Friday, December 29, 2006

Fitzpatrick Not An All-Star, But Neither Is The Voting System

Rory Fitzpatrick is not an All-Star, except in his own household. He'll be the first to agree on that. Not even the most Walter Mitty in him could elevate him to such status. In fact, he's barely more of an All-Star than I am, and I haven't laced up a pair of hockey skates since Fitzpatrick himself was a grade schooler.

Yet Vancouver Canucks defenseman Fitzpatrick, who hasn't even registered a point in 23 games this season, is among the top five vote-getters at his position for the 2007 NHL All-Star game. The top two will get an automatic berth on the roster.

The reason Fitzpatrick is on the cusp of being an accidental All-Star is largely the result of a ballot box-stuffing campaign spearheaded by a Web site, On the site, the answer to the question, "Why Rory?" is this: Good question. Everyone has their reasons for voting, but the general consensus is that Rory is the perfect representative for all the players who work hard "behind the scenes" and never get any recognition.

As for the notion that the All-Star game should be a showcase for the game's best players, the site has this reply: Depends on how you view it. Myself and many others view the All-Star game as an exhibition for the fans. That said, the fans want to see Rory Fitzpatrick...simple as that!

Well, some fans do, anyway. Those who have unashamedly voted multiple times for the journeyman, who is now with his fifth NHL team.

I have nothing against Fitzpatrick, who is probably a great guy, as most NHL players tend to be. And I have no problem with wanting to recognize the "players who work hard 'behind the scenes' and never get any recognition."

I do, though, find myself uncomfortable with a voting system that can place so many ballots into relatively few hands.

I went to the site and casted my ballot, and I must admit that I voted for some players based on reputation, not really certain whether they were having All-Star-type seasons or not. And I had my own write-in candidate: Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek. The ballot only allows one write-in per conference, or else I would have voted for Detroit forward Dan Cleary, too. But without sounding too altruistic, my write-ins, while Detroiters, are also based on actual game performances. Hasek leads the league in GAA, and Cleary -- now with 17 goals after last night's hat trick -- has been the surprise scoring sensation of the Western Conference.

Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, clearly has no place on the team, hard-working guy or not. Nice guy or not. Underdog or not. And a system that would place him among the Nick Lidstroms and Chris Prongers of the world is broken, as far as I'm concerned.

I do, though, think that's answer to whether the game should feature the best, most talented players is a good one.

"Myself and many others view the All-Star game as an exhibition for the fans."

Right philosophy, just wrong implementation of it. Yes, the game is an exhibition for the fans, but for all the fans who vote, not only for the fans who choose to while away time clicking Fitzpatrick's name.

I'll admit to vascillating on the subject of All-Star voting. At various times I've been sympathetic to the "it's for the fans" argument, and at other times I've been more hardline -- believing the game should be almost entirely populated with genuinely deserving players, based on current performance.

At least the reserves for the team aren't fan-chosen. So if the campaign to elevate Fitzpatrick to #2 fails, he won't make the team. And all will be right with my world. But just the fact that Fitzpatrick could even come this close to being voted in as a starter rankles me.

What's the solution? Well, the league could start by limiting email addresses to one ballot each. Yes, that could be gotten around, but at least it would be a filter. Phone voting could be limited to one ballot per phone number. And so on.

Last night, on ESPN News, Barry Melrose tackled the Fitzpatrick Issue.

"I would hope that if Rory gets in, he would step aside and say thanks, but acknowledge that someone like Nicky Lidstrom should be in instead," Melrose said of the campaign.

"But," Melrose added, "the game is for the fans' favorite players. Not necessarily the best."

All-Star games, in every sport, have been populated by undeserving players -- dudes who've been voted in based on past glory. But at least they've had some glory. Rory Fitzpatrick is a nice guy, and a lunch bucket fellow who may be the hardest working player in hockey for all I know.

But he's not an All-Star. And a system that would make him one isn't cute. It's broken.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Death Of A Ballplayer Not Always Surprising

Chris Brown died in the manner that he spent the majority of his major league baseball career: enigmatically.

Brown, 45, died Tuesday from complications of burns he apparently sustained in a fire that engulfed his home, in the Houston area in late November.

But investigators, who are leaning toward arson as the cause of the fire, will forever wonder how Brown managed to get to Memorial Hermann Hospital, some nine miles from his home, burned as he was.

It's a fitting end to his life, because those of us who followed and covered the Tigers -- Brown played third base here for 17 games in 1989 -- will forever wonder why his once-promising career came to such an abrupt end.

Brown made the All-Rookie team with the Giants in 1985, with a BA of .271 and 16 homers in 432 AB. The next season, his BA climbed to over .300. Then he had shoulder surgery and the numbers started to decline.

By the time the Tigers acquired him following the 1988 season, from the Padres, Brown was appearing to be wasting his potential. Yet Sparky Anderson took a flyer on him anyway, hoping the Chris Brown in Detroit could somehow channel the Chris Brown who played in San Francisco.

He couldn't. Not even close.

But what made Brown's brief Detroit career so maddening and puzzling was that it appeared that Brown chose not to be a better player. He managed but a .193 BA in 57 uninspired at bats. He was released in May, and never returned to the big leagues. Brown was one worm that Sparky couldn't turn.

Upon his departure from the Motor City -- and baseball, as it turned out -- Brown was laughed at, derided, and scorned by a blue collar fan base who has little to no tolerance for lazy athletes. Brown was a complete bust of an experiment in Detroit. Yet he could have been so much better, had he put forth the effort.

Brown lived almost a month after the fire, but authorities were never able to really interview him about what happened, because his condition deteriorated too rapidly. So they wonder.

Some athletes and celebrities meet their demise in ways that only they could. Billy Martin's death on Christmas night, 1989, in a car wreck comes to mind. Others perish in tragic, unpreventable circumstances. The "good die young" syndrome.

Chris Brown has died, and in the manner that shouldn't be terribly shocking: under a shroud of mystery, and with no apparent answers. Just like the death of his playing career.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Weak East Might Save Zeke After All

In 1976, the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA's Midwest Division with a sparkling record of 38-44. The Pistons finished second, at 36-46. But in the playoffs, Detroit swiped a best-of-three series from Milwaukee, literally, when Chris Ford stole an inbounds pass in the closing seconds of the deciding Game 3.

It was the last time that a team won a division title with a losing record.

Thirty years and some change later, history might repeat itself, and one of the beneficiaries of such nonsense could be our old friend Isiah Thomas.

Today, as the Pistons prepare to invade New York to take on Zeke's Knicks, the Atlantic Division is being led by the Toronto Raptors, who are setting the league on its ear with a scintillating 12-16 record. The Knicks -- the team coached by Thomas who works under a "win or else" decree -- are tied for second, with a 12-18 mark. Even the dreadful Philly 76'ers, at 7-19, are just four games out of first place.

But back to Thomas. Knicks chairman James Dolan, after the bitter (what else?) divorce with Larry Brown, made Thomas the coach, in addition to his GM duties. The marching orders were simple: win or be out of a job.

Well, Thomas isn't winning (mainly because he has to coach a bunch of players assembled by Thomas the GM), but it might not mean he gets fired after all. The Eastern Conference, at this rate, could very well have a division winner with an under-.500 record, plus a team or two in the tournament with records that aren't very impressive, either.

"Anybody want to coach this team?"

In other words, Zeke just might wiggle his way out from under Dolan's decree.

If the Knicks make the playoffs -- and at this point who's to say that they can't? -- would Dolan still kick Isiah to the curb? Or would he change the decree, midstream, to "make the playoffs (even with a losing record) or else"?

