present to have a valuable experience, one you couldn’t get from skimming Twitter or YouTube. I appreciated and respected this request.

The three men took a turn making opening remarks, and the overwhelming message was one of gratitude to the fans. Tom Lewand thanked the fans for coming out to the event, but more strongly thanked fans for coming out in the fall and “creating what we think is the best home-field advantage in the NFL.” That sounds like a rock band professing every single city on their tour is the best crowd in the world, but Lewand insisted he was sincere.

“It’s not a cliché,” he said, “when we say you’re the best fans in the NFL.” Jim Schwartz backed Lewand up. “You actually affect the the game on the field,” he said. The energy Lions fans release into Ford Field helps drive the players to better performances—and, as we know, can disrupt the opponent.

I’ve waxed philosophical about this before. It’s the fan’s ultimate thrill: to literally be able to help your team win. To actually tilt the playing field in your team’s favor. To change the final score, even the game’s final outcome, with nothing but the strength of your passion.

"Don't underestimate the effect you have on the networks, either," Lewand said. "I had more than a few people at the NFL and NBC say, 'We heard about that Monday Night game in Detroit. We want some of that.'" It’s a heady thing to hear the President of your team tell you to your face you’re raising the Lions’ national profile with your cheering.

The real headline out of all of this wasn’t the latest news on the draft or free agency; Mayhew is ludicrously close-lipped about such things. When asked about the re-signing of Jeff Backus, Mayhew said “Well, I don’t like to announce things until they’re officially official, but I’ll say you’re probably right” that Backus had been re-inked—despite Lewand and Schwartz openly discussing Backus’s return on either side of him.

Yet, Mayhew spoke openly about “getting Tully’s contract done,” a phrase which smacked of inevitability—and indeed, as I wrote this, PFT reported the Lions inked Tulloch to a five-year deal. When asked to talk about his philosophy of what positions should be taken in what round of the draft, Mayhew glibly demurred. “Our philosophy is not to talk about what positions we’ll be taking in the draft,” cueing a round of laughter.

The real takeaway from the Town Hall meeting was the class of the organization, and the quality of its leaders. Time and again, they stressed doing things the right way, working hard, trusting in each other and their collaborative process, and never resting on their laurels. “We approach it day by day,” Lewand said. “Get better every day. Tackle the mission of that day. Maybe you look back at the end of the month and say ‘that was a good month,’ or at the end of the year say ‘that was a good year,’ but we can’t get caught up in some grandiose goal, or listen to the kudos, or especially read the press clippings."

Schwartz built on Lewand's comments: "Just because we don't talk about playoffs and Super Bowls doesn't mean those aren't our goals. In our experience, the teams that do the most talking about things like that aren't there at the end." He stressed that that emphasis carries through to the players: "We're fortunate that our best players are also our hardest-working players," he said.

Lewand echoed that with a story: “When Calvin was in to sign his contract, he met with the press, and the first words out of his mouth were, 'I'm just looking forward to getting back to work.' That wasn't rehearsed or prepared. He'd just signed a contract that will set him, his children, his children's children, his—” “—neighbors,” Schwartz interjected, “—many future generations of Johnsons up for life, but his focus was getting back to work.” Lewand said. “It was said from a place of authenticity. It was genuine.”

Lewand went on to emphasize how players like Calvin have changed the culture in Detroit. After praising the leadership of veterans like Backus and Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lewand said “You have a lot of young guys we drafted beginning to come into leadership roles and have expectations of winning,” noting the players that join the Lions now are entering a locker room full of players acquired by the current regime, all pulling in the same direction.

Jim Schwartz talked about the community pride the Lions’ success has inspired. “You see people wearing Lions hats at the gas stations now. One of the first things my wife did when we moved here was to go to a sporting goods store. The manager told her, ‘Ma’am, we don’t carry that stuff.’” Now, you see Honolulu Blue everywhere.

The subject of ticket prices was brought up. Lewand thought intensely as he answered the question. "I want to say this: we respect the investment you make in us." Lewand explained the Lions' ticket and concession prices are in the bottom half of the NFL—and that is a hard cap the staff works under at the explicit mandate of the Fords themselves.

I left Ford Field brimming with pride. I’m absolutely convinced that the Lions are being run by the right people; that if anyone can bring a championship to Detroit, it’s these three men. They have, against the odds, retained every key coach and player that made last year a success—and they’ll continue to add talent through the offseason. This team is primed to be one of the NFL’s best, now and for years to come.


