Friday, November 30, 2007

Despite Hordes Of Losses In Minnesota, Three Wins Stand Out

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

Perhaps the most memorable was a win in 1974.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downey (left) in typical repose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

NFL's Overtime System Needs Serious Overhauling

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

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

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

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

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

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

I HATE this system!

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

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

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

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

Now, some FAQ:

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

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

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

Then Team B still gets a chance with the ball.

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

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

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

Team B wins.

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

Team A wins.

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

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

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


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Today’s Red Wings A Team Without Anyone To Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goalies Vernon and Roy duking it out in '97

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

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

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

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

Yet things are nowhere near the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, November 23, 2007

Bleeding Continues As Lions Can't Catch Pack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Knicks On Another Bumpy Ride, Led By Isiah

You know your NBA team is in trouble when you wish for its coach to sexually harrass someone again to divert attention from the product on the court.

The New York Knicks could use another Isiah Thomas-driven distraction right about now -- since they seem unwilling to fire him.

The words "Knicks" and "turmoil" are starting to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or, more appropriately, like flies and sh*t.

They're in town tonight, those dysfunctional, lovable Knicks. They flew into Metro Airport with a 2-8 record, after being dismantled at home by the Golden State Warriors, 108-82.

Training camp began with a cloud already formed over the team, in the form of the fallout from coach Thomas's legal troubles stemming from accusations of a fired employee who said Thomas groped her and called her "bitch."

Then starting point guard Stephon Marbury left the team briefly last week, and was fined nearly $200,000. With little to no explanation of his behavior, Marbury was nonetheless re-installed into the starting lineup, as if nothing happened.

Now the Knicks are working hard on a seven-game losing streak.

Last year, Thomas was given an ultimatum by boss James Dolan to significantly improve the Knicks or be fired. The team again finished below .500, but showed just enough, apparently, for Dolan to give Isiah another chance. And that chance would come with newly-acquired Zach Randolph, the big man Isiah craved.

Yet the record is worse after 10 games this season than it was last campaign.

And there's absolutely no sign of the turbulence that continually surrounds the Knicks letting up any time soon.

Pro basketball is a game born out of the cigar smoke-filled arenas in Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse, and Boston. In places like Madison Square Garden, for example.

Once, that arena was considered a sort of hoops Mecca. Championships were won there, and the Knicks were one of the few teams that could even hope to interrupt the latest string of Celtics domination with dominance of their own.

Now, the New York Knicks are a joke. Their arena, even, is besmirched, because the young lady who brought charges against Thomas was an employee of the Knicks' parent company, which uses the MSG name as its foundation.

I don't know about cigar smoke, but they sure are toking on something in the Knicks offices, as long as they continue to let Isiah Thomas coach their ballclub.

The Knicks will be the fourth basketball entity that Thomas will leave in worse shape than when he found it, joining the CBA, the Toronto Raptors, and the Indiana Pacers. Only the Detroit Pistons, as a player, did Isiah improve by his mere presence. And that team was 21-61 before he joined it.

The New York Knicks are in town tonight, coached by their Thanksgiving turkey. The Pistons should feast this evening.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lions, As Usual, Come Up Empty In Crunch Time

Randy Moss would have caught it. Terrell Owens would have caught it -- and told everyone how he did it for as long as you cared to listen. Marvin Harrison would have caught it. Donald Driver would have caught it.

Those receivers play on teams who've lost but four games between them, and it's nearly Thanksgiving. And they are key cogs of those clubs, largely because they can be counted on to make plays when needed.

The Lions, still, don't have such players on their team. They have players who can make plays in the second and third quarters of games -- and in the first half of a football season -- but they do not have players such as the ones listed in the opening paragraph.

Calvin Johnson, someday, may be that kind of player. We'll see. Or not, based on how the Lions choose to use him -- which is as if he's behind glass, like an axe in case of fire.

But Shaun McDonald is not the kind of player, sadly, who can make the big play at the big time. He demonstrated, in one play, why the Lions cannot and should not be taken seriously as a playoff team, when he let Jon Kitna's pass in the closing minute slip thru his hands. The ball was intercepted, and the Lions had let the New York Giants off the hook, 16-10, in a battle of two different 6-3 teams: one that has substance (the Giants) and one that has far less of that than style (the Lions).

A couple minutes earlier, Kitna rocketed a bomb from midfield, impatiently going for the go-ahead score when there was plenty of time and all three timeouts remaining. But Kitna threw the ball to McDonald, a shrimp, who was easily outmuscled for it by the defender for another interception. Somewhere on the field, the 6-3 Roy Williams and the 6-5 Johnson roamed. They are not shrimps.

When was the last time you saw the Lions drive down the field for a winning score? There was that ridiculous ending in New Orleans a couple of years ago. But what about before that? And when in a game that actually meant something?

The Lions spoke all week of how this Giants game and the one behind it, against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, were playoff games, in their minds. Williams hoped publicly that the fans would show up (as if that's ever been a problem). But as usual, the fans showed up, but their team did not. The Lions came out -- as is their wont in quote-unquote big games -- flat as a crepe. They, once again, were dreadfully dominated in time of possession and statistically in the first half. They didn't show any real life until midway thru the fourth quarter, when Johnson made a brilliant catch for a TD -- showing what can happen when you throw the ball to a 6-5 dude who is a freak of nature, talent-wise.

But Kitna became infatuated with the shrimp McDonald in the closing minutes, and it cost his team the game.

It's not unfair to say that the Lions won't be taken seriously until they can perform in the season's second half. Anyone can go 6-2; plenty of teams who don't make the playoffs have done so. The second half is what separates the men from the boys. And the Lions are now 0-2 in 2007, Part II.

