Monday, December 31, 2007

The Lions Can't Compete, And That's The Biggest Indictment Of Them All

In all of professional sports, there are plenty of reasons why a franchise cannot get over the hump and have an opportunity to play for the whole enchilada. Bad luck. Injuries. Poor decisions. Free agent busts. A negative culture.

But there is an even greater indictment of an organization, and it can be said of the Detroit Lions today -- as it could be said of them in too many of the past 50 years.

They cannot compete. And I can't think of a worse, more damning statement to levy upon a professional sports team, but there you have it.

The Lions are woefully shy in talent, coaching, and above all, direction from the top.

None of what I've rapped onto this keyboard is news to you, I'm sure, but I just want to make sure folks don't think that simply changing some parts here and there is going to get it done.

I've written it before, but it bears repeating. The Lions will not -- repeat, NOT -- make any headway until this infrastructure is torn apart, from top to bottom, and all of its key parts replaced.

The Lions need their Kenny Holland, their Dave Dambrowski, their Joe Dumars, in the worst way. I've mentioned Mike Holmgren, but that was before I knew that Bill Parcells was making himself available. That the Lions didn't at least place a phone call to Parcells's people is unconscionable. But that ship has sailed, and there are plenty of other good, solid football people that would die for a chance to right the Lions' ship.

Coach Rod Marinelli, I'm afraid, must be sacrificed along with all the others. Talk right now is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be jettisoned. Fine. But not nearly enough. And what of the porous defense of coordinator Joe Barry, the coach's son-in-law? That was far more damaging than the shenanigans Martz pulled -- and he pulled plenty.

Marinelli, in my mind, is writing his own termination papers with the statements he makes. Every time the Lions lose -- and when they lose, they lose BIG -- he confesses to an abject failure in all areas of football: offense, defense, special teams, and worst of all, effort.

"It's on me," is his new favorite comment. It's admirable that he wants to fall on the sword, but sooner or later the person admitting to all this derelict in duty must be shown the door.

Again, not enough. President Matt Millen, clearly, isn't cutting it. If Bill Ford allows Millen to hire a fourth head coach in the face of such a hideous won/loss record, then that surely must be off the charts in terms of continued faith in a front office individual. Only the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, who have somehow kept Elgin Baylor employed for so long, could rival that.

I almost hate to write about the dismissal of Millen, because a) it doesn't appear to be imminent; and b) how many more "Fire Millen" rants can you read or hear, anyway? But this opinion isn't just about releasing Millen -- it's about what to do afterward.

I'll say it again. Millen's greatest failure happened in the wake of taking the Lions' job to begin with. He didn't surround himself with competent, experienced football people. He should NEVER have hired a rookie head coach -- the "blind leading the blind" syndrome. A search committee should have been put together, and someone with NFL head coaching experience should have been brought in. OK, fine. That's in the past. But here's what to do going forward.

As I said, Bill Parcells isn't the only human being who knows a thing or two about finding talent in the NFL. So stop crying over his hiring by the Miami Dolphins. That's water under the bridge. Look instead in Indianapolis, or New England, or Seattle (Holmgren), or even Dallas. Maybe a few other places, where they've either enjoyed sustained success, or have demonstrated an ability to drag a franchise out of the muck. Look at what's happening in Cleveland, for example.

Raid those front offices. Find someone who will lead the Lions in terms of drafting, acquiring pro personnel, and selecting a new head coach. That person should, in turn, delegate those responsibilities to proven NFL people, and oversee them.

Marinelli propped DT Cory Redding up as his pet project. Got him a boat load of money in the process. Marinelli's pedigree is the defensive line. He supposedly had a huge hand in making the Tampa Bay defense so fearsome.

Yet here's what he got from Redding this year: one sack. One.

Again, the coach is doing a great job -- of writing his own epitaph. Another thing that's "on him."

It's not enough to replace Rod Marinelli. Only a fool would think that that is the panacea.

A fool like .... Bill Ford Sr., perhaps?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things Rich Rodriguez Should Know About U-M Football)

Other Things The Chicago Bulls Need To Do To Regain Respectability (Besides Firing Scott Skiles)

1. Activate Scott Skiles

2. See if Scottie Pippen is still interested in that comeback attempt, after all

3. Order mandatory 'fros on every player -- even the white guys

4. Feature Ben Wallace more in the offense

5. Move to the Eastern Confer -- oh ... never mind

6. Every Ben Wallace free throw made is now worth three points

7. Hire Devin Hester to lead the fast break

8. Eddie Sutton isn't available, but how about Dick Motta?

9. Treat all visiting clubs to a free night of drinking on Rush Street the night before games

10. See if Roger Clemens can score them some 'roids

11. Change the new PR strategy to "What happens to the Bulls in Chicago, STAYS in Chicago"

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

While Their Competition Crumbles Around Them, The Pistons Stand Tall And Rock Solid

Taking a walk through the NBA's Eastern Conference graveyard...

There lies the Miami Heat, former NBA champions. Once the only serious challengers to the Pistons for conference supremacy. See their grave marker -- the one that says "We flamed out too soon." Don't walk too close, lest you disturb the fresh soil.

Over here lies the Chicago Bulls -- once up-and-coming heirs. A signing of free agent Ben Wallace was to make them elite and conference dynamos. Now their burial plot includes that of their ex-coach, who was just lowered into the ground on Monday.

Here we have the Cleveland Cavaliers, who deteriorated quickly. No LeBron James for a few weeks, and so they proved to be about as deep as a children's wading pool. Better get out the stethoscope, though -- for there may be a heartbeat inside that casket after all.

A little further along and you'll see the headstone belonging to the Indiana Pacers, who at one time gave the Pistons fits when Detroit was on its way to the NBA Finals. Then Reggie Miller retired, Ron Artest went sideways and was traded, and then they dismantled the team, pretty much. Beneath these daisies lie a mostly-decomposed corpse of a conference threat.

And here, on our way out of the cemetery, lies the New Jersey Nets. They, once upon a time, represented the conference two years in a row in the NBA Finals. Somewhere around here floats the ghost of one Brian Scalabrine, who torched the Pistons one night in the playoffs, back in 2004. But the Nets are as stiff as a board now, and you won't have to worry about them poking their head up thru the ground.

Only two are left standing now, for all intents and purposes: the resilient, Freddy Krueger-like Pistons, and the re-animated Boston Celtics. The Orlando Magic may now take a step backwards, thank you -- for they are not to be included in this select group.

It's amazing how far the Eastern Conference powers have fallen, and how quickly. They keep toppling, and the Pistons just look down at them all, both bemused and appreciative at what is going on around them.

Next up for the Detroiters are the Nets, who have a decent trio in Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Vince Carter, but who yet cannot even touch the .500 mark. Once, a Pistons-Nets regular season game was worth checking out. Now, it only proves interesting if the Nets can manage to make a game of it -- or possibly get lucky enough to win.

Clearly it's the Celtics who now are the Pistons' biggest challengers, and that's a nice, retro way to ring in 2008. The Celts invade The Palace a week from Saturday, a couple weeks after the Pistons drew first blood in Boston. It'll be one of those rare NBA regular season tilts in January that you'll want to sit through.

If the Pistons' continued success -- when all their challengers have fallen like dominoes -- isn't enough to convince you that they're one of the best organizations in pro basketball, then you'll just never get it. It takes more than just talent to remain the cream. You need direction, smart decisions, commitment, and, admittedly, some luck. The Pistons have had all of those things, and today they sit at 20-7 -- a 60-win pace, when many of their contemporaries can't see .500 without a telescope.

So remember all this the next time you yelp that the Pistons haven't "done anything lately."

They've done plenty.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Woody Demonstrates Lions' Skewed View Of NFL Life

Lions guard-tackle Damien Woody summed up, perfectly, the misguided mindset of his team after yesterday's 25-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We haven't won in a month and a half," Woody said. "So it (win) came at a good time. Right around the holidays, so I feel good for everybody."

NOW? NOW is a good time for this win?

What about in Arizona? Or at home against the Giants? Or in Minnesota? Or even when Dallas was in town?

All of those, I submit, would have been a better time for the Lions' seventh win of 2007. Not yesterday, the Lions already mathematically and systematically eliminated from playoff contention.

But hey -- it's the holidays so it's great to win.

And that, dear readers, is why the Lions won't ever be successful -- unless there's a complete and total personality transplant.

You wouldn't hear Rasheed Wallace -- or any of his teammates -- utter such a thing, about feeling good to win after a six-game losing streak crippled the team's playoff chances. You couldn't get such a quote from Nick Lidstrom, or Curtis Granderson. Nor from any other player who plays for any other sports franchise that has any sort of culture of winning in its blood.

I'm not dogging Damien Woody for feeling relief after winning for the first time since November 4. But to say that it comes "at a great time" is asking us to suspend disbelief yet again when it comes to the Lions.

Fitting, too, was the play of Shaun Rogers -- who I definitely dogged yesterday. Fitting that he should burst out and leap from the side of a milk carton and into the fray, when the games are now meaningless. Did his solid play come at a "great time", too?

No, there was nothing great, good, or even tolerable about the timing of win no. 7 this season. It should have come weeks ago, and if just one measly win had been forged since the 44-7 romp over the Denver Broncos, the Lions would probably have something to play for in Green Bay next Sunday other than a .500 record.

Actually, since the Lions never win in Green Bay, probably two victories since the Denver game would have been needed to maybe give the Honolulu Blue a cushion, allowing them to lose to the Packers and still be in the playoffs. But Lucky Seven didn't come until the record was 6-8, and so there you have it.

I even wonder if we wouldn't be talking about a Cal-like win by the Chiefs had their ball carrier not dove into the turf, inexplicably, at the Lions' 30-yard line during the game's final play. A couple more laterals and ... who knows?

The Lions finished 5-3 at home. Whoop-de-do. They started 4-0 at Ford Field, so even their home record is a microcosm of the season at large.

