March 14, 2021

New GM Martin Mayhew again returns to Washington with unfinished business

But that story misses the bigger picture. In 1993, Mayhew left for the Tampa Bay…

But that story misses the bigger picture. In 1993, Mayhew left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency and paused his studies. Three years later, he retired, returned to Washington and, at 31, restarted law school from the beginning. He was perhaps the only one there who juggled class with a wife and two children. Mayhew graduated in 2000, his commitment to finishing as revealing as what got him there in the first place.

Now, in Washington, Mayhew will be one of the rare NFL GMs — and the first Black GM ever — afforded a second chance. He has the chance to complete the rebuild he never could as GM of the Detroit Lions (2008-15). Those who know Mayhew believe he will succeed, describing him as someone who cares about the work more than the credit.

“I admired him,” former Washington coach Joe Gibbs said, “for the way he played and the way he prepared himself but also for the kind of person he was.”

Mayhew’s preference to let the work speak will be critical in Washington’s new front office because this role isn’t like the traditional one he had in Detroit. He will lead as a de facto co-GM with Marty Hurney, the executive vice president of football and player personnel who had two stints as GM with the Carolina Panthers while Washington Coach Ron Rivera was there. Mayhew is expected to assume more in-house responsibilities, such as salary cap allocation, while Hurney is expected to spend more time on the road scouting. They will be part of the brain trust advising Rivera in the team’s coach-centric model.

Since their introductory news conference last month, Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney have preached the collaborative vision Mayhew saw succeed with the San Francisco 49ers as a player personnel executive (2017-20). The alignment of the 49ers’ coaching staff and front office helped lead to a Super Bowl appearance in the 2019 season. Free agency next week promises to be a pivotal period in the second year of Rivera’s rebuild, as well as an important test of whether the top trio can translate words into action.

“I feel like everybody doubted, ‘Could it work with [Rivera] and Marty?’ ” 49ers GM John Lynch said. “But I know they’re talking to Martin, and he’s just saying, ‘It’s going tremendous.’ ”

Rivera reiterated this optimism Wednesday. He spent most of January and February constructing the front office — promoting senior director of player personnel Eric Stokes, hiring director of pro personnel Chris Polian — to form a six-man brain trust at the top of the organization.

“I like what we’ve done there,” Rivera said. “I think it gives us a very veteran feel. I think the idea is to have guys that have opinions, that have strong ideas, positive ideas, guys that have gone through a lot and have seen success, have seen failure so that we know how to avoid those pitfalls.”

In his first news conference, Mayhew said all the right things about collaboration. He’s a private person who declines most interview requests, including one for this story. He did, however, answer questions through a team spokesman.

“My entire career … Washington was a place I was interested in coming back to,” he said in a statement. “I always kept an eye on them from afar and really enjoyed my time here and this area, so it’s been special getting this opportunity.”

‘He was never intimidated’

Mayhew’s friends attribute what one writer called his relentless decency to his mother, Fernita. She raised him and his sister, Rhonda, in Tallahassee while working in children’s health care for the state health department. She always told Martin he got his athleticism from her father, but one day when he was about 13, she came outside to race him. It looked like a mismatch: He had started winning track meets at school; she was in her 40s and her house shoes. She smoked him.

In eighth grade, Fernita let her son play tackle football. He excelled as a defensive back and tailback at Florida High, the school next to Florida State, but he was about 130 pounds. The coach, Art Witters, pushed for Mayhew at several schools and once suggested he sneak 2½-pound weights in his shorts for a weigh-in. In 1983, Seminoles Coach Bobby Bowden gave Mayhew his final football scholarship because he could enroll early, and he developed into a three-year starter.

Mayhew’s charisma, quiet confidence and ability to read social situations jumped out to Pamela Perrewé, who has taught in the business school at Florida State for more than 30 years. She remembers Mayhew approaching her to let her know he would miss Friday classes to travel with the football team, promising to get notes from a classmate.

“He had that social skill you really can’t teach,” she said in an interview. “Some people can be deceptively good at [political skill], but [with Mayhew], there’s no way it’s fake. He was so genuine.”

After graduation in 1988, Mayhew prepared for football to end and found a job at First Union bank in Charlotte. Then the Buffalo Bills drafted him in the 10th round. He missed his entire rookie season with a wrist injury, but Washington signed him in 1989, and he developed into an above-average player. Teammates respected the tough, cerebral cornerback because he played opposite superstars in college (Deion Sanders) and the NFL (Darrell Green) and withstood teams game-planning to attack him each week.

“He was never intimidated. Never by anyone or anything,” former Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “There’s no BS to him.”

In 1996, Mayhew retired. He considered going into civil rights law or working for a firm in Washington, but he felt tugged back to football, where his past life would help him. He moved to Connecticut to help start the XFL, and when it folded, he joined the Lions. He ascended under GM Matt Millen, but in September 2008, three weeks into what became an 0-16 season, Detroit fired Millen and promoted Mayhew to GM.

Mayhew understood that, to overcome five decades of futility, he needed to remodel the organization and develop a sustainable process. He started by cementing cornerstones of the rebuild, such as Coach Jim Schwartz and quarterback Matthew Stafford, and filled the front office with staffers who would challenge groupthink and provide the innovation he prized. Former colleagues remembered him as a good listener who made everyone feel heard, including assistant coaches and low-level scouts.

