Monday, September 29, 2008

Helm Can Be Red Wings' X-Factor

You know you've reached at least some sort of cult status as a pro athlete, when people start dubbing young, up-and-coming players as a "little" you.

Kris Draper has, believe it or not, achieved that status.

Don't look now, but Draper is a grizzled, 15-year veteran now. He's one of those four-time Stanley Cup winners that dot the Red Wings' roster.

The Draper story is near legend in these parts.

Purchased for $1 from the Winnipeg Jets. Speedy Gonzalez on the ice. Founding member of the Grind Line. Face smashed like an egg shell into the boards by Claude Lemieux. Eventually, one of the premier face-off men in the league, and maybe one of the best penalty killers in history. Scores a goal every other full moon.

Today, Draper is one of the faces of the Wings who kind of functions as an unofficial team spokesman. He's no longer an afterthought with reporters; he's one of the first Red Wings whose opinion is sought out.

Now here comes a player that has been called, by some, a "little Kris Draper." I'm one of the some.

Darren Helm is 21 years old, skates like he was shot out of a cannon, and seems to make the other team nervous out there because of his speed and forechecking ability.

Draper is 37, and with most teams that means he's nearing his swan song, but with the Red Wings, that really doesn't mean jack. How can it, when last year the team employed a 43-year-old goalie and still keeps a 46-year-old defenseman on its roster? And, correct me if I'm wrong (but I'm not), but isn't Nicklas Lidstrom 38? And isn't Lidstrom simply the best defenseman in the NHL, and in Europe, and in the Milky Way?

So it's not like Draper is being booted out the door by the emergence of Helm, who made quite an impression in last spring's playoffs. But there certainly is room for two jitterbugs like Draper and Helm on the payroll.

Helm sat out the first four games of the first round, and was inserted in time for Game 5 against Nashville, when the Red Wings found themselves in a shaky 2-2 series tie. He didn't come out of the lineup the rest of the way.

I was stunned at how much influence Helm, a rookie who had just seven NHL games under his belt come playoff time, had on the tempo of the game whenever he was on the ice. It wasn't just his speed, which is blurring, but it was his puck sense and his knack for being around it. In short, you can usually tell who the veterans are during the playoffs. There's an intangible there. They play with a certain calmness and are able to harness their amped up energy. So here Darren Helm was, flying around the ice, but in control and making things happen. Maybe this is the highest praise: I felt absolutely no uneasiness whenever Helm was on the ice. To the contrary: I WANTED Helm on the ice, and as much as possible.

Helm chipped in four points (2 G, 2 A) in his 18 playoff games.

Yet Helm's place on the 2008-09 Red Wings is hardly sealed. Competition is fierce, and there's no guarantee, none at all, that Helm will be among the Red Wings when they prepare for their season opener a week from Thursday against Toronto. Helm's biggest hurdle, it appears, is Finnish forward Ville Leino.

Coach Mike Babcock had nice things to say about Leino after last night's exhibition against Atlanta, but said this about Helm: "I think Helm's an NHL player. Every time he's on the ice, something happens. He's an elite skater; he's got good hockey sense."

You know, just like a little Kris Draper.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Roller Coaster Grinds To A Halt

A sports era ended in Detroit this week. Perhaps you heard of it. It was a time that had people wringing their hands and double-checking the supply of antacid in their medicine cabinets. Sports talk radio just got a little quieter.

One of the city’s perceived athletic villains is no more.

No, this isn’t about Matt Millen, the ex-Lions president who was “relieved of his duties” on Wednesday. I only have about 900 words left, after all.

Todd Jones isn’t a roller coaster, but he played one on the baseball diamond.

They say Ernie Harwell gave Jones the nickname.

“Here comes Roller Coaster Jones,” Ernie supposedly said into his microphone, back in the earlier days of Jones’s Tigers career. Because with Jones, the closer and the Tigers’ all-time leader in saves who retired on Thursday, it was hardly ever three up and three down in the ninth. It was up and down and around and down and up and across and down – and then the Tigers were on the field, shaking hands after Jones put everyone through the ringer.

Just like a roller coaster. It was yet another of Ernie’s apt nicknames.

But there’s great irony in the moniker, because if ever there is someone who’s so NOT a roller coaster, as a person, it’s Todd Jones.

Why in the world someone would want to be a closer for a baseball team, I’ll never know. You sit in the bullpen for eight innings, sometimes freezing your fanny off, and then, after some two-and-a-half hours of your team clawing and fighting, you’re asked to warm up and, basically, you’ll have one of two outcomes by the time the game is over: hero or goat. Nothing in between. Sometimes a minion will hand the closer a warm up jacket as he departs the bullpen for the pitching mound; he might as well hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.

You save the game for your team, or you blow it. No gray areas. And no one cares if a couple of the base hits were of the bloop variety, or that the umpire squeezed the strike zone, or your shortstop couldn’t come up with the ground ball that had “game-ending double play” written all over it. If you need to get four outs instead of three thanks to your team’s leaky defense, then so be it. Just do it.

It’s a job that has destroyed lesser men than Jones. Literally.

Donnie Moore was the California Angels’ closer in 1986. His team was on the brink of going to the World Series, about ready to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Red Sox. Moore was one out away from saving the clinching game in the ALCS that year. He entered Game 5 in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead and a man on first base. But then Boston’s Dave Henderson drilled a home run off Moore deep into the left field seats, and the Red Sox moved in front, 6-5. The Angels tied the game in their half of the ninth, but the Red Sox won it in extra innings. And they would rally to win the ALCS in seven games.

