Hire away Scott Pioli from New England's front office to become president/general manager. He then tabs Patriots whiz-kid offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as the new head coach. And when the free-agent signing period begins, ink Pats quarterback Matt Cassel to a massive free-agent contract.
The Ford family couldn't receive a better bailout — especially after fielding what may be the league's first 0-16 team.
The key to making this work is Pioli. He has declined prior feelers to remain New England's vice president of player personnel. Some of the opportunities simply weren't appealing enough, especially as the Patriots were en route to winning three Super Bowls and playing in a fourth. He also has shown great loyalty to Patriots coach Bill Belichick — who hired Pioli for his first NFL job in 1992 — and team owner Robert Kraft.
But at some point, the 43-year-old Pioli must decide whether he wants to spend his career subservient to Belichick or running his own franchise with final say over personnel decisions. Detroit could prove irresistible with a blow-away salary offer that tops the $5 million annually that former Lions president/GM Matt Millen was stealing, err, earning.
Pioli is worth the payoff. Just look at the Patriots' draft history, free-agent moves and trades since his arrival in 2000. No team could withstand all the injuries New England (7-5) has suffered the season and remain in playoff contention without outstanding depth. Pioli knows what type of talent fits in New England's offensive and defensive systems and steers Belichick toward it.
There's plenty to criticize about the Fords, but meddling isn't one of them. Despite persistent losing, Millen was allowed to run the franchise as he saw fit without penny-pinching constraints. Such a hands-off approach by team ownership — not to mention patience for seven-plus seasons — is a general manager's dream.
Pioli also never had the potential opportunity to leave New England with both a head coach and potential star quarterback in tow. The Patriots used a 2005 seventh-round draft choice on Cassel, who was groomed by McDaniels the past four seasons in his dual role as New England's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. With injured quarterback Tom Brady (another Pioli/Belichick late-round pick) expected back in 2009, it would be foolish for a Patriots team with more pressing personnel needs to designate roughly $14 million toward his backup through use of a franchise tag.
Hiring McDaniels wouldn't guarantee Cassel's services to Detroit on the open market. But if the Lions made a contract offer comparable to other suitors, Cassel should sign there. Cassel would have two familiar faces in his corner as he tries to forge his own post-Patriots career, not to mention what could be his own version of Randy Moss in promising young Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Snaring McDaniels and Cassel would then allow Pioli to turn elsewhere with what should be the draft's top overall pick. The likely selection: a much-needed left tackle to protect Cassel's backside.
The biggest impediment to pulling off this plan might be Pioli himself. There is an unwritten rule that what happens in New England stays in New England. In other words, those who leave the Patriots don't pull an Eric Mangini and immediately try taking others with them. Pioli's close ties with Belichick and Kraft could compel him not to ransack players, coaches or front-office members.
Pioli also may have a vision for rebuilding a franchise that doesn't include McDaniels and/or Cassel. First-year Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, formerly New England's director of college scouting, has quickly rebuilt the Falcons without turning his team into Patriots South.
Regardless, the best option for a family that made its fortune in the auto industry is simpler than the accessories on a Model T. The Fords should start kicking Pioli's tires as soon as the regular season ends.
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