Shaun McDonald couldn't come up with Kitna's pass in crunch time. He made some plays earlier in the game. He's made some plays earlier in the season. He didn't make the crucial play yesterday. And anyone who was truly surprised by that hasn't been paying attention for the past several decades.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Miami Dolphins: Toast IN The Town

What a difference 35 years makes.

Will Bob Keuchenberg, Manny Fernandez, Larry Little and the rest toast a Miami Dolphins victory, in the same manner in which they toast the loss that eliminates the last remaining undefeated NFL team every fall?

You’ve probably heard of this annual ritual. Some members of the 1972 Dolphins – the first and only team to go undefeated and untied in the modern NFL era – gather for a champagne toast and party whenever the league is cleared of unbeaten teams. Sometimes the party occurs as early as October. Sometimes, not until December. But it’s a party that’s been a staple every year, ever since the bulk of the team retired in the late-1970s.

Those Dolphins have made it abundantly clear that they take their unbeaten status very seriously, and are open in their disdain for any team that dares challenge it. Hence the corks popping whenever the final unbeaten team has its record blemished with a loss.

The Dolphins have now come full circle. They were an expansion team in 1966, in the old American Football League. Their first coach was George Wilson, who had led the Lions to their last world’s championship in 1957. Wilson’s son, also named George, was a quarterback. And befitting expansion teams, the ’66 Dolphins engaged in the usual stumbling, bumbling, self-inflictingly damaging nonsense every week. They managed to win three games in their first season, out of 14 contests.

Today’s Dolphins, if they win three games, will be considered a miracle team.

They’re 0-9 this year, and I had said it kiddingly a month or so ago, but now I’m not as full of levity: the 2007 Dolphins, in their 42nd year of professional football, could very well be a worse team than the 1966 version that was in its first.

A couple of weeks ago, the NFL staged a regular season game outside the continental United States for the first time in history. The game was played in London. The UK is becoming more and more smitten with American football, it appears. One of the teams dispatched to play in Wembley Stadium was the New York Giants. A sensible choice – representing the most famous city in the country, and not a bad team, either.

The other team was the Miami Dolphins.

Maybe it didn’t matter to the Brits that we sent one-half of a football match to their country. Maybe they couldn’t have cared less that the NFL fed them a football version of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The joint was packed, and the enthusiasm unbridled, according to those who were there.

The Giants handled the Dolphins, of course, and Miami’s team reminded me of an old line from beleaguered coach John McKay of the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs.

After losing at home – which followed a road loss – McKay said, “We’ve now proven we can’t win on the road OR in front of our home crowd. So we’d like to have a neutral site.”

The Dolphins are now 0-8 in the United States and 0-1 in Europe.

There are seven games remaining, and chatter is gaining momentum that says the Miami Dolphins will be the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

It’s a lot easier, I think, to put the kibosh on thoughts of an unbeaten team than to suggest that a winless bunch after nine games has a chance to be victorious. How can you make such a claim – that the Dolphins can win a football game – when they haven’t been able to do so by the time Thanksgiving Day beckons?

Parity? Luck? I suppose those could be used in defense of the notion that Miami can beat someone in 2007. But unlike the unbeaten teams, who are sometimes riding the crest of good luck destined to turn, the winless squads’ challenge gets harder and harder the longer their drought continues. It must be impossible for Dolphins players to not think that sooner or later, something bad will happen and that they’ll lose once again. Certainly that feeling must be
stronger as November wanes.

Last Sunday, the Dolphins hosted Buffalo – a middle-of-the-road, so-so team that the NFL is so fond of. The Bills struggled with their 0-8 hosts. The score was 10-10, the final minutes ticking away. Naturally, the Bills maneuvered into field goal range in the closing seconds. And naturally, the kick was good.

Jason Taylor, a defensive end and one of the few Miami players worth watching, sat on the bench for several minutes after Buffalo’s winning kick, trying to process things. I saw video of Taylor, and you needed words to describe his thoughts the same way you need a parka in Hades.

The ’72 Dolphins alumni are no doubt too busy worrying about the New England Patriots and their “16-0 or bust” mentality (the Pats are 9-0 and about as invincible as a team has ever been in the NFL) to concern themselves with their professional alma mater. But I wouldn’t bet against this scenario: a final regular weekend featuring a 15-0 Patriots team and an 0-15 Dolphins platoon.

So what will Keuchenberg, et al be rooting for more – a Patriots loss or a Dolphins win?
Clearly, a Patriots loss. They enjoy too much their status as the lone wolves. The ’72 Dolphins accomplished something that no other team has in the NFL’s 80+ years of existence, so why wouldn’t they think that they’re pretty cool?

And what of the 2007 Dolphins? What will their alumni toast, in the future, should they go winless?

Surviving it, I suppose, would be on top of the list.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lions, Giants Each Haunted By Boneheaded Play Calls In Days Of Yore

I'm not sure what the nickname is for it, but it never got the snazzy moniker of the Immaculate Reception or The Holy Roller, or the Hail Mary. Or even the Ally Oop. And certainly not the Miracle in the Meadowlands.

The Lions have had their strange moments, that's for sure, but of all the curious play calls and decisions they've made over the years, perhaps none haunted the franchise as much as an ill-advised pass play called in the huddle during the late stages of a rain-soaked game in Green Bay, in October 1962.

The Lions, growing into a serious title contender in 1960 and '61, visited the Packers. Each team was 3-0. For most of the game, the Lions' vaunted defense handled the Packers' famous running attack in the muck in Wisconsin. The Lions nursed a 7-6 lead with just a few minutes remaining.

Then the Lions were faced with a third-and-long near midfield. But even if they didn't convert, all they needed to do was punt, pin the Packers deep into their own territory, and Green Bay would have maybe 90 seconds left to drive into field goal position -- which on a bad weather day would have been inside the 30-yard line.

But then Lions QB Milt Plum faded back to pass.

