Hot Seat: Mornhinweg Faces Critical Season

However necessary and healthy the annual re-energizing of NFL head coaches might be, one can't help but imagine just how little downtime Marty Mornhinweg is enjoying these days. Not only does a revamped roster await when camp opens on July 24, Mornhinweg is likely all too aware that his life as a head coach in the NFL could very well be nearing its end.

The early days of July are supposed to be the most relaxing of the year for NFL coaches. While more personnel decisions must be made before the regular season opener, those decisions will be based on performance during the exhibition season.

The draft is in the books, all efforts to stay under the salary cap and fill whatever holes remained on the roster have been made, and the scouts are regrouping for the start of another college season in late August.

Most coaches take this time to escape the rigors of NFL life, enjoying the calm before the storm lurking a few weeks in the distance. Every fiber will be devoted to winning football games from there on out. Hence, the much needed clearing of the mind.

However necessary and healthy this re-energizing might be, one can't help but imagine just how little downtime Marty Mornhinweg is enjoying these days. Not only does a revamped roster await when camp opens on July 24, Mornhinweg is likely all too aware that his life as a head coach in the NFL could very well be nearing its end.

Just how much room the second year coach has to work with depends on one man, the man who hired Mornhinweg just over a year ago after taking over as Detroit Lions team president. Matt Millen pulls the strings in the Motor City, and losing is not something to which he is accustomed.

Forgive Mornhinweg for his initial declaration that the immediate goal was to "[compete] for Super Bowls." Even if he was aware that the roster he was about to inherit was a square peg to his West Coast Offense's round hole, incoming leaders simply don't advertise the chinks in the armor.

Millen was undoubtedly staggered by the atrocious start to Mornhinweg's reign, one which saw twelve consecutive losses to start the season, a game of musical chairs at the quarterback position, and the transformation of a once respected defense into one arguably unworthy of Big Ten competition.

Still, Millen is new to this NFL executive thing, and here, acting hastily is simply not considered professional. Sure, he's widely accepted by his peers as one of the top minds in the game, but not to such an extent that a couple of abrupt and drastic moves wouldn't immediately recall the fact that he is still, at his core, a linebacker.

Rage over rationalism; read and react, but do so quickly. Acting under this ethos made Millen a legend on the gridiron, but doing likewise off the field could be equally responsible in deconstructing Millen's much deserved reputation.

Ask him now, and he'll probably give the politically correct answer. He might even believe it himself. Marty is our head football coach. He'll be our coach at season's end, and he will have every opportunity to build on the success achieved this season in 2003.

While the quick turnarounds of the Rams and Patriots have all but made five-year rebuilding plans unacceptable and obsolete, surely a first timer like Mornhinweg deserves a few complete seasons to determine whether or not he can cut it as an NFL head coach.

In theory, yes, Mornhinweg should not be axed after the 2002 season, no matter the outcome. The era of free agency has been accompanied by sudden turnarounds, to be sure. The pendulum swings quickly in the modern day NFL, but one cannot ignore the fact that Mornhinweg was essentially handcuffed the minute he was handed the keys to the car.

The bitter elixir forced down the collective throat of Lions fans everywhere in 2001 was concocted primarily before Mornhinweg's arrival.

Here's an unfamiliar offensive line, some of them ill equipped (read too slow) to function within your system... your quarterback is improving, but he's injury prone and lacks mobility, which can be a problem with that line you were just told about (oh yeah, he was just signed to a huge contract too, so you've gotta work with him). The guy at running back? He's getting the big bucks too. He fit perfectly into Coach Ross' system, ya know. By the way, your receivers aren't bad, but only one of them will be around for more than a few weeks. Good luck Coach! Give 'em hell!

Millen and Mornhinweg have been hard at work addressing these personnel problems, Mornhinweg's voice receiving such weight that he won't be able to deflect the blame in any other direction if their free agent and draft day acquisitions don't pan out. Unanimity is the only sound coming from the new facilities in Detroit, not a single dissenting voice to be heard whatever the topic for discussion.

Well, all except that one. The Joey Harrington scenario, played out too many times to be counted, is the one and only example of upper level disagreement in the new regime, and in this case, it was Mornhinweg who won out. In other words, there can be no excuses from the head coach in that department if 2002 is as unsuccessful as many are predicting.

Oh, and about those predictions. If you believe what you read, Lions fans should only dream of an 8-8 season. In fact, word is the pie-in-the-sky version of 2002 concludes at around 4-12 or 5-11. It appears Marty will be lucky to double that two win 2001 output!

Does a four or five win season win Mornhinweg a stay of execution? Again, that all depends on Millen, and more specifically, how he defines success given the situation. Does he forgive early struggles if signs of consistency appear in November and December? Does he ignore another poor showing in the won-loss column if it looks as though Mornhinweg will eventually make something of this mess?

It could get ugly early on. Two very young signal callers, the top healthy receivers (including the tight end) never having played a regular season game in a Lions uniform, an offensive line still in the process of jelling and a new defensive scheme led by a new coordinator with fresh faces throughout the secondary.

Daunting, is Mornhinweg's task, but it is a challenge he knows must be won on some levels. Building momentum is a must, a given if he wants to keep the respect of his players. However, this alone will not cut it.

Ask yourself this question: Which is more likely, Millen forgiving another poor showing (say, 2-14 or 3-13) by Mornhinweg, standing by the young coach heading into yet another offseason of heavy criticism and "told ya so" snickers from the experts, or Millen admitting failure in his first major move as a general manager by firing Mornhinweg at the end of the season?

Of course, Mornhinweg can avoid seeing just how such a scenario would play out by winning more than a handful of games this season. Unfortunately, with all the question marks facing the Detroit Lions in 2002, doing so might just require some "Coach of the Year" worthy direction on Mornhinweg's part.

If things do play out the way most are forecasting, does Millen choose loyalty? Does he show unprecedented patience is his quest to make the Detroit Lions an elite NFL team?

Let's not forget, despite the fact that the Fords are a conservative bunch who act slowly, Millen is still an employee. Though he shares the title "Team President" with the likes of Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones, Millen is not CEO, doesn't sign the checks, and thus, is just as subject to being canned as anyone else on the Lions staff. His footing is a bit more stable than Mornhinweg's, but not by much.

So the question remains... what does Millen do if the Lions again finish near the bottom of the league in wins? Can you really envision him sticking with Mornhinweg for another season? Do you really think he'll accept "hey, still developing a quarterback here" as an excuse, casting more shame over his venture into NFL management and putting him one step closer to an embarrassing return to the announcing booth?

Personally, anything short of seven wins, and I wouldn't want to be in Mornhinweg's shoes.

And let's face it, head coaches with only five or six wins on their resume aren't in high demand. Especially when that collection of victories came over two full seasons. It would be a long road back to the top for Mornhinweg if this does turn out to be his final season in Detroit, perhaps meaning this will be his first and only shot as an NFL head coach.

In other words, Mornhinweg "the head coach" exists only on Millen's watch, so that's the man he's got to please. A small bit of advice for Marty: Exceed the expectations of every expert and analyst or else. Finish in the NFC North cellar, secure yourself a spot on the long list of NFL head coach one-shot failures.

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