Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 At OOB: I Played Both Soothsayer & False Prophet

Oh, what a year it was on the Detroit sports landscape.

A Stanley Cup for the Red Wings. A horribly disappointing Tigers season. A coaching change with the Pistons, and a new superstar coming over in a trade. Oh, and that 0-16 thing with the Lions.

All that, plus U-M's plunge in football, MSU's rise, the Detroit Shock winning another WNBA title, and Bill Davidson and Dick Vitale being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

I wrote a little bit about all that stuff, and more, if you care to be reminded.

What follows are some of my best (and worst) from 2008, ranging from dead-on soothsaying to airballs of prophecies.

Hold your applause until the end, please.


On Nick Lidstrom:

Another defenseman exists today who is not revolutionizing the game. He's merely perfecting it.I've written it before, and I'll write it again. You can have all of them -- Harvey, Goldham, Orr, Bourque, and the rest -- and I'll take Nick Lidstrom and trump you every time.

Sunday, Lidstrom will play in another All-Star game, and it's ironic, because though he is an annual participant, the game has never been about defense. But that's OK; his booming shot and precise passes go just fine there, too.I'm usually an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to comparing players of different eras, which is always a futile endeavor anyway. But when it crops up, I'm likely to shove Oscar Robertson in front of you for every Michael Jordan reference, and Jimmy Brown for every Barry Sanders mentioning.

But I'm changing my tune with Lidstrom, who I'm convinced is playing defense better than anyone ever has in the National Hockey League. That's right -- EVER.

On Jim Colletto and the Lions:

I'm not all that jazzed about Colletto, mainly because I thought the Lions might try to raid one of their more successful brethren for a keen, young offensive mind. Then again, what would that prove, other than no one can win with the talent as it is right now.

Nothing will truly bring dramatic, positive change until the Lions are imploded and begun again, but that has as much chance of happening as, well, the Lions being imploded and begun again -- which is none.

So the application of doomed Band-Aids will continue at Ford Field.The Lions do not win, not because of the coach, or the system, or the size of the playbook. They do not win because they do not have the players to do so. It's quite simple, really.You don't have to be a genius to figure that out.

On the Red Wings’ playoff chances:

This year's team is on pace to threaten 60 wins. They have 29 in 40 games. Win tonight, and they'll be right smack on that 60-win pace. Yet I don't feel that this club will disappoint in the playoffs.

Perhaps it's the fact that the Wings went to the Final Four last season with a team that I believe isn't as strong as this one -- when it's healthy. Regardless, this year's squad has some makings. It looks like it's a Cup favorite. And I'm not even Barry Melrose, who picks them every year.

The Red Wings are fueled for hockey in June. There are hardly any weaknesses. Their backup goalie should make the All-Star team.

No 1996 disappointment here, me thinks.


On the Lions’ management approach:

So be ready to hear all about Dwight Smith and his 2002 experience. About his two returned INTs for touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Raiders. It's nice. But it was for another team, at another time. You don't win Super Bowls with players resumes. You win with competent front offices and scouts.The most important Super Bowl-winning talent a team can employ are those who wear suits and ties to work everyday.


On Justin Verlander and the Hall of Fame:

Say hello to your next Tigers homegrown Hall of Famer.

Roll your eyes all you want. Mock my boosterism as nothing more than over-exuberant, hometown bias. Here, I’ll call the men in the white jackets myself, to save you the trouble. Guffaw from now until nightfall, for all I care.

Verlander, I’m telling you, will find himself enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. when all is said and done.

Don’t tell me about injuries and bad luck and flashes in the pan. Put a sock in it if you’re going to warn me of arms busting at the seams or flames burning out. I don’t want to have this conversation with you if you mean to dissuade me with sensible, even-handed talk. My mind’s made up. My decision is as final as an umpire’s, no matter how wrong he may be.

But I’m not wrong here, not on this one. Video replay will exonerate me, some 15 years from now, or more.

On Flip Saunders:

Saunders will coach the Pistons next year, odds are – barring a total meltdown in the playoffs, i.e. a first or second-round exit. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. And I’ll again brace myself, as I did back in 1983, for the Pistons GM to announce that, guess what, he’s the new coach, too.

On Tom Izzo going to the NBA:

Izzo, like so many college coaches before him, figures himself to perhaps be the one who can buck the trend. He looks at the allure of the pro game, sees that “ultimate level” of basketball, and wonders. And for that he’s not to be blamed. It’s human nature to ask oneself if he has what it takes to cross over to another level in his chosen field.

But Bobby Knight never acted on that notion. John Wooden never did. Dean Smith never did.

But Jerry Tarkanian did, with the San Antonio Spurs some 15 years or so ago, and the abbreviated experienced nearly caused him to bite clear through the towel he famously chewed on during games. Other college stalwarts like Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and PJ Carlesimo have tried and failed. I could dwarf your typical grocery list with more examples of this kind of failure.

So don’t do it, Tommy. Stay on campus. Tell those Bulls no, if they bother to ask. Better yet, pretend you’re not home. Out of sight, out of mind. And you won’t have to lose yours.


On Mike Babcock changing goalies in first round:

But here's the thing: last I checked, nobody's ever won the Cup after losing in the first round. Even the great Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers teams couldn't pull that one off. So that said, I don't blame Red Wings coach Mike Babcock one bit in trying to do what he feels gives his team the best chance to win THIS series. You worry about Round Two when -- and IF -- you get there.

Some of the worriers of this decision wonder what this will do to Hasek's supposed fragile psyche. Well, I think if anyone is qualified to know that answer, it must be his coach, no? If Babcock thinks that won't be an issue, then that's good enough for me.

Look, Babcock is trying to win this series, right now. He's coaching for the moment, with the short-sightedness that is sometimes required in the playoffs. Worrying about one game at a time is cliche, but it's what you need to do, really.

On Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen needing to lead the Red Wings in playoffs:

Which is my point. If Franzen and Zetterberg are not scoring, if they are not leading the team in points once we're several games into the post-season, then there's trouble brewing. Do not count on a Fernando Pisani to save the day. Remember Pisani? He went ballistic in the 2006 playoffs, vexing the Red Wings and two other teams before almost leading his Oilers to an upset over Carolina in the Cup Finals.

On where Rodney Stuckey will play, with Chauncey Billups in front of him:

Stuckey is special, folks. I think we're seeing a star NBA guard blossoming before our very eyes. And the Pistons could do a lot worse than to bring someone of his caliber off the bench, or start in case of injury or rest. Yet it might not happen for him here, only because of the quality of the dudes he's playing behind. Neither Billups nor Hamilton is close to retirement.

This isn't 1993, when Thomas was on the verge of calling it quits, and thus trained rookie Lindsey Hunter as his successor, while Dumars did the same with Allan Houston. It's not far-fetched to say that Billups and Hamilton could both stay in Detroit for another five or six years, barring trades or free agency issues.

So where does that leave Stuckey?


On the Stanley Cup Finals after Pittsburgh's Game 3 win:

Yes, the Penguins have a smidgen of confidence now -- at least they've seen the brick wall Osgood surrender some pucks past him -- but the Red Wings can still smell this latest Stanley Cup. Half the roster has won it before. You think they're going to let the Penguins off the hook here? Besides, even a Game 4 loss, while unseemly, wouldn't be disastrous. The Penguins don't look ready to beat the Red Wings in Detroit any time soon.

So the Penguins got off the schneide. They scored a few goals. The puck bounced their way. They were more aggressive. Looked comfy at home. Upped their confidence a bit. Now they're 9-0 at home in the playoffs. Good for them.

Detroit in five, that's all. Or six. But Detroit, nonetheless.

On a retired Steve Yzerman watching Game 1 in the Red Wings suite:

If the Wings capture this Cup, which they should, it will be the first one since 1955 that didn’t have Steve Yzerman on its roster. There was a time when no one thought the Red Wings could win a Cup WITH Yzerman, and now we are wading through a period where some have wondered if they could win one WITHOUT Yzerman. No disrespect to Lidstrom, of course. But look how long it took the team to win one after Gordie Howe retired.

Memorial Day weekend hockey. Some of the best – for players, coaches, media, and fans. Oh, it’s fun for the stuffed shirts, too, but maybe not as much for the one who only two years ago was on the other side of that hallway.

Steve Yzerman had his time. I just wonder how tough it is for him to let go of it.

On the Wings' chances of winning the Cup:

Check with the Wayne County Road Commission. Make sure there aren't any plans for Woodward Avenue the first week of June. Tell 'em to get any and all orange barrels out of the way. While you're at it, tell them to not mess around too much with I-75, the Lodge Freeway, I-94, or I-96 until we're done; we want as many people as possible to make it into downtown. Might as well confer with the Big Guy, God himself, and put in our request for sunshine and blue skies to drench ourselves in.

I can't make any such assurances for the Pistons -- far from it, actually -- but I've made up my mind about the Red Wings. Stanley Cup no. 11 for the franchise will be hoisted into the air by captain Nicklas Lidstrom sometime within the next four weeks. It's money in the bank. May as well give the engraver the Red Wings' roster and have him start doing his thing.


On Flip Saunders’ firing:

Saunders was, by far, the least embraced coach in Detroit -- ranking below even the Lions' Rod Marinelli, who has largely been judged as more of an innocent bystander than anyone with losing blood on his hands. There wasn't any sort of true affection for him. We never knew much about him, for starters. We knew he had a kid who played at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, and that he coached the T-Wolves all those years. And that he narrowly missed being a victim of that bridge collapse -- also in Minnesota. Maybe he was just too much Minnesota for our liking. Regardless, there wasn't any of the lovable gruffness and supposed genius that Tigers fans found so alluring about Jim Leyland. There wasn't the quiet calm and confidence exuded by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock that hockey fans find reassuring. There wasn't even the "Aw, shucks/pound the rock" affability projected by Marinelli. With Saunders, he was like the outsider who was just keeping a seat warm until Dumars decided to satisfy his fetish again. No real connection. No real affection. No real empathy about what would ultimately happen to him.