As usual with Thomas, some of the deciding factors have nothing to do with actual on-court performance. The feeling here is that the powers to be inside Madison Square Garden will evaluate the entire picture, i.e. any distractions/embarrassments, before deciding whether to allow Thomas back into the building next season.

That's where the betting money should be about even.

Already, Isiah has taken some heat for his role in the Nuggets-Knicks brawl -- mainly for his unbridled warning prior to things turning nasty. Instead of taking the high road and leading his team by example, Thomas went into punk/thug mode, which his cherubic grin has for years thinly hidden. He's also been in the news for allegedly ordering his players to undercut the Spurs' Bruce Bowen, as a reaction to Bowen's suspected tendency to slide his foot beneath the legs of opposing jump shooters. The typical Thomas/eye-for-an-eye mentality. That may have been an endearing quality as a player/assassin, but it becomes unseemly as a coach.

Yet here Thomas is, the coach of a real-life second-place team. Yes, it's a crap division, but second place is second place. Just ask the '76 Pistons, who eventually extended the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors to six games in the conference semifinals.

So Isiah might stick around a while longer. The 9 Lives cat has nothing on him.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mike Williams' Dropsies Should Drop Him From Next Year's Roster

The young, tall receiver grabbed football after football in practice, the pigskin sticking to his gloved fingers with the desired tackiness. It had been going that way for a few weeks, and the rookie declared his days of dropping balls would soon be over with.

"The difference is unbelievable," Herman Moore, the rookie from Virginia, told the interloping reporters after one practice during that 1991 season. Moore, you see, had switched to different contact lenses, and the dropsies he had experienced earlier in the season were vanishing as a result. The news was snickered at by some of the veteran interlopers, who'd covered the team for years and had now, thanks to Moore, discovered a new excuse for Lions ineptitude.

Ahh, but it wasn't merely an excuse to explain away the rookie's pass-catching difficulties. For after Moore switched to the new eyewear, he slowly but surely developed, year after year, until one day he became the most prolific wide receiver in franchise history -- catching over 120 balls in 1995. Some would say he is still the best grabber of footballs the team has ever employed.

Mike Williams has dropsies. He has other issues, too, apparently, but those are tucked away, out of sight, at least from the dutiful interlopers. All we can see is what occurs on the football field, and now that he is finally getting a chance to prove himself as a serviceable receiver, he goes and drops five footballs, including the potential game-winner, in Sunday's 26-21 loss to the Chicago Bears.

"I better not say too much about it, or else next year they'll have the Mike Williams March," the second-year player from USC said afterward, with gallows humor, about a fan base who marched in protest against team president Matt Millen last season.

But the joke might be on Williams himself.

Herman Moore's problems were corrected with eyewear. He proved, once he could see the ball properly, that he had marvelous hands. Rarely, it seemed, was a ball ever thrown his way that was right in his bread basket. Usually Moore had to stretch, twist, reach, and lunge with his six-foot-four frame to snare the passes thrown by the wayward Lions QB of the Day. But he caught them -- more often than not.

Williams, as far as I know, has decent eyesight. It's one of the few things, in fact, that hasn't been bantied about as being wrong with him. It hasn't joined his conditioning, his weight, his work ethic, and his lack of interest as suspects in the torpedoing of his short NFL career.

No, Williams has dropsies because he isn't, frankly, all that good of a receiver. Maybe he will never be. Maybe.

It's my opinion, as one of those occasional ink-stained interlopers, that the Lions should munch on yet another contract and part ways with Mike Williams, sometime before the next NFL Draft. You know -- the old change of scenery trick. Charlie Rogers had his scenery changed, too -- but the scenery, in his case, changed from practice fields and lockerrooms to the unemployment line. His phone still isn't ringing, and he was released over four months ago.

Williams had a chance to finally prove all his coaches, critics, and naysayers wrong on Sunday afternoon against the Bears. No more excuses about how you can't catch balls standing on the sidelines, helmet in hand. Lions QB Jon Kitna went to Williams frequently -- more frequently than any other game this season -- and all he got for his troubles was watching his receiver engage in dropsies.

The funny thing is, Williams could have washed away just about all of those dropsies if he had just been able to come down with Kitna's prayerful heave as the gun went off Sunday. The pass, thrown toward the back of the end zone, was shockingly catchable, considering that most of those situations call for the Hail Mary -- another prayerful throw that even has its own spiritual name.

Yet Williams found himself relatively open, and replays showed that he got every bit of both of his hands -- his gloved hands -- on the ball before it slammed onto the field turf, somehow extricated from his grasp. But it also looked like Williams did his own extricating, with little help from the Bears defender. Dropsies.

The Lions' problems, of course, go way beyond the slippery fingers of yet another first-round draft bust. Rather, Mike Williams' nightmarish game merely served as a metaphor for another lousy season in the history of a lousy football team. Still, he's part of the problem, and since that problem should be imploded and begun anew from the resulting rubble, I see no good reason to keep him on next season's Lions roster.

You can always find guys who come down with the dropsies in the later draft rounds, I hear.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Jason Maxiell: The Best Is Yet To Come

Ben Who?

There's no more Fro to fear. No more biceps to ogle. No more placards with the letter "B" to hold up, tallying the blocked shots.

Out with Big Ben. In with Super Max.

Jason Maxiell, the Pistons' young brutus at power forward/center, is going to turn this town on, and you're free to tell everyone you know that you were there from the ground floor up.

Maxiell is a precious metal, mined by Joe Dumars and his scouting staff, and when his coaches and teammates finish buffing and polishing him, he's going to shine so much, Pistons fans will have to wear sunglasses inside The Palace.

Your next Pistons star

One of this season's highlights occurred the other night, in Auburn Hills.

In the closing seconds of a tie game against Seattle, point guard Chauncey Billups penetrated the key and, his lane to the basket closed off, zipped a neat pass to Maxiell, standing alone along the baseline. The kid arched and drained a 15-foot jump shot. Easily. Game, Pistons.

It was a watershed moment, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Maxiell is a rebounding machine, and can score the basketball. He might not possess the same intimidating presence that Ben Wallace did in the paint, but then again, he doesn't have to, really. At this stage, it's enough for him to play about 20 minutes, score a few points, and clean the glass. Oh yeah -- Maxiell can run the floor, too. Don't let his wide body fool you.

Last night in Cleveland, Maxiell played 17 minutes and scored 11 points, with three rebounds. In the Seattle game, he scored 17 points in 32 minutes, and grabbed 12 boards.

The voices on TNT, last night, dared a comparison between Maxiell and Charles Barkley. Normally, such talk would cause me to roll my eyes -- bantied about far too early in a young player's career. But it makes sense, to me, for Maxiell is part of a dying breed -- the undersized frontline player who can hold his own among the Redwoods around him. Someone who can rebound and score, despite his height disadvantage. Someone like ... Charles Barkley, actually.

The beauty of it all is that Jason Maxiell can mature at his own rate, without the pressure of being a #3 overall pick, like a certain beanpole who now performs in Orlando. Investment in him is cheap, relatively speaking. But the return should be significant.

Super Max is a butterball from the University of Cincinnati who'll make Pistons fans go crazy. Who needs a Fro to fear? Ben mostly wears braids nowadays, anyway.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

This Is No Longer A Watch: It's A Brown WARNING

If you ask me, the Philadelphia 76'ers sent the wrong person to Denver.

Instead of guard Allen Iverson, Philly should have convinced the Nuggets to take Larry Brown off their hands.

