Sunday, September 30, 2007

Don’t Give Cash Too Much Credit For '61 Batting Title

At first glance, there wouldn’t appear to be a much more unlikely batting champion than Norman Dalton Cash.

A career .271 hitter. Only one season of better than .300, and nothing really close to it beyond that.

Yet there it is, forever stamped in indelible ink in the record books and repeated on and, and anywhere else where they make official the history of baseball.

1961: Norm Cash, .361 batting average.

It’s the computation of Williams or Boggs or Cobb or Gwynn. Of Hornsby and Heilmann and Kell and Carew. And maybe, this year, of Ordonez, Magglio.

Tigers right fielder Ordonez is on the verge of becoming the team’s first batting champion since Cash’s anomaly. Maggs went into the weekend with a BA of .359 – nine points ahead of Seattle’s brilliant Ichiro Suzuki, another who’s no stranger to such rarified air. Ordonez hasn’t resided quite in this neighborhood before, but he’s no Norm Cash in that regard.

Of course, few were Norm Cash in any regard.

Cash, one of my favorite of all the Tigers, didn’t take any secrets with him to the grave. He died in 1986, age 51 and already a stroke sufferer by several years. But long before that, before he slipped off a dock and drowned in northern Michigan, Cash had already come clean. He wasn’t such an unlikely batting champ once he explained his magical 1961 season.

It’s generally believed by swingers of baseball bats that the lighter you can make your war club, the more whip-like swinging power you can muster. And feeling like you’re swinging a piece of balsa wood as opposed to oak is a good thing. It’s one reason why the on deck batters will occasionally slide a weighted ring – an aptly named “doughnut” – over their bat while waiting their turn. For when they remove said doughnut, their piece of lumber has the sensation of being more balsa-like.

Norm Cash did that method one better.

Hey -- check that bat!

Baseball, though maybe by mistake, is rife with gamesmanship.

Certain ne’er-do-wells have been employed by ballclubs for various reasons that had little to do with their exploits on the field of play. Some have been experts at deciphering the various gyrations, self-touching, and head shakes of opposing players, managers, and coaches. The sign stealer. Teams in days past were known to pay spies to sit in the center field bleachers with high-powered binoculars and relay the catcher’s signals to the home team batter. Then there were pitchers like Gaylord Perry, who turned himself into a human lube shop on the mound, hiding Vaseline and other substances on his person – shamelessly – and doing it brazenly and with enough panache that he got himself enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Even though we’re not supposed to allow cheaters in, like Pete Rose. And Perry.

It is with such spirit of competition in mind that hitters came up with a method by which to get that balsa wood effect with their bats.

An enterprising sort thought of it. You drill a hole into the top of the barrel, maybe a couple inches deep, perhaps a half-inch in diameter. You hollow it out, then replace the wood with cork. To conceal such a misdeed, some of the original wood is then glued back on top of the cork-filled hole. You now have a lighter bat, by a precious ounce or so. Enough to get that whip-like swing.
Of course, this isn’t gamesmanship – which is done with a wink of the eye. It’s blatant cheating. What sort of hoodlum would cork a bat – for an entire season?

Norm Cash would. Norm Cash did.

He admitted it, years later. It wasn’t hard to guess that something was going on. In 1962, a year after his monster season, Cash slipped down to a .243 BA – some 118 points off his ’61 mark. He never batted higher than .283 before retiring after the 1974 season.


The other day, another former Tigers batting champion, Al Kaline, talked about the genius of Magglio Ordonez.

“I marvel at the guy,” said Kaline, who won the 1955 batting title – at age 20. And without cork. “People don’t realize how smart a hitter he is,” Kaline went on about Ordonez, another non-user of corked bats, it’s presumed. “I look at that probably more than anything else. He just makes adjustments, pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat.

“…It’s a thing to behold. It’s wonderful to watch.”

And all done within the confines of the rules.

Baseball, with its fetish for asterisks, should probably place a big old fat one next to Norm Cash’s 1961 stat line. All of his numbers were on steroids that season. A visit to confirms it. Home runs: 41 (career high). Doubles: 22 (2nd most in career). Triples: 8 (career high). RBI: 132 (career high, by far). Walks: 124 (career high, by far). Intentional walks: 19 (career high). Runs scored: 119 (another landslide career high).

The Statute of Limitations is up – and long ago. They can’t do anything to Norman Cash anymore. They couldn’t even when he made the admission. Besides, ’61 was the year of Roger Maris – with his assault on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, nudged along by teammate Mickey Mantle, who chased Maris all season before fading slightly. The M&M Boys, they called them.

Nope, you can’t change the record books. Can’t re-program the baseball data websites. Can’t expunge Cash’s .361, no matter how light and feathery his bat was that season. And why would you want to, really? He had his fun, and then learned his lesson and stopped, after just the one season. All is forgiven.

Oh, one more thing. You DO know Tiger Stadium is located in Corktown, right?

I love it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Bears' History Not Filled With Pro Bowl QBs, Either

At first glance, it may seem like the Chicago Bears have it all over the Lions. Walter Payton. Mike Singletary. Jim McMahon. Brian Urlacher. Devin Hester. Mike Ditka. Lovie Smith. Even their players' songs trump the Lions'. "Super Bowl Shuffle" beats "Another One Bites the Dust" hands down.

But since 1957, the year of the Lions' last championship, Da Bears have but two championships, and none since 1985. They have been largely mediocre in many of the past 50 years, too.

One reason has been the man lining up under center.

We may hoot and holler over the "controversies" between Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan, or Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple, or Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete, etc., but who have the Bears employed at quarterback?

Kent Nix. Gary Huff. Jack Concannon. Bob Avellini. Bobby Douglass. Steve Fuller. Mike Tomczak. Even Kramer himself, who played more like "Kramer" of Seinfeld fame as a Bear.

Not exactly a list of Pro Bowlers. Even McMahon wasn't all that great of a QB, truthfully. And Rex Grossman, their other Super Bowl quarterback, is a card-carrying member of Trent Dilfers Anonymous.

The Bears quarterback in 1963, the only other title year they've had since their glory years of the 1940s, was a guy named Billy Wade. He was a tough-minded, ugly-type passer, but he came from the pass-happy Los Angeles Rams, and he could chuck it well enough to lead a Bears team driven by its defense.

Ahh, defense. Both the Lions and the Bears, even in so-so years, could boast a better-than-average defense. This is where the names get a lot more impressive, for both teams.

The Lions had Joe Schmidt, the Bears had Dick Butkus. The Lions had their Fearsome Foursome of the early-1960s. The Bears were the Monsters of the Midway around the same time. The Lions had Lem Barney, Night Train Lane, and Alex Karras. The Bears had Singletary, Gary Fencik, and Dan Hampton.

Oh, there's more. Doug Buffone. Mike Lucci. Doug Adkins. Wayne Walker. Doug Plank. Dick LeBeau. Ed O'Bradovich. Doug English.

Lots of Dougs there, huh?

Anyhow, the Bears have used tough, opportunistic defenses and marginal offensive talent to contend, in seasons in which they did so. Besides Payton, the Bears have not truly had a superstar offensive player other than Gale Sayers in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Billy Wade: Gunslinging QB for the '63 champion Bears

Kind of like the Lions in that regard, wouldn't you say? The Detroit teams of the early-1980s, who were playoff contenders annually (1980-83), had what they called "The Silver Rush," a nickname originally given to the talented, sack-happy defensive line, but that was eventually extended to the entire defense. They even wore towels with the words, stuck down their football pants.

The '85 Bears might have been the best defensive team in Super Bowl history. McMahon led the offense, but more with attitude and color than any pure quarterbacking skills. Certainly he wasn't a marksman when it came to throwing the football. But he had Payton to hand the ball to -- and even William "Refrigerator" Perry, at times. His receivers were adequate, nothing more.

Another #9, McMahon, was colorful, but not a great QB by any means

Today, the Bears hope to return to the Super Bowl with something, anything, to mask their offensive -- and I do mean offensive -- deficiencies when they hold the football. An Urlacher-led defense, which still creates turnovers and scores the occasional touchdown. A special teams unit, led by return man Hester. A modified, keep-it-simple game plan to help Grossman. Or, in this case, Brian Griese -- who'll start Sunday against the Lions.

The Bears won't score 56 points against the Lions at Ford Field Sunday. That's not their game. They probably couldn't do it, even if you placed them on the field without the annoyance of an opponent. But that's not how they win. They win -- or at least try to -- with everything else. This time they'll trot Griese out there -- and Griese's biggest asset, perhaps, is something he shares with 90+ other QBs in the NFL: he is not Rex Grossman.

Ironically, the decision to bench Grossman, again turnover-prone thru the team's 1-2 start, comes during Lions week. Grossman was stellar against Detroit in '06 -- tossing five TD passes and throwing zero interceptions. So this would appear to be a long-term fix for coach Smith, not something with which to simply get by the Lions.

Yes, the Bears have those '63 and '85 championships since the Lions' glory year of 1957. And they have the Super Bowl appearance last season. And more playoff games under their belt since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. But they haven't been anything to write home about at the quarterback position, either, in that time frame.

So maybe it's not just that, after all. Do you suppose?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every week at OOB I'll rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things In Sports That Make Me Want To Plunge Knitting Needles Into My Eyes")

Things I Wish I Had Said

1. "In high school I took some science, some English, some hub caps, and some wheel covers." Gates Brown, the Tigers' pinch-hitter extraordinaire, has been credited with this gem, which for whatever reason is one of my favorite baseball quotes of all time -- and it's not even really about baseball. Brown got his nickname for having spent some time in prison.

2. "Half of our team is gutless. And the other half is brainless." No, it's not a Lions fan. It's former Tampa Bay coach John McKay, who was caught saying this on the sidelines thanks to an NFL Films microphone.

3. "I was in New York City and an empty cab pulled up, and Bowie Kuhn got out." A hilarious put-down of baseball commissioner Kuhn from Oakland A's owner Charlie O. Finley.

