Lessons from the Matt Millen Story

Posted on September 28, 2008 by


For those who want the quarterback and running back rankings for Week Three, here you go:

Table One: Quarterback Rankings for Week Three

Table Two: Running Back Rankings for Week Three

What follows is a discussion of the lessons learned from the Matt Millen story. This discussion completely ignores these rankings. 

Free of Millen

Free at Last, Free at Last… okay, perhaps a bit over the top.  But this is what fans of the Lions were saying this week in reaction to the most important news story in some time (yes, obviously even more important than the crisis in our financial system).  Matt Millen has finally been removed from his Allen Park office in Detroit.

For those who don’t know the story, Millen came to power in Detroit in January of 2001.  In 2000 the Lions finished 9-7, missing the playoffs after Paul Edinger – a kicker for the Chicago Bears – made a 54 yard field goal on the last play of the last game of the season.  Had Edinger missed this field goal, that game would have gone into overtime.  Had the Lions prevailed in the extra session, the team’s 10-6 record would have resulted in a trip to the post-season.  And had that happened, Millen would have stayed in the broadcast booth (at least for one more year) and the past seven years may have been different.

But Edinger’s kick split the uprights.  And Millen – with no management or coaching experience – suddenly was given complete control of the Lions.  At the time Millen was hired, we heard the following from William Clay Ford, Jr.: “I’m willing to stake my reputation on Matt’s success”

To be fair, Ford Jr. – who is only the son of the owner – did not hire Millen (and played a significant role in getting Millen fired). No, the person responsible for hiring Millen was William Clay Ford Sr..  

The senior William Clay is the grandson of Henry Ford.  According to Wikipedia, Ford Sr. has a degree in economics from Yale University.  Judging by his decision-making, Ford Sr. must have learned at Yale that firing a firm’s leader just doesn’t help a business.  Certainly this idea has kept the Ford family involved in the Ford Motor Company for more than a century.  But has it helped the Lions?

GM History of Ford’s Lions

In 1967, three years after purchasing the Lions, Ford Sr. installed Russ Thomas as the team’s general manager.   After 22 seasons (yes, 22 long years of ineptitude), Thomas led the Lions to the following marks:

  • 138 wins, 175 losses, nine ties, and a 0.443 winning percentage
  • six winning seasons (and 16 losing seasons)
  • one season with 10 wins
  • no seasons with more than 10 wins
  • zero playoff victories

In 1989, Chuck Schmidt took over the Lions.  Under Schmidt, most football decisions were reportedly made by the head coaches.  And the Lions had a bit more success. 

  • 95 wins, 97 losses, and a 0.495 winning percentage
  • six winning seasons (and six losing seasons)
  • three seasons with at least 10 wins
  • one season with more than 10 wins
  • one playoff victory

As noted, though, the 2000 season ended with the Lions just short of 10 wins and the playoffs.  So Ford turned to Millen.  Just for comparison sake, here is Millen’s record:

  • 31 wins, 81 losses, and a 0.277 winning percentage
  • never had a winning season
  • never won 10 games
  • obviously never won more than 10 games
  • obviously never won a playoff game

So there you have it.  Ford Sr. has now hired three general managers.  None of these people ran a football team before Ford Sr. gave them control of the Lions.  Of the three, Schmidt had some success.  As noted, that success may have been tied to his willingness to let others make decisions (and as I will note, that may not be the best approach to leadership).  The general managers who did make decisions — Thomas and Millen – were miserable failures.   And this was because they primarily made really bad decisions. 

Lessons Learned

In my view, the Millen saga teaches two important lessons about leadership:

  1. Leaders need to focus on decision-making, not speech-making.  People often think of leaders as people who make inspirational speeches.  From this view, leaders are important because they inspire people to work harder.  In observing Millen for seven years it seemed that often he thought a good speech would carry the day.  Often he would talk about changing the culture of the team, establishing a focus on winning, etc… In my view, making speeches is not the key to good leadership.  The number one skill a leader needs is the ability to make good decisions.  The person at the top is ultimately the person who has to make the important choices that determine the direction an organization will take.  If you make the wrong choices, your ability to inspire is not going to be worth much.  Likewise, if you make the right choices, you don’t need many inspirational speeches. 
  2. Your ability to make good decisions is related to your level of information, your innate level of intelligence (or ability to process information), and your experience making decisions.  In football – – where player performance is inconsistent across time – the level of information is often quite poor.  As for the other two issues, I am not sure if Millen is “smart” or “dumb”.  But he clearly had no experience making the decisions an NFL GM has to make.  As a consequence, Millen certainly didn’t look very smart.