The heretofor Brown Watch has now officially been upgraded to a Warning. Instead of conditions merely being right for Brown's return to the Sixers -- made known when he was acting as a "consultant" in the Iverson sweepstakes -- there's been an actual funnel cloud spotted. Residents near the 76'ers should take cover immediately.

Brown's return to the team in a more formal capacity is being seriously bantered about. LB's agent, Joe Glass, has acknowledged it, but would rather an official announcement come from Sixers management. What role Brown would play is up to conjecture. But if I was coach Maurice Cheeks, I'd be preparing my severance proposal.

Iverson has called Brown the best coach he's played for (and he has quite a choice to select from), and until Larry's return to Philly appeared imminent, I was wondering if Brown might eventually end up in Denver as well, the site of his first NBA coaching gig, in 1976. This would happen, I theorized, after the expected removal of George Karl as Nuggets coach -- either forcibly or thru aghast resignation. It would bring Brown's NBA coaching career full circle -- and in this case, we're talking a circle the size of Rosie O'Donnell's mouth.

As for Iverson himself, his coexistence with Carmelo Anthony -- how about Carmallen for a new name? -- is already being winked at. How can they possibly play together? What about the last shot -- who will take it? Do they "respect" each other?

My goodness, you'd think that two superstars had never played on the same team before.

Here's the scoop: the Nuggets will be fine. They'll be more than fine, in fact. Iverson, I happen to know secondhand, is not the cancer that some folks would portray him as being. There's a side of him that doesn't get nearly enough press: that of a tireless worker who has literally given up his body for the Sixers. A doting father. But that's not sexy enough for the stuffed suits on television, or the loudmouths on talk radio.

Once Carmallen blends, like a yummy salad dressing, the Nuggets will be a thorn in everyone's side in the Western Conference. The storm of Larry Brown, however, appears to be circling over the Philadelphia area.
It's only a matter of time until it touches down.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Zumaya A Closer? NO! NO! NO!

I read it again, but this time it came from Dave Dombrowski himself -- not heard from some blowhard on sports talk radio, nor was it splashed onto my CRT from one of those know-it-all bloggers, certainly the most bottom of feeders.

"We see (Joel Zumaya) as a closer," Tigers president Dombrowski was quoted as saying the other day.

To which I just shook my head and said, over and over, "No! No! No!"

The argument for keeping Zumaya, the 22 year-old human howitzer, as a seventh and eighth inning setup man is, I fear, going to be lost in the shuffle as the overwhelming public sentiment wants to see him close games or, worse, be a (gasp!) starter.

Again I say, "No! No! No!"

The 7th and 8th innings is where Zumaya belongs

Where do I begin? Well, how about with the "nobody else has what we have" factor? If you can show me more than a handful of teams who have what the Tigers have -- a pitcher who can come into the seventh and eighth innings and absolutely shut down an opposing rally, gaining the requisite strikeout(s) with a powerful arm that completely shifts momentum, then I'd like to know who those guys are. Zumaya, time and again, was the fire extinguisher, and in the only way that was helpful, considering the game situation -- with the strikeout.

I would also submit to you that the outs Zumaya gets are far more crucial and important than the ones closer Todd Jones gets. Why? Because 90+ percent of the time Zumaya entered the game with runners on base, and with less than two outs. Mostly, those runners represented tying or go-ahead runs. And only could a strikeout, or a popup, get the Tigers out of danger. Jones, God bless him, frequently entered ninth innings with nobody on base, beginning the inning with a clean slate. Save situation? Yes, according to MLB rules. Turning point in the game? No. That happened six outs earlier, with Zumaya on the mound.

That, to me, is the crux of my case -- the quality of Zumaya's outs. They aren't throwaway runs, folks. Very often times the prevention of those runners from scoring spelled Tigers victory two innings later.

As for turning Zumaya into a starter, which he was in the minor leagues, that would be even worse. It's going to sound strange, but it would be a waste of his arm to pitch him every fifth day. Besides, the Tigers have plenty of young, powerful arms in their rotation. They don't need another flamethrower in the rotation. They can, however, use him three or four times a week in the late innings. Very much so.

The Tigers, I believe, can find another closer when Jones retires. Perhaps that pitcher will come from outside the organization. I have faith in Dombrowski that he can find a capable replacement, somewhere, somehow. But DD is making me nervous, talking about grooming Zoom Zoom to be the next Tigers closer.

Dave, this is one time you should listen to an ink-stained, blogging wretch. I promise not to go on sports talk radio, unless you don't heed my advice.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Like Barry Did (Sorta), Lions Offer Something New Every Sunday

I have been known to say that with Barry Sanders, the superhuman running back, you could be assured of seeing something from him every week that you'd never seen another runner do with a pigskin tucked against his ribcage. Every single week.

The same thing can be said of Barry's former team -- sort of.

With the Lions, you can pretty much be assured of seeing something new every week -- something that is a major contributor toward losing football games.

This time, it's the old "quarterback sneak on 3rd and five" play. Not to mention the "let's inexplicably fumble the ball without being touched on 4th and 1."

The Lions tried that wonderful QB sneak play not once, but twice, each time with more than four yards to go for a first down. Neither time did it come close to being successful.

Jon Kitna, perpetrator of the two sneaks and the inexplicable fumble, plus a couple of interceptions for good measure, is to be judged an innocent in this 2-12/soon to be 2-14 season, according to his coaches. He is far from being the sole problem of the Lions' ineptitude, certainly, but he is far from being beyond reproach, also.

To borrow from receiver Roy Williams' refrain, the Lions may be the best 45-minute team in the NFL. Sometimes they are only the best 15 minute team. On Thanksgiving Day, for example, they were no more than the league's best eight minute team. But never have they been close to being even an average 60-minute team.

Yesterday, in Green Bay, they may have cobbled together ten good minutes, but they were scattered throughout the game. Persona non grata receiver Mike Williams, for his part, put together a couple of good minutes on his own -- but maybe only 30 seconds of actual game time -- when he caught three passes in a row in the second half.

Someone once told me that when you die and go to (presumably) heaven, you are played a video of your 18 best golf holes, condensed into one, well, heavenly, round. The duffers reading this are probably smiling knowingly right now.

I wonder if that's the fate of the guilty parties of this mess with the Lions. I wonder if they are played a video of their best 60 minutes from the 2006 season, to present one bad ass game.

Yes, I wonder.

Don't blame Packers quarterback Brett Favre for the Lions' 15th consecutive loss in Wisconsin. He was, frankly, very pedestrian. And that's being very kind. He tried like the dickens to serve up as much help as possible to the Lions, what with his interceptions and fumbled snap. Not once did the Lions turn one of those miscues into anything more than the typically harmless Jason Hanson field goal.

It hardly matters, to me, whether the Lions snag the #1 overall pick, or #2, at this point. They are certain to get one of those two, and usually it isn't that big of a deal to draft second, because that should still be a high quality player. What does matter, though, is what they choose to do with such a high selection. But I wouldn't hold my breath that the decision will be the prudent or right one. It may seem so, on the surface, but how long before the new player is awash with the stench of losing and negative aura?

But that's a worry for another day -- late-April to be exact. Maybe heaven also plays a video of all your great draft picks, and squeezes them onto one glorious draft day.

Actually, now that I think about it, that video is still in production.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cowboys Put Coal In Lions' Stocking In '70 Playoffs

Once upon a time, you actually had to be a pretty good football team to qualify for the NFL’s playoff tournament.

