Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Stafford Doesn't Belong In Lions Coaching Interview Process

Matthew Stafford has won no playoff games, no divisional titles and has a career won/lost record of 24-37 as a starter in the NFL—a winning percentage of under .400.
Yet the Lions are apparently involving their quarterback in the team’s coaching search.
Stafford reportedly sat in on the Lions’ interview of Jim Caldwell last week. This should cause great consternation among Lions fans.
Stafford no more belongs in the interview room as I do. Or as you do. Or as your uncle does, or as your uncle’s barber.
The inclusion of Stafford, regardless that he’s the Lions’ franchise QB, sends up more red flags than a Russian parade.
First, Stafford isn’t Tom Brady. Or Peyton Manning. Or Drew Brees—all veteran quarterbacks steeped in experience, knowledge, and championships.
And even the above guys haven’t been part of a coaching interview process, that anyone knows about.
The inclusion of Stafford makes one wonder what has been pumped into his head since becoming a Lion in 2009.
It raises questions about what level of culpability management holds Stafford regarding all the losing that’s been going on.
Stafford, more than any other player, was responsible for the Lions’ collapse this season. His turnover-prone play torpedoed the Lions’ playoff chances, when the team went 1-6 down the stretch.
A cynic could say that the Lions are merely giving Stafford hiring power to go along with the firing power he already has, as his play got Jim Schwartz canned.
But seriously, folks, this is a slippery slope the Lions are going down.
Caldwell, for his part, was well-prepared for his interview with the Lions. He supposedly watched every single pass that Stafford threw in 2013, and the former Colts head coach came armed with suggestions of how to improve Stafford’s mechanics.
That still doesn’t justify having Stafford sit in on Caldwell’s interview.
This has tail-wagging-the-dog written all over it, and raises serious questions about the treatment of Stafford versus the other 52 men on the roster.
So does this mean that Stafford will be included in every coaching interview? Why stop with Caldwell? Or better yet, why start with Caldwell?
Another disturbing thing occurred regarding Stafford. It came shortly after the 2013 season ended with a thud.
Stafford was asked about whether he’d be open to working with a “quarterback guru” or some such person in the off-season.
Stafford demurred.
“It’s not something that I feel would be my style or beneficial to me,” he said.
That’s not his style? It wouldn’t be beneficial?
It’s not his style to be the best quarterback that he can be? Even Tiger Woods has a swing coach, for goodness sake.
It all makes me wonder how much Stafford is being coddled by the people upstairs. How much he isn’tbeing challenged.
It also makes me wonder whether the change in culture needed with the Lions should have ended with just changing the head coach.
The Lions don’t need Matthew Stafford’s approval before they hire a new coach. They don’t even need him to like the new guy.
The new coach ought to be hired based on what management thinks, and Stafford will just need to deal with it.
This inclusion of Stafford in the interview process is pretty much unprecedented, and with good reason.
The coach coaches. The players play.
How many employees get a say as to who their new boss is going to be?
And from a candidate’s perspective, it’s tough enough to impress the brass in an interview, without having to wow the quarterback as well.
It’s fair now to be concerned about how much influence Stafford has around the Lions, and whether he is being held as accountable as he should for the monkey shines that are going on.
The inclusion of the quarterback in coaching interviews and his resistance to quarterback specialists because it’s “not my style”, ought to baffle folks and make them curious as to how Stafford has been bred since the Lions drafted him no. 1 overall in 2009.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Dantonio, Like Schembechler, Too Midwest to Be Texan—Or Anything Else

