Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Nov 2005

History Doesn't Favor Mariucci

Will the Lions fire Steve Mariucci? Mike O'Hara, the longtime Lions beat writer for the Detroit News, seems to think so. Owner William Clay Ford said before the season that this was the most talented team Detroit has had in the four decades he's been the owner. I don't think real highly of Ford's talent evaluation, but if that's the owner's perception, who will he blame but the coach when the team gets off to a 3-5 start?

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 07 Nov 2005

32 comments, Last at 08 Nov 2005, 4:20pm by Ryan Mc


by Adam (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 11:15am

Matt Millen has pictures of someone.

by charles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 11:17am

when was the last time kevin jones broke a run for over 20 yards?

by kjbad (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 11:36am

The last time the dinner bell rang...

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 11:57am

If it's accurate to say that no Lions team since the '60s has been more talented than this one, it seems like you ought to fire the owner rather than the coach.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 12:23pm

The more I think about the claim that this is the most talented Lions team, the more ridiculous it seems. Is there even one player on the offense who's more talented than his Fontes-era counterpart? I can't think of one. (And I can't believe I'm sitting here wishing for a return to the Fontes era.) On defense there might be more talent right now, but not by a lot.

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 12:40pm

Owner William Clay Ford said before the season that this was the most talented team Detroit has had in the four decades he’s been the owner.

a more accurate description would be a team filled with players who were PERCEIVED as talented when they came out of college

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 2:03pm

I'm not a big Mariucci fan, but a guy who comes in a year after Joey Harrington gets a top-three draft contract has a deep hole to get out of. I've heard conflicting reports as to whether Millen was pressured to draft Harrington by Ford, or whether he was a Harrington fan so I really don't know who is to blame for that fiasco.

I suspect Mariucci and Millen are primarily behind the three consecutive WR picks, however, so they don't lack for blame.

by mawbrew (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 2:11pm

Re: 1

Well, Millen is certainly leading a charmed life. Given that Millen's the guy that fired Mooch's predecesor just so he could hire (the newly available) Mooch, it's hard to imagine Millen doesn't get first crack at the unemployment line. But Ford was somehow duped into offering Millen a contract extension (must have been all the 'talent' that Millen had acquired) before the season. It would cost a fair bit of cash and credibility for Ford to fire Millen now.

If Mooch does go, I wonder if Millen will interview any minority candidates for his replacement?

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 2:36pm

Re 7: Will, the Harrington contract hasn't hurt the Lions all that badly, nowhere near as badly as the Rogers contract, and Mooch was on board with the Rogers pick.

Don't buy those stories saying Ford pressured Millen to take Harrington. Ford has never gotten involved in the draft. That was Millen's pick all the way, and he told people weeks before the draft that he thought Harrington was going to be a great quarterback.

Obviously, Millen is the one who should be fired, but that's just not going to happen. Firing Mariucci is the best we Lions fans can hope for. (Not that we should have any faith Millen will replace him with anyone other than Marty Mornhinweg Part II, but we can dream.)

by buddha (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 2:53pm

The Lions were better under Mohrningweg than they are under Mariucci. And that was with Mike Freakin' McMahon at QB.

Anyone who follows the Lions (poor suckers are we), knows exactly what will happen. Mooch will be fired and Millen will get another contract extension. Millen will hire some "up and coming" coach who will instantly suck.

If Millen is such a "hard ass" guy and so tough, why hire a coach who's known as being soft on his players and runs a fancy, non-physical West Coast Offense?

And the beat goes on for the worst franchise not named the Cardinals...

Charles Rogers seems intent to join Tony Mandarich as the biggest bust to ever to come out of East Lansing. Roy Williams is "hurt" again. Mike Williams is fat and can't catch.

I love that Scottie Vines is the Lions best receiver. They've been calling those three top picks the "three divas" in Detroit. That pretty much sums them up.

I'd say "blow it up" but what's the point? You can rebuild and be just as good (bad?) as the Lions are now. Unless another Barry Sanders or Billy Sims falls into their laps, they're going to be 6-10 in their best years until the end of time...

