Lions are still trying to recover from Matt Millen

Under Matt Millen, the Lions sunk to the lowest depths of the NFL.

When William Clay Ford Sr. telephoned Matt Millen to offer him the job as team president, CEO (and de facto general manager) of the Detroit Lions, Millen told him, “Mr. Ford, I’m flattered, but I’m not qualified.”

A truer self-assessment has never been uttered.

Matt Millen was not qualified to build a football team. Measured by wins, his seven-plus years in Detroit were the worst stretch in pro football history. Compounding the abysmal failures on the field, Millen orchestrated several boneheaded moves that left the Lions roster bare and undermanned.

Even today, nearly a decade after he was (finally) fired in the middle of an historically awful season, the Lions are still trying to shake off the bad karma from the Millen Era.

Success as a player

Millen was a rugged, if not tenacious, linebacker for 12 seasons, and he had great success as a player. First with the Raiders, then Redskins, and 49ers, Millen won four Super Bowl rings. He was a winner. He’s still the only man in NFL history to win Super Bowl titles in four cities, having won rings with the Raiders in both Oakland and Los Angeles. But, after his horrid performance in the front office with Detroit, few people in Michigan remember Millen’s winning pedigree.

What was it that Old Bill Ford saw in Millen? The four rings, for sure. But it also must have been his clever repartee as an analyst on Fox’s NFL broadcasts. In the booth after his playing career ended, Millen was direct and football-smart. Seemingly. It was his “football smarts” that attracted Ford to Millen after the 2000 season.

Ford gave Millen complete control of football operations prior to the 2001 season. It’s worth looking at the state of the Lions at that time.

In the 2000 season, head coach Bobby Ross resigned in mid-season after a loss to the Dolphins that dropped the team to 5-4. Ross told a stunned gathering of news reporters: “I’m embarrassed at the way [our team] played on Sunday, and I take responsibility for our lack of preparation. I need to step aside.”

Ross was replaced by Gary Moeller, a former Michigan coach who immediately sparked the Lions to three straight wins. Still, the team lost 23-20 on Christmas Eve to the Bears and missed the playoffs, finishing at 9-7. The Lions were in transition, no doubt, patching together an offense with Charlie Batch behind center and an aging receiving corps built around veterans Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton.

The Mornhinweg Debacle

Fresh in his new office with the Lions, Millen inserted his own coach, hiring Marty Mornhinweg, who had most recently been the offensive coordinator for San Francisco. Mornhinweg was a curious choice, seeing as he had never been a head coach anywhere, and only been an OC for a few years in the NFL and only a couple in college. He’d spent his coaching career mostly bouncing among obscure college programs. His big break came when Green Bay head coach Mike Holmgren hired him to be an offensive assistant. Mornhinweg eventually earned the QB coach spot with the Packers and won a Super Bowl ring. That’s when Steve Mariucci brought him to the Bay area to head up his offense. But it quickly became obvious that if Mornhinweg was an offensive genius, his IQ was greatly enhanced by having Brett Favre. Everyone in the NFL seemed to know this except Matt Millen.

The Lions were 26th out of 30 NFL teams in offense in 2001 under Mornhinweg. Fans quickly became furious with his play-calling, and it didn’t help that Batch was ill-suited for the passing game that the new coach wanted to implement. Adding to the frustration, Moore’s body finally gave out and that left Morton to field the receiving load. The Lions lost their first 12 games, and in infuriating fashion. Seven of the losses were by less than seven points. They ended up winning two games in the first year of Millen/Marty.

As a result of their poor showing in ’01, the Lions had the third pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. With that pick they chose Oregon QB Joey Harrington, accepted by some draft watchers as the best thrower available. However, other NFL executives felt Harrington was too small and lacked the arm strnegth and finesse for the pro game. It was a risky pick. Millen and Mornhinweg lauded Harrington as the perfect fit for their new downfield offense. But the Joey Harrington era turned out to be one that Lions fans would soon want to forget.

In season two under Millen with Quarterback Joey in charge, the Lions lost every game on the road for a second straight year. They ended up losing their last eight overall to finish at 3-13. They did everything terribly: 26th in the NFL in scoring; 31st in defense; last in special teams; and third in most penalty yards.

The low point of 2002 came on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in a game against the Bears at Soldier Field. The Lions battled Chicago to a tie after four quarters and the game was headed to overtime. Detroit won the coin toss but Mornhinweg elected to kick the ball rather than receive. His rationale? The wind was in his face. The puzzling decision was criticized by the announcers on TV at the time and the criticism became a tidal wave after the Bears marched down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal. The stupid decision to not take the ball in OT was the defining moment of Mornhinweg’s tenure in Detroit. He was fired at the end of the season with a 5-27 record.

Mooch and the Horrible Draft Picks

Millen summoned his friend Steve Mariucci to Motown to take over the Lions in 2003. Regarded as an offensive mastermind, “Mooch” was going to turn the Lions around by firing up the offense. In week one, the Lions put up 42 points against the Cardinals. There was cautious optimism. But the offense soon went silent, and in week five wide receiver Charles Rogers suffered an injury that ended his season. The Lions limped to a 5-11 record. Once again they were winless on the road.

In the 2003 NFL Draft, Millen chose Michigan State wide receiver Charles Rogers, a consensus All-American, with the second overall pick. It proved to be one of the worst draft busts in NFL history. Rogers, troubled with emotional and drug problems, and hampered by injuries, played only 14 games for the Lions in parts of three seasons. Sadly, he was only the the most glaring of several asinine draft choices by Millen.