I also know this: there are a whole bunch of chortling fans out there today -- the ones who told us this would happen, even when the Lions sat pretty at 6-2. Sports talk radio was crawling with them.

"7-9! They need to prove more to me!", was a typical call.

Those folks were right.

How about this gem from earlier this season, courtesy of receiver Mike Furrey.

"The Lions are 4-2! Y'all can kiss my ass!"

It was meant for the reporters, yelled in the locker room after the win over Tampa Bay.

OK, Mike. Ready?

The Lions are 7-8! You can plant one between my back pockets, too.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Give Big Baby His Rattle And Send Him Home (And Not Just Him)

The desperate pass landed square into the mammoth torso of Shaun Rogers, and the football stuck to him like Velcro. Off he went, rambling some 60 yards or so toward the Denver Broncos goal line, falling into the end zone, his 360 pounds (or more) crashing onto the turf. He was gassed, but he had scored. The crowd roared, and Ford Field was rocking with Rogers’ score putting an exclamation mark on an improbable 44-7 win.

That was November 4. And Rogers is still gassed, seven weeks later.

They call Rogers, the Lions’ defensive tackle, Big Baby. I’m not sure how he got that moniker, but there is something frightfully ironic about it. Somewhere in the barrel of goo that is him, there’s a joke to be made about that nickname. But the joke, I’m afraid, is on all of us. Has been for quite a while now.

Shaun Rogers was one of President Matt Millen’s rare competent draft picks, back in 2001. Ever since he entered the league, Rogers has, when he has cared to, been a dominant force along the line of scrimmage. He just hasn’t cared to all that much, or all that often. Now it seems evident that he simply can’t anymore, this season.

The Lions have not gone on this six-game losing skid because of Rogers, that’s for sure. But he hasn’t done them any favors, either. He reached the zenith of his season in that Broncos game, when he was that player that he could sometimes be – a beast inside, making tackles, disrupting plays.

In a fit of excitement, having been duped by Rogers in the Denver game, I served up some sugar about Big Baby the next day on the Internet, for all who cared to visit to lap up:

Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers is beginning to play the kind of defensive football that gets people into Pro Bowls unanimously and makes quarterbacks and offensive coordinators curl into the fetal position...
Watching the 350+ pound Rogers racing toward pay dirt, the football looking like an M&M in his hands, while the crowd swelled and a roar grew with each of his pounding strides, was a watershed moment, at least in the Matt Millen Era. Rogers was among the first players Millen drafted, in 2001, and here he was, a behemoth running like a DB toward the end zone. The Lions already had the game well in hand, but Rogers' touchdown will be one talked about for years.

And as if all that blather wasn’t embarrassing enough, there was this line:

Big Baby could own Detroit.

What a fool I was!

Eight games is half a season. The Lions moved to 6-2 with their lopsided win over the Broncos, who were in disarray at the time. Another decent half, and the Lions would make the playoffs.
How could they not, with Big Baby shaking his rattle so?

Six losses later, the Lions’ season is over. The fact that the end has come in December as opposed to October, as in previous campaigns, is not cause for celebration.

Neither is the deterioration of Rogers’ overweight, woefully out of shape body.

Rogers, winded as usual; this may have been taken after the second play of the game for all we know

Every week, Rogers gets shuttled in and out of the lineup more and more often. It’s impossible not to figure out what’s going on. Big Baby needs another nap.

Coach Rod Marinelli tried like the dickens to ensure that this wouldn’t happen. He knew that, last season, Rogers was carrying too much girth. So in training camp, he allowed Rogers to work at his own pace, in his own way. Perhaps, the coach reasoned, this wide berth would keep Rogers fresher as the season wore on. Marinelli made the mistake of treating Big Baby like a grown man.

Oh, Rogers is grown, alright – fully grown, and then some. He’s a shameful excuse for a football player right now – stealing his paycheck while he can barely keep upright for more than three or four plays in a row. He peaked in his team’s eighth game, and has been as invisible as a 360-pound fraud can be, ever since.

“I’m in a slump,” was how Rogers recently and casually tried to explain away his disappearing act since the Denver game.

It’s more plausible that the fact that you can barely fit him into a piano box is what’s causing Rogers’s hideous play of late.

Yet the Lions, and even some of their fans, seem reluctant to bid farewell to Rogers. They chew on their fingernails, afraid that as soon as he’s out of Detroit, Shaun Rogers will become a consistent, useful force for another NFL team.

I’ll take my chances.

Truth? I don’t care if Rogers turns into the second coming of Deacon Jones, Reggie White, and Bruce Smith wrapped into one. I don’t care if he makes the Pro Bowl every year until he retires. He needs to go. Goodness gracious, accountability needs to start somewhere.

If that’s all that’s keeping him here – the fear that he could fulfill his potential elsewhere – then that’s not enough justification. What keeps a football player on your roster should be what he’s done – not what he could do for someone else.

The Lions are paying Rogers a lot of dough to gasp and wheeze on every other play. They may as well pay him some more to leave town entirely.

It’s not just Rogers, so you know. He’s only a symptom. It’s clear that the Lions need to start all over again – blowing this thing up. Nobody should be untouchable, save perhaps the rookie receiver Calvin Johnson. Millen, Marinelli, and everyone in between should be shown the door. It pains me to say that about the coach, because I truly believed that the Lions had found the right man when they hired Marinelli from Tampa Bay two years ago.

But every week, Marinelli falls on the sword, taking the blame for his team’s lack of readiness to play that Sunday’s game. “It’s on me,” is his new favorite line in describing the latest massacre played out on the football field.

Then if it’s always on you, coach, I suppose you should be replaced.

Get rid of them all, I say.

Bill Parcells was just hired by the Miami Dolphins as an executive. It was reported that the Atlanta Falcons had tried to hire him, too, but the Dolphins got the nod. The Dolphins are 1-13. Yet Parcells saw something in Miami.

The Lions didn’t place a telephone call, despite presumably knowing that the well-regarded Parcells was shopping his services. There are those who say that Parcells could have been had, if the Lions had cared to get involved. They are 30-80 in the Matt Millen Era.

They deserve Shaun Rogers, come to think of it.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Hidden Microphone: Stram Wore It Well In Super Bowl IV

If ever an NFL head coach was made for NFL Films microphones, it was Hank Stram.

Stram, the late coach and TV and radio analyst, was the Kansas City Chiefs' first-ever coach, back when the team played in Dallas in the AFL under the name Texans. He was a close friend of owner Lamar Hunt (himself recently deceased), and was the franchise's only coach until he was dismissed following the 1974 season -- after 15 years of service.

Stram's on-field trademarks were the rolled up program he kept clutched in his hand, and the staid coat and tie he wore -- often with a red vest underneath. Sometimes he donned a hat, too.

But another of Stram's traits was that he was one of the most affable coaches in league history. It also served him well in the broadcast booth.

All this is why the marriage of Stram and NFL Films was a rock solid one.

The most famous sound bites occurred in Super Bowl IV -- when Stram's Chiefs took on the Minnesota Vikings in January, 1970.

Perhaps you've seen the clips. One of the most famous was when a crucial first down measurement was performed directly in front of the Chiefs sidelines.

"No, he's alright!," Stram shouts when Vikings players protest the placement of the ball for the measurement. Then, after the referee signals "first down," Stram launches into his most famous sound bite ever.

"Thatta boy! You marked it good! You marked it good! Helluva job! You marked it good! That's a great job! You marked it good!"

But the most precious bite happens when a side judge zings Stram wonderfully.

"How can all of you miss a play like that?," Stram asks the zebra.

"What play, coach?"

"The ball arrived before we made contact, and -- "

"Oh," the official interrupts. "I thought you meant the play where you're standing on the field illegally."

"No!," Stram says, then adds, "WHAT?"

Good stuff.

Doesn't get much more enduring than this: Stram being carted off the field after Super Bowl IV

Stram's Chiefs won that day, evening the AFL's record against the NFL at 2-2 in Super Bowls. The leagues would merge the following season. Another famous image is that of Stram, still clutching his rolled up program, grinning broadly on the shoulders of his players as he's carried off the field.

Stram went on to coach the New Orleans Saints in 1976, and he seemed to have some tools. The QB was Archie Manning, the running backs were "Thunder and Lightning" -- Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath -- and the situation looked promising in the bayou. But Manning missed the season with a shoulder injury, the receiving corps was weak, and the defense was very suspect. After just two seasons in New Orleans, Stram was canned. TV and radio beckoned.

But unbeknownst to him, Hank Stram's communications career got a start when he donned a microphone in Super Bowl IV.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things That Have to Happen for the Lions to Make the Playoffs)

Things That Rich Rodriguez Should Know About U-M Football

1. The Big House isn't a state penitentiary -- unless the University of Florida cames to visit.

2. That's the word "hail" in the fight song lyrics -- not "hell" with a West Virginia twang.

3. The excuses for losing will always include a confused defense, an erratic offense, and officiating -- not necessarily in that order.

4. No, even the natives don't know what the heck that is on the football helmets.

5. Please win the opener, because Bo Schembechler's grave is only now starting to come to a rest after the Appalachian State loss last September.

6. Les WHO?

7. Greg WHO? (insert either Schiano or Eno here)

8. There ARE similarities between Michigan and West Virginia. In WV, you have dark, cold, deep, spooky mines. In Michigan, you have the walk from Joe Louis Arena to your car.

9. Please have patience inserting your new offense. At U-M, the only "spread" they know is the pre-game tailgate.

10. Don't worry so much about beating Ohio State, so long as you run a clean, ethical program. And while you're at it, don't be signing any mortgage in Ann Arbor longer than five years.

11. I'd rethink that whole "Coach Rod" nickname if I were you; at least wait until the Lions coach gets the ziggy.

12. Double-check to see whether Tom Brady has any weeks of eligibility left. You never know.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Institutions Of Higher Earning

(note: this column was written Saturday, before U-M hired Rich Rodriguez. It was supposed to run on Sunday)

Wanna know when a college football coach is thinking of leaving the school he’s coaching at currently? When he says things like, “I’m very happy where I’m at. I have no desire to leave.” Then you know you got him dead to rights.

