You don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, and you don’t yell “coward” on a football team. Not your own team. Not in public. Matt Millen knows that. He did it anyhow. “I knew it was trouble a nanosecond after I said it,” he admitted. But once the words were out of his mouth, there was no grabbing them back.

So on Sunday, a day which would, in effect, determine whether the Lions had any hope of salvaging their season, the focus instead was on a dumb remark Millen made on a radio show. The pregame TV was talking about Millen. The press box was talking about Millen. And Millen, himself, was talking about Millen.

“Let me make this clear,” he said before the game, “I said it and I was wrong. There’s no excuses. . . .

“The real irony is I never use that word.”

No. The real irony is that a team president was making more news than his players.

Millen’s water started heating up the moment he agreed to do an interview on Mike Ditka’s Chicago radio show. You pair an old grizzly like Ditka with a slightly less-old grizzly like Millen, you’re gonna get some “good ol’ days when men were men” talk.

And that’s what happened Thursday night.

DITKA: “Anybody that won’t tackle in the NFL, I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. I think it’s a lack of courage.”

MILLEN: “Well, I have a guy right now who I believe is a devout coward.”

DITKA: “Card-carrying.”

MILLEN: “Oh, Mike, and he’s the greatest practice player you’ve ever seen. . .
. Then you get into the game and it’s like, ‘Where are your testicles?’ “

Uh-oh. Someone get the fire hose.

The clutch performances

You see what happened here. Two ex-football guys grousing that today’s players aren’t as tough as they were. So what, right? This kind of talk goes on all the time.

But it wasn’t the What, it was the Where. Millen doesn’t get to take the “team president” pin off his lapel when he talks to Ditka — especially not on the radio. Millen says he has a “devout coward” on his squad, first thing everyone says is, “Who is it?” The second thing everyone says is, “What kind of comment is that?”

Millen, wisely, won’t answer the first one. As for the second? “A tongue is a hard thing to tame, especially when you are used to speaking carelessly. And that’s just what that was, careless speaking. . . .

“It was dumb, it was stupid. You can’t be a coward and play in the NFL.”

And, as if to prove his point, the Lions on Sunday earned their most courageous victory since Millen got here. They opened a big lead on a good Bears team, blew it, fell behind, came back to tie in the final seconds and won in overtime, 23-20.

Receiver Scotty Anderson — who some felt was the object of Millen’s criticism
— caught three passes for 34 yards in the final regulation drive. James Stewart broke his personal Detroit highs with a yeoman-like 32 carries and 172 yards. Corey Harris, criticized earlier in the season, had seven tackles, a forced fumble and a huge sack. Fullback Cory Schlesinger, according to coach Marty Mornhinweg, played the whole game “with a broken back.”

“Did Millen’s comments affect the team the last few days?’ Stewart was asked.

“We’re used to controversy,” he said. “I promise you, even after this win, there’ll be naysayers all week.”

But this came from inside, someone said.

“Doesn’t matter where it comes from,” Stewart said. “If I got upset every time someone said something bad about me or this team, I’d have been out of the game a long time ago.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid

After the game, Millen was swarmed in the locker room. To his credit, he stood there and took it. He apologized. He accepted blame. If he said he was
“stupid” one more time, they’d have to put him on MTV’s “Jackass.” Players passed by on their way out, occasionally glaring at the mob, and this is where Millen’s biggest task lies, repairing the damage to that relationship.

But this is not the empire-crumbler some folks have suggested. Remember, Millen is not the coach. Players don’t have to love the GM or team president. And it’s not as if players haven’t themselves blurted out, “We got some guys who just quit today,” or “Some guys in this room have to look real hard in the mirror.”

The difference is the word “coward.” It hurts to hear it. And as Millen is learning, it even hurts to say it. But just as a stupid penalty late in the game actually saved the Lions from losing, so too may a stupid comment from a team executive inspire the Lions to a sense of purpose.

“This team,” Mornhinweg said, “is a rock.”

Wouldn’t it be funny if, after all the external abuse, it was an internal insult that got the rock rolling?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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