4. "Koufax would be a great pitcher, if the plate was high and outside." Either from a scouting report or a reporter -- not sure which -- back in the 1950s, when Sandy Koufax's wildness cast aspersions on his potential as a big league pitcher. He rectified those problems, as you know.

5. "I've seen situations where you have an offensive coordinator who's the head coach of the offense, a defensive coordinator who's the head coach of the defense, and a head coach who's in charge of nothing." Former NFL head coach Chuck Knox, about some dysfunctional team hierarchies.

6. "They shouldn't hit me. I'm the father of six or seven children." Giants second baseman Tito Fuentes, later a Tiger, after being beaned.

7. "If the basketball court was made of grass, Wilt would wear out a patch one-foot square." The late Butch van Breda Kolff, on coaching the mostly immobile Wilt Chamberlain in the late-1960s with the Lakers. VBK later coached the Pistons.

8. "What I'd like to know is, if I'm chasing a guy, how the hell am I going to hit him from the front?" Gordie Howe, lamenting new NHL rules prohibiting hitting from behind.

9. "The left wing lock? All I know is, when I played, when my team had the puck I was on offense, and when my team didn't have the puck, I was on defense. Period." Former Red Wing Ted Lindsay, spoken to me, during a roundtable discussion comparing hockey from the Original Six days to today, last September.

10. "The best thing about playing for the Cleveland Indians is that you don't have to take any road trips to Cleveland." Not sure which Indian said this, but it was uttered sometime in the 1980s. Thought this might help ease the pain of the Indians and Cavs taking it to Detroit teams this year.

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Notre Dame Football: Let The Weis-cracks Begin/Continue

Rouse Faust. What can it hurt, really?

Oh, Notre Dame football, what has happened to thee?

Oh-and-four. And with an offense so meager, Touchdown Jesus is about ready to become The Punting Pontiff. The Irish have reached the end zone so few times, I hear next week bouncers will be stationed at the goal lines to check the ND players' IDs before admittance.

Ahh, I've got a million of 'em.

The golden domed helmets have lost so much market value, ND is going to switch to copper headgear. Things are so bad, the Leprechaun in the school logo is lying prone, little birdies flying around his head. Knute Rockne has been spinning in his grave so fast, those buried next to him got dizzy.

Want a few more?

Irish Spring soap is thinking of changing its name to Trojan Brook, to avoid taking a hit in sales. Dr. Seuss has stopped dying his eggs and ham green.

What do you call it when you cross the Notre Dame football team with the Washington Generals? In breeding.

OK, OK -- I'll stop.

Wait -- just one more. The student body's new mantra is "Put Our Weis In A Vise."

OK. NOW I'm done.

By the way, do you know who the "Faust" is that I referred to? It's none other than Gerry Faust, who was plucked from high school football glory to coach ND in the early-1980s, with disastrous results. The mantra back then was "Oust Faust." But Faust's years were not nearly as disastrous as what's going on in South Bend right now. In fact, even though I promised to stop, doesn't there appear to even be a joke within the words "South Bend" nowadays? I'll get back to you on that.

Weis (top) "HELLLPPPP!!" (bottom: Faust, before being ousted)

Last night on the tube, as part of the "Monday Night Countdown" extravaganza on ESPN, former NFLers Bill Parcells and Keyshawn Johnson were asked about the Notre Dame plight -- though why, I don't know, since it was a show about the NFL. Keep in mind that Johnson is a proud grad of ND rival USC.

"I think what you're seeing is Charlie Weis's guys," Johnson said of the current Irish coach. "And there isn't any speed there. Tyrone Willingham's (Weis's predecessor) guys, like Brady Quinn, are gone. So you're seeing Weis's guys."

Then this from Johnson. "I hope they lose the rest of their games. I'm a Trojan!"

Parcells agreed with the assessment of Notre Dame's lack of team speed. Though he wasn't as quick to attack Weis's recruiting, being a coach himself and all. But he did offer an interesting insight.

"I think with some of the former independents moving into conferences, that's allowed them to improve their recruiting," Parcells said of schools like Boston College and Cincinnati, among others. "For some reason, blue chip recruits are very attracted by conference play. And their friends and families get to see them play schools within a relatively close geographic location."

I'm not sure I buy all of this as explaining all that's wrong with Notre Dame, but some of it rings true and plausible.

Notre Dame football has fallen, an empire in ruins. Its toppling was surprising in its quickness, stunning in its totality. And it may not come back for a while.

No joke.

Monday, September 24, 2007

2-0 Can Be Hazardous To The Health Of Perennial Losers

tackle (vb): to seize, grapple with, or throw down with the intention of subduing or stopping.

This definition, along with those of pass rushing and pass defending, ought to be permanently tattooed onto the biceps of every Lions defensive player today -- if there's any room there, once you consider all the Hip-Hop phrases, nicknames, and other self-important ink that football players brand themselves with.

The Lions had given up 35 points with about half the second quarter remaining, yet were still in the game. That is, when the score was 35-21 -- the Lions having scored two quick touchdowns against the Eagles in Philadelphia. With the suddenly explosive Detroit offense, a 14-point deficit with that much football left to be played isn't all that daunting.

But it's hard to come back when your defense plays like matadors. The Lions put on one of the sorriest displays of tackling, pass rushing, and pass defending in recent memory -- which is like saying Ben Affleck made one of his worst movies in recent memory. But this WAS really bad, folks. They made Brian Westbrook -- albeit a talented back -- look like Barry Sanders coated with butter. They turned Kevin Curtis -- and I have no idea how talented he is, because I've seen sandlot games where the receivers had to work harder to get open -- into Jerry Rice with a force field around him. And they couldn't have made things more comfortable for Donovan McNabb in the pocket if they sat him down in a La-Z-Boy with a cold drink and a remote in his hand.

But here's the funny thing. The Lions gave up 56 points, yet that isn't even the most points they've given up in that city, let alone in their history. The '95 Lions surrendered 58 points in a Wild Card game in Philly.

It's pointless, really -- or at least highly redundant -- to break this 56-21 loss down to bite-sized portions. I'm not as interested in talking about this skunking as I am about how the Lions will respond.

The 2-0 start, heady for Detroit, is really nothing in the NFL. We all know that. And yet the mini-streak had media folks around town wondering how the Lions would handle such a modicum of success. Well, consider that question answered.

Now we should wonder how the Lions respond to such a butt-kicking. Mainly because, if this is indeed supposed to be a new thing in 2007, then let's see how nicely the Lions shrug off this demolition at the hands of the Eagles as "just one game." They've got the Bears, who have their own issues after being violated by Dallas last night, visiting this Sunday. Another divisional opponent who's had its way with the Lions over the years.

"I don't get embarrassed," Lions coach Rod Marinelli said yesterday after the game, when a reporter asked him if the game provided him with a red face.

I hope that that's not a challenge the coach is issuing to his players.

"HA! You think THAT is going to embarrass me? Giving up nearly 500 yards in the first HALF? Surrendering touchdowns on the Eagles' first five possessions? Ya gotta do better than THAT, men!"

I shudder to think.

Well, to be honest, I don't care if Marinelli is embarrassed. His players are the ones who should be. The defense, in addition to the above-mentioned tattooing, ought to have their home theatre systems rigged so the tape of yesterday's game shows up on every channel. An endless loop. I'm reminded of former Tampa Bay coach John McKay.

"What do you think of your team's execution?," he was once asked of his brutal Bucs.

"I'm all for it," McKay drolly answered. At least I think he was kidding.

No, I'm not suggesting that the Lions' defense be taken out back and shot. Not at all.

After yesterday, that's too good for them.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

For One Week Anyway, Kitna Took Us Down Memory Layne

When Jennifer Hammond reported it from the sidelines last Sunday, I couldn’t help but form my lips into a curved grin.

Until then, all we had seen of Lions quarterback Jon Kitna for much of the second quarter and throughout the third, and into the fourth, was him standing on the sidelines, hands tucked against his shoulder pads, watching. Just like me, in my living room. Why, he didn’t need shoulder pads to do that.

Kitna assumed that pose, which seemed to never change whenever the Fox Sports folks chose to show him to us, thanks to being knocked woozy by a pack of nasty Minnesota Vikings. And he watched, helpless, as we all did, while backup J.T. O’Sullivan, bless his inexperienced heart, gamely tried to keep the Lions in the game.

But then, midway through the fourth quarter, the Fox cameras again captured Kitna. And this time he wasn’t merely watching. He was throwing, warming up, though still with a slight hint of “Wha?” on his face.

That’s when The Hammer, the ever-resourceful Hammond, gave her report.

Seems as though Kitna, who was obviously warming up to return to the ballgame, which by now was tied, 17-17, had a message for his offensive line.

“Just give me some time,” Kitna told his blockers, according to Jennifer.

That’s when the grin spread my lips.

Bobby Layne, old #22, stepped into a Lions huddle back in 1953. At stake was only the championship of the entire football world. The Lions were backed up, the old “H”-style goalposts in their own end zone crowding them for space, with just a few minutes left. And the Lions trailed the Browns, 16-10, at Briggs Stadium. No pressure.

Layne, according to legend (and supported by eyewitnesses), looked into the huddle. But mainly he looked at his linemen – the men charged with protecting the irascible QB. It was a job that could be hazardous to your health – if you were a lineman. Layne had been known to kick the shins of blockers who failed to block successfully.

“Alraht…y’all block and ole Bobby’ll pass ya raht to the championship.”

Just give him some time, in other words. In Jon Kitna’s words, last Sunday.

Kitna was battling the after effects of a possible mild concussion. Layne, on that December Sunday, might have been battling the after effects of too much Cutty Sark the night before.

The line blocked for Layne, Bobby zipped in some passes, and the Lions marched toward glory. They won, on a Layne TD pass in the closing seconds. It was the Lions’ second straight championship.