"My God, he hasn't passed all day! What's he doing?," DT Alex Karras said to Joe Schmidt (according to Karras years later).

The pass was headed for the sidelines, but the Lions receiver slipped in the mud and DB Herb Adderly intercepted. He ran it back deep into Lions territory. A few simple running plays later, Paul Hornung booted a field goal. Packers win, 9-7 -- without even scoring a touchdown.

"The whole defense was absolutely violent. Joe Schmidt was absolutely violent. I was so mad, I could have killed somebody," Karras related about the mood in the locker room after the game.

Naturally, everyone wanted to know who called the pass play, when a running play would have been safer.

"None of your business," Plum told Karras.

That's when Karras lost it, and hurled his helmet across the room, missing Plum's noggin by inches.

Karras said that the mood was so funereal on the plane back to Detroit that "even the writers, who were normally like pallbearers, were trying to cheer us up."

The Lions later manhandled the Packers on Thanksgiving Day in '62, but by that time it was too late. Green Bay won the West with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3 -- their third loss coming on the last, meaningless Sunday of the season. Had they not blown the game in Green Bay, it might have been the Lions in the league championship game that year, not the Packers.

Karras and others still believe that that loss in Green Bay in 1962 so divided the team and so hurt morale, that the Lions never really recovered.

"It was like guys started to think, no matter what we do or how good we play, something is going to happen to screw it all up. That we'll never win anything," Karras said.

It's a mood and a belief that continues to dog the Lions today, some 45 years after the debacle in Green Bay.

The New York Football Giants, who invade Ford Field Sunday, were also victimized by a strange play call. But this one was much more famous, though the implications were far less. Call it the amenities of playing in New York/New Jersey.

The 1978 Giants were a bad football team. They were going nowhere in the standings. But they were about to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles at home -- and the Eagles WERE a good football team. The Giants had the ball inside their own 30-yard line, under a minute remaining. The Eagles had no timeouts left. All Giants QB Joe Pisarcik had to do was fall on the ball, for goodness sakes.

For reasons that still go unknown, Pisarcik tried a handoff to Larry Csonka. The exchange was poor, and the ball dropped to the turf. You've seen this play a hundred times, no doubt. And you've seen DB Herm Edwards (yes, THAT Herm Edwards) scoop up the gift and waltz into the end zone for the winning score.

Edwards about to pick up his freebie and run with it to glory

A Giants assistant coach got fired the day after the game. The play came to be known as the Miracle in the Meadowlands. And it served as a constant reminder of the Giants' ineptitude in the late '70s, early-1980s. Until someone named Bill Parcells came along to end the nonsense.

I've never seen footage of the Lions' silly pass play in Green Bay in 1962. But I've read about it for years, rendering my seeing it irrelevant. I HAVE seen the Giants' blunder countless times, but that play hasn't nearly the same impact as the one the Lions made -- the one that I never saw.

Proof that memories can resonate without moving pictures to showcase them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things Overheard In a Denver Sports Bar During The Broncos' 44-7 Loss to the Lions")

Things That Stephon Marbury Might Have On Isiah Thomas
(The Knicks' Marbury reportedly claims to have "a lot" on his coach, threatening to expose it if Thomas comes down too hard on him for missing a game in Phoenix)

1. Never-before-seen pre-game kisses between Thomas and Magic Johnson. When the Pistons and the Lakers met in the 1988 and '89 Finals, good friends Thomas and Johnson famously pecked each other on the cheek before the opening tap. Maybe Marbury has photos of more explicit, private pre-game kisses?

2. Hidden camera tapes of Thomas as CBA Commissioner. Perhaps incriminating footage, similar to that on the local news that busts a public official who's caught goofing off on the job?

3. Outtakes from the "Oh, Isiah!" TV commercial. Remember the commercial featuring Thomas and his mother, for DTE Energy? The one that ends with the famous line, "Oh, Isiah!"? Maybe Marbury has some footage of Thomas slapping mom around off camera?

4. Audio from actual game huddles. This, if it exists (perhaps from a hidden microphone) would expose Thomas as the terrible in-game manager that he is.

5. Informants. Marbury might have witnesses who say Thomas burst into a hotel room and held them hostage while he tried to recover stolen Pistons championship memorabilia.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hasek, I Fear, Is About Done

The Dominator is now The Dominated.

I railed about this last month, and it hasn't gotten any better, really.

The Red Wings need to seriously consider whether goalie Dominik Hasek is done.

Hasek was miserable -- again -- in St. Louis last night, giving up four goals in seven shots in the second period of the team's 4-3 loss to the Blues. A couple were toughies, but the others were highly stoppable.

Like I say, I'm not sure when the end comes for 42-year-old goaltenders in the NHL (Hasek will turn 43 in January). I don't know if they lose it suddenly, or if there's gradual degradation in skill. I don't know because I've never seen a 42-year-old goalie perform. Oh, there was Jacques Plante back in the day, and others in the 1950s and '60s performed into their 40s. But that's before even this oldtimer's generation.

Hasek, to be fair, has been slowed by injury this season. And there's still plenty of time to decide whether an upgrade needs to be sought in some sort of trade-deadline deal. That, and the fact that 35-year-old Chris Osgood has played well (8-1 this season), has cushioned the blow of Hasek's disturbing inconsistency. But his spotty play can't be ignored any longer.

The Red Wings, I believe, are improved even from last spring, when they made it all the way to the conference finals. They were, frankly, a fluke goal away (end of regulation in Game 5) from making the Cup Finals. Still, that team isn't as good as the one that performs today.

But they are not going anywhere if the goaltending that Hasek is providing now is a sneak preview of what he'll give the Red Wings in April. And how much can, or should, the Red Wings rely on Osgood?

Coach Mike Babcock omitted Hasek as one of the guilty parties in last night's come-from-ahead loss (the Wings blew a 2-0 lead). My guess is that such free passes are being handed out now, in deference to all Hasek has done in his career. But they can't go on forever, if Dom continues to battle the puck -- and losing on most occasions.

