Money Matters: Millen, Lewand Do It Right

When it comes to contract negotiations, the Lions are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago. columnist Doug Warren evaluates the current Lions' negotiating process, and its quantum-leap in quality over the organization's previous regime.

Once again, Lions' vice president Matt Millen and fellow VP/cap guru Tom Lewand are doing things the right way.

The duo showed true class and professionalism Wednesday by not opting to play contract hardball with the Lions' Pro Bowl kick returner, Eddie Drummond; opting to keep their $1.43 million dollar, one-year offer on the table for next season, even though Drummond has yet to sign it.

Eddie will get his $1.43 million dollar salary next year, which is an increase of over $1 million dollars from his base salary of $380,000 last season.

Under current rules, the Lions could have opted to pull the offer from the table and replace it with a one-year contract worth $418,000, which would have been a 10 percent raise over his 2004 salary.

Eddie deserves both the money and the special treatment. He led the NFL in punt return average and touchdowns, and finished second in the league in kickoff return average and touchdowns. He is a true game breaker, who can change the momentum of a game with a single play. His brilliant 2 touchdown performance (on 55 and 83 yard punt returns) versus Jacksonville last season was one of the greatest single game performances in Lions' history.

Here was Eddie's stat line from that game versus the Jags:

Punt Returns
No.     Yds     Avg     Lg     Td
 6      199      33.2    83     2

Kickoff Returns
No.     Yds     Avg     Lg     Td
 2       58       29.0    35     0

Here was Eddie's returns statistics for the entire 2004 season:

Punt Returns
No.     Yds     Avg     Lg     Td 
24      316     13.2   83       2

Kickoff Returns
No.     Yds     Avg     Lg     Td 
41      1,092   26.6    99     2

Lions' fans during earlier eras remember the return skills of players like Jack Christiansen, Yale Lary, Pat Studstill, Lem Barney and Mel Gray. Eddie is carrying on that tradition and is really one of the five most important Lions on the entire roster. Many fans and media members underestimate the importance of special teams, but just ask any head coach worth their salt and they will steadfastly maintain that the biggest momentum swings in most football games come from their kicking and return teams.

Eddie deserves the money, and by taking the high road the Detroit Lions have put themselves in a very good position to get Eddie's signature on a new deal sooner, rather than later.

Before Millen took over the Lions' front office in 2001, a type of "scorched earth" policy during Detroit Lion contract talks was an all too often occurrence.

Chuck Schmidt, the Lions Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer from December 1989-thru-January 2001, was a notorious player of contract hardball. Year in and year out, Lions players, be they rookies or veterans, found themselves embroiled in contract holdouts. Some of the names from that period include:

Barry Sanders (twice)
Andre Ware
Lomas Brown (at least twice)
Kevin Glover (twice)
Robert Porcher
Bennie Blades (twice)
Luther Ellis
Ryan McNeil
Jeff Hartings
Bryant Westbrook
Aaron Gibson

Schmidt, who graduated with honors from the Russ Thomas School of Contract Armageddon, repeatedly placed either franchise tags or transition tags on veteran players. Then if things got testy when talks began (and they nearly always did) Schmidt would pull the Lions' initial offer off the table and replace it with a much lower one.

One of the most infamous incidents occurred after the 1995 season. That offseason, after the Lions had already let Chris Spielman, Lomas Brown and Willie Clay walk in free agency; Schmidt fought with Bennie Blades over a new deal well into June before releasing him. By that time of course, many of the other NFL teams had already signed their free agents, thereby drying up the money pool.

The move put Blades in a major bind; and he was forced to re-sign with the Lions at a ridiculously lower salary for one final season before leaving Detroit to sign with the Seahawks in early 1997.

This has never been a problem with the Lions under Matt Millen and his cap-guru Tom Lewand. Year-in and Year-out, draft choices and veterans alike have been signed before training camp. Millen, a former player, has always understood the importance of training camp on not only a player's development, but the development of the team as a whole.

Schmidt, a career accountant, never seemed to grasp that concept.

In addition, Millen and Lewand never make things personal with the players and their representatives during contract talks. All too often during the Russ Thomas and Chuck Schmidt eras, things would get ugly in the media. The barbs between the player, their agents, and the Lions' brass would fly, and it would make a touchy negotiation all that much worse.

The Matt Millen regime in Detroit has gotten a lot of bad press, both on and off the field, but the one thing that cannot be questioned is their ability to get everyone signed and in camp on time.

Five years ago, the Lions had trouble attracting top players because of the terrible reputation they had earned over the previous decade when it came to contract talks. Now, Detroit is talked about as one of the best places to go, not only because of the Allen Park facility and Ford Field, but because they have remade their image as contract negotiators.

Hell, Millen and Lewand even get along with the Poston brothers, who are a tough as they come in the world of sports agents.

When you are trying to build a champion, it's those little things that make a big difference at the end of the day.

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