Layne would kick the shins of blockers who blew an assignment

So here was Kitna last Sunday, after simply asking for some time to find his myriad of receivers in the Mike Martz offense. The line blocked – most of the time. And when it did, Kitna completed passes. And when it didn’t, Kitna ran, hurling his body toward first down markers, completely without regard to his own health. Or maybe completely out of his mind. Concussion and all, you know.

Kitna showed no regard for his own health against the Vikes

In the fourth quarter, Roy Williams caught a pass inside the Vikings’ 20-yard line and made a move toward the end zone. But he fumbled. The Vikings recovered. End of that drive. Layne might have placed another kick into that receiver’s shins. But Kitna is too nice for all that. Plus – concussion and all.

In overtime, Kitna was at it again, running if necessary, throwing when he had the time. Then, a handoff to Brian Calhoun gained 17 yards, well within field goal range. Moments later, Jason Hanson booted the game-winner, after missing a longer such kick late in regulation.

The Lions had won this crazy, turnover and mistake-filled game. A game they would have lost in years past – and had, quite often.

Kitna later talked about the “miracle” of his return to health on the sidelines as the Lions soldiered on without him. Deeply religious, it was the best explanation he could come up with – for how he could be concussed one moment, and un-concussed the next. At least, un-concussed enough to run around recklessly when the blockers needed their shins kicked.

“Alraht…y’all block and ole Bobby’ll pass ya raht to the championship.”

“Just give me some time.”

Fifty-four years, just about, separated those two lines from Lions quarterbacks. Maybe something similar was uttered in between by one of the unfortunates trying to lead the team to victory. Somehow I doubt it.

“That was special,” Lions coach Rod Marinelli told the enthralled press after the game about Kitna’s heroics. “He’s tough. This is a tough city, and it has a tough quarterback representing it.”

“It was a miracle,” Kitna kept saying.

His teammates raved about Kitna afterward. Just as Layne’s did, routinely, in the glory years of the 1950s.

In Week 1, the Lions gave away a big lead, fell behind in the fourth quarter, and appeared ready to roll over, as in years past. But Kitna, this time un-concussed, led a game-winning drive.

He did it again in Week 2. In overtime.

In both games, Kitna threw interceptions in the other team’s end zone, both times in the first quarter. It was said that Layne, a master at quarterbacking, wouldn’t put much stock into the first half. He used it as a big experiment. He would try passes and plays, sometimes just to see if they would work. He threw interceptions. But Layne only cared to keep the Lions close, so they could pull it out at the end. Mostly, they did. And Kitna, thru two weeks of the 2007 season, has committed costly first half turnovers, only to make up for them in the end.

Two images strike me as I bang out these words. One is of Scott Mitchell, lying prone on the ground as if he’d been shot, during a playoff game at Tampa Bay. Mitchell, all 6-foot-6 of him, appeared ready for his last rites. Then the TV replays showed us what happened, and the play that put Mitchell six feet above where he acted as if he belonged, was nothing more than a routine NFL hit, it seemed. Yet Mitchell lay motionless, for several minutes, before getting up and walking off the field. It was hardly an inspiring moment for his teammates. They used a lot of words to describe Scott Mitchell in Detroit. “Tough” wasn’t one of them.

The other image is Kitna, last Sunday, scrambling for a first down. He ran without direction, but with definite purpose. He didn’t use the safe move of the NFL quarterback – sliding to the turf to avoid injury. He ran like the old time quarterback – 100% of his body available for hitting. And when he got hit – which he did, hard – he bounced right back up, like a super ball. The anti-Mitchell.

For now, anyway, the Lions appear to finally have a QB who has the moxie and sense of drama as Bobby Layne. So I must agree with Jon Kitna.

It’s a miracle.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Eagles Didn't Always Soar In The NFL

The emotional football coach, never one to be shy to squeeze a few wet ones from his eyes, stood in the locker room to give his pre-game speech. And his voice quaked as he spoke in halting fashion.

"Twelve years," the coach said, pacing the room, looking at his players. "Twelve years have gone by since the Eagles have come out winners. Well, we're gonna come out winners today.

"We've lost a few we should have won, but guess what? We've won a few we should have lost. We're right where we deserve to be -- playing for the first winning record in Philadelphia since 1966."

Dick Vermeil was perhaps 30 pounds lighter as he delivered that speech in 1978, in full view of the NFL Films cameras. He wore a garish white belt around his checkered polyester trousers, the fashion statement for football coaches back in the day. It was the year of the Miracle in the Meadowlands, when Herman Edwards scooped up a Joe Pisarcik fumble and took it to the house to beat the Giants in the waning moments, when a simple kneel-down would have sealed the deal for New York. That's probably one of the games Vermeil was referrring to. Likely.

The Eagles won that day, the final game of the '78 season, and had themselves a 9-7 record. And Vermeil was right. It was the first winning football record in Philadelphia since the days of Joe Kuharich as coach and Norm Snead at quarterback.

Jaworski wasn't the most talented QB, but his toughness led the Eagles to Super Bowl XV

The Lions haven't gone 12 years since their last above-.500 record. It only seems that way. In fact, a quick trip to the data files shows that in the previous 11 seasons before this one, the Lions have actually managed to have two such winning campaigns -- 1997 and 2000. So the Eagles of 1967-77 were worse in that regard.

It might be hard to imagine now, with a Super Bowl appearance and annual trips to the playoffs in recent years, but the Philadelphia Eagles didn't always soar. Far from it.

The Lions haven't won an NFL championship since 1957. But the Eagles aren't much better. Their last title came in 1960. In fact, the Lions from 1960-75 were a far superior team than the Eagles in that same time frame. But then Philly hired Vermeil from UCLA, and all that changed. The Eagles made Super Bowl XV in 1981. In the quarter century since, the Eagles have fielded competitive teams far more often than they haven't.

The Eagles ended their misery through the coaching sleight of hand of Vermeil and the tough-as-nails quarterbacking of Ron Jaworski. And with a swarming defense.

Lions QB Jon Kitna earned points last Sunday for his body-sacrificing in the OT win over Minnesota. He returned from a mild concussion to lead the team to victory. It had old curmudgeons like me recalling the days of Bobby Layne, mainly because I would defy you to come up with a similar example from a Lions quarterback between 1958, Layne's last year in Detroit, and last Sunday. Coach Rod Marinelli loves the word "tough", and he used it often in describing Kitna's performance.

"That was special," the coach said after the game. "That's toughness right there. He's tough. This is a tough city and it deserves a tough quarterback. And that's what this city has -- a tough quarterback representing it."

Those might have been the words of Dick Vermeil in describing Ron Jaworski, circa 1978.

So if you look at the Eagles, this week's Lions opponent, and think that they've been good forever, hold on. It only seems that way.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB, I'll rant in list fashion...)

Things In Sports That Make Me Want To Plunge Knitting Needles Into My Eyes

1. The baseball Wild Card. Yes, I know it saved the Tigers' rear ends last season, and it was providing them (until this week) with their only legitimate postseason hope this season, too. But how much more exciting would the Yankees' relentless pursuit of the Red Sox be if the loser of that division would be left out of the October tournament? Instead, it's merely something to be amused about -- "Oh, would you look at those Yankees?" -- rather than creating real, stomach-churning drama for the beleaguered Red Sox fans. This should be one of the biggest baseball stories in years. But the Wild Card has emasculated it. Now, the NL Central, on the other hand ... now THAT'S a real race. The loser of that division ain't getting in -- as they shouldn't.

2. The NHL schedule. Yes, this isn't a new rant from me. And thank God that it looks like it will change next season. But at least it's aptly named: Unbalanced Schedule. Whomever signed off on it -- are you listening, Gary Bettman? -- was certainly temporarily mentally unbalanced. This isn't the NFL, whose 16-game season mandates that you can't play everyone every season. The NHL has 82 freaking games and 30 freaking teams, yet you'll be lucky to see the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs in Detroit more often than a presidential election. But you'll be force-fed the Columbus Blue Jackets until you're ready to puke pucks. Grrrrr!!

3. The last two minutes of a close NBA game. Mainly because it takes approximately 20 minutes to PLAY the last two minutes of a close NBA game. The 100-second long timeouts; the endless substitutions; the sometimes refusal of the refs to hand the g**damn ball to the player for the inbounds pass for whatever reason; and my favorite: Team A has called a 100-second long timeout (it's true; NBA timeouts are 100 seconds long; and 20-second timeouts are nearly that long, too, btw) and is ready to inbounds. Then Team B, on defense, "doesn't like what it sees" and calls another timeout. Then Team A might have a hard time throwing the ball in, and calls a timeout. Meanwhile, I'm doing a slow burn -- especially if I'm channel surfing and hoping to see how the game actually ends before the movie that started an hour ago on the other channel finishes!

4. The two-minute warning in pro football. I almost always prefer any pro version to college sports, but I must admit that I find it very liberating to watch a college football game, knowing that there WON'T be a two-minute warning. Is it because the commercial breaks during such warnings are roughly 25-minutes long (or at least seem to be)? Is it because the NFL already has too many gosh darn TV timeouts as it is? Or is it because they occur regardless of score? Maybe I could abide the two-minute warning if it came with a rider that says, "UNLESS the score is more than a two-TD spread." Do we really need a stoppage of the clock when the Bears are beating the Browns 41-10? Or maybe I could live with it if they just did it at the end of games, instead of also at halftime. Frankly, the notion that pro teams need to be "warned" that there are just two minutes remaining in the half or game to the tune of stopping the clock for five minutes of TV commercials is unacceptable!

5. Pitchers who throw to first base incessantly. Mother of God, there should be a rule! No more than two tosses to first base during any given at-bat. And what's with this new thing I see Zach Miner and Fernando Rodney do? The "fake to first base" move, which is nothing more than stepping off the mound and holding the ball near the ear. I love baseball, and I love that it has no clock. But half the time, the runners on base aren't going anywhere, anyway. Give me a pitcher who concentrates on the hitter any day over the worry wart who's afraid of a dude with five career stolen bases in six years.