On Jon Kitna:

Next week, when the Lions open training camp, Kitna will show up as the unadulterated #1 quarterback. It will be the third straight summer that he will do so, and if he survives it, 2008 will be the third straight year that no one but Kitna has started a game as Lions quarterback.

That may not seem like great shakes, but in a city where the metaphor for quarterback stability is a carousel, or a revolving door, it kinda is. Kitna provides some consistency at QB, and whether you like him or not, or consider him mediocre or not, there you have it. The Lions may not have Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, or even Eli Manning, but nor do they have to truly worry about who will line up under center when the curtain goes up in September – barring injury, that age-old disclaimer.

No “quarterback controversy” in Detroit, not now. Other than the 35-year-old Kitna (he’ll be 36 in September), the Lions possess Drew Stanton and Dan Orlovsky on their roster. That’s it. Stanton missed all of his rookie season last year due to injury, and Orlovsky is, well, Orlovsky: a backup with no real credentials other than he shows up, works hard, and might have some potential. Kind of like most second or third-string quarterbacks in the NFL.

On Marian Hossa:

No matter how you try to slice and dice it, I don't know how you can ever diss a guy for taking less money in the name of winning.

What if, God forbid, Hossa suffers a serious injury next season? That would significantly impact his worth. Or, frankly, what if he just has a bad season, production-wise? Again, that would make it tougher for him to command the kind of dollars he could have gotten last week. So don't tell me about being selfish or upsetting the apple cart.


On MSU football's chances under Mark Dantonio:

It’s been 42 years since Michigan State played the “game of the century” against Notre Dame, another fallen program. Mark Dantonio, it wouldn’t appear, has anything tangible in his background that suggests he can bring the program back to national fame.

On Dontrelle Willis:

Dontrelle Willis was supposed to be an integral part of the Tigers rotation this year. He was supposed to be one of the many reasons why the team was to overwhelm its opponents and cruise to the World Series. He was supposed to continue his path to greatness, the path he forged in Florida. Now he can’t even throw a strike with any consistency. It’s not overstating things to suggest that he may have Steve Blass Syndrome and will never pitch in the big leagues again – at least with any degree of success.

On Rich Rodriguez:

All this, and R-Rod must win, and win now. What helps his cause is that expectations, from the national scribes, is relatively low -- although Michigan does find itself in the pre-season Top 25. Yet there are three Big Ten teams, sometimes four, picked above them. Not too many folks think all that much of Michigan's Big Ten title hopes, but that hardly matters, when it comes right down to it. Even in a so-called transition year, six or seven wins won't be acceptable.

Losing to Ohio State, despite the fact that Michigan will almost certainly be considerable underdogs, won't be acceptable, even if it is expected. Michigan fans will recall what new OSU coach Jim Tressel said when he was hired lo those many years ago: We WILL beat Michigan this year! And Tressel did, and he hasn't really stopped.


On the Lions’ record in 2008:

It would appear as if the Lions are headed in the right direction. They addressed needs in the secondary, and while they may be a little D-line heavy and LB thin, the overall defense should be improved. They drafted a beast of an OT in the first round. They acquired some runners. They laid off the receiving corps for a change. I'd still like to see a backup QB with NFL experience, but I guess we'll just have to hope for another injury-free year from Jon Kitna, which would be three years in a row -- and that's rolling the dice in today's NFL.I'm not a prediction guy, but I think we're still looking at 7-9, 8-8. The Lions may be a better team this year than they were in 2007 yet end up with much the same record. It's a year where their development shouldn't be solely judged by the won-loss record.

On the Lions’ future management:

When 70-75% of your starters are considered trash by all the rest, then you have a serious talent issue.

That's why I hope the Lions, when they do their internal self-evaluation, place a high priority on hiring someone with expertise in finding young football talent. Forget the high-profile name for the sake of the high-profile name. I made the reference to Jack McCloskey already, and I'll add Jimmy Devellano today. All I knew of Devellano was he was this short, stocky guy with the squeaky Canadian voice who had been some sort of cog with the Islanders. Turns out, that was good enough.

Don't be surprised, or better yet, disappointed, if the Lions' new football man is someone you've barely heard of -- or at the very least, someone you wouldn't have heard of it wasn't for the speculation in the papers. Don't look at the name, look at the pedigree.

If he comes from the Colts, or the Patriots, or the Packers, or the Cowboys, you should be happy. From anywhere else, you should be wary.

On Rod Marinelli:

So what of Rod Marinelli?

Well, he's a lame duck, lamer than lame. Lamer than Gary Moeller was, lamer than Dick Jauron was. Marinelli might as well follow right behind Millen, packing boxes in hand, because there is no scenario at all in which Marinelli keeps his job under a new administration. None. Bet the farm, the kids, the family dog. Marinelli is going to be the ex-coach of the Lions. It's only a matter of when, not if.


On the city of Tampa not supporting the Rays:

It's a travesty, the lack of support the Rays got in Tampa Bay. The city doesn't deserve big league baseball. Take the team away from them, as soon as the final out of their season is made. Their stadium, named after an orange juice, should be squished like a carton and eradicated. May as well put something else there, like a Wal-Mart or another retirement home.

Tampa Bay is going to be a great city, once they clear out all the zombies.

Cities that stay home from first-place teams aren't worthy. There are 26 other teams in MLB that would love to be in the Rays' position right now; same with their fans.Someone should nudge the Tampa Bayans awake and let them know that they're missing a helluva baseball season.

Shame on them, anyway.

On the Cubs’ playoff performance:

"Billy Goat" Sianis isn't dead after all. Black cats are still prowling around. Steve Bartman's invasive, sticky fingers are still leaving prints.The futility of Steve Swisher and Ernie Broglio and Larry Biittner have returned.Charlie Brown still can't kick the football. Wile E. Coyote just fell off another cliff. The Italian Army still stinks. And so do the Cubs.

The Chicago "97 Wins" Cubs. The Chicago "Going to end the 100-year drought" Cubs. The Chicago "This is the year" Cubs.No, The Same Old Chicago Cubs.The Cubs are on the verge, again, of disappointing in the post-season. Check that. They've past the verge and are falling down an endless flight of stairs. I haven't seen a town's hopes dashed so quickly since the Redskins hired Steve Spurrier.


On the Allen Iverson trade:

But now the Pistons, some 14+ years since Isiah Lord Thomas hung up his sneakers, finally have a face. A superstar. Someone around whom to worship on the basketball court.

Allen Iverson is about Isiah’s size: six-feet tall, on his tippy toes. One-hundred-and-sixty-five pounds, soaking wet and with $100 worth of quarters in his pockets. Tougher than nails. Still some street in him. A shrimp, really, in a giant’s game. And also one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history.

A face, finally, for the Pistons.

On Monday Night Football:

Monday Night Football hasn’t tickled my fancy, or my curiosity, since Cosell left – save the two years of Dennis Miller. It’s just another nighttime football game in an era where there are tons of them. And Tuesday mornings aren’t all that anymore, either.

Oh, Howard would love that: he leaves, and takes a night and a morning with him. Nobody tell him. Please.


On Red Wings coach Mike Babcock:

Yet this is another example of Babcock's mastery. He's Scotty Bowman Lite, but that's no knock. It just means that he has a way of keeping the troops motivated and interested without resorting to mind games or other nefarious tactics. Babcock is able to call out his players without embarrassing them. He knows that when you point a finger, several are pointing right back at yourself. So he includes himself, often, when critiquing his team. He also knows when to allay the fears of the aforementioned dogs who call sports talk radio and pound away angrily without spell check on the Internet message boards.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Marinelli Gets The Ziggy, But Ford Didn't Fire Him

It will be written and recorded that Bill Ford Sr. fired Rod Marinelli. History will be wrong.

Ford didn't fire Marinelli; circumstances did. Ford was merely the vessel, the one who sent out the press release announcing the development, one that even he, with his loyal and kind heart, couldn't stall.

There are so few things you can count on in life anymore: getting stuck in traffic when you're running late; being the one who finishes the toilet paper roll; paying taxes; dying. Oh, and this one: going 0-16 will get you fired.

It wasn't impressive, not at all, that Marinelli got the ziggy yesterday after 0-16 and 1-23 and 10-38. The zenith of his time here was when he was 9-15 after the 6-2 start of 2007 (remember that?). Actually, the zenith of his time here, I believe, was in January 2006 -- when he stood in front of the media throng the day he was announced as head coach.

"Good morning, men," Marinelli famously said that day, as if he was a military general addressing the troops. I loved that opening. And I was fooled, as I've been in the past, that the Lions had finally found the right man to coach.

I liked that Marinelli was a D-line man, and that he appeared to appreciate the work done in the trenches. He seemed like substance over style. Then he went out and hired the run-and-gun Mike Martz to coordinate the offense, and that kind of flew in the face of the substance over style thing.

The last Lions head coach worth a hill of beans was Joe Schmidt, and if he hadn't gotten so disgusted with GM Russ Thomas and quit, Schmidt would have been the coach here for as long as he wanted. He was a former Lions player, maybe among the Top Five in team history, and Ford would have been loyal to him. Sadly, Ford sided with Thomas in the power struggle, and the Lions lost out on the best coach they've had since George Wilson and Buddy Parker.

But that's all in the past. It's all about looking forward, but with Ford in the driver's seat, you don't get a chance to look very far. His myopic thinking and approach has choked this franchise, and what you saw with 0-16 was the culmination of a perfect storm of poor management, bad personnel decisions, and all the bad chickens coming home to roost.

Yesterday, I asked for calm, to see what Ford would do in the Allen Park offices in the wake of 0-16. I had not posted those thoughts for more than a minute when the word came down that the only real move was to can the coach, which was terribly predictable and a cause-and-effect of going winless. Oh, another personnel guy is due to be hired, but he will, apparently, be nothing more than part of a three-headed monster -- two of which are coated with the stench of what's been going on with the Lions since 2001.

Rod Marinelli wasn't ready to be a head coach. As I've said before, there's no crime in that. There's nothing wrong with being a fine position coach. Those are necessary, too. But he was a Matt Millen hire, who made three bad coaching choices. He was infatuated with Marty Mornhinweg after one late-night film session; he didn't do the proper due diligence on Steve Mariucci to see if he would be a good fit here; and he selected Marinelli based on a gut feeling, since the resume wasn't there. So don't blame Coach Rod. HE didn't hire him, after all.

