Part one of Tim Twentyman's exclusive Q&A with Bill Ford Jr.
By Tim Twentyman Posted Jan 25, 2012
I sat down with Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. in an exclusive Detroitlions.com interview Wednesday that covered a wide range of topics.
In the first of a three-part series from the interview, Bill Ford Jr. discusses the job general manager Martin Mayhew has done over the last three years, the re-signing of receiver Calvin Johnson, how he wouldn’t trade quarterback Matthew Stafford for any quarterback in the NFL and how sticking with the plan the organization crafted after the 2008 season is the reason they’re now contenders.
Q: What’s your evaluation of the job Martin Mayhew has done over the last three years?
A: "I think Martin has been fantastic. He’s very thorough and he works very hard. As you know, he doesn’t like the limelight. He’s very modest, personally, but he’s done a fantastic job. He’s so prepared and he and Jim (Schwartz) and Tom (Lewand) work very, very well together. There is never any discord between the personnel department and the coaching staff and the front office. It’s really seamless and I think that’s important, too. You walk down there and Jim and Martin will be down there in Tom’s office or Tom will be in Jim’s office and there’s just a lot of informal conversations taking place and it’s very healthy.
“One thing Martin has that may sound trivial, but is a big deal, is Martin prepares for free agency and the draft together, rather than as separate events. Even though they are staged separately in the NFL in terms of timing, he tries to take a holistic look at who’s out there. Who’s out there could mean NFL veterans or fourth-round draft picks. So, in his mind, he doesn’t just do the draft and just do the free agency, he’s got all the pieces fitting in together, therefore he really gets the most out of both events by doing that.”
Q: They haven’t always gone hand-in-hand?
A: "They do go (hand-in-hand) but it wasn’t always the case. In the past, it was often treated as two discrete events because they aren’t timed exactly the right way. But Martin, he’s very good at that. I also want to highlight (vice president of pro personnel) Sheldon White because Martin and Sheldon work so well together and I think we’ve really seen that the free agents we’ve gone out and gotten, some of which weren’t obvious, and other teams didn't value necessarily very highly have all been productive for us. I think that’s because Sheldon works incredibly hard and he and Martin communicate very well together.”
Q: How important is it to you to have Calvin Johnson signed long-term?
A: “Well we really want Calvin here long-term and I think it’s important for us, important for Matthew (Stafford), it’s important for the fans and he’s a great guy. He’s a great guy on the field, he’s a great guy in the locker room and he’s a great guy off the field. They don’t make many better people than Calvin Johnson. We really want to get this done with him.”
Q: Does Johnson remind you of Barry Sanders as far as that type of elite player in the NFL.
A: “I think even Cris Carter would say that now (laughter). I’ve never seen anybody like him… and you’ve heard it all before. His nickname alone speaks to it. His ability to run, to jump, to get in and out of cuts at his size, and his hands. That’s the other thing: people keep talking about how fast, big and strong he is, he also has great hands. I couldn’t even begin to find a hole in his game, even a slight one. He’s got it all and then add to that that he’s also a great guy on and off the field… He’s terrific.”
Q: Jim Schwartz said in his introductory press conference that it was about time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne. Have you found it in Matthew Stafford?
A: “Oh absolutely. I think Matthew is terrific. I wouldn’t trade Matthew for any quarterback in the league, given his age. The guy is 23 years old, he just had a 5,000-yard season, the players love him, he’s a great young man off the field and yeah, I hope Matthew is the face of this franchise for many years to come.”
Q: Is Matthew the first real face of the franchise since Barry Sanders?
A: “Probably, yeah. We’ve had leaders on our team, but often they’ve been in positions that aren’t leadership positions. They might be offensive linemen… but yeah, I think certainly the quarterback position, which is the most important position in the NFL, and frankly I would probably say since Bobby Layne. We’ve had some good quarterbacks in that period, but given his age and given his talent, my hope is that Matthew can be here for many, many years and really his stature and team’s stature should grow together.”
Q. Can you talk about the parallels between the Lions and the Ford Motor Company in what each has gone through over the last three years?
A: “There are interesting parallels and really it all starts with having a plan and then sticking to the plan and not deviating when things don’t go according to planned. I think at Ford we had a plan, we stayed with it through thick and thin and there were a lot of white knuckle days there where everybody was extremely nervous, and yet, we all believed in the plan and the only question was do we have enough time with the world swamping us before our plan had a chance to work, and fortunately that didn’t happen.