The Chairman of the Board of college football coaches in Michigan never thought he’d even consider leaving his school. He was firmly entrenched, his fan base and alumni loved him, and besides, he was a Midwestern guy all the way.
There wasn’t a lot of Texas in Bo Schembechler, except for maybe his moniker.
Schembechler was a Glenn, by birth, and he was Bo in nickname only. The University of Michigan coach wasn’t the cowboy type and never would be.
Schembechler learned his football in Ohio, like so many of the game’s greats, and he was more small town than he was “Texas big.”
But in early 1982, Schembechler had some of that Texas money thrown at him and it gave him pause.
Schembechler had just completed his 13th season in Ann Arbor, and he had come a long way since a newspaper trumpeted his hiring with the headline, “Bo WHO?”
Texas A&M came calling in January ’82. And they came hauling a bagful of cash.
The Aggies were prepared to make Bo the highest paid coach in college football at the time. There was even talk of adding Athletic Director to his title, or at least after he was done coaching.
A&M offered Bo nearly $3 million for 10 years. Today that’s a drop in the bucket. But in 1982, it was high stakes, Texas Hold ‘Em stuff.
It was close. Bo was tempted. He was never one to use another school to leverage Michigan, but he didn’t have to. U-M AD Don Canham made a counter offer, the terms undisclosed.
For several days the newspapers, TV and radio stations played “Will he or won’t he?” in regard to Bo’s future at Michigan, and whether he’d chuck it all for College Station’s money and added power of athletic director.
When A&M reached out to him, Bo was one year removed from finally grabbing his elusive first Rose Bowl victory. In a quirk of scheduling, Michigan actually won two bowl games in 1981—the Rose Bowl on January 1 and the Bluebonnet Bowl in the Houston Astrodome on New Year’s Eve.
A couple weeks after trouncing UCLA in Houston, Bo was approached by the Aggies, who tried to make a play for what would have been the Shot Heard ‘Round the World when it comes to college football.
There was some strong feeling at the time that Bo would leave Michigan, even though Texas A&M didn’t seem like a good fit for him—from a personality standpoint and from a coaching perspective.
Schembechler and Woody Hayes had combined to define Big Ten football in the 10 years they coached U-M and Ohio State, respectively, from 1969-78—before Woody was run out of Columbus in shame for slugging a Clemson player during a bowl game.
So would Bo actually leave Ann Arbor and his Midwest roots and his CEO status among Big Ten coaches, for a stinking job in Texas of all places?
For a couple days, it was dicey. It was like a patient teetering between life and death in the hospital.
But eventually Schembechler made his decision, and in doing so everyone associated with Michigan football heaved a sigh of relief.
"Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money," Bo told the press in making his announcement. "For that reason, I've decided to stay at Michigan.”
And stay Bo did—for eight more seasons before retiring from coaching.
Mark Dantonio is, at this moment, the Chairman of the Board of college football coaches in the state of Michigan. At first he assumed the title by default, after Lloyd Carr retired in 2008. But now, Michigan State’s Dantonio has earned it, fair and square.
Dantonio, without question, currently runs the premier college football program in the state. His 2013 Spartans, Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs, represent his finest hour in coaching.
All of this heady success, in the college ranks, usually makes you a hot commodity and your name starts to roll off the tongues of the rumor mongers when it comes to available jobs elsewhere.
Another school in Texas has been mentioned as a possible destination for Dantonio.
The University of Texas, in Austin, has been reported to have wanted Dantonio to fly down and interview for their coaching job, vacated by the resignation of Mack Brown.
Those reports now appear moot, as the school is reportedly on the verge of hiring Louisville coach Charlie Strong to replace Brown.
But Texas’ hiring of Strong, if it comes to be, won’t do a thing to squash rumors of Dantonio going, well, just about anywhere. Such is the case when you become hot stuff.
Only Mark Dantonio can stop the rumors.
Like his basketball counterpart in East Lansing, Dantonio seems destined to be mentioned whenever high profile schools are looking for coaches.
Dantonio, though, is another Midwestern guy. His roots are firm here. The idea of Dantonio leaving for a money grab doesn’t mesh with his persona.
But that won’t stop the speculation.
Again, only Dantonio can snuff out the rumor mongers.
Only Dantonio can tell the media, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m happy at Michigan State and this is my home.”
Of course, there will be those who won’t believe him, even though Dantonio has no track record of flitting from job to job. In fact, he left MSU as an assistant but bounced right back, a few years later, as the Spartans’ head coach.
The fact that Dantonio hasn’t stomped out the rumors might give some Spartan boosters consternation over the coach’s intentions, but like Bo Schembechler, Mark Dantonio appears to be content to be a Michigander and not a Texan, or anything else.
The balance of power in college football in Michigan has unquestioningly swung to East Lansing these days. Dantonio’s program is stronger than ever.
His name will be bandied about, going forward, attached to high profile jobs across the country.
It’s just something Spartan fans will have to live with as being part of the cost of doing business as an elite college football program—which MSU currently is.
Why else would everyone across the lower 48 states want Dantonio to coach at their school?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Lions Again Prove That They Prefer Playing in a Pressure Cooker

