The losses never piled up next to Matt Millen's name when he was in the broadcast booth. He was praised for being blunt but he managed to avoid crossing the line into being controversial. He was a star TV analyst and seemed well on his way to being the next John Madden.
But he remembers all those days when he would go home after broadcasting a game and was full of ideas but had no outlet for them other than picking up the phone for a late-night conversation with Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach who became an NFL broadcasting icon. He didn't want to escape from the pressure of accountability for what happened on the field; he wanted to seek it.
"What I said to myself was, 'There's no won-loss record in TV. I have to get back in,' " Millen said. "It would drive me crazy. I'd be done with a game, and I'd have all this energy. I'd have all these things going around in my head, and there was no one to talk to them about. I'd go home and my wife and kids would be sleeping, and there was no release for all this stuff. So I'd call John and we'd go back and forth about it. He knew I had to get back in."
So Millen accepted the Detroit Lions' offer to become their president and chief executive in January 2001, with full control over the club's football operations. The three seasons since have produced mostly misery, as the Lions have been the league's worst team and Millen's words and deeds have generated a string of controversies. But now, suddenly, there's hope. Millen has assembled the NFL's most promising group of talented young offensive players, and the Lions are a trendy pick to be a surprise team.
Millen is hopeful that a turnaround is imminent but knows nothing is ensured. Either way, he said, he hasn't and won't ever question his decision to leave his comfortable TV existence.
"I don't regret an inch of this, not a single second," he said by telephone this week. "You jump in it, and you move forward. You fail, and you try to make it work. Hopefully, we're on our way to getting it right. The bottom line is, this is in my blood. This is what I am. I'm just a regular schmo who's been in football since I was 8 years old. That's the reason Joe Gibbs is back. It's who he is. It's what he does. I talked to him when I took this job, and it didn't surprise me one bit when he came back. What surprised me is that Pat [Gibbs's wife] let him come back."
Millen, 46, was the ultimate winner in his 12-year NFL career as a linebacker. He won two Super Bowls with the Raiders (one with the franchise in Oakland and one with it in Los Angeles) and one each with the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins. His football talk is littered with the philosophies of Joe Paterno, his coach at Penn State, Raiders owner Al Davis and Gibbs, for whom he played with the Redskins in 1991.
But his Lions are 10-38 since Millen took over after the club went 9-7 in 2000. They have lost an NFL-record 24 straight road games. Millen created uproars by calling an unidentified Lions player "a devout coward" during a 2002 radio appearance with Mike Ditka, and by reportedly directing a derogatory term relating to sexual orientation at former Detroit wide receiver Johnnie Morton during a heated exchange following a game in Kansas City last December. Millen apologized for both incidents. The NFL fined Millen $200,000 for failing to interview a minority candidate, as required by league rules, before he hired Steve Mariucci as the Lions' coach last year. The Lions said five minority candidates rejected requests for interviews, believing Mariucci was a lock for the job.
Millen's job security was questioned in each of the past two offseasons. But the Ford family, which owns the team, stuck by him and might be about to be rewarded. All that losing yielded lofty draft choices, and Millen seems to have used his well. He got Texas wide receiver Roy Williams with the seventh overall pick and Virginia Tech tailback Kevin Jones with the 30th overall selection in this year's draft and adds them to an offense that already had quarterback Joey Harrington, the third choice in the 2002 draft, and wideout Charles Rogers, the second pick in last year's draft.
"We have so many weapons, so much young talent," veteran tight end Stephen Alexander, signed in June as a free agent, said in the Lions' locker room last Saturday night after their loss at Baltimore in their third preseason game. "I think the sky is the limit. . . . We have all the tools to get it done."
The key, Alexander said, is a seasoned offensive line bolstered by the addition of guard Damien Woody, one of two veteran free agents (along with cornerback Fernando Bryant) signed by Millen on the same day -- March 5 -- to lucrative contracts with signing bonuses totaling $16.25 million. A team can have success while depending on first- and second-year running backs and wide receivers if they're talented enough, Alexander said, and he and Millen indicated that they believe Harrington is ready to be a winning quarterback after throwing 38 interceptions and only 29 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons.
Williams was shut out in the initial two preseason games but had his first three catches against the Ravens and even eluded Ray Lewis after the first one -- leading, Williams said, to a wink of acknowledgement from the all-pro middle linebacker later in the game. "And I sure do appreciate it," Williams said.
Jones ran hard and effectively in that game after being slowed in training camp by hamstring and foot injuries. The optimism dimmed a bit when three defensive starters -- Bryant, safety Brock Marion and linebacker Donte Curry -- were hurt in the first quarter of Thursday night's win at home over Buffalo in the preseason finale. But team officials said they expect each of the players to be available for the regular season opener in eight days at Chicago.
"We're certainly a lot better than we've been -- younger, faster, more athletic," Millen said. "I'm going to give you a Joe Gibbs line: That doesn't guarantee us any success; it just gives us a possibility for success. When we were getting ready for our Super Bowl season in '91, he told us that. We have guys who are talented but raw. . . . I really don't know how it's going to turn out. Nothing would surprise me. We're going to make big plays both ways. We're going to do some good things and some dumb things. Hopefully, we'll learn from the mistakes fast."