Catch of a Lifetime?

May 07, 2007
May 07, 2007

Table of Contents
May 7, 2007

From the Editor

Catch of a Lifetime?

With no blockbuster draft-day offers, the Lions snapped up Calvin Johnson, the best receiver to enter the NFL in years. Matt Millen might finally get Detroit on track--and the fans off his back

I've got to be theGodfather today," Lions president Matt Millen said last Saturday morning,sitting in the living room of his town house in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.He sounded full of hope and anticipation. In an hour Millen, a man who badlyneeded a good day, expected to be fielding calls from three or four clubs andhoped--in a role reversal for Don Corleone--that someone would make him anoffer he couldn't refuse in exchange for the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.

It never came. At 12:20 p.m., after the Raiders opened the draft by selectingLSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the Lions went on the clock, prepared to usetheir full 15 minutes to listen to suitors.

With Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, widely considered the bestreceiver to come along in years, there for the taking, all eyes went to thephone console in Millen's office. "Don't do anything with the pick untilyou talk to me," Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had told him on Thursday.Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Millen had talked at length before the draft, withMillen explaining what he was looking for: high-round picks, plus a startingplayer. Millen thought he might also hear from general managers Rich McKay ofthe Falcons and Bruce Allen of the Buccaneers, both of whom he'd spoken to latein the week.

This is an article from the May 7, 2007 issue Original Layout

A month earlierDenver had offered two first-round picks, a second-rounder and twothird-rounders, plus veteran linebacker Al Wilson, but when the Broncoswouldn't substitute another second-round pick for the injured Wilson, Millenturned them down. With that, the bar was set high.

Two minutes passed.Four. Eight. Not a single ring. And Millen wasn't going to make any calls. Inthe macho world of NFL deal-making, to do so when you're on the clock is theultimate sign of desperation.

Not thatdesperation hasn't been in ample supply in Detroit. The Lions' 24--72 recordduring Millen's six seasons--worst in the NFL over that span--partly reflectshis poor drafts. Johnson would be the fourth receiver Detroit had taken in thetop 10 in the last five years. Two were abject failures--the injury-plaguedCharles Rogers (2003) and the uninterested Mike Williams ('05), who, fittingly,was dealt to Oakland later on Saturday. Quarterback-of-the-future JoeyHarrington, the No. 3 pick in '02, also flopped.

With six minutesremaining, Millen clapped his hands. Why delay the inevitable? "Get[Johnson] on the phone," he barked. An aide handed Millen the phone.

"Remember whatI told you when you visited here, that you wouldn't get past the Number 2pick?" Millen asked Johnson.

"Iremember," Johnson, at the draft in New York City's Radio City Music Hall,replied.

"Well, you'renot getting past the Number 2 pick. Congratulations. You're a Lion."

If Johnson's asgood as advertised--a physical 6'5", 239-pound receiver with sprinter'sspeed who loves to play the game--Millen did the right thing by setting thetrade bar high. But he shouldn't have been surprised that no offermaterialized. A team picking in the top 10 used to be able to trade down for apackage of picks and/or players, but this was the third straight year no suchdeal was made. Why? The disparity in payouts to rookies at the top of the drafthas grown more pronounced as the NFL salary cap has risen from $85.5 million to$109 million since 2005. A mere two-slot move up by Tampa Bay, from fourth tosecond, would have cost the Bucs an additional $3 million per year, minimum, inplayer compensation, plus at least two second-round selections. The fact thatno one moved up for a such a highly touted player as Johnson is a sign that thedays of top-of-the draft trades may be over.

Which helps explainall the deals that came later. For Millen the action started in the secondround. He held the 34th pick and had his eyes on Michigan State quarterbackDrew Stanton, whom the Lions had graded very close to Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.The Bills, eager for Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, offered second- andthird-round picks for the 34th. Millen made the trade and got Stanton at No.43. He'll be groomed to be Detroit's 2008 starter.

A day earlier theRaiders called--for the fourth time in April--to inquire about Lions backup QBJosh McCown, whom they wanted to hold the fort for Russell. And the Titans hadexpressed interest in Williams, hoping offensive coordinator Norm Chow, whocoached the receiver at USC, could rekindle his fire. Now that he had Stanton,Millen called Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, offering McCown and Williams forOakland's fourth-round pick, 105th overall. Kiffin balked. "O.K.,"Millen said, "you take McCown. I'll send Williams to Tennessee." Kiffinasked for a few minutes, then called back and said the Raiders would take bothfor No. 105.

Millen, who'dstarted the day with nine picks, had the currency to swing deals for two moresecond-rounders. He sent New Orleans and Baltimore two picks each for theirNos. 58 and 61 choices, respectively, and got the players coach Rod Marinelliwanted to improve on the league's 28th-ranked defense: lithe pass rusher IkaikaAlama-Francis of Hawaii and playmaking safety and special-teamer GeraldAlexander of Boise State. When the trading frenzy was over--four deals in threehours--Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. turned to Millen and said, "Wherewas all this activity in the first round?"

I've got goosebumps," Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz said on Saturday night,already plotting plays to take advantage of Johnson's skills. "I've neverbeen so excited for a season to start." The orchestrator of the GreatestShow on Turf as coach of the Rams eight years ago, Martz took out a sheet ofpaper and drew a formation he expected to become a staple of his 2007 gameplan: Roy Williams (the No. 7 pick in 2004) wide left, free-agent pickup andformer Ram Shaun McDonald in the left slot, Mike Furrey (who combined withWilliams for 180 catches and 2,396 yards last year) in the right slot andJohnson set wide right. "In this formation," Martz said, "you'regoing to get either Roy or Calvin deep, with no safety help. How do you defendthat? Maybe Shaun on a shallow curl and Furrey down the field on a post takingthe safeties with them." Marinelli said scatback Tatum Bell, acquired fromDenver, should flourish in formations like this one, with the defense spreadand running lanes open.

"This is theday," Martz said, "the franchise turns around."

Millen, too grayfor 49, wasn't gloating. He's heard the fans calling for his ouster, with theirMillen Man March and their chants at Ford Field. But at least he can laugh athimself. Last Christmas he gathered with his wife and four children in theirliving room. "Look, Dad," said daughter Marianne, pointing to the topof the Christmas tree, where an angel held a handwritten sign: FIRE MILLEN.

Millen was broughtup to stick with a job until it was finished. A visitor noted that while FordMotor Company has spun through CEOs while losing billions, grandfatherly teamowner and company scion William Clay Ford has stuck with Millen. "Yeah, I'mshocked," Millen said. "Shocked Mr. Ford didn't put his foot up my rearend at some point. Sometimes I look around and say, How did this happen? Youknow Schleprock on The Flintstones, the guy with the black cloud over his headall the time? That's us. But not for long. Finally, we've got the right coach.And now we've got Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, and they can jump over thatdamn black cloud."

In Detroit, a citywhose renaissance plans always seem to fall short, the proof is in the winning.Millen has always talked a good game. Now the team he's put together has toplay one.

PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoTHECENTERPIECE
Marinelli (far left) and Millen are ecstatic about the options Johnson providesthem in the passing game.