The Detroit Lions have five games remaining on their 2013 schedule. The league says those games are against the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens, the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings.
That's only part of the story.
The Lions are, in truth, playing not only those aforementioned teams, but a plethora of other opponents.
They are, in no particular order: their own history; their culture; the space between their ears.
Two weeks ago, the Lions were 6-3 and in first place all by themselves. It was rarefied air for a franchise that hasn't won a divisional title in 20 years.
Then the Lions went into Pittsburgh, and that's where history showed up, along with the Steelers in their bumble bee uniforms.
No Lions team had walked off the field in Pittsburgh with a victory since 1955. And the 2013 Lions didn't, either. A strange fake field goal call on the wet, sloppy field turned the tide in the Steelers' favor.
Sunday, the Lions , presumably after a week of licking their wounds, came home to play the 2-8 Tampa Bay Bucs. First place was still where the Lions resided, even after the loss in Pittsburgh. The Bears shared the penthouse with a 6-4 record, but Chicago's 6-4 wasn't as good as Detroit's 6-4, because the Lions have beaten the Bears twice.
The Bucs didn't have to bother showing up, because the Lions beat themselves.
Five turnovers, and a blocked punt inside the 20 yard line---that's what the Lions did to self-destruct. The Lions proved to be a far more difficult opponent for the Lions than the Bucs did.
Fox Sports' Brian Billick tried to sell the viewers on the old "they're the best 2-8 team you'll ever see" theory regarding the Bucs all afternoon. The Bucs could be 6-4, Billick repeatedly bleated.
If only!
The Buccaneers were 2-8 because if the Lions had played a similar football game against, say, the New England Patriots, the Pats would have been ahead by three touchdowns in the closing moments, instead of hanging on for dear life and hoping for another Lions turnover, as the Bucs were on the Lions' final drive.
So now the Lions are 6-5. The Bears lost on Sunday, as well, and the Packers tied the Vikings. First place is still Lions territory, unbelievably.
Maybe this is the way the Lions prefer it.
More often than not in the Jim Schwartz/Matthew Stafford Era, the Lions have fared better when they've needed the flair for the dramatic. They seem to have a visceral need for playing football with guns pointed at their heads.
When they don't play under that kind of pressure, the gun is held in their own hands and is pointed squarely at their feet.
There are five games remaining, and a division which was the Lions' to lose is on the verge of being lost.
They have to play their on-field opponents, as well as battle the mystique of being the Lions.
Isiah Thomas once spoke of going up against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs in the mid-1980s, when the Pistons were trying like mad to be where the Celtics had been for decades---championship contenders.
"When you play the Celtics, you're not just playing a team," Thomas said. "You're playing a mind set. You're playing against history, the court, the leprechauns. The Celtics aren't supposed to lose."
The same can be said when you talk about the Lions when they play...the Lions.
The Lions are playing a mind set now. They're playing against history. The Lions aren't supposed to win.
Maybe this is best. Maybe this two-game slide back to the pack (no pun intended) in the NFC North is where the Lions are truly most comfortable.
Maybe they can't win unless they play football in a ring of fire.
"It's a five game season," coach Schwartz said after Sunday's debacle against Tampa.
It's a five game season because the Lions have made like a magician and turned it into one.
The players still speak of controlling their own destiny. It's technically true. The division is still the Lions' to lose, given the tie breaker edge over the Bears.
The trouble with having a division be yours to lose is that when it's been 20 years since the last time you finished first, no one is around who remembers what it was like.
The Lions have never been ones to make things easy on themselves, or on their fans.
Here we go again.

If Hoke Can't Fix Michigan Soon, He May Have to Walk Back to San Diego

When Brady Hoke got the call from Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon to come back to Ann Arbor and take over the Wolverines football program in January, 2011, Brady told the press that he would have “walked to Michigan” from San Diego State.

With each week, with each disturbing performance on the football field, the Michigan fans are increasing in number who’d like to see Hoke indeed hit the road.

These are the times that try Michigan men’s souls.

Rich Rodriguez was given three years, taking over for the retiring Lloyd Carr, and by the end of Year Three he was holding hands at the annual Football Bust as schmaltzy music played. He all but pleaded for his job publicly. It was, frankly, pathetic.

The knock on Rich-Rod was that he was a square peg in a round hole. There wasn’t much “Michigan” about him. Rodriguez’s tenure was deemed an experiment gone horribly wrong.