“He’s very inclusive,” said Cedric Saunders, the Lions’ former senior vice president of football operations. “He was open to having conversations; it didn’t have to be his idea. We’d discuss [a situation] to no end, and not every decision was agreed upon, but he was [methodical] about the process. Measure 10 times, cut once.”

Mayhew built the Lions around Stafford and the defensive line. He gained a reputation for savvy free agent signings, and the team steadily improved, finishing 10-6 in 2011 to earn the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 1999 season.

The next year, the Lions won four games. Mayhew later admitted to reporters that he had been overly aggressive with red-flag prospects in the draft, so he overhauled the evaluation process to provide coaches and scouts with deeper personality profiles before they met prospects. The next offseason was one of his best in Detroit; wide receiver Golden Tate and safety Glover Quin were signed, and cornerback Darius Slay was drafted.

“You always knew, with Martin, his agenda was the team’s agenda,” former Lions president Tom Lewand said. “I always felt you could have the open, honest, transparent, unguarded discussions [with him] that you need to have in that position to formulate and execute a plan for the benefit of the franchise.”

In 2013, the Lions went 7-9, fired Schwartz and hired Jim Caldwell. The next season, they won 11 games for the first time in 23 years, but the offseason had planted the seeds of Mayhew’s fall. William Clay Ford Sr., the owner, died of pneumonia, and other family members stepped in. In their first draft, Mayhew used the No. 10 pick on tight end Eric Ebron instead of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and the decision became infamous as Donald blossomed into a superstar and Ebron did not.

The next offseason, the Lions botched contract negotiations with star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who left for the Miami Dolphins. “There are about 1,000 things I would have done differently,” Mayhew told reporters. The team started the 2015 season 1-7, and in early November, four weeks after Mayhew turned 50, the charmed climb he had been on since high school stopped.

‘There’s no ego here’

In the first month or so after he was fired, Mayhew spent a lot of time at Starbucks. He was processing the first high-profile failure of his life by sitting in a busy coffee shop and writing more than 100 pages, analyzing what went wrong in Detroit and how to correct it. He soon landed with the New York Giants, focusing on contracts and cap management.

The next year, Mayhew got a call from Lynch, San Francisco’s first-time GM. Lynch needed an adviser with experience, and Mayhew had mentored him early on as a player with Tampa Bay. The two reconnected when Lynch, then a young broadcaster at Fox, often covered Mayhew’s Lions. They liked to get dinner the night before those games and reminisce about their playing days.

One story illustrates how they came to trust each other. It was September 1993, Lynch’s first start. The rookie was stunned when, early on, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana yelled, “Red 376 Dragon.” He had played quarterback at Stanford and knew the verbiage of the West Coast offense. The Chiefs were about to run a drag slant. Lynch tipped off Mayhew, and Mayhew nearly intercepted the pass.

Later, Montana called “Red 377,” and Lynch alerted Mayhew again. This time, though, the call was a dummy. The receiver burned Mayhew on a slant-and-go.

“Joe overthrew it,” Lynch said, “… [but Mayhew] came up [to me]: ‘Don’t you ever tell me nothing that you don’t know is true!’ And I was the rookie with wide eyes going, ‘I’m sorry!’ ”

In San Francisco, Mayhew was a sounding board for Lynch and concentrated on scouting and football operations. But more than player evaluation, Lynch said, Mayhew learned from the 49ers’ organizational structure. The coaching staff and front office collaborated in a way they hadn’t in Detroit, and Mayhew was struck by Lynch’s ability to convey a vision to ownership, coaches, players, media and fans.

“The biggest thing I picked up from John is how important clear communication is across all areas that a GM touches,” Mayhew said through a team spokesman. “Some other areas were the 49ers’ grading system, meeting schedules and the way the [draft] board was organized. All of that … was really impressive stuff that I will take with me for the rest of my career.”

In January, after Washington’s season ended, Rivera requested to interview Mayhew. They knew each other from playing in the 1980s, serving on the league’s diversity committee and previous interviews (Rivera for Lions coach in 2009 and Mayhew for Panthers GM in 2017). Mayhew wanted the GM job, even though it didn’t have final say over roster decisions, for reasons personal (most of his family lives on the East Coast, and he recently went through a divorce) and professional (the chance to win what he couldn’t in Detroit).

During the new front office’s first news conference, Mayhew, Hurney and Rivera expressed optimism that the team’s structure could work. Mayhew answered every question first, and Hurney followed in lockstep. Mayhew mentioned one versatile college player, whom he declined to name, and said he and Hurney were aligned on where he should play if the team were able to draft him.

“There’s no ego here between either one of us,” Mayhew said. “Our goal is to win a championship. We’re working toward that together. We’re both going to be evaluating, both going to be working on the road some and just … setting the table for Ron to make the decision.”

This is how Mayhew can maximize his rare second chance. It’s how he can push forward the first franchise that gave him a chance to stick in the NFL and help build a roster talented enough to win the Super Bowl. This year mirrors 1997, when he moved back to Washington to complete his law degree. Mayhew didn’t like how his first shot at GM ended, so he again has returned to the city to finish something he started long ago.