Or until the Fords sell the team.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 3:11pm

"the worst franchise not named the Cardinals"

I wish that were true. I'm a biased Lions fan and not always capable of making the best judgments, but I don't really see any standard by which the Lions are a better franchise than the Cardinals. Detroit got Barry Sanders and got a few playoff appearances out of him, but for the most part, in my lifetime (I'm 29) I don't really see the Lions as being superior to the Cardinals in any way.

by NF (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 3:21pm

If Mariucci is fired, Martz would be such a ridiculous replacement that he just might be hired.

by buddha (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 3:26pm

Speaking of Lions-Cardinals, I posted this on another web site. It's a little long, but I think it about sums up this week's match-up:

Come one Come all to the LOSER bowl!

The two worst franchises in the history of the National Football League battling it out on "national" television to see just who has the right to be called the Clippers of the NFL.

The Lions are still smarting from two victories in a row over the Cardinals. Clearly, the Cardinals now have the upper hand on the boys in Honolulu Blue.

"Man, that team is TOUGH to lose to," said Coach Steve Mariucci, "but we're not going to do our best and hope we come out on the bottom this time. Our fans deserve it."

With the last two victories over the Cardinals, the Lions are now 32-21-5 against the Desert Birds.

"It's not something we're proud of, but we're doing our worst to change it. And that change starts this Sunday." Remarked Quarterback Jeff Garcia.

The Lions recently warmed up for their battle by losing to the Bears in overtime and being blown out by the Vikings on the road.

Damien Woody summed up the team's feelings going into this titanic matchup. "That Vikings game was a good test for us. They're really beat up with Culpepper out of the game. But we still went in there and lost. I think that shows the true nature of this team. On any given Sunday, we can lose to anyone. Arizona better be careful."

Possibly seeking inspiration, Coach Mooch placed a call to someone well versed in the Battle for Ineptitude.

"Oh yeah. I called Coach Ross. We had a long talk about losing this game. He knows I've had some troubles lately and he offered some encouragement and even a few ideas on clock management."

Coach Ross was at the helm for one of the most memorable games between the two clubs. In 1999 as the Cardinals were wilting down the stretch, Coach Ross decided to go for two points instead of kicking the extra point after a Lions' score. The Lions went on to lose by 4 points as they failed to score a touchdown late and could not kick a field goal.

Not to be outdone, current Cardinals coach Dennis Green surprised the Lions last season by starting rookie John Navarre at QB. The Cardinals went on to lose 26-12.

"Them starting Navarre was brilliant." Coach Mooch admitted. "Dennis Green is a master of surprises and that one really got us. We had no way to counter Navarre's lack of talent."

This season Mariucci promises to have a number of tricks up his sleeve.

"I'm not going to give anything away, but we've got some pretty un-talented players on this roster. Come this Sunday, you'll be seeing a lot of them in key situations."

The Lions can only hope he's right. After winning two straight against Arizona, it may be Mariucci's only hope to keep his job.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 3:52pm

Thanks, Buddha.

That Cardinals two-point conversion fiasco was among the lowest points in my Lion fandom. I have a friend who's a Cardinals fan, and after that he just sent me an e-mail to say sorry. There weren't any words to express.

by Sean (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 4:35pm

I don't watch Detroit much, but it's hard to believe that the roster is in as dire a situation as people are making out. Instead, it seems like the team is handicapped by ineffective play/injuries at the two most important positions- quarterback and wide receiver, and that the rest of the team is being held up as a result.

Seeing as there are people who are clearly Lions fans here, let me just ask whether or not these players have shown NFL ability-

Boss Bailey? Teddy Lehman? Shaun Rogers? Kevin Jones? Roy Williams? Kalimba Edwards? Corey Redding?Dominic Raiola?

I'm honestly curious- all of those players were considered BPA picks when they were made. I know Rogers and Harrington are flaming out, but are all of these guys really not living up to their potential?

