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Lion's share of blame goes to Millen

If Hollywood ever decides to film "The Matt Millen Story," Bill Murray should play the struggling president and general manager of the Detroit Lions. He already trained for the role when he starred in "Groundhog Day."

No GM in NFL history has lasted as long as Millen while his team has done so little. It is a record, one rival NFL executive said this week, that will never be broken.

"He's got the worst record in history from a general manager and he'll have that record forever," an AFC executive said this week. "No one else will ever get to have double-digit losses for six straight years. I've been in the league for over 20 years and I've never heard of a team going 23-68 without making a change in management. The only thing he's accomplished since he got to Detroit is surviving. Don't ask me how he's done it."

You could ask Millen, but he doesn't often return phone calls and seldom talks on the record when not in a press conference, and he's been avoiding them in recent years with good reason. What you can say is he's an intelligent and affable guy with a proud record of accomplishment in football, right up to the moment he came out of Fox's broadcast booth at the insistence of Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. and proved it's a lot easier to talk about how to run a pro football franchise than to do it.

"It's not as easy as a person thinks it is when he's doing color commentary," former NFL executive of the year Ron Wolf said. "There's a lot of work involved that people don't have the patience for. There's luck involved as well, and Matt hasn't been very lucky.

"I really like Matt an awful lot. I have a lot of respect for him and what he did for us with the Raiders [as a player], but this [job] is different now. I can't explain why it happened. I don't know. I don't want to be too hard on him, but the record speaks for itself. It's pathetic. Inept, really."

Up to the point Millen stopped commenting on how NFL teams should be run and actually began running one, he had known nothing but success in football. He was a star player in high school, a captain at Penn State, an All-American in 1979, a second-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders in 1980, and the only player in NFL history to win four Super Bowl rings while playing for three different teams (Raiders Super Bowls XV, XVIII; 49ers Super Bowl XXIV; and Redskins Super Bowl XXVI). He then went on to a successful broadcasting career after 12 years in the NFL, first with CBS and then Fox, while also building two thriving businesses. Millen, it could be argued, had known nothing but success, so it was not a surprise that he was confident to the point of cockiness when he was hired by the Lions.

Something to build on
The team Millen inherited had finished 9-7 in 2000, and missed the playoffs only because Chicago kicker Paul Edinger delivered a 54-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the season finale to nip the Lions, 23-20, denying the Lions a return to the postseason for the third time in four years and the seventh time in 10. Since that year, the Lions have not roared again. They have been even more inept than the Arizona Cardinals, which says a lot. The Cardinals are 29-62 since 2000.

"They don't seem to have any idea what they're doing in personnel," another AFC general manager said of the Lions. "If you draft a wide receiver with your first pick back-to-back-to-back, you have no idea how to build a team. You don't start rebuilding your team with wide receivers. You build on both sides of the ball.

"I like Matt personally and he was a good player in this league for a long time, but he was thrust into a position he thought he knew everything about that he knew nothing about. When that happens, it's not healthy for you or for the organization. What he needed was to bring in a solid personnel guy to assist him, a grass-roots guy who knew how to put a team together who could filter the information coming in from the scouts and make recommendations to him. He didn't do it. Whether that was arrogance or a sign of insecurity I don't know, but he's made the final decisions on the head coaches and on the players, and they were poor decisions time and again. The Lions' problems can only be traced to one guy. Unfortunately, that's Matt Millen."

Of all of Millen's mistakes, two have led most of his peers to shake their heads. The first was the hiring of Marty Mornhinweg as head coach in 2001, despite the fact Mornhinweg had no experience as even a coordinator let alone running anything. The second was the drafting of wide receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams with the team's first picks of the 2003-05 drafts. Millen used the second, seventh, and 10th picks in the draft to land three guys to play the same spot. Only one, Roy Williams, has developed into a good player. The injury-plagued Rogers (two broken collarbones and at least one failed drug test) is out of the league, and Mike Williams spends, by most reports, more time eating or complaining than he does catching footballs.

"The best wide receivers in the league touch the ball maybe six times a game," said one NFC general manager who has built three teams into playoff contenders. "There are more good wide receivers available than at most other positions. You've got to get guys on both sides of the ball. You have to balance your thinking. Taking a wide receiver with a top-10 pick three years in a row isn't balanced thinking. It isn't thinking at all.

"From what I see, they've made very poor decisions in the draft and free agency most of the time, and they didn't have patience. Matt was a great player, but that has nothing to do with building a team. Mickey Mouse was a great comedian but you don't make him the head of the Disney Company."

Time running out?
How much longer Millen will be in charge of the Lions is the subject of great debate. As his team grinds toward another double-digit losing season under first-year head coach Rod Marinelli, there is no one else left to fire. In six years, Millen has fired four head coaches (interim head man Gary Moeller, Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, and a second interim head coach, Dick Jauron) and hired three.

Millen has drafted 45 players since taking over. Only one, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (second round, 2001), has blossomed into a Pro Bowl performer. Millen has had five top-10 picks and has busted out on at least three (quarterback Joey Harrington, Rogers, and Mike Williams). He did make solid trades on draft day 2004, when he swapped the sixth overall pick to Cleveland to move one slot back while adding the Browns' second-round choice, then transforming the seventh pick into what may very well become his second Pro Bowl draftee in Roy Williams. And he sent a package of picks, including one of his high second-round choices, to the Chiefs, allowing Detroit back into the first round at No. 30 to take running back Kevin Jones, who has struggled with injuries but rushed for 1,133 yards as a rookie.

Yet for all his failings, it is said Millen's bond with Ford remains strong, even though the pressure for the owner to remove him is immense in Detroit. Despite having a 16-48 record at the time, Ford gave Millen a five-year contract extension before last season and was rewarded with a 7-20 record since. Perhaps because of that, fans have begun to make Millen the focus of their ire rather than the players or Marinelli, who many in the league feel was a good selection to rebuild the Lions if he gets some help.

Matters have sunk to the point where Millen gets blamed even for things he supposedly knew nothing about, like the classless, nitwit decision on Thanksgiving Day to announce the Dolphins' defense at Ford Field, then follow it by announcing the hated Harrington would start at quarterback for Miami. Naturally, Harrington was booed mercilessly, since he'd been scapegoated by some of his former teammates for many of the problems in Detroit. When Harrington threw three touchdown passes and had a 107.4 efficiency rating to help Miami paste Detroit, 27-10, it made Millen's organization look not only petty, but inept once again.

So it has gone for silent Matt Millen, who recently told a friend when asked how much more of this he could take, "I can take a lot." Maybe so, but how much more can the Lions take?

That is a question only William Clay Ford Sr. can answer, and Millen had best hope it stays that way because if the decision falls to Ford's son, Bill Jr., things could change. After all, the younger Ford fired himself as head of Ford Motor Company to bring in ex-Boeing CEO Alan Mulally in September for having the same kind of record running his father's auto company as Matt Millen has had running his father's football team.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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