Fine. You want a Michigan Man? Coming right up!

But the MM the football folks wanted, was Les Miles, the wildly successful coach at LSU. The fans wanted Les in 2007, as well, when Carr was in his last season. Miles, like Hoke, was a longtime U-M assistant (though under Bo Schembechler, while Hoke worked under Carr), before carving out his own legacy at Oklahoma State and then LSU.

Twice Miles was in demand by the fans, but not as much in demand by those making the decisions upstairs. And also not necessarily anointed by a segment of the alumni.

The first time around—about six years ago this month—then-AD Bill Martin didn’t even bring Miles in for an interview, nor did he fly to see Les. Instead, Martin basically told Miles that if Les was interested, he could fill out a job application like anyone else and get in line.

Miles, with good reason, felt offended.

The second go-round, after Rodriguez was let go, Brandon made a trip to see Miles in Louisiana, but it turned out be a cursory visit.

Michigan fans also wanted Jim Harbaugh, fresh off a run of winning at Stanford.

Harbaugh wasn’t interviewed.

But Brady Hoke was, and he jumped out of his skin at the opportunity. Hoke assisted Carr for eight years then ran the programs at Ball State, then San Diego State.

Hoke, while not the popular first choice, at least had some Ann Arbor pedigree.

He was a Michigan Man—a term that is beginning to be more laughable than serious these days.

Hoke, frankly, looked more like he belonged at Michigan, coaching football, than his predecessor. His name even sounded more like Michigan than his predecessor, if you want to be even more superficial.

To Rodriguez’s muscular build, good looks and Latino last name, Hoke offered a squishy body, a moon face and a name of a left tackle.

To Rodriguez’s mild manner and soft voice, Hoke’s demeanor conjured humorous comparisons to the late comedian Chris Farley’s satirical motivational speaker.

Then they started to play the football games.

And here, near the end of Year Three under Hoke, the Michigan football program is in no better shape now than when Rodriguez was given the ziggy. It may actually be worse.

There’s the quarterback, who was under enough pressure before the school saddled him with jersey no. 98—legend Tom Harmon’s old number.

There’s the offensive line, which despite having an All-American on it, too often collapses like a house of cards.

There’s the lack of playmaking on both sides of the ball.

There’s a bewildering lack of imagination in the offensive play calling and seeming inability to make adjustments on the fly—whether within a game or, more shockingly, within a season.

Michigan football, under Hoke, at this very moment is playing a brand that would make Schembechler spin in his grave.

There’s nothing smash mouth about what is happening with Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges’ offense.

There isn’t an Anthony Carter, a Braylon Edwards or even a Steve Breaston catching footballs.

There isn’t a Huckleby or a Morris or even a Biakabutuka carrying the pigskin.

And there certainly isn’t a Harbaugh or a Wangler or a Brady behind center.

This is Hoke’s mess now. The “Fire Rich-Rod” signs might pop up on eBay these days, but that rallying cry is no more. No one can play the “blame Rodriguez” card anymore.

The statute of limitations has run out on Michigan football under Rodriguez (who is doing OK at Arizona, if you were wondering).

This is on Brady Hoke, this season of degeneration. The embarrassing wins over Akron and Connecticut are all on Hoke. The bizarre win over Indiana is on Hoke. So are the feckless losses to MSU and Nebraska and the latest—a second half collapse in Iowa.

All on Hoke now. This is his baby. This is the dream job he wanted. Now he’s being given the virtual heave ho. Talk radio is lighting up with the same names, but one in particular: Jim Harbaugh.

It’s Year Three and there’s essentially the same venom for Hoke as there was for Rodriguez—with the only difference being that it’s not because Hoke isn’t a Michigan Man. It’s that he’s the wrong Michigan Man.

The 24-21 loss to Iowa—after Michigan had taken a 21-7 halftime lead—has driven the Michigan maniacs apoplectic. They want blood—especially the Maize and Blue stuff that courses through Hoke’s veins.

The book on Hoke that is being ghost written by the U-M faithful—and it could be debated that this is simplistic and unfair—is that Hoke can out-recruit you but you can end around him on the field.

He can sell the kids on Michigan, but then he doesn’t know what to do with them once they get there. That’s the book.

It’s probably not fair. Hoke’s first season was an 11-2 delight, including a win over Ohio State. He is 2-3 against MSU and the Buckeyes, combined, heading into next week’s showdown against OSU in Ann Arbor. That isn’t awful.

