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Top Five: Detroit's Most Unfortunate Contracts

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Detroit has seen many sports figures paid extremely well for doing very little in recent years. Who are the Pistons, Tigers, and Lions fortunate enough to be paid as kings, yet perform like peasants?

Last week, Patrick Hruby at compiled a list of "The Really Fortunate 10," ranking 10 people in sports who make huge money despite jobs that either don't require much of them or nothing at all.

For instance, Bobby Bonilla will be paid $1.2 million per year over the next 25 years, thanks to an inexplicable deferred, with-interest payment plan that the New York Mets agreed to in 2000 when buying out the last year of his contract. What would've been $5.9 million at the time will end up being $29.8 million by 2035. And Bonilla doesn't have to do a thing to earn it, thanks to "that beautiful thing," as he calls it.

That got me to wondering who the Detroit equivalents of "the fortunate 10" might be. There's nothing like Bonilla's golden parachute to be found in the Motown sports landscape. Nor is there really a "get paid for nothing" position, like a back-up who's never going to play drawing a nice paycheck. (Disagreements are welcome in the comments, of course.) But there are plenty of guys who were fortunate enough to get a big payday while doing very little to earn it.

There have been several infamous contracts in Detroit sports over the last, say, 20 years, such as Uwe Krupp, who signed a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Red Wings back in 1998. Krupp only played 30 games over the span of that contract due to a back injury. The Wings even suspended him without pay when they found out he was racing sled dogs while rehabbing his herniated disk.

Or how about Scott Mitchell? In 1994, he signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the Lions. Mitchell won 18 games over that span, but did have one outstanding season in which he threw 32 touchdown passes and nearly 4,500 yards. That spurred the Lions to give him a four-year extension, worth a potential $21 million. Mitchell threw for almost 3,500 years in 1997, but had 14 interceptions to go with his 19 touchdown passes. The next season, he was benched for Charlie Batch after just two games.

But for the purposes of this list, I decided to look at only the past decade. Arbitrary as that might seem, these players are in more recent memory. And in some cases, they still have a bearing on their respective teams' current struggles.

For this week's Top Five, we look at the handful of guys who got fat loads of cash while accomplishing very little to justify the huge payouts. These are the truly lucky, the inexplicably fortunate five.

5. Bill Schroeder, Lions: 4 years, $2.5 million signing bonus

Whether we realized it at the time or not, Matt Millen let us know right away when he took over the Lions in 2001 that he had no idea what he was doing. Millen's idea in signing Schroeder (along with Az-Zahir Hakim) was to increase the speed of the team's wide receiving corps. But you can't do much with that speed if you don't catch the ball or stay on the field.

Schroeder averaged 36 catches, 496 yards, and 3.5 touchdowns during his two years in Detroit. He ran poor routes and dropped numerous balls, while showing very little willingness to work the middle of the field for those tough catches NFL receivers establish themselves with. Schroeder showed so little toughness, in fact, that Millen went on a Chicago radio station and questioned whether or not Schroeder had testicles. Schroeder was cut in 2004, with $2.5 million of guaranteed money in his pocket.

4. Nazr Mohammed, Pistons: 5 years, $30 million

Joe Dumars began to lose his golden touch as Pistons general manager when he panicked over Ben Wallace leaving Detroit for a four-year, $60 million deal. First, he offered Joel Przybilla a four-year, $29 million contract, but Przybilla opted to stay with Portland. Left with a gaping hole at center, Dumars then did what he hadn't in his previous six years: spend money just because he had it.

The next best option on the free agent market was Mohammed, who had the necessary size at 6-foot-10 and 221 pounds. But he was coming off two years with the San Antonio Spurs in which he averaged fewer than seven points and seven rebounds per game. Mohammed played only 72 games over the next two seasons for the Pistons, eventually losing his starter's job when the team signed Chris Webber. A quarter of the way through the 2007-08 season, he was traded to Charlotte for Walter Herrmann and Primoz Brezec.

Two seasons later, he's still collecting on the five-year contract he received from Detroit, averaging less than seven points and five rebounds per game for the Bobcats.

3. Steve Mariucci, Lions: 5 years, $25 million

It was supposed to be a new era for the Lions in 2003. Millen finally got the coach he wanted (rather than a protege in Marty Mornhinweg), one who won 12 or more games three times during his six years in San Francisco. But Mariucci quickly showed that he benefited from star players like Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Terrell Owens, rather than coaching talent.

