Hearing the news the much-derided former Detroit Lions president and CEO has added the NFL Network to the various media platforms he'll appear on this fall, my thoughts turned to issues involving reinvention, redemption and career rehabilitation.
Let's face it: We love the idea of second acts and career comebacks in America. And these days, nobody in the NFL -- outside of Michael Vick -- has a bigger mountain to climb in terms of remaking his image than Millen, whose name became synonymous with incompetence during his run leading the Lions front office.
You know the story, you know the record (31-97, the worst eight-year span in the NFL in the post-World War II era). But what now for Millen, who before the debacle in Detroit was very, very good at his playing career (four Super Bowl rings with three teams in 12 seasons as an NFL linebacker) and announcing career (rising to Fox's No. 2 color analyst role behind the iconic John Madden)?
I'm intrigued with the idea that Millen, in this era of ultra-short attention spans and a 24/7 news cycle, can put his head down, go back to work at the TV and radio gigs he once excelled at, and re-emerge some day soon with a different reputation and image than he engenders today. I not only think it could happen, I'm convinced it will happen.
Sure, maybe not in the Detroit market. His name will probably forever be mud there. The effort to get rid of Millen was a cottage industry in Motown. But elsewhere, I predict Millen eventually will enjoy a career renaissance of some sort, putting enough distance between himself and his Detroit years to deserve a fresh look and listen. It's what we do in this country for those who have been humbled and yet are young enough to start anew.
I know it all sounds a bit preposterous right now, predicting a comeback before he's even done his penance. But when I think of Millen, I just get the feeling he's got a shot to become something of the Richard Nixon of the NFL, picking up the pieces of a colossal failure and re-emerging to prominence at some point in the future. Dare we say it, perhaps even an eventual return to power in some team's personnel department?
Haltingly, with more than a little trepidation at what his reaction to my admittedly strained Nixon analogy might be, I put it to Millen in a phone conversation Tuesday, the day after he was announced as the analyst on this season's NFL Network games. For those who might not know or recall, Nixon narrowly lost the presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, lost humiliatingly in the 1962 California governorship race, but still wound up returning from disgrace to re-invent himself and win the presidency in 1968. What he did in those interim years between the lowest of his lows and the highest of his highs are the fascinating ones in Nixon's story, and they're the ones I thought Millen might hear a personal echo or two.
"You're not going to believe this,'' said Millen, laughing heartily. "But one of my favorite shirts I have -- in fact, I have it on right now -- has a picture of Dick Nixon on it, with his out-stretched arms held up high like he always did, and it says: 'Death is no excuse -- Nixon in '96!'''
Talk about your ultimate comeback. Nixon died in April 1994, so a candidacy in 1996 was pretty much out of the question. But Millen, who admits to being something of a Nixon buff, said one of his former producers at Fox gave him the T-shirt as a gag gift that year, and he's proudly owned it ever since.
Nixon aside, the 51-year-old Millen is far from obsessed with the notion of launching a career rehabilitation effort. I asked him if he even accepted the idea of needing one, and he grew quiet for a moment on the other end of the line.
"I don't know how to answer that, and here's why,'' he said. "I don't want it to sound, well, I don't know how I want it to sound. I guess I should probably pay attention to that, but I don't. I look at it like here's an opportunity, and if it works, it works. And if it doesn't work, I guess I'm not too good at it, and someone will let me know it's time to move on.''
Trust me, Millen will be good at it. Though we all might have forgotten over the course of the past eight years just how sharp his NFL analysis was, we were reminded of it when he appeared in studio for NBC on wild-card playoff Saturday last January, and again on Super Bowl Sunday. That's why I no longer buy the empty argument that his desultory track record in Detroit renders him less than credible to comment on the game from the booth. Millen was a good analyst before and he'll be a good analyst again. Case closed. I'm not saying I'd have him on my draft coverage team, but you get my point.
"It doesn't matter if I think I'm credible,'' Millen said. "It matters what the viewer thinks. All you can do is offer your opinion, your analysis and your point of view. Then it's up to them to decide if it has any merit. It's up to them to decide whether they agree, disagree, or even want to listen to it.
"I hope this doesn't sound like just words, but I'm humbled to be a part of this thing. I've had success and I've had failure. I've experience them both and seen them both. And I know this much: You learn much more from your failures than you do your success. So I should be well-schooled, right? But it's not up to me to say whether the credibility thing should be an issue or not. I'll try to do my best and see how it goes.''
For a guy whose once-sterling reputation in the game took a beating in Detroit -- with plenty of self-inflicted wounds along the way -- Millen exhibits very little bitterness or lingering bruises stemming from his tenure with the Lions. Erase Detroit's mistake of tossing him the keys to the organization in 2000, and Millen appeared headed for Madden-dom in the world of NFL announcing, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Maybe he wasn't destined to have an iconic video game named after him, but people in the league listened when he talked. Some question whether they will this time.
"I don't go backwards,'' Millen said. "I just don't think like that. There's nothing I can do about [Detroit]. All I can do is from here on out. I understand. In Detroit, they need a bad guy. I was a bad guy. I was to blame for the fall of the auto industry and the housing market. Somehow, I had something to do with [Detroit mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick [resigning], although I'm not sure what. But that's what happens when you lose in this game. You give everyone a cheap and easy story to jump on.''
I certainly did my share of jumping on that cheap and easy storyline over the course of the Millen era in Detroit. Then again, how exactly do you dress up or avoid altogether a won-loss record that's 66 games below .500? Someone in Detroit ownership should have put Millen out of his misery long before his eighth season arrived, but what I'm interested in watching now is how he goes about re-building his name, and how long it takes for some sort of redemption to arrive? Here's betting it won't be as long as we all might think. After all, this is America, land of the comeback.
"I can't be anybody but me, and just remember one thing: I am not a crook,'' said Millen, laughing as he dropped into his own Nixon impersonation. "Who knows how this is going to go? Who knows even if we're going to be around here in a few years? But I do know this: Nixon would have been great in '96.''