So Millen is gone, but the feeling of euphoria that his ziggying was supposed to bring never really materialized. There's a sort of "out of the frying pan and into the fire" thing going on here. Or, "be careful what you wish for." Folks wanted to roll the dice and take their chances with the canning of Millen. Then as the losses piled up this season, they decided to take their chances with a winless year.

The fans got craps for their trouble and risk.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Two, Two, TWO Blogs In One!

Just a quick note to say that I have now combined the posts from Out of Bounds and Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? into one blog over at You can visit it (it's also called "Out of Bounds") by clicking HERE and making it one of your bookmarks for easy referral!

Biggest Mistake Lions Can Make Is Being Paralyzed By History

So it's in the record books; may as well be chiseled there. It's history, made in living, gory color. Mission: Now Possible.

You can literally say that it's easier to go 16-0 in the NFL than 0-16, because the Lions pulled off the latter one year after the New England Patriots accomplished the former.

0-16. Put it in there with 714, 56, 17-0, .406, 72-10, and any other famous sports number that you can think of. They'll be talking about this one for years, decades probably.

The Tampa Bay Bucs aren't off the hook yet, though. Remember, they lost their first 26 games before winning. The Lions have "only" lost 17 straight. So come on back sometime next late-October and see how that's shaping up.

The Lions went winless. For an entire season. In today's NFL, built on parity and designed to reward blind squirrels on occasion. Flip through the records since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. You'll find that even the most wretched teams win two, maybe three games. Some indeed have only won one. But they did win.

So where were you when it happened? Do you remember what you were wearing, who you were with, what you were doing, when the final seconds ticked off the clock in Green Bay yesterday? Chances are that you still will, ten, twenty years from now. It's the Kennedy Assassination moment of the NFL. It's a story that you will retell, to your grandkids, and any other wide-eyed person who wasn't old enough to remember this.

But you know what? Who cares?

There's nothing anyone can do about it now. 0-16 is there, and always will be. But next year is another season. Look at the Miami Dolphins: 1-15 in 2007, divisional champs in 2008.

The Lions' biggest mistake won't be that they went 0-16. It'll be if they get paralyzed by history, and assume a deer-in-the-headlights mentality.

Pick yourself up off the road before you get run over again.

That's why this off-season will be the most critical in the team's history. The legacy of Bill Ford Sr. and his football franchise won't be that they managed to finish an entire season sans a victory. It will be, What did they do about it? How did they react? What happened after they bottomed out?

I don't think too many of the Lions fans will care about 0-16 if the team pulls itself up and gets serious about making sure nothing remotely like this ever happens again. It'll start with the hiring of a new football man, obviously. And a new coach. In that order. The drumbeat for Bill Parcells has already begun, in the wake of the news that Parcells can become a "free agent" upon the completion of the sale of the Miami Dolphins; the Big Tuna can walk after such a development.

But whether it's Parcells -- and nothing would wash away the muck of 0-16 like that kind of news -- or someone else, it'll be the first step in the healing process.

Congress isn't an option, but SOMEONE'S gotta fix this mess

I know, I know -- this is Old Man Ford we're talking about. The guy who implied that no Earth-shattering changes were headed the Lions' way.

Don't be so sure.

Those infamous comments, spoken before the Lions' game with the Saints a week ago Sunday, caused a furor, and I can understand that. But at that point, 0-16 was still not a reality, though it appeared to be a certainty.

Things sometimes change when the cold, harsh reality sets in.

Not even Ford can shrug off 0-16. I know many of you won't agree with me when you read that, but it's what I believe. If Parcells indeed opts out of his Miami deal, he just might receive a call from Ford. I know you might not agree with that, either, but again, my opinion. And the Parcells news hadn't been reported when Ford made his comments to Tom Kowalski on Dec. 21.

All I'm saying is, let's wait and see what the Lions do in the coming weeks, for THAT will be the time to start writing the legacy of the 2008 season.

When you seemingly can't get any worse -- and that's what 0-16 screams -- then what are you gonna do about it?

Ford hasn't been unequivocally the worst, factually, until now. Let's see what the old guy does in reaction.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

EMU Finally Thinks Big With Hiring Of English

I didn’t know diddly squat about the Eastern Michigan University football program when I enrolled there as a freshman in 1981. It didn’t take me long to learn everything I cared to know.

There was a losing streak, which I joined in progress. In a heartbeat it turned into one of double digits. The EMU Hurons had managed to beat Bowling Green University, sometime early in the 1980 season. Then they lost their last eight games of ’80. Then they lost every single game of my freshman year, in 1981. It got so bad that the student council president presented a petition to the school’s president, Dr. John Porter, begging him to fire head coach Mike Stock.

The losing streak was 19 games when the 1982 season began.

An opening weekend loss made it an even twenty. In mid-October, the Hurons were driving for a game-winning field goal against Ohio University. I was a scraggly sophomore in attendance that Saturday afternoon, and we prepared to raid the field, perhaps to tear down the goalposts, as the Hurons crept closer and closer to the Bobcats’ goal. The drive stalled, and the EMU kicker trotted onto the field. His name was Bob Hirschmann. I’ll never forget it.

The kick couldn’t have been any longer than 25 yards. A chip shot. But Hirschmann missed it. The losing streak was now 25 games.

Two more losses ensued, before the 27-game losing streak was stopped with a 9-7 win over Kent State. Stock by this time was long gone, fired and replaced by interim guy Bob Lapointe.

There hasn’t been much to cheer about on fall Saturdays in Ypsilanti. Only a mini-resurgence in the mid-to-late 1980s. Other than that…

The Hurons aren’t the Hurons any longer; they’re the Eagles. But their football team still stinks.

It’s no coincidence, in my mind, that the EMU football program is constantly in the toilet because they’ve hired coaches on the cheap who had virtually no ties to the area.

Eastern is the closest Mid-American Conference (MAC) school in the state of Michigan to the metro Detroit area, by far beating out Central Michigan (Mt. Pleasant) and Western Michigan (Kalamazoo) in this regard. Yet they’ve never exploited this advantage, at all.

It’s because their coaches have been ill-prepared and under qualified. And not from anywhere near Ypsilanti. And they’ve been cheap.

The most recent of these overwhelmed men, Jeff Genyk, was given the ziggy by the school before the last game of the 2008 season. It was a 3-9 year for EMU. Typical.

Genyk came to EMU from Northwestern, but was never more than a position coach at a school not really known for its football. Yet Genyk was charged with resuscitating Eastern’s moribund football program. And, like Jeff Woodruff before him, and Rick Rasnick before him, Genyk gave the Board of Regents exactly what they paid for. Which wasn’t much. It’s never been very much at EMU.

But it says here that finally, FINALLY, the administration at Eastern has gotten it right by thinking bigger than they have in years – decades, really.

Ron English doesn’t come from a Podunk school. His resume isn’t filled with years spent at institutions that you have to Google to find.

English is a Michigan Man. Last year he was a Louisville Man. But from 2003-07, English was the defensive coordinator for the Wolverines under Lloyd Carr. This past season, he performed the same duties for Louisville. That’s six years as a coordinator for a big time program. Or six years longer than the El Cheapo coaches EMU has been hiring for the past 15 years or so.

English took some heat for his defense while in Ann Arbor, but that’s part of the deal when you work for a university whose fan base lives and dies every Saturday with their football team. At Eastern, you just die, and then die some more.

“In 2008, there were five MAC schools who got invited to Bowl games,” English said to the media as he was introduced last week. “We want to be one of them. And we want to do it quick. Do it quick.”

The last time an EMU football team played in a bowl game, Ronald Reagan was president. It was the California Bowl, in December 1987. And Eastern upset San Jose State, who was supposed to make mincemeat of the boys from Ypsi.

It was the last hurrah for EMU football.

English (right) served five years as defensive coordinator for
Lloyd Carr (left) at

After coach Jim Harkema, who led that Bowl team, was fired in the early-1990s, Eastern started looking below them for coaches instead of above. It seemed as if the first qualification you needed was to have never been a head coach or a coordinator at anywhere of any significance. And you had to not be from this area, and you had to work for cheap.

So the Board tried a bunch of these cheap, overwhelmed, displaced coaches, and the football program, in the meantime, became a joke. The close proximity to Detroit and the outlying suburbs, which has often been rich in high school football talent, proved irrelevant. And all the while, Eastern’s sister schools in Mt. Pleasant and Kalamazoo were fielding competitive, respectable teams.

English, at his press conference, spoke of passion and commitment and of a sense of urgency. I usually wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for anything a football coach says at his first media gathering. But at least the words were coming from the mouth, this time, of someone who’s prepared young men to play before crowds of larger than 15,000.

“All you hear about when you talk about EMU football is losing,” English correctly pointed out. “But this campus has a lot to offer. We can do a lot of good things here.”

Carr, by the way, served as an unpaid consultant during EMU’s coaching search. And he was in attendance as his former defensive coordinator addressed the media.

“I’m happy for Ron, and I’m happy for Eastern,” Carr said afterward.

That makes two of us.

It only took the folks at Eastern a decade and a half to understand: you have a much better chance of making progress if you think big, rather than small.

They finally loosened the purse strings and hired a football coach cut from big time program cloth who knows the area. Goodness gracious, it’s about time.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Packers Were In A Giving Mood When They Picked Mandarich

(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions' upcoming opponents)

Much has been made, especially this week, of the Lions' failure to win in Wisconsin since 1991. The pundits have rued the day the Pack traded for QB Brett Favre in 1992, which just so happened to coincide with the streak. Even Lions kicker Jason Hanson is wondering if the streak somehow has to do with him -- since Hanson was a rookie in '92 and has experienced every single loss on the road to the Packers.

But you don't hear nearly as much about a gift the Packers presented the Lions with in 1989 -- one that gave Lions fans just about the only reason to get excited about their team for the ten seasons spanning 1989 to 1998.