Games 6 and 7 wouldn’t have been necessary, if only Donnie Moore hadn’t given up that home run. Or so it was written, and talked about, and screamed and cried about, in the days that ensued. Boston’s Bill Buckner and his horrific gaffe a couple weeks later in the World Series took Moore off the front pages. Or so we thought.

Moore let the Henderson home run haunt him. Terrorize him, really. The fans and the media were no help, of course – but then, they never are in situations like that. Moore pitched the 1987 and ’88 seasons, but with not nearly the effectiveness as his pre-Henderson home run days. The Angels released their one-time closer in August, ’88.

Then one July morning in 1989, another baseball season in full swing, the news came in: Donnie Moore was dead. Of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 35. Think about that for a moment. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So don’t tell me that pitchers who close baseball games aren’t a little goofy, to want to do something as thankless as that.

Todd Jones heard it all in Detroit, especially during his second stint here, which began in 2006 and ended with Thursday’s announcement.

He stinks! He’s costing us! He couldn’t close a door!

Get rid of him!

Jones, you see, wasn’t the prototypical closer by the time he returned to Detroit in his late-thirties. He was, as they say, a pitcher who “pitches to contact”, which is a nice way of saying, “he couldn’t strike out Stevie Wonder even if you spotted Jonesey an 0-2 count.” Jones’s style was to let the batter hit the ball, and hope for the best. That’s not as ill-conceived as it reads. His control was usually pretty good, so you didn’t have to worry about walks. And, he was usually ahead in the count, which meant he held the upper hand in numerous at-bats. But he wasn’t the brute who storms into the game, treating the affair with disdain and acting as if the opposing hitters are making him late for a date with a Playboy bunny after the game. Jones didn’t have that closer’s scowl or the temperament of a hibernating bear being nudged awake. In fact, the way he chewed his gum so fervently on the mound, you got the impression that he was just as nervous as we were. He wasn’t Don Quixote. He was Don Knotts.

Jones closed games as if he was waiting for everyone who had been in line at the concessions, or in the little boys room, to return to their seats, so as not to miss the final out. He didn’t know the meaning of one-two-three, unless it was in terms of how many base runners he was going to surrender before finally ending the matter.

Now, about that irony of which I spoke earlier.

If Jones was a roller coaster on the field, he was a Ferris Wheel in the clubhouse: slow, comfortable, and reliable.

Part of the closer’s job is to field questions from the media, especially when things don’t turn out so well. Then you’re staring at a bunch of bottom feeders in the face who want to know, “Hey, what happened out there?”

I’ve been one of those bottom feeders, and I can tell you that Jones never ran and hid from any of us. If he stunk, he said he stunk. No excuses. No sugar-coating. And no flashes of anger, even after some obnoxiously stupid questions. He manned up.

Oh, and I should tell you that, a few years ago, Todd Jones helped set up a trust fund for a paralyzed high school football player in Jones’s native Georgia. Paid for a new wheelchair ramp and everything for the kid’s home. Jones said that watching the young man battle his horrible misfortune gave him pause.

But you probably didn’t read about that, did you?

Well, now you have.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Like The Red Wings Proved, Hiring A "No Name" Might Be A Good Thing For Lions

It was a semi-ritual I performed that one Red Wings season. Maybe I did it four, five times.

The Wings would be at home that evening, and I'd knock off work from my TV production job Downriver around 5:30, 6:00. Then I'd make an off-the-cuff, spontaneous decision.

Why not stop by Joe Louis Arena for some laughs?

I lived in Ypsilanti at the time, so a sojourn up I-75 into downtown wasn't exactly on my way home from Taylor. But these were the bachelor days, so there wasn't anyone to hurry home to. And after a grind at work it was nice sometimes to stretch out, relax, and be entertained by some ice follies.

It was the 1985-86 season. Perhaps the most vaudevillian of all Red Wings seasons.

They were the slip-on-a-banana peel team, those '85-86 Red Wings. Stepping on a rake and getting whacked in the face. The squirting daisy in the lapel. The joy buzzer during a handshake. There were nights when you looked for Soupy Sales behind the bench, about to get a pie in the face.

So I'd park my car, always close the arena, and traipse up to the box office. This was about 30 minutes before game time.

"One, please." And pretty much wherever I wanted, by the way.

I'd find the seat -- always in the lower bowl -- and spread out, for there was rarely anyone seated next to me. Or next to next to me. Maybe 12,000 or so other curious folks looking for some yuks were with me.

The three acts shuffled, but the final scene was always the same. Sometimes the Red Wings would engage the Canadiens or the Sabres in a real, almost competitive tussle. Or sometimes they'd really have us rolling in the aisles to the tune of 8-1, or worse.

Eddie Mio was the goalie back then. The Swiss cheese of goalies. I used to have a nickname for him: Eddie Mio-My.

So I'd watch the slapstick play out before me, satisfied that I got my $10 worth because I'd pick nights when the NHL's brightest stars were in town. And I'd watch while first Harry Neale, then Brad Park, gamely tried to match wits with their counterpart, knowing darned well that it was futile because no x's and o's in the world could compensate for the disparity of talent on the ice.