I hope I'm proven wrong, but I fear that we've seen the last of the great goaltending play from Dominik Hasek. The Red Wings would be best served to start thinking about looking at their netminding as something that needs fixing before the playoffs.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Lions Lose "Winnable" Game -- Whatever That Is

I've heard it several times already. The term is "winnable game." It's supposedly what the Lions had on their docket yesterday, in Arizona. Another way of putting it was "trap game."

The inference is clear. That the Lions, puffed up with their 6-2 record, were in danger of overlooking the 3-5 Cardinals (trap game), in a game that looked favorable, if only because of the two teams' records (winnable game).

Hogwash -- to both claims!

Pardon me, but isn't just about any NFL game "winnable"? Isn't that what the league's higher ups want -- parity for all and to all a good night? You know, the "on any given Sunday" thing. But at least that line rings true.

I think the Cardinals went into yesterday's contest thinking the Lions afforded them a "beatable" opponent. So does that make next week's Lions game against the New York Giants "non-winnable"? Or is it a "trap game" for the Giants?

Please -- let me know.

OK, so a 6-2 team visits a 3-5 team, and right away we label the game as winnable for the 6-2 team. Then you look at the schedule and see that the 6-2 team has a couple of games upcoming against teams with gaudy records. So now the game against the 3-5 team becomes a "trap" game.

Nobody seems to want to acknowledge that the NFL is a strange bird. Indianapolis' Peyton Manning threw six interceptions -- four by the time the second quarter was but a few minutes old -- in his team's loss to the San Diego Chargers. Was the Chargers game winnable? The Chargers were 4-4 going into it; the Colts 7-1.

Hey -- do ya think the Denver Broncos' fans looked at the Lions game a week ago Sunday and thought "winnable"? You bet your fanny they did.

Here's what the NFL is: you play the best you can, try to limit your mistakes, and make more big plays than the other guys. Simple as that. Sometimes you do that and you win. Sometimes you don't, and you lose. Or you do it and lose, or don't do it and win. Like I said, the NFL is funny.

But I will say this: the Lions proved what we pretty much all knew to be true. And that is, they are not, yet, an elite NFL squad. They're still a work in progress -- just like 27 or 28 of the teams in the league. They have had the skill, moxie, and big play capability to etch out a 6-3 record after nine games -- mostly against other league works in progress. And that's all you can say with 100% accuracy.

Here's something else that you cannot say is innacurate: the Lions' seven remaining games are against opponents who, for the most part, have their act together more than the ones that dotted Detroit's first nine matches. Now, what that means, I have no idea.

The consensus is that the Lions' true test is about to hit them hard, beginning next week against the Giants at Ford Field. That's probably pretty accurate, too. But enough about winnable and trap games. They're all winnable, and they're all losable. And they're ALL fraught with traps.

Such are the NFL's weekly mine fields.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lions’ New-Found Success Also Buying More Years For Millen

They were both Lions, through and through. One was a player, then a scout, then an assistant coach – even a broadcaster, when radio ruled. Then he was handed the reins to the front office. The other was a Hall of Fame player, then an assistant coach, then promoted to head coach.

Yet that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. Because while Joe Schmidt, the second of the two above-described men, could have been elected mayor of Detroit in certain years, the first – Russ Thomas, was very often times targeted for a coup d’etat. The fans would have led the way with torches and gladly have directed the masses to the nearest guillotine, Thomas in tow.

Of course, there was no Internet, and no sports talk radio to speak of, and therefore no organizers for cleverly-named protests like The Millen Man March, when Russ Thomas ruled the Lions with a tightwad, iron fist in the 1960s, ‘70s, and most of the ‘80s. Yet the Lions did a lot of losing in those days, and the rumble for Thomas’s head was there – if not as public or as loud as today’s pleadings to sack the current GM, Matt Millen.

Russ Thomas, I believe, was maybe the most hated man in Detroit sports history, at the apex of the fans’ vitriol. Just because they couldn’t express their outrage into a cell phone while tooling down I-696, doesn’t make their venom for the man any less so.

Thomas presided over the team in my formative years as a sports fan, and on his watch the drafts were spotty, the money-spending was miserly, the coaching hires often curious. A typical Lions year under Thomas was 7-7, and a distant second place behind the Minnesota Vikings. The playoffs rarely beckoned.

Yet Thomas, a close friend of owner Bill Ford, had rock-solid job security. His time as GM was about 25 years, after Nick Kerbaway left to helm the Pistons in the early-‘60s.

In the mid-‘70s, the Lions had an extremely talented player named Ron Jessie. He was a tall, fleet-footed wide receiver and kick returner who had been a track star in college. He was heading into the prime of his career.

But there was always the issue of money with Russ Thomas, and when there wasn’t enough of it tossed in Jessie’s direction, he took his gazelle-like legs and soft receiving hands westward, to the Los Angeles Rams. Thomas tried to pry a young running back named Cullen Bryant from the Rams as compensation. Bryant didn’t want any part of the Lions. He fought the proposed exile to Detroit tooth and nail. Thomas settled on some draft picks, none of them used wisely anyway.

So Jessie joined the Rams, and was reunited with their head coach, Chuck Knox. A couple years earlier, Knox – a loyal Schmidt assistant, was passed over for the head coaching job here when Schmidt surrendered in his lost power struggle with Thomas. Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom knew Knox had something, and coaxed him to take over his team. In Los Angeles, Knox led the Rams to one divisional title after the other. They were perennial Super Bowl contenders, thanks to players like Ron Jessie.

Ten years before Knox fled, the Lions let another good one wriggle off their hook. They had under their employ a bright, young secondary coach – the last time the Lions were truly a good football team until Schmidt took them over.