This is the time of the year when you can cue the phonograph and begin the game of musical chairs in campus football – between the regular season and the bowl games. Those fired have been canned weeks ago. Those mulling a change of venue are in the peak time of mulling. Some coaches drop their current employer like a bad habit and flee to greener pastures – pun intended. And those schools without a coach can find themselves engaged in very public, very awkward searches. But more about Michigan later.

It’s been going on for decades, this blarney from the college football coach.

Why, in our backyard practically – in Ann Arbor and East Lansing – one man rose above the whispers and rumors, while the other issued denials until the jig was up.

In the early 1980s, Texas A&M was very sweet on Bo Schembechler, who was in the prime of adding to his legend at Michigan. The courtship started the usual way – thru hush-hush conversations and rampant speculation.

But Bo would have none of the media circus that can surround such wooing. Before we knew what hit us, Schembechler went public, spilling the beans: Texas A&M had come calling, and was waving some serious bucks in his face. And this: Yes, I considered it, Bo said. Seriously. But in the end, he couldn’t bear to leave Ann Arbor and his kids. Not even for more dough.

The story had ended not long after it began.

A couple years earlier, Darryl Rogers was coaching at Michigan State. He was a popular flavor, having lifted the once-moribund Spartans to a co-Big Ten title in 1978. He had beaten Michigan that year, not long after calling the folks in Ann Arbor “arrogant asses.” Other schools looked at Rogers and got some ideas.

Rogers, presumably NOT cleaning out his office in East Lansing (but we know better)

One of those institutions was Arizona State.

But unlike what Schembechler would do later, Rogers went into denial mode – once the story broke that the college in the desert was showing some interest, that is.

The denials were rather stringent in their tone – almost defiant. No way, Rogers told us, would he ever leave MSU for Arizona State University.

No way.

The story picked up some steam, and the cat seemed to be out of the bag: Rogers would be, indeed, the new coach at ASU.

But the coach still declared the reports fiction.

He did so, in fact, until just hours before he stepped onto a podium on the Sun Devil campus, introduced as ASU’s new coach.

It was wondered how much longer Rogers felt he could get away with his denials, which were considerably less truthful than the stories he was refuting.

Several years later, in 1985, the Lions, it was reported, were seriously considering plucking a college coach to lead their team. Monte Clark had been given the ziggy after seven years. Maybe the new coach, he of the college pedigree, could bring the team out of its morass.

But the college coach pooh-poohed the rumors. He was perfectly happy where he was, thank you. No way would he be leaving for the NFL, to coach the Detroit Lions.

No way.

One day after feeding us some more denials, Darryl Rogers stood before the lights and cameras at the Pontiac Silverdome, grinning that crooked grin of his, accepting the offer of a clearly misguided Bill Ford Sr.

One afternoon at practice, three years and some change later, Rogers would stare at the ceiling in the Dome and wonder aloud, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

I thought of Rogers as I watched the Bobby Petrino ordeal play out.

Petrino, happily ensconced as the football coach at Louisville University this time last year, issued the typical denials as rumors bobbed to the surface that the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons were knocking on his door. The usual “I’m happy here” blather.

Then he went and signed with the Falcons – a five-year commitment.

I’m not sure what he told Falcons owner Arthur Blank, but it must have been quite a bill of goods, because there were many more, better qualified candidates than Petrino for that job.
Last Monday night, Petrino coached the Falcons to a very uninspiring loss on national television. His record sat at 3-10.

The next morning, he was on a plane to Arkansas, being introduced as the Razorbacks’ new coach. Just like that.

He left a brief letter in the stalls of his players. It had all the warmth of an employer’s rejection note.

Bobby Petrino had quit on his team, and had fed a bunch of blarney to his owner.

The comments from the Falcons players included words like “classless” and “not what a man does” and “I have no respect for someone like that.” Some of them were uttered even as the locker room TV beamed images of a smiling Petrino at an Arkansas pep rally.

Now I also think of Nick Saban, who assured the Miami Dolphins last winter that he was going to be their coach for a good long while. Less than 24 hours after the most recent “assurance”, Saban took the job at Alabama. Among those blasting him for his blarney was longtime Dolphins coach Don Shula – whose son David was the one being replaced by Saban at ‘Bama.

Michigan, twice rejected – that we know of – is now wining and dining Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia. Unfortunately for the Maize and Blue, the two men they’ve pursued the most – Les Miles from LSU and Greg Schiano from Rutgers – have made good on their denials, and are staying put. Bo Schembechler all over again – in reverse.

Former Pistons coach Butch van Breda Kolff said it best, and the most succinctly. Having just signed a contract extension with the Pistons in 1971, VBK was unimpressed when reporters asked for his comment.

“Hell, they can always fire you. And you can quit if you want to.”

Care to argue with that?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lions Need To Start All Over (Maybe With Holmgren?)

First, let me thank DirecTV. They tried to spare me.

For almost an hour after kickoff of yesterday's Lions-Chargers game, DirecTV lost their over-the-air channels, probably due to the bad weather. These included Fox 2, which was showing the Lions. Even my fancy-shmancy NFL Sunday Ticket couldn't help me, because it blacks out games scheduled to air on local channels.

So when the game finally appeared after the technical glitch, the Fox Bar scoreboard along the top of the screen told me that I hadn't missed much -- unless you count 17 Charger points as something worth seeing. So I watched a few minutes, and called it a day.

But today's post isn't about yesterday's game. What is there, really, to say? The Lions are tanking, freefalling like a lead balloon. So best to talk about the future, and to do that it's necessary to analyze the pasts of the other three, more successful teams in town.

I was thinking about this last evening. Why have the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons been able to find success? How have they done it?

Red Wings. They may not live up to the hype every spring, but for about 15 years now, you've been able to look at the Red Wings as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as every playoff has begun -- sometimes they've been the odds-on favorite. Think about that for a moment. Fifteen straight seasons of being considered a possible champion every April. No team in any other sport can say such a thing -- not for 15 straight years, anyway.

How have they done it?

Drafting, scouting, free agency, trades. These are the elements of any personnel department. And the Red Wings have excelled in every area at various times in the '90s and '00s. Have they made some mistakes? Sure. But few of them. Their work in Europe and Sweden has been exemplary. It sounds simple, but one of the reasons the Red Wings have been so good is because they've had some pretty damn good players come through Detroit. And those players were an amalgam of drafts, trades (especially those deadline deals), and free agency -- almost in equal distribution. Amazing.

Coaching. This happened in stages. Jacques Demers took the team to a certain level. Bryan Murray nudged them forward a bit more -- at least in terms of regular season success. Then, finally, Scotty Bowman was brought in to finish things off. Then, after two disappointing playoffs, Dave Lewis was let go and enter Mike Babcock. Today, the Red Wings are again the elite of the league.

Pistons. A bold, sometimes brazen mindset in Auburn Hills, led by President Joe Dumars, has spelled the rise of the Pistons to elite status.

Personnel moves. The Rasheed Wallace trade was one many GMs would have been afraid to make. Not being afraid to admit mistakes and trade bad draft picks like Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White. Letting Ben Wallace flee (wisely). Constantly tweaking the supporting cast. Taking a flyer on Chris Webber. Finding gems like Tayshaun Prince and, it appears, Jason Maxiell. Blending youth in with experience (Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson). Basically, being just restless enough in this area -- and never truly being satisfied.

Coaching. Firing Rick Carlisle (after two 50-win seasons) and bringing in Larry Brown was bold. So was letting Brown go, despite two straight trips to the Finals. Hiring playoff-challenged Flip Saunders wasn't without its risks. Yet the Pistons have managed to make five straight trips to the Conference Finals. Not too shabby.

Tigers. As with the Red Wings and Pistons, boldness and a commitment of money by ownership has turned the Tigers into a powerhouse ballclub.

Personnel. Getting Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, and Fernando Vina to sign here after a 119-loss season was off the charts. Though White and Vina were hardly All-Stars in Detroit, their signings nonetheless made the Tigers relevant again. If nothing else, those guys, plus the acquisition of Carlos Guillen later on, put some bona fide big leaguers on the roster once again.

Since then, the team has fleeced others for Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Renteria, and of course the blockbuster trade with the Marlins a couple weeks ago was another feather in the Tigers' baseball caps. Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson were throw-ins from other trades, believe it or not. Marcus Thames was stolen. For every Neifi Perez trade, there've been many more good ones.

Scouting has brought Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, Brandon Inge, and new potential ace Rick Porcello. And it has helped the Tigers stockpile bargaining chips to use in the aforementioned trades.

Free agency has been used mostly wisely. Vina was a bust (due to injuries), and so was Troy Percival (for the same reason). But other signings have yielded Kenny Rogers, Magglio Ordonez,
and Rodriguez.

Coaching/managing. Do the Tigers go to the World Series in 2006 with any other manager than Jim Leyland? I wouldn't wager on it.

How far the Tigers have come in four years is unreal. Basically, since 2003 they've gone from national embarrassment to possibly the best team in baseball. They reached the Series three years after the 119-loss campaign.

OK, so what is the common denominator here?

The One.


The One is the person who's presided over all these successful machinations. The Red Wings' resurgence started with owner Mike Ilitch's very first hire: former Islanders super scout Jimmy Devellano. Jimmy D. had a rough first few years as he found his footing, but then he hired Demers, and the franchise was reborn. Devellano was also the driving force behind the team hiring Bowman in 1993. A steady, efficient front office was started with Devellano's hiring, and has led to unheard-of stability. The trio of Ilitch, Devellano, and current GM Ken Holland have been together forever, it seems. Bowman's stint as coach/GM was wildly successful, and the passing of the torch to Holland, promoted after the 1997 Cup, was seamless.

So right now Holland is The One for the Red Wings, but he was set up for success by the work of Jimmy D. and Bowman, who were each The One in their own time.

