Lions' Road to 0-16: Who Is to Blame?

Zeke Fuhrman@@mellamoelzekeAnalyst IIIDecember 8, 2008

One year after the New England Patriots achieved the first ever 16-0 season, another team is pursing a 16-game mark.

Only this time it's in the loss column.

The Detroit Lions are threatening to go 0-16 and become the only team to have a winless season since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule.

Detroit fans are left to wonder who is to blame. And only one name comes to mind.

Matt Millen.

Although he was relieved of his duties in late September, Millen's actions over the last eight years have lead to this inevitable ending.

What most fans may not know is that Matt Millen actually had a very respectable career, playing 12 seasons as a linebacker with the Raiders, 49ers, and Redskins. He won four Super Bowls, one with each of his teams, (two with the Raiders) and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1988.

After retiring from the NFL, he became a color commentator for CBS, ABC, and Fox, where he was rated the second-best broadcaster behind John Madden.

In 2001, Millen took the position of general manager of the Detroit Lions. Prior to his job with the Lions, Millen had no front office or player development experience. During his first year with the Lions, the team went 2-14 after coming off a 9-7 season and missing the playoffs by a field goal.

Millen will always be known for his failed draft picks. In 2002, Millen selected QB Joey Harrington out or Oregon with the third pick in the draft.

In Millen's defense, Harrington finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, finished in the top five in the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, had a billboard in Times Square promoting him as "Joey Heisman," and was voted Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.

Also, Harrington was taken behind QB David Carr, and was one of 15 QBs taken in the draft, none of which has had a Pro Bowl season, and only one of whom starts in the league now (David Garrard, selected 108th overall.) And after your team comes off a 2-14 season, you look to rebuild around a young QB.

Should Millen have selected someone else — Dwight Freeney, Albert Haynesworth, Ed Reed, or Clinton Portis — instead? Probably. But I remember a time when the nation was crazy for Matt Leinart and Vince Young as well.

Another Millen blunder was Charles Rogers, who was selected second overall in the 2003 NFL Draft after the Lions finished 3-13. Even though scouts told Millen not to draft Rogers, Millen took him. After all, every young QB needs a reliable receiver to throw to, right?

Rogers won the Fred Biletnikoff Award at Michigan State, which goes to the nation's best collegiate receiver. Rogers, who was born in Michigan, had 22 catches for 240 yards and three touchdowns in his first five games in Detroit, but broke his collarbone in practice. Rogers missed the rest of the season.

The following season, he broke his collarbone again on the third play of the season. In 2005, he was suspended for four games after failing a drug test. Rogers has only played in nine games since.

Although he tried out for various NFL teams since, he is currently a free agent. But the real question is should Millen had selected Rogers with receivers like Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin on the board?

Another Millen blunder was the selection of USC receiver Mike Williams with the 10th selection in the 2005 NFL Draft. This was Millen’s third consecutive year selecting a receiver in the first round after he drafted Roy Williams the year before.

I remember watching this draft. As a Vikings fan, we needed a receiver. We had just dealt Randy Moss to Oakland for the seventh overall pick. I had watched Mike Williams, who had received multiple honors and awards while at his time with USC in 2003, and who had to sit out the 2004 draft due to ineligibility.

When the Vikings were on the clock with the seventh pick, Mel Kiper Jr. began talking about a speed receiver named Troy Williamson out of South Carolina. I prayed that the Vikings would select Williams over Williamson. They did not, but now that I look back I see it as a lose-lose situation. Williams is a free agent. Williamson earned the reputation as a butterfingers and was dealt for a sixth-round pick.

But it is not just those three. Many bad choices have been made, from those involving management, bad draft picks, and bad free agent moves. Over the past few years a “Fire Millen” movement had risen in Detroit. The fans had an “orange out” in which the fans all wore orange to their home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (whose colors are orange and black).

Parades and rallies were held, and chants of “Fire Millen” began to rise up at Pistons, Red Wings, Michigan, and Michigan State events. “Fire Millen” chants even rose up at WrestleMania 23, which was held at Ford Field.

After Millen’s dismal 31-84 record, which included a 24-game road losing streak, the Ford family, which owns the Detroit Lions, remained faithful. Following the team's 3-13 performance in 2006, Ford announced that Millen would be retained as general manager for at least another season, because according to inside sources to the Ford family, they still believed that Millen was the best GM that the Lions ever had.

So when are Detroit fans going to get a break? Even as a Vikings fan, I feel bad for Detroit. I watched the Vikings’ 20-16 win over the Lions on Sunday. I didn’t see an 0-12 team. I saw an NFL team full of professional players, making plays and earning their paychecks. I watched as Daunte Culpepper connected with the Randy Moss-esque Calvin Johnson (another first-round wide receiver for Matt Millen, making Johnson the fourth first-round receiver out of five first-round picks for Millen) for a 70-yard bomb.

With Culpepper in Detroit, who is signed through next season, Detroit will make an improvement. Detroit has a good chance of having the first overall pick in the 2009 Draft, in which the Lions will likely select a quarterback. That QB will have a year or two to mature behind Culpepper instead of being thrown to the wolves, as was the case with the young Joey Harrington.