Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Most of this has happened, or has been rumored to happen. And the more of it that goes on, I say, the better it is for the Detroit Pistons.
The curtain goes up tonight on another NBA season in Detroit -- the 51st since the team moved from Fort Wayne. Commemorative patches acknowledging this being the 50th anniversary of the first NBA game played in the Motor City will be worn by the players on their game tank tops.
Yet few times, if ever, have the Pistons been simultaneously a contender and a pretender in so many "experts"'s eyes. Usually you're either in or you're out as a serious player -- not both. But to hear many say it, the Pistons are either, a) too old and their time has passed, or b) still a very dangerous team, lurking in the shadows of trendy, sexy picks like the new-look Celtics or defending conference champ Cleveland, or still up-and-coming Chicago (with or without Bryant).
Just my opinion, but I go with choice b) in the above paragraph.
The Pistons have injected, appropriately so, some youth and energy onto the roster. They've promoted Antonio McDyess to an already formidable starting five. They now have a legitimate backup point guard in rookie Rodney Stuckey, as soon as he recovers from his broken hand. And they have some perimeter scoring off the bench in Jarvis Hayes, acquired from Washington.
All that, plus some stability in the coaching position. Flip Saunders is the first Pistons coach to start a third season since Doug Collins in 1997. And Collins was fired before that season was completed. In fact, the Pistons have only had three coaches, in their entire history, who've completed at least three full seasons: Ray Scott, Scotty Robertson, and Chuck Daly. Saunders, most likely, will be the fourth. That's not too many men in 51 seasons.
It may not be trendy to do so, but the more level-headed basketball pundits are sticking with the Pistons as conference front-runners, at the very least. They're not fooled by fancy, big-name acquisitions or a superstar-dominated ballclub. The best overall team will be in The Finals in June from the East, and that means balance, experience, and depth from one thru fifteen on the roster.
And going by those standards, the Pistons have the goods -- even if many people choose to ignore that fact. Frankly, it's best that they do. Shadow lurkers can be awfully scary, in the end.
Monday, October 29, 2007
He paused for a moment, looking skyward, then his eyes met mine.
"YES, they will win in our lifetime," he said with a chuckle.
OK, but ... why?
"Forget the laws of (NFL) parity," Daniels said. "It's the law of averages! Shouldn't those kick in sooner or later?"
The Lions won another yesterday -- 16-7 in Chicago -- and once again it was the other guys who imploded. The other guys whose rally was more slapstick than high drama. The other guys whose fans booed them off their own field.
And it was the Lions again, God bless them, who held it together -- hanging on for the victory. Correction: hanging on is not fair terminology. They didn't just win because the Bears failed. The Lions won because they played like that's how it's supposed to happen. They are beginning to play like a team that can now handle the slings and arrows that a perilously close NFL game always seems to present.
Oh, they might be good at losing 56-21, or 34-3, but this latest vanquishing of the Bears was victory no. 5, and in all of them, the outcome could have bobbed and swayed either way in the fourth quarter. But the Lions are now 5-0 in such perilous games.
And there's more.
No bombastic requests for the media to plant a kisser on the posterior, like after last week's home win against Tampa Bay. The locker room after yesterday's win was low-key and full of a we-haven't-done-anything-yet mentality. Which is good, because they haven't, of course.
Even the poisonous pen of the Free Press's Drew Sharp dared to scribe about playoffs. He didn't even refer to Matt Millen as Mr. 24-72. Millen is still only Mr. 29-74, but you take your improvement how and when you can in this league.
The best part of watching the Lions win these football games is seeing how they are slowly, yet surely, becoming accustomed to doing so. Even the boisterous Roy Williams urged caution.
"We're 5-2, but this thing could just as easily turn into 5-11," he said. This from a man who last season kept saying that the Lions were the most talented team with a horrible record in the entire NFL. Now he's the beacon of sage wisdom?
But he's right, you know. 5-2 can, indeed, turn into 5-11. But doubtful with this team, in this season, with this coach. More like 11-5, I'd say.
Jon Kitna might turn out to be wrong about the win total, after all -- but in a different way than any of us could ever imagine.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Then there was Herb Brown, with his open collars and shoes with no socks. He had coached everywhere, including Israel. He rubbed his players so wrongly, the confrontations nearly became physical.
Then came Bob Kaufman. He played in the league, and wore the dual hats of coach and general manager in Detroit for a time. That is, before he gave way to the maniacal bleatings of Dickie Vitale, who became a de facto GM, too – when Kaufman gave up and fled town.
After Dickie was dragged screaming into the night – only to resurface on American television sets that were best off equipped with that wonderful invention called the “mute” button – there was another New Jersey guy to take his place: Richie Adubato.
Scotty Robertson was next, with his southern drawl and down-home honesty and humility.
Then the best: Chuck Daly, who rolled into town with coiffed hair and a resume that was in line with his predecessors. That is, largely undistinguished and filled with basketball stops in small towns and oh yeah – there was a college somewhere out east. Plus a brief NBA head coaching stint in Cleveland, one of the league’s two Siberias. The other was … Detroit. The won-lost record in Cleveland was so bad as to be best left off the undistinguished resume.
Some good, long-overdue stability with Chuck, before the door became revolving again. Ron Rothstein, who openly campaigned for the job and was brutally ineffective once he had bullied his way into it. Don Chaney, a nice man – and former Celtic champion – whose roster was filled with the dregs of the league and Grant Hill, pretty much. Doug Collins, whose claim to coaching fame was being lucky enough to be in charge in Chicago when Michael Jordan claimed ownership of the league. Alvin Gentry, another of those assistants who was minding his own business when management shoved the silver whistle into his mouth. George Irvine, who never really wanted the job, then coached like it, just to drive home his point.
More brevity, but with some success. Rick Carlisle, once labeled an up-and-coming genius, but who now finds himself in an ESPN studio, telling us what just happened and why. Larry Brown, a champion here, whose brevity was fait accompli, befitting his nomadic past.
All of which brings us to Flip Saunders.
Saunders is doing something quite extraordinary in Detroit, starting next week in Miami. For he is being entrusted to coax, prod, and nudge his players along through a third perilous NBA season. He’s breaking the string of two-and-out when it comes to Pistons coaches hired by the sage Joe Dumars. But the two-and-out wasn’t invented by Dumars. Far from it.
Saunders will get a third crack at reining in Rasheed Wallace
There have been 15 Pistons coaches during the ownership of Bill Davidson, which began in earnest in 1974. Yet only two of them, prior to Saunders, have been allowed to complete a third full season at the helm: Robertson and Daly.
See? The two-and-out pre-dates Dumars’ management significantly. It even pre-dates Davidson.
The Pistons are celebrating their 50th anniversary in Detroit this year, moving from Fort Wayne in 1957. Special commemorative patches are going to be worn on the players’ tank tops and everything. A one-shot logo has been crafted. Only – and I really don’t want to be a party pooper here – this is actually the 51st season in Detroit for the franchise. But they never have counted so good in the Pistons offices.
Back in the days of phantom attendance numbers, that is. And when the team used the two-and-out system of running coaches in and out of town. Ahh, those fabulous ‘60s!
Just about every coach the Pistons hired had the requisite two-year contract, and many didn’t even survive that long. Dumars, somewhat surprisingly to me, had seemed to carry on the tradition, despite significant team success. Out with Irvine, in with Carlisle. Two 50-win seasons with Carlisle, but it’s two-and-out! In with the basketball vagabond Brown. A championship and a runner-up, but it’s two-and-out! So out with Brown and in with Saunders.
Flip kicked things off with a record-setting 64-win year, but the suspected over-use of his starting five – four of them made the All-Star team – led to a flame-out in the playoffs against the Miami Heat in the conference finals. Last season, Saunders eased off a bit and worked some more bench players into the rotation, but the result was the same: sayonara in the Final Four, at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers of all people.
Chances are that Saunders will be allowed to complete his third season, making him only the third man to do so during Davidson’s ownership – and the first during Dumars’s president-ship. Where that will get him is anyone’s guess, here on the eve of the Pistons’ 50th anniversary/51st season in Detroit. But it, at the very least, puts him in an elite group. A SMALL, elite group.
Daly survived nine seasons because he won. And he won because he was smart enough to know that talented NBA players aren’t so much coached as they are managed and empowered. In the history of the NBA, you won’t find many more with such a combustible combo of strong wills and high-strung pedigrees than Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, and Dennis Rodman. Throw in the petulance of Kelly Tripucka and Adrian Dantley and the antics of Dennis Rodman and John Salley, and the supposed childishness of Mark Aguirre (pre-Detroit) – and it’s a wonder Daly lasted nine months. But the final tally under Daly was two championships, a runner-up, and five straight trips to the conference finals. Amazing what you can do in three years or more!
