Column: Mornhinweg's job in jeopardy?

The whispers and the drumbeats are beginning as questions arise regarding Marty Mornhinweg's ability to get the job done in Detroit. Lions insider Mike Fowler writes that if the Lions don't turn it around quickly, the patience of the Ford Family just might. Special "Paws For Thought" inside -- possible replacements at head coach?

(ALLEN PARK, MI)--Marty Mornhinweg came to Detroit with a pedigree, including coaching stints with Mike Holmgren's Super Bowl staff in Green Bay and George Seifert's staff in San Francisco. He was a West Coast offense disciple. How could he fail as head coach of the Detroit Lions. After all, nearly every apple that falls from legendary head coach Bill Walsh's tree-- Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan -- have all had success running Walsh's system?

But after a 2-14 season in 2001 and a 49-21 blowout loss in the season opener to a good Miami team, the whispers that Mornhinweg could be gone if the team gets off to another slow start are growing. Marty faces something close to a must win in Carolina, a game that everyone has penciled in as a win on their mock schedules. Mornhinweg was stoic, but acknowledged that there has not been a lot of success with his team. He pooh-poohed reports that fans want him out.

"Every fan that I've seen, has been very positive. We're in the midst of building a football team here," said Mornhinweg in his weekly news conference. "There's going to be some ups and downs, but I don' t listen to [talk radio]."

"All good things take a lot of hard work and the one thing that is great about this league, especially early in the season, is there's next week. You just put your nose to the grind and go back and get everything corrected and work hard," Mornhinweg continued. " That's the only way to get things accomplished, pretty much in anything. In any business if things don't go well you've got another opportunity and there's no substitute for hard work. None."

At some point though, next week doesn't come. Just as players are released, coaches are fired. If the Lions don't turn things around quickly, that day could be coming soon for Mornhinweg. Around water coolers throughout the Southeast Michigan region, the topic of conversation was the embarassment that took place in Miami. Radio stations were buzzing with many questioning whether or not Mornhinweg can get the job of leading Detroit to respectability, much less a Super Bowl.

Many question personnel decisions by the coach. Most recently the final roster cuts were surprising. Terry Fair, the Lions #1 pick in 1998 was released. Why? If you read between the lines of the coaches explanation, it appears Mornhinweg was frustrated at Fair's slow recovery and his inability to compete in the preseason. So Fair lands with the first team he visits, next week's opponent Carolina--gets a $400,000 raise--and moves into a starting position. The Lions replacement, 12-year veteran Eric Davis, get torched in the opener in Miami.

Mornhinweg holds starting running back James Stewart out of the Miami contest because he's only 80% ready to play. However, in the final cuts, he released promising running back James Mungro, a rookie free agent from Syracuse, who had averaged over 4-yards per carry in the pre-season in favor of veteran running back Lamont Warren. Mungro was quickly snapped up by the Indianapolis Colts off waivers. And Detroit went onto gain a paltry 51 yards rushing vs. Miami.

Detroit released tough as nails veteran receiver Johnnie Morton in favor of speedy Green Bay veteran Bill Schroeder. The knock on Schroeder in Green Bay is that he doens't take hits and cuts off routes out of frustration, a source of contention between he and Green Bay QB Brett Favre. After an upset loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Favre made a thinly veiled reference to Schroder, his intended target for all three interceptions the QB threw that day. "I'm definitely not pointing my fingers at no one," Favre said. "I had my share of mistakes. But one thing about it, I was ready to play and I knew it was going to be a tough game. And I wanted to win that game at the end as bad as any game I've ever won."

Packers coach Mike Sherman defended Favre saying "that's something we have to look at to see if we finished the route. We need to make sure we're finishing routes and coming back to the ball on all those occasions. It's something I definitely have to look at. It's something I'll study tonight." Sherman studied it, and Schroeder was gone at the end of the season despite desperately wanting to finish his career in Green Bay.

So what happens in his Lions' debut? Schroeder stops on two routes, short arms a few others to avoid contact. His total production, zero catches, zero yards. Mornhinweg says "he'll get it corrected."

That has been the most overused phrase in the tenure of Mornhinweg. But weeks of promising to get things "corrected" have gone by and nothing has been corrected. The losses continue to mount. The fans continue to be restless, the Ford's continue to be embarassed by what is taking place on the field.

Whispers have begun that Mornhinweg could be fired as early as next week if the Lions lose badly to the Carolina Panthers. While that seems far-fetched, due in part to the patient and trusting nature of the Ford family, they are also a proud, successful family that won't accept being embarassed and the butt of jokes on a weekly basis.

If Mornhinweg doesn't know it yet, then he better get a clue real fast. Lions fans are tolerant as long as they see progress, but even the most loyal of fans doesn't want to be embarassed week-after-week.

Mornhinweg must show what he's made of now. It can't be in week six or seven. He has to win in Carolina with a super tough game, and the home opener in Ford Field against Green Bay. If Detroit loses in Charlotte, the start will be a disaster, the drums will be beating and the whispers will turn into shouts. They'll all be saying the same thing.

Get rid of Marty.

PAWS FOR THOUGHT:
What if Mornhinweg is jettisoned in mid-season? Who would be the candidates to replace in mid season?

1. Maurice Carthon.
PROS: "Mo" is held in high regard by teams around the league. He nearly left the Lions to take an offensive coordinator's job this offseason, but the Lions instead elevated him to the title of offensive coordinator even though Mornhinweg still calls the plays. If Carthon got the call, Sherm Lewis would replace him as offensive coordinator.

CONS: Would Lions CEO Matt Millen risk putting his job on the line by hiring another unproven head coach, especially one who's only been in coaching for eight years?

RISK: Carthon could turn out to be worse than Mornhinweg, but the upside is he might catch lightning in a bottle the way the New York Jets did when they hired an unproven head coach in Herman Edwards.

2. Sherm Lewis.

PROS: Here's a man who should have gotten a chance to be a head coach by now. There are few individuals in the National Football League that have as much experience and knowledge of the game as Lewis. When last asked about whether he regrets not getting a chance to be a head coach Lewis replied "No. I kind of live for the day. I learn from things in the past, but I don't live in the past." If Lewis got the call, Carthon would likely be out at season's end.

CONS: Has the game passed Lewis by? Can he relate to today's players? Is there some reason he hasn't gotten the call or is it just the color of his skin? And if things didn't pan out, could you fire him at season's end and take all the ramifications that come with that decision... remember the Ray Rhodes flop in Green Bay?

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