The Failure of Detroit Lions G.M. Matt Millen

Detroit Lions fans licking their wounds even after departure of Matt Millen.

Detriot Lions Fans Embarrased

Matt Millen’s tenure as general manager of the NFL’s Detroit Lions has been described as “unproductive,” a “failed experiment” and a “bust.” And those are some of the more charitable descriptors. After Millen was relieved of his duties on September 24, the Detroit Free Press called Millen a “spectacular failure” and “the worst general manager in any sport.” 

It’s difficult to argue with the results. During Millen’s seven-plus seasons on the job his teams compiled a record of 31-84, a won-loss percentage rivaled only by the Houston Texans (34-64 since entering the NFL as an expansion team in 2002), and the Oakland Raiders, whose motto remains “Commitment to Excellence,” in spite of the team’s 42-76 record since 2001.

Not surprisingly, Detroit was jubilant in the wake of Millen’s dismissal. In an interview with Failure, Detroit Free Press sports columnist Michael Rosenberg half-jokingly likened the mood of the city to that of the country on V-J Day (August 14, 1945, the day on which Japan surrendered to the U.S., ending World War II), invoking Alfred Eisenstaedt’s instantly-recognizable photo of a sailor kissing a young woman in New York’s Times Square.

Unfortunately for Lions fans, the team’s fortunes haven’t improved since Millen’s departure. Under interim general manager Martin Mayhew the Lions are 0-3, including a heartbreaking 12-10 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings, low-lighted by one particularly embarrassing play in which first-time starting quarterback Dan Orlovsky accidentally ran out of the back of his own end zone. (The resulting safety proved to be the margin of victory for the Vikings.) As of this writing, Detroit is 0-6 on the season, the fifth time in franchise history that the Lions have started 0-6.

Ironically, Lions fans were guardedly optimistic after team owner William Clay Ford Sr. hired Millen in January 2001. A second-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders in 1980, Millen had been a solid if unspectacular linebacker for three different teams (the Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins) during his 12-year playing career, winning four Super Bowls before retiring following the 1991 season.

Millen went on to distinguish himself in the broadcast booth, covering NFL games for Westwood One Radio and serving as a color commentator for CBS and FOX, where he developed a reputation as a knowledgeable and entertaining announcer. Eventually, Millen’s name surfaced as a possible general manager candidate—for the Lions, at least—an idea endorsed by some members of the Detroit media. In 2000, Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote: “The Lions need a fresh start …” and urged the team’s owner to “Bring in a well-connected football man like Matt Millen to run the operation and finally bring full accountability to the front office and scouting departments.” A portion of the fan base got on board with the idea too, somehow willing to ignore the fact that Millen had absolutely no scouting or front office experience, which would later prove to be a grave disadvantage in terms of the all-important business of evaluating and drafting college players.

Ultimately, the Lions embraced the concept of an “outside the box” hire like Millen, and on January 9, 2001, he was introduced as the new general manager (with the title of president and CEO), hired in the wake of a solidly-mediocre 9-7 season. Inexplicably, ownership signed Millen to a multi-year contract worth $5 million per year, instantly making him the highest paid general manager in football—by a wide margin. (At the time, experienced, well-respected G.M.’s like Bill Polian of the Indianapolis Colts were earning in the neighborhood of $1.5 million.) Considering his outsized salary, it’s no wonder that Millen was all smiles at his introductory press conference, posing for pictures with the owner’s son, William Clay Ford Jr., who appeared with his arm in a sling, which should have been viewed as an omen.

Weeks after taking the job, Millen hired his first head coach, Marty Mornhinweg, who had earned recognition as one of the top offensive minds in the league during his four-year stint (1997-2000) as offensive coordinator of the 49ers. But Mornhinweg was a flop as a head coach, compiling a 5-27 record over two seasons, including a particularly vexing overtime loss to the Chicago Bears in which the Lions won the overtime coin toss but Mornhinweg made the fateful decision to kick off instead of starting on offense. Chicago scored on its first possession of the extra session (bringing the game to an end), and apoplectic Lions fans began referring to their coach as “Marty Moron-weg.”