Before each conference split, like an amoeba, into four divisions. Before the addition of a second, then third wild card team in the 80’s and 90’s. Before added expansion caused the league to positively burst at its waistband.

Before all that, win totals of double digits were almost absolutely required in order to play into January. In fact, had the Lions not benefited from the NFL’s first experiment in wild card playoffs, they would have been one of those fine teams on the outside looking in.

1970. Nixon as your president, Watergate just a twinkle in someone’s crooked eye. The year of the Kent State killings. Words like “groovy” and “mod” were all the rage. Tie dye shirts. And plenty of changes for the NFL – and big ones, at that.

There was Monday Night Football, for one. That long-running TV anthology series debuted on September 21, with the Cleveland Browns hosting and beating the New York Jets of Joe Namath. No word on when the first Styrofoam brick was forged, to toss at Howard Cosell’s mug.

There was a merger, too. The NFL and American Football League had agreed a few years earlier to join forces, mainly to end the outlandish bidding wars that were making millionaires of college graduates. So they kicked things off, so to speak, with a few championship games – eventually known as Super Bowls – prior to morphing into one big old league in time for the 1970 season.

So the NFL had ballooned from 16 teams to 26, just like that. Two conferences – the National and American. Three divisions per conference, the winners of each one qualifying for the tournament. Oops – three’s an odd number.

Enter the wild card.

The team with the next-best winning record after the three divisional winners would gain entry. The 1970 Lions were that team – the NFC’s first-ever wild card.

And you thought the Lions were never a pioneer, except in how to lose football games!

After scuffling along to a 5-4 record, which included losing to the New Orleans Saints on Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal, the Lions ran off five straight victories to storm to the finish line at 10-4. Not as good as the Minnesota Vikings’ 12-2, so they settled for commissioner Pete Rozelle’s wild card ticket.

The opponent would be the Dallas Cowboys, in the Cotton Bowl. The day after Christmas, 1970. The Lions were on a roll, maybe the hottest team in the league. Only one of their final five victories was over a team with a losing record. A few of their victims were even division leaders when the Lions knocked them off.

These were the Lions, though, so naturally there was a question mark at quarterback, even with their spiffy 10-4 record. Greg Landry, the third-year man out of Massachusetts, or Bill Munson, the more grizzled veteran? Both had played almost half a season each, each attempting about the same amount of passes. Landry was a scrambler – a third running back, really. Munson was a pocket guy. He didn’t move so good. But he could wing it.

The 1970 Lions averaged about 25 points a game, yet couldn’t manage even two field goals worth of scoring to beat the Cowboys in that playoff game.

Landry got the start, with head coach Joe Schmidt opting for the mobile, younger QB to counter the Cowboys’ ferocious Doomsday Defense.

The game quickly settled into a feeble display of offense. Or great defense. Take your pick. Regardless, the stars of the game were the punters, especially in the first half. First downs were only a rumor. The Cowboys had managed a field goal, though, for a 3-0 halftime lead.

Early in the third quarter, the defenses still in control, the Cowboys sacked Landry in his own end zone for a safety. 5-0 Dallas.

It remained that way until the fourth quarter. Schmidt, desperate for a spark, did the Lions thing and switched signal callers. In came Munson, and he would have one last drive to save the game for the Detroiters. Forced to take to the air – a place where Landry had failed miserably all afternoon – Munson nonetheless managed to pitter-patter the Lions downfield. The clock was inside two minutes, and the Lions had crossed the 50-yard line, thanks to Munson’s short, safe passes. The Cotton Bowl crowd grew nervous.

Eventually, the Lions made it inside the Cowboys’ 30. Barely a minute remained.

Munson went to the air again, seeking out receiver Earl McCullough. The pass was slightly high, and McCullough couldn’t quite rope it in with his two hands. He only managed to tip it, and it was intercepted – inside the Cowboys’ 20. Game over. Season over.

5-0, Cowboys.

It remains one of the most notorious playoff scores in NFL history, along with the Bears’ 73-0 pasting of the Redskins in a championship game played about four decades earlier.

The 1970 Lions averaged about 25 points a game, yet couldn’t manage even two field goals worth of scoring to beat the Cowboys in that playoff game. I’ve always firmly believed that had the Lions been able to get by the Cowboys, they would have represented the NFC in Super Bowl V, instead of Tom Landry’s bunch. Their opponent in the conference championship game would have been the San Francisco 49'ers, a team the Lions had handled in the regular season.

Twenty-five years later, another hot Lions platoon, winners of their final seven regular season games, would go into Philadelphia for one of those wild card games. They lost, 58-37.

5-0. 58-37. Whatever. Same endgame.

The Lions did get their revenge, sort of, when they beat the Cowboys 38-6 in the playoffs following the 1991 season. It remains their only postseason victory since 1957 – the Runner Up Bowl wins in the early 60’s not counting, of course.

“5-0! A baseball score!,” defensive tackle Alex Karras moaned after the playoff loss to the Cowboys.

After the Lions lost a crucial game to the Packers in the 1962 season – thanks to a major gaffe by the offense in the form of a poorly-decided pass that was intercepted late in the game – Karras hurled his helmet at quarterback Milt Plum in the lockerroom.

Karras threw no helmets in Dallas on December 26, 1970. Maybe he should have; he was released the following summer, in training camp. The 5-0 playoff match was his last NFL contest.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Even Jones Admits, By Elimination, Who Must Leave The Lions

Add Kevin Jones to the list of Matt Millen haters.

OK, maybe the Lions' running back doesn't hate Millen, but he used the tried and true process of elimination to indict the team's president the other day on radio, snippets of which appeared in today's Detroit Free Press.

"I would stick with (Jon) Kitna, because I think he's an adequate quarterback," Jones said during his weekly interview on WJR radio. "I don't think it's all his fault, just like when Joe (Harrington) was here it wasn't all his fault. Same story."

OK. Remove the quarterback from the list of potential prime offenders.

"I can't blame anything on the top three guys," Jones said, referring to head coach Rod Marinelli, and coordinators Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson. "Because you've got to have the talent. Whoever gets the talent in here, that's what needs to happen, because the coach is not playing -- the players are."

So Marinelli, Martz, and Henderson are absolved.

"We need some more talent basically in key positions that help you be successful."

Hmmm. I wonder who Jones might be talking about, if not for Kitna, Marinelli, Martz, or Henderson?

Now, Jones certainly doesn't have the stature, yet, in this town to have his words splashed all over, as with other Detroit athletes -- guys who when they speak, every word is hung onto. But it still says something when one of the team's presumed stars thinks the talent-procurer isn't pulling his weight.

It's also an indication that the players are, indeed, behind Marinelli, and probably at the expense of not being behind Matt Millen. I suppose you could be a proponent of both men, but it's unlikely, when one is new, and the other has been here for six seasons.

Do I think Kevin Jones has a problem with Matt Millen as a person? No. Frankly, I don't think even some of the most fervent "Fire Millen" people think the prez is a bad guy -- just a lousy president. But being a nice guy doesn't get it done. Owner Bill Ford Sr., for example, has been lauded for years for being one of the "nicest owners in the NFL." Great. It's also code for "blindly loyal" and "stubbornly refuses to admit his mistakes."

Ford should very nicely show Millen the door. Even I, a past supporter of the prez, has come to realize that that must happen at the end of this season.

With Jones' remarks on radio, the players are starting to officially go on record as saying the talent procurement has been less than stellar, and must improve. It ain't the fault of the new coaching regime, or the new QB, Kevin Jones says.