“Here, much the same way, and I give a lot of credit to Tom and Martin for this, because it really started with finding a coach that Martin felt he was philosophically aligned with and then complete alignment with the coach in terms of how you build the roster. That may sound obvious, but it’s anything but obvious because many coaches want to win right now and would have advocated signing a whole slew of free agents, older guys, and then you’re back at it again in a few years.
"Jim and Martin both, and I think it really helped that Jim had a personnel background because most coaches don’t, Jim did, he understood not only the importance of building the team the right way, but the patience of doing it the right way. I think he and Martin really, from day one, had a plan and have stuck to it and now – and now no plan is static, it always needs a little tweaking, that’s true of Ford and it’s true here – I think now we’re at a point where it’s more important to re-sign our own players than it is to go out and re-sign a whole slew of new players, the draft obviously excepting, that’s slightly different. That frankly was the point we hoped we would get to and now we’re here.”
Part two of Tim Twentyman's exclusive Q&A with Bill Ford Jr.
By Tim Twentyman Posted Jan 26, 2012
In the second part of my exclusive three-part interview with Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr., he discusses coach Jim Schwartz, the team's philosophy heading into free agency and how he can't get enough of mock drafts.
Q. What jumped out at you about Jim Schwartz when he interviewed for the head coaching job three years ago?
A. "Jim had a great reputation around the league as being a very smart coach. It's interesting, I think if you look – and I've done this – at the great coaches over the last 30 years in the NFL, you'll find that there's a huge, wide disparity in terms of personality types. You've had the icemen like Tom Landry and Bud Grant; you've had extremely emotional coaches – Mike Ditka was a very emotional coach and a successful one, and there were others. But the one common denominator among all of the successful coaches was that they were all very intelligent. They were very analytical. So Jim immediately strikes anybody as an intelligent person, so that was a plus.
"The fact that he had learned the personnel department in (Cleveland) I think was hugely important because here is the other thing: this may sound odd to your readers, but a lot of coaches can't speak the same language as scouts. Jim had the ability, because he had been a scout, to put what he was looking for in a player into terms that a scout then could act upon. What a scout will do is they'll go out and rate every player, but you may have three players all rated similarly but Jim can say, 'Well these two guys are good players, but this person fits what we do better because of this, this and this.'
"The other thing that Jim can do – which I think is hugely helpful for the scouts – is to say, 'look, when you get to the middle and later rounds, every player is going to have a hole in him, but let's focus on what they do well rather than what they don't do well and is what they do well additive to what we need.' So maybe we're looking for somebody who is a big hitter and fearless, but (that player) may not have the range. But we know we're looking for a big hitter.
"That made life on our scouts so much easier: that Jim knew exactly what he was looking for, how these players would fit in and, therefore, who might not fit in. Some might still be a highly-rated player, but they don't fit what Jim was looking for. Jim's ability to speak to scouts in a way that could make their job easier also came through in the interview.
"Also the fact that Jim was a realist in terms of the fact that building the foundation the right way would take some time. He wasn't looking to patch things together in year one and then have to do it in year three again.
"He has a very distinct philosophy that, in today's NFL, you build your team around the quarterback and the guys who can get to the quarterback because, in the NFL, no team has everything because of the salary cap. Therefore, you have to prioritize certain things and Jim's priority was that we've got to get a quarterback and we've got to get people who can get to the quarterback."
Q. Talk about the difficulty the team now faces is having good players that make a lot of money and trying to keep all those pieces together.
A. "It is a good problem to have and, you're right, we have to make tough choices. That's the other thing. You look at the best teams in the league and they don't get sentimental. The one thing about the New England Patriots is they reload on the run. If they feel like somebody they considered untouchable even a year ago no longer untouchable, they'll make that decision and go.
"Martin and Tom certainly understand this. Again, that's what the salary cap forces upon you. The other thing it does is: it forces you to play your draft picks. If you look at Green Bay, they've drafted very well and they play pretty much all of them. They're not afraid to play them and, as a result, they're one of the youngest teams - if not the youngest team - in the league. I think that's, again, a function of today's salary cap. You pay your stars and you play your young people."
