by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WELL, HERE it is Monday morning, and what do we know now that we didn’t know before about Matt Millen, who will be put in charge of the Lions this week?

We know he used to start fights with his teammates. We know he is a Type-A personality. We know he loves his wife and his four children. We know he dresses like a frat-house brother.

We know he jokes during broadcasts. We know he watches loads of tape. We know he comes from a blue-collar Pennsylvania town that breeds hard-working, tough-nosed people.

In fact, thanks to diligent reporting, feature profiles and the occasional testimonial from an ex-teammate (former Lion Keith Dorney actually volunteered a complimentary Millen column for this newspaper), we now know enough to make
“Matt, the Mini-series.”

What we don’t know is if he can do the job.

And we won’t. Not for a long time.

Let’s get that straight, folks, as giddy as some of us may be that the Lions are doing anything that isn’t the same old same old. This move, giving all the reins of all the pretty horses to Millen, is a gamble, high stakes, big money, a jump into a cold shower by a sleepwalking franchise. Nobody — not William Clay Ford Jr., not William Clay Ford Sr., not Millen himself — can tell you if this man will be a boom or a bust.

Why? Because he’s never done it. Hate to state the obvious, but that’s what it comes down to. He’s never done anything close.

Fighting? No offense, but what do we care if Matt Millen used to fight his teammates — unless he plans on trading for players that way? Outspoken? Big deal. So is Don King. I don’t want him running my company. Hates to lose? So? Who likes to lose?

The fact is, running an NFL operation means 1) hiring the best people; 2) watching the money; 3) working phones, other GMs, scouting combines; 4) cutting your losses before they come back to bite you; 5) salary cap, salary cap, salary cap.

Now. Is Matt Millen any good at that?

His guess is as good as yours.

He does impressions

What Millen is obviously good at is making an impression. Otherwise, how does a guy who at the moment is only a good TV analyst convince the Ford family that he is worth a reported $12 million for four years? I’ve been trying to figure out this relationship between Millen and Ford Jr. and someone told me
“they got to know each other when Millen was doing the Lions games.”

Well. I am ashamed. For 15 years, I’ve been doing the Lions games. And not once — not once! — have the Fords offered me to run their team. A ride in the elevator, maybe, but never to run their team.

But OK. Millen is a former player with a fistful of Super Bowl rings. He is smart. And he (unlike me, and most people on the media side of this business) actually wants the job.

And the Lions want to change.

Both of those things should be celebrated. Let’s face it, the last time the Lions had a traditional GM was Russ Thomas, and he’s been gone since 1989. That’s 11 years of a muddled mess in which you never quite got a straight answer to “Who’s in charge around here?” One guy seemed to scout the players, one guy seemed to cut them, one guy seemed to coach them, one guy seemed to negotiate their contracts.

Since Thomas’ departure, the Lions have tinkered with the coaching end. They tried Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross and Gary Moeller. They still can’t win a playoff game.

Can you blame them for tinkering someplace else?

No. The truth is, I have been clamoring for years — as have many longtime Lions watchers — to get a real football person in charge around here. Year after year, we had to watch what Ron Wolf was doing with Green Bay, or what Bill Polian was doing with Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the Lions let their team operate by committee.

The committee is about to be disbanded.

Will anybody miss it?

Well, it couldn’t hurt

A few years ago, another TV man was offered a front office position. Chris Mortensen, who is ESPN’s NFL insider — and a former newspaper reporter — was up for a key role with Jacksonville. In the end, he backed out, but I remember people debating Mortensen’s credentials. Some said, “He’s from TV. He’s never played!” Others said, “He’s in TV, he knows everything.”

The fact is, this isn’t about TV. Being a good analyst won’t make Millen good in his new job, but it won’t hurt. Same goes for breaking down tape, knowing people, being hard-nosed.

For what it’s worth, Mortensen, whom I called Sunday, thinks Millen could be great, although the money does seem excessive. “He’s smart, and he’ll energize things,” Mort said. “But there are a lot of other execs around the league who are wondering why they didn’t get a call.”

Here is what they know: Being CEO, president or whatever the Lions ultimately call Millen is not about desire. It’s about signing a marginal player to a short-term deal, and a yet-to-be superstar to a long-term one. It’s about knowing when to let your coach go. It’s about finding the next Terrell Davis with a sixth-round pick. It’s about working the salary cap for every usable penny.

Millen — whom, by the way, I like personally — used to hit people for a living, and now he talks about other players hitting each other for a living. He is virgin in this territory, which could be good or bad.

We’ll see. Right now, all the Lions have done is jolt the NFL with an “Out with the old, in with the …who?” Still, a wind of change is a wind of change. And let’s face it. The air in the Lions’ front offices was getting pretty stale.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!