Matt Millen, the president of the Detroit Lions, fired his hand-picked coach Monday when he dismissed Steve Mariucci. But Millen didn't place the blame for the team's struggles solely on Mariucci, saying he deserves "plenty" himself.
"Ultimately," Millen said at the news conference at which he announced Mariucci's ouster and named Dick Jauron the club's interim coach, "I'm at the top of the organization."
When Millen left the broadcast booth in January 2001 to oversee the Lions' football operations, the team was coming off a 2000 season in which it went 9-7. The club has gone 20-55 since then, including 4-7 this season.
Millen faced a series of pointed questions during Monday's news conference about his culpability in the organization's woes. When he was asked to list his mistakes, he said: "How long is this press conference supposed to last? I could beat myself up all night."
But it was Mariucci, not Millen, who was headed out the door Monday. Millen, in fact, seems to have the confidence of the Ford family, which owns the team. He signed a five-year contract extension this year, although the salaries in the deal reportedly are not guaranteed.
"It hurts," Millen said. "It really does. We've not won here for a long, long time. . . . If anything, you're more resolute and determined. You're just downright ticked off to get this done."
Millen ultimately held Mariucci accountable for failing to aid the development of the would-be offensive centerpieces on which Millen used first-round draft picks in the last four years -- quarterback Joey Harrington, tailback Kevin Jones and wide receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams.
"Any time anybody shows patience, I'm surprised by it," Millen said. "But we have not developed our young players, and that's bothersome. And I believe we've underachieved, and that's just unacceptable."
Decision Made Monday Just after the Lions lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7, on Thanksgiving, there were reports that Mariucci was on his way out. But Millen said the decision wasn't made until Monday morning, after he had a series of conversations with the Fords over the weekend.
"I was angry after that game," Millen said. "It was disturbing to watch, and I did not want to make a decision based on anger."
The Lions went 15-28 under Mariucci, who was in the third season of a five-year, $25 million contract. Millen abruptly fired Marty Mornhinweg in 2003 so that he could hire Mariucci, who just had been ousted by the San Francisco 49ers.
"At times, good people suffer a cruel fate," Millen said Monday, "and this is one of them. . . . It's not a happy day. Steve is as good a person as I've been around. He's a close friend of mine, and it bothers me."
The Lions also fired two of Mariucci's assistants, offensive line coach Pat Morris and tight ends coach Andy Sugarman. Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was promoted to offensive coordinator. Mariucci's offensive coordinator, Ted Tollner, now is slated to coach the tight ends, and assistant offensive line coach Sean Kugler takes over for Morris.
"We have five games left to develop our younger players," Millen said. "We have five games left to prove we are what we think we are." . . . When he hired Mariucci, Millen failed to comply with the NFL rule that requires each club with a head-coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. He was fined $200,000 by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for the infraction. Millen said Monday the coaching search that the team will conduct following this season will be done "in accordance with all applicable NFL guidelines." . . . Millen said that Jauron, the former head coach of the Chicago Bears, was given no assurances about keeping the job beyond this season. But Jauron seems to have a better chance that most interim coaches of hanging around for a second season. He is a former Lions player who has had some success as an NFL head coach, directing the Bears to a 13-win season in 2001.
Jauron refused to speculate on his future Monday, saying: "I don't think it makes any sense for me to predict where anything is going."
He is friendly with Mariucci, and said he hesitated before accepting the job.
"It wasn't my first inclination to take it because of the circumstances and the friendship," Jauron said. "But when you think about the players . . . I felt like it was in the best interests of myself and everyone to take it."
Jauron said he hadn't decided whether he'd go with Harrington or Jeff Garcia as his starting quarterback. He warned not to expect a drastic overhaul of the offensive system being used by Mariucci and Tollner.
"In a five-week season, you're not going to significantly change anything," Jauron said. " . . . We're going to play it out the best we can."
Among the NFL assistant coaches being mentioned by some league observers as potential candidates for the Detroit job are Washington Redskins defensive boss Gregg Williams, the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills, and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm, the one-time Redskins guard who was a finalist for the head-coaching job in Chicago when the Bears hired Lovie Smith.
Last season, two NFL coaches (Miami's Dave Wannstedt and Cleveland's Butch Davis) failed to last the season and another (San Francisco's Dennis Erickson) was fired soon after the season ended.