Blame Millen for saddling his coach with washouts such as Joey Harrington, Mike Williams, and Damien Woody. But for someone who was considered a bit of an offensive whiz when he came to Detroit, Mariucci helmed an offense seemingly designed to move sideways, rather than down the field. And with country club practices, his defense never developed any toughness or aggressiveness. Not only did the Lions lose under Mariucci, they were horribly boring to watch while doing it.

Mariucci and Lions fans were put out of their misery the day after Thanksgiving 2005, three years into his contract. For the next two years, Mooch collected the remaining $10 million the Lions owed him while showing he could be just as boring as a studio analyst for NFL Network.

2. Dontrelle Willis, Tigers: 3 years, $29 million

Willis was a throw-in to the blockbuster Miguel Cabrera trade in 2007. It might seem silly to say now, with the MVP-caliber performance that Cabrera has provided the Tigers, but to justify all the minor league talent (six players in all) that Detroit gave up in the deal, general manager Dave Dombrowski had to make sure Willis was an integral part of the team's starting rotation, as well. And in what had become an out-of-control market for starting pitching at the time, paying Willis nearly $10 million per season appeared to be fair.

Willis essentially cashed in on a 22-win season three years prior. And his Tigers career was a nightmare from the beginning. The D-Train displayed poor control (and conditioning, from many accounts) from Spring Training, and got injured early in the 2008 season while slipping on a rain-slicked pitching mound in Chicago. From there, it was all downhill. Whether it was because of his knee injury, poor mechanics, or something less tangible, Willis rarely looked like a major league pitcher as he walked batter after batter. The Tigers had to do something drastic, and did so by sending Willis to Single-A Lakeland.

In 2009, Willis was once again inept, compelling the Tigers to do something almost unprecedented: putting him on the disabled list with "anxiety disorder" after telltale signs supposedly showed up in a blood test. The D-Train's mental well-being was a constant question mark from then on, though he did show occasional moments of competence on the pitching mound. The Tigers tried one last time to get a return on their significant investment, putting him in the starting rotation to begin the 2010 season, but Willis showed neither the control nor velocity necessary to get major league hitters out.

Willis was finally designated for assignment in June, ending what had become an experiment in futility. For their troubles, the Tigers got two wins in 24 games, along with 92 walks, out of Willis in three years. Even the team he was eventually traded to, the Arizona Diamondbacks, decided he couldn't help them. Willis is currently pitching for the Giants' Rookie League team in Arizona, collecting the last of those misguided paychecks from the Tigers.

1. Matt Millen, Lions: 5-year, $25 million contract extension

If we're going to criticize the contracts given to Schroeder and Mariucci, we must surely hold the man who signed off on those deals responsible. And that is really just the tippy-tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to Millen. His eight years as president and general manager of the Lions were virtually a new definition of Murphy's Law. Except we'll call this Millen's Law. Whatever he could do wrong, he did do wrong.

Where do we even begin when talking about Millen? The four wide receivers he selected with first-round draft picks, showing he had no idea how to assemble a proper NFL roster? The inept free agent signings, none of whom made a notable impact? The three head coaches he hired, none of whom displayed any aptitude in building a team or philosophy that could win football games? The lack of self-control and professionalism, displayed by insulting a former player with a homophobic slur? The surly demeanor and refusal to hold himself accountable to the media? The delusional belief that he could run an NFL team while commuting between Pennsylvania and Michigan each week?

Perhaps nothing more needs to be cited than his 31-84 record while in charge of the Lions. That Millen was allowed to keep his job and accumulate such an embarrassing record speaks to the team's incompetent ownership, but that's a whole other article. If Millen did show one impressive talent, it was probably his ability to make William Clay Ford feel like his football pal -- to convince Mr. Ford that he had any sort of plan, that he only needed more time to see it through. This might be the greatest con job in NFL history.

And no one has been compensated better for such a poor performance. Millen's initial contract with the Lions was for five years and $15 million, giving him total control over all football operations. In 2005, after failing to build a team capable of winning more than six games in a season, Millen was awarded a five-year contract extension. At the time, it was believed that his salary was $3 million per year. Only after he was finally fired in 2008 was it revealed that Millen had been paid more than originally reported while dragging the Lions to the NFL's ocean floor. Millen was actually drawing a $5 million annual salary, and will have made $50 million over the 10-year life of his two contracts.

Consider that $15 million of that was earned while he wasn't even running the Lions anymore ("out of football prison," as his wife put it), but running his mouth in the broadcast booth for ESPN and ABC.

You know what? Forget what I said two paragraphs ago. This is the greatest con job in NFL history. And Matt Millen is the most inexplicably fortunate man in Detroit sports.


Agree or disagree with this week's Top Five? Have comments or a Top Five list of your own? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.