Lions' Ford, Ravens' Modell long overdue for success

On The NFL

December 27, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the 1958 title game that is credited with starting the pro football boom, it's appropriate that the Detroit Lions are playing the former Cleveland Browns today.

That's because they were the two best teams in the 1950s, an era when pro football was still struggling for acceptance, before the Colts-Giants overtime game caught the nation's fancy.

The Lions and Browns played in four championship games in the 1950s and both rosters were dotted with Hall of Fame players, starting with the two quarterbacks -- Bobby Layne and Otto Graham.

The Lions won three of those title games -- the last a 59-14 rout in 1957 the year before the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played" took place.

These two teams haven't been able to duplicate their success of the 1950s. The Lions haven't won a title since that 1957 game. The Browns, who won titles in 1954 and '55 to complete an era in which they went to the title game 10 straight years and won seven of them in the All-America Football Conference and the NFL, have won only one since in 1964.

Neither has made the Super Bowl, a dubious distinction they share with only one other team from the 1950s -- the Cardinals. Since the 1970 merger, the Lions have won just one playoff game and the Browns/Ravens only four.

The strange thing about the Lions and Browns/Ravens is that they've been run so differently and yet neither has found a way to build a championship.

The two owners, Art Modell and William Clay Ford of the Lions, entered the league about the same time. Modell bought the Browns in 1961, the year Ford became the Lions' president, although he didn't purchase the team until 1964.

It's hard to find two men with a more different approach. Modell is a self-made man and hands-on owner who helped negotiate the TV contracts that turned pro football into a big business.

Ford is a scion of one of the nation's most famous families, the grandson of Henry Ford and one of the three sons of Edsel Ford. Although he never ran the industrial giant his grandfather founded, his son, William Clay Ford Jr., will be the next man in charge.

Ford is a hands-off owner who rarely attends league meetings and doesn't get involved in league affairs.

While Modell has tended to be too impatient, Ford has tended to be too patient. He stuck with general manager Russ Thomas long after it was obvious he was much better at running the bottom line than a football team. And he also stuck with coach Wayne Fontes after it was obvious he would never be a success.

Ford finally seemed to get it right two years ago when he hired Bobby Ross as coach and put him in charge. Ross had won at Maryland and Georgia Tech and had taken the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl. He was the obvious answer.

Yet two years later, the Lions are 5-10. It's almost as if nothing works for the Lions.

Even Ford seems befuddled at what to do next. He said he plans some changes, but isn't sure what they will be although he said he's sticking with Ross at least another year. Ross' contract calls for him to be in charge of personnel.

Ford doesn't want to hire a general manager because of the Thomas experience. "Nothing against Russ, but I got one opinion and it was pretty well filtered by the time I got it," he said.

"Clearly, we have to do something," Ford said, but he had no specifics.

"I don't blame you for trying to pin me down, but I don't know how to answer it because I don't know," he said.

The only answer seems to be that sometimes, there are just no easy answers although the Lions and Browns/Ravens will keep looking for them in the off-season.

The zebras' effect

The NFL is paying the price for the blown calls this year.

Look at the wild final weekend it would have been if the officials hadn't blown the endings of the Patriots-Bills and Jets-Seahawks games and hadn't ruled that Oakland's Donald Hollas hadn't crossed the plane of the goal line in Baltimore.

There would have been a three-way tie for first in the AFC East at 10-5 involving the Jets, Bills and Dolphins while the Raiders and Seahawks would have been in the wild-card race at 9-6 and the Patriots and Oilers would have been hanging on at 8-7.

There would have been seven teams fighting for the last four spots to join Denver and Jacksonville in the playoffs.

Instead, all six AFC playoff spots have been filled and the only question is whether the Dolphins or Patriots will be host to a wild-card game.

Pink slips

The holiday season often isn't a pleasant one for coaches because it's when the pink slips start flying.

Dick Vermeil found out last week he's going to survive in St. Louis at least another year, but at least four coaches -- the Ravens' Ted Marchibroda, Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes, Seattle's Dennis Erickson and Carolina's Dom Capers -- seem doomed. And Chicago's Dave Wannstedt is on thin ice.

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