But what is awful is the way the Wolverines are playing right now, and have been for several weeks running. Can you imagine the fit that Bo would have, if his team gave up sacks the way this squad is doing to Gardner?

And as for Gardner, the kid is regressing. He has the confidence of a teen boy with acne at the school dance. His offensive line is killing him, both physically and mentally.

Hoke will survive this season. He will get a fourth year at Michigan, unlike Rodriguez. But the seat is getting considerably warmer. Normally, that’s not a bad thing when the temps are dropping like they are now. But when you coach football at Michigan, you’d like that seat to be freezing, thank you very much.

Right now, Hoke, like his football team, can’t get out of his own way. If he doesn’t figure it out soon, he might be asked to walk back to San Diego—this time by people who actually matter.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

This Time, Babcock's Hand Wringing is Warranted

Back in the day, it used to be difficult for Mike Babcock to find anything wrong with his Red Wings.

How could there be, when the other team never had the puck?

Babcock's players would throw the Winged Wheel onto the ice on the blood red sweaters, play tic-tac-toe with the puck, bury a few pretty ones behind the enemy net minder and skate off the ice with another two points in their back pockets.

Not that Babcock didn't try to find something amiss. He'd stand before reporters after another night of toying with the opponent, set his rock jaw and nitpick. Nobody was buying it. The Red Wings were elite, and the other teams didn't beat them so much as the Red Wings beat themselves, which wasn't very often.

Babcock doesn't have to pretend these days. It's not a tough sell when he puts on his concerned coach face and rattles off reasons why his team isn't very good.

"We're facing some adversity here," he said the other day.

And this: "If I saw our team play from the outside, I'd say that we don't have a coach. And that hurts my feelings."

Now, Mike Babcock is not a guy whose feelings you want to hurt, if you're one of his players. It's like waking up a bear, mid-hibernation.

Babcock has never sugar coated things since he arrived as Red Wings coach in 2005. He wasn't always easy to believe, when his team was having its way with everyone every night, but when the Red Wings have stumbled in recent years, "Babs" tells it like it is, complete with odors.

He won't throw a player under the team bus, but he doesn't have to. Babcock just won't play him, or he'll demote the offending player. And if he's asked about it, he'll tell you why, and it won't be a spin job.

Scotty Bowman, when he was in Detroit, had a reputation for playing mind games with his players. Babcock cuts to the chase. He doesn't do the passive/aggressive thing.

So here we are, the Red Wings on a four-game losing streak, and about to play four games out west.

"A west coast trip is exactly what we need," Babcock said after the Red Wings let another one slip through their hockey gloves, 3-2 in overtime at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

Babcock says the Red Wings are in search of an identity. He said that the four-game winning streak of a couple weeks back was "fool's gold," with the way they were playing.

Mostly, he said the team isn't playing with the puck enough. And it's surrendering far too many shots on goal.

"I look at the stat sheet and I see 40 shots against," Babcock said after the Rangers game. "That's way too many shots. Twenty-eight is too many."

It's not difficult to see why the coach is aghast. It used to take the other teams two games to get 40 shots on the Red Wings, and half of those would be fired from near the blue line. Remember when we fretted that the Red Wings goalie du jour would get rusty or bored during a game?

Now, it's all Jimmy Howard can do to swat pucks away as if they're being fired from a batting cage machine.

The Red Wings are still a talented group---they've been talented since Reagan was president---but the talent and skill isn't so much that it separates the Red Wings from the rest of the NHL like it used to. You could drive a Mack truck through the gap between the Red Wings' skill and their brethren's. Now, you can barely slip a credit card in there.

So what do you do in hockey when you can't just show up and grab two points? You work hard and you are hard to work against. Neither has happened too much in this young season, and that's why Babcock's jaw is set even firmer these days. That's why the post-game comments are dripping more with disdain.

Babcock never did look happy behind the bench, even when the Red Wings were waltzing through their schedule. But back then, he looked concerned just to be polite to the other team.

Then again, what hockey coach does look happy, mad or sad? Bowman's expression changed as much as Mona Lisa's.

These are tough times for Babcock's bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can't be, due to injury---like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.

Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven't been yet---Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.

Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.

And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn't need to give us a hard sell on it.

"Right now, with the way we're playing, we have no chance," he said after the Rangers game.

No eye rolling from anyone this time.