Don Shula, Lions assistant (1960-62)

In subsequent years, when the Lions would get their tails kicked by the Baltimore Colts and then see the whole league get pasted every week by the Miami Dolphins, they’d wonder how good they could have been, had they let Don Shula become their head coach.

Millen, you could say, has perhaps surpassed Thomas in terms of fans’ detest.

The most-hated man in Detroit sports history, since Russ Thomas (or ever?)

The other day, I found myself trapped in the car, a captive audience of sports talk radio. I could have turned the dial, but they sucked me in.

How much credit, the jabbermouths wanted to know, should Matt Millen get for the Lions’ spiffy 6-2 start in 2007?

Not surprisingly, the feeling was unanimous.


WXYT Co-host Mike Valenti, kind of a poor man’s Mad Dog Russo (for those fellow oldtimers), literally started yelling into his microphone – not uncommon for him.

“He (Millen) deserves none. Zip. Zilch. Nada. NOTHING. It’s all (coach) Rod Marinelli and (offensive coordinator) Mike Martz. Even Tom Lewand (the salary cap guru) is a better player personnel guy than Millen,” Valenti railed.

The notion that Lewand, a numbers cruncher, is a better judge of football talent than Matt Millen, is laughable. And so is the contention that Millen deserves zero credit for the Lions’ resurgence. But dudes like Mike Valenti aren’t paid to be the beacons of common sense, or rationale.

Thankfully, partner Drew Sharp of the Free Press, frequent wielder of the poison pen when it comes to Millen, voiced some reason.

“You can’t say Millen deserves zero credit,” Sharp said, echoing my out-loud thought as I coasted in traffic. “Because he’s the guy who hired Marinelli.”

“Do you think that was Millen’s call?,” Valenti asked.

Oy vay. Who needs to be rational, if one is wearing headphones blabbing into a microphone?

But I chuckled anyway, because what the callers and Valenti don’t seem to want to accept is that, thanks to this jackrabbit start, the Matt Millen Era figures to have been extended by at least another two, three years. If Ford didn’t fire Millen BEFORE this, what makes you think he’ll do so imminently?

Millen just might approach Russ Thomas’s length of tenure in the Lions’ front office, when all is said and done. Especially said.

Sorry to break it to you.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Wanna Feel Better About The Lions' History? Check Out The Cardinals

Football fans can be so myopic.

I know, that comes from the category of "tell me something I don't know."

This Sunday, the Lions travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals. And you can make the case -- a quite good one, actually -- that the Cardinals have been an even more abominable NFL failure than the Lions, throughout history.

For starters, the Cards have been losers in four cities, and under four names: Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Arizona (the Cards today play in Glendale). They were among the league's dregs in the '50s in the Windy City, in the '60s in St. Louis, and in the '90s and '00s in the desert. Only in the '70s and some of the '80s were the Cardinals legitimately competitive, playing in Busch Stadium and occasionally holding their own in the tough NFC East. They made the playoffs a few times.

But the Cardinals have never played in a league championship game, and have never come remotely close to the Super Bowl. At least the 1991 Lions made it to the NFC title game, and the '83 bunch was a crooked Eddie Murray field goal try away from doing it that year, too. And lest us not forget the 1970 Lions, losers of a heartbreaking 5-0 playoff game against Dallas. One measly touchdown, or two field goals, and those Lions would have been in the NFL's Final Four, too.

Like most lovable losers, the Cardinals have tried various and curious coaches, and have been beset with bad luck. In 1978, the team tried a legendary Oklahoma football coach to pull them out of the morass of losing. But the Cardinals being the Cardinals, their choice wasn't the current Sooners coach, a la the Dallas Cowboys and Barry Switzer. In '78, the St. Louis Cardinals tabbed Bud Wilkinson, who hadn't coached a game in over a decade. When the Cardinals came calling, Wilkinson was so well-known as an ABC college football analyst that most folks didn't even know he had been a coach at all. The experiment lasted less than two seasons.

The Cards have tried Buddy Ryan, who bounded into town and smugly and arrogantly said, "Well, you got yourself a winner." Buddy was mostly a loser in Arizona.

They've tried former star players (Larry Wilson); top assistants elsewhere (Joe Bugel); the unknown (Dave McGinnis); moderately successful NFL head coaches (Ryan and Denny Green); and on and on. Kind of like the Lions.

Only with Don Coryell, in the '70s, were the Cardinals truly a good football team. The days of Jim Hart at QB, Jim Otis and Terry Metcalf in the backfield, and Mel Gray (NOT the former Lion) catching passes. And a stalwart O-line featuring Dan Dierdorf, Bob Young, and Conrad Dobler. The defense had Pro Bowl DB Roger Wehrli and some other good players.

Their window was about four years.

Don Coryell (left) and Bud Wilkinson

Still, the Lions being the Lions, the Cardinals have confounded the Honolulu Blue and Silver over the years. The games in Arizona have been particularly awful. Remember Bobby Ross going for two in 1999? Arizona was also the site of Ross's famous "I don't coach that stuff!" rant.

This year, the Cardinals are a typical 3-5. But they've usually been bad when the Lions have visited them, and the Cardinals have still managed to beat them on most occasions.

But the Lions' streak of futility still isn't as long, or as devoid of success, as the Cardinals'.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Absurd Things That Have Happened To The Pistons In Their 50 Years in Detroit.)

Things Overheard In A Denver Sports Bar During Sunday's 44-7 Loss To The Lions

1. "Geez! We can't stop the run again -- and they haven't even put Tatum Bell in yet!"

2. "I think the air is too thick in Detroit"

3. "At least Todd Sauerbrun can kick Nick Harris's ass"

4. "Maybe the Lions are still pissed at us for Glyn Milburn"

5. "Cutler's hurt? That's cool -- watch Patrick Ramsey kill 'em. The Lions always make backup QBs look like Elway"

6. "Umm ... guess not"

7. "You SURE these are the Detroit Lions?"