The '85-86 Red Wings won 17 games. All season. In 80 contests, they surrendered over 400 goals. You heard me. Over five per game. And, since the team's offense was usually incapable of scoring six goals in two games, let alone one, you pretty much get the idea of their chances at victory.

Sometimes, when the action stopped and the teams changed lines before the next face-off, I'd look around the Joe and ponder.

"Will the Red Wings EVER win a Stanley Cup in my lifetime?"

And, if they did...

"What would happen to this place? Would it come down for all the euphoria?"

It was a difficult thing to imagine, believe me, while you were watching NHL hockey in an atmosphere more suited for a chess match. Or an SAT test.

The Red Wings were into their fourth season of Mike Ilitch ownership, and they were regressing.

Or so I thought.

Silly me. I neglected to remember that the GM in those days was Jimmy Devellano, whose background included several years with the New York Islanders, starting with their inception in 1972-73. Jimmy D. was a scout by trade, and it was his keen eye, and those of others that he hired, that brought the Isles from expansion to a Stanley Cup in seven years. And then another Cup. And another. And one more, before being hired away by the Red Wings in 1982.

Little did I know, as I watched the Red Wings stumble through that season, that Devellano was laying the building blocks for the championship organization that the Red Wings are today.

He hired scouts, for starters. Good scouts. And he instructed some to fly overseas, to places like Sweden and Russia and Finland, to look for players who could, one day, play in the NHL. For the Red Wings, of course.

And he put some scouts on the draft, and put some more on the NHL itself, to hunt for players with other organizations who might be attractive trade targets.

All this was going on as the Red Wings were losing, and losing big, in 1985-86.

Now we don't ask if the Red Wings will win a Stanley Cup in our lifetime, but how many more they'll win.

The point of all this is to say that the Lions today, I'm sure, are in that same category, in people's minds, as those '85-86 Red Wings were in mine.

"Will they ever win a Super Bowl in my lifetime?"

Why, yes. The Red Wings hadn't won a championship since the 1950s, either. And they did it.

Hire some scouts, for starters.

The sad state of the Lions is really rooted in just one thing, folks. They don't have enough good players. Haven't had them in quite some time, in fact. Sorry to state the obvious, but sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle.

I was taking inventory of the Lions roster the other day, and it occurred to me that of the 22 starters on the offensive and defensive platoons, not more than five or six, tops, would be of any interest to another NFL team, should trades be discussed.

Roy Williams. Calvin Johnson. Ernie Sims. Paris Lenon. Maybe Jeff Backus and/or Dominic Raiola. A few others might be attractive as depth or as backups. And that's about it.

Five or six out of 22?

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.

The unknown shouldn't always be feared.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coming Next Week: "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al"

Since everyone is already in a good mood in the wake of the Matt Millen ziggy, I thought this would be a good time to promote a new feature at OOB that will appear beginning next Thursday.

Teaming up with my friend Big Al over at The Wayne Fontes Experience, he and I will engage in a weekly sports chat, which we'll post on each of our sites.

The chat, called The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al, will be the two of us bantering about the week's news in sports, both around Detroit and nationally. It'll combine Al's legendary and hilarious reactionary, volatile approach and my, as he puts it, "more sane" take. Whatever. But it's sure to be fun -- for us, at least!

Maybe down the line, The Knee Jerks will find its way into the world of podcasting. Stay tuned. But for now, you'll have to subsist on the transcripts, which will be posted every Thursday here at OOB. Check out TWFE to find out when Al will put it on his site.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Millen Gone -- But That Should Only Be The Start

Matt Millen is gone. Done. Fired. Ziggied. Finished.

The Lions, apparently, have taken the first steps in the Eno Plan, seen here on Monday. They fired president Matt Millen late last night.

That's just the beginning, though. Or at least, it should be just the beginning.

There's lots more work to do, but none of it -- NONE of it -- could take place unless Millen was removed. Well, he's gone now, so let's get to work.

Do You Believe In Now?

NOW the Lions need to start a search, and an earnest search, for a new football czar. NOW they need to start their scavenger hunt, sending corporate raiders into the offices of the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, and the like. NOW they have to place phone calls for potential new head coaches, assuring them that the Wicked Witch Is Dead, and it's safe to come to Oz, er, Detroit. NOW they must totally re-evaluate the rest of the organization, from the scouting department on down.

The Lions must Believe In Now.

A pro football team, more than any other team sport franchise, can operate during the regular season without a GM, per se. Unlike baseball, basketball, and hockey, an NFL team's roster is pretty much set once the bell rings in September. Few moves are made, beyond signing a free agent or two due to injury. So the Lions must think NOW, but not in the sense that they need to fill Millen's seat immediately. The NOW part refers to the search and the change in philosophy.

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.

But no sense, really, in changing head coaches now. Not until you get the new czar in place. As I said Monday, now is the time to think rationally. I called for Marinelli's firing as part of the Eno Plan, and I did indeed suggest that it happen before the next Lions game, on October 5 against the Bears in Detroit. But that was under the assumption that the Lions wouldn't fire Millen; I thought that canning the coach would be the first step taken, with the Millen axing coming soon after the season ended.

The Lions, frankly, surprised me with this move -- and why didn't I insert the word "pleasantly" in there?

But allow me one more word of cynicism.