Saunders has extended the Pistons’ current streak of conference finals appearances to five as well. Yet they’ve only won two of those. The Chuck Daly Pistons won three of their five – and all in succession.
Flip is here for Year Three. But it’s only his two-year anniversary. See how that works?
Friday, October 26, 2007
Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet -- a Chicago Bear from 1965-71 officially, but you can forget the last two seasons, when he gamely tried but failed to come back from a mangled knee.
Billy Sims, the high-stepping runner from Oklahoma. Heisman Trophy winner and a Lion from 1980-84, until a hit applied by the Vikings' Walker Lee Ashley mangled Sims' knee, too -- in the middle of a fruitful '84 season. Fitting that Sims' career-ending injury should come at the hands of the Vikings, a team that's tormented the Lions more than any other in the Bill Ford Era.
Note the abbreviated careers. Five seasons for Sayers, essentially, and not quite five for Sims. Each exploded onto the scene. In Sayers's rookie season, he scored six touchdowns -- in one game, in just 14 touches, against the 49ers at a rain-soaked Wrigley Field. Among his six scores was a kickoff return for a TD, AND a punt return for a TD. For the season, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns: 14 by ground, six by air, and the kick returns. He was the easiest choice for Rookie of the Year ever, in any sport.
Sims helped lead the Lions out of the gate with a 4-0 start in his rookie season by scoring from all over the field, on long runs and even fly patterns. On Opening Day in Anaheim, he blitzed the heavily-favored Rams with three TDs as the Lions pulled off the upset. His trademark was to leap over the pile at the goal line, somersaulting into the end zone. And the high step, of course.
Sims doesn't get quite the nod that Sayers does as one of the game's greatest runners, but for his time, few were better. And Sayers, of course, crammed a 10-year career's worth of highlights into his five seasons.
Gale Sayers, running away from the Lions' Alex Karras, ran for 867 yards (5.2/att) and scored 22 TDs in all sorts of ways in his '65 rookie campaign
Sims rushed for 1,303 yards in his rookie year (1980) and scored 13 rushing TDs
Then the Bears offered up Walter Payton for public consumption, and the Lions would eventually counter with Barry Sanders.
Sayers-Payton versus Sims-Sanders. Which duo would YOU take?
This weekend, the Lions travel to Chicago, and the men running the football for each team -- and no disrespect intended -- are nowhere near the class of their predecessors. It just so happens that the Lions and Bears were each blessed with two of the most wonderful running backs in their time, or anyone's time. So no shame in falling short of those players.
And hey -- I haven't even mentioned Bronko Nagurski or Doak Walker.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Things Mickey Redmond Says That Ya Gotta Love
1. Bingo-Bango. Normally uttered during a replay when Redmond talks about a bang-bang play in front of the net, or if a goal has been scored shortly after another.
2. Johnny-on-the-spot. Actually, this is more of a general hockey term, but Redmond says it a lot -- plus I love it. Said when a player finds himself wide open, pouncing on a loose puck for a goal.
3. BC Two-hander. Presumably the BC stands for British Columbia. This is a blatant, two-handed slash.
4. Holy smokes! When Redmond can't believe what he's just seen -- like a cheap penalty, for instance.
5. Oh my ... they're going to be livid on the bench. Another utterance after a cheap penalty.
6. Better keep your head up, son. When a player, 99% of the time a Red Wings' opponent, gets drilled with a clean check because he wasn't looking.
7. Hasek, no chance. As Redmond analyzes a replay of a goal that the Red Wings give up, rightly commenting that Dominik Hasek had, well, no chance.
8. For you young hockey players watching at home ... When Redmond feels in "clinic" mode, schooling the youngsters about how the game should be played.
9. Like he's got the puck on a string! Redmond says this after watching some brilliant stick-handling.
10. Now it's time to just shut her down. When the Red Wings find themselves with a two-goal (or more) lead midway thru the third period.
11. So let's keep her goin'. When the Red Wings are on a winning streak. Said during postgame wrap-ups.
12. Nobody home. When a player finds himself all alone in front of the net.
13. If it wasn't for _______, the score could be ____ Detroit. Redmond will say this when the other team's goalie "stands on his head."
14. It's just a one shot game, folks. When the Red Wings only have a one-goal lead when Redmond thinks they should have a larger cushion.
15. Penalty shot??! YES!! (or, "NO!"). Few things will get Redmond more excited than a fight, or a possible penalty shot.
16. When you go to the net, good things can happen. Usually said after a "garbage goal" off a rebound, or a tip-in.
They're they are. Talk amongst yourselves. And remember, they're just things.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Over in the expansive, more luxurious home dressing room, a 21-year-old goaltender sat in front of his locker, uniform still on. He was also sweaty, but it wasn't his lips that were puffy. It was his eyes. Puffy and red, stinging with real tears.
Chris Osgood anguished, the weight of an entire hockey nation on his shoulders, as he tried to describe the feeling after the third-year San Jose Sharks stole Game 7 from the mighty Red Wings in the 1994 playoffs, first round. For it was Osgood's gaffe, a bad clearing attempt, that was converted into the series-winning goal with about six minutes remaining.
Osgood wept, yet the weight he felt was largely self-acquired. Even the fuming Red Wings fans, who in '94 were getting used to playoff disappointment, were reluctant to pin the series loss on the rookie goalie. Instead, their anger was directed toward the circumstances under which Osgood was in net to begin with -- a rookie in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Red Wings, suffering through an internal power struggle between GM Bryan Murray and coach Scotty Bowman, had a question mark in goal -- or so they thought, mainly because everyone else told them so. Tim Cheveldae was the sacrificial lamb, traded to Winnipeg (Murray made the trade without really consulting Bowman) for former MSU star Bob Essensa, in January 1994. But Essensa wasn't much of an improvement (if at all), so when the playoffs began, Essensa was the starter, but he was on shaky ground.
By the time Game 7 against the Sharks arrived, Osgood was deemed the man to give the Wings their best chance at victory -- more of an indictment against Essensa than a star on Osgood's forehead. Still, the rookie played OK, but made that tragic mistake late in the deciding game.
And he had taken the loss so hard, those around him wondered how much of an effect it would have on him as his career progressed.
Last week, watching the Wings toil out west sometime past the 11 o'clock hour, a graphic was flashed on the screen. It listed active goalies and their career victories. Dominik Hasek had something like 374. No surprise there. But just below Hasek, with 337, was the 34-year-old Chris Osgood.
Yes, young, sobbing Chris Osgood grew up to have almost as many wins as Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek.
Osgood is the Wings' backup now, and will perhaps play in 25-30 games this season. He'll turn 35 in November. Yet whenever I see him, I still see the baby-faced, boyish kid that I saw back in 1994. He hasn't changed much, including his speaking style. But when you listen to him now, what creeps in is the sageness of an NHL career that is now 14 years old. He's not a quote machine, but he's wise. And his countenance hasn't budged; not too high after success, not too low after disappointment.
The Red Wings pulled off a pretty unique stunt in 1998. They won two straight Stanley Cups, and with two different starting goalkeepers. Doing the former is hard enough; when you add the latter, it's damn near unheard of. And in '98, Osgood, the starter, played with the typical brilliance that's needed to win the whole thing. Most of the time. He also had a fetish for letting in goals that were the results of shots taken somewhere near center ice; he did so at least three times that postseason -- once each in series against St. Louis, Phoenix, and Dallas. All three were crucial, killer goals. Only one, in St. Louis, were the Wings able to overcome. The Dallas blunder came in OT in Game 5.
Yet after each of these horrific goals, Osgood wasn't rattled. He said so, then he played like it. Every time, in the next game, he played magnificently.
In the official team video for 1998, there's a scene of the happy Wings dressing room following their Cup-clinching win in Washington. Osgood's mother seeks him out, and hugs him close.
"You DID it, Chris! You DID it!," she says through tears. Tears of joy, this time. No doubt the ghosts of 1994 were in both their minds at that moment.
If Hasek's groin should go pop, or any other part of his aging body, then the Wings will turn to still baby-faced Chris Osgood, sage veteran. Cup winner. Author of 337 wins.
How many backups in the league have such a resume?
Monday, October 22, 2007
Eighteen straight completions; 36-for-43 success rate; 315 yards. Two touchdowns, no interceptions. Also a fantasy lover's dream.
But here's what's not so dreamy: two fumbles, including one near the one-yard-line.
