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Sports Media

Millen hasn’t lost his luster as a broadcaster

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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Matt Millen has always talked a good game when it comes to professional football. But winning games as an executive has proven considerably more challenging, and it is fair to wonder if his historic failure in his previous job should dent his credibility in his new ones.

Yes, that’s new ones, plural. Millen, who spent seven-plus seasons as the president of the Detroit Lions, will be a busy man this fall. The 51-year-old was hired this week as the analyst for the NFL Network’s eight Thursday night games this season. That news came approximately a month after he joined ESPN as a college football game analyst as well as a contributor to its NFL coverage, which will include appearances on “Monday Night Countdown’’ and “NFL Live,’’ among other programs.

Millen, who was fired by the Lions three weeks into their winless 2008 season, reemerged as a guest studio analyst on NBC’s NFL playoffs coverage in January. Before leaving to run the Lions in 2001, he had received praise as a candid and insightful observer of the league during his time as an analyst with Fox and CBS from 1995-2001. He also served as a member of CBS Radio’s Monday night broadcast team from 1997-2001.

Millen’s broadcasting résumé is impressive. But the opposite is true regarding his tenure with the Lions.

Though the majority of athletes-and-coaches-turned-analysts had failed to some degree - otherwise, they’d still be playing or coaching - Millen is a special case, a disaster of legendary proportions. In 2001, Millen took over a Lions team coming off a 9-7 season. During his tenure, the Lions went 31-84, the worst eight-year record of any NFL team since the ’40s. After he was dismissed last September, the team he put together promptly lost its next 13 games, becoming the first 0-16 team in league history.

Again, the question must be asked: Do lost football games translate to lost credibility?

While it’s difficult to come up with the name of another analyst who proved his incompetence as an executive in the sport he is paid to opine on - most of Isiah Thomas’s various disgraces in the NBA came after his time at NBC - The NFL Network and ESPN apparently see hiring Millen as something approaching a coup. NFL Network president and CEO Steve Bornstein this week praised him as “one of the best television analysts in the business’’ while touting the hire.

During a teleconference with reporters, Millen suggested his struggles in Detroit could serve to make him a better broadcaster.

“In our league, you’re only judged on wins and losses. So tenure was not good, it was very poor,’’ he said. “So it’s been said that you learn a lot from failures, and I learned a ton. So I can bring that to the table. I think I view my experience in Detroit as a positive just in terms of, not in terms of winning and losing, obviously, but having gone through it and having been exposed to every level of the National Football League. Yeah, I think that’s something that could help with the telecast.’’

It should be noted Millen was a decorated player during his 12-year NFL career, playing linebacker for four Super Bowl champions. And he has been mostly accountable for his mistakes in Detroit, though his comments to SI.com’s Don Banks this week were curiously defiant.

“I understand. In Detroit, they need a bad guy. I was a bad guy,’’ Millen said. “I was to blame for the fall of the auto industry and the housing market. But that’s what happens when you lose in this game. You give everyone a cheap and easy story to jump on.’’

He’s wrong about that. The story isn’t cheap. It’s logical. Millen was an accomplished player and broadcaster, but his legacy for now is that of one of the most overmatched executives in the sport’s long history. The credibility gap exists, and it’s going to be a challenge for him to close it.

To put it another way, during his conference call, he said he likes what the Lions have done to fortify their roster. Such a statement cannot possibly inspire confidence among Detroit fans. Whether Millen’s opinions do so among fans of the other 31 NFL teams remains to be seen, but for now the stench of failure lingers.

Meeting the demand
Comcast launched its Red Sox On Demand package to its New England digital cable subscribers yesterday, and upon initial perusal, it seems certain to be a tremendous success with Sox diehards and casual fans alike. Included in the hundreds of hours of programming, which serves as sort of a Red Sox archive, are player profiles, behind-the-scenes footage, reports on the Sox’ farm teams, game highlights from past seasons as well as the current one, as well as a deep treasure trove of nostalgia.

“There’s something for everyone,’’ said Steve Hackley, the senior vice president of Comcast in Greater Boston. “We think this new choice will satiate fans’ desire for new Red Sox content. For example, if you’re telling your kids how good [Fred] Lynn, [Jim ] Rice, and [Dwight] Evans were, now you can just call up the 1977 season and actually show them.’’

The Red Sox are primarily associated with NESN, which carries their local game telecasts as well as other programming. So to see the specific association with Comcast might raise some eyebrows. But Hackley says the decision to add the Red Sox to On Demand should not be interpreted as a shot across the bow to NESN.

“We have a great partnership with them,’’ Hackley said. “They are the first channel we actually went hi-def with. I don’t foresee any friction. This was done in the theory of abundance. There are simply more ways to follow [the Red Sox] now.’’

Facts and fiction
The next time Joe Morgan admits he’s wrong about something during ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball’’ telecast might be the first. When a replay inevitably proves one of his observations false, his mode of operation is to fall silent until the next pitch is delivered and the subject changes. But Morgan exceeded his usual hubris last Sunday when, during Indians pitcher Cliff Lee’s bid for a no-hitter, he digressed into a tale of his own playing days. As Morgan told it, during a 1967 game while he was with the Houston Astros, he’d visited the mound to offer pitcher Don Wilson some advice. Wilson was one out from a no-hitter but due to face Henry Aaron. Morgan says he suggested walking him, but Wilson struck out the future home run king to accomplish the feat. Fun anecdote, except for one nitpick: as first reported by Deadspin, Morgan did not play that day . . . Dennis Eckersley will be alongside play-by-play man Don Orsillo in the NESN booth for the three-game home series against the Braves starting tonight. Dave Roberts will handle analyst duties for the nine-game road trip beginning Tuesday in Washington.

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