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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Amid Madness, A Sense of Rationality

We're talking Detroit, yes, but we're not talking about the U.S. automobile industry.

We're talking football in Hockeytown U.S.A.

During this past football season, the hue and cry to run GM Matt Millen out of town on a rail, tarred and feather, reached a fever pitch. It didn't get so bad that it permeated the 7-and-under flag football games in Ann Arbor or Grosse Pointe, but the chants permeated many venues in Detroit.

Detroit's choice for a head coach was perplexing, in that the Lions chose a veteran assistant coach in Rod Marinelli who wasn't on anyone's pre-season list for head coaches to be the way, say, Eagles' offensive coordinator Brad Childress was (Childress inked early with Minnesota). Puzzling, yes, the choice was, and one of the theories was that Millen wanted someone he could work with (translated another way, Millen didn't want anyone with an ego bigger than his). If the choice was curious it's because that while the Lions need good coaching across the board, their offense has been plum awful, especially when you consider three first-round talents at WR, a star in the making at running back, and a QB who was highly touted out of college (and who has proved to be, along with several other Jeff Tedford-mentored QBs, thus far a bust in the pros). I would have expected an offensive coordinator to get the Detroit job.

While it would be easy to say "Rod who" and dump all over Matt Millen, because that pastime would be as appealing right now as adults playing biddy basketball. The challenges have evaporated before the opening whistle. In defense of Millen, other teams made curious picks, especially Green Bay, which, in selecting Mike McCarthy, selected an offensive coordinator from one of the worst teams in the NFL. In summary, 2006 wasn't exactly the year that teams got their fans psyched about their new coaches.

Head coaches are an interesting breed. Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame 49ers coach, really let his assistants do most of the coaching, and he would coach his coaches and let them have it royally when their strategies didn't work. In the 1950's, the New York Giants had an average-to-above average coach in Jim Turner, who was smart enough to have able coordinators. A guy named Tom Landry ran the defense, and some fellow named Lombardi ran the offense. With Dallas and Green Bay, respectively, those two outstanding coaches helped define the NFL for the next two decades. Others, like like Bill Parcells, control their staffs tightly and are the face of their teams. That's not to say that they don't let their coaches coach; to the contrary, Parcells and the coaches that he has mentored have minted more NFL head coaches than any line of descendants from any other coach. In short, different head coaches run their teams differently.

I submit now that perhaps the most important hire in the off-season was not any single head coach. I don't think that any of the recent hires will make an immediate, big impact. Herman Edwards inherits an able squad in K.C., and Bill Belichick disciple Eric Mangini is an intriguing selection in New York with the Jets. Most coaches are inheriting teams that need work, so it won't be as though they'll turn things around overnight. However. . .

To me, Detroit's landing Mike Martz is perhaps the biggest coaching coup of the off-season. When Dick Vermeil led the Cardinals and their "Greatest Show on Turf" to the Super Bowl, it was Martz who turocharged the offensive engine and enabled it to blast by most teams. En route to a second Super Bowl title in a row, it took an ingenious defensive by Belichick (playing as many as 7 DBs at once) to turn the turf into mud and begin the legend of Tom Brady, Adam Vinatieri and the Pats. That aside, Mike Martz's teams, on offense, have been golden.

If the goings on in St. Louis were the "Greatest Show on Turf," I can only imagine that with Messrs. Williams, Williams and Rogers playing WR and Mr. Jones playing RB, that the Lions' offense will earn the moniker "Downtown in Motown" or "Mo-O-Town." Because if you give Mike Martz some talent, he'll figure out a way to spring it. Yes, Harrington presents a challenge, but knowing Martz, he'll figure out something.

And Detroit will start figuring out how to win more games.

Assuming, of course, that the GM drafts well and manages his cap well.

He should worry about that and stay out of the way of his new coaches.

Because it seems, at least, that they know what they're doing.

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