The wrong guy was handed a pink slip Monday and shoved out the fuselage door of Air Lions. Matt Millen ought to be the one hurtling earthward toward unemployment, not the guy he fired Monday morning, Steve Mariucci.
Do the Detroit Lions stink like diesel exhaust? Absolutely. They can clear out a stadium faster than a bomb scare. But if Lions ownership (Hello, anybody there?) can OK the canning of Mariucci, the least William Clay Ford could do is make it a package deal.
Ford knows all about deals. His car company is pushing the Keep It Simple promotion these days, "where everybody pays the same price," it says in the full-page newspaper ad. Perfect. Let's apply the same logic to Lions president and CEO Millen: He should pay the same price as Mariucci.
It isn't easy making a case for a Year 4 of the Mariucci regime. The Lions are 4-7 in the NFC's worst division, put up Honda Accord city gas mileage numbers in every meaningful NFL offensive ranking (25th in rushing yards per game, 26th in points per game, 27th in pass rating, 27th in total yards per game), and are fresh off a Thanksgiving Day loss so mind-numbingly dismal that Detroit fans began chanting, "Let's go Red Wings!"
Since his arrival in 2003, Mariucci has gone 5-11, 6-10, and now this. No playoff appearances. No nothing, but the occasional brown paper bag sightings at Ford Field.
"I believe that this was a roster capable of making a playoff run," said the suitably grave Millen at Monday's news conference. "And I still believe that. I still believe that. Quite frankly, we have not lived up to our expectations. I believe we've underachieved as a football team. And I also believe that we have not developed our younger players and that's bothersome, especially the way we had anticipated it going."
Let's be honest here: Was this roster really capable of a playoff run, or did everyone confuse potential with production? The offense looked good on a sheet of 8x10, but it also looked very young, and fragile, too.
Quarterback Joey Harrington is a wonderful guy, plays a nice piano, but it wasn't an accident that Millen brought in veteran Jeff Garcia as a 2005 insurance policy. Harrington, pulled from the Thanksgiving Day disaster, still plays as if they just handed him the playbook 30 minutes before kickoff. Is that Mariucci's fault? Harrington's fault? Or Millen's fault for drafting him in the first place?
Wide receiver Charles Rogers leads the league in Most Blue Cross Filings. Fellow wideout Roy Williams has shown moments of brilliance, but not enough of them. Running back Kevin Jones has done a second-season belly flop, though NFL Films isn't exactly cranking up the editing room for a special on the Lions offensive line. And receiver Mike Williams is still a work in progress.
Rather than assume his share of responsibility for the Lions' annual collision with icebergs, Millen fired his third head coach since assuming the job in 2001. With the exception of Los Angeles Clippers VP Elgin Baylor, I can't think of a front office executive who has won less and still kept his job. In fact, Millen recently received a contract extension, which is like giving an Oscar to Jackie Chan.
At what point does Millen start not living up to expectations? When exactly does he admit that he has underachieved? Under Millen's remarkable leadership the Lions are 20-55. The only thing they've changed is their uniforms. Otherwise, they remain eligible for federal disaster relief.
"Let me reiterate and say it's not a happy day," said Millen (duh). "Steve is, like I said, he's as good a person as I've been around. He's a close friend of mine and it bothers me."
Mariucci will be fine. He's a class guy, a U.P. guy, plus the Lions owe him the remainder of his $5 million salary this season and the combined $11.5 million they were going to pay him in '06 and '07. That should ease the hurt.
But Mariucci deserved better than an exit interview with five games still remaining in the season. Does anyone really think interim head coach Dick Jauron is going to make much of a difference? Not even Jauron, who joined the Lions because of Mariucci, is that naïve.
"We're not going to install much in a five-week period," said Jauron, when asked about the possibility of scheme overhauls. "You're not going to significantly change anything and hope they can function."
Jauron, the good soldier, will be gone soon enough, too. Or back to defensive coordinator under the next victim Millen hires.
"Some of you may ask, 'Why [fire Mariucci] now? Why not at the end of the season?' " said Millen. "To me, it's simple. We have five games left. We have five games left to develop our younger players. We have five games to prove we are who we think we are, especially with our younger players."
Actually, the question I'd like to ask Millen is this: Why are you still here?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.