6. "D-fence." You know what this is. Some clown at the football game with a large "D" shoved together with what's supposed to be a mini picket fence. "LOOK -- I spelled 'defense'!" That was creative and clever back in 1982. How about a large poster of former NFL running back Jim Kiick and a foam posterior? You just spelled "Kick Ass!" Yeah!

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another One Bites The Dust? Doubtful

The Lions are at the Eagles this Sunday. One team is 0-2, the other 2-0. Probably not too unpredictable, had that been the projection before the season started.

But wait -- what's this?? The Lions are the 2-0 team? And the Eagles, perennial playoff contenders and Super Bowl pretenders, are the 0-2 club? What in the name of Gary Danielson and Ron Jaworski is going on here?

The Eagles blew a game in Week 1 at Green Bay thanks largely to a muffed punt late in the fourth quarter. And then, under the glare of the Monday night ESPN lights, the Redskins marched into Philly and left the Eagles wings clipped, 20-12.

The Lions, meanwhile, have beaten two of the NFL's bottom feeders, and not without some struggling. But they did it, and sport that nifty, Eagles-like 2-0 record.

The Lions haven't started 3-0 since 1980. Ahh, yes -- 1980. That was the "Another One Bites The Dust" year. Remember that? Billy Sims was a rookie. Danielson was making a triumphant return from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 1979 season -- a year in which the Lions started a rookie QB and finished 2-14. Hence the drafting of Sims. The Lions actually started 4-0 in '80, and a few of them, led by DB Jimmy "Spiderman" Allen, recorded a version of "Dust", the Queen song, with some cleverly re-worked lyrics.

See Billy run, you can't catch him with a gun
And another one's gone, another one's gone
Another one bites the dust!
Hey -- we're gonna get you too
Another one bites the dust!

OK, so it wasn't Grammy Award material. Coach Monte Clark wasn't enamored with the whole song idea -- which got a lot of radio play in the week after the fourth win. And his feeling of foreboding was proven true. After starting 4-0, the Lions stumbled home with a 9-7 record, which wasn't good enough to make the playoffs. That was also the year in which the Bears' Dave Williams ran back the OT kickoff to beat the Lions on Thanksgiving Day -- a killer of a loss.

The Lions' hastily-recorded song of crowing didn't see much airplay by mid-season.

Sims helped lead the Lions to a 4-0 start as a rookie in '80; it was mostly downhill from there

The 1980 Lions opened with a stunning demolishing of the LA Rams, on the road -- 41-20. Sims scored a couple of touchdowns. The next week, in Green Bay (maybe it was Milwaukee; not sure), the Lions won again. Coming home, they beat the St. Louis Cardinals. The next week, again at home, they defeated the Minnesota Vikings.

They went into Atlanta with their perfect record and a music record, to boot. The Falcons, though, handled the Lions easily, 43-28, as they stifled Sims. From that point on, the Lions struggled to win consistently. After Week 14 they finally fell to .500. They won their last two, but the Vikings, naturally, had sewn up the division (thanks in part to a flukey Hail Mary win over Cleveland, courtesy of Ahmad Rashad's miracle grab).

I wonder if anyone has a recording of the Lions' version of "Dust". Maybe somewhere on eBay.

Conventional wisdom still says the Eagles over the Lions, despite the teams' asymmetrical records. Odds are the Lions won't go 3-0, nor the Eagles 0-3. That's OK -- I can't stomach the thought of another recording. As if coach Rod Marinelli would allow it, anyway. But I think the 1980 Lions snuck away to do their record behind coach Clark's back. Is there a similar ne'er-do-well on this year's Lions to match Spiderman Allen?

Thank goodness Dre' Bly has been banished to Denver. He's a candidate for such loose cannon type activities, methinks.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Kitna Leaves No Question That He's "The Man"

There will always be some people who aren't going to care for Jon Kitna. No matter what. That's fine. Some folks' dog house is like a roach motel -- once you check in, you never check out.

I was on the fence about Kitna myself. Too many costly turnovers to my liking, and always in the fourth quarter it seemed. I had a nagging feeling that he was in that bursting-at-the-seams category of the Mediocre Quarterback, in which so many NFL signal callers seem to reside. Good at times, but not at a level needed to win anything of any importance.

I'm not on the fence any longer.

I don't know whether Kitna is good enough to lead the Lions any further than a game or two into the playoffs, but I do know this: the Lions can ill-afford to lose him for any length of time. And when was the last time you could say that about any Lions starting QB and keep a straight face?

Kitna was fabulous in yesterday's thrilling, "I don't want it, you can have it" 20-17 OT victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

He finally put an end to the nonsensical turnover contest the two teams were engaging in by taking matters into his own hands -- literally. Re-entering the game midway thru the fourth quarter after sitting out most of it with a case of wooziness, Kitna made a Bobby Layne-like return. Sideline reporter Jennifer Hammond said Kitna told his offensive line, "Just give me time," a la Layne in the waning moments of the 1953 NFL championship game, when Bobby told his line, "Y'all block and ole Bobby'll pass ya raght to the champee-enship." Kitna, in OT, caught his own pass and ran. He scrambled and ran. Sometimes he just ran, for the hell of it. And, of course, he completed the requisite passes in between. He turned the Ford Field crowd on, rallied his teammates behind him, and took control of the starting job and his place as team leader with about as firm a grip as any QB this town has this side of Mr. Layne.

Really, is there any doubt now that Kitna is the QB for this team? Chant for his removal all you want, you anti-Kitna-ers, but if you're looking for J.T. O'Sullivan, bless his heart, or Dan Orlovsky to be "the man," then you're simply delusional.

Ahh, but a mild scolding here for the Lions -- not to rain on anyone's parade. Why there isn't a capable veteran on the sidelines, wearing a baseball cap and carrying a clipboard, an earphone stuck into his side hole, is beyond my comprehension. Yes, Kitna played every offensive snap in 2006. But how often does that happen once, let alone two years in a row? It would be nice if, heaven forbid Kitna goes down again, the Lions could hand the reins over to a guy who's played a little bit in this league. Someone who won't throw lazy passes into double coverage, as O'Sullivan did, looking for Roy Williams. Someone who's not, essentially, a rookie, as O'Sullivan and Orlovsky are. Essentially.

I'm not trying to cause trouble here, or start a QB controversy. The job is Kitna's -- no doubt about that. But don't forget what veteran Dave Krieg did for the Lions in 1994 when Scott Mitchell got hurt. It never hurts to have a guy on the sidelines with whiskers instead of peach fuzz.

But back to the Lions. They, for the second week in a row, won a game that they would have lost in the past. It's nice to talk about the football for a change, instead of overweight receivers and overcooked team presidents. Were there mistakes? Absolutely. And Kitna himself has made some -- but now at least he's throwing his interceptions into the end zone in the first quarter instead of the fourth. You take improvement any way you can in this league.

But the Lions triumphed. They played thru their mistakes. And they took advantage of the other guy's. When backup QB Brooks Bollinger entered the game in OT, there was no Chris Weinke-type magic (remember Carolina beating the Lions a couple years ago that way?) to beat them. When Jason Hanson missed a 48-yard FG try late in regulation, the Vikes didn't make him pay. Their own 52-yarder hit the upright. And Kitna caught that pass to himself. Bollinger bobbled a snap in OT, and the Lions turned it into the winning kick. Aren't those the kinds of plays the Vikings have used to terrorize the Lions since, oh, 1968??

No, you don't have to like Jon Kitna as your quarterback. You can say that he's not anywhere near Peyton Manning's area code. You can whine all you want that he's no. 1 in Detroit. But there's absolutely no one on the roster who can hold a candle to him right now. And I'll take him. I'll take him just fine. He gave his body to the team in the name of victory. That'll win me over every time.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Patriot Games

Halley’s Comet reappears every 75 or 76 years. Now, apparently, so does Watergate – but that repeat cycle is but 35 years.

The first thought I had after reports surfaced that the New England Patriots, the closest thing the NFL has had to a dynasty since the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, might have cheated to help themselves beat the Lions last year was, “My God, it’s Watergate all over again. The Patriots cheated to beat the Lions?”

Yes, they apparently did. Just as Richard Nixon cheated to help himself beat George McGovern in 1972. This creates two wonderfully symmetrical statements. Nixon cheating to beat McGovern is like the Patriots cheating to beat the Lions. And vice-versa. Neither was hardly necessary. But both were master-minded by overly zealous, power-abusive men whose apologies were far more prompted by their being caught than by any genuine sense of guilt.

The spymaster in the Patriots case is head coach Bill Belichick. He, according to various accusations, has placed video cameras on sidelines, in the stands, and just about anywhere else he’s pleased, in order to steal opposing signals. He also, according to reports, might have authorized well-timed “communication problems” between the sidelines and coaches booth of his opponents. One of those opponents was the Lions, last season.

“At one point, we had a good drive going against the Patriots. Mike Martz really had 'em going,” an unnamed Lion was quoted as saying in a recent Sports Illustrated article online. “They (the Patriots) were getting fouled up, lining up wrong, we were moving the ball. Then boom, the headset from the sidelines to the coaches' booth goes out.”

Boom. The Patriots got scared of the Lions, and shut off their headsets? But wait, there’s more.

In the same game, Lions coach Rod Marinelli reportedly made an in-game phone call to the press box and told his staff, “There's a camera pointed right at our defensive coach making his calls. Is that allowed?”

According to the report, a Lions employee called the league's booth and the videotaper was stopped, but not for long.

Now, a word about new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. OK, several words. You don’t want to mess with this guy. Goodell, in his short time as commish after replacing the retired Paul Tagliabue, makes his predecessor look like Captain Kangaroo when it comes to toughness. He hesitates not to suspend players, dole out fines, and otherwise constantly remind us that he’s in charge. He’s like a twisted version of that old Army TV commercial.

“In the commissioner’s office, we hand out more punishment before 7 a.m. than you do all day.”