It was April, 1989. The NFL Draft. Barry Sanders was the jitterbug running back from Oklahoma State who also returned kicks and who was coming out of college a couple years early to try his hand at pro football. The Lions had just committed to the Run-n-Shoot offense -- that scheme that involved four pass receivers running around the field at all times, and one lone running back. The change came about because the previous year, in explaining why he finally fired coach Darryl Rogers, Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. said, "We're losing and we're boring."

So the Lions decided that if they were going to lose, they were going to be as exciting as possible in doing so. They had the Shoot part covered -- at least in terms of quantity. But they needed the Run component.

Enter the Packers' generosity.

As dazzling as Sanders was, as seemingly unlimited his potential seemed, the Packers had their eyes on a hulk of an offensive tackle, right in the Lions' backyard, in East Lansing.

Tony Mandarich was the biggest thing -- literally -- to come out of Michigan State University in years. He was considered the best OL prospect to come down the pike in recent memory. The Packers had fantasies of Mandarich anchoring the left side of their line for at least the next ten years. They could always pick up a running back later.

So the Pack, with the no. 1 overall pick, snatched Mandarich off the board. The Lions heaved a sigh of relief.

Barry Sanders became a Lion, thanks to the Packers' misguided selection of Mandarich, who would soon be derailed by a steroids scandal and gross under performance. The Packers got one of the biggest draft busts in history. The Lions got a Hall of Famer.

I remember being ecstatic when the Packers picked Mandarich. My opinion was the 180 degree opposite of Green Bay's: when a talent like Sanders comes down the pike, you take him. You can always pick an offensive lineman later.

Sanders held out through training camp and the exhibition season that rookie year, haggling over his contract. Don't forget that this was still the Russ Thomas Era. Thomas, the Lions' GM, wouldn't retire until the end of '89. And he was still in charge of contract negotiations, a big reason why Sanders didn't get signed until just a couple days before the season opener. Then, with virtually no practice, having not played in a football game in about nine months, Sanders simply took his first NFL carry for 19 yards. A legend was underway.

Of course, the Packers had the last laugh. Three years after the Mandarich miss, Favre came to Green Bay, from the Atlanta Falcons. What soon followed were playoff appearances, conference championship games, and eventually two Super Bowls, including a win in SB XXXI. Oh, and those 17 straight wins over the Lions at home.

It'll be 20 years, believe it or not, come next April when the Lions have the no. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, since the Packers overlooked Barry Sanders and took Tony Mandarich. After a potential 0-16 season, heaven help us if the Lions repeat the Packers' mistake of that '89 Draft.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Very Special Christmas Day Edition Of "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno & Al"

Merry Christmas and thanks for stopping by! As you know, every Thursday (even on holidays, obviously) I chat with the MVP of the MVN, Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience.

This week, we (as usual) talk about the history-making Lions; EMU's new football coach; the Rob Parker-Rod Marinelli feud, which has gotten very personal; the Tigers' continued search for a bullpen; what in the world is going on with the Pistons; and, as usual, WordAss. Oh, and instead of Jerk of the Week, we hand out candy and coal in certain folks' stockings.

As you will....


Eno: Happy Holidays and welcome to a very special Christmas Day version of "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al". I'm Eno, aka The Journalist, and he's Big Al, aka Mr. Big Shot. Hey, Al!

Big Al: Yo, Eno! Happy Holidays, sir. I was going to make a joke about asking if someone had married a better blogger in your family, but a version has already been done by a columnist in our little town!

Eno: Very funny – I like it! Well, may as well start there. What's your take on the whole Rob Parker/Rod Marinelli flap?

Big Al: As you well know, I've been a Parker jihad for my entire blogging life. I don't like his writing, or his broadcasting. I do agree that he crossed a line in making what was essentially a bad joke in bringing up Marinelli's daughter in the post game presser. But...Marinelli deserves to be called out for keeping his son-in-law on staff as the defensive coordinator, even though statistically, his defense is the worst in Lions, and maybe NFL, history. Parker should get a slap on the wrist. Personally, I think Marinelli is enjoying playing the victim here, and made a big show of rejecting Parker's apology for that reason. Parker has apologized, Marinelli has said his piece, so let’s all move on.

Eno: I agree with you mostly. I think Parker definitely crossed the line, and he's lucky that wasn't Mike Ditka or Bill Parcells up there; he would have gotten his clock cleaned. Don't kid yourself. I also think Parker's clumsy attempt at an explanation in his column was weak. He was trying to be funny? Trying to get Marinelli to laugh? And he thought THAT was the way to do it?

Big Al: Good point, Mr. Journalist. Marinelli did himself a favor by taking the high road when Parker asked his joke question. A Denny Green or Jimmy Johnson type would have gone medieval on his ass. Parker's "apology" was revisionist history, as I seriously doubt Marinelli would consider anyone in the media a "friend." I believe he thinks of the media as something to be tolerated, nothing more. As for humor, I doubt anything would have gone over well after getting blown out 42-7. The only joke was Barry's defense, which never stopped the Saints till they took a knee at the end of the game.

Eno: 11-for-11 in 3rd down conversions – you don't even see that in high school! And Gosder Cherilus – whoo boy! I don't know, man. 0-16 looks like the surest bet in Vegas now, despite the Packers' 5-10 record. Right?

Big Al: We could pool our money together and make a KILLING in Vegas. The Lions losing in Packer-land is the surest bet of our lifetimes. The Lions haven't won in Green Bay since the Majik-Man, Don Majkowski, was under center for the Pack. 0-16 is a done deal. As for Cherilus, he hasn't had the most impressive of rookie seasons, huh? Best case scenario is he becomes another Jeff Backus. Utterly, overwhelmingly, average. Then again, after this season, I'll take utterly, overwhelmingly average from the Lions. It'd be a massive step forward!

Eno: And what of the other big news – Bill Ford, Sr. saying that 0-16 doesn't warrant a housecleaning? Like I wrote in OOB, I hope to God he just said everything wrong and that this whole Tom Lewand/Martin Mayhew sticking around thing will be moot once we see who they bring in. But here's the thing: in order to get who you need, he's gonna want total control. No one is going to want to come here and work in a committee!

Big Al: I hope your reading between the lines was correct, that there still could be a front office overhaul. But knowing Ford, who seems to dig in his heels deeper and deeper the more public and media sentiment turns against him, he's going to want to keep the status quo. It’s how he rolls. I’m also afraid that Marinelli will avoid the ziggy as well. But with Millen gone, the world will demand a scapegoat. Marinelli is still the likely person to receive the blame for 0-16. After all, he continues to say, "It's on me." God, what a mess this Lions franchise has become. Our only hope may be the NFL stepping in, like the NBA has done in the past in Cleveland and New York.

Eno: Well, Ford is a businessman, no? Then how can you market and sell bringing back the same bozos who led you to 0-16? Ford may be stubborn, but he's got to understand the bottom line. That's the only reason Darryl Rogers got fired. The Dome was half empty. Even Ford famously said, "We're losing and we're boring." So it would almost be fun to see him try to bring the same management and coaching team back and see where his ticket sales go.

Big Al: If there are no substantial changes made, ticket sales are going to tank. They'll be lucky to sell 35K seats a game. Ford may be a businessman, but as his very limited involvement in the family business shows, he's not a very good one. I've always said the wrong Ford bought the team. Henry Ford II, Hank the Deuce, the man who ran Ford Motor with an iron fist, was the Ford grandson with the smarts and the will to win. Instead, we got the idiot brother who can't do anything right.

Eno: True enough. OK, how about my alma mater, EMU? I love the Ron English hire [as head football coach]. Thoughts?

Big Al: The Eagl...uh, Hurons, could have done much worse. English was considered a real up and comer as Lloyd Carr's defensive coordinator, until they all were somewhat tarnished in Lloyd's final season. But English knows the area, has a good pedigree and should be the man to finally change the fortunes of EMU football. The fact that it's a minority hire doesn't even matter. English is a solid coach, period.

Eno: Well, EMU has traditionally looked beneath them for their coaches – i.e., smaller schools. I like that English is the first guy they've had in a very long time (since Ron Cooper in the early 1990s, who was from Notre Dame) who comes from a big time program. And I like that Eastern brought Lloyd Carr into the search as a consultant. EMU is a sleeping MAC giant; I truly believe that. It's the closest state MAC school to the metro Detroit area. That's an advantage that they haven't exploited in forever. Maybe now with English, who's said to be a strong recruiter, that will change.

Big Al: It's a shame EMU has become the red-headed step kid in Detroit college sports. Sure, they’re in the shadow of the Big Blue Machine a couple of miles to the west, but they really should be more of a factor in the MAC. Hopefully English is the start of an EMU renaissance. Or at the very least, make them respectable. Hey, maybe English will take over the Wolverines someday. I'm sure that would have been Carr's preference.

Eno: We'll see! OK, I've chosen the first two topics. What's on your plate du week, Monsieur Grand Shot?

Big Al: Of course I have a few things on my mind. Why are we here? Is there an afterlife? How did the tree change from a stick to a full fir in A Charlie Brown Christmas? Oh, you mean in SPORTS? Well, then...I need to think.

Eno: Don't hurt yourself there!

Big Al: Funny, Mr Eno. Real funny! OK, what's your thought on the Tigers, and other teams for that matter, sitting on their hands in free agency? The economic downturn, in a way, may be the best thing to happen to the Tigers. They may have a better shot at a pitcher or two as no one (save the Yankees, of course) is handing out big contracts. The price of some pretty good players may come down as we get closer to spring training.

Eno: Speaking of the Yanks, they owe MLB some $25 million, I believe, in luxury tax. Checks are due January 31st – honest! As far as free agency, you know I've never been big on signing arms; I'd rather trade for 'em. I want to know why the Mets needed Frankie Rodriguez AND JJ Putz! Sheesh! No real urgency now, anyway. Sometimes teams want to see what they have after a few weeks of spring training. The Tigers just need to concentrate on their bullpen. I think the starting rotation, believe it or not, is likely to bounce back. Too many good young arms NOT to. I would focus on the back end of the games, not the beginnings of them.

