Archive for Friday, September 26, 2008

Commentary: Millen overmatched … and unlucky

September 26, 2008


Matt Millen is not an idiot. I know that's hard to believe, simply because he was one of the worst executives - if not the worst executive - in the history of professional sports. But it's true.

We all know Millen was a spectacular failure as the Lions' president. He went 31-84. That's unbelievably, historically bad. And the aftermath of his reign is still to come.

But the question to ask now is why Millen was so awful. As the Lions look for their next leader, they need to learn from the past so they don't repeat any part of it. Was it inexperience? Incompetence? Bad luck? Pride?

It was all of that and more.

Remember that when Millen was hired in 2001, some of his harshest critics now applauded the move. The Lions were praised for thinking outside of the box.

Millen was wildly successful and well-connected in the NFL before this. He was an excellent linebacker who won four Super Bowl rings. He was an excellent broadcaster who could both break down complex plays and tell entertaining stories.

Even as the Lions struggled under his leadership, Millen remained an immensely likeable person and was respected for his knowledge of the game. At events like the scouting combine and owners meetings, it was hard to talk to him because so many people would interrupt to say hello. He was given a prestigious position on the competition committee, the group that recommends rule changes to the owners.

But Millen had never been an executive before, and being an excellent player, an excellent broadcaster and a good guy who knows the game doesn't mean you know how to run an NFL organization. There is so much more involved.

Millen had no consistent, solid plan. He made bad decision after bad decision and compounded his problems by constantly changing things. He went through coach after coach, coordinator after coordinator, system after system, telling his scouts to look for one thing and then another.

The first two coaches Millen hired - Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci - dazzled his imagination but didn't fit his hard-work, no-frills core philosophy. Finally, Millen went the other way with Rod Marinelli, maybe too far the other way.

Millen missed in free agency and the draft. He gave big money to free agents who didn't deserve it and put the franchise tag on players who weren't worthy of it. Not only did he have busts from the top of the draft - Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, Mike Williams - he failed to find players in the later rounds. The salary cap suffered.

You would think a guy would get lucky here and there. But Millen was almost always unlucky. A prime example: Rogers broke his collarbone not just once but twice. Any chance of a great career ended there, long before his drug suspension.

When he was a broadcaster, he drove from his Pennsylvania farm to the New York studios wearing overalls in a smelly pickup truck - until someone made him take a limo to Manhattan. In Detroit, the protests, chants and criticism only made Millen dig in deeper. He wasn't going to leave - until someone made him.

That's a player's mentality. But Millen wasn't a player anymore.

He isn't a team president anymore, either.


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