And it was those two fumbles, converted into two touchdowns, that undercut Tampa Bay QB Jeff Garcia in his bid to beat his former team yesterday at Ford Field.
The Lions won, 23-16, and for a change it was their quarterback who won despite having less-than-gaudy numbers.
We've seen the fantasy lover's dream here before. You know, where Jon Kitna throws 40+ passes, completes a bunch of them, piles up a slew of yards, maybe even throws a few touchdowns. And yet the Lions lose -- probably because a high percentage of those numbers came after they were down three touchdowns in the first half.
Garcia led some long drives, but mostly came up empty. There were the two picks. There was a missed field goal. And the Lions used a blocked punt to get another three points.
It was opportunistic football -- short on style but long on substance.
I'm not a big fan of the boobs on sports talk radio, nor their callers. But one of the cell-phone wielders on his way home from the game made a good point to the hosting boob yesterday afternoon after the game. His comment came after some sour pusses were complaining about the "ugliness" of the Lions' win, and that the final score was closer than it should have been.
"I don't know why everyone is complaining," the caller said. "The Bears have made a living winning like that. They went to the Super Bowl winning that way!"
Now, it's not saying here that the Lions are going to the Super Bowl "winning that way". But it sure is nice to see them win that way; they've done it already a few times this season.
But let's stop something right now. You've already heard, and will continue to hear, about how the Lions started 4-2 in 2004 and yet lost five straight games on the way to a final mark of 6-10.
Since when does what happened in any NFL season of the past have anything to do with what's going on currently? Especially when so many of the key characters have changed, their roles played by more able people. And that's not to mention other variables like schedule, opponents changing, etc.
The Lions of '04 were coached by Steve Mariucci and QB'd by Joey Harrington, who was never comfy in Mooch's dink-and-dunk West Toast Offense. Roy Williams and Kevin Jones were rookies. Other receiver slots were given to frauds like Tai Streets. Also, things were different defensively. Everything was just ... different.
So no more using the 2004 team as a cautionary tale. It's completely irrelevant to what's going on now. And that edict has as much chance of being heeded as Nancy Reagan's plea to kids to "Just Say NO" back in the day. Still, it's worth scolding you all about.
Random Observations: Did Calvin Johnson look like a freak (in a good way) or what during that 32-yard reverse for a touchdown? Goodness gracious. It was like watching a giraffe galloping with gazelle-like moves ... Classy words from coach Rod Marinelli all week and again yesterday about how much the game meant to him, since it was against his former employer. He refused to cast the spotlight on himself, even once, and not even in an abstract way. It's all about team with him, from coaches to the 53rd man on the roster ... Good to see T.J. Duckett back into the mix. He had some good runs on a drive that led to a field goal, but I agree with Fox analyst Tony Boselli, who should know. The former OT wondered why the Lions would abandon the run on that drive, when it had been so successful. They got into scoring territory then suddenly called all passes. The insinuation, and it was a correct one, was that the Lions let the Bucs' defense off the hook on that drive.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
They roamed. Another dinosaur-like word. But they did. Maybe patrolled is a better, non-reptilian verb. Yes, much better – for in their heyday, they carried the moniker of “policeman”, because they laid down the law of the ice.
Every team had one, in the days of six National Hockey League teams and short flights to Boston, Montreal, Detroit, and the rest – back when each club engaged each other 14 times a year to make up the neat, symmetrical 70-game schedule.
There was John Ferguson in Montreal – the original “Fergie”, before America became enraptured with the female, Royal version across the pond in the 1980s. Big John, they also called him. He was a generous amount over six feet tall, and he owned the goal crease. But mainly he made sure stars like Jean Beliveau and Pocket Rocket Richard and Yvon Cournoyer had enough ice with which to work their magic, confident of not being bullied.
There was Reggie Fleming in New York and Howie Young in Detroit. Chicago had Doug Mohns. Toronto had their guy. So did Boston.
Before Fleming, the Rangers employed a tough guy named Louie Fontinato. He was the premier policeman in the league, in the late-1950s. Then one night, Gordon Howe rearranged his face, and exposed Louie as a fraud.
“I remembered what (Ted) Lindsay once told me,” Howe expounded years later, long after he, with a few rock-solid punches, toppled Fontinato from the throne of King of the Policemen. “He said, ‘Make sure you always know who’s on the ice with you.’”
There was a scrum behind the net, and Howe was watching Lindsay get into it with one of the Rangers. The game was played in old Madison Square Garden.
“I saw Louie out of the corner of my eye, and he’s coming right at me,” Howe said. “I remembered Lindsay’s advice. I knew Louie was their tough guy.
“He was going to sucker punch me. I ducked just in time. If I hadn’t, I might have been over with. So I grabbed him by the back of the head and hit him with some punches. I broke his nose a little bit.”
Howe broke Fontinato’s nose a “little bit” like a crystal glass crashing to the floor breaks a little bit.
A season or two later, Fontinato, perhaps trying to earn back some of the manhood taken from him under the glare of Madison Square Garden in New York, tried to run a Toronto player into the boards. Only Louie was the one who got the worst of it, injuring his neck badly.
“That was the end of his hockey,” Howe recalled.
Louie Fontinato, deposed NHL tough guy
The policemen patrolled. The skill guys skated. Traffic was directed and law was enforced. It was a grand time – and not only because such law enforcement meant that gloves would be dropped with relative routine and disturbances would be settled with hand-to-hand combat. But it sure didn’t hurt.
The NHL has a funny way of doing things nowadays. Basically, the way it works is this. They take their game and legislate the excitement out of it, change and experiment with the rules, award points for losing, and stuff the same teams down the fans’ throats. It’s a curious operation, when you consider that those who admired the game – the fans, the players, the coaches – didn’t think there was all that much wrong with the things that were changed, and weren’t too ingratiated with the changes that were made. It might be why the league finds its product buried on a television network called Versus, between the bull-hogtying and the mountain climbing shows they air there.
The Red Wings have tried, even in the post-expansion, post-legislative eras, to keep alive the tradition of the policeman.
Even in the wretched days of the 1970s and ‘80s, brutes have been employed by the franchise, with little more charge than to keep things interesting for the paying customers, since the rest of the team wasn’t much to look at.
Bob Probert and Joey Kocur were the two most famous of these brutes. They patrolled and they weren’t always good cops. Sometimes they used police brutality to beat justice into their overmatched opponents.
But never did they pound into submission an unfortunate before a silent crowd.
Probert serving up some justice to Tie Domi
Probert would engage another team’s tough guy, and so would Kocur on a different night – sometimes you’d get both bad cops doling out brutality on the same evening – and Joe Louis Arena, aptly named after a boxer, would rock. If you ever wanted to see 20,000 people shoot out of their seats at the same time, then you would want to see Bob Probert in a hockey fight. Or Joey Kocur. Or Basil MacRae. Or Randy McKay. Or Stu Grimson, the Grim Reaper. All of these, the Red Wings paid at one time or another, to serve and to protect. If their salaries were ever questioned by those in the team’s brass, all they’d have to do is follow the roar of the crowd when the fists came out of their hockey glove sheaths.
But fighting isn’t easy to come by in today’s NHL. It’s frowned upon by the league, even though polls and sports talk radio gab fests and water cooler discussions and conversations over pretzels and pop indicate that today’s hockey fan pines for the occasional act of fisticuffs. Maybe even more than occasional.
The 2007-08 Red Wings are carrying on their policeman tradition. They have Aaron Downey, and the other night he took exception to San Jose’s Kyle McLaren and his running of Henrik Zetterberg and Dallas Drake. So Downey, eager to lay down the law for his new teammates, went after McLaren. In a quick, one-sided fight, Downey subdued the ne’er-do-well McLaren with some swift, hard punches. Justice served.
After the game, Zetterberg raved about what Downey did, and how it can only help the team.
“I just wanted to show everyone that as long as I’m around, nobody is going to pick on this team,” Downey said of his actions.
So who is it, again, who wants to see fighting eliminated from hockey?
The NHL, where the minority rules with an iron fist.
Oops – can I say fist?
Friday, October 19, 2007
The 1981 team had its heart broken on the last Sunday of the season by the ... (drum roll please) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With good old Wayne Fontes as the Bucs' defensive coordinator.
The Bucs entered the NFL in 1976 and introduced themselves to the football world by losing their first 26 contests. They finished 2-12 in 1977, and nudged up to 5-11 in 1978.
Then, catching the proverbial lightning in a bottle, the Bucs went 10-6 in 1979, winning the Central Division and making it all the way to the conference championship before losing to Los Angeles, 9-0. "From Worst to First!" was their rallying cry.