The good news, of course, is that the Lions removed Millen, whose 31-84 record during his tenure was beyond bad. It was beyond even embarrassing. It was, truthfully, disgraceful. But I must ask: what was the final straw?

Was it simply the public words of frustration uttered by vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. on Monday?

Well, geez -- if THAT'S all it took, then why didn't Junior say something before? WAY before? There's been plenty of evidence that suggests Junior has been mystified by Millen for quite some time. So I'm a little ticked that it took a public calling out of his father by Junior to get this done -- especially when it should have been said years ago. But that's all water under the bridge, I suppose.

So the Eno Plan is off to a good start. Millen is gone, Marinelli is soon to be, one would think, and now the franchise's enema can begin.

Those who have made the honorable mistake of being a regular visitor to OOB know that I was one of the last holdouts when it came to Millen. I jumped off the wagon seconds before the last wheel came off. When the Lions signed Millen to a fat contract extension in 2005, I defended the move. My reasoning was: well, who are you going to get at this point? The Lions were four years into the Millen Era in the summer of '05, and it just seemed, to me, the wrong time to change direction. I thought that the time lost on a rebuild would be greater than the time it was going to take to correct the problem from within the organization. I still stand by that opinion, by the way.

It wasn't until sometime in 2006 when I, too, became too mystified to continue defending the man. Millen had no idea, but I was probably one of his last remaining supporters when I saw the light. Hey -- I never said I was a fast learner.

So where do the Lions go from here? Well, you already know what I think they should do. As for what they WILL do, here's my guess.

Tom Lewand, the team's executive V.P., COO, and salary cap guru, is likely to be in charge on an interim basis, with any personnel decisions being made by assistant GM Martin Mayhew. But it's all temporary. Such an arrangement will only last until the end of the season. After that, we might be in for one of the most fun and eventful off-seasons in Lions history.

I suppose it's possible that the Lions will find their Jack McCloskey anytime between now and January, especially if it's someone who's currently not affiliated with any other NFL team. You never know how these searches will turn out, once they begin. Someone could fall into their laps rather quickly.

We're only a third of the way there, folks. The GM is gone, but so must be the coach and the scouting department. But I have a feeling that the first domino has just been knocked over, and for that all Lions fans should be thankful. May as well break out the turkey and the dressing and the cranberry sauce -- we just had Thanksgiving in September.

Monday, September 22, 2008

No Time For Anger Or Frustration: Just Time To Fix The Lions, Once And For All

OK, this isn't going to be filled with wise cracks and sarcasm and zingers. Not today. We've gone beyond that point now.

It's no longer cute, in my mind anyway, to make fun of the Lions. No longer cathartic to vent. There are different stages of grief, they say, and I believe there are also different stages of anger and disappointment. And, sooner or later, those emotions have to give way to a more "fix it" mentality.

That's where we are today, folks.

I'm usually not one of those Chicken Littles who say a football season is over after three games, but I'm willing to make an exception this morning. But it's not just that another football season has bitten the dust before we've made our way out of September; it's that an entire organization has perished.

It's not with any attempt to go for laughs or for me to pander just so you might agree with me, when I say that the Lions MUST start over. Completely over.

We've just lost another three years, for this should have been done way back after the 2005 season, when Steve Mariucci was canned and Dick Jauron finished out the year. That's when the Lions should have done what they absolutely MUST do now. And by now I mean, preferrably before the team plays another football game.

There's more time than you think, because the Lions are on a bye this Sunday. So there's 13 days until the next game, when the Bears visit for what should be another slaughter at Ford Field.

In those thirteen days, the Lions should:

1. Fire Rod Marinelli
2. Fire Matt Millen
3. Fire the scouting department
4. Fire the pro personnel people
5. Fire them all, really, except for the nice ladies in the front office, like the receptionists, secretaries, and the like. No sense punishing them, after all.

Again, I'm not going for laughs here. I'm not trying to just be another pissed off guy who's stirring the pot. I'm past that. I'm talking about rolling up the sleeves and getting this thing fixed.

The Lions turned in another soft serve performance at San Francisco yesterday. Perhaps you've heard about it. And Marinelli still wants to look at the film. He may as well check out the Zapruder footage of JFK's assassination, and watch that every Monday -- you know, to make sure that Kennedy is really dead.

I was thinking about this yesterday -- actually, I've been thinking about it for quite some time -- and this is what I came up with.

First, let me say that I don't really see more than two winnable games on the Lions' schedule. Again, not going for laughs. I figure they might put it together enough to beat someone (like the Bears or Vikings, or Washington) at home -- but no more than twice. I don't see them winning any of their remaining road games. The tilt in Indianapolis later this season might be the most ugly thing you'll ever see on a football field. I'd say that no one under 18 be allowed to witness that, and only with one eye open at any given time. So far the Lions have let Matt Ryan (a rookie), Aaron Rodgers (practically a rookie), and J.T. O'Sullivan (another practical rookie -- and a journeyman to boot) shred them. The thought of what Peyton Manning will do to them is chilling.

So we're looking at another 2-14 debacle -- and I truly hope it ends up that way, for my little plan to have a chance of working, or even being implemented.

A 2-14 disaster would HAVE to, you'd think, mean the end of Marinelli, if he lasts that long. But that's just the tip of my iceberg.

I'm dying to see if 2-14 would finally prompt Bill Ford Sr. to give Millen the ziggy. It would be the ultimate litmus test, since Matt has been in Detroit, of Sr.'s sanity. I mean, even Darryl Rogers eventually got fired, you know.