So the Wrath of Roger was felt – hard – by Belichick and the rest of the Patriots organization this week. How about a $500,000 fine on the coach, plus an additional $250,000 fine on the team, plus the forfeiture of a first round draft pick next year. The $500K fine represents 12 percent of Belichick’s annual salary. It’s the first time in league history that a team has forfeited a first round draft pick as a result of punishment.

“This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field,” the commissioner wrote in a letter to the team.

Anyone ELSE want to CHEAT?

I bet HIS headset works.

But, like President Nixon, coach Belichick hasn’t exactly bent over backwards to admit guilt. When pressed about it this week, Belichick offered this:

“It doesn't matter," he said. "It already happened. So right now, we're focusing in on what's in front of us, and that's the Chargers.”

He also used terms like “misinterpreted the rules” and “we will change our procedure on that.”

Others in the league weren’t so willing to sweep it under the rug.

“Really, a sad day for the NFL," Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said after practice Friday. “It's another case of the 99 percent good things that are happening being overshadowed by 1 percent bad. Again, people aren't talking about our product, they're talking about a negative incident.”

The Colts are one of the teams that spymaster Belichick allegedly tried to outwit.

It’s been a rough year for the spymaster.

Belichick’s marriage broke up after he was named as the other man in a New Jersey divorce. Former linebacker Ted Johnson accused Belichick of overruling the doctors and sending him back onto the field too soon after a concussion. Now Spygate.

Patriots owner Bob Kraft issued a statement Friday that, if you were to close your eyes and imagine, could be coming from a Mafia Godfather.

“I believe that Coach Belichick always tries to do what is best for the team and he is always accountable for his decisions,” Kraft said. “He has been a very important part of what our organization has accomplished over the last seven years. In this case, one of his decisions has resulted in a severe penalty for our franchise. He has paid a heavy price and so has our organization. He has apologized for his actions. I accept his apology and look forward to working with him as we move forward.”

Could that be coming from Tony Soprano describing a lieutenant’s untimely “whacking” of a rival gangster, or what?

So where does Spygate leave the NFL? The sports world is still stinging from the ribald antics of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy. Baseball is trying to get its skinny arms around the bulging arms of Barry Bonds and his all-time home run record. And the NFL itself isn’t anywhere close to being out from under the shadow of Michael Vick’s going to the dogs.

Christian Fauria is a tight end who played for the 2003 and 2004 Patriots teams that won Super Bowls. He’s with the Carolina Panthers now. And he’s already using the “a” word.

“All I know is there better not be an asterisk by any of the Super Bowls [when] I was with them," Fauria said. “I better call my wife and tell her to put [my rings] in a safe.”

Yeah – and make sure coach Belichick doesn’t get the combination. He just might try, you know.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Today, Lions Can Shoot, But They Need To Run, Too

(note: sorry about skipping "Thursday's Things" in this space yesterday. Kinda busy at the homestead. But they'll be back next week -- as if you just can't wait, right?)

The Lions' new coach, Wayne Fontes, had just inherited his first head coaching job and he looked around the league and got some ideas.

The Houston Oilers, with Warren Moon at quarterback, were running an offense that mesmerized the newly-hired Fontes -- who had the "interim" tag dropped from his title after coaching the final five games of the 1988 season in relief of the tardily-disposed Darryl Rogers. The Oilers, with some degree of success, were placing four wide receivers in pattern, running around the field, and a single running back in the backfield -- often acting as a decoy. There was no tight end. They called it the Run-and-Shoot, or Run 'n Shoot, for those more impatient writers.

Fontes was enthralled. He envisioned his Lions, so pathetically boring and predictable in 1988, as an NFC version of the AFC Oilers' frantic offense. He hired one of the offense's inventors, Mouse Davis, to coordinate things. Then Fontes snapped up wide receivers, left and right. Then, in April 1989, he had the mother of all football gifts dropped in his lap.

Barry Sanders, the jitterbug runner from Oklahoma State, was still on the board when the Lions drafted #3 overall. The Packers, picking one slot ahead of them, shocked the football world by selecting the steroid-built offensive tackle Tony Mandarich out of Michigan State. So Sanders, in all his splendor, was there for the taking, adorning the window as the Lions went on the clock.

Doubtful that they needed all their alloted time to nab Sanders, who was 20 years old, 5'8" on his tippy toes, and with legs of granite. And with speed. But more moves than speed. Moves that few had seen before, and even fewer have seen since.

So Fontes had the back for his run 'n shoot. He had some receivers, though they were hardly the quality of the ones being used in Houston at the time. His run 'n shoot definitely had the "run" part secured. It was the "shoot" that became problematic.

Fontes and Mouse unveiled their new offense in a pre-season game against the Browns at the Silverdome, and the results were less-than-thrilling. The Lions had receivers running around the field, alright -- as promised -- but the QBs had the darndest time finding them. And, when they did zero in on a target, often times the target violated a rule of thumb in such an offense: you must catch the ball.

The Oilers had Moon and gifted receivers like Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, and Curtis Duncan. They didn't have the "run" like Sanders, but they blew the Lions away with the "shoot." The Lions were trying to make it a go with Rodney Peete or Bob Gagliano at QB, and pass catchers like Richard Johnson, Robert Clark, and Kez McCorvey. It wasn't the NFC version of the Oilers. It was more like a strike-season version of the Oilers.

Ahh, but the Lions had Sanders, and the Run 'n Shoot quickly became the Run 'n Run Some More. With receivers galore spreading the defense, Sanders was able to run wild. He was even able to do so with his blockers running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Sanders certainly led the league in Most Yards Gained By Himself.

The Run 'n Shoot was put to rest after a few seasons, when Dan Henning came in to run the offense and installed a more traditional tack. Part of the reasoning, it was reported, was that Mouse Davis thought the Lions' problem was that they were "scoring too fast." Whatever. Eventually out were Peete and most of the second-rate receivers. In was a tight end and a fullback.

Today the Lions again have receivers running around all over the field. But they do not have Sanders -- no one close, really -- so you don't dare call Mike Martz's packages Run 'n Shoot. Today, the "shoot" is in place, while the "run" is a concern. Still, with a mostly one-dimensional attack, the Lions put 36 points on the board in Oakland on Sunday. One can only imagine what they're capable of if they get their "run" in order.

By the way, using a version of the offense Henning installed in 1992, the Lions went into the playoffs three years later, against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles destroyed the Lions, 58-37 -- and it wasn't close to being that close. The Eagles QB who helped fillet the Lions that New Year's Eve was Rodney Peete.

Go figure.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Color Purple: In Football, It Makes Me Gag

A botched punt, blocked and taken in for a touchdown. A blocked field goal, snuffing out hopes for a win in the waning seconds. A four-loss season, with two of them to the Purple People Eaters. A 13-game losing streak to those football Nordsmen.

The Minnesota Vikings come to town this Sunday, and again they are dominating the Lions. Not all that tough to do nowadays, I know, but they still have the Lions' number more than the Packers or Bears. It's something like 10 out of 12 now, and counting. Unlike the Packers, who the Lions can't beat on the road but can beat, occasionally, in Detroit, the Vikings beat the Lions no matter where they play the games.

That's exactly what the Vikings did from 1968-74: beat the Lions, no matter where. No matter how. No matter what kind of team the Lions fielded -- which sometimes were pretty good back then. Thirteen times in a row.

The Lions, from 1969-72, were highly competitive. In those four seasons, they went 9-4-1; 10-4; 7-6-1; and 8-5-1. But darned if they couldn't beat the damn Vikings in any of those seasons. Usually it was something flukey, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Sometimes the Lions just got the tar beat out of them. But mostly the games were close -- and always with the Vikes coming out on top.

I hold no team in the entire NFL with more hatred than I do the Minnesota Vikings. And it started in 1970, my first season following Lions football. Detroit had that glittering 10-4 record, but two of the losses were to Minnesota, who won the Central Division with a 12-2 mark. Yet the Lions, had they been able to get past Dallas in the playoffs, would have played the 49ers in the conference championship instead, because San Francisco beat Minnesota in the other playoff game. But the Lions lost that bizarre, maddening 5-0 game to the Cowboys, dashing any Super Bowl hopes.

The Vikings were always finishing first, the Lions were always finishing second, and it was largely because the latter could never beat the former.

FINALLY, it ended. It was in 1974, in Minnesota. Looking up the score, I find it to be 20-16, Detroit. I remember Lem Barney intercepting a pass in the end zone to salt it away. The Lions had their first win over the Vikings since December, 1967!

Crazy things are still happening in this long series. Remember a few years ago, when Pal Joey Harrington led a stirring fourth quarter drive, only to have the Lions botch the extra point snap? Or how about last year in Minnesota, when the Lions had the Vikings beaten and their crowd silent late in the third quarter, before imploding in the final 18 minutes?

The Vikings are coming to town and you'd better be prepared for anything. Because that's pretty much what's been served up when these teams get it on. It's just that most of the bad stuff has happened to the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

I hate the Vikings. Always have. Always will. Somehow I doubt there's a Minnesota blogger who hates the Lions; after all, why would you hate someone you can routinely count on for two wins every season?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yes, Michigan Is #5 -- And Here's How

The way I see it, the pre-season college football pollsters got it right. They rarely do, because how can you legitimitely rank teams that haven't played a game yet? But this time they were spot on.

Those pollsters had Michigan ranked #5. And they were right. U-M is, indeed, #5. I say that despite the two opening losses -- to Appalachian State and Oregon, both at home. I say that despite the fact that the team started poorly in Week 1 and got shockingly worse in Week 2.

The Wolverines are the fifth-best team, alright -- in the state of Michigan.

Certainly you can't put them ahead of Michigan State. The Spartans are 2-0, and despite a mild scare from Appalachian State-wannabe Bowling Green (who beat Minnesota in Week 1) last Saturday, the fact of the matter is that they're undefeated and that puts them far ahead of Michigan.

You can't put U-M in front of Grand Valley State, either. The Lakers are 1-0 and ranked #1 in Division II. They have been a powerhouse in the thumb area for years now.