Thanks to Mornhinweg’s all-around lack of success, most Lions fans initially gave Millen the benefit of the doubt, making the head coach the primary scapegoat for the organization’s troubles. But Mornhinweg’s replacement, Steve Mariucci (former head coach of the 49ers), didn’t fare much better, lasting just two full seasons and part of a third before being let go by Millen in late November 2005. Arguably, the nadir of Mariucci’s reign came on December 21, 2003, when the Lions lost 20-14 to the Carolina Panthers, setting a new NFL record of 24 consecutive road losses. Winning away from home would prove to be an issue throughout Millen’s time on the job, as the team won a grand total of seven road games under his tutelage.

By the time Mariucci was fired (replaced by interim head coach Dick Jauron), Lions fans were at the end of their rope, annoyed by the underwhelming performance of Millen’s draft choices, and aggravated by his insistence on repeatedly using top ten selections on wide receivers. (Receivers are key players in today’s NFL, but typically handle the ball just a handful of times per game, which dissuades most teams from repeatedly using first-round picks at that position.)

Millen’s obsession with wide receivers began in 2003 when he selected Charles Rogers, a local kid from Michigan State, second overall in the draft. Rogers’ career can be summed up as follows: He spent most of his first two seasons on injured reserve (both times with a broken collarbone), and repeatedly failed league-ordered drug tests. After flunking his third drug test he was suspended by the commissioner for four games and never played in the NFL again.

Then, in 2004, Millen passed on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (selected four choices later by the Pittsburgh Steelers) and used the seventh overall pick on Roy Williams, who prospered initially but ultimately fell out of favor with the organization. Shortly after Millen’s departure, he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys along with a seventh-round draft pick for first-, third- and sixth-round choices in the 2009 draft, a move generally commended by Lions fans and front office personnel around the league.

Meanwhile, Mike Williams, picked tenth overall in 2005, didn‘t fare much better than Rogers. Over the course of two years, Williams caught a grand total of 37 passes and scored just two touchdowns. As a result, he was traded to the Raiders prior to the 2007 season (an organization that readily embraces troubled players), but Williams did little in Oakland and, plagued by an inability to control his weight, failed to catch a single pass in a short stint with the Tennessee Titans. Most frustrating to Lions fans is that Williams was selected just ahead of defensive end DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys) and linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers), both of whom instantly developed into impact pass rushers, an area of desperate need in Detroit.

Finally, in 2007, Millen chose Calvin Johnson with the second overall pick, arguably the proper decision for any team at that spot, as the consensus among scouts was that Johnson was the best player available in the draft. With just 21 NFL games under his belt, Johnson’s career is off to a solid but unspectacular start, and it’s too soon to tell whether he will ever realize his All-Pro potential.

Despite the troubles of the above-mentioned wide receivers, quarterback Joey Harrington, selected third overall in 2002, remains the poster boy for Millen’s draft day failures. Initially viewed as a potential franchise savior, Harrington won just three games during his rookie year, and showed relatively little improvement in three subsequent seasons with the organization. Fans also took issue with Harrington’s favorite hobby, playing the piano, an activity apparently considered unbecoming of a Detroit Lions quarterback. So it’s no surprise that when Harrington returned to Detroit’s Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day 2006 to lead his new team (the Miami Dolphins) against the Lions, Detroit’s game operations staff displayed Harrington’s picture on the stadium’s video boards, accompanied by the sounds of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Lions fans booed Harrington unmercifully, but the fresh-faced QB had one of the best games of his career, throwing three touchdown passes en route to the Dolphins’ 27-10 come-from-behind victory.

Harrington’s stay with the quarterback-challenged Dolphins lasted just one season, however. He subsequently caught on with two teams in the NFC South—the Atlanta Falcons (2007) and New Orleans Saints (2008). In one final irony, Harrington was released by the Saints on the same day Millen was fired. He is currently out of football, hoping to catch on with another NFL team.

In hindsight, it’s amazing that Detroit fans remained patient with Millen for four-plus seasons. The tipping point came late in 2005, just months after William Clay Ford Sr. gave Millen a long-term contract extension through 2010, a decision that perplexed and infuriated season ticket holders.