Q. Do you enjoy talking shop with Martin and the coaches and the scouts?
A. Are you kidding, I'm a huge fan and always have been. But I learned long ago never to interject my opinion as a fan because that's very dangerous to an organization. I've seen it done around the NFL and it usually doesn't end well. I do have opinions but I tend to keep them to myself, like any fan would have opinions. And if I have an opinion, I will run it by Martin to say, 'Tell me why I'm wrong here,' and often he does. Or I just don't see the whole picture and I love that.
"I love talking football. I love talking it with the coaches. I love talking it with Martin. I love talking it with the scouts. Around draft time, I spend a lot of time preparing for the draft as if I were the one actually doing it. Of course I don't. But I just love it. Right now I'm on all the draft websites. I have a day job at Ford but when I go home at night, the way I blow off steam is I start getting on draft websites and check out all the mock drafts and all the player ratings like any fan would.
"But I do have the advantage then of coming in and asking, 'Okay, tell me the real story on these guys.' That's fun and I love the game of football. I've always been a big fan. I went to my first game when I was a baby at Tiger Stadium. When we used to live in Europe, I'd have them put the phone next to the radio so I could listen to every game by phone. I get butterflies in my stomach every Sunday morning. I just do."
Q. So, is there a Bill Ford Jr. mock draft in our future?
A. "Probably, yes. You know what's really fun, too, is if Martin or Scotty (director of college scouting Scott McEwen) will show me film on somebody. But even then, unless they point out to me what I'm looking at, I don't see it, particularly if it's an offensive lineman. They say, 'look where he places his hands or his footwork.' I'm looking at if he made the block or not. But I don't look at all the pieces. I always learn a lot."
Q. Do you consider yourself a student of the game?
A. "I love it. I absolutely love it. I actually feel that way about all sports. I love hockey too and it's the same thing: I always like to analyze it and break it down. I think it's one of the fun parts of being around the Lions is that, in many ways, you do get to live a dream.
"I've often thought that between cars and football, every American male is an expert. I couldn't have picked two things to have in my life that people didn't have an opinion on. There is no American male who doesn't think we should put more horsepower in the Mustang or tell you that we need to draft. I never lack for conversation when I go out."
Part three of Tim Twentyman's exclusive Q&A with Bill Ford Jr.
By Tim Twentyman
Posted Jan 27, 2012
In the final portion of my interview with Bill Ford Jr., he discusses the atmosphere surrounding Ford Field this season, what this season meant to the Ford family, an interesting conversation he had with a fan at a coffee shop, Ndamukong Suh and how close he feels the franchise is to playing in it's first Super Bowl.
Q: You just finished the Auto Show, you probably get as many comments about the Lions at the Auto Show as you do the cars, what was the vibe there this year?
A: "It’s a very interesting thing. When I am in the state of Michigan, even if I’m at an auto event, I get a lot of Lions questions. But as soon as I leave Michigan, and lets say I give a speech in New York, or obviously if I’m out of the country, I get no football questions. It’s all autos. But I’ll never forget in October of this year. We had just announced earnings at Ford a day before and I was getting coffee in Ann Arbor and someone came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations,’ I said, ‘Yeah thanks, we’re on the upswing and things are looking good,’ and the person said, 'Yeah, completely on the upswing,’ I said, ‘Yeah, it great and we’re selling cars and gaining market share,’ and the person looked at me and said, 'No. I meant the Lions.’
"I sometimes have to recalibrate. I’ll tell you what they have in common. They both elicit passion from people. People are passionate about cars and they are passionate about football and I love that. I love the passion. There are days you don’t love it because people are angry and they’re mad and they’re either angry or mad that you didn’t come out with the car they were looking for, or they’re angry your football team hasn’t played well; but I’d rather have people really care rather than be indifferent."
Q: How did you feel Ndamukong Suh came back from the incident on Thanksgiving and has handled himself since then?
A. “I think he’s handled himself well. My guess is he was surprised at how big a deal it really was nationally and that probably really took him back. He’s a very bright guy and he’s a quick study and I think he has and will continue to learn from that. The coaches think he played well on the field at the end of the year. He obviously didn’t have as many impact plays as he did last year but the coaches thought he played really well when he came back, so that’s good. He’s going to have a long career ahead of him and I think he can and will put all of that behind him."
Q: What was it like walking into that stadium this year, with the Ford name on it, and seeing what it’s become, which is one of the toughest places to play in the NFL?