8. "Cripe -- Shaun Rogers by himself is having a better day running the ball than we are as a TEAM!"

9. "Who the **** is Shaun McDonald?"

10. "Monday morning they should take Dre' Bly outside and exorcise the demons he brought with him from Detroit!"

11. "Our receivers have dropped more balls than a Lotto machine!"

12. "Make mine a double"

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sharp Shooter Hayes Needs A Hot Nickname

There's something about heat and basketball shooters coming off the bench, especially here in Detroit.

Fellow oldtimers like me will recall the exploits of George Trapp, a swingman from the 1970s. "Canned Heat," they called George, because he entered games at Cobo Arena and, his lid removed, would rain jumpers down over his defenders. And a pity that the three-point line didn't exist back then.

Then, of course, The Microwave -- Vinnie Johnson. Did you know that it was Danny Ainge of the hated Celtics who gave Vinnie that nickname? It was a time when William "Refrigerator" Perry was making a name for himself in Chicago, with the Bears.

"If that guy on the Bears is the Fridge, then Johnson is the Microwave," Ainge said after a playoff game in which VJ torched the Celtics. And the nickname stuck.

There isn't a nickname yet, that I'm aware of, for Jarvis Hayes. He's the newest Piston gunner off the bench, and it's welcome to once again have a dude that can tear off his warmups and start dropping jumpers into the bucket.

Hayes is delirously happy to be a Piston, signing here as a free agent from the Washington Bullets, er Wizards. And after watching him for just three games, my feeling about him is mutual.

Hayes adds a dimension so badly needed on his new team. Bench scoring -- consistent bench scoring, primarily from the shooting guard and small forward positions -- has been such a struggle for the Pistons, even in their 64-win season a couple years ago. With Rip Hamilton finding himself in foul trouble more often these days, it's especially important to have more shooters.

Hayes loves it in Detroit. He's a real option now, something he never really experienced in Washington.

"And here," he says, "it's all about winning a championship."

Trapp never got the chance in Detroit. His teams were nowhere good enough. Johnson's buzzer-beater against the Trail Blazers in the 1990 Finals is legendary.

Now the Pistons have Jarvis Hayes -- some more instant warmth. He should make the winters here that much more bearable.

Now, about that nickname dilemma...

Monday, November 05, 2007

Big Baby Could Own Detroit, But Chooses Not To

When Cecil Fielder played in Detroit, they called him "Big Daddy." He led the AL in RBI in three straight seasons (1990-92), and one of my favorite photos is one of Big Daddy roaming the left field roof at Tiger Stadium, in his uniform, carrying a bat and smoking a cigar. It was homage to his clearing that roof and coming close on other occasions.

For a few seasons, big Cecil owned Detroit, at least during the summers. He burst into town with a 51-home run season in '90, and he was one who you'd stop whatever you were doing to catch his at-bat. He struck out a lot, but oh, when he connected....

The Lions had a pass rushing maven named Al "Bubba" Baker, in the late-1970s, early '80s. As a rookie, Baker recorded 23 sacks, which is mind-boggling. And he was a loquacious, loud, barrel of a man who thrived on his notoriety, and was eager to add to it at every opportunity. It was a sad -- and quiet -- day when Baker took his act to the Cleveland Browns. At least for me.

Baker: Still the Lions' best sack specialist ever

Today, the Lions have a player who, like Big Daddy and Bubba before him, could own Detroit. If only he wanted to.

Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers is beginning to play the kind of defensive football that gets people into Pro Bowls unanimously and makes quarterbacks and offensive coordinators curl into the fetal position.

Rogers was a beast yesterday, in the Lions' 44-7 dismantling of the Denver Broncos. He made sacks. He disrupted the Bronco's feeble running game. And he, in a moment that could have been one of the biggest in Lions history had he wanted it to be, intercepted a pass with incredibly soft hands and charged 66 yards for a touchdown, adding a stiff arm at the end for good measure.

Rogers tumbled into the end zone, and Ford Field was quaking on its foundation. Watching the 350+ pound Rogers racing toward paydirt, the football looking like an M&M in his hands, while the crowd swelled and a roar grew with each of his pounding strides, was a watershed moment, at least in the Matt Millen Era. Rogers was among the first players Millen drafted, in 2001, and here he was, a behemoth running like a DB toward the end zone. The Lions already had the game well in hand, but Rogers' touchdown will be one talked about for years.

Yet it won't go down in history as one of the team's greatest (and funnest) plays, because Rogers won't allow it to be so.

Rogers (right) won't let us in to help better enjoy the ride

Rogers is still giving us all the silent treatment, and while he thinks he's doing it to just the press, he's doing it to all the fans who live and die with the team. Times are good now; the Lions are 6-2 and looking like they're getting better, instead of regressing. Rogers' play, excluding the TD, was awesome enough. But the interception and return should have been a moment we all enjoyed with him. It would have been great fun to hear him talk about it afterward.

Big Baby could own Detroit. Just like Bubba, and Big Daddy. Were he engaging and jocular, like Baker and Fielder, we would have been dying to hear him wax descriptive about his dynamic play. And we would have hung on every word, and smiled and laughed with his every large, round grin and hearty chuckle.

But Shaun Rogers does not want to own Detroit, apparently. He's content to do all his talking on the field. That's fine, I suppose, but it sure would be nice if he were to understand how powerful it would be for him to assume a more vocal, gregarious role with his football team.

Rogers owes nothing to anyone, I guess. Not even the paying customers, save for 100% effort every Sunday. Ahh, but they've wondered about that effort in the past. It's probably the no. 1 reason Big Baby clams up.