The Bucs had qualified for the playoffs one year ahead of coach John McKay's "five year plan" for success. But that plan wasn't as ingenious as it appeared.
"I said we had a five-year plan because I had a five-year contract," McKay deadpanned years later for NFL Films. "We would have had a three-year plan if I had a three-year contract, or a four-year plan, etc."
After slumping in 1980, the Buccaneers came back strong in 1981.
The Lions were unbeaten at home going into the last Sunday. But their 7-0 mark at the Silverdome was negated by their 1-7 record on the road. So the Lions, 8-7, would go up against Tampa Bay, also 8-7, for a winner-take-all showdown in Pontiac.
It was a close, hard-fought contest, but thanks to nose tackle David Logan's long fumble return for a TD, the Bucs led, 20-17, in the closing minutes.
The Lions drove for the tying or winning score, led by Eric Hipple. They got into the red zone. But in the waning moments, Hipple was intercepted in the end zone. The Lions suffered their only home loss, and the Bucs celebrated their second division title in three years in the Dome's visitors locker room.
Ironically, the Lions made the playoffs the next season despite a 4-5 mark in the strike-shortened season. They won the division in '83 with a 9-7 record. The Bucs, however, weren't good again, really, until Tony Dungy took them over in 1997. And they became yet another expansion team to win a Super Bowl, in 2003, under Jon Gruden.
I remember seeing films of the Bucs' post-game celebration in '81 in Pontiac, and there's Fontes in the background, his brown, round, tanned face conspicuous. And those big white teeth, smiling away. Four years later, he'd become the Lions' defensive coordinator under Darryl Rogers. The rest, they say, is history.
Sunday, the Lions welcome the Bucs and their thrice-deposed QB, Jeff Garcia -- whose career has been nearly ended in Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Yet he's still around, and having a great season so far.
"We didn't have all our players on the same page in Detroit," Garcia said earlier this week of his time here in 2005. "It's hard to win that way."
He's another who won before Detroit, and has won after leaving. Usually, those types have all the answers, in typical 20/20 hindsight fashion.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I would tell them, "You either want me or you don't want me. Period. So what's the big holdup?"
Torre has been twisting in the wind ever since the Yankees' capitulation to the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. That makes seven years since the last championship for the Bronx Bombers -- a time frame in which they've blown a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS, seen a heavily underdog Florida team upend them in the World Series, and doing so just two years after seeing the heavily underdog Arizona Diamondbacks upend them in the World Series. OH, and last year, the heavily underdog Tigers upended them in the ALDS.
OK, so there seems to be a pattern of post-season failure here. And if that's enough to cast Torre aside after 12 seasons, then so be it. But so be it SOON, instead of this nonsense where team execs hole themselves up in a conference room in Tampa and emerge with no news as to whether the 67-year-old will manage the team in 2008.
Torre has won four World Series as Yankees manager. Granted, they came within the first five years of his tenure, but he still deserves better than sitting at home, wondering if he'll be back. The Yankees have been out of the playoffs for a couple of weeks now.
It's not idiotic to suggest that sometimes players need a different voice. Torre is easily the longest-tenured manager in the American League because he wins, and because there really hasn't been anyone else who could handle managing under the circumstances that he manages under. Yet 12 years is a long time, and despite the annual trips to the playoffs, maybe it indeed is time for a new leader. Fine. Just make a decision, already.
Just about everyone has weighed in on the Torre Question. Everyone that is, except the people who decide his fate: GM Brian Cashman, and owner George Steinbrenner. All the Internet polls and talk radio discussions in the world don't change this distinct fact: that Joe Torre has no idea what his status with the Yankees is this morning. And that's shameful, even for an organization as filled with drama as the Yankees'.
Part of the drama is self-assigned. I don't know what's taking the powers to be so long to come to a consensus. Either you want Joe Torre as your manager, or you don't. Period. I can see arguments for both yes and no. And, presumably, so can the Yankees brass. They're just taking far too long in sorting those arguments out.
To quote The Clash, "Should I stay or should I go now?"
Yes? Or no?
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
One reason for my lack of clarity is that not too many goalies are still card-carrying members of the NHL at such an advanced age. The 40s, for most of them, means lots of golf and a growing paunch. Definitely not sprawling on the ice, flailing at discs of vulcanized rubber.
Dominik Hasek is a couple years past 40, and will be three years past it come January. Last season, returning to the Red Wings after two years in exile, Hasek had an All-Star season, though he was rooked and left off the team. His GAA and save pct. were constantly in the top three of the league. He racked up eight shutouts. He was splendid in the playoffs, and only showed some wear in the Red Wings' final game of the post-season.
But this season, early on, Hasek looks more like a 42-year-old playing goalie than a goalie who happens to be 42.
His GAA is 2.94, with an unsightly save pct. of .874.
Hasek has been a shadow of his 2006-07 self, early on
Now, realizing that numbers can be as misleading as a political ad, it's not all about the stats. But already, I've seen pucks bounce off Hasek's helmet, off his shoulder, through his pads, and they've all ended up in the net. He's been a mediocre netminder, truth be told, in his 306 minutes played.
It hasn't been mentioned, and perhaps it's too early to do so -- especially with the Red Wings doing alright with a 4-2-1 record -- but I don't think it's overreacting to suggest that we need to keep an eye on Hasek to see whether this bumpy start is an anomaly or the start of a trend downward. Again, how quickly does a 42-year-old goalie start to go downhill?
No, there weren't any comments about Hasek's age last year, one of his finest. Nor should there have been. And I bring it up now, only because we're kind of in unchartered territory here. We've seen it happen in other sports -- where the aging veteran can so quickly lose his mojo. Playing such a high-profile position as goalie makes us notice as it's occurring. You don't have bad goalie play and then only notice it at the end of the season. Its impact is immediate, its unraveling very public and potentially very ugly.
Hasek keeps himself in marvelous shape. Few, if any, goalies work as hard as he does -- on and off the ice. But at what point does the calendar overtake the reflexes, the instincts, the peripheral vision? Working hard isn't the only prerequisite.
Maybe Dom Hasek will work his way out of his little funk. Maybe some blame can be placed at the doorstep of his teammates. Maybe there's nothing to worry about, after all.
But maybe not. So then what do the Red Wings do? And when would they consider doing it?
Just something to think about. Watch him and see if you don't agree.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Thanks much! See ya with a new post here tomorrow!
Monday, October 15, 2007
Before the stunned Bengals punt cover team could react, Barney was in the end zone, some 60 yards from where he stole the football from under their noses.
That play occurred in 1970. And yes, I remember it, which makes me comfortable to make the declaration I'm about to make today -- as someone who should know. Being an old coot and all.
I've seen Barney electrify the masses. And Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. And Mel Gray. And "Neon" Deion Sanders. And many more in between. But no one -- and I'm sorry, Lem and Mel, the two greatest return men in Lions history -- have I seen that can do with the football what Devin Hester can do.
Hester ran another punt back for a TD yesterday, some 90 yards, and then jitterbugged with a Brian Griese pass for an 89-yard score, and the fact that his Chicago Bears lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-31, can hardly be blamed on him. In fact, they'd be nowhere near the Vikes if it wasn't for Hester's magic.
He did it to the Lions, too -- a kickoff return that, as usual with his returns, seemed innocent in its beginning, until he spotted a sliver of daylight and went into turbo throttle. It took the air out of the Lions' sails for a moment in Week 4, before they recovered and made Hester another hero in a losing cause. His other returns that Sunday last month didn't go all the way, but several were dicey enough to literally cause the Ford Field crowd to gasp.
Hester, in a typical pose: looking back at his pursuers
Hester is, in just his second NFL season, the finest return man the league has ever known. I say that because of his constant ability to make something out of nothing. Last season among his many happy returns, he ran back a missed field goal for a Bears touchdown -- nearly 110 yards, when the play seemed dead, a la Barney against the Bengals in 1970.
He took the opening kickoff back for a score -- in the Super Bowl, no less.
Some return men are exciting because of their sheer speed. Once those types hit that crease, behind their blocking wedge, it's basically a straight shot to the end zone. That takes skill, certainly. But those are entertainers blessed with speed and not much else. For every one of those straight shots to the end zone, they take about 20 terrific hits to the mid-section.
Hester is unique. He often starts out slow, as if he has this ability to slow everyone else down on the field, to see where they AREN'T going to be. Then, in a flash, he fires up his jets, and it's pretty much over with. Rarely, on any of his TD returns, is Hester ever actually touched. But his routes to the end zone are hardly ever straight shots. He doesn't rely just on speed. In fact, his speed is the last thing that kicks in.