This has to be treated like an expansion team. When I interviewed Jack McCloskey for the first time, eons ago (actually, in 1989), he told me that when he came to the Pistons in 1979, he treated the team exactly as he would an expansion team: with precious little talent, and with the mindset that this was a bottom-to-top rebuild. He even went so far as to offer his entire roster to the Lakers for Magic Johnson, but was rebuffed. But you got to give him props for trying.

The Lions are in the same situation as the 1979-80 Pistons, who went 16-66.

They have precious little talent. And it must be a bottom-to-top rebuild. Check that: in this case, it's a top-to-bottom rebuild. And here's how you do it.

1. Hire a senior member of the league to be an advisor. This person would be responsible for helping you find the Lions' Jack McCloskey. This advisor is probably someone retired, but who is still close enough to the league to be worth confiding in. Someone like a Don Shula or a Ron Wolf. Bring this person on board and let him help you find the person needed in Step 2.

2. Scour the NFL for the best and brightest minds in the offices of teams like the Patriots, Cowboys, and Colts. There must be someone who's apprenticed and is ready to run his own team. Think the Red Wings, and someone like Jimmy Nill. You don't think he's ready to be a GM in the NHL? And if you were a fan of a team like, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets, wouldn't you be excited if the Jackets hired Nill as your new GM, knowing his pedigree?

So, find that person, steal him away as he waits for someone to retire, and make him the football czar in Detroit. It's cool if he's never been a GM before, as long as he comes from a winning organization and is ready to be weaned. How many people had ever heard of Jack McCloskey when the Pistons plucked him from the bench of the Indiana Pacers? But he was steeped in NBA and college hoops experience. It served him well here, if you recall.

Get this person in place no later than the second week of January.

3. The new czar must then hire a coach, and here's where it's different than with the search for the new GM: the new head coach MUST have been a head coach before, and preferrably with some degree of success. But beyond that, (because we don't want another Mariucci) the due diligence must be done to ensure that the new coach has the patience and track record of working with rebuilds.

This new head coach will be the most important hire the new GM will make, so let's get it right. Let's make sure he's not someone who inherited a winning situation (like Mooch) and who had a dubious degree of influence over keeping the winning going (like Mooch). This person must be special, for you're looking for someone with experience AND the personality to work with, essentially, an expansion team. Names will come later; I haven't gotten that far yet. Actually, I do have one: Tom Coughlin. It's worth a phone call. (Coughlin was the first coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars).

4. The new GM and new coach will then need to blow up the scouting and personnel departments. Totally. If you need someone to push the plunger down after you've planted the dynamite, you'll have 20,000 people in Allen Park within an hour.

Poor drafting has cost the Lions dearly, for how can you constantly finish so low in the standings, and consequently so high in the draft order, for nearly a decade and come away with so little in terms of football talent? Millen rightly has taken a lot of heat for this, but the scouts have been awful, too. No diamonds in the rough have been found by this group. They all must go. Every single one of them.

5. So now we have a new GM, a new coach, and a new scouting department. It's a start.

Of course, you can't do any of this without the cashiering of Marinelli AND Millen. I realize that. But that's where 2-14 comes in. It just might be our ticket out of hell. I'm telling you, it might be the best 2-14 season you'll ever go through, if we can put the Eno Plan into place.

But getting rid of Millen is essential, and I don't mean for the obvious reason, which is his record since he's been in Detroit.

There was a time, back in early 2001, when Matt Millen's football world was his oyster. Shortly after his leap from the broadcast booth to the Lions' front office, he could have had the pick of the litter. There would have been no shortage of smart, seasoned, respected football people who would have said, "Sure, Matt, I'll come to Detroit. I'll work with you for Mr. Ford and we'll get this once-proud franchise back on the NFL map." No shortage at all. And that's not just my opinion -- it also happens to be fact. Millen, at that time, was unblemished as an executive. He was a fresh face who had tons of NFL contacts from his years as a broadcaster and as a player. With Ford's blessing, which I'm sure he would have had (not to mention the old man's dough), Millen could have attracted some top drawer NFL people here. I'm talking major, MAJOR, high profile dudes. Easily.

Yet Millen, incredibly, didn't seek out all that much help. He wanted to do it all on his own. So he picked his own coach, by himself, and he blew it, horribly. But he still could have minimized damage by surrounding himself with a sound draft team -- again, grizzled NFL minds who were drafting players when Millen himself was still at Penn State. But he didn't do it. Wanted to handle the draft himself.


Millen isn't unblemished anymore. He's not pristine, not a fresh face. He's damaged goods now -- poison to the Lions. You couldn't pay any self-respecting, qualified individual to come here anymore, at any price. Not as long as Millen is here. No one wants to associate himself, and his distinguished career, with an eight-year loser like Matt Millen. Not for all the tea in China.

Again, not trying to be cute here -- but you simply will not be able to attract the kinds of football minds that you need to Detroit unless Millen is gone. Not my opinion. Fact.

So with the Eno Plan, you're back to where you were in 2001: a new, fresh face in the front office who has his fingers on the pulse of the NFL world -- and with no baggage. No poison. Then you can attract a top notch coach, but only then.

OK, so we've done all that, but what about the players?