The Pistons have Joe Dumars as The One. The team was treading water when Dumars stepped out of his basketball sneakers and into the wing-tipped shoes of an executive, back in 2000. Dumars then began acting as if he was born to be a GM. It was spooky, how good he was right out of the gate. Reminded me of Jerry West, but even West served as coach for a few years before rising to GM status. Dumars is almost making more noise as a GM than he did as a player -- and this is a Hall of Famer and FInals MVP we're talking about here.

The Tigers were going absolutely nowhere until they hired Dave Dombrowski in November 2001. After a rough start (mainly because of what he inherited) that included the 43-119 bottoming out, DD has been King Midas.

Dombrowski is clearly The One for the Tigers. I shudder to think where the franchise would be if Ilitch followed up the Randy Smith Era with another bad GM hire.

The Lions. I'm not trying to be funny or a smart ass here, but the Lions have possessed NONE of the stuff I've talked about here that breeds success in professional sports. No boldness, no guts. Wanna know the difference between boldness and foolishness?

Hiring Scotty Bowman was bold. Making Joe Dumars a GM so soon after his playing days was bold. Luring Dombrowski from Florida and giving him complete control was bold. Hiring Leyland to manage after seven years away from it was bold.

But being bold means taking calculated risks. It doesn't mean just doing something out of the box for kicks.

Hiring Matt Millen from the broadcast booth wasn't bold. It was foolish. There was nothing calculated or researched about it. The only thing that would have made it bold was if Millen was brought in with the mandate to immediately surround himself with sound, solid football people. If he was ordered to form a coaching search committee consisting of such minds. Then maybe it's a bold move. Instead it was just plain misguided. It created excitement for a while, but that doesn't have long shelf life if the clothes have no emperor.

Personnel? HA! Poor drafts, questionable (at best) free agent signings, and curious trades have made the Lions the antithesis of their three sports neighbors in Detroit.

Coaching? Bad hires here, of course. But the Tigers (Luis Pujols, Phil Garner), Red Wings (Harry Neale, Brad Park), and Pistons (Alvin Gentry, George Irvine) have all had their warts in this department, too. But they were able to learn from those mistakes. The Lions have been making strange coaching hires since 1974. And as much as I want to like Rod Marinelli, this current six-game slide/surrender has made me wonder about him, too.

Lack of The One. The Lions have never, EVER, come close to employing The One. I hate to say it, but you really have to go all the way back to Nick Kerbaway, GM of the 1950s, to find The One. Russ Thomas lasted way longer than Matt Millen has, but his decades of tenure produced nothing. Since Thomas, the Lions have been managed by Chuck Schmidt (please), Jerry Vainisi (he was never given a real chance), and now Millen. Ugh.

You win in any sport with good players, I understand that. But someone has to procure these players, no?

So here's the deal: the Lions will never mimic the rise of the Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers (all of whom were in the depths of their sports at one time or another) unless they do one of two things -- have a change in ownership, or a change in paradigm. Since the former is unlikely, then let's look at the latter.

The Lions need to find The One. Somewhere out there in the NFL, such a person exists. I believe that. Is he a former player? Unlikely, especially if we're talking recent former player. It's asking a lot to expect a recently-retired player to become a successful NFL GM. Dumars did it, but the NBA is different than the NFL. Far fewer players, for one.

Is he a former GM? Well, maybe, but hopefully not one who's been out of the league too long.

Most likely, The One is employed by another NFL team currently, possibly as an assistant GM or in a similar position in the personnel department. What I would do is look at perennially successful teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Colts, and maybe even the Cowboys and raid their front office for their bright, young executives.

I don't know as many front office types in the NFL as I do in other sports, so I don't have a lot of actual names to throw around here. So in lieu of that, I mention traits and backgrounds.

But if you want a name, here's one: Mike Holmgren.

If you can get him out of his contract in Seattle, maybe Holmgren would come here as a GM-only guy. If he feels he has the coaching bug out of his system, that is. He's still young enough, he clearly has been around winning organizations, and he's made sound personnel moves in his career. Just a thought.

Matt Millen obviously isn't The One. And the Lions will continue to wallow until they find that person. Because it all begins there -- as the other teams in town have illustrated.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some Things Shouldn't Be -- And One Of Them Is Johnny Unitas As A Charger

They are some of the strangest sights in sports. Some live in my memory as moving images, flickering snippets of film from my youth. Others are stills -- some in color, others in black-and-white.

The out-of-place athlete, is what I'm talking about.

Bobby Orr in a Chicago Blackhawks uniform. Tony Dorsett as a Bronco. Emmitt Smith as a Cardinal. Wade Boggs as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray. Even Raymond Bourque as a Colorado Avalanche -- made even more auspicious by him hoisting the Stanley Cup in those threads after two decades as a Boston Bruin.

But here's maybe the most square peg in a round hole when it comes to this stuff: Johnny Unitas wearing the powder blue and gold of the San Diego Chargers.

It happened in 1973. Johnny U, he of the black high-top shoes and conservative, meat-and-potatoes uniform of the Baltimore Colts for so many years, was cut loose by the Colts following the '72 season. A young man named Marty Domres was going to be his replacement.

But Unitas wasn't done playing ball -- at least not in his mind. And the Chargers, stuck in a valley of losing, were gathering fading former stars to help them teach the youngsters what being an NFL player was all about.

Deacon Jones, John Mackey, Lionel Aldridge, and others found themselves wearing lightining bolts on their hemets in this time frame. And now here came Unitas, fresh off 17 seasons in Baltimore -- a 40-year-old quarterback that would play behind a porous offensive line. Usually not a good combination.

It wasn't.

Unitas under pressure (as usual) as a Charger in Pittsburgh

I remember seeing some old NFL Films footage of Unitas on Opening Day, getting pummeled by the Washington Redskins. Because not only was Johnny's o-line betraying, but Unitas himself was horribly immobile. On one particular play, the protection broke down and Unitas, almost pathetically, seemed to not be able to control his feet. He stumbled over himself, and he wasn't so much sacked as he was touched after collapsing to the turf. It reminded me of Willie Mays playing centerfield in the 1973 World Series as a 42-year-old, with as much dexterity as someone playing the position on a waterbed.

It wasn't long before Unitas was benched. He threw 76 passes as a Charger, completing less than half, and seven of those were intercepted. Another young quarterback would claim the starting role, just as Domres had in Baltimore. In San Diego, the young arm belonged to someone named Dan Fouts.

Unitas, incredibly, came back in 1974, albeit briefly. He worked out with the Chargers for a few days, then mercifully decided he was done. No more would we be subjected to the sight of one of the all-time greats playing poorly in an ill-fitting uniform.

Johnny Unitas as a San Diego Charger. One of the most surreal times in sports, if you ask me.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things That Could Derail The Patriots' Bid To Go 16-0)

Things That Have To Happen For The Lions To Make The Playoffs

1. Finish the season 3-0. May as well list the most unlikely thing first.

2. Finish the season 2-1. May as well list the second most unlikely thing second.

3. Finish the season 2-1 and hope the rest of the NFC loses all their games from here on out. This is still more likely to happen than No. 1.

4. Hire Wayne Fontes as interim coach. Don't laugh. Wayne-O batted .500 in making the playoffs in his eight full seasons.

5. Bring in Bobby Ross, Monte Clark, and Marty Mornhinweg to make an impassioned, "See you at the cemetery because while the bar is high, I don't coach that stuff!" speech.

6. Induce labor so Shaun Rogers can finally pop out that Big Baby that he's carrying.

7. Put Mike Furrey and Calvin Johnson on milk cartons, pronto.

8. Wish that we could do the same with Mike Martz.

9. Find Notre Dame's "Rudy" and have him give the Lions' kickoff cover team a pep talk.

10. Hope that George Mitchell's steroids report somehow includes the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Redskins.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Maturity As A Baseball Owner Came Slowly For Ilitch

It was a blustery November day in 1995, and we in the media were herded into the Tigers annex, on Michigan Avenue, east of the old ballpark – the site of the old Lions offices, when the football team played in Detroit the first time.

There we were to be introduced to the Tigers’ new general manager – the man who might do for them what Jimmy Devellano did for the Red Wings. The baseball owner had struck gold with the hiring of rink rat Jimmy D. from the thrice-Stanley Cupped New York Islanders – his first hire after buying the hockey club in the summer of 1982. Now, in his third year of baseball ownership, Michael Ilitch was finally going to put the right man in charge of the front office, after some brutal work by several predecessors.

Pizza was Ilitch's game, but baseball (and hockey) wouldn't come as easily

On our seats were photocopies of a press release, ruining the surprise of the identity of the man behind the curtain.

32-year-old Randy Smith, tanned and looking very un-Detroit but very California, stepped into view after a brief introduction as we read of his accomplishments, thanks to the rhetoric distributed by the front office lackeys.

The new general manager, his equally-tanned and also very-California young wife at his side, spoke of the challenges that lie ahead.

Smith was a baseball brat, the son of longtime major league executive Tal Smith. Too untalented to play the game, all Randy wanted to do was run a big league team someday, just like his dad.
He got his chance, becoming the youngest GM in baseball history with the San Diego Padres. Hence the tan in November.

One of Smith’s first tasks as Tigers GM was to hire a manager to replace Sparky Anderson, shoved into retirement by the Ilitch family after 17 years in Detroit.

Did it matter, it was asked, if the new manager had big league experience?

The questioner was me, asking it when the more crotchety writers ran out of tangible things to say, which didn’t take long.

Smith looked at me thru the bright TV lights, fiddling with some notes in front of him.

“I think,” he began, “that that would be a priority ... more than likely, yes.”

He didn’t sound too sure of himself.

Smith ended up hiring Buddy Bell, and the Tigers promptly lost 109 games in 1996, with some of the worst pitching in big league history. Bell had no previous big league managing experience. Must not have been much of a priority, after all.