Big Al: I couldn't agree more. As the price drops on the big name free agents, the price for average bullpen arms should drop even more. The Tigers should be able to add a couple of very capable bullpen arms before the season starts. They may catch lightning in a bottle, and stumble upon a closer. Bullpens are mercurial things, as you can't predict performance from year to year. After the year both Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya had in 2006, no would have predicted the Tigers would be struggling to find end-of-the-game arms two seasons later. But that's the nature of bullpens. As the famous Crimson Tide kick returner Forrest Gump once said, "Bullpens are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get."

Eno: Was that the same Gump who discovered the Watergate break-in and met President Kennedy and helped invent the smiley face? Well, you're right about mercurial bullpens, but I'd also extend that to the rotation. I just don't think the Tigers' starters are going to be struck down by the same baloney as last season. I expect Justin Verlander to bounce back, Jeremy Bonderman to be healthy and better, and Nate Robertson to straighten up. Only Dontrelle Willis am I suspect about, really. Then there's Kenny Rogers, who STILL doesn't know if he wants to pitch in 2009.

Big Al: It's rare for the Tigers to not have their 25-man roster set before the New Year. GM Dave Dombrowski is normally quick to pull the trigger on trades and free agent deals. He did get a shortstop, catcher and another rotation arm, but not signing anyone for the bullpen has me extremely nervous. There really isn't a single reliever currently on the 40-man roster I'd trust with a late game lead.

Eno: Relax, grasshopper. Confucius say, “plenty of time to get a reliever.” Don't you know that sometimes they fall off the grapefruit trees toward the middle-to-latter part of spring training? The itchy trigger finger didn't work last season, did it? I'm willing to let this play out. Don't forget when the Willie Hernandez trade was made: a week before camp broke in 1984!

Big Al: And I'm still bummed the man with the greatest batting stance of all time, John B. Wockenfuss, who went to the Phillies along with Glenn Wilson, didn't get a World Series ring! Johnny B! Johnny B! Fuss! OK, with that out of my system, what're your thoughts on the Pistons' current issues? They are the fifth seed in the East right now, and don't look anything like a title contender. Allen Iverson doesn't seem to get along with Michael Curry, Curry's rotation seems to be pulled out of a hat on a nightly basis and the Pistons' defense, long their calling card, is non-existent. Is it time to push the panic button?

Eno: Hmmmm.....well, kinda sorta. I still like to think that this is still part of the meshing process: new coach, new superstar, etc. I don't like the lack of composure being shown by Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton, especially. And that's a direct reflection of Curry's ability to keep his players disciplined. As for Iverson, what makes you think he doesn't get along with Coach?

Big Al: Well, there's the fact that [Iverson]’s been benched late in games. Iverson also had more off court issues during his two months in Detroit, than he had in his entire time in Denver. We had the skipping of practice, and now he's been fined $25K for mouthing off at fans. Maybe it's just me, but Iverson seems confused on the court, and unhappy off the court.

Eno: Well, you can never tell with those types; are they EVER truly happy? I think what we're seeing, though, is that this bunch of Pistons isn’t as mentally tough as the Bad Boys. Remember the dinner they took Mark Aguirre to and basically browbeat him into behaving – players only? There really isn’t anyone on the roster who will take the lead in that manner. So it has to come from the coach, who is a rookie. It's a little dicey, I admit.

Big Al: I don't think there was a tougher team, both physically and mentally, than the Bad Boys. Nothing fazed for old age. The Pistons are rudderless right now. Turns out Chauncey Billups was more of a stabilizing influence than we all thought. The Pistons still have the pieces to have a good team; I'm not sure Curry has the ability as a rookie head coach to piece them back together. The next question is, if this malaise continues, does Joe Dumars blow this team up sooner or later?

Eno: Well, it's funny. I have suggested, more than once, that the next coach of the Pistons will be.....Joe Dumars. I wouldn't hate it. I thought, for a time, that [former Pistons GM] Jack McCloskey wanted to coach the Pistons before he hired Chuck Daly. I put it to him once, and Jack told me that if he wanted to, he would have taken the job. Something tells me that Dumars might, before all is said and done, do a Gregg Popovich and roam the sidelines. But that's down the line. As for now? I think we might see some serious trade deadline activity if the Pistons are still muddling along at five, six games above .500, heading for a 45, 46-win season.

Big Al: February may be quite interesting for Dumars and the Pistons, considering they have two very large expiring contracts in Rasheed Wallace and Iverson to dangle as bait. It remains to be seen if Dumars makes a move then for players, or would prefer to have that cap room available for free agency after the season ends. Joe D has his work cut out for him in trying to fix his sick team, to say the very least. Ready for some WORDASS?

Eno: Go for it, oh Al of Bigdom!


Big Al: OK, let's rock and roll. Let's start with Lions LB Ernie Sims.

Eno: Wow. Um, didn't I see him on a milk carton today at the supermarket?

Big Al: Very good, Eno! Sims may be the most disappointing of the Lions. How about another Lion, the soon to be owed an $8+ million contract kicker, Leigh Bodden.

Eno: Bodden Bodden. That's where he belongs.

Big Al: You're on a roll, good sir! Let’s try one of the central figures in the Lions' front office, Tom Lewand.

Eno: Show him the money – and make him keep his hands off anything football.

Big Al: Just like Rod Tidwell! One more for you. I'll stay with my Lions theme and go with Bill Ford, Jr.

Eno: Three words: PLEASE. GET. INVOLVED. You ready for some?

Big Al: Fire away, Eno.

Eno: Someone who I spoke to on Monday and will have written about by the time this is being read: Red Wings "backup" goalie Ty Conklin.

Big Al: He's NUMBER 1! Plus, I must add, "You've been Conk-blocked!"

Eno: I love it! OK, if you're gonna do Lions, I'll do Red Wings. Chris Chelios.

Big Al: The 2000 Year Old Man, with apologies to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

Eno: Nice reference! Too bad our kiddie readers won't get it. OK, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Big Al: No kidding they won't. (Look it up on YouTube, then learn and laugh) The 'JHawks? Faux-tenders.

Eno: Really? Wow. OK. Jiri Hudler, who quietly has 13 goals.

Big Al: Coming into his own. The Wings’ ability to to keep finding players like Hudler is why they are the best organization in sports

Eno: OK, before we hand out candy and coal....I know we talked about them recently, but how 'bout those 24th-ranked Michigan Basketball Wolverines?

Big Al: It's been over 10 years since the Wolverines have been ranked. The Michigan basketball program isn't all the way back, but they are well on their way. Give coach John Beilein another couple of seasons, and he should have Michigan back where they should be: as a perennial NCAA tournament team. At the very least, Michigan hoops is FUN again, which is something we couldn't say during the Tommy Amaker and Brian Ellerbee eras.

Eno: Please don't mention Brian Ellerbee and "era" in the same sentence. I'm trying to keep my lunch down here! I think it's great what's happening in Ann Arbor, especially on the heels of such a crummy football season. Now if they'll only either renovate or replace Crisler Arena!

Big Al: Ellerbee was the wrong coach at the wrong time. He was wrong, period. That seems to be the next move Athletic Director Bill Martin plans: a new practice facility and doing something with Crisler. If they want to compete in the Big Ten for players, Michigan has to upgrade facilities, as Michigan State did.


Eno: OK, let's wrap this up. Give me three people who deserve candy in their stocking, and three people who deserve coal!

Big Al: Deserving of candy are...Michigan head coach John Beilein for turning around the hoops culture at U-M, Red Wings D-man Nick Lidstrom for being so damned good, and the last goes to the Detroit blogosphere. You'll never find a more creative, fun and well written bunch of folks. I'm giving coal to 54 people, actually. The Detroit Lions roster gets not only a lump of coal, but an entire coal mine!

Eno: candy receivers are EMU for making an intelligent football coaching hire for a change; Mike Babcock for simply being the best coach in the NHL; and Lions placekicker Jason Hanson for not becoming homicidal by now. Coal? How about Detroit News columnist Rob Parker, on principle; Plaxico Burress for throwing it all away; and the NFL officials. They've had an awful year.

Big Al: Dead on as always, Mr. Journalist. I'm off to enjoy Festivus, for the rest of us! And maybe that little holiday called Christmas too! All the best to you and yours, Eno!

Eno: Have a great Holiday, and my family's best to you and yours – truly. I'm having a blast every week. See ya on New Year's Day!

Big Al: Works for me, looking forward to it! Now where's my aluminum pole?

Eno: Ugh.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tennis Ball Barrage Whetted Conklin's Goalie Appetite

The NHL is about to hold its third Winter Classic -- those outdoor games held in football stadiums and baseball parks. Pond hockey to the extreme.

The Red Wings are half of this year's participants -- set to face the Chicago Blackhawks on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field. And one goalie will have dressed in all three of these pond contests.

"The hardest part is keeping warm," Ty Conklin was saying on the phone the other day. And this from a guy who availed himself to being assaulted with tennis balls as a kid. But more about that later.

Conklin played in last year's game in Buffalo, when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. And he played in the classic for the Edmonton Oilers a few years ago.

"I wish it wasn't so cold," he said with a chuckle about last year's contest.

Conklin was the winner, as Sidney Crosby won the match for the Pens in a shootout, as snowflakes the size of quarters spilled onto the ice.

Conklin was the starter, despite being the supposed backup to Marc-Andre Fleury. I say supposed because Conklin played in about 40% of the Penguins' games, thanks to Fleury battling injuries last season.

It was his fine performance in Pittsburgh last year that prompted Red Wings GM Ken Holland to offer the 32-year-old a contract last summer as the backup to Chris Osgood. Conklin was again to play the role of no. 2, as Osgood figured to be the goalie about 70% of the time.

Now injuries have reared their head again. Osgood is battling that goalie bugaboo -- the groin that threatens to go pop.

Guess who's been thrust back into the starting job in net?

Conklin (above) says that Osgood's won-loss record is the only stat that matters

Osgood, prior to the tender groin situation, wasn't posting the greatest numbers in the world. By his own admission, the 36-year-old was fighting the puck; and the numbers were agreeing with him. A GAA of well over 3.00. A save percentage not even close to .900, which is the industry standard for starting goalies.

