Winning formula still escaping Millen, Lions

Still searching. The Detroit Lions are still searching for the winning formula. They have won one playoff game in a half-century. They haven't appeared in the playoffs since 1999. They are 31-81 since Matt Millen became team president in 2001.

Still searching. The Detroit Lions are still searching for the winning formula. They have won one playoff game in a half-century. They haven't appeared in the playoffs since 1999. They are 31-81 since Matt Millen became team president in 2001.

The Lions had their best season in seven years in 2007, but it still was a losing season -- 7-9. As coach Rod Marinelli said, it was two seasons in one. The Lions started 6-2 but finished 1-7.

What happened? The simple answer is that the Lions are not ready to win. After the Lions improved to 6-2 by routing Denver, 44-7, defensive tackle Cory Redding said: "This is real. What you see is what you get. It's a different team. It's not the same, old Lions no more. I'll tell you that right now."

But then the Lions stumbled through a six-game losing streak that eliminated them from the playoffs. During the streak, they suffered two crushing losses at home. They blew three opportunities to score down the stretch and lost to the New York Giants, 16-10. They blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to Dallas, 28-27. Marinelli called those losses "season-turners."

"That was in playoff crunch time, which this team has never been in for a long time," Marinelli said. "They have never experienced that, how hard it is and how you have to be on top of every detail. We went through that unsuccessfully. Now we've got to learn from it."

Serious flaws were exposed in the Lions' other losses, though. The Lions became the first team since the 1990 Cleveland Browns to lose four games by more than 30 points. They lost seven games by double-digit margins, six on the road. Marinelli called the blowouts "disturbing."

Marinelli preaches consistency and mental toughness, but the Lions weren't consistent or mentally tough. They went 5-3 at home and 2-6 on the road.

The offense never established an identity. The Lions were most successful when balanced, but they were often unbalanced. They ranked ninth in passing and second worst in rushing.

The defense lived and died with the takeaway. The Lions led the league in the first half, then faded. They ranked second worst against the pass and last in yards per game and points per game.

The special teams units had an up-and-down year, too.

The Lions have already fired Mike Martz and promoted offensive line coach Jim Colletto to offensive coordinator, while promoting wide receivers coach Kippy Brown to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. The plan is to keep some continuity but become more balanced.

There are other issues on offense that need to be addressed. The Lions plan to run the ball more, but they're thin at running back because of injuries and expiring contracts, and they have a hole at right tackle.

But the biggest issues are on defense. The Lions badly need to upgrade their talent at all levels of the unit -- line, linebackers, secondary. The only starters who should be secure are linebacker Ernie Sims, end Dewayne White and perhaps Redding.

NOTEBOOK:

  • After joining the 49ers, former offensive coordinator Mike Martz shed some light on the Lions in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. He said the Lions were still sorting out personnel issues. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan "came in and cleaned this thing up personnel-wise, and he did a marvelous job," Martz said. "Dick (Vermeil) had done the same thing in St. Louis. I came in right at the end of it and caught the benefits of it. That wasn't the situation in Detroit. They had to go through the process of cleaning the personnel up, and they're doing a good job of that. Next year I think they'll start to realize some of the benefits of it and be a better team."
  • Martz told the Tribune he did not clash with Marinelli about the running game. "The two years I was there, I never had a conversation with Rod that we were doing something he didn't want," Martz said. "All those things that were reported, I shrugged my shoulders. He never expressed any displeasure with anything, ever."
  • Martz compared the 49ers' line favorably to the Lions'. "They're not even close in Detroit, so it's a big difference," Martz told the Tribune. "Offensively, we were short two tackles. It's hard to run or throw without two tackles."
  • Quarterback Jon Kitna defended Martz's play-calling to SI.com. "People kind of knock Mike for not being balanced offensively," he said. "Well, when things get crazy in a game and you're down by 14 points, 21 points, the play-calling does get lopsided because he knows the passing game can get you back in it. But if you look at our games the past two years, when we were in the game, not down 13 points at halftime or 21 points, we were a pretty balanced football team. In our seven wins this year, we rushed for more than 100 yards in six of them. But there were three different times this year when we gave up more than 30 points in the first half. It's kind of hard to run when that happens."
  • Wide receiver Roy Williams had a different perspective. "He just has that go about himself that he can make this miraculous play-call that's going to work and we're going to put up 21 points in the quarter, which didn't happen," Williams told a Detroit radio station.
  • Uh-oh. Another former-NFL-great-turned-TV-guy wants to take over the Lions. Joe Theismann told a Chicago radio station that Lions president Matt Millen "hasn't helped former players get into management because he's done a lousy job." He also said: "Could I or anybody do a better job? I don't know. But it would be a wonderful challenge."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would have liked to have seen him stay another year. As far as everything going on with the football team, I think that might have been a good move." -- WR Roy Williams, on Martz's departure.


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