The Lions became the first team to change head coaches this season. But there likely are more changes to come, with these coaches seemingly in the most danger of being replaced:
*Dom Capers, Houston. Someone will take the fall for the Texans' season of ineptitude.
*Mike Martz, St. Louis. With plenty of friction between him and the Rams' front office, few people in the league expect him to return to the club after this season's leave of absence to have a heart infection treated.
*Jim Haslett, New Orleans. Will the Saints' unique circumstances since being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina keep owner Tom Benson from dismissing his coach? It's unclear at this point.
*Mike Sherman, Green Bay. He signed a contract extension before the season, but first-year general manager Ted Thompson nevertheless might want a coach that he hired rather than one that he inherited.
*Brian Billick, Baltimore. The Ravens have been among the league's most disappointing teams, and have looked completely undisciplined at times along the way.
*Norv Turner, Oakland. He wasn't owner Al Davis's top choice in the first place. Some people in the league thought he might not make it back for this season, and the Raiders again are below .500.
*Mike Tice, Minnesota. His departure once looked like a foregone conclusion, but he has the Vikings on a roll that might save his job.
*Dick Vermeil, Kansas City. He won't be fired, but he could be headed back into retirement after this season.
Tagliabue and NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw met Monday in New York with Benson and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis to discuss plans for the team for next season, without reaching any decisions.
Tagliabue is scheduled to attend the Saints' game Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Baton Rouge, La. Benson also is scheduled to attend the game after skipping the club's most recent game in Baton Rouge. The owner was upset about how he was treated the first time the Saints played at LSU's Tiger Stadium this season. He got into a pair of confrontations after the game, lunging at a camera crew and getting into a yelling match with a heckling fan.
On Monday, Tagliabue is scheduled to be in New Orleans to meet with city leaders and tour the Superdome.
Last week, several Saints players criticized Tagliabue for failing to address them in person at any point this season. Tagliabue twice has offered to meet with the Saints, most recently before last Sunday's triumph over the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, but had the offers rejected by team officials because they wanted the players to focus on game preparations.
"If they want to do it, they're more than welcome," Haslett said Monday. "I just don't want to do it the day before a game. I don't think that's an appropriate time." . . .
Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said Monday he was awarding a game ball from Sunday's overtime victory over the New York Giants in Seattle to the team's fans. Such gestures usually seem contrived. But in this case, the honor was well-deserved, as the Giants committed 11 false-start penalties Sunday -- five of them by left tackle Luke Petitgout -- while struggling to deal with the din of the crowd.
"That's what you need for a home-field advantage," Holmgren said.
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin still was seething Monday over that performance by his club.
"I said it was loud," he said at his news conference. "I didn't say it was an excuse for the left side of the [offensive] line."
Coughlin was more forgiving when it came to kicker Jay Feely, whose solid season-in-the-making was halted when he missed three would-be game-winning field goal attempts Sunday.
"He's done an outstanding job here," Coughlin said. "He had a bad game, a bad experience. You've got to move past it." . . .
According to Holmgren, the league office informed him Monday that touchdown catches by Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receiver Amani Toomer on Sunday should have been ruled incompletions. Shockey had the ball jarred loose by a hit on his second-quarter reception, and Toomer did his best to keep his feet in bounds in the back of the end zone on his fourth-quarter catch. Both plays were reviewed by instant replay but called completions.
Holmgren, a member of the NFL's competition committee, also was miffed that he had to call a timeout in overtime to prompt a booth review of a catch by Shockey that would have been a key 16-yard gain. There are no coaches' challenges in overtime, and no review of the play was ordered by the replay official until Holmgren's timeout provided a little more time for consideration. Shockey lost the ball on the play, and the ruling on the field was that he'd fumbled and the ball had been recovered by the Giants. After the replay review, however, the play was overturned and called an incompletion.
When the San Diego Chargers pressed to have defensive end Osi Umenyiora included in the draft-day trade last year that sent quarterback Eli Manning to New York, the Giants refused. They said they were prepared to call off the deal before they'd part with Umenyiora. Good move. The speed-rushing end has 10 sacks this season, two of them Sunday against the Seahawks. . . .
The Dallas Cowboys placed linebacker Dat Nguyen on the injured reserve list Monday, ending his season, and signed veteran linebacker Michael Barrow.