The late sports columnist Joe Falls had a great line about Barney, that I think is more than appropriate for Devin Hester, too.
"When Lem Barney touched the ball, he was like the National Anthem. He made people stand up."
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The images filled my television screen on Saturday mornings, taking place inside Cobo Arena the night before. Channel 62, I believe, was the outlet. It was a time when BTW didn’t stand for “By the way”, as it does in today’s Internet world.
Big Time Wrestling. Just saying the words, even today, makes me want to chuck someone into a turnbuckle. Maybe even apply a Sleeper Hold.
The Sleeper – that was The Stomper’s signature move. There was the Camel Clutch of The Sheik’s, and Bobo Brazil’s Cocoa Butt. Pampero Firpo had El Garfio. The Mighty Igor mainly just walked around with a silly grin on his face and let his opponents bounce off him.
Some things use up their Statute of Limitations when it comes to embarrassment. So I won’t sugarcoat it. You got me, fair and square. For I would bounce around the family room in our Livonia tri-level, before the parental units awakened, watching the wrestling and using whatever I could find as my “opponent” – an old stuffed animal, a pillow. Sometimes the other combatant was nothing but air. Down I would go, on my back, fending off the dreaded three count, fighting my imaginary attacker, to avoid defeat. Then it was up on the couch to jump down onto my poor invisible victim, as if from the top rope, elbow cocked and ready to drive into his chest – just like the pros on TV.
Oh, how they thrilled me, those Big Time Wrestlers. They showed bouts during the week, too, but those were in studios before a sparse audience and the atmosphere was practically non-existent. It was like watching pro football played on a sandlot field. But the matches from Cobo were electric. The crowds were large and loud, and the ring was the only thing lit, like a Broadway stage. You’d see the occasional flash bulbs. It was pretty exciting stuff, especially for a 10-year-old.
I’ll never forgive Ben Justice.
He paired with The Stomper to make a formidable tag-team tandem. And there they were, in a struggle with the “bad guys”, or “heels”, as George “The Animal” Steele told me a year ago July in an interview.
So the match is going along, and The Stomper is in trouble. But he manages to make it to the corner and tag Justice, who leaps into the fray. Then it happened, and I’d still like to ask Ben – WHY?
Justice looks at the heel who’s beating up on The Stomper, then suddenly turns against his partner and starts pounding on him, too! Now it’s three against one, and the crowd – not to mention the excitable announcer Chuck Allen – is aghast.
“He turned on The Stomper! Ben Justice has turned on The Stomper!” Allen screamed into his microphone as a young lad in Livonia watched, mouth agape.
So, from that point on, Ben Justice was a heel. Shame on him!
But nothing can beat the moment I saw The Sheik hurl flames.
Wrestling's greatest heel: The Sheik (note the pointy boots)
I’m sure it was a cheap special effects trick, but all I know is, I’m watching The Sheik – surely the best heel in wrestling history, with his prayers to Allah before each match and his headdress and his crazed, faraway gaze – and he’s taking on Johnny Valentine, and the blond good guy is giving him quite a battle. The Sheik’s in trouble, and The Sheik NEVER loses. So he does what any self-respecting heel would do in a similar situation: he throws freaking fire. One moment, Valentine is giving him the business, and the next, The Sheik is fiddling around near his waist, and a flash of yellow-white appears, and it’s near Valentine’s face.
Naturally, the acting drama is played to the hilt. Valentine stomps around the ring, convulsing, his hands pressed against his “burned” face. Attendants enter the ring and wrap his face with a towel. The crowd boos and howls. And, of course, the referee doesn’t see a thing, and awards The Sheik the victory because of forfeit.
Oh, so much more to tell you. Cage matches. “Loser leaves town.” Wrestlers who hailed from “Parts unknown.” Firpo, who was billed as the Wild Bull of the Pampas. The “air-conditioned Cobo Arena.” There was a tag-team, supposedly from Australia, named the Kangaroos. They were Al Costello and Don Kent. They used to beat up on their opponents with cleverly hidden boomerangs. Once, my father took me to pro wrestling at a local high school and I saw Costello near an exit. I approached him, program in hand, and managed to ask for an autograph, all by my lonesome. In character (the Kangaroos were heels), he gives me – a kid – a sneer, then scrawls his name. It scared the hell out of me. But I got the autograph.
Then there was big Bobo Brazil, from Benton Harbor. His thing was to bang his forehead against yours – the Cocoa Butt. He was a good guy, and I remember a classic match between him and The Sheik. As usual, The Sheik came out on top, but not before Bobo dished out some cocoas.
Bobo Brazil (left) giving it to The Sheik
(check out the ref! It's Joe Louis)
None of this really matters anymore, of course. It’s all just random memory, zooming through my brain as I tap feverishly on my keyboard. But it was a thrilling time to be a wide-eyed kid who believed absolutely everything he saw happen inside the squared circle was on the up-and-up. It never occurred to me that the action I saw played out was anything less than real and unscripted. Honestly. I was late on the Santa Claus thing, too – to show you.
Some kids had their cartoons on Saturday mornings. Good for them. But I had my pro wrestling. Better for me.
But damn you, Ben Justice.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Browse over to my new, satirical website, Spoiled Sports. It's sports news, but with a twist. Namely -- it's all fake. Yes, in the spirit of The Onion, I'll provide you with phony sports news that I hope will kill your appetite for the real stuff.
And, to make things legal, I must remind you: the stories you're about to read there are NOT true. But they sure are fun to write, and, I hope, to read as well.
Hope you enjoy!
But the NFL must, MUST, do away with this nonsense of allowing coaches to call time outs -- at least during field goal tries.
The Buffalo Bills' Dick Jauron was the latest to try this bush league move, which is to call time out JUST before the ball is snapped. He did it Monday night as the visiting Dallas Cowboys were getting ready to try a game-winning, 53-yard kick with but one second remaining. The ESPN cameras were showing us the end zone angle as the Cowboys kicker went into his motion and smacked the pigskin with the side of his foot, in that soccer-style that is now taken over the kicking game. The kick was long enough and straight enough. Cowboys win!
Nope -- wait a minute!
Apparently, Jauron called time out on the sidelines in the fraction of a second before the ball was snapped. I was wondering why the officials beneath the goal posts hadn't signaled the kick was good, when it clearly was.
So the young kicker Folk had to do it all over again -- which was exactly the motive for Jauron's eleventh-hour time out. His second kick was as true as the first -- practically an instant replay. Cowboys win! For real, this time.
The ironic thing about this mess is that kickers have said, on more than one occasion, that the whole notion of "icing" them with a time out to make them "think about" the kick does them more good than harm. They would rather, they've remarked, take their time and get everything right. Kickers are a very deliberate, routine-oriented lot. Better that, they say, than to rush onto the field and make a kick, helter skelter. So the "icing" might really mean that the other team has injected that stuff into the kicker's veins, after all. Tables turned.
But that's not the point here. To allow a coach to call a time out like that is opening the league and its officials up to a kind of dispute that can't really be solved with the security blanket of instant replay.
What if the official that Jauron was barking to didn't hear him in time? Or what if his reaction time was just slow enough that the second between Jauron's time out and the official's acknowledgement didn't happen fast enough, and the kick was on its way? Or how about this: what if the kicking team missed, and THEY insisted that the other team's coach called time out? If I was a special teams coach, I'd have someone bird-dogging the other team's coach, for just such a gamesmanship ploy myself. Maybe I could get myself another kick that way, if needed.
On the ESPN replay (and the network wisely had a hand-held camera trained on Jauron), you can see Jauron looking at the field, an official to his right. Then he yells, "GO! GO! NOW! GO!" several times, to the zebra. Finally he's granted the time out. Now, how Jauron knows when the ball is going to be snapped, I have no idea. You can't just go by the play clock, because teams don't always use all of it during a field goal try. So maybe it's just intuition. Regardless, it's a dumb rule and should be abolished. Heaven forbid something similar happen in a Super Bowl.
The fix is easy: only allow players on the field to call time out. Now, if an enterprising player manages to sneak one in before a kick, more power to him. Or, better yet, forbid time outs on kicking plays once the players are set. An attempt to call one after this deadline is met with a five-yard penalty, making the kick easier.
The league is sitting on a powder keg the way it is now.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Things The Red Wings Can Do To Fill JLA Again
1. Bring back Score-O. Remember this nifty little game? Three lucky fans (selected if they bought game programs with a special note inside) were brought to the ice surface in the second intermission. Their charge? To shoot a puck from varying spots on the ice (dependent on their age and gender), thru a slot in a wooden "goalie" propped up in front of the cage. They gave away cash and even cars back in the day.