Detroit had two first round picks in the 2004 NFL Draft. They used one to choose hulking running back Kevin Jones, but Millen used the other, the 7th overall pick, to take Roy Williams, a tall, athletic receiver from Texas. Apparently Millen’s scheme was to build a dynamic receiving unit around Rogers and Williams. But that never happened because of the difficulties Rogers faced, as outlined above. Oddly, in the 2005 NFL Draft, Millen used his first round selection to grab another wide receiver, this time Mike Williams from USC. Williams caught just two touchdown passes for the Lions in 22 games over two seasons.

Choosing wide receivers in the first round in three straight drafts made Millen a laughingstock, and the Lions along with him. As Millen pursued his dream of a superstar receiving unit, the Lions defense was undermanned, both lines were ruptured with injuries and poor play, and the team’s performance on the field fell to historically low depths.

In 2005 Harrington lost his job to 35-year old has-been Jeff Garcia. Just a few years into his career, first round pick Harrington was obviously a bust. Millen fired Mariucci four days before the traditional Thanksgiving Day game. The team won five games and finished 28th among 32 NFL teams in scoring. Things didn’t improve under interim coach Dick Jauron, and the Lions ranked first in the league in penalty yards. It was a listless, lifeless team. But after posting a 21-59 record in his first five years leading the Lions, Millen had even more failure in store for Detroit fans.

After the ’05 season, Ford rewarded Millen a five-year contract extension. Why? Well, because he was Bill Ford Sr. and didn’t pay much attention to how winning football teams are built. Apparently winning wasn’t one of the benchmarks considered in Millen’s performance review.

The Fire Millen Campaign

At the apex of the hatred for Matt Millen, fans took their loathing to extreme levels. It started in 2005 at an MSU basketball game when fans saw head coach Steve Mariucci on the big screen in the arena. Chants of “Fire Millen” soon rang down from the crowd. Later, at a Pistons game against the Lakers, fans started the same chant. Over the 2005 and 2006 seasons, there were numerous coordinated efforts by fans to stage protests against Millen and the Ford family. A “Keep Millen” sign even showed up from a Packers fan in Green Bay. Still, the Ford family stuck by Millen.

As he searched for a new head coach, Millen shifted his attention for the 2006 season, focusing on defense. He hired Rod Marinelli, the former defensive line and assistant coach for the Buccaneers. Marinelli was Millen’s fourth coach in five years. It didn’t take long to realize he was sorely overmatched in the role.

Marinelli wanted a strong defense countered by a ball-control “no-mistakes” offense. He brought in Jon Kitna to be his signal caller. Kitna was a 34-year old retread with a sore arm, but he had swagger. Unfortunately, the Lions didn’t see much of that swagger, as they lost the first five games under Marinelli. Once again the Lions managed to lose every game on the road. They won only two games and the revamped defense was 30th out of 32 NFL teams. Opposing offenses cut through Detroit’s defensive backfield like it was paper. In spite of the debacle, Millen kept his job.

Calls for Millen’s firing increased over the 2006-07 offseason, but Bill Ford Sr. was sticking with his man. If there was one thing about the elder Ford that could be said — he was loyal. Even when the man he was loyal to was like a 1,000 pound weight around his ankle.

The defense was even worse in Marinelli’s second season at the helm, but somehow Kitna got the offense humming early and the Lions jumped out to a 6-2 start in 2007. It was to be the only shining moment in the entire Millen era, and it was fleeting. The Lions lost six straight to fall from playoff contention, finishing at 7-9. The defense allowed 30 or more points in seven games. But the seven wins were enough to save Marinelli and Millen from the axe.

Finally Fired, and 0-16

With an 0-3 record at the bye week in 2008, Millen was finally fired. According to reports, the senior Ford did it by telephone. Marinelli was sentenced to coach the entire season and had to watch his team lose every week, usually by lopsided scores. The Lions became a punch line, an embarrassment. Some fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads at games. The ’08 Lions went 0-16, the first (and so far only) team to do so.

By 2008 the Lions had a second-year receiver named Calvin Johnson who was quickly earning his nickname “Megatron.” Johnson was a beast at the wide receiver spot, but the young wideout must have been wondering what was going on, because no fewer than five quarterbacks threw passes his way over the course of the miserable 2008 season. The Lions surrendered a staggering 32.3 points per game on the way to a “perfect” losing year.

During the Millen Era (counting the full 2008 season), the Lions went 31-97 for a .242 winning percentage. They went 8-50 on the road with Millen in place as general manager and CEO of football operations. Eventually, the team lost 19 consecutive games (from 2007 to 2009), and they failed to win consecutive games until late in the 2010 season, two years after Millen was finally purged.

Millen’s insistence on drafting wide receivers in the first round of the draft for three straight years helped set the franchise back. His selection of Joey Harrington with the #2 overall pick was another colossal mistake. Most of his other early round picks ended up being busts to some degree. Only his pick of Calvin Johnson in 2007 stood out as a success. Otherwise, as one unnamed NFL executive said of Millen: “He made some of the worst decisions of any GM in NFL history.”

In the ten years before Millen was hired by William Clay Ford Sr., the Detroit Lions made the playoffs six times. In his eight years and the two years after his firing, the Lions turned into pussycats, posting a 39-123 record. Finally, in 2011, with Jim Schwartz on the sidelines, young QB Matthew Stafford slinging the ball, and Megatron soaring into the air to make catches, the Lions made the playoffs. Most importantly, there was a new man (Martin Mayhew), a man not named Millen, in the front office, and that made all the difference too.

In the last six seasons the Lions have made the playoffs three times. They’re still chasing an elusive playoff win, their first in more than two decades. But even with some success on the field, the franchise is hung over from the Millen Era. A dark, miserable period in Detroit sports history that no one ever wants to see repeated.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.