Don't slot Michigan ahead of Central Michigan. The Chippewas are 1-1, and that's one game better than the Wolverines.

And, finally, though it's rare, you can't even say U-M is better than the Lions, who are 1-0 and looking like they could give Appalachian State quite a tussle -- maybe even beat them.

So there you have it -- U-M is the fifth-best team, and is struggling to fend off 0-2 Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan for #5 honors.

You might think this is oozing with sarcasm and cynicism, but is it fair to put any of those four teams behind Michigan in terms of anything other than disappointment on the grandest scale? If it's wrecked, ruined seasons and national humiliation that are your categories, then yes, U-M is #1 in the land. No one is even running a close second right now -- not even Notre Dame, the next team set for an Ann Arbor football date, who is also 0-2 and is playing such bad football that even their coach agrees with a victory guarantee made against his team.

U-M running back Mike Hart made one of the emptiest victory guarantees in recent memory when he boldly predicted a Michigan triumph over Notre Dame, in the aftermath of the Oregon Ducks' demolition of U-M, 39-7, on Saturday. That declaration had about as much resonance as an MRI of his team's heart. (OK, now THAT was oozing sarcasm).

Anyhow, ND coach Charlie Weis had no problem with Hart's guarantee.

"After watching the first two weeks of film, I'd maybe say the same thing myself," Weis said, oozing witty candor.

Will Michigan move up in the state polls this week? MSU hosts 2-0 Pittsburgh, so maybe there's hope there. Grand Valley is, like I said, #1 so they should win again. CMU is at Purdue, so that might be U-M's best chance to leapfrog someone. The Lions are at home, and they'll be fired up -- and will probably even win.

Here's my prediction after the dust settles Saturday:

1. MSU
3. Lions
4. U-M
5. CMU

The sad thing? Moving Michigan up to #4 is almost like a pity vote. Hell, it is.


I thought that this should be mentioned, though I'm hardly the first one to point it out.

U-M is 0-4 after Bo Schembechler's death on the eve of the Ohio State game last November.

Clearly, this is a coincidence, right? I mean, it's not like Bo would have wished anything ill on his school, like some other famous sports curses. So it's not a curse in that regard. But it is, I don't know, kinda spooky, don't ya think?

I think so.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Forget What Lions Did; It's What They DIDN'T Do That Was Lovely

I'm sure some of it wafted over to you, like something foul-smelling from the kitchen garbage, in the first quarter. The Lions capped off a 99-yard drive by ... throwing an interception into the end zone. Maybe you didn't get it that badly until Roy Williams made like Mike Williams and let an easy catch spurt out of his hands, into those of a timely Raiders DB -- late in the third quarter, leading to a gap-narrowing TD. Certainly it must have been there in full force, midway thru the fourth quarter, when the Raiders took their first lead after spotting the Lions 17 points.

You know what I'm talking about. The "here we go again" feeling that I believe has been copyrighted and trademarked by Lions fans. I can't imagine any fans of any other NFL city being able to get such a feeling without the expressed written consent of those in metro Detroit, and the surrounding areas.

BUT -- and this is where we should officially declare that there may be, kinda sorta, possibly, I'm hoping, some change in paradigm here -- the Lions didn't flinch. They didn't implode. They didn't engage in monkeyshines in the fourth quarter. They didn't curl up into the fetal position while turnovers and penalties and a Swiss cheese defense exposed itself.

Yes, it's what they DIDN'T do, I think, that was most impressive about the Lions and their 36-21, Opening Day victory over the Raiders, in the Black & Silver Nation's backyard.

We've seen plenty what the Lions CAN do, when the spirit moves them. Yes, they can move the ball. Yes, they can put up some points on occasion. Yes, they can take first half leads. Yes, they can silence another team's home crowd for periods of time. Yes, they can set themselves up for victory. This we know. So it was quite refreshing to see them NOT do some of those other, uglier things.

The Raiders are not an elite NFL football team. This, we know also. They will, by all rights, be lucky to win more than three games all season. But, as we all know, the quality of the Lions' opponent has rarely mattered in the past. They've lost to bad teams before. Plenty of them. Another come-from-ahead loss, to a brutal Oakland team, would have made 2007 a long season, in the shadows of Labor Day no less.

Didn't happen. See? Today is all about what DIDN'T occur.

But back to Raider Nation for a moment -- specifically that stupid "Black Hole Cam" that Fox Sports employed, ad nauseum, throughout the game. How many times, Mr. Director, are you going to show us the same damn camera shot of idiots dressed up like Kiss meets Darth Vader? Didn't they have any consideration for the viewing audience in Detroit? Sheesh. Shame on Fox, for stooping to such minor league, local cable-type shenanigans.

OK. Back to the Lions. If they can get any assemblance of a running game going -- say, maybe 120 yards per game -- then they'll be awfully hard to defend. Kitna threw the ball to everyone. I think the only Lions receiver who didn't get a touch was Herman Moore -- kind of like how Herman was used during the Bobby Ross days. Tatum Bell hit for 87 yards on just 15 carries. Pretty efficient. But rather than Bell getting chunks of yards -- the majority of those 87 were on but a few carries -- to pad his stats, I'd like to see him grind them out more. It may sound crazy, but I think I'd prefer 25 carries for 100 yards than 15 for 87. More rushes means the offense is more balanced. It also probably means the Lions aren't down by two touchdowns at halftime, as has been their wont.

The Lions blew a big lead, but didn't fold. They lost momentum, but didn't panic. They regained the lead, then didn't let the Raiders back into the game.

And I didn't have heartburn at the end, after watching these guys play. Yes, it was a "didn't" type of day, indeed.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

50 Golden Brown Years; But What If It Somehow Ends?

So what do you get the football team that has nothing for its 50th, golden anniversary?

Fifty years. Half a century. Five decades. Two generations. One-twentieth of a millennium. Take your choice. The Lions were able to last call themselves the beasts of the NFL in 1957. Joe Schmidt, nestled into longtime retirement nearby, was the defensive captain and team leader.
He’s some 76 years old now. Bobby Layne was the offensive pied piper, and drinking leader. Bobby’s been gone for about 21 years now. When the team played a home game in Detroit, they played in Briggs Stadium. You remember how John Fetzer seemed to own the Tigers forever? Well, the Lions’ last championship was three years before Fetzer even bought the team!

I’ve said that we have some assemblance of balance in this town. There’s the Red Wings (three Stanley Cups since 1997); the Tigers (world titles in 1968 and 1984; a World Series appearance in 2006); and the Pistons (three rings since 1989). Then there’s the Lions for comic relief and fodder for the talk radio blowhards and other bottom feeders, like sports columnists and bloggers. Take no offense; it takes one to know one.

Staying Ring-less, Since 1957

Oh, I have no idea what I would do for football material if the Lions were to somehow become a winning football team that made it past the first round of the playoffs. Curses if they exorcise their demons from the past 50 years and parade themselves down Woodward Avenue on a cold, snowy February afternoon, thrusting Vince Lombardi’s trophy for all of the world to see. Damn them if they turn this city on with exciting, winning football!

Us bottom feeders in the media wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if the pratfalls turned into ballet. It’s always much more fun to write about abject failure.

Who wants a city full of winners? Give me more whiners, I say! I can’t do anything with four winning teams. I might be forced to move across Lake Erie, to Cleveland. Or across Lake Michigan, to Chicago. They still have teams engaging in banana peel-slipping and shooting water out of daisies in those cities.

No more, if the Lions started winning, could we trot out stories of botched extra point snaps that cost them ballgames. Or 63-yard field goals made against them, that cost them ballgames. Or playoff games where one of the greatest running backs of all time is held to minus-one yards – costing them.

What would we do with the story of Alex Karras, who declared he would walk home if the Lions lost to the AFL’s Denver Broncos, in a 1967 exhibition, but yet flew home with the team after they … lost. Could we no longer talk about coach Darryl Rogers and his pigeon-counting on the Silverdome roof while practice went on all around him?

What, pray tell, do you suggest I do with all those quotes of past condemned Lions coaches, if the football around here suddenly became a model of success?
I mean, I’ve got a lot of them here, you know.

“I don’t coach that stuff!”

“See you at the cemetery.”

“The bar is high.”


“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

“I’m the big buck.”

“Fired? What do you mean, fired?”

Folks, I’d like to take credit for some of these, but, as they say, you can’t make this stuff up. Every one of the above verbal gems was uttered by a Lions coach. And there’s more where that came from. If the Lions start winning, I don’t know if I can stomach all the generic, formulaic words that will sure to start tumbling out of Rod Marinelli’s mouth.

I’m still lamenting the fact that the Lions are playing indoors – and they’ve been doing that for 33 years now. For, unless someone gets really creative and resourceful, we won’t see another Lions coach get drilled with snowballs, as the fans did to Harry Gilmer, back in 1966. The fusillade almost knocked Harry’s cowboy hat off his head.

If there’s winning football, then the costly penalties will plummet. The well-executed plays will skyrocket. Third down conversions will flip-flop: the defense will prevent more of them, and the offense will pick up more crucial first downs.

Curses, I say!

If the Lions win, then who will we beat up around here? The Red Wings are annual playoff participants, and mild-to-medium threats to win the Cup. The Pistons have been to five straight NBA Final Fours. The Tigers have ended their slumber and meaningful September baseball has returned. Cripe, even the WNBA’s Shock isn’t anything about which to mock. They’re defending league champs, and might be on their way to another title.

Tell me, where’s the fun in all that?

Sunday, the Lions open their season against the Oakland Raiders, and already I’m nervous. Normally, a Lions-Raiders matchup (especially on the road) would be a field day for the bottom feeders. Lots more comedy material would present itself. The Lions would be blown out of Oakland by halftime, overcome and outclassed by the Silver & Black.