Jimmy Devellano had some growing pains as Red Wings general manager. He rolled into town with his typically ill-fitting necktie and squeaky Canadian voice, proudly proclaiming that “As long as Jimmy Devellano is general manager of the Detroy-et Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Jimmy D. made good on his word, but his attempts to bring the moribund Red Wings back from the dead with the signing of aging veterans and untested college free agents failed miserably. In his fourth season, the Red Wings won 17 games and gave up over 400 goals – an average of over five per game.

But Devellano got it right eventually, hiring Jacques Demers as coach and watching his first-ever draft choice blossom into team captain by age 21. The draft choice was a center named Steve Yzerman.

Randy Smith wasn’t the Tigers’ Jimmy Devellano after all. Not even close. One week into his seventh season in Detroit, Smith was fired by new president Dave Dombrowski, who assumed the GM duties. Smith, to this day, hasn’t come close to another big league executive position.

By the time Smith was canned, Ilitch was roundly viewed by the denizens around town as a hockey-first owner who didn’t put the time or the money into the Tigers. More dough – literally and figuratively, was going into Ilitch’s pizza empire and his hockey team than was making its way to Comerica Park.

After the Tigers lost a mind-boggling 119 games in 2003, Ilitch’s reputation as an incompetent when it came to baseball ownership was at its zenith. The Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups under his watch, yet the Tigers were a national embarrassment. How could this be? How could he get it so right in one sport, and so horribly wrong in another?

It wasn’t known at the time, but Ilitch had gotten it very right, indeed, with the baseball team when he hired Dombrowski from the Florida Marlins in 2001.

Last week, the Tigers pulled off an earth-shattering trade with those Marlins, acquiring multiple All-Stars Miguel Cabrera (3B) and Dontrelle Willis (LHP) for six prospects. The deal added about $20 million to the Tigers’ payroll, which could reach $130+ million in 2008. Two seasons ago the Tigers made the World Series with a team that’s perhaps 60-70% as strong as the one they will field next summer.

Funny, but nobody calls Mike Ilitch a hockey-only owner anymore.

Nobody wonders why he won’t spend in baseball. Nobody complains about his bad hires in the front office. Nobody questions his judgment in the game that he loves and played at the minor league level. Nobody wonders why he just won’t sell the team and cut his losses.

They used to wonder all those things, and not all that long ago.

Dombrowski, who turned out to be Ilitch's baseball Devellano

It took Ilitch about nine years to mature as a top-flight baseball owner, a little longer than the half-dozen years it took him to figure out what he was doing in the NHL. Yet the first Stanley Cup didn’t arrive until the 15th season of his ownership. He just completed his 15th full season with the Tigers.

Because of the trade this week with Florida, which follows trades for Jacque Jones and Edgar Renteria earlier this off-season, many feel the Tigers are the team to beat in ’08. Not just in their division. Not just in their league. But in all of baseball.

And Ilitch is now considered a premier owner – one who’ll do whatever it takes to win the whole enchilada.

The man was 70 years old when he found Dave Dombrowski and gave him control. Not too old to finally outgrow baseball puberty.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Not Surprisingly, Lions Can't Get It Done In Crunch Time

Let's play a round of Liar's Club.

Who among you actually thought Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo WASN'T going to lead his team to victory in the final drive of yesterday's game, despite needing 83 yards with 2:15 left and sans timeouts?

Who among you were surprised when Lions linebacker Paris Lenon failed to scoop up a Romo fumble in the final drive?

Who among you actually felt that Jason Hanson's miss of a 35-yard field goal in the final quarter WOULDN'T come back to haunt the Lions?

If anyone raised their hands to any of the previous questions, then you are a candidate for the Liar's Club.

The Lions did it to us again yesterday, waiting till there were 18 seconds left to surrender a lead that they held all afternoon in losing to the Cowboys, 28-27 at Ford Field.

Moral victories have been very familiar to Lions players and fans over the years. Often, the "victory" was in simply surviving without getting blown out. Sunday, the moral victory was almost upsetting the 11-1 Cowboys -- when another blowout seemed very, very possible.

But the ironic thing is that the Lions were in a position to need a REAL victory in December. In the past, a moral victory might have done the franchise some good in this late stage of the season. But it didn't get the Lions from 6-6 to 7-6 yesterday, which they so badly needed to do if they have any hope of making the playoffs.

Ahh, the playoffs. Does it really matter, when you stop to think about it? Would anything be accomplished beyond just extending the season by one more week? Let's play more Liar's Club. Who thinks the Lions would even win a playoff game, anyway? They certainly wouldn't get home field advantage. It would smack of the 1999 season, when they started 8-4, finished 8-8, and got smoked in Washington in the first round.

So it's not really about the playoffs anymore -- at least not in the same way. When the Lions were 6-2, the talk wasn't just about making the playoffs, but of perhaps getting a home game and maybe advancing a round or two. Now, even if by some miracle they win their three remaining games and sneak in at 9-7, winning a postseason game would still be considered a long shot at best.

They can't cover a kickoff -- or a punt -- to save their souls, number one. It's ridiculous how many long returns they've given up this season. More irony here, too, for when the Lions were down in the depths, special teams was one aspect of the team that was relatively strong, all the way around. They had good return men, good kicking and punting, and good coverage. It started all the way back in the Wayne Fontes years with coach Frank Gansz, and continued with Chuck Priefer. The new special teams coach, Stan Kwan, must take some blame here. I don't know what the problem has been, but Kwan may be gone after this season. Kick coverage has been atrocious. Sunday, the Lions were reduced to trying pathetic pooch kicks that they still couldn't cover, giving the Cowboys the same kind of field position as they were getting when the kicks were deep.

"They made one more play than we did," DT Corey Redding said as he walked off the field, speaking to Fox 2's Jennifer Hammond. "We tried our best. But they made one more play than we did."

"They made one more play than we did."

It should be put on the Lions franchise's tombstone.

Friday, December 07, 2007

12th Man Wasn't The Crowd In '81 Against Cowboys

It was a loss that irked the late Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm till the day he died, according to some accounts. And it was one of the most zany wins the Lions ever had.

It happened on November 15, 1981, at the Pontiac Silverdome.

The 8-2 Cowboys came to town to face the 4-6 Lions. These were the Cowboys in the heyday of their "America's Team" label. The Lions were a talented team that was trying to find itself. A few weeks earlier, coach Monte Clark turned to untested rookie QB Eric Hipple in a Monday night home game against the Bears. The Lions started out 2-4 under the leadership of Gary Danielson. In Hipple's debut, now legendary, he threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more in a 48-17 romp.

On this particular Sunday against the Cowboys, Hipple would have no such heroics. But he did keep the Lions close, and drove the team down the field in the waning moments, the game tied, 24-24.

What happened at the final gun can only be described as controlled chaos.

Watching the game on TV, I couldn't believe my eyes. In one moment, the Lions had just run a play that failed to get out of bounds. It was fourth down, so spiking the ball was out of the question. The Lions were inside the Cowboys' 30-yard line. In the next moment, the Lions showing rare late-game smarts, kicker Eddie Murray and the field goal unit were on the field. The clock was ticking down to 0:00.

Somehow, the Lions managed to get set, snap the ball, and get off a kick. The football traveled end-over-end, straight thru the uprights, about 45 yards away. The clock expired when the ball was in the air.

The Lions had won, 27-24.

Later, it was determined that the Lions, in their haste to get the kick team on the field, actually had 12 men on the field when Murray thumped the ball home. The next day, the newspapers ran a photo taken from press box level, going so far as to number the Lions on the field. Sure enough, there were 12.

Schramm, the Cowboys president, was livid. He protested to the league. Not only did the league dismiss the protest, commissioner Pete Rozelle said, "No matter how many Lions were on the field, it was an exciting game, and the 12th man had no bearing on whether the kick was good."


Longtime Cowboys exec Tex Schramm, who died in 2003

Schramm stewed about the loss for a long time. Some say he never really got it out of his system.

The Lions would go on to play the Tampa Bay Bucs on the final Sunday in Pontiac, the NFC Central title squarely on the line. They were 7-0 at home. But the Bucs beat them, as Hipple was intercepted in the end zone during the final drive.

Two years later, Murray would blow a much more famous kick in the NFC playoffs in San Francisco, otherwise known as the "Monte Clark prays" game.

I still think about that '81 Lions-Cowboys game from time to time. I was watching it in the front room of our fraternity house, the blackout lifted. I can see Murray appearing on the field, out of nowhere -- almost as if he'd been there during the play before. It all happened so fast. The Lions ran a play, it was fourth down, and suddenly they were in FG formation. Then they got the ball snapped and the kick was on its way. All in a matter of seconds.

Rarely have the Lions shown such competence.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I'll rant in list fashion)

Things That Could Derail The New England Patriots In Their Quest To Go 16-0

1. Bill Belichick's video camera breaks.

2. Tom Brady tears an ACL being blindsided by a Don Shula criticism.

3. On-field officials quit the Honorary Patriots Club.

4. Belichick is abducted and replaced by Dick MacPherson.

5. Junior Seau suddenly starts playing like Senior Seau.

6. Joy of the holidays puts team in a benevolent mood.

7. Drunk on spiked baked beans, Pats fans call for Tony Eason at QB.

8. Lions trade Damien Woody back to them.

9. Randy Moss starts acting like ... Randy Moss.

10. Disinterested defense spends a Sunday Christmas shopping instead.

11. Ex-Bill O.J. Simpson goes on a Patriots killing spree in retaliation for the pasting put on his former team earlier in the season.

12. Lovestruck Brady spends all night before a game with Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Love Hewitt and the cute chick from The Office, suffering season-ending groin injury.

13. Fiercely proud members of 1972 Miami Dolphins doctor team water supply with street drugs supplied by Mercury Morris.

OK, that's all for this week. Talk amongst yourselves. Remember, they're just things.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Who Says Winter Meetings Are Dull? Tigers Shock With A Blockbuster

(normally I only talk baseball at Johnny Grubb, but sometimes ya just gotta break the rules. This same post appears on Grubber, too)

Twenty-four hours ago, Cameron Maybin was "untouchable." Andrew Miller was "practically" untouchable. The Tigers' chances of pulling any sort of deal, much less that of the blockbuster variety, were slim at these Winter Meetings -- capitalized because it's baseball's. GM Dave Dombrowski said on Monday that the Tigers would be satisfied to go into the 2008 season with the roster they had when the Meetings began.