Well, certainly, you can't get rid of an entire 53-man roster in one fell swoop, no matter how much you'd like to do just that. Once again, not trying to be funny here, but I don't know that there are more than five or six players on the Lions' current roster who could land jobs anywhere else in the NFL. The Lions are so devoid of playmakers on both sides of the ball, it's almost mind boggling. Even the kick return game, which used to be a rare bright spot, is in the toilet. I could run kickoffs back better than Brandon Middleton. He's awful. Again, not trying to be funny. But he's awful.

So it would be up to the new GM and coach to re-tool the roster, obviously. And it wouldn't happen overnight. I won't mislead you: the Eno Plan promises two or three more years of painful rebuilding. No question about that. But I promise you it would be two or three years that would be well worth the pain.

If you think this is hogwash, just look around the league, at all the winning teams. All of them have risen from the ashes (yes, the Pats and the Cowboys and the Colts, for starters, were all bad at one point or another within the past ten years) because they've drafted well, shrewdly signed free agents, and even more shrewdly let some players walk. All those teams have established stability in their front office and have outstanding scouting people. Again, I implore you to look at the Red Wings and see how they do it. The Wings have been Stanley Cup contenders for about 13 years now. That's amazing. But they haven't done it with luck and smoke and mirrors. Far from it.

You're going to hear a lot this week, and next, about "blowing it up" and the like. Sports talk radio won't be pretty.

But now's not the time for anger or frustration. It's all wasted on this team. Rather, now's the time for some clear-headed thinking and a search for a way out of this mess. Not the time for zingers or profanity-laced tirades. Save it. Trust me, you'll be happier if you do. This season is shot. This administration, we can only hope, is on its last legs. I think that maybe the wheels are finally going to come completely off this time. Ford Senior will have to act this time. Believe it or not, the man does have his limits. It's just that his tolerance for pain is greater than ours. And shame on you if you haven't figured that one out by now.

I'm not kidding around here. I'm not going for cheap laughs or "amens" from the choir. This is simply what I think needs to be done. But to do it, the Lions need to find their Jack McCloskey. I believe he's out there, somewhere.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Harkness’s Furniture Moving Was An Ominous Sign

Ned Harkness is dead. Now maybe he’ll join Gary Bergman up above, and they can do some more interior re-decorating. If Gary will speak to him, that is.

Harkness died Friday, at age 89 – on his birthday in fact. A stroke had been suffered recently, they say, and that was the final straw.

So mathematics says that Harkness was 50 when he was tabbed to coach the Red Wings, way back in 1970. It was less than a year after the Wings fired Bill Gadsby just two games into the 1969-70 season – two games that Gadsby, apparently, made the mistake of winning. When I spoke to Gadsby about it a couple of years ago, Bill still didn’t know why he got the ziggy.

So here came Harkness, fresh from college. Ned had done some serious winning at the college level, first at RPI and later at Cornell. These were the days before college players found their way onto NHL rosters with any regularity. Perhaps Harkness’s most famous pupil in college was goalie Ken Dryden, who helped Ned and the Big Red win the NCAA championship in 1970.

It was a perplexing move, hiring Harkness – one of many that Wings owner Bruce Norris engaged in as he started to lose it. NHL teams simply weren’t hiring coaches from college in 1970. It would have been a trailblazing hire – had it worked.

Bergman, the Wings’ craggy defenseman who was never shy about taking on management, was minding his own business one day in the summer of ’70. Then came a knock on the door.

“It was Ned,” Bergman, who died in 2000, said in a published interview. “He sticks out his hand and introduces himself as my new coach.”

Which was fine and dandy. Until Bergman let the new coach into his house.

“He’s a bundle of energy, and he wants to talk about his theories of hockey,” Bergman continued. “So he starts moving the furniture around in my living room, to symbolize hockey players.”

You know, that chair is a defenseman; that sofa is a left wing. Or something like that.

Bergman said he looked at the spectacle taking place in his living room, his home being turned into Olympia Stadium II, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Then Gary’s wife poked her head in, to say hello to the visitor.

“She comes in, sees her living room turned upside down, and gives me this look,” Bergman said. “I just smiled and said, ‘Honey, this is Ned Harkness, the new coach of the Red Wings.’

“Then she offers Ned some coffee, as if nothing was the matter.”

Bergman went on to say, though, that he heard plenty about the matter after Harkness had left.

“Right there,” Bergman confessed about the furniture rearranging, “I knew that we were in trouble.”

Gary Bergman (top) and Ned Harkness

Somehow, owner Norris – and some would say the alcohol might have played a part (“When he fired me, there was a glass of Scotch in front of him,” Gadsby told me) – allowed Ned Harkness to infiltrate the organization and hold it hostage, as simply its coach. Bergman and several other Red Wings players rebelled. They wanted no more part of Harkness as their coach – and this was before Christmas.

A petition was circulated. The list of players who signed it included, purportedly, even Gordie Howe. The petition said, basically, this: Get rid of Harkness, or else there’ll be trouble.

The petition was submitted to GM Sid Abel, who was beginning to tire of Harkness’s college act, too.

On a Saturday night in early January, the Red Wings went into Toronto for Hockey Night In Canada. Then, as if to underline their feelings about playing for Ned Harkness, they lost to the Maple Leafs. The score was 13-0 – one of the most infamous results in team history.

Abel went into Norris’s office, armed with that poor effort and the petition in his pocket.

