DETROIT — The winless Lions didn’t get this awful overnight.
It took several years and many mistakes by Matt Millen.
The former general manager took over a mediocre franchise in 2001 and over seven-plus seasons, he built a team bad enough to pose a threat to be the NFL’s first 0-16 team.
Millen’s first team started 0-12 and the last one he shaped also has lost its first 12 games, heading into Sunday’s home game against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Lions are an NFL-worst 31-93 since the Ford family handed the keys to their franchise to a Super Bowl-winning linebacker and TV analyst without a day of front-office experience.
Their winning percentage of 25 is the worst by an NFL team over an eight-season stretch since 1950, according to STATS, slipping just below miserable eras in Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Angry fans at Ford Field chanted for Millen to be fired and even staged a march to protest his employment, but apathy has led to four of the last five games not selling out. Some fans have mocked the franchise by asking the government to bail out the team just as Detroit’s automakers are pleading with Congress for help.
“Matt Millen deserves a majority of the blame because the talent here is awful,” former Lion Kelvin Pritchett. “He’s a great guy and if you talk to him long enough, he could sell you a stick of bubble gum, but he missed on most of his draft picks.”
Millen was the first executive to take wide receivers in the first round of three straight drafts since the NFL and AFL merged drafts in 1967, and the experiment failed miserably, as did quarterback Joey Harrington.
“You can’t blow that many first-round picks and have a good team,” said former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, who watched the Lions in person on Thanksgiving as a radio analyst. “If your first-round players aren’t Pro Bowlers, they should at least be major contributors.”
Harrington was drafted No. 3 overall in 2002. After Detroit traded him two years ago, he has been cut five times and is clinging to a job as a third-string quarterback in New Orleans.
Charles Rogers, drafted No. 2 in 2003, is out of the league instead of in his prime for the Lions. An arbitrator ruled Rogers has to give the Lions $8.5 million back for diminishing his value by failing a drug test in 2005, when his promising career ended. But the team isn’t banking on collecting much, if any, money from him.
“They can’t do it alone,” Millen said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press when asked about Harrington and Rogers. “But in order for us to get where we want to get, we can’t look back and say we missed with those guys.”
Millen also missed by drafting Mike Williams, taking the overweight receiver 10th overall in 2005, and on many more players in the draft.
A couple players — Shaun Rogers and Roy Williams — earned trips to the Pro Bowl despite being drafted by Detroit, but they were both dealt within the past year.
The Shaun Rogers deal, bringing lackluster cornerback Leigh Bodden and a third-round pick, looks like another poor decision. Millen’s successors were able to get a first-round selection and two more picks from Dallas for Roy Williams before the trading deadline.
Getting rid of Williams and putting Jon Kitna on injured reserve because of a back injury, which the quarterback insisted wasn’t serious enough to sideline him for so long, only seemed to make it more difficult for the current squad to simply be competitive.
But rookie running back Kevin Smith said those moves were moot.
“We were losing with them and we’re losing without them,” Smith said.
Drafting NFL-caliber players is certainly not an exact science, but the Lions failed to land many standouts in the first, second or third rounds over the years.
Mistakes by the pre-Millen regime led to some of the losing earlier in this decade, then Millen’s missteps contributed to the problems for a franchise with only one playoff victory since winning 1957 NFL title.
In the three drafts prior to Millen’s arrival, the Lions took four busts in the first round: Stockar McDougle, Chris Claiborne, Aaron Gibson and Terry Fair.
It’s perhaps early to judge the 2008 draft, but it appears as if Millen’s first draft in 2001 was his only solid one.
Millen’s first pick was Jeff Backus, a left tackle who has started each of the 124 games in his career. In the second round, he took center Dominic Raiola, who started 104 straight games, and Shaun Rogers, a two-time Pro Bowler.
Of course, the Lions haven’t won with them, either.
After 2001, Millen missed more than he connected.
Drafting good players in the second-round was particularly elusive, with Millen picking lackluster defensive players such as Shaun Cody, Teddy Lehman and Kalimba Edwards.
When Raiola looks around the locker room, he can only count a few players — Backus, Cory Redding and himself — who are in their second contracts after being drafted by Detroit.
“We haven’t had enough draft picks that have panned out,” Raiola said. “We wasted too much. Fifteen guys at least on this team should be draft picks. You can’t hit on all of them, but you should hit right on 80 percent of them.”
“Your first-round picks — especially the ones in the top 10 — have to pan out and they haven’t around here.”