2. Cheerleaders. Hey -- it seems to be the panacea to solve every other attendance issue in other sports. I figure we could call them the Hockeytown Angels (get it? Red WINGS?), and they could do their thing -- on skates -- during TV timeouts.
3. More fighting. And not just by the players. Since the NHL seems reluctant to cooperate, then the first intermission can be similar to Score-O, only in this instance, the selected fans will have to duke it out at center ice for two minutes. Mismatches will be handled by hands tied behind backs, etc.
4. Celebrity Penalty Killer. With the Motor City brimming with national celebrities that hail from around here, why not invite one for each home game to suit up and kill one penalty per game?
5. Post-game fireworks. A la the Tigers at Comerica Park, the Wings could treat their fans to a post-game pyrotechnic display -- but using the same fireworks that you use outdoors. It's fun, AND with the thrill of life-threatening danger. Sounds good to me, and perfect for the hockey fan's mentality.
6. Open skate after games. Ahh, perfect for families. Al Sobotka resurfaces the ice immediately after the game, and people of all ages then take the ice for a leisurely skate. Bonus: On Friday nights, you must be 18 years old or over to skate, and bodychecking is allowed.
7. JLA-to-Windsor Casino Tunnel. Build this, and then you've really got something. No other explanation necessary.
8. Giant Hamsters. Scientists, get cracking. Time to transform these cute, brown little rodents into ones befitting the Habitrail-like tubes that run around the parking garage near the Joe. How thrilling would it be to have to possibly encounter one of these giant creatures on the way from your car to the arena? Bonus: They'd scare off all the ticket scalpers.
They're they are for this week. Talk amongst yourselves. And remember, they're just things.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Plenty of good seats still available at the Joe as the Red Wings embark on yet another season-long quest for the Stanley Cup. PLENTY of them.
It's gotten a lot of air time since Opening Night -- that the Red Wings can no longer sell out JLA, and not even close, really. Reporters say several thousand seats appeared empty throughout the home opener last week against defending Cup champ Anaheim, and even more went unsat in Monday against Edmonton. Talk radio, always looking for air-killing topics, tackled the issue yesterday. Even the Red Wings players themselves are using words like "disappointed" to describe the horror of playing before only 17,000 fans instead of 20,000.
Many reasons have been offered. The economy. Burn-out. The loss of stars like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan (that's a laughable one). The arena itself.
All that is hogwash -- if you'll only listen to me.
You want to know the two biggest reasons the Red Wings can now comfortably satisfy thousands of walk-up customers on a nightly basis?
I'm going to give them to you -- Reason 1 and 1A.
1. The schedule. I've railed about this, as you know, ever since the league returned from its walkout/lockout. Put simply, the fans in Detroit are getting tired of seeing the same damn teams over and OVER again. Thanks to the wonderful unbalanced schedule, the fans here are weary of a steady diet of Western Conference teams. I appreciate the fact that the Ducks are defending champs. But they're still the Ducks -- no offense. The Red Wings have already entertained the Ducks and the Oilers, and tonight it's the Flames. Friday it's Chicago. Without even looking at the schedule, I can tell you that before long it will be St. Louis, and Columbus, and Nashville. Followed, I'm sure, by Colorado and Minnesota. And probably Edmonton again. Then another visit by Chicago. And so on.
There are 30 teams in the NHL, for goodness sakes. Yet fans in every city are force fed the same 14 or 15 ad nauseum, with only an occasional appearance by a team from the other conference -- almost sadistically, just to give fans a taste of what they're missing.
Unless this ridiculous schedule changes, you'll see what's happening in Detroit spreading throughout the league, like a fast-growing infection. I'm telling you, bring the Devils and the Maple Leafs and the Rangers in here more often, and you'll see those seats become occupied with fannies.
1A. The Tigers' success. How can a team that plays in an opposite season be a culprit?
I'll tell you how.
First, the baseball and hockey seasons do, indeed, overlap. They do so mainly in April and May -- and in the case of 2006, in October. With the Tigers' resurgence, and as they fill Comerica Park continually, there's a lot of the entertainment dollar and disposable income being spent, right there. It's reasonable to believe that as funds get diverted to the Tigers, there may not be as much available for the Red Wings. If you're wondering how that may affect the Pistons' crowds next month, I'm not sure that the Pistons share as many fans with the Tigers as the Red Wings do. Just an educated guess.
It is maybe even accurate, dare I say, that the Tigers are today's 1980s Red Wings: enjoying a franchise rebirth, awakening a sleeping fan base after some long-awaited taste of success.
Jiri Fischer finds a good seat moments before game time recently
Now, having said all that, I'm not quite sure what to make of the Red Wings players' disappointment over the crowds. On the one hand, I can appreciate wanting to play in front of a packed house every night. But I also feel a tad offended if their "disappointment" is in some way a jab at the fans. You know -- like how a parent is "disappointed" in his child for acting out. The fans have supported the Red Wings in droves since the mid-1980s. I think they're entitled to be cut some slack. What about all the disappointment heaped their way by way of early Red Wings playoff exits?
This is my story and I'm sticking to it: unless the NHL frees its fans from the shackles of the unbalanced schedule, then the combination of a soft Michigan economy and the perpetual appearances of Western Conference teams is going to keep JLA saddled with unbought, unclaimed tickets.
As Yogi Berra once said, "If people don't want to come to the ballpark, then nothing's going to stop them."
Monday, October 08, 2007
First, my lovely wife, Sharon, has started a new blog -- aimed at moms and wives and families. It's called My Li'l Blog Cabin. Guys, tell your wives and girlfriends about it. Ladies, visit her and see if you can relate. It's about real life and being a mom and being married to me -- which automatically qualifies her for the Congressional Medal of Honor, as far as I'm concerned.
Also, don't forget to come back this Friday, the 12th, for a major announcement of something I'm launching. I think it will be fun, and a departure from the drivel served up here.
They essentially will have had two weeks off when they take on Tampa Bay at Ford Field on the 21st, because they were hardly on the field during yesterday's 34-3 vanishing act against the Redskins in Washington.
The Lions are now 0-21 in Washington.
Roy Williams -- every pizza delivery guy's arch enemy -- along with Mike Furrey and Calvin Johnson, probably were able to simply hang up their jerseys sans the need to launder them. QB Jon Kitna, on the other hand, is a candidate for a Whisk commercial.
When head coach Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz evaluate the offense on film, they'd better do so with toothpicks holding their eyes open, for if they blink they might miss an entire series. The Redskins held the football so much, especially in the first half, it was like watching "monkey in the middle" played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Manute Bol, and Danny DeVito.
It's one thing to have Donovan McNabb carve you up. But the Lions will continue to have the Jason Campbells of the world feasting if they bring the lovely defensive combination of no rush, no cover ability to the table. What NFL quarterback worth his salt -- and even the ones that aren't -- won't have a field day if the pass rush is nonexistent and the DBs play as if allergic to the men they're assigned to cover?
But look -- this isn't a season killer. The Lions are simply suffering thru the growing pains of a team trying to make the step from pretender to contender. Namely, the "I" word -- inconsistency. They're bound to be up and down throughout the year. It's just that when they've been down, they've been at the bottom of the valley.
The Lions, so far this season, appear very capable of winning close ballgames, especially in the fourth quarter and beyond. They also seem very capable of getting their asses kicked on occasion. It all may still add up to 8-8 or 9-7 when all is said and done. It's not atypical of the second tier NFL team.
But -- and call me crazy -- I have a different sense of optimism with this Lions squad. When they fall behind 14-0 or 16-3, as they did yesterday, I genuinely think their offense can awaken and those points can be made up. I haven't felt that way about any Lions team in over a decade, since the salad days of Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, and company. I thought that if the Lions, with the ball to start the second half, could put together a decent drive and get some points, that they were right back in the game. And the funny thing is, this time I actually believed it, as opposed to it being simply wishful thinking. Granted, it didn't happen against the 'Skins, but the belief that it could is a step in the right direction.
The Lions are a 3-2 football team that's been outscored in its two losses, 90-24. Win Small, Lose Big. That's the theme in 2007. But if the Ws somehow match the Ls, then it's still an upgrade -- no matter how one-sided the losses are. You get into the playoffs based on your record, not on point differential (unless you're #7 down the list of tiebreakers).
So the Lions lost, 34-3, to the Redskins in Washington. But they've already beaten the Raiders for the first time ever in Oakland, snapped a double-digit losing streak to the Vikings, and a five-gamer to the Bears. And all in September.