Something funny happened on the way to status quo.

The Tigers pulled off maybe their biggest and boldest trade since they dealt batting champ Harvey Kuenn for home run champ Rocky Colavito before the 1960 season. A whopping eight-player deal, and the fact that the Tigers are only getting two of those eight players tells you how far they've come as a major off-season player.

When you trade six for two, and your front office isn't brain dead, then you know the two you're getting are Rolls Royce players, as Dickie Vitale would say. And they are -- lefty Dontrelle Willis and 3B Miguel Cabrera come to the Tigers from Florida. These are two huge stars (though Willis is coming off a down year) who are in their mid-20s. Two All-Stars with a World Series title under their belts. The types of players who instantly thrust you ahead of the pack in your division, and maybe in the league. Maybe, in fact, ahead of the other 29 teams in MLB.

But oh, how the Tigers paid to get them.

I was, to put it mildly, shocked when I saw the little chicklet at the bottom of the screen on ESPN News.

BREAKING NEWS: Fla agrees to trade Cabrera, Willis to Tigers

Eyes widened, I waited for the MLB news to flash, after the interminable NBA and NHL scores, and other inconsequential sports drivel.

Marlins agree to trade LHP Dontrelle Willis and 3B Miguel Cabrera to Tigers for six players, including OF Cameron Maybin and LHP Andrew Miller

Oh. My. God.

Despite how gifted Willis and Cabrera are -- and they ARE -- my first thought went to the Tigers' rapidly depleting farm system. And to how Maybin was supposedly never going to be traded -- no way, no how. All we'd heard since the Tigers drafted him is how he's a genuine five-tool player who'll one day make Detroit go crazy. The Tigers all but laughed at the Washington Nationals in 2006 when the Nats wanted Maybin in any deal involving OF Alfonso Soriano. Back to that word, "untouchable."

Miller was another who you'd figure wouldn't be going anywhere. The no. 1 pick in 2006, Miller was rushed to the majors after being aggressively signed with the idea that he could be a playoff performer, at the age of 20. That didn't happen, but you knew the Tigers still had big plans for him in 2008 and beyond. As recently as Monday.

So here the Tigers are, trading their two best prospects -- their best prospects in years, according to some -- and even though they netted two big fish from the Marlins, the move still makes me squirm a bit. Between the Gary Sheffield trade last year, the Edgar Renteria deal last month, and now this mind-number, the Tigers have SEVERELY cut into their prospects pool. But, on the other hand, your team is now LOADED.

Here's a possible batting order:

Curtis Granderson CF
Placido Polanco 2B
Gary Sheffield (healthy) DH
Magglio Ordonez RF
Miguel Cabrera 3B
Carlos Guillen 1B
Edgar Renteria SS
Pudge Rodriguez C
Jacque Jones LF

Goodness gracious.

And here's the rotation:

Justin Verlander RH
Dontrelle Willis LH
Kenny Rogers LH
Jeremy Bonderman RH
Nate Robertson LH

Cripes sakes.

This team could run away with the Central title. It's that good on parchment, the Indians be damned. Manager Jim Leyland must be beside himself. I bet you he's already jotted down about a dozen variations of the batting order I took a stab at earlier. I can almost hear him telling the media with typical self-effacing humor, "This team looks good -- as long as I don't screw it up."

Of course, you gotta perform. But I think the Tigers, having made some major, MAJOR moves since the last out was recorded in 2007, are about as well-equipped as a team can be for a 162-game battle. Yes, the bullpen might still be shaky, but that can be addressed. It's not like Dombrowski has shown any shyness.

It's a "win now" mentality, for sure, but with Willis and Cabrera, it can be win now -- and later, too. Willis is 24. Cabrera will be 25 in April. That ought to soothe any concerns -- including mine -- about "mortgaging" the future. Yet the Tigers sure stunned a lot of folks by trading both Maybin AND Miller. At least they're in the National League now.

Last year I wrote a piece about how the Winter Meetings seemed to lack that excitement and sense of urgency of years past. About how you just didn't have any real reason to look forward to them, as in the days of yore. Sometimes they occurred and you barely knew that they did.

But mark December 4, 2007 as the day the Tigers turned baseball on its ear with one of its biggest trades in years -- both in terms of sheer volume of players and in star power, present and future. Truly a win-win deal - if Maybin and Miller are as good as we keep being told that they are.

Nicely done, DD -- but I'm still a little squeamish. Until Opening Day, when I see the Tigers trot out onto the field and I see, for real, what the Tigers GM has wrought.

Monday, December 03, 2007

After Further Review, Lions Will Be Lucky To Win Another Game

How the Lions ever got to be a 6-2 team surely must go down in history as one of the great mysteries in sports. And it wasn't all that long ago.

I remember the Lions intercepting Kurt Warner on the Cardinals' opening possession, back in those 6-2 salad days, and driving down for a score. 7-2 looked imminent. Now, the Lions will be lucky to win another game, if truth be told.

They were anemic and unresistant in yesterday's 42-10 loss in Minnesota. Their defense was shameful, and embarrassing. They were absolutely helpless to stop the 5-6 Vikings. Totally.

I must give the Lions some thanks, though. Yesterday the family wanted to put up the Christmas tree, and I tend to give them divided attention when sports is on the tube, to my wife's chagrin. But the Lions fell behind so rapidly, so decisively, that it made it very easy to turn them off and devote my entire attention to my wife and child. So thanks!

It's all fragmenting now: special teams, offense, defense, and internal harmony. I wonder whose ass Mike Furrey thinks the media can kiss now?

I must admit, I got suckered in. I snickered at the party poopers who called sports talk radio when the team was 6-2 and maintained that it was all an illusion. I got irritated, in fact, that there could still be such sticks in the mud amid the euphoria. Even Drew Sharp of the Free Press was getting caught up in the excitement ... a little bit.

But, as usual, the naysayers were right. The Lions were, indeed, fraudulent. As I've written before, anyone can go 6-2. Happens a lot in the NFL. It's how you finish that determines whether you're a playoff team or not.

I wonder, though, how it happens this way. Maybe the more games you play, the more opponents can look at how best to attack you. Or maybe the talent level simply rears its head. The Lions' secondary, we all knew, wasn't the greatest. But it's getting worse as the season wears on. So many of the Vikings' drives Sunday looked like no-contact drills. It was, frankly, pathetic.

I think the tone was set on the Vikes' opening drive, when they were faced with 3rd-and-14 from their own nine. Running a simple draw to probably just get themselves out of the shadows of their own goalposts for the expected punt, the Vikings converted when Adrian Peterson took advantage of the Lions' soft tackling skills and rambled for a first down. From there, it was like a hot knife thru butter. 87 yards with little resistance.

My, what must Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, and the Dallas Cowboys be thinking today? Romo, for one, is going to need a drool cup when he gets a load of the Lions' DBs. It might be pitch-and-catch all afternoon. This one could get REAL ugly, folks -- kinda like Turkey Day '04, when Peyton Manning carved up Detroit for six TD passes, and could have had 10, if he wasn't pulled with the Colts comfortably ahead.

Michael Rosenberg of the Freep had a good analogy. The 6-6 Lions are like that woman who appeared attractive from across the street, but who, upon closer inspection, ends up being rather ugly. I'll go one step further. The Lions, now, are looking like a bad drag queen.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Life Out Of Sneakers Unkind To Isiah

He’s done so many things wrong since he traded in his sneakers for wing-tipped shoes, has folded so many times in the clutch, that you almost forget that there was a time when Isiah Thomas owned the tensest moments of any big basketball game.

Almost always it was true – when Isiah would take over – doing what the so-called experts said could not be done, which was to be a little man and lead a team to an NBA championship.

There wasn’t any question that Thomas, just 20 years old, was the most spectacular player available in the 1981 draft. He was coming off an NCAA title with Indiana University, and would be, after only two years in college, either the first or second pick overall.

The Dallas Mavericks held the first pick off the board.

The Mavs fancied small forward Mark Aguirre, a Chicagoland friend of Thomas’s, from DePaul University. It was a toss-up as to whether the Mavericks would pick the scorer Aguirre or the playmaker Thomas.

“Isiah was the more complete player,” Jack McCloskey, Pistons GM at the time, told me last year in a telephone interview. “We knew we’d absolutely take him if the Mavericks didn’t. I knew we needed the creativity that Isiah provided.”

So the Mavs took Aguirre, and McCloskey snapped up Thomas, and almost as soon as he did, the naysayers were out.

It was still the era of the Big Man in the NBA. It didn’t help that, two years earlier, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted themselves a 6-foot-9 point guard, Magic Johnson. History has told us that when the Boston Celtics battled first the Philadelphia 76ers, and then the Lakers for league supremacy in the late-1960s, early-1970s, you might as well forget the other eight players on the court – the real duel was between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the two centers. The two big men. Both teams had Hall of Fame players galore, but Celtics-Sixers/Celtics-Lakers boiled down to Russell-Chamberlain.

No way, the basketball masses said, could you ever hope to build a championship team around a 6-foot-1 point guard.

McCloskey was a Big Man guy. Height fascinated him, to a fault. There was a seven-foot jewel named Ralph Sampson, dominating at Virginia, when Thomas went pro. But Sampson elected to stay in school. Had he come out, McCloskey would have drooled. And after looking at Ralph Sampson’s pro career, I’ll bet McCloskey thanks his lucky stars that Sampson opted to stay in college in 1981.

So McCloskey went to work, trying to build a championship team around a Little Man. It took him eight years, but he did it. One of the final pieces he added, via trade, was a scoring small forward named Mark Aguirre.