So who does that leave, really?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ducks More Than Welcome To First Place Expectations

They're not Mighty anymore, but they're still just ducky.

The Anaheim hockey team in the NHL dropped the word "Mighty" from their name, so now they're going by the more streamlined Anaheim Ducks. It's not an unprecedented switch. Another left coast team, the California Golden Seals, decided to be known as just the California Seals in the mid-1970's. The Chicago Black Hawks made a subtle change several years back, squishing their nickname into one word: Blackhawks.

But enough of the history lesson. The Ducks are terrorizing the NHL, 25-3-6 and setting a league record for most points mustered after a season's first 15 road games. Their 56 points puts them on top of the league standings, and fairly comfortably.

Fine. They can have all that.

I don't know about you, but I'm pleased as punch to let the Anaheim Ducks run away with the NHL's Presidents' Trophy. Let them set expectations for themselves as high as possible. Let them put the pressure of a "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality on their shoulders. They have my permission, and then some.

As I said before the season, I'm fine with the Red Wings lying in the weeds as a lower seed going into the playoffs. I've had enough of wrapping things up with 15 games remaining, and going into cruise control leading up to the postseason. And what normally happens? Our Hockeytown Heroes run into the buzzsaw of a team that's been battling like the dickens to even qualify for the playoffs, sometimes right up until the final weekend of the season.

Doubtless, if the Ducks stay hot, the jabbermouth experts on the ESPN and Versus networks will make Anaheim their Stanley Cup frontrunners. They will appear to be too strong, too well-balanced, too focused, to NOT win the Cup come June. As their regular season wins pile up, so will their lofty expectations.

Again, they can have it. I'm done -- and blissful.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sixers, Like 1980 Pistons, In A Quandry

Superstar basketball player declares he no longer wants to play for his team. He forces the hand of management, for the team of which he's been a part for nearly 10 years. So the entire league is aware that Superstar wants to be traded, and the list of suitors varies, sometimes daily. Where will he go? Where WON'T he go?

This was the scenario in January 1980, when Bob Lanier made it very known that he no longer wanted to play for the Pistons. The team had a new GM, Jack McCloskey, and he was hit between the eyes, almost as soon as he took the job in December 1979, with the Lanier trade demand.

The drama droned on, into February.

Finally, McCloskey had his taker for the giant Bob Lanier: he sent the center to the Milwaukee Bucks for
Kent Benson, and what McCloskey really wanted -- a #1 pick in the 1980 draft. It wasn't all that good of a deal, truthfully, but the Pistons were in dire need of draft picks, their cupboard being left bare after the horrific Dickie Vitale Era.

The Philadelphia 76'ers find themselves in a similar quandry today, engaging in a very public divorce with potential Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson. Every day, every hour almost, there is a new destination for
Iverson. Golden State. Charlotte. Sacramento. Dallas. And others.

The allure of imagining Allen Iverson in a Pistons uniform is fun, and as long as he remains untraded, there'll always be scenarios tossed out for consumption. Hardly any of them will make sense, but it's great fun over a frothy drink and some pretzels.

It can't possibly be a good bargaining position for the Sixers, when it is known with 100% certainty that Iverson won't play one more minute for them. Philly management will say that they can wait for the best offer, but it still can't be a position of strength, when other GMs know that a deal has to be made sooner or later.

Iverson's locker, it is said, has been cleaned out, and his image has been removed from the team's pregame highlight reel. All that's left is for the papers to be signed. Too bad there wasn't a pre-nup.

The Sixers are 5-15, after a 3-0 start. It can be argued that they are the worst team in the NBA -- worse even than the Charlotte Bobcats, to whom Iverson supposedly nixed a trade, and worse even than the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors, the league's yearly bottom feeders. The Pistons in early 1980 were flat bottom -- eventually finishing with an unsightly 16-66 record. After Lanier was dealt to the Bucks, his new team got hot and won its division. For the next few seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks were legitimate title contenders. The Pistons? They struggled for one more season, then they drafted Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka. They struggled no longer -- even long after Lanier retired.

So all is not lost for the 76'ers. It just seems that way.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Millen's Lack Of A Posse Will Be His Undoing

They all have their lieutenants -- their right hand men, confidantes. What have you. They are the successful team executives, the ones who are able to recognize a problem, and go out and fix it. The ones who can build something from ruins. Chicken salad from chicken feathers.

Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president and GM. Sharp as a tack, shrewd, cunning even. But he doesn't work alone. He has Al Avila, his assistant. He has David Chadd, who runs the scouting department. And others, in the low minors, who develop the young talent that has now blossomed into the core of an American League champion.

Ken Holland, Red Wings GM. Aggressive, innovative, confident. But he doesn't work alone, either. He has Jim Nill as his assistant, plus a bank of trustworthy scouts and consultants. It's a grand reason why the team hasn't missed a beat, relatively speaking, when Scotty Bowman gave up control some nine years ago.

Joe Dumars, Pistons president and GM. Bamboozler of other NBA executives. He's done it all to them, except brandish a gun and wear a ski mask. Admitter of bad drafts and unafraid to change coaches, all for the good of the team. But he doesn't fly solo at The Palace. Dumars has at his right hand John Hammond, who's practically joined at the hip with his boss. And together they've built and kept the Pistons as an elite team in the league.

Matt Millen, Lions president and de facto GM. Poor drafter, suspect at choosing head coaches, and with an unclear plan. Artisan of a 23-70 record as leader of the Lions, since his hiring in 2001. He most certainly operates with no co-pilot. And the Lions continue to crash and burn, like in one of those test dummy videos.

It is no coincidence, in my mind, that Millen's unbridled failure as president of the Lions runs parallel with his either refusal or inability to hire a braintrust around whom he could build a competent front office. He has no posse, no inner circle. And it will eventually be his undoing.

If Matt Millen could press the "rewind" button and do everything over again, starting in January 2001, this is the path he should have taken: be grateful to the Fords for the opportunity, check his ego at the door, and IMMEDIATELY hire the brightest, best football minds that were available at the time. A personnel guy. A draft guy. Even a small group to help him choose the new coach, which was his first major decision after becoming president.

You can't tell me that in early 2001, there wouldn't have been a small gang of right-minded football people who would have leapt at the chance to join Millen in turning the Lions situation around. Together, they could have built a Dombrowski/Holland/Dumars type of hierarchy, where Millen would have been the boss, but one that would have placed the trust into his lieutenants. I believe there would have been an impressive sector of NFL people who would have said, "You know what, Matt? I'm on board. I'll help you turn the Lions into a model franchise, finally returning it to championship glory after almost 50 years."

It's too late for that now.

Even if Millen stays, his legacy is irrepairably damaged. It's highly doubtful that he could find and hire a posse at this juncture. Well, HE couldn't, anyway. Bill Ford Sr. could, however. Ford still has clout and a fine reputation in the league for being a good owner to work for. He just needs the right people in place.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch got it right with his hockey club when he made as his first hire, back in 1982, Jimmy Devellano as GM. Devellano's pedigree came from the New York Islanders, who were in the midst of winning four consecutive Stanley Cups, largely due to Jimmy D's drafting and eye for NHL talent.

"I will make this promise right now," Devellano said at his introductory presser, "That as long as Jimmy Devellano is general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice."

It was snickered at, at the time, Devellano's bold pledge. But he made good on the promise, and nobody snickered at the team a few years later. They haven't snickered in over 20 years, in fact. And Devellano helped usher in Holland as eventual replacement for himself and Bowman.

It took Ilitch a little longer with his baseball team, but Dombrowski, hired in November 2001, has forged a winner in about five years, thanks to his inner circle of baseball minds.