Take a step back from the edge, and ask yourself: would you have taken 3-2 going into the bye week?
I think so.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Loquaciousness hasn’t been the rule around Lions Land. In the few times when it’s happened, the words have usually turned around to chomp the speaker in the posterior.
Lomas Brown, Pro Bowl offensive tackle, was full of jingoism one day as the Lions got ready to play the Philadelphia Eagles in a playoff game, in 1995. The team had won its last seven games to get into the post-season.
“I guarantee,” Lomas said, “that we will win this game.”
At the time of his fit, the Lions had won but one playoff game in 38 years. Yet Brown put it out there – the flimsy player guarantee of victory. Ever since Joe Namath, we’ve been deluged with phony baloney promises of football satisfaction for the fans. They are usually self-posterior-chewing words.
So the Lions traveled to Philly, guaranteed a victory by their starting left tackle. All they’d need to do, according to Brown’s words, was go through the formalities of slipping on their uniforms and putting in their 60 minutes, punching out, and flying home to play another round. Guaranteed.
Then the Lions, playing in front of a national TV audience, spotted the Eagles a 51-7 lead before capitulating, 58-37. No Namath touch for Lomas. And no more talking, either – by any Lions player, for years.
Roy Williams is a prototypical NFL star wide receiver. That is, he’s tall, strong, and capable of big plays. It also means he’s flamboyant and a character. Whenever he catches a ball that results in a Lions first down, he makes what is now becoming his signature gesture: kneeling on one knee as he thrusts his right arm forward, signaling the new set of downs.
But that’s on the field. It’s off the field where Williams has made his biggest departure from Lions players of yore.
Like this helmet, Williams' words often come off the top of his head
Roy Williams talks. A lot. He’ll talk about anything. Football. Video games. Pizza delivery. How cheap he is. The Lions’ next opponents.
And that was just last week.
Frankly, I find it refreshing. The Lions finally have a player who isn’t afraid to choke on his own speech. And Lord knows there’ve been some instances…
“We left 40 points on the field,” Williams said after the Lions’ opener in 2006, in which they scored six against the Seattle Seahawks.
“We’re the best 1-5 team in the league,” he said after the Lions fell to – you guessed it – 1-5 last season.
And another of those self-posterior-chewing guarantees.
“I guarantee we’ll win next week,” Williams crowed after that Seattle loss. The next week’s game was against the Chicago Bears, on the road.
The Lions lost, 34-7.
But that didn’t stop Williams from talking. Nothing does. But that’s OK. The rest of the league is starting to take notice of Williams’ propensity to blab, with the Lions off to a nifty 3-1 start. He’s frequently the target of the pre-game boom mikes – the ones that capture the flamboyant NFL star speaking directly into the hand-held camera and telling it what to expect that day.
“Opening Day…first game for the rookie…Megatron,” Williams was saying before the Lions opener in Oakland last month, into one of those pre-game cameras and microphones. He was referring to the highly-touted receiver Calvin Johnson.
“Gonna hit the end zone today,” Williams continued, now talking about the receiving corps and himself. “I’d say we’ll get three today. Yeah – three TD passes today. At least. Rook’s gonna get one, too.”
The Lions got their three TD passes that day – including Johnson’s first ever. The Lions won, refusing to collapse into defeat in the fourth quarter.
As his team gets better, Williams’ words get more prophetic. Funny how that works.
But not everyone is charmed by his verbosity.
Last week, Williams got some ink and airplay for a comment he made regarding his own cheapness.
“I don’t tip the pizza guy,” Williams said into a microphone – the kind that broadcasts the words spoken into it over the airwaves. “I don’t. I’m not even sure what to give. I mean, I’m polite. I say ‘Thank you, sir.’ But the pizza guy knows that when he comes to my house, he’s coming for free.”
It wasn’t enough, in some people’s minds, to write those words off as “Roy being Roy.” Williams makes a base salary in the seven digits. The notion of a millionaire refusing to tip the “pizza guy”, and it being cute, didn’t set well with lunch bucket Detroiters.
It grew legs, as these things sometimes (ahh) do. A local pizzeria offered to have Williams deliver pies for a shift, to see what it was like. All in good fun, of course – except for those offended to begin with.
Lem Barney never offended. Sims never did. And aside from that whole retiring early thing, Barry Sanders never did, either. But Barney, as a player, rarely said anything worth remembering – and that’s no knock. Same for Sims and Sanders. They were reserved, professional-to-the-hilt players who made us gasp on a whole lot of Sundays.
Roy Williams makes us gasp on all the other days. Sometimes he makes us gag. But he keeps us interested in between games. He is, in that sense, among the rarest of Lions.
Besides, pizza guys don’t HAVE to go to his house. He gets what he pays for.
Friday, October 05, 2007
But if you only visit me one day next week, make sure it's Friday, the 12th.
I'm launching something new, and I hope you'll find it enjoyable and fun. I'll sprinkle hints in this space throughout the week, starting on Monday.
You may now spend your weekend thinking about what it might be.....
The Detroit Lions have been card-carrying members of the National Football League since 1934. The Washington Redskins beat them to it, by one year, entering in 1933. It's yet another time that the 'Skins have trumped the Lions.
Yet at no point during these 74 years has a Lions team traveled to the nation's capital, played a football game, and walked off the field a winner. The streak is 20, including three playoff games.
The Lions' drought in Green Bay gets a lot of play in these parts, because the Packers are on the Lions' schedule every year, and so there are annual reminders: no wins in Green Bay/Milwaukee since 1991. Oh-for-Brett Favre.
But at least the Lions HAVE won in Wisconsin. There was a time when it wasn't all that uncommon. An old coot like me can tell you.
The Washington famine is another story. NEVER have the Lions won in D.C. It's by far the longest-running vexation in league history.
Coach Rod Marinelli, speaking at Monday's weekly presser, said absolutely nothing that I didn't expect him to, when the subject of "Winless in Washington" (could be a sequel to "Sleepless in Seattle") was brought up.
"It means nothing," the coach said. "I don't think about where we're playing."
Not unexpected. Also completely untrue.
Of COURSE the Lions will be thinking about the streak. Why else are we here, but to remind them? And that includes Marinelli, who will tell us on Monday that he doesn't think about it, but will undoubtedly preen like a rooster if the Lions pull it off. Who wouldn't want to be the first Lions coach to win a football game in Washington?
Now, it may be that us riff-raff bloggers focus on it more than the players, but I'll bet you a case of Molson Brador that the Lions players will be much more exuberant than usual on the field, if the clock ticks down Sunday and the scoreboard shows the Lions safely ahead.
I'm reminded of another streak that dogged a Detroit sports team, and how at least one of the key players reacted to its breaking.
In the 1990 NBA Finals, an underlying theme was that the Pistons hadn't won a game in Portland since the Nixon administration (1972). And here they were, tied 1-1 with the Blazers after the first two games in Detroit. Some nitwits had the Blazers as new NBA champs, simply because the Pistons hadn't won in Portland in 18 years. What's three more games, in the heart of the Finals?
In the official NBA Finals video, there was a shot of Pistons center Bill Laimbeer on the bench, Game 3 safely in hand for Detroit. He looked at the camera and flashed that famous smiling sneer of his.
"They said we haven't won in Portland since 1972," Laimbeer said, his voice unmistakingly caught by the boom microphone. Then he sing-songed, "Well, I think that streak is about to end!"
The Pistons then started a new streak. They won all three in Portland and flew home with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Players and coaches are, at the same time, not as oblivious to history as they purport, yet also not as obsessed with it as those watching them perform. Laimbeer's reaction to the end of the Portland streak will, I'll bet, be similar to that of Roy Williams and Company if the Lions manage to scoot out of Washington a winner.
Oh, and they'd be 4-1, too, going into the bye. Not a bad sidebar.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Things The Lions Should Do To Break Their 0-20 Record In Washington
1. Change the contest to a no-holds barred UFC match between Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. I like our chances with the hulking Kwame against the drugged out, scrawny Barry.
2. Designate Matt Millen an honorary Redskins captain. Millen played on the 1991 world champion 'Skins. Maybe his losing karma will poison the Washington sidelines for a game.
3. Convince O.J. Simpson that the Redskins have some of his stolen sports memorabilia in their locker room. Maybe a well-timed O.J.-led "sting" can disrupt the Redskins' pre-game preparations.
4. Call on recent history. The Democrats won control over Congress last November for the first time in decades. The Lions can use that for motivation.
