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Even After Lions Disaster, Millen Was a Smart Hire for NBC

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to Washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 1:23 PM

TAMPA -- NBC Sports, televising its first Super Bowl since 1998, held a meet-and-greet session with the media here on Tuesday to provide access to virtually all the principals playing key roles in its nearly 11-hour broadcast Sunday, which starts at noon with pregame hype and includes the Steelers-Cardinals game, which kicks off just before 6:30 p.m.

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John Madden held court at one roundtable, with Al Michaels at another and Cris Collinsworth not far from where Bob Costas sat, just behind Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber also were in the neighborhood, along with NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, game producer Fred Gaudelli and sideline reporter Andrea Kremer. There were lots of questions and answers, and even a couple of candle-lit cakes served up to celebrate the birthdays of Collinsworth and Olbermann.

Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Matt Millen, the recently fired Detroit Lions team president and recently hired addition to NBC's pregame show. Millen was not made available to the media this week, either up close and personal or by telephone interview. Several apologetic members of the sports division's public relations staff said they had been told that Millen, for now at least, was declining comment on advice of his attorney.

What a shame for one of the most engaging players and broadcasters I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with over the last 40 years, particularly during his brief stint at the end of his playing career as a starting linebacker with the Washington Redskins. At least until he went to Detroit, this was a blunt, affable and thoroughly engaging guy who never ducked a single question and usually offered rare insights into the game.

Last time we looked, getting fired after a dismal seven-plus year run as one of the most inept team executives in recent NFL history hardly seems a reasonable reason for a four-time Super Bowl champion to take the Fifth. It's a shame someone has buttoned the mouth that once earned Millen a well-deserved reputation as one of the most astute television analysts in the business.

Sue?

Who?

Back when he was doing games for Fox, Millen was known as "Baby Madden." If he had stayed in the business, he likely would have replaced the real John Madden as the network's lead analyst when Madden jumped to Monday Night Football on ABC in 2002.

Now Millen is back in front of the camera, making his comeback debut on the NBC pregame show in the first round of the playoffs three weeks ago. That night, he was interviewed by Dan Patrick for his first extended comments on the firing in Detroit. And he admitted that at some point during his wretched run with the Lions, he probably would have fired himself if he had been the owner.

Back in the Motor City, there was great outrage over Millen's return to the air, as if the man wasn't entitled to earn a living because the team he built had finished 0-16 in 2008, the exclamation point on his tenure in Detroit. Millen's return to television also became classically cruel radio talk show and nasty newspaper columnist fodder around the country, with buckets of bile spewed in his direction coast-to-coast.

"Just put Millen in a stockade on radio row" at the Super Bowl, media columnist Bob Raismann of the New York Daily News suggested, "and let the media throw stuff at him. Cans, bottles, hunks of ice, Ring Dings, whatever. Those doing the screaming believe Millen ¿ has no credibility because of his abysmal performance as a general manager."

Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote after Millen's appearance with Patrick that, "simply saying that you're responsible for the disaster doesn't make you accountable; that requires serving a penance." He also suggested (presumably tongue in cheek) that Millen get the Scarlet Letter treatment any time he appeared on television, as in 0-16 stamped on his forehead.


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