We can see the consequence of Millen’s inexperience by the decisions he made (in increasing levels of seriousness).

  • Millen had a habit of only hiring a coach that shared his initial (Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, and Rod Marinelli were his choices for head coach).  Obviously discrimination is wrong.  And when you discriminate against 25 out of 26 possible initials, you are severely limiting your talent pool.
  • This is just my impression, but it appeared that Millen tended to think schemes mattered more than talent.  Besides their initials, Mornhinweg and Mariucci were chosen because they had expertise in the West Coast offense.  After Mariucci, Millen turned to Marinelli and the Tampa 2 defense.  For offense, they hired Mike Martz (another “M” guy) and the “greatest show on turf.” It often appeared that each coach attempted to fit whatever players the team employed to their system, as opposed to trying to devise a system that take advantage of whatever talent the players brought to the table.  The lack of system specific talent (or maybe it was just a lack of talent) caused the offense and defense of the Lions to perform poorly.
  • And then there was the fixation on wide receivers.  In seven years, Millen selected a wide receiver in the first round four different times.  Millen appeared to believe that opposing defenses can’t cover two or three great receivers.  Therefore, on any passing play, one of his number one draft choices must be open.  The problem with this approach is that receivers know that their future pay (and fame) is tied to the number of balls they catch.  Having other great receivers, means that the number of balls thrown to any one player must go down.  Consequently, on any pass play you may have one happy receiver (if he catches the ball) and other receivers who are unhappy (because their pay just went down).

Of all the wide receiver picks, the Mike Williams choice seemed the most bizarre.  At that point the Lions already had Charles Roger and Roy Williams.  Adding a third receiver who wished to be “the guy” seemed a move that ignored the fundamental reality of team sports.  Specifically, “there is only one ball.”  As the New York Knicks under Isiah Thomas demonstrated, you can’t have a team of players who all think they are stars.  As noted, on any one play, at most only one can be happy (the one who catches the pass or scores). Everyone else is unhappy.

In addition, the focus on wide receivers meant that other positions were receiving less attention.  On the Lions, this appeared to be the offensive line (and running backs,         quarterbacks, defense, etc…).  And without adequate protection, it mattered little that one wide receiver was always open.  The quarterback often didn’t have enough time to find that one open guy. 

Millen appeared to believe that the best draft strategy is to take the best athlete available.  And since wide receivers often catch touchdown passes, they often look like great players.  Plus, a team uses more than one wide receiver on every offensive play (unlike the quarterback or running back position).  Consequently, it may not be surprising – given Millen’s focus on taking the best athlete – that he would fixate on wide receivers. 

Lesson for Ford Sr.

Okay, enough about Millen.  Although Millen clearly failed, ultimately this story is about William Clay Ford.  The senior Ford has been described as a “nice person” who really wants to win.  Although this might be true, we do not have any evidence that Ford knows how to build a winning organization.  Remember, just about everything senior Ford has in life he owes to his grandfather.  

Ford is now charged with picking yet another general manager.  So far – having missed on three – he has completely struck out.  As noted, all three had no experience in such a job.  Perhaps that history will convince Ford to hire someone with experience as an NFL general manager.  It is not clear that experience will make a difference.  We have seen, though, that choosing people without experience hasn’t worked out so well.

Lesson for Broadcasters

The final lesson from this story is for broadcasters.  All week I heard various commentators explain where Millen went wrong.  The underlying assumption in these comments was that the broadcaster “knew” what Millen should have done. 

Of course, seven years ago, a broadcaster named Matt Millen “knew” how to run an NFL team.  It’s interesting that no broadcaster (that I heard) drew the obvious conclusion from the Millen story.  It’s easy – from the broadcast booth – to think you “know” how to do a job.  It’s a bit harder when you are actually charged with the task of running a team.

One last note in closing:  That last paragraph doesn’t apply to professors of economics.  As we saw this week, economists always “know” what they are doing.

– DJ

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For more on the Wages of Wins football metrics see

The New QB Score

Consistent Inconsistency in Football

Football Outsiders and QB Score

The Value of Player Statistics in the NFL