A: “If I can go back a few years, when we built Ford Field, we really wanted it to be the greatest stadium in the NFL. We wanted to blend old and new and make it uniquely – unlike any domed stadium in the league. I think we were able to do that, but the missing ingredient was a winning team and therefore the atmosphere. There were so many times that it was just flat in there. Just flat. I remember talking to Tom Lewand saying, ‘Do you think the acoustics are not good in here?’ And finally Tom and I realized it had nothing to do with the acoustics, it had had to do with the level of fan enthusiasm, or lack thereof (laughing).
“This year was totally different and I’ll never, ever, forget the Monday Night game. It was just electric. I ended up having to do a radio interview over at HockeyTown half an hour before kickoff, so I walked from the stadium over to Hockey Town and it was shear madness and then did my interview and walked back to the stadium and I remember just looking around and there were bands on certain street corners, people were just in the streets, everyone was smiling and everybody was revved up. I just kept thinking, this is this what this city should be like all the time. Then of course, during the game it was absolutely deafening inside of Ford Field. It was terrific and I loved it.
“I’ll date myself, but I remember that feeling (ears ringing) at the Silverdome a few times when we had 80,000 people in there and again, it was a Monday Night game, we played against the 49ers. I remember it being deafening and walking out still having that ringing in my ears.”
Q: What did it mean for the Ford family and to your dad (chairman William Clay Ford) to get the game ball after the final regular season game?
A: “I think for my dad it was particularly great because this has been his passion for many, many years and it hasn’t always worked out the way he would have liked. The one thing that he’s always consistently enjoyed is the players and the coaches. Through all the years where he took a lot of criticism and all the years where it hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped, I think the one constant was that he always enjoyed his relationship with the players and the coaches. To be recognized by them, probably meant more to him then it would to most other people because those are the relationships that really matter to him.”
Q: What was this season like for you and your family, particularly your younger children who haven’t experienced something like this before?
A: “You raise a very good point. My youngest son has never experienced the Lions being very good. I think as a result he had always kind of held back because it was always disappointment after disappointment for him on Sunday’s. He wasn’t as invested in the team in as many ways as my older children just because he was so used to being disappointed by them. He really, I think more than any of them, loved this year because it allowed him to go to school and wear his Lions gear and not have to listen to any kind of feedback from other kids. My boys grew up working in the equipment room with Timmy (equipment manager Tim O’Neill) and those guys, so they have deep relationships with the guys in the weight room, too, so for them, it’s particularly fun because it’s not just the players they’re excited for, it’s all the people in the organization that they know as well. My older son Will, who plays hockey at Princeton, he worked here for a number of summers for Timmy and he really got to know the training staff, all the weight room guys, then he worked with the weight room guys in getting stronger himself and so, it was just really fun for him. I think in some ways he was happier for all the staff then he was the players because he knows what those staff guys have been through all of those years.”
Q: Describe the atmosphere surrounding that Week 16 victory against the Chargers that clinched a playoff berth?
A: “The atmosphere at really all the games this year was just great. It’s hard to single any game out because the whole year it was magnificent. Even the first half of the New Orleans (playoff) game was great. When you lose in New Orleans it doesn’t feel any better… losing is still losing. I suppose people would say to me and to my father, ‘Oh, you should be so happy about the season,’ I suppose, when you take a step back, yes, but at that moment, no. We lost a game, we lost a game that we thought we had a chance in and our season is over. However you cut it, there’s no feeling good at that moment.”
Q: How different has it been watching these playoffs, knowing how close you were?
A: “I must say that the moment we’re out of it, I lose a little interest. You’re right, I look at the teams that were still playing and I would like to think that we would have a chance; in fact I do think we have a chance, and that’s different. It makes you that much more determined to add the final few pieces and then go at it again next year. I really do think that we’re only a few pieces away.”
Q: Super Bowl week is almost here, how close do you think the Lions are to playing in their first Super Bowl?
A: "I think we are absolutely headed in the right direction. The first step is to make the playoffs and we did that. The expectations going forward, I think, will be higher now, and they should be. I think as long as we can keep our quarterback healthy and we can re-sign a couple of our key players and Martin continues to work his magic, in terms of finding pieces that can fit into our puzzle, I really believe this organization can content for the Super Bowl pretty soon."