- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

During his playing career and beyond, Martin Mayhew accomplished a great deal. He was a steady, undersized cornerback at Florida State and in the NFL for nine seasons, including four with the Washington Redskins. He dispelled doubts, overcame limitations and wound up with a Super Bowl ring and a law degree. He climbed the organizational ladder.

Compared with his current job, all that was a snap. Mayhew is in his first year without the interim tag as the Detroit Lions’ general manager, and he faces a task more daunting and complex than shutting down a receiver or studying civil procedure.

He must fix the worst team in the NFL.

The Lions were historically inept last season, the first club to go 0-16. They are 0-2 this year. Going back to 2007, Detroit has lost 19 straight games while playing in the league’s most economically depressed city. The Lions are one of eight NFL franchises that declined in value from last season, according to Forbes.

Mayhew, who turns 44 next month, won’t do it alone. New coach Jim Schwartz and team president Tom Lewand also form the Lions’ core of responsibility and accountability. It is squarely on them to turn things around and erase all remnants of the ill-fated Matt Millen era - similar to how the Russians used to disavow previous leaders.

“You have to have a common philosophy and a plan to implement the philosophy and the discipline to stay within it,” Lewand said.

Mayhew, who played for the Redskins opposite Hall of Famer Darrell Green from 1989 through 1992, is probably the most vital of the plan’s components. He must recognize and acquire talent. Absent that, Schwartz’s strategic brilliance and tough-minded focus and Lewand’s salary cap knowledge and business acumen won’t amount to much.

Mayhew got busy before he even got the job. As the interim GM last year, he traded disappointing receiver Roy Williams to Dallas for draft picks. He has since hired Schwartz and turned the club inside out. Going into Sunday’s game in Detroit against the Redskins, 32 players on the Lions’ 53-man roster have no connection to last year’s embarrassment - the lasting legacy of Millen, who was the president and GM for eight bleak seasons.

Millen hired Mayhew in 2001 after Mayhew spent time with the short-lived XFL. The two had remained close since their days as teammates in Washington; Mayhew, who once worked with the Redskins as an intern, methodically worked his way through the Lions’ organization.

With the first pick in April’s draft, Mayhew took quarterback Matthew Stafford. He also drafted tight end Brandon Pettigrew at No. 20 and safety Louis Delmas with the first pick in the second round. All three are starting. Schwartz, meanwhile, has come from the Tennessee Titans to put his own stamp on things. Despite losses to New Orleans and Minnesota, the early returns are positive.

“It’s night and day in terms of the attitude, the preparation,” Lewand said. “It’s a completely different building than it was a year ago. We have a different way of doing things.”

Mayhew has declined interview requests since the start of the season.

The Redskins are favored Sunday, but after two drab performances by the Redskins - especially their offense - the Lions are a trendy pick to end their losing streak. What irony if a member of the Redskins’ extended family and a valuable contributor to the last Washington team to win a Super Bowl helps cause one of the lowest moments in franchise history.

“Smart guy,” Schwartz said of Mayhew. “And from the very beginning of the interview, I knew we had common ground from the philosophy of football. His time with the Redskins, with the way they ran the ball even though Martin played corner, you could tell we had a lot of the same philosophies of being big and physical and running the football and stopping the run.

“He’s a very, very smart guy. He’s a guy that maybe not a lot of people in the league knew a lot about, but he’s an up-and-coming young, smart GM.”

The word “smart” or its equivalent frequently comes up. Mayhew graduated from Florida State with a degree in business management. He secretly began attending law classes at Georgetown in 1991 - he didn’t want Redskins coaches to think he was distracted from football - and earned his degree in 2000. (Coincidentally, Schwartz has an economics degree from Georgetown.)

“He was a sharp kid,” said Bobby Beathard, who signed Mayhew as a free agent from Buffalo in 1989 just before quitting as the Redskins’ GM. “It’s probably why he has the job he has in Detroit.”

Said Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, the secondary coach when Mayhew played cornerback opposite Deion Sanders in the mid-1980s: “The first thing with Martin was you could see he was a very smart guy on and off the field.”

Former Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon added, “He probably wasn’t the fastest guy, but he was very smart.”

Lots of general managers are presumably smart. Does that necessarily translate into helping create a winning organization? Given the range of Mayhew’s experiences, Lewand said he believes it does.

“Some general managers come from a more academic or legal background,” he said. “Some come from a personnel background, and some played the game. In Martin’s case, he combines all three. It’s not just his intelligence, not just his demeanor and work ethic but a unique background he can combine.”

At Florida High, a small developmental school then located on the Florida State campus in Tallahassee, Mayhew graduated a semester early. He was 5-foot-8 and barely weighed 150 pounds, although his high school coach, Art Witters, not only insists Mayhew weighed far less, he said he sent him to interview with Florida State coaches with weights in his pockets. Witters said Mayhew was fairly fast for the competition, but that’s not what stood out - “attitude,” he said.

Mayhew once told Witters if he ever made the pros, he would buy his coach a Corvette. He did just that. Witters and his son were guests of Mayhew at Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis, when the Redskins beat Buffalo 37-24. For Witters, who grew up in Virginia a Redskins fan, it was heaven.

“I ended up on an elevator with Joe Gibbs and Art Monk,” he said, still relishing the experience.

When Mayhew showed up at Florida State, “he wasn’t in a very big package at first,” Andrews said. “It took a year to grow. He got bigger and stronger every year. … But the thing I remember most about him is the consistency and the priority he placed on playing his role, as a teammate, and the way he went about his life, his personal life, getting an education.”

Andrews said Mayhew wasn’t “supposed” to be in the NFL, “but he knew what he had to do, knew what obstacles he had to overcome.” Mayhew was working at a bank in Charlotte, N.C., when Buffalo drafted him in the 10th round in 1988. He broke his hand in a preseason game and spent the year on injured reserve. But Beathard picked him up, and Mayhew rose from the bottom of the depth chart to earn a starting role.

Generously listed at 5-8 and 172 pounds, he twice recorded more than 100 tackles before missing the last part of the 1992 season with a broken arm. He left for Tampa Bay in 1993 as a free agent and retired after the 1996 season. Among his broad interests, Mayhew visited Africa and got involved in charity work there.

“He was the poster child for the student-athlete,” Green said. “He mixed his intellectual capabilities with a hard work ethic and toughness. He played opposite me and got a lot of work, and he was up to the challenge. He did everything he needed to physically and off the field.

“He’s one of my heroes.”

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