“We need to fire Ned,” was what Sid pretty much told his owner. No word whether the Scotch was out and visible.

Norris answered with some choice words about where Abel and the players could put that petition. Maybe the Scotch had been there, after all.

Flabbergasted, Abel quit. Then Norris had his own remedy: promote Harkness into the GM chair. At least he wouldn’t be the coach anymore. And Norris could get back to his Scotch.

There have been villains in Detroit, as in any major sports city. Many of them here, though, haven’t necessarily been those in uniform. Unless by uniform you mean suit and tie.

There was Russ Thomas, the stubborn, cheap GM of the Lions. Thomas was not only hated by the fans; he wore the black hat and twirled his handlebar mustache with the media and players, too. There was Bo Schembechler – Tigers president version. Bo became Public Enemy No. 1 when he fired Ernie Harwell from the broadcast booth. Of course, there is Matt Millen – today’s Bad Guy. Stories of the protests against Millen will go down as legend in these parts.

Ned Harkness was a big time enemy here – and maybe that’s not the greatest thing for me to be writing in the wake of the man’s death, as part of this twisted obituary. But it’s true. They even have a name for Ned’s time here: Darkness with Harkness. Because after Ned became the GM, and after he had traded away most of the Red Wings’ best players, never getting face value in return, hockey fans in Detroit got cranky. So did the players themselves. Players like Bergman, who was forever at odds with Ned and the front office, it seemed.

One of Ned’s most dastardly deeds, in my mind, was when he fired coach Johnny Wilson in 1973. The Red Wings had barely missed the playoffs, and Wilson had been credited with taking Ned’s chicken feathers and turning it into chicken salad. Wilson was a bright, young NHL coach who could have really been something in Detroit. But Ned fired him anyway.

I saw Wilson about two years ago as I prepared to monitor a roundtable discussion about hockey with Johnny, Ted Lindsay, and Shawn Burr. I told Johnny what I thought of Harkness’s decision to fire him.

“I always thought you got shafted,” I told Wilson, though I don’t think I used the word “shafted.”

Wilson smirked and shrugged.

“Darkness with Harkness,” was all he said.

It was all that needed to be said.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Good News: Matt Millen Speaks!; The Bad News: Matt Millen Speaks!

It's funny with Matt Millen. On the one hand, you wish he would make himself more visible, more accessible, more accountable for the mess that has been the Detroit Lions for the past eight years. Then, after he does speak, you wish he hadn't opened his mouth to begin with. And that's what has made him one of the most maddening executives, if not THE most maddening, to ever wear a half-Windsor knot in Detroit.

Millen, the Lions GM, poked his head out and talked to the media, portions of which were printed in this morning's newspaper. And it's not even really worth discussing. Because things are just fine and dandy, and will all work themselves out. Really.

Feel better now?

Feel better that Millen believes in coach Rod Marinelli? Feel better that he believes in the players on the field? Feel better that a foundation has been laid? Feel better that the Lions are doing things the right way in practice? Feel better that, if we can't see that, then we don't know anything about the game of football?

The preceding paragraph pretty much sums up Millen's words, and notice that I didn't use any quotation marks, because they really aren't necessary. It's gone beyond quoting Millen for a good laugh, like the good old days of two, three years ago, when it was still chic to actually think that he might one day get it. But why quote someone who's whistling in the dark? We're now down to just summarizing his words, barely scanning them, the way you do the latest great credit offer you receive in the mail.

Of course, what would I expect him to say, you might ask.

How about a few of these, which I WILL place in quotation marks:

"What's gone on here is unacceptable, and the fans here deserve better."

"It tears me up inside that I haven't been able to deliver for such a nice, loyal owner who should have canned me years ago."

"If we don't win this year, there will be changes."

"The team is finally made up of Rod's guys, so if we don't win, he's out of excuses. We're ALL out of excuses."

"We haven't been able to bring the right talent to the Lions, and for that I am responsible."

"Sometimes I can't even look my owner in the eye."

You know, just for starters.

There's nothing worse in sports than, when someone does a piss-poor job, not hearing that person admit that they did a piss-poor job. Or to hear what they're going to do to stop doing a piss-poor job.

With Millen, all you get is a bunch of canned responses that could have been delivered by the office manager instead of the general manager. He's a walking team brochure. The marketing department must love him.

I'm tired of beating up on Matt Millen. It bores me. The Lions bore me. And there's no greater indictment in pro sports than that.

The 49ers' Owens "Alley Ooped" His Way Into Legend

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

You see it every week in the NFL.

Offensive team has the ball inside the five yard line. Quarterback takes the snap, and fades back just a step or two. Then, he simply lofts the ball toward the corner of the end zone, hoping that his tall, strong receiver can pluck it from the reach of the shorter, weaker defensive back.

The younger folks probably think this is a new phenomenon, invented by the teams of the 1990s and beyond.


Let me tell you about R.C. Owens, and something called the "Alley Oop."

We'll set the rewind machine back to the late-1950s, early-1960s, to the Bay Area in Northern California, and to old, creaky Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

Owens was a wide receiver for the 49ers, out of tiny The College of Idaho. No joke. He was a 14th round draft pick. But he also played basketball in high school and in his college years, and was known for his leaping ability. And 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle and head coach Red Hickey were nothing if not creative. They looked at Owens's jumping skills and got an idea.