On December 4, 2005, with the Lions losing 21-9 in the fourth quarter of a game against the Vikings at Ford Field, a spry fan made a spectacle of himself by running up, down and across the aisles of the stadium while brandishing a “Fire Millen!” sign, stadium security in hot pursuit. After the individual was tackled and escorted out, TV cameras showed Millen (sitting in the press box) chuckling over the incident, but fans didn’t appreciate the suppression of free speech and the man became a local celebrity thanks to coverage on the evening news.

From that day forward, the “Fire Millen!” chant became de rigueur, not just at Lions’ games, but at sporting events across the state of Michigan. Fans routinely began calling for Millen’s head at Comerica Park (home of MLB’s Detroit Tigers) and during games played by Michigan State University teams, as well as those of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. Most remarkably, on at least one occasion, Rasheed Wallace, center-forward for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, led fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills (the Pistons’ home arena) in the chant, likely the first time that an athlete from a professional sports team has publicly disrespected the general manager of another professional team from the same city. Soon “Fire Millen!” chants were even being heard during road games played by Detroit-based teams, unheard-of crossover appeal for a derisive chant. Three venues where the cry was not heard, however, were Solider Field, the Metrodome and Lambeau Field (home to NFC North rivals the Bears, Vikings and Green Bay Packers, respectively) whose fans carried signs to games urging Detroit's ownership to “Keep Millen!”

Meanwhile, in the wake of the December 2005 loss to the Vikings, a Detroit sports talk radio station, WDFN, announced plans to hold an “Angry Fan March,” (a.k.a. “The Millen Man March”), prior to the last home game of the season. Building on the idea, a fan Web site (thelionsfanatics.com) encouraged fans planning to attend the game to wear orange (the colors of that week‘s opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals) and before long ticket holders were anticipating a stadium-wide demonstration designed to humiliate the club‘s ownership. By this time, firemillen.com—a Web site whose primary purpose was “to promote the firing of Matt Millen”—was also up and running.

As it were, on December 18, 2005, more than 500 orange-clad fans took to the streets in the neighborhood of Ford Field to protest Millen’s contract extension, many holding signs featuring messages like: “There’s a Millen reasons the Lions can’t win.” It’s estimated that at least sixty percent of the crowd wore orange to the game itself, a percentage that probably would have been higher if the opponent was the Arizona Cardinals (red), New York Giants (blue) or any other team wearing a more common color than orange.

In spite of the public pressure, Millen managed to hang on through the rest of 2005, 2006, 2007 and well into 2008, perhaps no surprise when one considers the contract extension, and the fact that he hadn‘t been fired years earlier, even after making several politically-incorrect and highly insensitive public statements.

For instance, early in his tenure Millen appeared on Mike Ditka’s sports talk radio show in Chicago and referred to one of his own players as “a devout coward.” (He was referring to wide receiver Scotty Anderson, who he had selected in the fifth round of the 2001 draft.) On another occasion he called a former Detroit player (Kansas City wide receiver Johnnie Morton) a “faggot” following a game against the Chiefs. And, when conducting the head coaching search that yielded Mariucci he neglected to interview any minority candidates, thereby running afoul of the NFL’s so-called Rooney Rule, triggering a fine of two-hundred thousand dollars.

Through it all, Millen continued to make misguided decisions—large and small—on draft day. For example, in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, Millen selected Caleb Campbell, a wide receiver from the United States Military Academy, thinking the prospective army officer would be permitted to pursue an NFL career. But three months later, on the eve of training camp, the Army ordered Campbell to give up professional football for “full-time traditional military duties,” in effect turning Campbell into a wasted draft pick.

As the 2008 season approached, few harbored any illusions that Detroit would field a competitive team, but the Lions got off to an especially slow start, even by their own lowly standards. In the first three games of the year, the defense allowed 113 points (putting it on pace to allow an NFL record 603 points), the team falling behind 21-0, 21-0 and 28-6 in the three contests.

Then, after the second of the three defeats (a 48-25 loss to the Packers), Millen made the mistake of simultaneously associating himself with both president George W. Bush and the unpopular Iraq War, proclaiming that the Lions should “stay the course,” while at the same time implying that Detroit fans don’t understand the game of football.

But the third defeat, a 31-13 thumping at the hands of the 49ers, was considered even more of an indignity as the San Francisco offense was orchestrated by offensive coordinator Mike Martz (fired by the Lions after last season) and starting quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, a career journeyman who had appeared in four games for Detroit in 2007.