I can kill Millen for a variety of things, but his drafting strategy is not one of them. Over time, drafting BPA as he has done, leads to a more talented roster than drafting for need. Are these guys injured all the time, or are they playing and showing that they were misevaluated? Or are they in positions where there are weak players around them and they can therefore be negated? I'm really curious.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 4:44pm

Sean, I don't understand what you like about Millen's drafting strategy. I know you're big into best player available, but I'm not sure why you think that has worked well for the Lions. If it were working, wouldn't they have a better team?

But, to answer your question, Shaun Rogers has been very good. They've really missed him the last two games. Boss Bailey and Kalimba Edwards are good when healthy, but the reason they dropped in the draft is injury concerns, so I don't see why Millen deserves a pass on that. I'm not big on Redding or Raiola, although Redding is having his best year this year. Roy Williams got way too much credit for a few spectacular plays last year. He could be a good one, but he needs to learn that you have to make plays consistently, not just once in a while. I've already written about why I think Kevin Jones has struggled.

by Sean (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 5:45pm

MDS- It may be easy to beat Millen over the head with the benefit of hindsight, but I generally can't criticize a GM when they go BPA, because that approach gives you the best chance of finding good players every time out. It's not a sure thing, but if you are consistently taking BPA and striking out, you're suffering from bad luck more than incompetence.

But of course as you noted, the reason why some of the players dropped- Rogers, Baily and Edwards in particular- was due to injury concerns. Rogers has stayed healthy and been a steal. The other guys have continued with their problems. It's a tough call deciding when the balance between risk and reward has tipped decisively in one direction or another.

Should the Lions be better if Millen's drafting strategy is good? Maybe. Poor quarterback play can go a long way towards derailing any team, to the point where you aren't getting maximum effort out of other players because they have no faith that they can win with their quarterback. So that could be a factor. Depth could be a factor- Millen has had strong first day drafts, but he's done a bad job in the second day, which makes for a team that doesn't have depth when injuries hit. That could be a factor.

I honestly don't know. Not watching the team, it's hard to know if lack of talent is the primary reason for their struggles.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 5:49pm

Not sure I buy that other players give up when they have a bad quarterback. Trent Dilfer does have a Super Bowl ring, after all. But, again, the bad quarterback was drafted by Millen. Isn't that a pretty strong piece of evidence against your argument that Millen has drafted well?

by mawbrew (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 6:30pm

One of Millen's biggest mistakes (IMO) was not having a proven vet (Brad Johnson, Holcombe, Kitna, Garcia) available (sooner) to minimize the risk of Harrington not meeting expectations. There aren't a ton of those guys around but they are much more important to have when you're depending on an unproven young guy as a starter.

Billick/Newsome have made the same mistake in Baltimore.

by Sean (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 6:38pm

Not necessarily- you can do a generally good job of drafting and still get torpedoed by busts at the wrong positions (quarterback, most notably) or at the wrong spots in the draft (like the second overall pick). San Francisco had a nice first day this year, with David Baas and Frank Gore both looking like good value selections, but if Alex Smith doesn't work out, it will override the impact that those good selections might otherwise have. The Bengals had what looked like a lights out first day when they took Carson Palmer, Eric Steinbach, Kelley Washington and Dennis Weathersby with their first four picks. In each case, the Bengals took the best player on the board. As it happened, they only hit on two of them, but because one was Palmer, the whole draft was a success and the franchise is set to be good for a long time. Sometimes, the draft just works out that way.

Millen has done a better job than many GMs of taking the BPA, at least in the first day of the draft- he's done it 11 times in the last four drafts, counting rounds 1-3. If six or more of those guys (and the list is Raiola, Edwards, Rogers, Bailey, Jones, Redding, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Cody, Lehman and Rogers) end up busting, then Millen is having a terrible run of luck. If six or more of those guys end up being good players, but Millen busts on his two top three picks of Harrington and Rogers, it's still going to cause some serious short term problems for the franchise, but at least there are other pieces in place for when Harrington and Rogers come off the books.