Ahh, but one number stood out above all the rest, all while Osgood crabbed about his own play.

"I have a hard time with people sometimes when it comes to Chris," Conklin said Monday during an NHL conference call with the media, when I openly wondered whether goalies talk to each other if one of them is apparently slumping. "The number that counts is wins. The guy has lost two games (in regulation) all season. He hasn't had much puck luck."

"Puck luck." Only goalies talk like that, right?

"I've been there," Conklin said of Osgood's internal battle. "It's tough. Once he gets healthy, he'll be fine."

Contrary to popular belief, the expectations of a goalie aren't necessarily greater in Detroit than anywhere else, Conklin reported.

"There are expectations everywhere. All around the league," he said. "But I don't think the goalies here (in Detroit) are expected to stop every shot. That's not how the guys in the locker room look at it."

I also asked Conklin, straight up: Why in the world would any seemingly sane-minded guy want to become a goalie, anyway?

He laughed. "Well, it started when my dad and brothers would shoot tennis balls at me in the basement. I don't know; I just liked it right away."

Maybe not sane-minded, after all. I had a lot of ideas for fun as a kid, but being shot at with a bunch of tennis balls wasn't on the list.

Now, playing goalie on an outdoor rink for the Detroit Red Wings on New Year's Day? THAT'S something I could get into. But I didn't pay my dues in the basement, did I?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Let's Just Hope That Ford Is Saying Everything Poorly

What is it they say about being careful of what you wish for?

A few weeks ago, I practically begged -- actually, I think I DID beg -- for Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. to say something, anything, about the state of his football team. You know, that whole winless 2008, one-win-in-more-than-a-year thing. It would be nice, I wrote, if Ford would prove to us that of all the bad things an owner can be indicted of, he's not guilty of the worst: that he doesn't care.

Maybe I like it better when he stays quiet.

It's not so much WHAT Ford said yesterday, reported first by Tom Kowalski and -- although it wasn't pleasant to read. It was what he DIDN'T say -- and how he DIDN'T phrase what he did say, when talking about the future of the franchise and that of COO Tom Lewand and acting GM Martin Mayhew.

To wit: when asked if the stench of a possible 0-16 season would mean that the Lions would blast a big hole in the vault and rescue what little credibility was left by hiring a "football guru", Ford said, "It depends. I don't know about the odds (of hiring a GM with total authority). Let's see who's available and what experience they have and see if they fit in any of our slots.''

OK, what he SHOULD have said: "I think that since the model of most winning teams has a brilliant football mind at the top, then we would be foolish not to look at that hard as a model for our organization."

Translated: I would like to emulate the Patriots and the Colts and bring that type of org chart to the Lions.

Fan reaction: Thank God.

When asked if he was happy with Mayhew's performance so far, Ford said, "Oh yeah, very.''

What he SHOULD have said: "Martin was placed in a very difficult situation and it's kind of unfair to judge his performance based on that. I appreciate his hard work."

Translated: An acting GM has no real influence over the on-field performance when he's brought in after three games have been played. So how can I answer that intelligently?

Fan reaction: That seems fair.

Finally -- and this is a biggie -- Ford said this when asked about the job security of head coach Rod Marinelli: "I don't know, I haven't made up my mind. I'm leaving it open.''

What he SHOULD have said: "We'll evaluate Rod at the end of the season, as we always do with our coaching staff."

Translated: What do you want me to do? Fire him now before I get a chance to talk to him and fire him in private?

Fan reaction: OK, but just see that you do it.

After reading Kowalski's scoop of a story, I'm trying to remain calm and level-headed. Three things pretty much set fans off: 1. The idea of doing things by committee -- one that would include Ford, Lewand, and Mayhew when it comes to the next hire; 2. The throwaway comment re: Mayhew's performance; and 3. The "leaving it open" remark re: Marinelli.

Here's, basically, what Ford is saying -- before you jump off the Ambassador Bridge: I want Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew around, in some capacity. We're going to hire a new football person. I haven't made up my mind yet about the coach.

I have no problem keeping Lewand. His side is business, and by all accounts he actually does a pretty good job with it. I can even tolerate Mayhew sticking around, though he's a Matt Millen Man -- as long as it's in a watered down, subordinate role. And I still truly believe that Marinelli will be canned. I think Ford's "leaving it open" comment was just a poor way of saying it. And it's making the fans crazy nervous.

But it's also obvious that I'm not in the majority.

The fan base wants everyone gone -- excluding maybe the poor secretaries and administrative assistants who are guilt-free here. The idea of Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew still being employed creeps people out. I understand that. But will we really care if those guys are still around if a new football man arrives and is given the authority that he needs? And will we care if they're here if a new coach is in place?

But here's where you might have me. Ford's hiring history has been as checkered as a chess board. And the new man might have to swallow being part of a committee with Lewand and Mayhew. That makes the job less attractive for the type of person this situation craves.

So we'll see. But the comments to Kowalski is far from a piece of candy in the fans' stockings this Christmas.

So shame on me for beseeching Ford to speak to us. What was I thinking?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stuckey Is A Point (Guard) Well Taken; Now Let’s Keep Him Around

Isiah Thomas was all of six-foot-one, playing a tall man’s game, yet you couldn’t miss him. You couldn’t help but spot him as he slashed to the basket, laying one in, or as he stuck a dagger of a three-pointer into your heart, or as he played on one good leg in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

David Bing was six-three, another relatively short guy among the giants. But those giants were often helpless as Bing glided to the hoop, or drained jump shot after jump shot over their outstretched arms.

Bing played on a lot of losing teams in Detroit, but he was no loser himself. And the next person to accuse Isiah, the player, of being a loser will be the first.

Then along came the bigger, stronger Chauncey Billups. It was easier to notice Chauncey physically, and it also became impossible to miss him because of his flair for the dramatic. Mr. Big Shot, they called him. It was largely a Detroit nickname, but it fit well for a time.

All three of them – Thomas, Bing, and Billups – have one thing in common. Championships? Well, no. Isiah and Chauncey have theirs, but Bing never made it that far. Scoring champ? Bing did that, but not the others. The number 1? Hmm, sort of; Bing wore 21, Thomas 11, Billups 1.

What all three have in common is that each of them, every one of them, was banished from the Pistons organization. Three of the best Pistons of their respective time – gone, sent packing. Oh, and all three turned ex-Pistons under the watch of owner Bill Davidson.

It started with Bing. After a fine 1973-74 season in which the Pistons won 52 games and made the playoffs, the team slumped to 40 wins in ’74-’75. But not before Bing had the audacity to hold out for more money in the summer of 1974.

Davidson, who had recently bought out his partners to gain sole control of the Pistons, didn’t understand the idea of a player holding out. Mr. D made his money with Guardian Industries, and to him, a deal was a deal. End of discussion.

Davidson would learn, of course, that pro sports isn’t like most businesses.

But before he saw the light, Davidson had mentally shifted Bing into his private dog house. We didn’t know it, but after Bing held out in 1974, he was as good as gone.

So Davidson had Bing traded in the summer of 1975 to the Washington Bullets for a pugnacious, bratty point guard named Kevin Porter. It didn’t matter that if it wasn’t for Dave Bing, the Pistons might not have made it in Detroit. Honest. It didn’t matter that Bing helped put the Pistons on the NBA map. It didn’t matter that no Pistons guard before him was as talented and gifted as Bing was. It only mattered that Bing had wanted more dough from a previously-signed contract.

Then it happened with Thomas, who led the Pistons to their first two world championships. Isiah became so famous in the league that he turned into one of those one-name stars, like Dr. J, Kareem, Bird, and Magic. He played for 13 seasons in Detroit, joining the franchise when it was nearly moribund.

But all that went out the window when Isiah violated Davidson’s trust and told everyone that he was to one day help run the team from the executive offices.

That revelation wasn’t concurrent with Davidson’s timetable, so Mr. D froze Isiah out. Essentially kicked him out of the Pistons forever.

Just this past November, it happened with Billups, too.

Mr. Big Shot was the Finals MVP in 2004. He, too, came to the Pistons when they were in desperate need of a face, of some respect. Billups became the ring leader for a team that prided itself on being blue collar, just like the city it represented. He became involved in the community. He WAS the Pistons, to many outside of Detroit.

But Billups was traded to the Denver Nuggets, for the future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson.

Three point guards, the best the Pistons ever had. And all became ex-Pistons, in one way or another.

If the Pistons make Rodney Stuckey an ex, they’d have some ‘splaining to do.

Stuckey is the Pistons’ new point guard, in his second year. He attended school at Eastern Washington University. When you find out where EWU is, drop me a line. I’m dying to know myself. The Pistons drafted Bing from Syracuse, and Thomas from Indiana – two places where you routinely go to find NBA players. But Eastern Washington? Score one for the scouting department. And Rand-McNally.

Stuckey is the next big thing with the Pistons – literally. He’s six-foot-five, which would dwarf the point guards in Bing and Thomas’s day. He can drive to the basket, score, or find the open man for an easy hoop. He can nail a jump shot with consistency. He hasn’t played in too many big games yet, but the ones in which he has, he’s played with ice water in his veins. Now his rookie head coach is giving him even more to do.

With Billups gone, Michael Curry is trying something new. He’s starting Stuckey at the point, Iverson at shooting guard, and Rip Hamilton at small forward. The NBA jargon for it is “going small.” Curry’s jargon is “We need more scoring – and we need to give Stuckey more minutes.”

Both missions are being accomplished.

Stuckey is doing that “double-double” thing now with some regularity. Meaning, double digits in points and assists. It’s what Isiah used to do with brilliant monotony. Stuckey was at it again Wednesday night against Washington: 38 minutes, 18 points, 11 assists. Many of those assists went to Iverson, who struck for 28 points. Hamilton added 12, making it 58 points from Curry’s three small men. And many of Stuckey’s own points came as a result of his relentless attack on the basket. The Wizards players seemed helpless against Stuckey’s play, just as Bing’s opponents once had been.