The day after the 49ers game a reporter approached the owner’s son, Bill Ford Jr., at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon, and asked how he felt about the team’s performance in San Francisco. “It was an embarrassment,” responded Ford Jr., television cameras capturing the following exchange: “The fans deserve better. And if I had the authority, I would have fired the general manager.”

It’s not clear whether Ford Jr. already knew his father was planning to fire Millen, or if he was seeking to pressure his dad into making the move. Regardless, Millen was conspicuously absent when the organization’s players, coaches and front office personnel assembled for the annual team picture the following day. Less than 24 hours later, Millen was cleaning out his office, the change in leadership confirmed by Matt's wife, Patty, who spoke with ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, saying: “In the world's view, this may look like failure. It's been a hard road, football-wise, but we've gotten a lot of eternal blessings. We'll move forward. I told him [Matt], 'You're out of football prison now' and we have a greater purpose.”

Detroit rejoiced in the wake of Millen’s departure, celebrating as if one of its four major sports teams had won a championship. (In the past 20 years the city has been rewarded with three NBA titles and four Stanley Cups.) Meanwhile, firemillen.com issued a press release announcing that its “members and staff are ecstatic about the decision to finally get rid of the worst general manager in professional sports history.” But no one was more excited than the message board moderators at Michigan‘s newspaper Web sites, who for years had to contend with users relentlessly posting “Fire Millen!”—not just on sports pages, but on pages relating to politics, religion and every other conceivable subject unrelated to Detroit Lions football.

With Millen gone, the big question for NFL fans everywhere remains: What took so long?

“It’s one of those questions up there with, ‘Why did it take so long to get out of Vietnam?’ quips Rosenberg, who goes on to explain that William Clay Ford Sr. retained Millen because he liked him, and “Ford Sr. doesn’t like firing people he knows personally. Never mind the fact that Millen was incompetent and cost other good people [including, over the years, upwards of 60 coaches] their jobs.”

“I don’t know if you’ll ever see anyone like him again,” continues Rosenberg, noting that the other men on the list of most vilified general managers in sports history have generally been hindered by meddling ownership, payroll constraints, poor fan support and the like. Millen never faced these challenges, yet his teams remained consistently awful, even though the NFL rewards losing clubs with advantages designed to facilitate a turnaround. To recreate the Millen experience, “You would need a combination of someone who is totally incompetent and too stubborn to quit, working for an owner who won’t fire him,” he concludes.

The problem for Lions fans is that there’s no guarantee that the organization will make better decisions going forward. Case in point: Between 1967-89 the Lions employed Russ Thomas as general manager, during which time the team failed to win a single post-season game. In fact, the organization has won only one playoff game in the past 50 years, and the quarterbacks on that [1991] team were the unenviable trio of Erik Kramer, Rodney Peete and Andre Ware, which tells you a little about the quality of quarterbacks playing for Detroit in recent decades.

At the same time, Lions supporters can take comfort in knowing that the “Curse of Bobby Layne” expired earlier this month, perhaps opening the door to future success. For those not familiar with the story, Layne quarterbacked the Lions to three NFL championships in the 1950s, only to be traded to the then-lowly Steelers in October 1958. After being informed of the trade, a perturbed Layne allegedly said: The Lions “will not win [a championship] for 50 years,” a prediction that turned out to be painfully accurate.

The curse aside, even in a best-case scenario it figures to take several years for Mayhew (or another G.M.) to rebuild the roster, minimize the amount of salary cap space dedicated to players no longer on the team, and restore the confidence of the fan base. Most challenging of all, however, might be combatting the culture of losing, which can manifest itself in subtle but important ways. After finishing the 2006 season with a 3-13 record and being awarded the second pick in the 2007 draft, wide receiver Roy Williams said: “I really don’t want to be one or two. I’d rather be picking 31st,” a strange number to choose considering that it corresponds with the team that loses the Super Bowl.

Still, one can’t underestimate the power of hope—the possibility that the Lions might, against all odds, retain the perfect man for the job. “You can’t even describe how excited people are [in Detroit],” begins Rosenberg. “Fans don’t necessarily think they [the Lions] are going to get it right this time, but they can’t do worse than Millen.”