Detroit, in the fall, could be Shaun Rogers's oyster. It would probably expand to the off-season, too -- if he cared to have that happen. But he appears to not want that. There's no telling how much more fun this ride could be with the Lions if that weren't the case.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Masked Men In Suits A Tigers Tradition

The commissioner of baseball himself was staring at the proposed trade, and he looked at the Tigers general manager who was about to jump out of his skin, waiting for the final stamp of approval.

“This is what they agreed to?,” Bowie Kuhn asked Jim Campbell, who was about to add another fleecing to his resume.

“Short agreed to it,” Campbell affirmed. Short was Bob Short, flamboyant owner of the Washington Senators. It was a few days after the 1970 World Series.

Kuhn looked to his underling and, with nothing else to do, nodded his approval.

And so it was announced in short order – no pun intended – that the Detroit Tigers were sending pitchers Dennis McLain and Norm McRae, outfielder Elliott Maddox, and third baseman Don Wert to the Senators for pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan, shortstop Ed Brinkman, and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez.

Highway robbery – by a masked man in a business suit!

Denny McLain, Washington Senator (and not happy about it)

Ten years before, the Tigers – general managed by trade-happy Bill DeWitt, held up the Cleveland Indians. Detroit sent bench fodder Steve Demeter to the Tribe for a power-hitting first baseman named Norm Cash. DeWitt didn’t get them all right, but he sure nailed this one. Cash would hit over 300 home runs as a Tiger from 1960-74. Demeter? He played four games with the Indians in 1960. He went 0-for-5. That was the end of his baseball career.

And yet somehow, Bill DeWitt avoided arrest.

End of spring training, 1984. This time the masked man is Tigers GM Bill Lajoie. He’s in his second season in that role, having learned from the thief Campbell himself. Seeing a need and an opportunity – and a willing victim – Lajoie sends outfielder Glenn Wilson and catcher/first baseman Johnny Wockenfuss to the Philadelphia Phillies for reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. Wilson and Wockenfuss are fine players, but Hernandez pitches an almost perfect year as the Tigers closer, Bergman delivers clutch hits and stellar defense, and the Tigers win the World Series. Hernandez is named AL Cy Young and MVP winner.

Phillies fleeced.

Today, the Tigers’ bandit is Dave Dombrowski. Already, in his six years as Tigers president and GM, he’s pulled off some robberies. Perhaps the biggest was his acquisition of Placido Polanco from the Phillies in 2005, for reliever Ugueth Urbina. Urbina sits in a jail somewhere in Central America, guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. It’s usually a good trade when the player you dealt ends up behind bars.

But last week Dombrowski struck again. He brandished a weapon, pulled down his ski mask, and spoke to Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren. Now, you’d think Dombrowski would show Wren some compassion, having once been Wren’s boss in Florida. Instead, he took his weapon and, masked, stole All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria from the Braves. The cost was a couple of prospects – pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. Yes, they are two of the Tigers’ upper tier prospects. But Renteria is NOW. He’s a five-time All-Star. He’s a marvelous fielder. And he’s a career .292 hitter, topped by his .332 average in 2007. Tigers manager Jim Leyland had him in Florida in 1997, when the Marlins won the World Series.

“I’m thrilled to have him again,” Leyland told the crime, er, baseball reporters. “He’ll fit in perfectly.”

The Tigers were in need of a shortstop after the conversion of Carlos Guillen to a first baseman, announced soon after the season was finished. So they simply went out and got the best one available by trade, the 32-year-old Renteria.

Jurrjens isn’t chopped liver – or a Steve Demeter in waiting. Neither is Hernandez, at least by all accounts. The bluest chip prospect is still outfielder Cameron Maybin, but many folks had Hernandez not far behind Maybin in terms of skill and big league potential.

Yet the trade has the makings of a fleecing, if only because Renteria needs little introduction, and fills a hole with such aplomb that Tigers fans will be tickled pink having him in town.

Someday, somewhere, Jurrjens and/or Hernandez will be bona fide major league ballplayers. Maybe. By that time, the Tigers might have added another World Series championship -- or two – to their history. Edgar Renteria, it says here, will be a major part of that, if it materializes.

But back to McLain.

The Runyon-esque pitcher had had a tumultuous 1970 season with the Tigers. He was suspended by the league twice: once for carrying a loaded gun, another time for his suspected consorting with gangsters. Then the Tigers suspended him for dumping a bucket of ice water on some beat reporters. When all was done, McLain – just two years removed from his 31-win season of 1968 – got into only 14 games, going 3-5 with a 4.63 ERA. He had become too much for the Tigers to handle.

Jim Campbell wanted to get rid of Denny McLain very badly.

He found a taker in Senators owner Short, who wanted a marquee name to spruce up his ballclub, managed by the cantankerous Ted Williams. So when Short inquired about McLain, Campbell drooled. The Tigers liked Coleman, who had never lost to them. And they looked at Rodriguez as an upgrade from Wert. McRae and Maddox weren’t in their plans, and in Hannan the Tigers got an extra arm. Plus, there was Brinkman, a sure-handed though light-hitting shortstop.

No wonder Kuhn eyed the trade suspiciously before granting approval.

Coleman, Rodriguez, and Brinkman helped thrust the Tigers into contender status immediately. McLain and Williams didn’t get along at all – and if Bob Short didn’t see that coming, then he deserved what he got.

And what he got was robbed.

Now Dave Dombrowski has done it to his old employee Frank Wren. Most likely, anyway.

Tigers execs have often worn the mask and brandished the gun.Better to do it than to have it done TO you, I say.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Broncos Of Early AFL Years Provided Comic Relief

The Denver Broncos are an original AFL team -- and I don't mean Arena Football League. The American Football League, which ran competitvely with the NFL from 1960-69, was playing with two-point conversions a generation before the NFL caught on and intro'd it in 1994. And the Broncos were right there, from the beginning.