And Curry is letting Stuckey call most of the plays, entrusting him to keep the likes of Iverson, Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince fed and happy. That Stuckey himself can drop an average of 15-20 points into the basket per night is more than a bonus – it’s an indication of just how talented this kid is.

Since the Pistons had just signed Billups to a big contract extension in the summer of 2007, I wondered after last season where that left Stuckey, who was coming off a fine rookie year and who showed some moxie in the playoffs. Where would Stuckey play, if all the backcourt minutes were going to go to Billups and Hamilton?

Thanks to the Billups trade and Curry’s out-of-the-box thinking, we’re seeing exactly where and how much Stuckey will play. So no banishing him until at least the next Pistons championship – OK, Mr. D?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Archie Manning Paid His Emotional Dues With Saints; Now He Enjoys Sons' Success

(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions' upcoming opponents)

How gratifying it must be to be Archie Manning. Maybe now he realizes that all the losing he experienced as a player might just have been worth it, if this is the payoff.

Quarterback Manning, who wallowed on nothing but bad teams in his 14-year NFL career, is now living vicariously through the exploits of his QB sons Peyton and Eli. Both of them made the Pro Bowl, the first time quarterbacking brothers have made the team in the same season.

Archie as a Saint; gotta love the black pants w/white jerseys!

Archie made two Pro Bowls, in 1978 and '79, but the best his New Orleans Saints teams could muster was an 8-8 record in '79. A look at his stats at shows an unsightly 35-101-3 record as starting quarterback. But Manning wasn't the reason, usually, that the Saints lost football games in the 1970s. There was plenty of blame to go around. The Saints were still going through expansion growing pains in that decade, having joined the NFL in 1967. Ironically, on the opening kickoff in their first-ever game, John Gilliam took the kick back for a touchdown. You can't debut, as a team, any better than that.

But Gilliam's kick return would be the high point of the franchise for the next three-plus years.

Enter Tom Dempsey.

On November 8, 1970, Dempsey booted a 63-yard field goal as time expired to beat the (who else?) Lions. The Saints had just fired their coach, Tom Fears, and gave replacement J.D. Roberts another rousing debut. But the Saints wouldn't win another game that season, finishing 2-11-1.

So the Saints had Gilliam's KO return on their opening play, and Dempsey's improbable FG three years later, and that was pretty much it for football fun in New Orleans until the mid-to-late 1980s, when the Ragin' Cajun, QB Bobby Hebert, led the Saints to respectability and even a playoff berth in 1987.

But back to Manning.

The Saints drafted Archie with their no. 1 pick in '71, out of Ole Miss. He was to be the franchise savior (sound familiar?). But considering the players with which the Saints surrounded Manning, you could have sued the team for lack of support as Manning's attorney and have been able to make quite a case on his behalf.

The Saints of the 1970s were awful. Maybe their nadir was in 1977, when they became the first team ever to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- at home, no less. The Saints had hired Hank Stram as coach, and that loss pretty much ended Hank's brief tenure in the Bayou. They had two pretty good running backs -- Tony Galbreath and Chuck Muncie -- and marketed them as Thunder and Lightning. But the only thing that Mother Nature gave the Saints in the '70s were black clouds.

Manning spent 1982-84 with Houston and Minnesota, and those teams weren't any good, either.

But now Archie Manning can kick back, relax, and watch his sons achieve the personal and team success that he never did. Both have won Super Bowls -- in consecutive years -- and both have a good shot at doing it again this year. Well, check the part about relaxing. As any parent will tell you, it can be anything BUT relaxing to watch your kids play and/or perform -- no matter how old they are. But the last two football seasons have ended with a Manning hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, so we're back to the opening paragraph: it's probably worth all the anxiety.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al" -- Webisode #12

Welcome to Thursday at OOB, and another webisode of "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al," my weekly whine with the MVP of the MVN, Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Just because it's the holiday season doesn't mean we're in a charitable mood. Several targets are in our sights this week, including the Lions (what's new?); the quick-to-fire NBA execs and owners; our struggling Detroit newspapers and their sports writing employees; the Tigers' lack of a closer; and, of course, we play some WordAss and name our Jerks of the Week.

To wit....

Eno: ‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the Web, not a blogger was stirring – except the Knee Jerks!! Welcome to this inane, weekly gabfest. I'm Eno, aka The Journalist, and he's Big Al, aka Mr. Big Shot. Happy Holidays, Almeister!

Big Al: Happy Festivus, Eno! Ready to partake in the feats of strength and the airing of the grievances?

Eno: I love the word “partake” – reminds me of food and beverage, which I partake in lustily, especially around this time of year. The Crown Royal awaits. Anyhow, I suppose we would be remiss if we didn't talk – AGAIN – about the Lions' journey toward 0-16. Or is there anything else to say about it, really?

Big Al: A little, actually. In Wednesday's MLive, Lions beat guy Tom “Killer” Kowalski said that anyone rooting for the Lions to go 0-16 is a not a "true" fan. Personally, I don't take being lectured to by a journalist very well. I honestly believe fans want the Lions to go zero for the season because it's the only way William Clay Ford Sr. will wake from his Scotch-induced slumber, and make sweeping changes in his organization. The Lions NEED to go 0-16.

Eno: Like I said the other day at OOB, Rod Marinelli won't be fired by Ford – he’ll be fired by the circumstances. Never before has Senior had his hand forced like this to fire a coach. But come on, 0-16 gets you fired ... right?

Big Al: That's my biggest fear – that Ford decides to keep the status quo. Any other franchise would have changed direction three-to-four years into what became a historic mess. But with Ford? You just don't know, which is why 0-16 is necessary. No one can stay employed after having a winless season. Even Ford has to realize it.

Eno: I agree. 0-16 equals the ziggy, plain and simple. Any thoughts about Carl Peterson, who just resigned from the KC Chiefs as their GM? Could he be a candidate for the Lions?

Big Al: Ten years ago, maybe. But now? I wouldn't be thrilled with Peterson. He hasn't had a very good decade. They were almost as happy in KC to see Peterson go as we were to see [Matt] Millen get the boot. I would honestly prefer someone much younger, who could stay for 15-20 years. The likes of Peterson or (former Titans GM and current ESPN talking head) Floyd Reese are short-timers, in my mind. But if....GAK...Mayhew stays, an older, established GM might be the way to go. It's not how I would do it, but Ford just might.

Eno: Well, here's what MUST happen: if Mayhew stays (I agree with your GAK), then an established head coach has to be paired with him. If you go with a new exec, then I would tolerate a first-time head coach, as long as the new exec has credibility. But you CANNOT keep Mayhew and go the cheap route, i.e. a position coach or a coordinator. It's GOT to be someone with head coaching chops.

Big Al: From your blog to Ford's desk, Eno. What's even scarier in my mind is the fact there looks to be several front office openings available, so the Lions need to move fast, but not make a mistake in doing so. It's the old manufacturing paradigm: You want it done faster, better and cheaper. But you can only have two [of those three]. This is the most critical time in Lions history, and they absolutely cannot afford to make another hiring mistake.

Eno: I agree about it being the most critical, if for no other reason than they will now have to respond to the most inglorious of all records: a winless 16-game season. How they respond may dictate their legacy as a franchise. This SHOULD be a turning point in franchise history. Wouldn't it be nice if we could tell our grandkids, "Son, I remember when the Lions bottomed out at 0-16, and yet they rose, like a Phoenix...."? What about you? Do you think the historical implications of 0-16 will hit you right away, or will it take a while to sink in, that we really did live through this?

Big Al: It'll make a HUGE splash initially, just because of the 24/7 news cycle world in which we live. But in the long run, I honestly think it's overblown. If the Lions, as you say, miraculously rise from the ashes, it will be remembered like the Tigers’ 119-loss season [of 2003]. It was necessary, even inevitable. I know the 1976, 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team is often thought of as the worst ever, but no one thinks the Bucs are a bad franchise anymore. The next few seasons will ultimately determine how we think of this season.

Eno: OK, enough of that. What in Sam Hill is going on in the NBA? Reggie Theus gets the ziggy in Sacramento, bringing to six the number of coaches who've been canned since the beginning of the season. And the NHL isn't far behind. What gives, Mr. Big Shot?

Big Al: No one has patience anymore. Everyone wants instant gratification. I'm already hearing the rumblings of unhappiness regarding the performance of the Pistons rookie head coach, Michael Curry. Most any coach or GM deserves two-to-three years to implement their system. But there is so much money at stake in today's sports, that no one is willing, save for the polar opposite William Clay Ford, to wait for results. They want it NOW, if not sooner. It's not right, but that's the current landscape.

Eno: And some of these rosters are awful, that these guys have to coach. Speaking of Curry, I know it's early, but what's your gut tell you about this guy? Is he the Pistons' coach in 2010-11, when all these spiffy free agents are available, or will [Joe] Dumars show his fetish for firing coaches by that time?

Big Al: His lack of coaching experience is being exposed early on in this season. His rotation changes often seem to be (pun intended) knee jerk reactions. I think Dumars knows what he has, and will ride it out for at least the next couple of years. But Curry does have to grow into the job, as I wouldn't want the current version of Curry running this team if Dumars does go after the one or two superstars in either '09 or '10. Do you think Curry is on a shorter leash than we may have been led to believe?

Eno: Meaning....??

Big Al: This is the first coach Dumars hired who didn't have a track record of some sort. I'm thinking Curry may be only a one or two season guy; that Dumars will bring in a more experienced coach when he finally purges what's becoming a somewhat old roster.

Eno: You know what, I hadn't thought of that. Maybe like how he canned Rick Carlisle in favor of Larry Brown? Could be. But that may not be the INTENTION – just what ends up happening. Some coaches are just good enough to get you to a certain level, then you hire someone else to get you over the hump. The Red Wings did that when they replaced Bryan Murray with Scotty Bowman. I can see that happening with Curry, although I think Dumars would love for MC to be "the guy" for a long time.

