Matt Millen converted fourth-and-long to make the biggest play of his tenure as the highest-paid hired hand on the Lions. Just as Detroits most loyal fans were about to issue the GM a bus ticket of his own, the guy completed a desperation toss and landed the teams new head coach, Steve Mariucci.
If not the luckiest thing Millen has done in two years, hiring Mariucci may be the smartest. The co-pride of Iron Mountain possesses one of the brightest minds in the NFL. He also is known as a hard worker, with plenty of backbone. Whats more, he has, like Millen divulged to the press, "A proven track record of winning."
In one move, Millen restored respectability to the franchise, at minimum. He also provided proven leadership for better play. He provides vision for future and a coaching plan that has been proven to work. Talk about turning the franchise around on a dime!
While it remains to be seen whether Mariucci will be able to build up a winner in Motown, the record shows he took an aging cap-bloating San Francisco team and re-made the roster into something quite formidable in only two years.
As his predecessor discovered, Mariucci will discover the Lions are a different kind of ball team. An argument can be made to say the squad ranks near the bottom in most offensive and defensive categories, if not personnel. Thats not how I feel, nor does the new coach.
At his roll-out press conference, Mariucci said the team has a good nucleus of veterans like Robert Porcher, Luther Ellis, Ray Brown, and James Stewart. He also singled out promising young players at QB and along the D-line.
What type of coach will he be? Those whove followed his career as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers say Mariucci is not really known as an offensive innovator who uses dresses up his offense with 50 different formations for the sake of showing off. Hell keep things in his version of the West Coast Offense as straightforward as possible in order to improve the overall quality of execution, while making certain the team masters the core plays he plans on running game days.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com and former Dallas Cowboys personnel svengali said Mariucci represents an excellent coach for the Lions. Brandt said the guy is willing to adjust to new situations and is willing to learn new things. And while he may be known as a players coach, he still puts team ahead of any one player. Just ask Garrison Hearst who found the coach can play hardball when facing two fast rookie RBs in pre-season.
So, besides never winning the Super Bowl, why did the 49ers get rid of the guy? "History," said Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle on Detroit radio.
"Mariucci was former 49ers owner Edward De Bartolos guy," Ratto told Mitch Albom. "When his sister took over team, she kicked him out as president. She put her husband, Dr. John York, in charge. He hired Terry Donahue as GM, who probably wanted his own guy. When Tampa Bay approached Mooch last season, York didnt try talking him out of considering the job. He didnt offer him a contract extension this year, either."
Perhaps he was not dynamic enough for their liking. I prefer going by what SF quarterback Jeff Garcia has been saying, "Mariucci is the real deal." Garcia should know, he was freezing his tail off in Saskatchewan or some CFL town when his dad finally burned a hole in SF guru Bill Walshs cell phone and got him a try-out. Mariucci, a champion college QB in his own right, liked what he saw and the rest is Pro-Bowl history.
NOBODY CAN PLEASE EVERYBODY
Its safe to say, about the only people who dont like Mariuccis hiring seem to be non-Lions fans. At the top of this heap, standing on the hand-held microphones of our sports media-superstars, are a couple of once-busy attorneys and one Righteous Reverend and ex-Presidential candidate. Their problem is the Lions failed to interview a single minority candidate, as stipulated by new NFL guidelines.
The Lions problem is that Millen made it obvious in 1998, should he ever be hired as Lions GM, he would be interested in hiring Mariucci as HC. Then coach Bobby Ross objected to bringing in Millen as GM, and team owner WC Ford Sr put the kibosh on Millen and his intended hiring plan. Since then, no minority head coach, their agents, and the above mentioned threesome ever forgot Millens statement.
So, when Mariucci was fired, Millen told Marty Mornhinweg to turn in his playbook. As soon as the door was closed, Millen hit the speed dial. According to the Washington Post, among those he called were Dennis Green, Jets DC Ted Cottrell, Lions OC Sherman Lewis, St. Louis DC Lovie Smith, and Notre Dame HC Tyrone Willingham. From what Millen has said, they all turned him down flat.
As a result, the team may be fined or forced to give up gasp! draft picks. Still, the NFL cant blame the Lions for not finding suitable coaching candidates. And I cant blame the NFL for trying to get the owners to think about things from the Big Pictures perspective. And no one can blame Millen for spreading Mariucci "foreknowledge" and its attendant disinterest way back in 1998.
POINT ONE FINGER
Then who is to blame for the Lions predicament? An open-and-shut case could be made to pin the rap on the minority coaches who declined interviews.
Provided an opportunity to show why they are qualified as Mariucci to be head coach of the Lions, qualified minority candidates declined. Believing they stood no chance, they elected to skip the chance to show the Fords they are just as qualified as any other candidate.
While they knew Mariucci was Millens favored candidate, they still turned down their chance to become Lions HC. In so doing, they defeated the whole point of the minority interview access process to use the opportunity to interview and make a case for being more than just "as qualified." They missed their chance to compete and demonstrate why they can be an even BETTER head coach than the favorite or the non-minority coach.
Thus, it is a shame that several qualified candidates declined the Lions invitation to interview. Because, if qualified minority candidates are scared of even trying to enter, let alone win, a fight in which theyre not favored, I sure as heck dont know how those candidates who didnt even try to interview would do as Lions skipper.
Millen does deserve kudos for keeping his cards close to his vest and playing them most deftly. He didnt choke on his play by tampering with Mariucci while he was still boss fellah in SF, possibly costing him a draft pick for his trouble.
Furthermore, if San Francisco GM Terry Donohue had known Millen would be trying to attract his head coach by canning the incumbent at the close of the season, he probably would have kept him on a bit longer, hoping to squeeze a draft pick or two out of a desperate Millen.
Millen knows a good head coach will take advantage of every open door game day. And thats why so many Lions Fans are crazy happy about seeing Mariucci in Motown. Welcome Home, Steve!