Shortly after becoming the general manager of the Pistons in December 1979, Jack McCloskey realized the enormity of his task. The team was awful. Its two stars — Bob Lanier and Bob McAdoo — didn’t want to be there. Lanier’s trade request was the most public, and the most poignant, for Big Bob had been a Piston his whole career, which was in its tenth year.
Knowing he had to trade Lanier, McCloskey then got an idea. A BIG idea.
“I looked at the team as an expansion team,” McCloskey told me in an interview many years ago. “We were really an expansion team.”
Ex-coach Dick Vitale stripped the Pistons bare of draft picks, thanks to bad trades — one of which was McAdoo. The team was lucky to win one of every four games. So McCloskey picked up the phone and called his old friend and boss, Lakers GM Jerry West.
“I thought that if we could get Magic, that would have been great,” Trader Jack said about Lakers rookie Magic Johnson.
So McCloskey asked West if he was sitting down.
“Then I told him that he could have every player on my roster for Magic,” McCloskey said, chuckling.
“Every player. We would have taken Magic, signed a bunch of free agents and CBA players, and built from there,” McCloskey said.
West ran the outrageous offer past Lakers ownership, but it was rejected.
“But they were thinking about it,” McCloskey said with a grin.
It’s tempting to say that the Lions, today, might want to take a look at Project Magic that Jack McCloskey put forth in early 1980.
Tempting to want to walk into the locker room and rip every single name plate off the stalls, save perhaps Calvin Johnson’s. And Jason Hanson’s.
Keep Calvin and Hanson, and find 51 other players, and go from there.
You think I’m joking?
What’s happening with the Lions now isn’t just a talent chasm between them and the rest of the NFL. That’s well known and hard enough to overcome. What’s also going down is a mentality, deep and ingrained. The thought, indeed even the belief, that it’s never going to happen here — from among the players themselves.
The Lions monkeyed around and found themselves with a nifty little 17-0 lead after the first quarter yesterday against Tampa Bay. They were making plays, on both sides of the ball. The Bucs, no doubt, were a little nauseous, wondering if they’d be the first team to lose to the Lions this season.
No worries. There were still 45 minutes left to play, after all!
The Lions imploded, and lost, 38-20. If this was basketball, we’d say that the Bucs closed the game with a 38-3 run.
But beyond that, some of the Lions players started using words like “here we go again” and “we don’t know how to win.” Doesn’t matter who said it; but it was said, and more than once.
It’s clear: the Lions players may talk about being embarrassed and being angry and determined, but not only are they outclassed, talent-wise, they are beaten mentally before the ball is even kicked off.
So it’s not enough, anymore, to bring a player in, here and there, to address needs. The Brian Kellys and Leigh Boddens aren’t enough.
There’s been a lot of talk about “blowing it up”, and starting over. Much of that talk has come here, in the form of the Eno Plan. But the talk has primarily revolved around the front office and coaching situation. The personnel part of it has been brushed aside, probably because it seems too daunting right now. It’s a lot easier to change a few heads than 53.
But we gotta keep thinking big here. What would be wrong, really, with a super duper serious turnover in personnel? Something huge, like 60 percent or more?
Think of it: 30+ players wearing Lions uniforms in 2009 that aren’t doing so right now. More, if you can do it. The more new faces you get in here, the more players you have that look at you cross-eyed when you start talking about recent history of Detroit football, the better. The more who will pin a pencil-necked sportswriter against the wall and sneer, “I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘losing mentality.’ I’m a winner and I don’t think like that,” the better.
The Lions need a mental enema.
You can’t do it with this current bunch, because these guys have no idea what it’s like to handle any degree of success — not even a good first quarter, for cripes sakes. Even a new GM, a new coach, isn’t going to be enough with the current roster. Because a lot of these Lions have been through that before, too — at least the new coach part. They’ve seen and heard the brave words of the new man at the helm. They’ve been told that the bar is high and the West Coast offense is the way to the Promised Land and to pound the rock and dig for the light. And still they know, deep down, that they will come out at the wrong end of the score at the final gun every Sunday.
The 2009 Lions must be drastically different from the 2008 version — and not just with the guys who wear suits and ties and whistles around their necks. The dudes in pads have to be broomed, too. McCloskey only had to try to unload 12 players with the Pistons; the Lions must somehow jettison 30 or 40. But they simply have to try. This is one case where change for change’s sake is warranted. You know how many men are out there dying for a chance to play pro football? Guys who were maybe the last cuts in other training camps, or those looking for that “big break”? Guys with a pristine, blank memory when it comes to Lions football.
Think of it as throwing away your virus-infested computer with a fresh new one.
The Lions are not only beaten on the football field, they are beaten between the ears. The latter must be corrected before you can see any improvement on the former.