Nguyen has been bothered by a neck injury, and Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells said at a news conference that he expects Nguyen to consider retirement. Barrow had been out of the NFL this season. He was with the Redskins last season but was hurt and unable to play. . . .
The Philadelphia Eagles signed 43-year-old punter Sean Landeta. He replaces Nick Murphy, who was released, and becomes the Eagles' fourth punter this season. Quarterback Andy Hall also was released to create a roster spot for deactivated wide receiver Terrell Owens, whose four-game suspension ended Monday.
Specter Says Eagles' Treatment of Owens Unfair
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said during a news conference Monday that he thinks the Eagles' deactivation of Owens for the final five games of the season is vindictive and inappropriate and might violate antitrust law.
Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he might refer the matter to the committee's antitrust subcommittee.
"I do not believe, personally, that it is appropriate to punish him" by keeping him from playing for any team the rest of the season, Specter said, according to the Associated Press. "He's not committed a crime. He's committed a breach of contract, and what they're doing against him is vindictive."
Specter indicated he is not a supporter of Owens and believes the wide receiver breached his contract, but thinks the Eagles' response should have been to withhold his pay or perhaps even sue him for damages.
Instead, the Eagles suspended him for four games without pay, and now will pay him but deactivate him for the rest of the season. The players' union challenged the punishment but arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled last week that both the suspension and deactivation were justified.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who has been a vocal supporter of Owens in recent weeks, also expressed his objection to Owens's deactivation.
"The punishment is disproportionate to the infraction," Jackson said in a telephone interview. "It seems that management is trying to make a statement far beyond Terrell Owens, and every player in the NFL should be concerned. This is a management crackdown on free speech. The arbitrator seems to have surrendered to management, and they're taking a year out of the heart of his career. I thought Terrell's words were inappropriate. The suspension was appropriate, but the arbitrator went beyond that to a year-long de facto ban. That's extreme and outrageous, with serious implications for the whole league."
16-0 No Longer A Pipedream
After watching the Colts' manhandling of Pittsburgh in Indianapolis on Monday night, does anyone still believe that an undefeated season is impossible?
The Colts should run their record to 12-0 when they face Tennessee at home on Sunday. Then comes a tough three-week stretch in which they play at Jacksonville (but the Jaguars will be without quarterback Byron Leftwich), at home against San Diego and at Seattle. Coach Tony Dungy might rest his front-line players in the final week or two of the regular season if the Colts have wrapped up home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs. But his team probably would be able to win its regular-season finale -- at home against Arizona -- even without major contributions from its stars. . . .
Monday's defeat was only the second regular-season loss for Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers' starting quarterback. His regular-season record dropped to 18-2.
The loss to the Colts also marked the first time that a team other than New England beat the Steelers with Roethlisberger. The Patriots beat the Steelers with Roethlisberger during last season's playoffs and again early this season. . . .
Yes, the Bengals are an honest-to-goodness contender in the AFC. At 8-3, they have a one-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC North entering Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. But there must be concerns about a Cincinnati defense that has surrendered 74 points in the past two games. . . .
The Vikings (6-5) have won four straight games with Brad Johnson at quarterback and are back in playoff contention in the NFC. And it's not difficult to envision the Vikings being 9-6 entering their regular-season finale at home against the Bears. Three of their next four games are against the Lions, Rams and Ravens (with a Dec. 18 matchup with the Steelers thrown into the mix). . . .
The NFL Network reported that Martz is feeling better and is considering making a return to the Rams this season if he receives medical clearance. . . .
Rams left tackle Orlando Pace was plagued by hip and hamstring ailments last weekend and left Sunday's comeback win over the Houston Texans early. But MRI exams taken Monday showed no serious damage. . . .
The Buccaneers' mettle as a playoff contender will be tested in the next three weeks. They play three straight road games, following Sunday's contest against the Saints in Baton Rouge with games at Carolina and New England. . . .
The NFL announced today that the Rolling Stones will perform at halftime of the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Detroit.
Niners Going Back to A. Smith
The 49ers are going back to Alex Smith, the top overall selection in the NFL draft in April, as their starting quarterback this week. The club has rotated Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett as its starter the last five weeks while Smith has been sidelined by a knee injury. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass and has five interceptions, 12 sacks and a 17.5 passer rating. . . . San Francisco center Jeremy Newberry was placed on the IR list because of an ailing knee.