Matthew Millen. Since we are getting into fairly recent history, I'm sure everyone is quite familiar with most of his... accomplishments. But since this is a look at 0-16, I had to ask myself: was he really the primary cause?
While he was certainly the engineer of the runaway Lionel headed for the incomplete bridge into the abyss, someone else was driving the train -- but it was still down the tracks that Millen built.
So what happened with Millen? While a perfect storm of events all at once happened in 2007, it was Millen's managerial style that ultimately led down this path. While many fans called for "the Buck" to be gone, there was never the acrid animosity that Matt Millen injected into the fan base. Lions fans were frustrated, sure - but ever bubbling optimism for "next year" dried up in the oughts.
Attempting to look over this time period with as neutral an eye as possible, I came up with one word that sums up the whole debacle: Arrogance.
Matt Millen in 2001 was an excellent play-by-play announcer. He was fun to listen to, and heir apparent to Madden. While a first time GM, with no prior front office experience, an engaging charismatic person can lead a franchise with a clear vision and talented staff who handle the football side of things.
It seemed Millen had a clear vision -- a tough, gritty defense and a powerful, smashmouth offense. But he was not at all consistent.
There is no doubt that Millen is charismatic -- anyone who has spent any amount of time with him will tell you how great a guy he is. At first, it seemed as though he may end up being ok. He kept Bill Tobin on, who actually ran the 2001 draft. Up until last year, that was the best draft by far of the Millen Era.
However, even from the get go, there were danger signs that only got worse the longer he was there. Bill wasn't too thrilled with some of Matt's personnel moves, and Millen canned him. He felt he could do better at picking talent. Virtually anyone who was not a yes man, or who wasn't hired by (thus beholden to) Matt was let go in a purge that included the front office and players.
Matt knew best, and Matt's way was the only way. Anyone who said otherwise was gone. "Group Think" set in at a very early stage and was never dislodged. Easily distracted from his vision, and impatient for "progress", he changed philosophies for the offense, defense, drafting, management, free agents, contracts, etc. more often than Barbie changes clothes and professions.
To double down the damages of inconsistency, the string of coaches he brought in followed the Ross model of making players fit the coach's system, not the system fit the talent. Coupling constant change, with constantly different player needs on both offense and defense led to the situation in 2007.
Having a series of disastrous drafts, the Lions were very thin young veteran talent. They had guys on their last legs, and rookies. They were missing that core of young veterans in their prime that is the heart of any team. Yet, thanks to Martz's prolific offense and a lot of luck, the Lions pulled off 6 wins in the first half of the season, staving off the headsman once again...
Still, the train was barreling closer to the abyss. By this point, everyone had learned not to question anything Matt Millen was doing, even though they knew it was ludicrous. Morale among the scouts had to be pretty low since their work stacking the board was routinely ignored in favor of whim or name. The coaching had gone from "I'll take the wind" to "Why is wind a big deal? Gonna mess up your pretty hair?".
Also, in addition to the poor outright mangement decisions was a haughty contempt for the Fans -- Season Ticket Holders on down. There was a permeation from the top that it didn't matter what the fans thought, they were doing it his way. The fans were too stupid to see the vision. This blatant disregard to the fans led to intense negativity towards the franchise from its own fans. Up until this era, the Lions had been loveable underachivers. Now, they were just perpetual failures and doomed for eternity, with every move good or bad blasted by fans and media alike. Contempt breeds contempt.
Individuals who lead with arrogance either do really well (if they truly are that good) or really disastrously. People who think they know what they are doing, but don't, are the most dangerous in any profession -- especially when coupled with an ego that does not allow them to admit mistake. This leads to people hiring those whom they can control.
This spilled down to the coaching level in 2008. By the end of 2007, it was pretty obvious that Rod Marinelli was overwhelmed as a head coach. He seemed to be learning a bit, but it was hard to tell what was him and what was Martz. Unfortunately, Rod wanted assistant who would do everything "his way." While not bad, Rod spent too much time with individual players and wasn't good at what a Head Coach needs to be -- overall management, planning, and coordination between his offense and defense. While a front of cliched unity was put forth, it was obvious that there was dissension among all levels of coaching that Marinelli was unable to control, or unaware of.
Now, even a blind bird can find a seed once in a while, and Millen was no different. While they may have been about half NFL starters at best, the Lions still had at least some professional football talent on the field. So what happened in 2008? Was it all lack of talent? Coaching? Management interference? Lack of heart? Scheme?
Find out in the final installment of "Road to 0-16: Goliath Beats David - Sixteen Times" later this week.