At 0-11 heading into Sunday’s home game against the New York Giants, the Cleveland Browns are on pace to become the fifth winless team in NFL history and just the second to accomplish the feat in a 16-game season.
The only other team to go 0-16, the 2008 Detroit Lions, were headed by Matt Millen. And while Millen was fired from his post as team president and CEO three games into Detroit’s historically futile ’08 campaign, he said he sympathized with his former colleagues throughout the team’s season-long slide.
“It was brutal because you may not be there physically, but you’re still there mentally,” Millen recalled Monday. “You have a tie to the players, you have a tie to the coaching staff, you work intimately all season long, and you’re on the same page. So you know where the arguments were and you know where the agreements were and where the problems were going to be.”
A FOX NFL analyst, Millen will be calling this weekend’s Giants-Browns game alongside Dick Stockton, and he said he sees similarities in the attitudes surrounding this year’s Browns and his Lions.
“The assumption from a fan point of view is, ‘Oh, the Browns stink, they can’t win,’ ” Millen said. “And when you say that, and it’s a blanket statement, the assumption within that statement is that they don’t have any good players. But that’s false, because there are some good players on that team. They just haven’t found their rhythm, they haven’t been consistent enough.
“And you can say, ‘Oh, the coach stinks,’ or whatever, too, because that’s what you do when you’re frustrated and you start lashing out — because it has to be somebody’s fault,” Millen, a longtime NFL linebacker, continued. “But the truth of the matter is what they’re trying to do is what’s best for their personnel.”
A four-time Super Bowl champ with the Raiders, 49ers and Redskins, Millen was hired by the Lions in January 2001 and admits that adjusting to a losing culture made for a difficult transition. The team went 2-14 in Millen’s first year with the organization and 3-13 in his second and never won more than six games during his first six years in Detroit.
“It was foreign to me,” Millen said of the team’s prolonged struggles. “I don’t think like that. I don’t think, ‘Woe is me, here we go again.’ That’s not my mindset. My mindset is, ‘Look, at the very least, we’re fighting. And I will win a fight.’”
The Lions’ franchise has won just one playoff game since 1957 — and that victory came in 1991. But in 2007 there seemed to be cautious optimism that Detroit was finally figuring things out. Through eight games the team was 6-2 and comfortably in the NFC playoff picture. But then the wheels fell off down the stretch and Detroit finished the year tied for last in the NFC North at 7-9.
“We had an opportunity to win a lot of those games,” Millen said of the second half of the ’07 season, a 1-7 collapse that included a six-point loss to the Giants and a one-point loss to the Cowboys. “The league is so close, and the margins for winning and losing are so small that you just have to find a way to win. But when you get on these slides, you find ways to lose.”
Still, Millen said he was optimistic that his team would be competitive in 2008, despite its obvious shortcomings.
“We didn’t have great depth,” he said. “You’re trying to solidify something, so we have at least a strength, and in the process of trying to solidify one area, you’re weak in others. So our defense should have been solid, we had some receivers that should be able to play, but you’ve got to have depth and you have to have a quarterback.”
Like this year’s Browns, who have started three different quarterbacks due to a series of injuries at the position, the ’08 Lions tried to make do with a revolving door under center.
Veteran Jon Kitna started Detroit’s first four games but was placed on injured reserve in mid-October after injuring his back. (Kitna later said he could have kept playing and accused the team of using the injury as an excuse to make a quarterback change.) With Kitna out, Dan Orlovsky took over and made four starts before being replaced by the newly signed Daunte Culpepper.
Culpepper then started five games before going down with a shoulder injury, a blow that forced Detroit to go back to Orlovsky, whose embarrassing safety in his debut start ultimately cost Detroit a win in Minnesota, for the final three games of the season.
This weekend, the Browns are expected to call on Josh McCown, who started in Week 2 and Week 8, after rookie Cody Kessler suffered his second concussion of the season Sunday against Pittsburgh. The team began the season with former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III as the starter, but Griffin was placed on IR after injuring his shoulder in Week 1.
“It’s not said that the quarterback is the most important position in all of sports for no reason,” Millen said. “It’s said because it’s true. And it’s not just your ability to throw, or Brett Favre would still be playing, because he can probably still throw as well as anybody. And it’s not just your mental aptitude or your understanding of the game, or Steve Young would still be playing, Joe Montana would still be playing. It’s not just your ability to move around and make people miss and to be athletic, because there’s any number of guys who had that ability and couldn’t play."
“It’s a combination of everything,” Millen added. “And then there’s the other piece, which is maybe the most important piece — the ability of that guy to galvanize that whole entire offense. And most of the time that permeates through the whole team.”
That was an attribute Millen said he found in several quarterbacks he played with during his time in the league — a list that includes Jim Plunkett, Young, Montana and Mark Rypien.
“It’s the most important position on the field and probably the most important position in all of sports, and it doesn’t require an attribute, it requires a bunch of them,” Millen said. “It’s the whole conglomeration of what that guy is, and it becomes a thing.
“It becomes him,” Millen continued. “He’s got mobility, arm strength, ability to see the field, leadership skills, locker room strength, ability to get along with people, ability to communicate — there’s like 10 things and they’re all in one guy. That’s why it’s so hard to find that guy, and when you’ve got one, you hold on them.”
To be sure, Cleveland doesn’t currently have “that guy” at quarterback, but Millen says he still sees potential on the Browns roster.
“The Crowell kid can still play,” Millen said of running back Isaiah Crowell. “Terrelle Pryor is as raw as raw can be, but he’s going to be good. He can make plays. Their protection is iffy, but not all five of them; there’s some that struggle and some that don’t, and the coaches are trying to help the guys who have trouble. Corey Coleman, he can be a good player. He’s raw too, but he’s figuring things out. So they’re not devoid of talent, but they’re devoid of consistency.”
And the only way to overcome that, Millen says, is for coach Hue Jackson to make small improvements where he can and hope that, collectively, it results in a better on-field product.
“You hear coaches talk about it, and say, ‘We’re getting there,’ and when that happens, you’ve got a chance,” Millen said. “If the guys are the same week in and week out, and they’re not getting better or they’re starting to slide, you are dead.”
In addition, there’s also another enormous hurdle that any team that’s 0-for-the-season has to overcome.
“It’s more mental sometimes,” Millen said. “When something bad happens, it’s like you can feel the energy leave your team. It’s just not there. And so you’ve got to persevere and try to find a way, and you have to maintain that positivity, which Hue is doing. You’ve got to stress that you’re still in these games.”
Whether having a good attitude and making marginal improvements will be enough to get Cleveland a win, however, remains to be seen. After playing host to the Giants, the Browns will have their bye in Week 13. From there, Cleveland will play host to Cincinnati, visit Buffalo, return home to play San Diego on Christmas Eve, then close their season with a New Year’s Day game in Pittsburgh.
It’s a virtual certainty that the Browns will be an underdog in each of their remaining games, and as Millen well knows, getting win No. 1 will only get tougher as the season drags on.
“Once it starts going downhill, it’s hard to stop,” Millen said when asked if the Browns are “getting there.” “It’s like it gets its own kind of momentum, and you start to believe it after a while. And it takes a mentally strong person to get out of it.”
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