Big Al: Which may be what saves Curry, at least for the time being. He's always been Dumars' "guy," even back in his playing days. I like Curry, and he was the sort of player you'd think would turn into a good coach. Curry maximized his limited athletic ability to its absolute fullest. Curry had to work harder and play smarter than those with far greater natural ability. I hope the same proves true as a head coach, but the jury will be out for quite some time to come.

Eno: How come the benchwarmers are always the guys who would "make a good coach or manager"? It's funny. No one ever says, "That Nicklas Lidstrom – he’d make a good coach someday." But they WILL say, "That Michael Curry – he’s a coach in the making!" That always cracks me up, but it's not without precedent: great players rarely make great coaches – I get that.

Big Al: It is weird, as you'd think the uber-talented would be excellent coaches. But they rarely pan out. Ted Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Frank Robinson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, the list of failed head coaches/managers who were great players is long. One of the few I can think of who was actually an excellent head coach who was also a Hall of Fame caliber player was the Lions' Joe Schmidt. But he's the exception to the rule.

Eno: Well, don't forget that Bird led the Pacers to the NBA Finals, no? And Williams was Manager of the Year in 1969, but his disdain for pitchers quickly wore thin in Washington. See? Aren't you glad I'm here to point out your bad examples? What WOULD you do without me? OK, I'm volleying the ball into your court: what's on that frazzled mind of yours, Al?

Big Al: But the examples you mentioned never won it all, and quickly wore out their welcome. Anyway... I think something we should bring up is the current situation the Detroit newspapers find themselves in. Bloggers and journalists often find themselves at odds (Jerry Green HATES me, for example), but bloggers do heavily depend upon beat writers for information. As you are a working journalist, what's your take on what's happening at the Freep and News?

Eno: Well first of all, your description of me is appreciated but is also an oxymoron: working journalist? Anyhow, I think newspapers are, sadly, in dire straits and this is only the beginning. What's interesting to me is that it's a double-edged sword. There are more outlets for writers, of course, but who's really good anymore? Gone are the likes of Jim Murray, whose stuff was biting, hilarious, and just plain awesome. The pie is sliced so thin anymore. I know about you and Green, and I've kept out of it, as I count Jerry among my pals. But I can see where the frustration comes in. It's the same with TV. EVERYONE is a TV producer nowadays. That was my original vocation, so I have some sensitivity there, too. But what are you gonna do? I do think, though, that print journalists would do themselves a favor if they embraced bloggers and their input rather than scorned them.

Big Al: Personally, I have the utmost respect for the beat writers, as they truly are on the front lines. I'm sure traveling with a team for an entire season takes the romanticism out of sports. But the journalists that should be worried are the columnists. They seem to be the ones most threatened by the blogosphere, and tend to be the ones to take potshots at guys like me. What we saw happen in Detroit Tuesday, their cutting back on home delivery and taking the first step into going online only, is going to be happening all over the nation, sooner than later. Personally, I think the Detroit News is dying, and will be gone within a couple of years. Not many cities can support two [daily] newspapers. I don't think Detroit can, not anymore. I do agree that journalists should be more like bloggers. I want opinion and analysis, not a glorified version of the AP game story. I do feel bad for many journalists who are very good at what they do, but there are as many who have been on auto-pilot for years and needed the wake up call they are currently getting. The next few years are going to be fascinating.

Eno: Absolutely. You gotta understand that a lot of the older guys, especially, spent most of their working lives building an audience, and it seems to have been eradicated so quickly – or at least significantly reduced. And these are guys who started with typewriters, don't forget! I think the younger journalists are able to suffer us easier. But there's something to be said about getting better if you get nudged a little. I think that the columnists who choose to "raise their game" in light of what's happening, rather than grouse about it, are going to be better off. OK, anything else you want to talk about?

Big Al: Since we last spoke, the Tigers traded young corner outfielder Matt Joyce to the Tampa Bay Rays for 14-game winning starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. Thoughts on the trade have been mixed, at best. Jackson is your typical Dave Dombrowski pitcher: big, strong, tall, plus fastball. He also thinks the strike zone runs from the bill of the cap down to the ankles. Joyce, on the other hand, showed tons of potential in his half season in the bigs, and is something the Tigers have lacked for years: a left-handed bat with power. What's your take on the trade?

Eno: Well, I love those left-handed sticks, but I like arms more. The Tigers don't need offense; they need pitching and defense – which, I believe, are about to enter their 115th straight season of being the Most Important Things A Baseball Team Can Have. There's still Jeff Larish, after all. If you can hit, you can hit. I don't know where it says you have to have "X" number of lefty bats in your lineup. I'm all for it. I'd always rather trade for a pitcher than sign one. Those free agent pitchers tend to go sideways before the ink even dries on the contract. Your thoughts?

Big Al: I can see what the Tigers were thinking in this deal. You can't have enough arms. But Jackson's peripherals have been awful. His career WHIP [walks plus hits per innings pitched] is over 1.50, which is God awful. There are a few other red flags as well. Jackson was removed from the Rays' rotation during the playoff run, meaning he was considered their worst starter. There's also the fact that they traded a 14-game winner for a still unproven corner outfielder, which are damn near a dime a dozen. My worry is Jackson will, like the rest of the Tigers' staff last season, be unable to throw strikes....ever. The bullpen is still untouched as well. There's no closer, the set up men are wild and injury prone. The Tigers have other holes to fill.

Eno: My, that glass isn't half-empty in your mind – it’s damn near dry! But I hear you. One team's trash is another's treasure, I understand. But you almost HAVE to take some fliers on some arms right now. The pitching has to come from SOMEWHERE. I liked Joyce, gotta give up something, as they say. I didn't expect the Tigers to fill all their holes at the Winter Meetings; sometimes the best times for the best trades are about 2/3 through spring training. You can make some gems then. OK, how about we play something I like to call WordAss?

Big Al: Such language! Well...I never...Oh, you mean Word Association? That's different. You want to start it off?


Eno: Sure! OK....Scott Shafer, former U-M defensive coordinator

Big Al: A bad fit.

Eno: The NEXT U-M D-coordinator.....

Big Al: That's a tough one. A Michigan Man!

Eno: Ahhh....OK. Spencer Haywood, who by the time folks read this will have been honored with a night at UDM

Big Al: Under appreciated.

Eno: Antonio McDyess

Big Al: Roster glue. A few for you, sir. Let's start with the Tigers' closer in 2009.

Eno: Hopefully not in the organization currently.

Big Al: Funny! How about the Lions' placekicker who just missed making the Pro Bowl, Jason Hanson?

Eno: I've always said: replace Bubbles the Rampant Lion with a silhouette of Hanson kicking on the Lions' helmets!

Big Al: Works for me. Bubbles is overrated. Someone who's off to a slower start than usual, the Wings' Nick Lidstrom.

Eno: He IS? I hadn't noticed. I thought it was Nik Kronwall who was struggling. Lidstrom: Today's Mechanical Man, with apologies to Charlie Gehringer.

Big Al: Well, a slow starting Lidstrom is still better than most NHL D-men. Then again, the entire Wings’ blue line, if you go by goals against, is off to a slow start.

Eno: OK, two more for you: first, the Manning Brothers, Peyton and Eli, both Pro Bowlers.

Big Al: Mannings? Hmmm... Over exposed, but not overrated

Eno: Nice. I love Peyton's commercials. I think he's funny as Hell. OK, finally, Sean Avery

Big Al: Good riddance to that self-aggrandizing trash!

Eno: Wow, Mr. Bettman, I mean Mr. Beaton!

Big Al: Indeed. [Red Wings coach] Mike Babcock was recently asked about Avery, and he told a story where he basically said 4th line players need to be very low maintenance. That's the last thing you can say about Avery.

Eno: No doubt. One more topic before we switch to Jerk of the Week: your thoughts on the upcoming outdoor NHL game at Wrigley Field?

Big Al: It's going to be fun to watch, and it's quite a spectacle. But why do it on a day where you’re competing with college football for attention? The NHL having its showcase game on New Year’s Day never made sense to me. Though I will admit I'd love to see the Winter Classic be held in the Detroit Metro area one day.

Eno: Good point; it would seem the LAST thing they need is competition. I'm dying to see it, frankly. I thought it was cool as all get out last year when the Sabres and Pens played amidst the snowflakes. Keep it among the Original Six, btw. That probably won't fly, will it? Could they ever have it in Detroit? Comerica Park? Michigan Stadium?

Big Al: Seems to me either place would work well. In my mind, the Wings not being considered to host the game is just another way the Wings are always dissed by the NHL. They'd rather bring the Wings into a town, as they are such a great draw. The NHL takes the Red Wings too much for granted.


Eno: Well, they've been great for 14 years now; some in the NHL probably don't even know what it's like to NOT have a strong franchise in Detroit. OK, who's your Jerk of the Week, sir?

Big Al: I'm going with Auburn University for their outright strange hiring of Gene Chizik as their head coach. You'd think the War Eagles could get someone with more than two years experience as a head coach and a 5-19 record at Iowa State. If Michigan had made that sort of hire, AD Bill Martin would have been forced to go into the Witness Protection Program. It's as strange of a big time college football hire as I've ever seen. Who's on your bad side, Eno? Your Jerk of the Week is...?

Eno: Yeah, that Auburn thing was weird. Sir Charles Barkley had a fit. OK, I'm going with Tiger Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, for his disparaging remarks about Phil Mickelsen, then trying to laugh it off as just being funny. If you're No. 1 in the world, you don't need to be dissing those below you, do you? And kudos to Tiger for calling Williams out the next day.

Big Al: You'd think even semi-public figures like Williams would know by now that anything they say in today's world is going to get out. I'm sure he never thought what he said would reach the states. Yeah, right.

Eno: Exactly. OK, Mr. Big Shot. I guess we should tell folks that next week, since TKJ falls on Christmas Day, we will dispense with Jerk of the Week and give our list of those whose stockings should be filled with coal, and whose deserves candy!

Big Al: I'm already mining for coal, so I'll be ready!

Eno: Alright! See ya next week!

Big Al: Take care, and Happy Festivus! Get out your aluminum pole!

Eno: Wow, that sounds dirty!

Big Al: It sorta does. My mind is in the gutter!

Eno: Or mine is, one of the two.