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!

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