Bill Ford can do the same thing with the Lions, he truly can. He and he alone has his finger on the team's nuclear button. If he chooses to press it, his next president should be someone who understands that the job is bigger than one man. You need help, and talented individuals reporting to you. And it has to be someone who can attract those talented individuals.

Don Shula, I'm telling you.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

If I Was An A.S.S.

“Are you nervous?,” the faceless extra in my dream asked.

“Naah … I’m used to speaking in front of crowds,” I said, adjusting my cufflinks and straightening my tie. Probably an Armani suit, since it was a dream.

“These are the media; you gotta expect a grilling,” the extra said.

“Bring it on.” Probably a Mike Ditka sneer, since it was a dream, and mine.

At the lectern, the made-for-dream Commissioner of All Sports addressed the throngs.

“As you know, this is a first in the world of competitive sports,” the CAS began. Then, some boring yadda yadda stuff – skipped because this was my dream. “So, without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce the very first Ambassador to Save Sports – a man whose vast knowledge and encyclopedia-like brain, not to mention a curmudgeonly persona, tinted with a spice of cynicism, is perfect for this position. Mr. Greg Eno, the floor is yours – as the first Ambassador to Save Sports. The pioneer A.S.S.”

“Thank you, Commissioner,” I, the A.S.S., said, squinting into the lights. “I’ll just read some brief opening comments, then I’ll take your questions.”

“As you all know, there is much wrong in the world of sports today: outrageous contracts, hypocrisy, jealousy, and Bill Walton. Now, I may not be able to do much about the last one – but you can bet I’ll try.”

Knowing chuckles and head nods from the press guys.

“But seriously, when I decided to take this job, it was with the understanding that I’d have total autonomy; that the league commissioners would report directly to me. Yes, even you, David Stern. Don’t roll your four eyes at me, sir.”

Some oohs and murmurings, like in one of those courtroom dramas.

“You want ‘zero tolerance’, Stern? I’ll show you zero tolerance, my friend. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

I was just getting warmed up, this being my dream and all.

“OK, first things first. Let’s start with Mr. Roger Goodell and his NFL. Starting immediately, all defensive backs will be encouraged to chew garlic during the games. Don’t look so confused, Roger. I figure if all it takes to get a pass interference call is to breathe on a receiver, the DBs may as well get some satisfaction.”

More chuckles and the pens were being furiously pressed to notepads.

“Oh, and about the uniforms nowadays. Who designed these monstrosities? Crayola? Rejects from the Arena League? You can start with the Tennessee Titans, who I have decreed have the ugliest duds ever to get a grass stain. Redesign them forthwith. And you will go back to having all home teams wear dark jerseys, and visiting teams wear white. Like it used to be. I turn on a game today and I can’t tell where they’re playing, because so many teams are wearing white at home. This isn’t baseball, gawl dang it!

“Don’t snicker, Bud Selig. You’re next.”

Some clearing of throats and shifting in the seats.

“If I was a baseball player, I figure I’d be, with my marginal talent, a utility infielder. You know, 150 at-bats, .230 batting average, little or no power. I’d be as much of a household name as that brand of facial tissue that isn’t called Kleenex. Get where I’m coming from?”

Baseball commissioner Selig nods, waiting for the other cleat to drop.

“So with those skills and those meager statistics, I’d guess my salary would be, oh, $5 million per year?”

Even more chuckles, and pens are being changed.

As an A.S.S., I would have Stern (left) and Bettman, plus Goodell and Selig, working for ME

“Enough already. Your owners are about as responsible with their money as Michael Richards is with a microphone. So beginning right here, right now, every team gets a budget – and I mean a real budget. You know, like a checkbook – but the kind you balance, not the kind that’s filled with blanks. And guess what? You overdraft, Major League Baseball hits you with an NSF fee. Of one MILLION dollars.”


“Oh, don’t look so aghast, Bud. Rein your owners in, for gosh sakes. I mean, at least get the utility infielder down to $2 million per year. Show me something.”

I seek out basketball commissioner David Stern in the audience.

“Then there’s the NBA. Quite a menu. Where shall I begin? Well, I mentioned your ‘zero tolerance’ policy when it comes to arguing with officials. Look me in the eyes sir and tell me that’s not a ‘Zero Rasheed’ policy!”

Applause and cheers. The press conference is in Detroit, after all.

“That’s right, I said it! What are you going to do, ‘T’ me up? I don’t think so. This is MY dream, dammit!”

Stern squirms and looks for Michael Jordan to save him. Not this time, pal.

“Argue with impunity, I say! Let the officials take it, like they do in the NFL. Goodell’s league at least does that right. The NFL lets their players and coaches blow off steam during the heat of a game. I’ve seen the zebras get worked over like a mangy-haired teenager by a drill sergeant, and their yellow hankies stay stuffed in their waistbands. But poor Sheed wrinkles his nose, and here comes the tech. Outrageous.

“And as far as your new ball goes? I suspect we have another Coke marketing ploy happening. Remember what Coke shamelessly did? Replaced its product with ‘New Coke,’ getting the predictably negative reviews, before introducing ‘Classic Coke.’ Genius. So you commission Spalding to make a new ball, which the players mostly dislike. They’re even complaining of paper cuts on their hands. Seriously! So what’s next, David? ‘The NBA Classic Ball’ from Spalding?”

More murmurings, and the writers are cramping up.

I take a breath, and swig some bottled water. Aquafina – my dream water.

I find NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the crowd.

“Finally, there’s hockey. Poor, poor hockey. The league with TV ratings lower than Anna Nicole Smith’s IQ. The league of trapezoids, shootouts, points for losing, and so many power plays, it would make Donald Trump blush.”

There’s a long, long pause as I think of what I could possibly do, as an A.S.S., to save hockey. I think and I think. I scratch my head. Then I turn to the CAS.

“I want a raise.”

“Already? You just started.”

My dream.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Locking Up Inge Part Of The Master Plan

It may not be as sexy as a trade for Gary Sheffield or making a free agent splash like with Pudge Rodriguez or Magglio Ordonez, but the Tigers continue to show that they do it right most times nowadays -- letting Shef wear #3 notwithstanding.

The latest proof was the inking yesterday of Brandon Inge to a four-year contract extension.

The price wasn't too bad -- about $6 million per season -- considering that Inge is an everyday third baseman who figures to only get better.

But the bigger picture here is the fact that no longer are the Tigers the bumbling stooges who wasted most of a decade, until they hired Dave Dombrowski back in November 2001. They aren't, anymore, stumbling through the American League like bulls in a china shop. There's a plan in place, and it's constantly being implemented. the Inge signing is the latest example.

Here's the plan: draft wisely, develop young players on the farm, sign a key free agent or two, hire an experienced manager, and -- here's the kicker -- lock your core talent up with longterm contracts before they get obscenely expensive.

Granted, the Tigers are unlikely to be able to keep everyone that they want to, due to financial restrictions. But you may as well keep as many as you can, and securing Inge is in accordance with The Plan.

While I'm at it, a few words about those who've maligned Brandon Inge. Stuff it. Okay, so those are only two words, but they're appropriate. All Inge does is play a solid third base, hit a few homers and drive in some runs, all with being a great teammate and accepting his shift from catcher with grace, save the first few days after the team signed Pudge Rodriguez, when Inge was whiny and cranky.

His arm is terrific, and with his athleticism he gets to many balls that ordinary third sackers could only dream about snagging. He's cutting down on his strikeouts, too.