But the Raiders are not the Raiders anymore. They, too, are football practitioners of stepping on rakes and walking into walls. The Raiders were 2-14 last season, the only team worse than the Lions and their 3-and-13. They still haven’t signed their #1 draft pick, QB JaMarcus Russell. Their starting quarterback Sunday will be (drum roll please) … Josh McCown. Last season, McCown was the Lions’ backup. He didn’t play a down.

So the Oakland Raiders, they of Al Davis and his Commitment to Excellence and “Just Win, Baby!”, are starting a quarterback that wasn’t good enough to play on the second worst team in the league last year.

See? Now THAT’S some fodder.

Man, I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s taken away from me. Happy Anniversary, Lions. Here’s to
another 50 golden brown years.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Manning Without Equal -- Already

Peyton Manning is at the top of his game already -- and the rest of the league hasn't even kicked off yet.

It's hard to describe Manning's latest exploits without resorting to cutting analogies. For last night, in the made-for-TV Thursday NFL Opener (that's how they do it nowadays; heaven forbid we wait till Sunday to get things started), Manning -- and take your pick: sliced; carved; filleted; cut up; gored; drew and quartered the formidable New Orleans Saints for three touchdowns and endless big plays. And his Colts broke open a tight game and romped, 41-10.

So often he made it look easy.

Watching Manning play quarterback -- and with no little credit to his offensive line and talented weaponry in his backfield and the guys split wide -- is like watching the X's and O's of a chalkboard come to life. He executes the passing play as if he's having a game of catch in his backyard. He makes QB look so simple, that even I feel like I can strap on a helmet and do it, because it just doesn't seem to be all that difficult. Fake a handoff on a play-action, drop back five or six steps, and loft a bullseye to a streaking receiver. Roll out and fire a bullet into another pass catcher's gut. He makes the 40-yard pass look like the highest percentage, lowest risk throw in the playbook.

If you look closely, you MIGHT see some sweat

And it doesn't suffice to say, "Well, it's only one game." In fact, that's what's so SCARY about it. It IS only one game. One down, 15 to go -- and already three TD passes on his stat line. When the Colts visited Detroit on Thanksgiving Day in 2004, Manning made quarterbacking look like shooting fish in a barrel. The Lions' secondary was helpless. It looked like freaking no-contact drills. Manning ended up with five TD throws that day, and I swear that if Tony Dungy hadn't employed his personal version of the Mercy Rule and didn't pull Manning out of the game in the third quarter, I'm convinced the final tally would have, could have, been 10. Yes, 10 touchdown passes. It was fitting, I thought, that Manning should wreck the Lions on a day known for turkey carving. A porous pass coverage, feeble pass rush, and an on-the-money Manning is a combination that can be like watching one of those nature videos when the food chain is in action: you tend to wince as the smaller animal is devoured in graphic form by the larger predator.

A couple weeks ago, against the Lions in a preseason game, Manning faced 3rd and 12 early -- on the game's third play. On play #1, the Lions had sacked him (a rarity) for about a 10-yard loss. But Manning went into chalkboard mode, calmly evading Lions pass rushers and, moving to his left, lobbed a perfect throw down the sideline. The receiver caught it. Manning had converted the 3rd-and-12. Easily. Then he proceeded to do all those knife and blade things to the Lions. And his machete was sharpened to midseason form.

Against the Saints, a team that some feel could represent the NFC in February, Peyton Manning exerted his will. He did his usual spread-the-wealth thing and got just about every non-lineman involved in the pass catching party. Always, it seemed, the Colts receivers were a step ahead of the Saints defenders. And always, it seemed, Manning delivered the perfectly thrown pass.

Forget the comparisons of brother Eli to Peyton Manning. It's not even close, nor will it ever be. And that pretty much goes for the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL. Manning plays in a league of one. He's doing it already -- on a Thursday.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB, I'll rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things You Might Not Know About Detroit Sports")

Things I Wish Announcers Would Stop Saying

1. "We're just getting started..." This normally happens during SportsCenter, or any other highlight/analysis-based show. The opening topics are bantied about, and then it's time for the first commercial break. "We're just getting started here," the talking head says before tossing it to break. Sometimes I'm not sure if we should take that as a threat or a warning.

2. "I'm so-and-so, along with my tag-team partner..." Another SportsCenter sin. First of all, it's not pro wrestling. Secondly, you're not "tagging" your partner to signal him/her to speak. It's an overused, silly phrase that also happens to be physically incorrect. Maybe it's the hosts way of saying that they're about to gang up on our unsuspecting eyes and ears. OK, that's it -- every viewer should find a "tag-team partner" to counteract the anchors. I mean, fair is fair.

3. "Heartbreaking loss." Don't get me wrong. Some losses suffered by teams can, indeed, break your heart. But are some losses really heartbreaking? At the Tigers-Tampa Bay game a few weeks ago, I walked past the D-Rays' radio booth on my way out of the press box. The announcers were talking about the first game of the series, in which the Rays rallied to tie, only to lose. "So after Monday's heartbreaking loss...," I heard the Tampa announcer say. The Devil Rays are in last place. They're always in last place. They annually lose 90+ games. Can ANY loss of theirs truly by "heartbreaking"?

4. "At the end of the day..." This is the announcer's foil to the coaches version, which is "the bottom line is." The biggest offenders are the athletes/turned analysts. They'll list a bunch of things, then say, "But at the end of the day," followed by what is supposed to be a summary statement. I imagine a bunch of folks retreating to a tent or small, cozy cabin -- at the end of the day -- to compare football notes.

5. "Three-ball, corner pocket." This way of describing a three-point shot from the corner was cute the first couple times it was used. But I'd say we're about 2.4 million uses past cute at this point.

6. Anyone other than a baseball pitcher actually "pitching a shutout." I was watching football once and the announcer actually said, "So far, the _______ are pitching a shutout." I've also heard the term used in reference to hockey, when talking about a goalie. ONLY PITCHERS PITCH SHUTOUTS! There -- enough said about that.

7. "Going yard." Of all the myriad of ways to describe a guy hitting a home run, this has to be the absolute worst. First, it's turning a noun into an adverb. Second, what the hell? What "yard"? I've heard of ballPARKS, and stadiums, and fields. The only yards I know are in the front and back of my house, and the ones the Lions typically don't get enough of on third down. I can abide almost every other home run call than "Going yard." Ugh.

That's it for this week. Talk amongst yourselves, and remember -- they're just things.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Tigers Need Another Leyland Rant

(today, I'm cheating -- sort of. Usually baseball posts appear on my other blog, but I'm taking a day off from OOB, so I give you today's baseball post in this space, too)

Last year, it was all we heard. It was, we were told, one of the turning points of the season -- and it had happened the day after Easter. Yet it was supposedly one of the things that helped propel the Tigers to the 2006 playoffs.

"It" was manager Jim Leyland's tirade against his ballclub, behind closed doors but audible to reporters, after a humdrum loss to the Indians. The Monday game was the last of a four-game set and also "getaway day," that baseball term for the last game played before traveling. And the Tigers, Leyland felt, were already mentally on the plane to Oakland. After winning two of the first three games of the series, the Tigers sleepwalked against the Tribe. And Leyland let them know it. Big time. Then he held a brief, terse postgame media session before ordering reporters out of his office.

Last year, if you asked any Tiger who was present, you'd have been told that Leyland's rant was much-needed, and that it resonated for the entire season. You'd have been told that, at that moment, Jim Leyland secured a firm hold on his ballclub.

So where's the rant this summer? Where's the outrage?

The Tigers are 16-29 in their last 45 games, a .356 winning percentage. Extrapolated over an entire season, that's a 58-104 record, which brings back chilling memories of just about any season from 1994-2005.The hitters can't buy a clutch single, or even a gosh darn sacrifice fly, to save their souls. The bullpen leaks like an old radiator. The starting pitching is Jekyll and Hyde. There's an overall malaise. Even so-called "big" victories, like the 3:30 a.m. homer to beat the Yankees, don't seem to have any carryover effect at all. It's like the Tigers' momentum is magically erased when they get out of bed the next morning.

It's probably desperate bleatings from an ink-stained wretch wearing a sour puss, but I'd have liked to have seen another Leyland explosion, somewhere during this horrific 45-game stretch. Maybe he's already done it, again behind closed doors but just not as loud so as to alert the media guys. Even if he has, fine. Do it again -- and make it a little more public this time. Light into these guys a bit. All I hear is how good of a team the Tigers have. As recently as last week, the malaise still dripping over the team, Leyland spoke enthusiastically about the playoffs and about how good of a team he has.


Yes, injuries (read: Gary Sheffield) have played a factor into why 2007 ain't 2006, or anything close to it. But there are still enough big league ballplayers in the Tigers' clubhouse to make a go of things, if only they'd engage in outpatient surgery to have their noggins removed from their posterior.

We need more of THIS Jim Leyland to rear his head

The endless array of popups and strikeouts with runners in scoring position and less than two outs is mind-boggling, considering we're talking over a quarter of a season of bad baseball. The inability of the bullpen to hold a lead, or the silly game of "Guess which starting pitcher is showing up today?" the rotation has been playing, is getting real old.

Yet Leyland -- and I like the guy, don't get me wrong -- just seems helpless, without any energy or vinegar. Enough is enough. Can't he kick over a buffet table or toss some equipment around? Heck, when was the last time he even got kicked out of a game?

The Tigers are sinking like a lead balloon, and I wish the skipper would act like he's offended by what he's seeing. Then again, it's probably too late anyway.

I fear he had his chance, but now it's gone.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

These Aren't Your Father's Raiders

They once stood for excellence and intimidation. Even their team colors, silver and black, were used as an all-encompassing adjective, that was to, all at once, describe their tenacity for winning and their refusal to let anything stand in the way of that.

They had a Mad Bomber as their QB, back in the day. And, later, one known as The Snake. And an owner that was perhaps just as mad, and just as much of a snake, if not more so. The QBs, Daryle Lamonica and Kenny Stabler (respectively), are long gone. So, too, is the owner -- though not in body. Just in spirit and, if you listen to the whispers, barely in mind.

