It's that time of year again. And in Detroit Lions territory, that does not always refer to the countdown on shopping days left until Christmas.
The fire-Matt Millen rumors have started again, as they always seem to at this stage of the NFL season with the Lions closing in on double-digit losses.
They fill the sports talk radio shows, they give bloggers a convenient topic on a slow day and generally keep the sports community buzzing.
With the Lions struggling into the final month of the season with a 2-9 record, a three-game losing streak and a formidable schedule down the stretch, there is no shortage of fuel for the speculation fires.
The fact is, however, that only Lions owner William Clay Ford knows for sure what his plans are for Millen and his floundering football team, and Ford has given no indication that he will not honor the remaining four years of the five-year extension he gave Millen a year ago.
Does Millen deserve to keep the job?
If you judge his job performance by the ultimate measuring stick — the team's won-lost record during his nearly six years as team president — he would almost certainly be shown the door; in fact, he wouldn't have gotten the contract extension in 2005.
The Lions were 9-7 under Bobby Ross, who retired, and Gary Moeller, who was appointed the interim coach, in 2000 when Ford decided it was time for a change. He turned the team over to Millen and the Lions have done no better than 6-10 in the ensuing five-plus seasons.
The Millen era includes four head coaches — Marty Mornhinweg (2001-02), Steve Mariucci (2003-05), Dick Jauron (interim coach after Mariucci was fired with five games remaining in 2005) and this year's hire, Rod Marinelli.
The record went from 9-7 in the Ross-Moeller season to 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002, 5-11 in 2003, 6-10 in 2004, 5-11 in 2005 and with New England, Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago and Dallas left on this year's schedule, it appears unlikely the Lions will finish with more than three or four victories, at best.
The current six-season record of 23-68 is the worst for that length of time since the Lions moved from Portsmouth, Ohio to Detroit in 1934.
There is no area in which the Lions can be considered a better team now than they were when Millen was hired. Two of Millen's six first-round picks — quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receiver Charles Rogers — were dumped by the current staff and a third — wide receiver Mike Williams — appears to be on his way out when the financial repercussions are less damaging.
Looking at the record alone, Ford can hardly justify keeping Millen any longer but Ford doesn't operate as most other NFL owners do. He is loyal to a fault and the next time he listens to what the fans recommend will be the first.
The "Fire Millen" chants began during the Thanksgiving Day loss to Harrington and the Miami Dolphins, and the speculation supporting that idea appeared within days, if not hours.
Because Ford alone makes the decision — and shares his thoughts with no one — it's impossible to speculate with any assurance what will happen but there is nothing to indicate he is in the mood to fire Millen.
An anonymous source within the organization said last week, however, that the feeling within the organization is that the only way Millen will leave this year is if he decides he has had enough and resigns.
Coach Rod Marinelli has been asked on several occasions in several different approaches whether he might be inclined to give playing time to Josh McCown or Dan Orlovsky as the season winds down.
Marinelli has been steadfast in his response: No.
"Right now, my goal is to win each and every game — the No. 1 thing," Marinelli said. "And we give ourselves the best opportunity to win and that's with Kitna."
Although Kitna currently rates third among NFL quarterbacks in passing yardage with 2,876 yards — behind only Drew Brees of New Orleans (3,463) and Peyton Manning of Indianapolis (2,964) — he has struggled in recent weeks.
He has thrown at least one interception in each of the last nine games, has more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (12) and was sacked eight times by the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day.
Marinelli was asked if a more athletic quarterback (i.e., McCown) would be better able to avoid the rush but he wasn't biting.
"I think what you're trying to do is work every week to give your team the best chance to win with the right guys, the guys you're building with," Marinelli said. "The more athletic quarterback? I don't know, Jon has done a great job avoiding the rush all year, made positive plays. Some of those situations, a more athletic quarterback wouldn't have made any difference."
"If I go inside, there's a safety waiting on me; if I go outside, the corner's going to be sitting there," Williams said. "Everybody's going to do the same thing. Until that third receiver steps up and can exploit the middle of the defense, I'm going to continue to see that."
The third receiver position has been a source of problems for most of the season, in part because coordinator Mike Martz has not been able to settle on one player for any length of time.
Williams and Mike Furrey have formed a solid 1-2 combination with 136 receptions for 1,643 yards and seven touchdowns between them but the third receiver position has been a game of musical chairs.
Corey Bradford started the season as the No. 3 receiver but was released after three games, giving way to various combination that included Az-Zahir Hakim, Eddie Drummond, Devale Elliss and Kevin Kasper. Former first-round pick Mike Williams was ignored and eventually Bradford was re-signed and currently fills that role.
"I look at the Lions and there are so many games they're a play or two away from being on the other side of," he said. "I think they're a very good football team, they're very competitive, they can run it, they can throw it, they've got a very good group of offensive weapons and a very experienced offensive line.
"Their defensive front is good, their linebackers are fast, they're experienced and they've got some playmakers in the secondary. They can kick it, they can return it, they block kicks. I mean, they show all the elements you want a good football team to show."
Upon further questioning by reporters, however, Belichick finally relented.
"Look," he said, "I'm just trying to prepare for them. I'm not trying to analyze their whole season or anything. I'm just trying to prepare for the team and that's what I see. And I see a lot of problems we're going to have to deal with on Sunday, and they're going to be a problem, too."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5-40 — The Lions road record going back to the 2001 season. That includes a 24-game road losing streak covering three full seasons (2001-03), three road wins in 2004, two in 2005 and none in the first five tries this year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've thrown him an interception before." — Lions quarterback Jon Kitna on the versatility of wide receiver/defensive back Troy Brown of the Patriots.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers' fall from what might have been this season's apex for their running attack actually started before right tackle Mark Tauscher aggravated a pulled groin Nov. 12 at Minnesota.