Next up: shortstop Carlos Guillen, who can be a free agent after the 2007 season, and pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, who can be free after 2008. Guillen will probably want to test the waters, but don't be surprised if the Tigers are aggressive in trying to prevent that from happening.

Only bumbling stooges fail to try. The Tigers are no longer that anymore, as an organization.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Finally, A Name For The Lions' New President: Don Shula

The Lions, for all of their warts, have actually a fairly impressive list of former assistant coaches who've gone on to bigger and better things as head coaches in the NFL.

Don't believe me?

Well, how's this, for starters: Bill Belichik. Jerry Glanville. Chuck Knox. All accomplished, in some way, shape or form, in the league as head coaches. And all sowed their oats as Lions assistants. As Casey Stengel would say, "You can look it up."

Oh yeah -- one more: Don Shula.

Shula coached Lions defensive backs in the early sixties, his first coaching job in the NFL after he retired as a player with the Colts. By all accounts, his skills and aura took shape in Detroit, before he was whisked away by the Colts to be their head coach in the mid-sixties. And we all know what happened from there.

I bring Don Shula up today, because if the Lions are considering replacing Matt Millen -- and for all we know they aren't even close -- then I would like to submit Shula's name as the Lions' next president.

As you know, I've bashed Millen bashers for never having anyone truly in mind when they call for his ouster. It's never been enough, in my mind, to simply toss your arms in the air and say, "ANYONE at this point!"

Well, now you don't have to do that if you're calling for Millen's head, because now I have a name for you. And a good one.

Forget, for a moment, whether Don Shula would even consider the job. And I think he might. But regardless, it occurred to me that the Lions' next commander of the ship should be either a hotshot young executive who's learned his trade in a winning organization, like the Patriots or the Colts or the Cowboys or the Seahawks, or a grizzled veteran NFL guy who knows a thing or two about winning pro football.

Now, the second of those choices, ideally, would be an older coach who's ready to call it a career on the sidelines soon, and for whom a front office position, with total authority, would be attractive. A Mike Holmgren or Bill Parcells type. Someone who's been in the league recently.

The next best choice is someone like Shula, who has known nothing BUT winning in the NFL, both with the Colts and the Miami Dolphins. He still has ties to the Detroit area, with his Shula's Steakhouse in Troy. And Detroit is where his post-playing career -- a Hall of Fame career, by the way -- began.

So how about bringing it full circle for Don Shula? Give him the keys to the executive washroom, get out of his way, and let him bring in other sharp, respected minds who would consider it an honor to work for him. He could be the team's Yoda, and the others he would bring in could be the sharp warriors.

There it is, you anti-Millen folks: a name to attach to your cause. Don Shula.

The Lions could do far worse, you know. They have, on many occasions.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Flip Secure As Pistons Coach

It was the mid-1960's, the Pistons in their usual state of disarray. They had a young coach, Donnis Butcher, who himself had been a Pistons player only a year prior. So now the team was announcing the hiring of Butcher's new assistant, a former head coach in the NBA named Paul Seymour.

"I guess you could say that I'm more or less the Pistons' ace in the hole," Seymour said into the microphones and cameras, according to Jerry Green's marvelous book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era.

Whoa! An assistant coach saying he's, in effect, out for the head coach's job, should the young head coach stumble, which was predictable?

Wonderful feeling of job security for Mr. Butcher, don't you think?

Sure enough, the Pistons committed enough of the expected pratfalls and crooked shooting and matador defense to get Butcher canned, just a few months after announcing the hiring of the NBA veteran coach Seymour. The thing was, after the end of that 1968-69 season, Seymour had had enough of the Pistons and returned to his liquor business out east.

Back then, Pistons coaches didn't operate with any sense of security. The arangement, under then-owner Fred Zollner, was to hand out two-year contracts. Of course, as former Pistons coach Butch van Breda Kolff (VBK) used to say of contracts, "Hell, you can always quit. And they can fire you, if they want."

There was a lot of quitting and firing amongst Pistons coaches back in the day, VBK included. It wasn't until a little-known 76'ers assistant named Chuck Daly came along, that the Pistons had some stability in the coach's chair.

Flip Saunders, today, must be feeling that kind of security and stability. He was aggressively pursued by Pistons president Joe Dumars after Larry Brown's departure, despite Saunders' relative lack of success in the playoffs with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team won sixty-four games last season, setting a franchise record. The ending was disappointing, though -- getting spanked in the Conference Finals.

No matter, because this season, Flip Saunders has not one, but two former NBA head coaches on his staff: Dave Cowens, and Terry Porter. Flip must not look at them as the team's aces in the hole, a la Paul Seymour some 38 years ago.

The hiring of one former head coach, let alone two, might cause some feelings of insecurity among certain whistle blowers and chalkboard drawers. The idea of hiring your possible future replacement, making it a little too convenient for your boss to fire you, wouldn't seem to set well with some folks. And with Dumars' recent track record, having gone through four head coaches in five years, how can there be any real feeling of job security?

Ah, but there must be. Saunders recently squashed any talk of being a candidate for the University of Minnesota head coaching job (his son plays on the team, and Flip is a graduate). He hired Cowens and Porter, fearlessly. And the team, after a slow start, seems to be back on track. A weak conference would seem to pave the way toward another return trip to at least the Eastern Finals.

Such feelings of job security haven't been commonplace with the Pistons, even under the Dumars administration, with the exception of Mr. Daly's run here.

Flip must feel happy, content, and safe as Pistons coach. Rarely are all three of those in place for the NBA head coach nowadays. Or ever, when it comes to the Pistons.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Lions Once Again Snatch Defeat From Jaws Of Victory

Using the wayback machine that's permanently stored in my brain (both a blessing and a curse, by the way), let me take you back to the 1979-80 NBA season. The Pistons were the league's Keystone Kops, firing coach Dickie Vitale in November on their way to an inglorious record of 16-66.

Sometime during that wretched campaign, in the cold, drafty Silverdome, with its makeshift basketball court, the Pistons gave the Philadelphia 76'ers quite a tussle. The Sixers would go on to play in the NBA Finals that season, so they weren't chopped liver, as the Pistons were.

Anyhow, the game came down to the final seconds, the outcome still in doubt when Pistons center Kent Benson drove toward the hoop and -- oops! -- dribbled the ball off his foot. Pistons lose again.

Afterward, the Sixers praised the Pistons' effort.

"They're just going to have to learn to win games like that, like we did," Philly coach Billy Cunningham said. He should know. Cunningham played on the worst NBA team ever: the '72-'73 Sixers, who managed only nine wins in 82 games. And just a few years later, thanks to the acquisition of Julius Erving from the ABA, the Sixers became title contenders.

The Pistons did indeed learn to win games "like that," but not until drafts and trades brought them players like Isiah Thomas, Kelly Tripucka, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, et al.

The Lions haven't won any games "like that" for eons, it seems. They got another lesson yesterday, watching the perennial Super Bowl contending New England Patriots pull one out of the fire, a game the Pats shouldn't have won, for all the turnovers and penalties that they had.

But it's yet another show of why the Lions are scraping the bottom of the league's barrel. You can make all those mistakes, as the Patriots did, and still beat the Lions on most Sundays.

You knew it would end badly for the Detroiters, as it usually does, when the Lions could only eek out a measly eight-point lead, despite how poorly the Patriots played. Actually, you got that feeling in the second quarter, when the Lions, driving toward a touchdown that would have given them a 14 to 3 lead, suffered yet another fumble by Kevin Jones, who too often plays butterball instead of football.