The Mad Bomber, Lamonica, looking for a target 40 yards downfield

Al Davis and his Commitment to Excellence. Once he prowled the sidelines as the team's head coach. Then he dabbled as the AFL's commissioner before returning to Oakland to manage the franchise. Then he was a thorn in NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's side, moving his franchise to Los Angeles and back to Oakland, and generally making life miserable for the commish. Oh, and along the way, his Raiders won some championships and threatened to win others.

Normally, an opening week matchup of the Lions and Raiders would mean a tune up for the Silver and Black, before they move on to bigger and better dragons to slay on their way to the playoffs.

Not this season.

The Raiders may still be committed to excellence, but there's a big difference between saying it and doing it. No longer does the NFL team in Oakland possess the same deadly mix of talent, ne'er-do-wells, and players with chips on their shoulders to be a successful unit. Well, actually, they still have some ne'er-do-wells and guys with chips (i.e. Mike Williams and Daunte Culpepper), but the talent level is low, very low. Some would tell you that the Oakland Raiders, if all goes according to plan, might very well be the worst team in all of pro football.

Da Raiders -- the worst team!

Could be.

They're so bad (they were 2-14 last season), that it's probably only their home field advantage, and the Lions' terrible road history, that will make them favorites -- or else they might be considered underdogs to the Lions, who were 3-13 last season and who are 24-72 since 2001.

But they have the heralded rookie QB JaMarcus Russell. He won't start Sunday (that will most likely be Culpepper), and may not play much, if at all, this season. But he's the quarterback of the future for the Raiders, and finally they have someone around whom to build a team.

That's not the way they used to do it in Raider Nation. There wasn't "one guy" that was The Franchise. The Raiders were a collection, an eclectic bunch of misanthropes who beat the snot out of you every Sunday and sneered and laughed about it. For years they had the best all-time winning percentage on Monday Night Football -- a testament to how they thrived on the spotlight.

They were the bald-headed Otis Sistrunk and the goose-necked Ted Hendricks and the graceful Cliff Branch and the sticky Fred Biletnikoff. They were the ugly yardage of Marv Hubbard and the maiming hits of Jack Tatum. And they were, at one time, the bull-nosed linebacker play of one Matt Millen.

That was then.

Today, the Raiders are none of that. They are just another bad football team who are most likely already playing out the string. They are neither intimidating nor brash nor abrasive. They wear silver and black, but now those are just colors, not a means to an end.

But they had their time, once. Which is still more than I can say for the Lions, post-1957.

Monday, September 03, 2007

U-M Now Has Their Central Michigan, But To The Nth Degree

I was at a friend's house that September Saturday, in 1991. We were taking in the U-M/Notre Dame game, watching it on a TV in the garage, when someone burst into the backyard with the news.

"Michigan State lost to Central Michigan! Michigan State lost to Central Michigan!"

We laughed and howled and wondered how such a thing could happen: a Mid-American school beating a Big Ten school, in the Big Ten school's house.

It couldn't have been too flukey; CMU did it to the Spartans again in 1992.

Every MSU fan must, today, feel like the kid who did something embarrassing at school, only to have the popular kid do something even MORE embarrassing, taking the first kid off the hook -- forever.

Never again should the Sparty faithful have to put up with the CMU talk -- which still does crop up from time to time, some 16 years later. Never again should they have to defend or try to rationalize that loss. Never again.

"Michigan lost to Appalachian State! Michigan lost to Appalachian State!"

There's a new mantra in town.

Heck, I thought it was going to be bad enough when it appeared the mantra was going to be, "Michigan ALMOST lost to Appalachian State!" Even if the Wolverines hadn't allowed that last field goal drive, or even if their own FG attempt at the end had been between the uprights instead of between an ASU player's numbers, sealing a precarious victory, the critics would have had a field day.

"Michigan ALMOST lost to Appalachian State!"

Well, lose the "almost" and that mantra has shelf life like you wouldn't believe.

Oh, how much will the MSU folks be able to squeeze from this one? Or any other U-M hater out there. You think they danced a little jig in Columbus Saturday evening? Blew a kazoo on the USC campus?

It's been written that Michigan's season is now over with, before Labor Day. If the sole goal is National Championship, then that viewpoint might prove to be correct. But it's always about how you finish. Look no further than last season, when U-M started 10-0 but then a loss to Ohio State ruined their BCS hopes. Folks remember what happened most recently.

U-M will never, and I mean NEVER, live this loss to ASU down, from a historical perspective. But if they pick themselves up, and just keep winning football games, and end up with just the one loss ... who knows? So the season isn't over with. They just can't lose any more games.

Michigan lost to Appalachian State, and we won't stop talking about it. Nor will our grandkids.

But the season isn't over. It just feels that way to the Michigan faithful. It's coach Lloyd Carr's job to make sure it doesn't feel that way to his kids.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Eight Years Later, Barry's Departure Still Haunting Lions

It’s hardly the Kennedy assassination, but I pretty much remember where I was when I heard the news.

It was July, 1999. The Tigers were, once again, stumbling and bumbling their way through the American League. Nothing much happening, except Lions training camp, which was about to start.

Then the news hit. The Internet and talk radio started bubbling rapidly, like molten lava.

Barry Sanders, the jitterbug running back, had retired. Just like that. Faxed in his intentions, then hopped a plane for England.

But only those with deaf ears and blinders on could have been TRULY rocked by the announcement, which slugged Lions fans in the gut. For months, Sanders’s unhappiness with the organization was being talked about by his father, William. If his son had his way, William Sanders asserted, he’d walk away from football. That’s how bad things had gotten for the most exciting player in franchise history.

Nobody listened. Certainly no one with the Lions. Except Coach Bobby Ross, who peppered Barry with letters and phone calls. Not once did his star running back pick up a phone, or drop a line in the mail. The silence, to coach Ross, was deafening.

The silence was broken that July morning, the day before the Lions were to report for camp. Barry Sanders has retired. Pass it down.

At first, the delivery of such abhorrent news was met with denial. A bad, twisted joke, it must have been. Only a fiction writer could think of it: Barry Sanders quits the Lions, on the eve of training camp. When he had all year to tell the team of his intentions.

He had. But no one was listening.

Only later was it revealed: that the Lions had been aware of Sanders’s disgust, far in advance of his quitting. William Sanders’s warnings throughout the spring should have been heeded, after all.

Yet the Lions didn’t take their best player seriously, apparently.

Someone would have to play running back for the 1999 season, even though the notion of replacing the 10-year veteran Sanders with anyone other than Jim Brown himself was considered unfathomable – and futile. That notion proved absolutely correct.

The Lions found someone. He was Greg Hill, the erstwhile runner from Kansas City. He had never rushed for more than 667 yards in any NFL season. Barry Sanders, alone, had tripled that in 1997. Simply put, Hill was to Barry Sanders what saccharin is to sugar. But then again, someone would have to play running back for the 1999 season.

The statistics read thusly:
1998: Sanders (343 carries, 1,491 yards, 4.3 avg)
1999: Hill (144 carries, 542 yards, 3.8 avg)

Saccharin, indeed.

But that was eight years ago. Surely enough time for an organization to recover, find a fairly suitable replacement, and move on with its life.

It’s my contention that the Detroit Lions are still struggling to find the air that was kicked out of them when Barry Sanders quit on them so suddenly in 1999.

It’s not just the matter of who will carry the football, though that’s been tough enough to determine. When Sanders bolted, it set off a chain reaction of events – mostly bad. It’s happened before with the Lions.

In October 1962, a loss was suffered on a gray, muddy day in Green Bay that many point to as being the negative splitting of the team’s atom.

The Lions, leading the division-leading, undefeated Packers by a measly point, 7-6, had the ball as the clock stubbornly wound down. It was third down, around midfield. A couple minutes remained. The Lions really didn’t need a first down. A punt deep into Packers territory would probably do the trick. But quarterback Milt Plum faded back to pass. Receiver Terry Barr ran his route, turned, and … fell down in the Green Bay mud. Plum’s moist pass fluttered to cornerback Herb Adderley, who raced down the sidelines, well into field goal range. As the seconds ticked down, Paul Hornung booted the game-winning kick.

That 9-7 loss to the Packers, a game that clearly should have been won and thrusted the Lions into the thick of the playoff race, tore the team’s heart out. In the locker room after the game, defensive tackle Alex Karras, enraged by Plum’s flippant response when he asked who the dumb S.O.B. was who called the pass play, hurled his silver Lions helmet at the surprised QB, missing his head by inches.

“Even the newspaper guys who traveled with us, who were usually like pallbearers, were trying to cheer us up,” Karras once said about the plane ride back to Detroit.

The Lions got their revenge of sorts when they beat the stuffing out of the Packers that Thanksgiving. But the damage was done. Vince Lombardi’s men ended up wearing championship rings that the Lions figured should have been theirs.

In the 44 seasons after that ’62 debacle, the Lions have won one playoff game. And many feel the downward spiral began on a muddy field in Wisconsin, with an errant pass and a slip-sliding wide receiver.

And so it has been with Barry Sanders’s retirement. The Lions went 8-8 in ’99, but slumped badly toward the end of the year. They were blown out in the playoffs. In 2000, Ross pulled his own Barry – quitting abruptly, in November. The Lions still had a chance for the playoffs. But a Paul Edinger field goal on the last play of the season lifted the Bears over the Lions. No playoffs. A housecleaning began. The Matt Millen Era was dumped upon an unsuspecting Lions fan base.

In six seasons with Mr. Millen running things, the Lions are 24-72.

Would all that had happened if Barry Sanders stayed unretired in 1999? Probably not, though it’s unclear how much better things would have been.

This ISN’T unclear: the Lions still struggle to find their footing eight years after Sanders’s retirement. Their running game is almost annually moribund. They still seek players who can provide weekly excitement. They haven’t sniffed the playoffs.

Barry left, and so much life left with him. I wonder if he knows what he’s done. I wonder if he knew at the time. Then again, did Milt Plum know what he was about to unleash?