Millen oversees Lions' rebuilding
Detroit is 4-2 with a core of young players obtained in four drafts.
By DAVE GOLDBERG
As recently as a year ago, the question seemed to be when Matt Millen would be fired as president of the Detroit Lions, not if.
"I know everyone thinks I'm just an old linebacker who doesn't know what he's doing," Millen said in July 2003 after his team was 5-27 in his first two seasons.
Now the Lions are 4-2 with a core of young players obtained in four drafts as good as any in the NFL over that span. Millen did things the right way, dumping veterans who kept producing finishes around .500 but little else -- six of the players on the 2000 team he inherited weren't even in the NFL in 2001. He made only one mistake, a whopper.
That was hiring Marty Mornhinweg as coach in 2001 when he couldn't get Steve Mariucci. His reasoning was that Mornhinweg, having worked for Mariucci and Mike Holmgren, would turn out like other successful coaches from the Holmgren tree: Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Mike Sherman and Ray Rhodes.
But Mornhinweg alienated his team right from the start, disgustedly riding his motorcycle from a practice early in his tenure. Unlike a Tom Coughlin or even a Bill Parcells, who anger their players but gets them back on their side with victories, Mornhinweg's legacy was five wins in two seasons.
Mariucci, hired quickly by Millen when the 49ers fired him after the 2002 season, is one reason Detroit is in position to contend for its first playoff berth since 1999 -- and perhaps for higher achievements in the future. But so are Millen's astute personnel moves.
His first draft, in 2001, produced Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, both starters on the offensive line; defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and backup quarterback Mike McMahon. Rogers, bothered by injuries early in his career, is having a Pro-Bowl caliber season.
In 2002, the Lions took QB Joey Harrington with the third overall pick, defensive end Kalimba Edwards in the second round and cornerback Chris Cash in the sixth.
Harrington is still inconsistent, but is beginning to fulfill his promise.
Edwards and Cash made major contributions to Detroit's win over the Giants last week. Edwards had two sacks and Cash an end-zone interception that changed the momentum in a victory that gives the Lions a potentially important wild card tie-breaker.
Last season, the first five picks were wide receiver Charles Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey, defensive tackle Cory Redding, running back Artose Pinner and safety Terrence Holt. Rogers and Bailey are hurt, but both can be long-term players; Redding starts on one of the NFL's better front fours; Pinner and Holt are solid reserves.
And finally this season: wide receiver Roy Williams, running back Kevin Jones; linebackers Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis; and cornerback Keith Smith. All have been important contributors as rookies and Williams is a legitimate candidate for offensive rookie of the year.
Millen worked the draft well, moving down one spot by feinting for Kellen Winslow and still getting Williams, the player he wanted. That gave the Lions Cleveland's second-round pick, with which they got Lehman, while using their own second-rounder to trade back into the first round for Jones.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.