As recently as a year ago, the question seemed to be when Matt Millen would be fired as president of the Detroit Lions, not if.
''I know everyone thinks I'm just an old linebacker who doesn't know what he's doing,'' Millen said in July 2003 after his team was 5-27 in his first two seasons.
Now the Lions are 4-2 with a core of young players obtained in four drafts as good as any in the NFL over that span. Millen did things the right way, dumping veterans who kept producing finishes around .500 but little else six of the players on the 2000 team he inherited weren't even in the NFL in 2001.
He made only one mistake, a whopper.
That was hiring Marty Mornhinweg as head coach in 2001 when he couldn't get Steve Mariucci. His reasoning was that Mornhinweg, having worked for Mariucci and Mike Holmgren, would turn out like other successful coaches from the Holmgren tree: Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Mike Sherman and even Ray Rhodes.
But Morninwheg alienated his team right from the start, disgustedly riding his motorcycle from a practice early in his tenure. Unlike a Tom Coughlin or even a Bill Parcells, who anger their players but gets them back on their side with victories, Mornhinweg's legacy was five wins in two seasons.
Mariucci, hired quickly by Millen when the 49ers fired him after the 2002 season, is one reason Detroit is in position to contend for its first playoff berth since 1999 and perhaps for higher achievements in the future. But so are Millen's astute personnel moves.
His first draft, in 2001, produced Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, both starters on the offensive line; defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and backup quarterback Mike McMahon. Rogers, bothered by injuries early in his career, is having a Pro-Bowl caliber season.
In 2002, the Lions took QB Joey Harrington with the third overall pick, defensive end Kalimba Edwards in the second round and cornerback Chris Cash in the sixth.
Harrington is still inconsistent, but is beginning to fulfill his promise.
Edwards and Cash made major contributions to Detroit's win over the Giants last week. Edwards had two sacks and Cash an end-zone interception that changed the momentum in a victory that gives the Lions a potentially important wild-card tiebreaker.
Last season, the first five picks were wide receiver Charles Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey, defensive tackle Cory Redding, running back Artose Pinner and safety Terrence Holt. Rogers and Bailey are hurt, but both can be long-term stars; Redding starts on one of the NFL's better front fours; Pinner and Holt are solid reserves.
And finally this season: wide receiver Roy Williams, running back Kevin Jones; linebackers Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis; and cornerback Keith Smith. All have been important contributors as rookies and Williams is a legitimate candidate for offensive rookie of the year.
Millen worked the draft well, moving down one spot by feinting for Kellen Winslow and still getting Williams, the player he wanted. That gave the Lions Cleveland's second-round pick, with which they got Lehman, while using their own second-rounder to trade back into the first round for Jones.
Drafts like that are the key to remaining competitive in the free agent/salary cap era. It's a lot easier to let high-salaried veterans go if you have cheaper rookies who can play right away.
Free agency also has helped Detroit.
Az-Zahir Hakim, one of Millen's first free agents, is still contributing, more comfortable as a backup behind Williams, Tai Streets (another free agent) and, eventually Rogers, if he can stay healthy.
Cornerback Dre' Bly, signed last year, made the Pro Bowl and the Lions spent a lot to sign guard Damien Woody, a former Pro Bowler, from New England this year.
''He knows what it takes to be a champion,'' said Millen, who played on four Super Bowl winners with the Raiders, 49ers and Redskins.
Millen also has added cheaper veterans for more leadership.
Earl Holmes, a former Steeler and Brown, is the starting middle linebacker, and 34-year-old Brock Marion, a 13-year veteran with Super Bowl experience in Dallas, is the free safety.
One other item needs noting.
Millen was fined $200,000 by the NFL when he hired Mariucci in early 2003 without interviewing minority candidates under NFL guidelines put in force for that year. That came after several black assistant coaches turned down interviews because they knew Mariucci would get the job.
That was an unfair blot on the reputation of a man who is as far from being a racist as any executive in the NFL. And a blot on a team with a better record than most for hiring minorities for important jobs.
One of Millen's closest friends at Penn State was Bruce Clark, who is black. So are three of his top deputies: assistant GM Martin Mayhew and the top two men in the team's pro personnel department, Sheldon White and Charlie Sanders.
But that issue seems to have faded. The same way the ''dumb linebacker'' image has.
Winning changes everything in the NFL.
DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:
1. New England (6-0). The streak could end this week in Pittsburgh.
2. Philadelphia (6-0). Close call last week.
3. Minnesota (5-1). Big dropoff from top two, but Culpepper is super so far.
4. New York Jets (5-1). Move up with close loss in Foxboro.
5. Pittsburgh (5-1). Ready to deal streak-ender to Pats?
6. Jacksonville (5-2). Won in Indy, so edge in ahead of Colts.
27. Seattle (3-3). Current level of play is three straight losses, two of them bad.
28. San Francisco (1-5). Building with too few blocks.
29. Oakland (2-5). Too many disparate parts.
30. Buffalo (1-5). Losman could be the QB in a few weeks.
31. Miami (1-6). Move up off win. But not far.
32. Chicago (1-5). Blame a front office that failed to sign a legitimate backup QB.
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