That McCloskey succeeded was because Isiah Thomas, all six-foot-one of him, wouldn’t have it any other way. If he had to score, he scored. If he had to pass the ball, he passed the ball. And when a game needed to be seized, he did that, too. He smiled a lot in those days, his cherubic face hiding the heart of an assassin.

Now, though, Thomas can do little right. And he doesn’t smile as much.

His missteps actually began before he even officially retired as a player.

Filled with some sort of jingoism, Thomas announced, prematurely, that he had an agreement with Pistons owner Bill Davidson to be involved mightily in the team’s front office after his playing days. Only, there never really was such an arrangement, and the public proclamation irritated Davidson to no end. And Thomas then learned what the last great Pistons guard before him, David Bing, learned about 20 years earlier: Bill Davidson had little use for nostalgia and history if he felt slighted. Bing had held out for more money in 1974, Davidson’s first year of ownership. This was against the businessman’s grain. A year later, Davidson traded Bing.

So there was no place at The Palace for Isiah when he retired. His spot in the front office would be taken a few years later by his backcourt mate, Joe Dumars.

The Midas Touch was gone from Isiah’s hands in retirement. First he tried to resuscitate the Continental Basketball Association, which was kind of like AAA-ball for the NBA. He finagled his way into a commissioner-like role with the league, and the results were less than impressive.

Next up was an executive position with the Toronto Raptors. Isiah was back in the NBA. His few years in Toronto were very forgettable. Thomas was now 2-for-2 in leaving a basketball entity in worse shape than when he found it.

Rare post-playing smiles: Thomas breaking out with the Raptors (above) and celebrating a birthday with the Pacers (below)

Make it 3-for-3. The Indiana Pacers were next in Isiah’s path of destruction. He was a GM. Then he was a coach. Then Larry Bird took the keys to the executive washroom, and he and Isiah didn’t see eye-to-eye, a carryover from their playing days. Bird soon dismissed Thomas.

Today, Isiah is fiddling around with the New York Knicks, once one of the proudest franchises in the entire NBA. They’ve been a mess for awhile, and in fairness, they were out of sorts a bit when Isiah arrived a few years ago. But he hasn’t done anything to stop the blood flow. First he was strictly a GM, then he was told to coach the team, too, if he wanted any chance to hold on to his job.

The results on the court have not been for the squeamish, but even worse has been what’s gone on off the court.

There was a suit brought by a former female employee, accusing Thomas of sexual harassment. Out of those proceedings came the allegation that Thomas apparently saw fit to call certain women “bitches” – and without remorse, pending the circumstance.

Then, two weeks ago, guard Stephon Marbury inexplicably left the team for a couple of days, with little to no explanation. When he returned, Thomas reinserted him into the starting lineup, as if nothing had happened. Marbury was fined $200,000, but that was done by the team. Serious concerns were raised about Thomas’s leniency, when the mere thought of pulling a stunt like that in his playing days would have been folly.

The other night, the Celtics destroyed Thomas’s Knicks, 104-59. Total annihilation. His team fell to 4-10 on the season.

Isiah Thomas has now been retired as a player for about as long as he was employed by the Pistons. Nothing much has gone right for him in Armani. Can’t blame this one on his height, though.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Despite Hordes Of Losses In Minnesota, Three Wins Stand Out

The Lions haven't celebrated too many glorious Sundays in the great white north of Minnesota in the past several decades, but there've been a few that stick out in my memory.

Perhaps the most memorable was a win in 1974.

The Lions, when they invaded the old Metropolitan Stadium in October '74, hadn't beaten the Vikings since December, 1967. That was 13 straight losses to the Purple People Eaters, who will always be my most hated team in all of sports. And, the Lions were 1-4, which didn't inspire much confidence. Part of the early-season strife could be blamed on the death of head coach Don McCafferty, who died of a heart attack during training camp, while cutting his lawn at home. McCafferty's death thrust assistant Rick Forzano into the top spot. Forzano was a former college coach who'd never been a head coach at the pro level. The latter distinction had never stopped the Lions, of course, from hiring such folks, but McCafferty's untimely passing was an excusable reason for giving the untested Forzano the job.

The Lions managed to nudge ahead of the powerful 5-0 Vikings, 20-16, as the fourth quarter clock wound down. But Minnesota was on the move. It looked like they would, once again, steal a win from the Lions, who during the 0-13 streak had the Vikes on the ropes many times, only to have something weird happen to them.

The Vikings drove down the field, led by Fran Tarkenton. But being down by four, they needed a touchdown. They neared the Lions' 20-yard line.

Tarkenton scrambled and fired a pass in the end zone. There was a collision, and the ball popped gently into the air. But instead of being snagged by a Vikings receiver (which wouldn't have been surprising), the football was cradled by DB Lem Barney. His secondary mates crowded around Barney and forced him to down the ball in the end zone, ensuring the Lions victory. The 0-13 streak was over -- and with the 1-4 Lions beating the 5-0 Vikings!

Barney, who hadn't beaten the Vikings since his rookie season in 1967, before sealing 1974's win in Minnesota with a pick in the end zone

It was so ironic, because many much better Lions teams had outplayed the Vikings in the past yet lost.

Another win in Minnesota that sticks out was in 1991, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This was the 12-4, Mike Utley year. It wasn't so much the win that stands out as the move that Barry Sanders made on safety Joey Browner that I swore could have blown out both of Browner's knees.

Sanders got into the open field and juked Browner -- who was a pretty darn good player -- so badly that he, at once, both froze Browner and rattled the safety's knees. He reduced a Pro Bowl player to nothing more than an orange construction zone cone. Of course, Sanders also made other great players look silly in similar scenarios, such as Rod Woodson (who really did blow out a knee against Sanders) and John Lynch.

Then there was a 1993 win, in which the Lions trailed 27-23 in the waning seconds on Sunday Night Football. But Rodney Peete drove the Lions downfield and, facing a fourth-and-goal, threw in the direction of Brett Perriman in the end zone. There was contact, but it would have been unsurprising if the officials called nothing, especially on such a crucial play. Yet here comes the flag, to the howls of the Metrodome crowd. Now with first-and-goal at the one, the Lions scored, and stole a 30-27 win just before the final gun.

"Couldn't have happened to a better team," I said of the Vikings.

Sunday, the Lions return to another of their houses of horrors. They need a win in the worst way, and they could have picked a better place to seek it than the awful Metrodome. Strange things happen to them in the state of Minnesota. Always have.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Red Wings' Downey Shamelessly Uses His Fists To Help His Team

If there was such a thing as The Red Wing You'd Most Like To Buy A Beer, then I'd reserve that cold one for Aaron Downey.

This would be after a hearty handshake and hug, and a slap on the back for good measure.

Downey, no. 20 in your program but no. 1 in brawn, is the Red Wings' first legitimate tough guy since a couple of dudes named Probert and Kocur terrorized the NHL. He's providing what's been long absent in the team's lineup: someone who'll keep opposing bruisers off the backs of the Red Wings' skill players.

"My role is to keep people from hitting guys like (Henrik) Zetterberg," Downey said the other day.

Earlier in the season, Downey told reporters that as long as he's in the lineup, the other team is on notice.

"Nobody's going to be taking any liberties," he said.

That's another reason I want to purchase a brewski for Downey. He doesn't make any bones about it; no sugarcoating the matter. He's a fighter, enjoys being a fighter, and will continue to be a fighter, shamelessly. Downey's had three bouts so far, and after each, his teammates have praised him. He's a 33-year-old NHL veteran of six clubs who has no delusions about his place in hockey society. Google him in the "images" filter, and several photos pop up of him in various NHL uniforms, mixing it up with his fists. One year in the AHL, Downey amassed over 400 penalty minutes.

Downey (left) in typical repose

This isn't another hockey oldtimer espousing senseless violence. But there's nothing wrong with protecting your talented studs from the ne'er-do-wells on other teams who would try to get them off their game by knocking them around a little bit. Downey embraces his policeman's role and would appear to not want to have it any other way.

It's refreshing, frankly, in this day and age of an NHL that looks at fighting as just another bad "F" word, to find a guy like Downey still patrolling the ice. He's a throwback, Aaron Downey is, to a time when every team carried a couple of sluggers on their roster. There was a time for crisp passes and breathtaking plays, but also a time for fisticuffs.

Downey, last night in the Red Wings' 5-3 win over Calgary, started in on the Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf early. He seemed to challenge Phaneuf to a dance before a face-off, but Phaneuf wisely declined the offer. Then Downey got into Phaneuf's face, anyway, during the ensuing play. Later, Downey started barking at other Flames players.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, with the home team's advantage in line changes, seemed to delight in putting Downey on the ice with the abrasive Phaneuf. There can be method to the madness when you have a pot-stirrer like Downey in the lineup.

The Red Wings have tried tough-guy-by-committee in the past several years, sometimes asking players like Brendan Shanahan to pull double-duty as scoring power forward and enforcer. Darren McCarty filled the enforcer's shoes ably, but his charge was to check and muck first, and fight second. Aaron Downey is a fighter first, and rarely plays more than 8-10 minutes per game. He might spend more time in the penalty box than on the ice most nights, when all is said and done. But he's not hurting the team by doing so; he's very much helping it.

As Downey himself says, "guys like Zetterberg" -- and Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Hudler and the rest -- need to know that someone's on the bench who can keep the other team honest. The Red Wings really haven't had that person in recent years. Until now.

That certainly is deserving of a cold one, don't you think?

Monday, November 26, 2007

NFL's Overtime System Needs Serious Overhauling

No Lions game yesterday, so I'm going to use its normal place to rail about the NFL's overtime system.

It grates on me that a team can lose an overtime game in the regular season -- or in the postseason, for that matter -- without touching the ball.

The coin flip, then, becomes the most important part of a tie game, and that just shouldn't be. After 60 minutes of play with no resolution, it seems we can come up with a better system.

