Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive two-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and RoarReport.com's Nate Caminata begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Craig to Nate. Why did the Lions get rid of Mike Martz, and why have they held onto operational chief Matt Millen so long? What's up with QB Jon Kitna and stud WRs Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Mike Martz's reputation preceded him to San Francisco, so he's being looked up to here with a lot of respect and almost adulation for what he has been able to do so far in getting the team's floundering offense back on track. So why did the Lions unceremoniously dump such an accomplished offensive strategist after just two seasons? Rod Marinelli told us Wednesday that, "It's well documented my feelings about Mike and how good a coach he is and I'll just leave it at that." What does Marinelli really mean there? Can you give us some inside view on what really went down there and why Martz now is coaching in San Francisco rather than Detroit?

Nate Caminata, Publisher, RoarReport.com: Marinelli and the Detroit Lions organization displayed the same amount of respect that everyone is witnessing in San Francisco, especially upon arrival. However, near the end of his tenure in Detroit, it became clear that Marinelli and Martz had two very different philosophies: Martz wanted to build an offensive juggernaut and didn't care about its ramifications on anything, including the team. This was evident in Detroit's defensive play. Because Martz relied so heavily upon the pass, and the domino effect on the time of possession, Detroit's defense ended up playing what amounted to a 19-game schedule in 2007. Even when the rest of the coaching staff pleaded with Martz to at least attempt to establish the run, he didn't. At no point in 2006 or 2007 did he ever produce a viable running attack, leaving Detroit one-dimensional and defensively exposed. He is a brilliant play-caller and if controlled, probably the best offensive coordinator in the league -- but he understands this, and his well-documented ego can rear its ugly head and the result isn't always pretty.


Craig Massei: That said, how is the offense doing now with new coordinator Jim Colletto running the show? Does it look like he's going to be an improvement over Martz? What changes have been made to upgrade the attack, and in the final analysis, is the offense better or worse without Martz directing it?

Nate Caminata: It's still too early to gauge Detroit's offense because they've fallen behind 21-0 in each of their first two games. Still, it has shown enough explosiveness to climb back into both of those games (they actually rallied to take the lead against Green Bay before imploding). The difference is primarily this: the presence of a running game. I think Marinelli and Colletto's contention is simple: you don't need Mike Martz to produce when you have receivers like Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams. But you do need at least some semblance of a running game to keep a defense honest, which is what they're attempting to establish.


Craig Massei: We saw the ugly fourth-quarter picks last week against Green Bay. Jon Kitna has come a long way as a quarterback, but is he good enough to get the Lions to the playoffs? Or has he just about tapped out his potential as a serviceable but ordinary quarterback? We've been impressed with what Kitna's been able to accomplish the last few years, but can he still progress with noted quarterback guru Martz no longer in his corner?

Nate Caminata: The Lions have a firm belief in Kitna, but the same cannot be said for the fans or the media. Many think that while Kitna is a "serviceable" veteran on the roster, he doesn't have the skill set or youth to produce the big numbers and, most importantly, the wins that this team is geared to accomplish. Kitna fell apart against Green Bay, it was ugly. If he continues to fall apart when they need him most, the Lions will have to make some kind of change at quarterback. Most quarterbacks in this league would salivate at the opportunity to throw to Johnson and Williams. Kitna needs to capitalize. He has about a 2-3 week window to prove doubters wrong.


Craig Massei: Here in the NFC West, we see Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald twice a year, and those guys are studs. But are Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson possibly now just about the best darn wide receiver tandem in the NFL? Obviously, Johnson still is on the rise, but where would you rank that duo among the league's best? How important are they to the Detroit offense and what the Lions want to do?

Nate Caminata: A receiver is only as good as his quarterback, so while I believe Johnson (6-foot-5) and Williams (6-3) harbor the best pure talent at wide receiver in the league, it doesn't mean anything if they can't get the football. They are key to Detroit's success, and if the Lions can manage a running game and Kitna can get the football to them on a regular basis, they'll turn the league upside down. If not, the term 'underachieve' comes to mind.


Craig Massei: OK, here comes the Matt Millen question. We remember him as a gritty individual during his playing days with the 49ers, but he's obviously in a different element and arena now. Frankly, NFL operational chiefs with his track record would have been out of a job long ago. For example, the 49ers fired their clown GM, Terry Donahue, just four months after giving him a lengthy contract extension when the team imploded under his direction in 2004. So, how does Millen still have a job with the Lions? And tell us, how responsible is he for the team's struggles? We hear that Millen isn't answering questions these days regarding why the team isn't progressing. What's up with that guy? Is he finally on the way out, and from your perspective, should he be? How would you rate his job performance?

Nate Caminata: Millen's survival befuddles everyone to the point of pure and utter bafflement. However, owner William Clay Ford Sr. has a notorious track record of remaining faithful even under the most damning circumstances. This isn't always a good thing, obviously. While Millen catches a lot of flack, he's also been snakebit with draft choices not panning out (see: Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, Mike Williams) -- yet the bottom line is wins, and excuses aside, there is still no reason for him to still be employed. The fans of Detroit simply deserve better. While he might have shown tenacity and a winning attitude during his playing days, that doesn't always translate to the very difficult task of assembling a winning football organization. If Detroit bombs in 2008 (anything less than seven or eight wins might do the trick), it's likely that the Millen era in Detroit will be ended.

Part II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and RoarReport.com as Craig and Nate conclude their back-and-forth interaction with Craig answering five questions from Nate.


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