Cook: Has Millen adjusted to learning curve?

Does Matt Millen deserve the brunt of criticism over the past five seasons?'s columnist James Cook shares his take on whether the maligned GM is completely at fault -- or if Rod Marinelli can prove that Millen has finally got it right.

Detroit Lions fans were ready to serve Matt Millen's head on a platter to anyone who would take it last season.

Justified or not, Millen has taken the brunt of the criticism of the team's dismal record over the last five years.

Heck, Lions fans essentially gave Cincinnati an extra home game last year because they were so peeved at Millen.

But was it really Millen's fault?

Coming in with no experience in his current job and virtually nobody in the organization to really show him how to do things, he was bound to make some mistakes. And early on, he did. Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim, a snide comment to Johnnie Morton, calling out a player as a coward (really, who can blame him on that one?), Marty Mornhinweg, etc.

Millen has made mistakes, but
can an entire organization's
ineptitude be blamed squarely
on him?

But since then he really seems to have learned from those mistakes, and has signed better free agents to more cap-friendly contracts. In the last couple years, the only free agent busts he's had have been Rick DeMulling and Fernando Bryant, and Bryant's woes are due to injuries.

(Pssst, Matt: The next time you get a pick in the top 10, just trade it for a few second-rounders. You seem to have fewer total whiffs in the second round than in the first. Bonus: When you mess up on a second-rounder, it's fiscally possible to just cut the player for repeatedly missing practice and falling asleep in meetings.)

Speaking of easy targets, why is it Wayne Fontes got the nickname "The Big Buck" for dodging criticism during his tenure, yet it's Matt Millen and not Steve Mariucci who gets the blame for the Lions' lack of success?

But most people can agree that Millen at least put talented players on the roster. They didn't necessarily produce, but that is at least partially attributable to the coaching staff, if not more so. Between poor game planning (not blitzing a rookie QB?), improper use of personnel (see: Dominic Raiola vs. Green Bay/Grady Jackson) and a lack of creativity on offense over the last five years, it's no wonder. Even my mother could watch the Lions and go, "Hey, Eddie Drummond is in at wide receiver -- it's gonna be a reverse."

After all, it was Millen who pick-pocketed the Browns of a second-rounder to move down one spot and still get the guy he wanted (giving him a 1-for-2 on top 10 picks named Williams). Give the guy some credit. He inherited what can only be termed a train wreck. And the only clean-up of that wreck was to blow the whole thing up and start over. Millen just didn't realize it was a Chernobyl-like meltdown, and it had a half-life. That half-life has already stretched into five years and resulted in an average of 11 losses a year.

But did Detroit's coaching staff really believe the 295-pound Raiola was going to be able to single-handedly move the 345-pound Jackson on the goal line? Just about anyone can tell you he can't. Hardly anyone can. But they ran right behind Raiola and at Jackson and failed miserably. Twice. Talk about trying to cram a square peg into a round hole.

Wasn't it White Goodman (no relation to Andre) who infamously said "Cram it up your cram hole" in "Dodgeball"? Well, Mariucci crammed the Lions' last few seasons down a hole by showing up for each game without a plan completely dependent upon two-yard dump-off passes and with seemingly no clue on how to adjust to an opponent or pick up a blitz. He managed to dodge criticism for quite some time. He was a nice guy and a Yooper, so he got a pass from a lot of folks.

Quoting White Goodman? Damn right.
(Editor's note: The opportunity to search
for this image was too good to pass up)

Not here.

The Mooch hire seemed like a good one at the time. Never mind that San Fran fired him for some reason or another. That wasn't important.

He was too chummy with his players. He didn't have a boss mentality. He was too … well, nice.

We all had that kid in our school who had the parents who let him do everything, never pushed him and were basically just there to pay for stuff and tell him things weren't his fault. The parents that were buddies instead of actual parents. Well, that kid is in jail now.

That's the kind of dad Mariucci was to the Lions. Accountability was scarce. Discipline, what's that? The only preparation the Lions had was followed by an "H". Excuses in post-game press conferences became almost an inside joke, because everyone knew they were coming after each loss.

Heck, I was at Lions training camp last year when Mooch just decided to give the team the day off and he went golfing. Well, why not? The Lions were already at the pinnacle of NFL achievement and there was really nothing to get better at anyway, right? Here's where SportsCenter would insert Allen Iverson spouting "Practice? It's just practice."

There's deadbeat dads and there's deadbeat coaches. Guess which one Detroit got?

Granted, Mooch was Millen's call (unless a certain automobile company owner who shall go unnamed put his nose where it doesn't belong again and prodded the hire, much like the Harrington pick). And it was Millen's second bad call in hiring a coach. Kind of ironic how Mooch might end up in Matt's old job as a TV analyst, eh?

At least it seems Millen got it right this time. But only time will tell. At this time three years ago, almost everyone thought Mariucci would right the Lions' ship. Detroit's savior had arrived with coiffed hair that rivaled Jimmie Johnson's. So don't count your chickens before they've hatched.

A former military man, Rod Marinelli will be all over these guys like scandals on politicians.

He'll preach the basics: Hard work, accountability, discipline, preparation.

And maybe even use some of the talent on the roster correctly.

James Cook is a writer for the Traverse City Record-Eagle, and has joined as a regular columnist!

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