Millen, Mariucci working well as a team.

A veteran pilot who's been around the block a few times, Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci is very adept at spotting needs and Vice President Matt Millen has worked with him to address those quickly. Lions' insider Mike Fowler breaks down the relationship between the two, and how it's benefitting the Detroit Lions.

(ALLEN PARK) - It's amazing what can transpire in a few weeks, or even a few days. Just ask former Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg.

The Lions had just completed their second season (a 3-13 finish) under the Millen/Mornhinweg regime at the close of the 2002 season. Both were summoned to a meeting with Lions owners William Clay Ford, Sr. and Bill Ford, Jr.

Things didn't look good for the pair.

Neither Ford, Sr. nor Jr. were happy with what had taken place with the club since naming Millen president of the organization, namely, a staggering 27 losses during that two year period.

Yet after the meeting, Millen and Mornhinweg emerged with their jobs intact with the former announcing there would be "no changes" in their job status.

But then came word that the San Francisco 49'ers had fired their longtime highly respected head coach Steve Mariucci. Within a few days of Mariucci becoming available, Mornhinweg was out, Mariucci was in.

Why the sudden change of heart?

Well, Millen for one, could see the handwriting on the wall. While he's never criticized Mornhinweg's work ethic, it was clear that the rookie head coach was not detail oriented enough to effectively run the west coast offense he was trying to install. Sure, he knew the plays and the philosophy, but there was something missing.

Millen, no doubt could also see there was too much practice time was wasted by players standing around watching instead of participating in drills.

Then there were the differences of opinions over player evaluations.

While Millen had total control over the roster, he relied upon Mornhinweg's evaluations to decide what to do in certain personnel decisions.

That often backfired.

Case in point, Millen and Mornhinweg had decided early on to throw veteran quarterback Charlie Batch over the side of the ship at the first sign that he couldn't handle the offense. Never mind that Batch was only in his fourth season as a pro and had demonstrated he could win, piloting the Lions to two playoff appearances in his three years as the starter.

Millen never liked Batch's raw ability and Mornhinweg was pretty much in agreement with Millen's assessment.

Mornhinweg also had assured Millen that second-year player Mike McMahon would be capable of running the team once they got rid of Batch. Millen was unsure if McMahon was really ready, after all, Mornhinweg had benched Batch after just one game in the 2001 season, only to have to go back to the veteran later in the year.

Still, Millen listened. Batch was jettisoned in the off-season and McMahon was installed as the starter for 2002. That lasted just two games. After a lopsided 31-7 road loss to the Carolina Panthers, a team that was 1-15 the previous season and a 300 yard passing performance by Lions castoff Rodney Peete fans were howling for Mornhinweg's head.

"Our offense was horrible," said Mornhinweg in a self-indictment. "We had trouble completing basic passes. Stayed close at halftime and then did absolutely nothing ... it's as simple as that, we've got a lot of work to do."

Millen had no choice but to name rookie Joey Harrington the starter and force feed him the offense well before he had wanted to play him.

A similar personnel call went awry when Millen needed the coaches’ input to make a call on running back James Mungro who had lit up the opposition in the preseason and was the team's leading rusher during that period. Mornhinweg liked Lamont Warren and Avieon Cason.

Mungro was the talk of the NFL a few weeks later when, substituting for Edgerrin James of Indianapolis he logged 28 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns, along with two catches for 20 more yards in a win that kept Indianapolis in the playoff picture.

Flash forward to two weeks ago when veteran receiver J.J. Stokes, a former Mariucci player was released by San Francisco. Questions were would the Lions be interested in signing the former 49'er. Mariucci, while respectful in his comments, downplayed the Lions interest and Detroit passed instead signing receiver Shawn Jefferson who has fit in nicely with Detroit young receiving group.

Then again after the Lions first week of minicamp that saw fourth-year man Barrett Green playing the middle, Mariucci in his understated way, mentioned that there would be some roster tweaks. A few days later Millen signed veteran Wali Rainer of Jacksonville and followed that up with the signing of another veteran middle linebacker, Earl Holmes.

Then came the draft and Detroit used a high second round pick to tab Boss Bailey of Georgia to play the strong side position. Just like that a position of weakness turned into a position of strength.

A veteran pilot who's been around the block a few times, Mariucci is very adept at spotting needs and Millen has worked with him to address those quickly. It's a symbiotic relationship. You get the feeling that if Mariucci had been here two years earlier, Terry Fair, Johnnie Morton and Jeff Hartings would all still be on the Lions roster.

Matt Millen is no longer the smartest guy in the Lions conference room. For Lions fans, that's a good thing.


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