Some Very Bad Mojo In Motown

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 07, 2005
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There is a good reason why Steve Mariucci became the first NFL fire of the season. He simply didn’t do his job. His talented but undisciplined players hardly ever performed to expectations, while the team dissolved into a finger-pointing mob that passed around more blame than footballs.

One could argue that many of the problems were the result of the baggage players brought with them and therefore Mariucci’s hands were tied. True enough, but it’s not like Mooch had nothing to work with. And as far as dealing with the egocentric nature of athletes, well, that’s what he is paid to do.

Over a four-year stretch, the Lions picked up a quarterback, five receivers, four lineman and two tailbacks. And because of the team’s dismal yearly performance, those picks have come rather early in the draft. Yet with all this, the team’s offensive output was miserable.

Third-round pick Joey Harrington has been erratic and overmatched. Wide receiver Charles Rogers has barely been seen in his three years because of two shoulder injuries and being suspended for violating the NFL’s drug policy. And rookie Mike Williams thought the NFL would be as easy as college.

But of all the things that went wrong, nothing better personifies the team’s problems than the situation that developed at quarterback.

From the very beginning, the coach had no confidence in Harrington. He even failed to put a positive coach-speak spin about the controversy - and that just added to the mess. This was never more evident than during the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving unspectacular.

Harrington played OK, nothing outstanding. He threw an interception when his receiver fell down during a route, overthrew one guy, underthrew another and had three easy passes dropped in the secondary. His fate was sealed when he was sacked twice and knocked down on three consecutive plays by Falcon lineman Patrick Kerney after tackle Kelly Butler left with an injury. Mariucci replaced Harrington with Garcia, who did not play much better, and the Lions got blown out as the team played worse with each passing minute.

Clearly, Steve Mariucci was overmatched by this job. But it was nothing compared to the man who hired him: Matt Millen.

When Millen was hired as team president and CEO in 2001 he convinced owner William Clay Ford that the 9-7 team had to be reworked. He was right. That Lions were bouncing between bad and mediocre and things weren’t getting any better. Millen made changes. Under his tutelage the Lions have posted an NFL worst 20-55 record. For his effort, Millen got a five-year extension in August.

During his reign, Millen has displayed the same more-brawn-than-brains attitude he had as a player. He only interviewed two candidates for the head coaching job and hired both: Marty Mornhinweg, the man who famously won a coin toss and gave away possession of the ball during an overtime game against Chicago (which, of course, they lost) and the guy he just canned. Not a very impressive list, when you consider guys such as Lovie Smith, Marvin Lewis, Jim Mora and Dennis Green were among the available candidates. And does anyone feel confident the next coach won’t be another Millen pet instead of an impressive coach-in-waiting like Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak or Bears defensive boss Ron Rivera?

During the press conference announcing Mariucci’s firing, Millen said he is not a patient person and that things need to get better in a hurry. If that’s true, shouldn’t he have been the first to go? Mooch got twoand-a-half years. Millen is on his fifth and is under contract for another half decade. It makes no sense.

Millen is right about one thing: Changes have to be made and, believe it or not, it’s possible to win in Detroit. Ford is not a penny-pinching owner nor one who likes to poke his head where it doesn’t belong. The team that wears “Honolulu Blue” has a steady fan base that is 50 years starved from a championship, and neighbors who have proven it possible to go from loser to winner: the Pistons and Red Wings.

If the Lions can use a bit of the innovation that Ford Motor Company president Bill Ford brags about in promotional ads, the Lions could end a history that has provided just 33 winning seasons in 74 years of existence.

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