It is legitimate to knock Millen for the shallowness of his drafts, as I mentioned earlier. To this point, they've been a bit reminiscent of the old Seahawks drafts, when they were able to grab players like Walter Jones and Shawn Springs early on, and that led you to not notice that they weren't getting anything out of the rest of their picks. There are only two players who Millen has taken on the second day who were arguably BPA- Kelly Butler and Bill Swancutt. Aside from that, his second day drafting has been very spotty.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 7:04pm

It's too early for a final judgement of course, but Mike Williams certainly doesn't look like a good pick right now. If a WR has this much trouble with his weight in his rookie year, I don't think it looks good for the future. I don't think he is nasty enough to put on 20-25 pounds (at a minimum) of muscle and become a good tight end.

I like the Vikings' chances with Troy Williamson better than the Lions' chances with Williams at this point, although there is plenty of doubt about Williamson as well, and I think the Vikings would have been better off drafting a pass rusher with the Williamson pick.

by NF (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 7:28pm

The problem with Detroit's strategy of taking the best player available, is that it is ridiculous to take WRs 3 years in a row in the first round, even if they could be top WRs. How do you even compare the value of a WR to that of a RB or lineman? Also, when the Bengals drafted Palmer, it wasn't because of any best player available strategy, but that they needed a good quarterback. In 2002 their QB was Jon Kitna, with Akili Smith and Gus Frerotte backing him up. Also, how is taking the best player available a strategy? What you're saying is that Millen is basically taking whoever is the biggest college phenom still available in the draft, and not actually using the draft to meet specific needs on the team.

A good team needs one good wide receivers and two competent ones. I think the absolute worse that can happen when a good QB lacks any good WRs and the GM makes sure that he has some WRs that meet a basic level of competency is that the passing game ends up like the Eagles passing game in 2003. Good wide receivers will not be able to help a team win if the the team has a poor offensive line, like the Cardinals do, or if the QB is playing poorly, or if the team lacks an effective running game, like the Lions do this season, or the team has an all-around strong offense but the defense gives up tons of points, like the Titans in 2004.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 7:48pm

Sean, I always enjoy your comments and I'm not trying to be critical, but wouldn't you agree that one of the following statements must be false?

1. The way to build a winning team is to select the best player available in the draft.
2. The Lions in the last five years have selected the best player available in the draft.

Since the Lions are a bad team, they either haven't selected the best player available, or selecting the best player available is not a way to build a winner, right?

by buddha (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 7:57pm

"Boss Bailey? Teddy Lehman? Shaun Rogers? Kevin Jones? Roy Williams? Kalimba Edwards? Corey Redding?Dominic Raiola?"

Bailey: Fast but hurt.
Lehman: Not impressed at all.
Rogers: Stud.
Jones: Stud.
Williams: Prima Donna. Overrated.
Edwards: Nothing for three years, now he's ok. Just ok.
Redding: Serviceable.
Raiola: Average at best.

Throw Backus, Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and the rest of Millen's picks in there and you get a pretty average lot. And at the top, you get colossal mistakes (Harrington, C. Rogers).

Now throw in Millen's free agents. For every Dre Bly there is a Fernando Bryant and Brock Marion and Bracy Walker. For every Damien Woody there is a Rick DeMulling and Brendan Stai. For every Scottie Vines there is a Bill Schroeder, Az Hakim or Tai Streets.

Any good Millen does is far outweighed by his poor choices elsewhere. Everyone who isn't a Lions' fan sees the great draft grades and the highlight catches by Roy Williams, but you don't see Williams dogging it for half the plays, alligator arming half the others and knocking anyone and everyone on his team in the press.

Millen put Marty in charge. Millen pur Mooch in charge. Neither of them could make the Lions respectable. So who is ultimately to blame? Millen's internship is over. he needs to be fired.

by Sean (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 8:17pm


I would qualify the statement to look like this:

1. The most high percentage way to build a winning team is to select the best player available in the draft every time up.

2. The Lions in the last five years have selected the best player available in the draft a large number of times, and the odds are good that they will be getting a higher return on those players than they would if they had instead drafted strictly for need.