5. Change the weekly slogan to "One out of 21 ain't bad." I think Rod Marinelli is up to the challenge.
6. Sign Rudy for inspiration. Or Radio. Or Lucas. Or the Marshall team. Or Robin Williams and Dennis Quaid from that one football movie. Or the guys from the "Longest Yard". While you're at it, have Gene Hackman give the pre-game speech, a la "Hoosiers."
7. Stab their punter in the leg. I heard someone tried this. Any idea how it worked out?
8. Get Clinton Portis to play with Mattel toys made in China. Maybe the elevated amounts of lead will throw him off kilter.
9. Hire medium John Edward. Have him communicate with the ghosts of Lions past who've actually beaten the Redskins in Wash.....wait -- that won't work, will it?
10. Trade Jason Campbell to Atlanta for Joey Harrington. Need I explain this one?
OK, there they are. Talk amongst yourselves. And remember, they're just things.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
The smiling cherub Isiah Thomas grabbed the microphone and addressed the crowd after the Pistons made their first of two consecutive #1 picks, at 10th and 11th overall.
"This guy," Isiah said of Lindsey Hunter out of Jackson State, "is a little Isiah!" The crowd roared. They were eager to embrace another smiling assassin at point guard to take over from Thomas, who would retire at the end of the 1993-94 season.
The next pick down, the Pistons grabbed the shooting guard Allan Houston, out of Tennessee. The two of them -- Hunter and Houston (they even rolled off the tongue) -- were to do for the Pistons what Thomas and Joe Dumars had done in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
Well, it didn't exactly work out that way, of course. Thomas retired, the Pistons were awful in H&H's rookie season, and despite that awfulness resulting in the drafting of Grant Hill in 1994, the Pistons in subsequent seasons were much more like the slapstick teams of the 1960s and '70s than the Bad Boys who won two championships.
And Hunter eventually was sent to Milwaukee, in 2000. Houston had already fled as a free agent by then. The H&H duo, to put it in cruel terms, had been big flops in Detroit -- from the standpoint of team success.
Hunter's smile may not be as famous as Thomas's, but his impact on the franchise has been significant
Hunter returned to Detroit in 2003, a world championship with the Lakers on his resume. His homecoming, if you will, came just in time to add another ring to his hand with the '04 Pistons.
Today, Lindsey Hunter is a soon-to-be 37-year-old who still smiles, still plays tough defense, and who will be a Piston after his playing days are through, thanks to a handshake deal he has with president Dumars and owner Bill Davidson. But this season, he holds the title of player/coach, at an apt time, what with the team adding several young guards to its roster.
It doesn't seem to have been defined yet, exactly how much Hunter will be a player, and how much he will be a coach. I'm guessing that will be fleshed out as the season progresses. But there's no ambiguity as to the impact he is sure to have on players like Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, and Jarvis Hayes.
Here's no less than Chauncey Billups: "What better guard can you have, especially defensively and with principles and how to play than Lindsey Hunter? He can get out there and not just talk about it but do it, too," the Pistons' current assassin at the point said at media day Monday.
Hunter is not a good shooter. Never has been. The fact that he's logged 14 seasons in the NBA, as a guard who cannot consistently hit a jump shot, is a testament to his defense and leadership. And that's no backhanded compliment. I would dread to have the ball in Hunter's hands if a game-winning shot needed to be made, but I'd sure as heck be comfy with him guarding the other team's guy in that same situation.
When Hunter arrived in 1993 -- the Pistons' "little Isiah" -- the basketball team in Detroit was about to slide downhill rapidly. Chuck Daly had been gone for a year, and the replacement, Ron Rothstein (who campaigned for the job shamelessly, a la Dick Vitale in 1978), was a disaster. So the Pistons had Don Chaney as their new coach, an aging roster, and two brand new guards. It wasn't enough. But Hunter, it is assumed, learned some things by playing with Thomas for one season. And Dumars was still around, and would be throughout Hunter's first fling in Detroit, as a player. So there was another guard/professor whose brain could be picked.
It's almost hard to believe, but Lindsey Hunter begins his 15th NBA season next month. All but three of them have been spent as a Piston. He can still enter a game, bring some energy, disrupt some things. He might even hit an occasional three-pointer, bad shooter and all. And there's that calendar, which he continues to defy, despite it saying that he'll turn 37 in December.
What better guard can you have, Billups wondered aloud on Monday, than Hunter in this day and age in Pistons history?
Monday, October 01, 2007
First, let me tell you that I had no idea the Lions had set an NFL record for most points scored in the fourth quarter, mainly because I didn't even realize the 34 points had all been scored in the fourth quarter. Why? Because the Lions scored on the first play of the fourth, and we all know that the amount of time that passed between the first play and the last was approximately ... well, I don't want to say it was a long time, but bell bottoms went back out of style and came back in while the Lions were trying to put away the Bears.
Until yesterday, I thought some of the most excruciating sports-watching were the last two minutes of a close NBA game. But yesterday's Lions game trumped all that. The Bears were like one of those horror movie villains that wouldn't go away or be killed.
They would fumble, and it would always go out of bounds. The Lions scored on a defensive TD to take the lead, only to see Devin Hester, who's had more dangerous returns than a store clerk the day after Christmas, run back the ensuing kickoff for a touch. The Lions went ahead by ten late in the quarter (thanks to the Bears blocking a PAT), then the Bears drove down the field. They appeared doomed when a zany pass was caught by a lineman and fumbled into the end zone, where the Lions recovered. Only, the officials ruled that the zany pass was actually a zany fumble, and the Bears would retain possession, inside the 15-yard line. Then the Lions defense held and the Bears kicked a FG to bring them within seven. But then the officials -- and by this time I'm ready to check them all for Tim Donaghy DNA -- flagged the Lions for defensive illegal procedure on the kick. I didn't even know there was such a thing. So the Bears took the penalty, which gave them fourth-and-goal at the 1.
"No. 92, lining up directly over center," was the call. Didn't know you couldn't do that. Sounds like football, to me. Regardless, the Bears took the points off the board, went for the TD, and got it. Now they're within three, with less than a minute left. I swear that 20 minutes earlier, there was about 40 seconds more than that remaining. The clock was moving slower than I-94 traffic on a Friday afternoon.
So the Bears try the required onsides kick, and the Lions' Casey FitzSimmons runs the darn thing back for a game-sealing touchdown.
Oh no, we're going to review it. The officials reviewed more video in that game than Leonard Maltin in a busy week. What they were looking for, I have no idea, although I thought the ball had touched a Bear prior to the minimum ten yards when I saw the play for the first time, live, without having to poke my head under a hood to see it again. I now am thinking that if the Donaghy DNA testing fails, then these zebras certainly must be direct descendents of the crew that worked the USA-Russia Olympic basketball travesty of 1972.
So more delays before the referee says, "There IS no review." Huh??
For cripe's sakes -- but the Lions win. I can wear my bell bottoms again.
This 2007 season is but 25% old, but the Lions have already matched their win total of 2006. That's like an MLB team doing it after 40 games -- which is pretty much impossible. And that's what the Lions are doing -- the previously impossible.
A gut-check fourth quarter win at Oakland in Week 1. A gut-check OT win against Minnesota in Week 2. And a gut-check fourth quarter win in Week 4, after a gut-churning loss in Philadelphia in Week 3.
Even the Fox announcers are heaping praise on QB Jon Kitna and his bounty of receivers. Kitna is gaining a reputation now from the national media as a leader in the mold of old-timers like Joe Kapp and newer-timers like Brett Favre: tough and perhaps not the most talented, but the unquestioned pied piper.
But for me, the loveliest part of that fourth quarter marathon was the drive that ended with a TD that gave the Lions a 30-20 lead. The Lions did most of their damage in that possession inside Bears territory with the run. They grinded it out, and Kevin Jones went five yards off tackle for the touchdown and I think I got misty-eyed. I've said it before: give Kitna and his receiving stable 100-120 yards rushing a game -- plus some more consistent pass protection -- and the Lions could darn well be nearly unstoppable, at least by their opponents.
Ahh, the turnovers. No interceptions in the end zone this week (unless you count the one thrown by Chicago's Brian Griese), but RB Tatum Bell fumbled inside the Bears' 10-yard line, and replays showed he simply dropped the ball; he wasn't hit nor nothin'. Kitna fumbled a couple of times.
Fox's Brian Baldinger said it best: the Lions' offense is high-risk, high-reward. And we've pretty much seen a lot of both thru the first quarter of the season.
Speaking of quarters, if the fourth quarter of the season takes as long, comparatively, as the fourth quarter of yesterday's game, they'll be playing the Super Bowl during the Stanley Cup Finals.
And how will the Red Wings and Lions deal with that?