Green Bay mustered only 39 yards in 19 carries against Minnesota's top-ranked run defense with Tauscher on the field. Then, Tauscher went down in a heap late in the third quarter. He hasn't played in the last two games, will likely be out again Sunday against the New York Jets, and the Packers have been stuck in a quagmire with a once-burgeoning staple of their offense.
Head coach Mike McCarthy wasn't so quick to sidestep the notion that the absence of the seventh-year veteran has had a profound impact.
"He was a big part of what we were doing," McCarthy said. "I thought Mark was playing extremely well when he got hurt. For a couple of weeks there, he had the best performance up front. So, you take that out of the equation, yeah, that part factors (into the running woes).
"Frankly, his leadership and the way he plays the game, he plays the game the right way. He's tough, no-nonsense, does it right. So, that's a part of it."
Without Tauscher, McCarthy has had to make do with three rookies on the offensive line. Their growing pains have brought some aspects of the offensive operation to a standstill, none as prominent as a ground assault that's gone nowhere the last three weeks.
The Packers came into the game against the Vikings ranked 11th in the league with a season-high average of 118.9 rushing yards per game. Today, after amassing a grand total of 142 yards in the past three games, Green Bay is rated 23rd with an average of 99.4 yards.
"We have to give the defense the credit. They're studying our technique; they're learning to adjust," said fullback William Henderson, whose 12 years in the league is only a year less than the combined service of the current five starting linemen — left tackle Chad Clifton (seven), left guard Daryn Colledge (one), center Scott Wells (three), right guard Jason Spitz (one) and right tackle Tony Moll (one).
"We just have to do a better job of executing in order for us to be more positive in our running yards. We've got to give the defense the credit for doing their job, but for the most part, we've got to blame ourselves for not being more productive," Henderson said.
The dreary facts since Tauscher lumbered off the Metrodome turf and promptly ascended a flight of stairs to the locker room are the Packers have rushed for only 103 yards in 42 carries and Ahman Green's output has been but 82 yards in 31 carries.
The blame was placed squarely on a youthful line that has been maddeningly inconsistent in getting down the basics of the zone-blocking scheme, both on the front and the back sides of the play. McCarthy said his developing blockers haven't been overmatched physically as much as they have been technically flawed.
"The interior, we just weren't fundamentally as good as we should have been — whether it's taking five steps before you cut block as opposed to taking two," he said. "Those are common errors that we've had before and are correctable. We just have to continue to do it."
Getting next to nothing against the top-three run defenses of Minnesota (47 yards) and New England (44) wasn't so earth-shattering. Yet, being held to 51 yards in 19 carries by a middle-of-the-road Seattle unit Monday night didn't speak well for a run-first offense that seemingly was poised to explode after a 203-yard effort against Arizona on Oct. 29.
"With our running game (Monday), it was one guy here or one guy there, which is the same old story. It's kind of getting repetitive," Wells said. "We all have to get on the same page and get everybody blocked, make those holes easy for the running backs to hit."
The Jets statistically appear to be the pushover Green Bay needs to hit the ground running with authority again — they're giving up a whopping 135 yards a game. However, New York will come at the new-look line with a 3-4 front, which caused the quintet fits against the Patriots two weeks ago.
"By design, they try to force you to get into a man situation (by walking) their linebackers up. The premise of zone (blocking) is to have two-on-one at the first level," a wary McCarthy said.
Cornerback Ahmad Carroll, who had a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown against St. Louis in 2004, was the last Green Bay rookie to reach the end zone.
Safety Marques Anderson had two defensive scores, both against Detroit in separate games, in 2002.
Safety Darren Sharper tops all Green Bay newcomers who made a big splash with three touchdowns during the 1997 season.
Hawk and Mangold grew up in Centerville, Ohio, and were teammates on a city peewee team before they further bonded in college at Ohio State.
Hawk leads the Packers with 113 tackles.
Since 2000, Green Bay has won 22 of 29 regular-season games played Dec. 1 and later. Its .759 winning percentage is third best in the league, behind Pittsburgh's .793 (23-6) and New England's .778 (21-6).
They failed to wrest the top seed and have home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs in the 2002 season when they were pummeled 42-17 by the Jets at the Meadowlands on Dec. 29. Less than a week later, 12-4 Green Bay was stunned 27-7 by Atlanta in an NFC wild-card playoff, marking the Packers' first home loss in the postseason.
They also were eliminated in the wild-card round at Lambeau Field in the 2004 season, losing 31-17 to Minnesota, and haven't been back to the playoffs.
Starting with the playoff ouster against Atlanta, the Packers are a dismal 14-18 at home, including 1-4 this season at their supposedly venerable stadium.
"Lambeau Field is a great place to play, as far as the fans and everything," first-year head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "Frankly, we need to do a better job of performing at home."
BY THE NUMBERS: 98 — Receiving yards Donald Driver needs to record his third straight 1,000-yard season. Driver also reached the 1,000-yard benchmark in 2002. James Lofton (1983-85), Sterling Sharpe (1992-94) and Antonio Freeman (1997-99) are the only Packers to attain three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm always thinking playoffs. I'm not young anymore. I can't be thinking, ‘Go home and get ready for next year.' I worry about the next five games and hoping that we can get in." — WR Donald Driver on the final-month outlook for the team as it sits at 4-7 after two straight losses.