Drafting BPA increases the odds of your acquiring good players, but it's not a guarantee. In the first round, 1/3rd of the players are going to flat out bust. In the second round, that percentage goes up to 1/2. It goes up again in each of the following rounds. Millen has missed on both of his top three picks, Rogers and Harrington (who was not a BPA selection), and that has stunted the growth of the team and overshadowed the players who he has brought in.

And buddha makes a good point, namely that Millen has, with the exception of the Dre Bly signing, done a poor job in free agency. I'm highlighting 11 players, but that's only 1/5th of the roster, and if we're talking about guys who are panning out, you're down to 1/10th of the roster. They can form the core of a good team in the future, but they aren't nearly enough to compensate for weaknesses around them.

by Joey (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 9:33pm

Good debate but does anybody truly use the BPA method? You have to look at your roster or you could end up drafting a QB when you already have Carson Palmer. The other reason to keep at least one eye on your needs is that predicting who will make it is such a crap shoot. You can't settle for just anybody, but if you're drafting to shore up a weakness you might improve the team even if the guy falls somewhat short of expectations. That doesn't happen if you're strict BPA and the guy plays a position you're strong at.

And BPA only makes sense if you're a really good judge of talent--which would show itself in your free agents, as well. The Lions struggle to get good free agents yet still insist on practicing BPA...that's just dumb.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Mon, 11/07/2005 - 10:50pm

I just think that spending too much money and high draft picks at the receiver position is no kind of way to build a team, and I'm especially surprised that a guy who used to play linebacker in the NFL would think that it is.
The Packers and Broncos of the late '90s, the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2001-2004 Patriots and 2000-2003 Eagles have all shown us that a team can struggle by without three first round WRs on the roster. In the salary cap era priority has to be given to the less glamorous positions when building a team.

by Erasmus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 12:57am

It could be worse...it could be a Bobby Ross draft.

No this team is sad, I would love to chalk it up to youth and inexperience, but its just seems to be the wrong system and the wrong players and everything else. Though we did have a good defense for a few weeks this season (until Bly and Rogers went down). Just think we are a questionable call away from having the same record as the 2 teams that were in the Super Bowl last year!!

by Sean (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 3:30am


You see it sometimes, most notably when a new organization takes over a bad team and has a few year's grace time before fans start yelling about not having this or that need addressed. I pointed out that first Marvin Lewis draft as a good example of a team drafting BPA with every pick on the first day. Arizona has done it twice since Denny Green took over- but of course, it's easier not to feel pressure to fill a need when you have so many needs.

Ryan- in one of the other threads, a poster made mention of a regression analysis that was done to determine which positions were most vital to winning games. The two most important positions to avoid injuries at were quarterback and receiver. I don't think you can look at it and say, "You shouldn't use three first round picks on receivers" any more than you should say, "You don't need to spend a first rounder at quarterback because you can just get a Tom Brady or a Rich Gannon late in the draft." The issue isn't where a player was selected but what sort of production you get out of that player, and if you want to consistently win year in and year out, you need to get quality play out of the quarterback and receiver positions.

by mawbrew (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 9:54am

Everybody, including me, loves to analyze (and grade) drafts. But in the end, the only way to evaluate the success of talent acquisition is wins and loses. It takes a lot longer and doesn't provide the immediate gratification and feedback that draft grades do, but it's a whole lot more tangible.

I think they've reached the point in Detroit where they can start using the team's record to best evaluate Millen's performance. After a few years, the 'but the reporters all said I had a great draft' defense begins to wear thin.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 10:26am

buddha, that was awesome.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Tue, 11/08/2005 - 4:20pm

re #29: Sean, I'd really appreciate it if you (or somebody still following this thread) could let me know how to get hold of the analysis you referred to about which positions are most important. I've asked before on this site when that study has been mentioned and come up empty.
Besides, I'm not claiming that teams don't need production from the receiver position, just that overloading in that position isn't a great idea (three great blockers can all execute great blocks on the same play; three great receivers can't all catch the ball on the same play)
Again, if anybody has access to that study, please share with us. Thanks.