Currently, all overtimes are sudden death. Now, just the words "sudden death" evoke a chill up the spine of most sports fans. You kind of have it in baseball, with the "walk off win", and you definitely have it in hockey. The NFL has it, too -- but in a very flawed manner.

Team A wins the coin flip. And, if they're not coached by Marty Mornhinweg, they take the ball first. Team B kicks off, and according to the raw data, have a significantly reduced chance of winning, right off the bat. In fact, the chances aren't bad that they won't get the football at all.

So Team A drives into field goal range (typically anything inside the opponents' 35-yard line is sufficient), and kicks their way to victory. Very few overtime games are won via touchdown.

I HATE this system!

Yet I'm not all that enamored with the high school and college methods, which eschew kickoffs and places the ball at a pre-determined yard line and asks the offense to score somehow. Though at least here, each team gets a shot with the ball.

Here's my proposal, and tell me if it doesn't make sense.

Each team gets the ball once. You flip a coin, as normal. If Team A receives, and scores on the ensuing possession, they must kickoff to Team B. If Team B fails to match or beat the score of Team A (obviously every set of downs then becomes "four-down territory"), then the game is over, and Team A wins.

If Team A fails to score (lost on downs, turnover, missed FG), then Team B wins if it scores on its possession. If Team B fails to score, then the game becomes "sudden death," with the first to score winning.

Now, some FAQ:

1. What if Team A loses the ball on the overtime's opening possession via turnover, and Team B returns it for a touchdown?

Then Team B wins, even if it happens on Team A's first play from scrimmage. It counts as a possession.

2. What if Team A returns the overtime kickoff for a touchdown?

Then Team B still gets a chance with the ball.

3. What if Team B holds Team A to a punt, and returns it for a touchdown?

Haven't you been following along? Team B wins.

4. What if Team A suffers a safety on the first possession of overtime?

Team B wins.

5. What if Team B holds Team A, but then fumbles or throws an interception, and Team A takes it all the way?

Team A wins.

The other thing I like about this system is that decision-making becomes crucial. Does Team A settle for a FG on a 4th-and-1 in the red zone, for example, or go for it, trying to score a touchdown and make it more difficult for Team B?

Critics (and I'm sure there will be plenty) are sure to say that, in some respects, Team B has the advantage in this system because it will always know what it needs on its possession (TD or FG). Well, not every system is perfect, and just because they KNOW what they need, doesn't mean that they'll get it. In fact, Team A can counter that knowledge by defending appropriately.

I just think that under this system, games wouldn't be extended all that much, in order to give each team the football. Whether a team wins or loses shouldn't ride so much on a coin flip.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Today’s Red Wings A Team Without Anyone To Hate

Dino Ciccarelli was one of those NHL players with a Napoleonic Complex. He was a shrimp, so he decided that he’d be the most annoying, disturbing, pugnacious little shrimp that he could be. That, and scoring goals against the opposition, would keep him in the league for some 18 seasons. Ciccarelli scored over 600 goals, many of them while being mugged and abused within several feet of the opposing net.

But my memories of Dino boil down to this one: 1996 Western Conference Finals, moments after Game 6 – the Red Wings having just been eliminated by their new rivals, the Colorado Avalanche. Somewhere in a hospital, teammate Kris Draper lay, his face broken thanks to a nasty, illegal check from behind by Claude Lemieux in Game 4. Lemieux would quickly elevate to Public Enemy #1 in Detroit, for several years to come.

The series was now over, and one of the grandest traditions in sport – the post-series handshake at center ice – had just been completed when Ciccarelli sat at his stall in the locker room, still disgusted and sneering at the cowardice of Lemieux, who was suspended for Game 6 but nonetheless had the, ahem, gumption, to take the ice for the handshake. For a nanosecond, Lemieux and Ciccarelli grasped hands, as tradition dictates.

Kris Draper, moments after being crushed into the boards from behind by Claude Lemieux in the '96 Western Finals

“I can’t believe,” Dino said, half-dressed, in a sound bite repeated over and over in the next few days, “that I shook hands with that bleep. I can’t bleeping believe it.”

A rivalry was born – somewhere from the ruins of Kris Draper’s face. And from the smug, smart-ass words of Avs goalie Patrick Roy.

What did Roy think, he was asked, of the Red Wings’ win in Game 5 in Detroit, which brought them to within 3 games to 2? Keep in mind that Colorado swept Games 1 and 2 in Detroit.

“Well, I suppose it’s about time that they won a home game, eh?” Roy said with a little smirk on his long, unattractive face. Red Wings fans heard it, and couldn’t bleeping believe it.

Dino Ciccarelli wouldn’t play another game for the Red Wings, but his words of disdain for Claude Lemieux got things revved up for a sports rivalry that, to this day, remains among the most dramatic that I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll repeat – sports rivalry, not just hockey.

The Avs bumped the Red Wings out of the playoffs in ’96 and won the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings returned the favor in ’97, and won the Stanley Cup. The Avs eliminated the Wings in 1999 and 2000. The Red Wings eliminated the Avs in 2002, on their way to another Cup. All the while, the teams beat up on each other during the regular season, which were truly games that you didn’t want to miss. ESPN loved to put the Avs-Red Wings on their cable waves. The rivalry was teeming with storylines. Even the goalies fought with some regularity. One night, Avs coach Marc Crawford lunged at Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman over the glass separating the two teams. Bowman knew the much younger Crawford’s dad.

“Marc,” Bowman reportedly said as the enraged Crawford was being restrained, “your father wouldn’t be so proud of you right now.”

Goalies Vernon and Roy duking it out in '97

And Lemieux, the gutless winger, got his come-uppance, several times over. Darren McCarty took care of him one evening at Joe Louis Arena. Brendan Shanahan had his way with Lemieux on another occasion.

But like many things in today’s NHL, the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry didn’t have long shelf life. After the salad days of 1995-2002, it was like someone pulled a plug. Many key players retired or were traded, or left via free agency. The Avs lost Roy and Lemieux shortly after the ’02 series, and that was pretty much the end of things.

I seriously doubt whether the average Red Wings fan could name more than three players off today’s Avalanche roster, when that same fan could have rattled off 12, easily, during the height of the two teams’ struggle for supremacy in the West.

And it’s not as if the teams sunk in terms of success. The Avs are still a solid playoff contender, and this morning are in first place in their division. Just like the Red Wings.

Yet things are nowhere near the same.

Looking around the NHL the other day, I couldn’t come up with a single team that elicits anything close to the hostility that the Red Wings mustered up against the Colorado Avalanche a decade ago. Thanks to the league’s ridiculous unbalanced schedule, you can forget about getting anything going with any of the teams from the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings hardly play those teams anymore. It should be noted that residing in the East are such Original Six teams as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, once fierce rivals with the team from Detroit. No longer, thanks to enforced separation.

There’s talk of the Chicago Blackhawks being a thorn in the Red Wings’ side, and thus becoming a rival once again. The Blackhawks have won all four games against Detroit this season. But this is after years of Red Wings’ dominance. We’ll see how it plays out. But the Blackhawks aren’t serious rivals, not yet.

The Red Wings had a good thing going with Chicago in the mid-1960s, when an offensively-challenged forward named Bryan Watson was assigned to harass Bobby Hull relentlessly. He did his job so well that Hull nicknamed Watson “Bugsy.”

The Maple Leafs provided some entertainment in the late-1980s, when the Red Wings were reborn under Jacques Demers. Then the Avs came along – and have gone.

Who do the Red Wings hate now? Who riles their fans up? Which team could go to hockey hell, for all we care? Where is the next Claude Lemieux?

Nowhere on the horizon – and that’s almost harder to stomach than Patrick Roy’s smug smirk.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Bleeding Continues As Lions Can't Catch Pack

So let's end this fallacy, once and for all, that says the Lions ALWAYS play well on Thanksgiving Day, and that they mostly win. At least fewer and fewer people are believing this misconception every year.

The Lions made it four losses in a row, and six of the last seven, on Turkey Day in yesterday's 37-26 loss to the Packers.

They're 6-5 now, off to a three-game losing streak, and getting more and more Lions-ish with every loss.

Jason Hanson is again their most prolific scorer. They are again being outclassed by quality teams. Receivers (Calvin Johnson) are again dropping passes. Opponents are again jumping out to big leads, turning the Lions into a one-dimensional offense. Kick coverage is again soft.

And ghoulish thoughts of 7-9 or 8-8, at best, are again taking over the Lions fan's psyche.

OK, so the Lions aren't yet in the class of the Packers (who are now 16-1 in their last 17 regular season games), or the Giants, or the Eagles, or the Cowboys. That much is clear. But they won all of three games last year -- the third on the last Sunday of the season. So 7-9 or 8-8 would mean a four or five game improvement in one year. Not all that awful. Now, whether they could, in 2008, make the leap from that level to 10 or 11 wins is completely circumspect. They could just as well regress.

But that's next year. The Lions are mathematically a playoff contender this morning, but not spiritually, or emotionally. Yet if they finish 8-8, while disappointing after starting 6-2, it nonetheless must be considered a good season. Anytime you make a five-game win improvement in the NFL, that's cause to celebrate, even a little.

It could very well be, folks, that we haven't seen the worst of the 2007 Lions yet. 8-8 isn't a given. They're getting worse, and while they showed some life in the fourth quarter yesterday, the result was the same as Sunday, when they perked up in the final minutes against the Giants. Next up is Minnesota on the road, a traditional house of horrors. 6-6 looks quite doable.

I'm mad at myself. I thought the 6-2 start meant the shedding of the loser's label, if only for one year. One-hundred and eighty minutes of football later, I'm realizing that I should have taken my own advice. The NFL season is 16 games long for a reason. It's the miniature, yet just as effective version of MLB's tool for separating pretenders from contenders. Anyone can lead the division at the All-Star break. But it's how August and September goes that will determine whether you make the playoffs. Right, Tigers?

So anyhow, I should have remembered that the NFL plays 16 games per team, not eight. It's bad enough that I should forget. Did the Lions have to, also?