Of course, it hardly matters, for this season is shot. Forget about the #1 overall pick. Do you REALLY think the Lions will make the most out of that? It shouldn't hurt, but how much it will help is definitely up for conjecture. So it doesn't matter for now, but learning to win games "like that" is what will get this team out of the NFL's Dumpster, should they ever hope to do so.

The Lions don't know how to win, because they haven't won. In years. It's a vicious cycle. They have to learn to win games like the Patriots have, and how the Dr. J Sixers did, back in the day. But sometimes you figure they'll forever be dribbling the ball off their feet.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Agony Of The Feet

Well, you gotta hand it to the Detroit Lions: they sure take the name of their sport literally.

Football. A neat little compound word that means two different things on each side of that big Atlantic Pond. But not to the Lions. It hasn’t been about blocking and tackling and throwing for seven yards on third and seven, or protecting the quarterback or marching down the field for a winning score. They, as I said, have been taking the name of their game literally, to the nth degree.

A 36 year tour in this theatre of the absurd that is Lions football will reveal that, and quite neatly. For it has been the thumping of foot into ball that has defined the team’s pratfalls and its proclivity to shoot themselves in the, well, foot.

November 8, 1970. The Lions have the New Orleans Saints, a wretched team, down and out – or so it would seem – in the waning seconds, leading 17-16. There is time for a kickoff and perhaps a meaningless play or two, and the Lions will be victors.

They have a kickoff, alright, and a harmless sideline pass for the Saints puts the ball on the New Orleans’ 44 yard line. There are two seconds remaining.

Naturally, Tom Dempsey boots a 63-yard field goal, and the Lions are that day’s gumbo. It’s still the longest field goal (tied in the late-1990’s by Denver’s Jason Elam) in NFL history. And it beat the Lions. Naturally.

Thanksgiving Day, 1980. The Lions are making a playoff push, and have the Chicago Bears down a couple of touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter. These are the Lions of the 4-0 start and the hideous remake of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, with insipid lyrics like “See Billy (Sims) run; You can’t catch him with a gun.”

The recording studio curses them, and now, on Thanksgiving, the Lions are fighting for their playoff lives. But they have that nifty 14-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Yet the recording curse strikes again, and the Bears’ QB, Vince Evans, scrambles for a touchdown on the game’s final play, sending it into overtime.

Naturally, the Bears win the coin toss, and kickoff return man David Williams lopes 95 yards with the pigskin into the Lions’ endzone, without so much as the annoyance of a Lions player touching him. The Lions become the first (and still only) team to lose an overtime game on a kickoff return. Naturally.

New Year’s Eve, 1983. The Lions have become playoff qualifiers for the first time in thirteen seasons, and only the second time in 26 years. And they give the up-and-coming San Francisco 49ers a mighty struggle near the Bay. Despite throwing five interceptions, Lions quarterback Gary Danielson leads a heart-stopping drive in the final frantic minutes. A field goal will win this playoff game, and send the Lions into the NFC Championship round.

Eddie Murray, a fine kicker but not as clutch as his baseball namesake, trots onto the slightly muddy field at Candlestick Park. His leg is 43 yards away from Lions greatness. But the TV cameras catch coach Monte Clark placing his hands together in prayer, looking skyward, moments before Murray’s big kick. And every Lions fan knows that can’t be a good thing.

Naturally, it isn’t. Murray tries to guide the ball too much, instead of “just kicking the stuffing out of it,” as he would say later, and the football skids off to the right, no good. The Lions lose on a kick. Naturally.

Christmas Eve, 2000. It has been a tumultuous year – again – for the Lions. Their coach, Bobby Ross, ups and quits in November. And with a winning record. He commits a self-ziggy, and no Lions coach had done that in the middle of a season. Ever. But the team rallies, sort of, around Gary Moeller, who wears the tag of interim coach – sports’ scarlett letter.

Anyhow, the Lions have maneuvered themselves such that a win over those party-pooping Bears will propel them into the playoffs. And the Bears are not a very good football team in 2000.

Naturally, the Lions throw an ill-timed interception late in the fourth quarter, and the Bears pitty-pat their way into long-range field goal position. And Paul Edinger, with his corkscrew, side-winding style, uncorks a 54-yarder at the final gun. The Lions lose, again on a kick. Naturally.

The 2000 loss to the Bears bumps the Lions out of the playoffs, and ushers in the Matt Millen Era. And crotchety sportswriters like me will forever wonder what would have happened to the franchise if Edinger had missed that kick with his corkscrew leg.

So you see, it is very fitting that the all-time Lions leader in games played is a kicker, Jason Hanson. And it’s also appropriate that the only position in which the team has had any assemblance of sustained stability has been … at kicker. From 1980 to today, the Lions have only employed two kickers who’ve played more than one game for the team: Murray and Hanson. The team’s helmet logo is a rampant lion. It might as well be a silhouette of a placekicker instead.

Those four kicking plays have so defined the Lions, that you hardly need any more of their rap sheet to get a handle on their ineptitude.

In the classic comic strip Peanuts, a running gag was the attempt, by Charlie Brown, to kick a football out of the hold of the conniving Lucy. You know the deal. Ole Chuck forever runs up to the ball, after much convincing by Lucy that she won’t pull it away this time. And, sure enough, Charlie swings his leg and misses, kerplunking onto his back. Every time. The kid never learned.

Maybe a silhouette of Charlie Brown’s round, round head should be the Lions’ new helmet logo, on second thought.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Isiah Returns, And His Ziggy Is Inevitable

Isiah Thomas is in town tonight. Once, he used the Knicks as his defining moment in the NBA. Now, he depends on them for survival. The irony is delicious.

Thomas is coaching the New York Knicks, and God help him. He's also the team's GM, but he's sure to lose both jobs if he doesn't win enough games to please the white collars at Madison Square Garden. And considering what he has to work with, it's safe to say that his resume isn't exactly gathering dust.

He can't even blame his personnel woes on upper management, because he's upper management. Isiah the GM gathered the players for Isiah the coach, and it's because of his less-than-stellar job of doing that, that he finds himself under the "win or else" situation currently.

In April 1984, Thomas went bananas against the Knicks at Joe Louis Arena, in Game 5 of the Pistons' first-round playoff series with the New Yorkers. In that series-deciding game, Thomas scored 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation to bring his team back from a double-digit deficit to force overtime. He fouled out in OT and the Pistons lost, but that game, and Isiah's performance, is often placed on the short list of all-time great NBA playoff moments.

I was there that night, in muggy, packed JLA. Isiah's outburst came out of nowhere, and happened so quickly, that nobody knew how many points he had scored in it, nor in what time frame. But we all knew we had witnessed something extraordinary. Nearly 23 years later, the memories are strong.

But now Thomas is in charge of the misfits and greenhorns who wear Knicks uniforms, and the results have been predictably unpretty. The Knicks are 5 and 11, and a 50+ loss season is not out of the question at all. They may, in fact, come closer to sixty losses than fifty. Which means Thomas will be done like dinner.

He helped create this mess, Isiah Thomas did, and it will go down as another of his post-playing career failures, joining his stint as commissioner of the CBA, GM of the Toronto Raptors, and coach of the Indiana Pacers as experiences that would cause you to wince, should you be shown a rap sheet of them.

It would be tempting to call this job with the Knicks as Isiah's last significant one in the NBA. But television will always be waiting, I'm sure. It's where all the coaches and executives go between league gigs. Only, in Zeke's case, he'd better get himself quite used to wearing an earphone and reading off a TelePrompTer.