They were a bad football team in the early-1960s -- among the worst the AFL had ever served up. And their uniforms were ugly, too. One version of their outfits featured vertically-striped socks, which made them look like they were running on zebra stumps.

One year (1966), the Broncos had a quarterback crisis. Not controversy -- crisis. As in, they weren't sure who was going to play the position, because everyone on their roster either stunk or was hurt. So the Broncos lured 38-year-old Tobin Rote out of retirement. Rote had been the Lions quarterback in the 1957 championship game won at Briggs Stadium over the Cleveland Browns. But Tobin didn't have anything left. After eight passes, he went right back into retirement. Such was the state of the Denver Broncos.

Early Broncos action: Frank Tripucka (left center) throws to Lionel Taylor vs. the Houston Oilers. Note the ugly gold uniforms!

They did have a day once -- and at the Lions' expense, of course. In the pre-season of 1967, the Lions were set to play the Broncos in Denver. In those days, prior to the 1970 merger, NFL and AFL teams routinely squared off for exhibitions. Detroit's Alex Karras boasted that if the Lions lost, he'd walk home to the Motor City.

You guessed it -- the Lions lost, becoming the first-ever NFL team to lose to an AFL team. Karras flew home with the rest of the team.

Did you know that the Broncos' first QB was Frank Tripucka? You might remember Frank's son -- former Pistons forward Kelly Tripucka.

The Broncos were mostly slapstick until the early-1970s, when they built a foundation around players like DT Lyle Alzado, DE Rich "Tombstone" Jackson, RB Floyd Little, and WR Haven Moses. They eventually made it to the Super Bowl after the 1977 season -- their first of four losses in the big game, before John Elway finally got it right.

The Lions have been so bad, that had the norm held, you might have overheard a Bronco crowing that he'd walk home to Denver if his team lost this Sunday (Dre' Bly, perhaps?).

One more Denver-Lions connection: the Broncos were the last team to play the Lions in Tiger Stadium, on Thanksgiving Day, 1974. The Lions lost that one, too.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things Mickey Redmond Says That Ya Gotta Love")

Absurd Things That Happened In The Pistons' First 50 Seasons In Detroit
(this season the Pistons are celebrating their 5oth anniversary of moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, IN)

1. Playing a playoff game in a high school gymnasium*. It happened in the early '60s against the Lakers. Both Olympia and Cobo were unavailable, and so was Calihan Hall at UDM. So the Pistons played not one, but two playoff games in a Grosse Pointe High School gymnasium. And the Pistons won both, but lost the fifth and deciding game in Los Angeles.

2. Hiring the Lions' GM to be their GM*. The Pistons figured that since Nick Kerbaway was a successful NFL GM with the Lions, that he'd be good in the NBA, too. Kerbaway's hiring in the late '50s was met with some resistance by the Lions, but he joined the Pistons anyway. He wasn't able to transfer football success to that on the basketball court -- to the surprise of no one, except Pistons brass.

3. Hiring their radio announcer to be GM*. Don Wattrick was the Pistons' radio announcer in the mid-1960s when the Pistons elevated him to GM. Another failed experiment, made tragic when Wattrick died in the offseason after his first year on the job.

--Sign hung at Cobo Arena taunting Bulls coach Dick Motta

4. Making Dave DeBusschere player-coach. It wasn't just that they gave DeBusschere, local hero that he was, the coaching job while he was playing. It's that they did it when DD was just 25 years old. The team eventually stripped him of the coaching duties after two terrible seasons, then they ....

5. Traded DeBusschere to the New York Knicks. DeBusschere was traded to the Knicks in a lopsided deal that helped the New Yorkers win the 1970 and'73 titles.

6. Selecting Marvin Barnes in the ABA dispersal draft. This was the player the Pistons chose in 1976, when Moses Malone and others were available instead. "Bad News" Barnes spent less than two tumultuous seasons in Detroit, a player with a record of questionable character and work ethic when the Pistons plucked him from the St. Louis Spirits when the ABA folded.

7. Playing games in the Pontiac Silverdome. Somehow, the Pistons ended up playing 10 seasons in the cold, drafty, poorly-lit Silverdome on the jerry-rigged basketball floor. Remember the huge blue curtain that shielded the rest of the massive Dome? The Pistons did set league attendance records there, but of course they did, when you can cram 40,000 in the place -- 20,000 in the nose-bleed section.

8. Hiring Dick Vitale as coach. The absurdity was evident at Vitale's opening press conference, when he burst thru a paper backdrop of Detroit's skyline and rambled on for nearly 30 minutes before taking one question. He talked of Pistons Paradise and had t-shirts and bumper stickers made that said, "ReVITALEization." Oh, he was so clever!

9. Returning to Cobo when the Dome's roof collapsed. Whenever the Silverdome's roof would collapse due to heavy snow -- and it happened more than once -- the Pistons would play at Joe Louis Arena. But on one occasion, JLA was booked, so the Pistons played one more regular season game at Cobo, in 1985.

10. Dancing Gus, the roly-poly vendor. Gus (his last name fails me) was a legitimate Cobo Arena vendor who worked in the balcony. During timeouts in the '70s, Gus would dance -- gyrating, twisting, and damn near falling over the railing on occasion. The Cobo scoreboard would implore, "DANCE FOR US, GUS!"

11. The best sign at a sporting event -- ever*. I'm sorry, but I love this one. The Pistons played the Bulls in a famous, seven-game playoff series in 1974. The Bulls, coached by Dick Motta, won. But at one of the games at Cobo, someone had hung a large banner made out of a bedsheet. It read, simply, "MUCK FOTTA." Pistons coach Ray Scott looked at it and commented, within earshot of the media, "That's not very nice."

(*note: some of these memories were found courtesy of Jerry Green's outstanding book, "The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era," published in 1991).