Lions Slam the Revolving Door of Free Agency

>> 3.19.2012

revolving-doorWhen Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand took over, they had almost no young talent on the roster. That’s the idea behind the Old Mother Hubbard posts: when they got there, the cupboard was bare. No longer.

The Lions are a playoff team, and an incredibly young one at that. The foundation of this team is No. 9, Matthew Stafford, and his connection with Calvin Johnson—who, thanks to the richest total contract in NFL history, will be a Lion through the end of the decade.

I can't overstate the significance of this.

I remember well the advent of free agency, the splash Reggie White made by going from Philadelphia to the tiny outpost of Green Bay, and the pillaging of the league the 49ers and Cowboys did throughout the 90s.

From the beginning, free agency has been a revolving door for the Lions: Jerry Ball out, Pat Swilling in; Chris Spielman out, Pepper Johnson in; Jeff Hartings out, Brenden Stai in. Time and time again, the Lions lost foundational pieces and replaced them with designer-impostor stopgaps. Even when they drafted well, the Lions seemed all too content to let good players walk out the door. The Old Lions would have let Calvin walk, and signed Josh Morgan to replace him.

Calvin Johnson is not just a good player, he’s a great one—and not only is he a good person, he’s a great one. Despite the mind-boggling figure, his teammates took to Twitter en masse to declare he earned every dollar (and then some) with his attitude and work ethic. That combination of talent and character is breathtakingly rare—and he has chosen to spend the best years of his career as a Detroit Lion. As Justin Durant wrote at MetroTimes, it was a good day for anyone connected to the Lions.

The Lions have also re-signed Jeff Backus to a two-year deal, inked Shaun Hill to another two-year contract, and  brought back veteran safety/special-teamer Erik Coleman. As Anwar Richardson reports, the last major free agent the Lions are looking to add is Stephen Tulloch.

But wait. Don’t I always say that standing pat is losing ground? Don’t I always say that A + B = C doesn’t work in the NFL? That each season is it’s own special potion, an alchemy experiment that can go wildly wrong or wildly right, even with similar ingredients?

Yup, I sure do. But letting Jeff Backus walk and signing Marcus McNeill, or swapping Stephen Tulloch for David Hawthorne, would be classic Old Lions moves. Moving from a sure thing who knows the system to someone new who doesn’t is a risk in and of itself; McNeill and Hawthorne are clear and obvious downgrades from Backus and Tulloch.

In the beginning, the cupboard was so bare the Lions cycled 123 different players on and off the roster in that first contract year. They were desperately clawing to get better at any spot on the roster, even if it was just the 53rd over and over and over. They viewed 1st waiver wire priority as a major tool to improve the roster. Can you imagine any street free agent improving the Lions now?

Let me quote what I said in the final Watchtower of the 2011 season:

For the first time in a long time, it’s truly possible for the Lions to regress. Building blocks of the offense and defense may need to be replaced. Jeff Backus, Cliff Avril, and Stephen Tulloch are all major contributors who may or may not be back, and they only start the list. For the first time since Schwartz was hired, this offseason will not be unidirectional.

Still, what’s important here is that the core, the fundamental truth, the identity of this team will not change. Jim Schwartz is the head coach, Matthew Stafford is the quarterback, Calvin Johnson leads a legion of viable targets, and the defensive line is stacked. That, along with all the other factors, is good enough to get the Lions to the playoffs—and that will be true in 2012 as well.

Can Schwartz, Mayhew, Lewand and company brew a more potent batch of Lions in 2012? Can they add just the right ingredients, and hold back what might spoil the brew? Can they put it over just the right amount of heat so, as the Saints are doing now, it peaks in strength at the perfect time? We’ll see.

We’re seeing right now: not only are the Lions drafting and develop long-term starters, they’re actually paying to keep them here long-term. Slamming the revolving free-agency door shut is crucial to becoming a perennial contender.

If the Lions ink Tulloch to a multi-year deal, and draft as well as they always do, this team is going to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011—and better over the next five years then they’ve been in fifty.


Detroit Lions Town Hall Meeting: Live Tweeting

I’m going to be present at the Lions’ annual Town Hall Meeting for season-ticket holders. I’ll be live Tweeting the event from my account @lionsinwinter,

EDIT: No, I won't. The Lions are asking me not to live-Tweet. I'll respect their wishes.

obviously I’ll be posting about it here after the fact. If you have any questions for the bigwigs, comment on this post and I’ll see what I can do.

I'm also working on a post about the flurry of re-signings, and why the grass is greener on THIS side; should be up by lunchtime.

Also, I'd encourage you to read my latest column on Bleacher Report, Why the NFL Must Embrace Openly Gay Players.

Back in a bit.

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