Hickey was perhaps best-known for being one of the earliest proponents of the shotgun formation, which is still kind of popular today, in case you haven't noticed. But Hickey and Tittle also came up with something that became known as the "Alley Oop." Basically, Tittle would heave the ball in Owens's general vicinity, and the receiver would leap and try to come down with the pigskin. And this was in the day when DBs could actually cover people, without the tight rules restrictions of today.

Owens snagging an "Alley Oop" pass against, who else, the Lions

It didn't matter that the 49ers' opponents knew that the Alley Oop was coming. Owens was simply bigger, stronger, and had better springs from which he could be propelled into the air. Often, Tittle would save the Alley Oop for when the 49ers were in the "red zone" (not that they called it that back then), but he would throw it from various parts of the field, too.

Owens had his best season in 1961, when he caught 55 passes for 1,032 yards and five TDs. But, strangely, Owens was traded after the season to Baltimore, and he faded quickly from the league, done by age 31 after one year with the Giants. But he had his time, and there is literally no other receiver in NFL history that you can pair with the Alley Oop than R.C. Owens. It was his trademark, and his lasting impression on a league in which he starred fleetingly, but famously.

As for Hickey, he ended up being a scout for the Dallas Cowboys, and he had to have been overjoyed when the Cowboys dusted off the shotgun formation, which had been dormant for over a decade, in 1975 under Roger Staubach. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl using that formation in certain passing situations. Hickey died in 2006.

Owens is still alive, about to turn 75 in November. Wonder what his vertical leap is nowadays?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Today: A Daily Double Of Stupidity

Today I am posting on two organizations who are showing their lack of intelligence: our own Detroit Lions, for not having a capable NFL backup QB, and the Milwaukee Brewers, for firing their manager in the midst of a playoff race.

The Brewers post, by the way, can also be seen at the baseball blog of the Out of Bounds empire, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?


Lions Don't Even Have The QB Controversy To Spice Things Up Anymore

It's among the greatest, yet saddest of ironies.

The Detroit Lions, no strangers to quarterback controversies. Graduates of the school of hard knocks when it comes to running quarterbacks out of town and finding out, always the hard way, that what they have isn't good enough, so let's turn to the guy with the baseball cap and clipboard. That organization now finds itself sans a controversy, just when it could use one. Yes, that's irony, for all you budding drama and literature students.

It all started with the trade of Bobby Layne, you know.

You might say, "There goes Eno again, with the history and nostalgia." Fair enough. But isn't it funny that the Lions haven't been able to find a suitable replacement for Layne, and he was traded 50 years ago?

Literally, 50 years ago.

Alex Karras wrote about it, both in his book, Even Big Guys Cry, and in a collaborative effort with the late George Puscas of the Detroit Free Press. DT Karras was a rookie in '58, and thus had the distinction of being Layne's "puppy dog" (Layne's words, echoed by Karras); meaning, Karras was to drive Bobby into town every evening after practice during training camp, so Layne could throw down some serious liquor.

"I thought I was going to be cut, because I was drunk every night and hungover every morning," Karras wrote. "I played terribly."

Karras had some grand stories about Layne's alcohol consumption, and the QB's ability to get by on one or two hours of sleep, and STILL be an All-Pro quarterback in practice.

But then Layne, after only a couple games, was traded by the Lions, to the Steelers. It's still a mystery to the oldtimers as to why Layne was REALLY traded. Some say the team tired of Layne's off-the-field antics. There were rumors of debts owed to some unsavory folks. Whatever. But who trades their starting quarterback, just a couple games into defending a world championship? The Detroit Lions, apparently.

So Layne was gone, and the Lions began struggling at the QB position almost immediately. They didn't come close to defending their '57 championship. It was the defense that carried them throughout the 1960s, the offense always a plodding group under the likes of Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan.

Only once -- ONCE -- have the Lions managed to get a quarterback into the Pro Bowl since Layne left: Greg Landry, after the 1972 season. That's stunning, and telling.

The Lions could use a quarterback controversy right about now, but, alas, there isn't anyone who is a serious threat to Jon Kitna's job.

I've been spitting into the wind on this one, but no one can say I didn't warn them.

For years I've begged the Lions to secure a veteran, capable backup -- first for Joey Harrington, then for Kitna. Don't come at me with Jeff Garcia, who was here in 2005. Garcia was a Steve Mariucci hire, one suited for a West Toast Offense that didn't have the personnel in place to run it successfully. Besides, Garcia wasn't so much insurance as he was a mean-spirited threat. There's a difference.

It hasn't been since 1994, when Dave Krieg turned this town on, that the Lions have employed someone who they could turn to in times of duress.

It's not mean-spirited or a bully move to have someone with a number like "8" or "11" under the NFL Exp. column on your roster sheet at quarterback. Most teams around the league have such a person. Someone who's run an NFL team in games played beyond August. Some even have dudes who've played a few games in January.

But not the Lions.

They are left with Dan Orlovsky and Drew Stanton. That's not a quarterback controversy; that's a quarterback travesty. And don't come at me with Aaron Rodgers, either. Rodgers apprenticed under Brett Favre. And shame on you if you don't see the difference there.

It's only two games into the season, yet it feels like it's careening out of control. This might be the time, though very early, to consider a switch under center. Only, the Lions really can't, because there's really no one to turn to. A switch to Stanton, as some have called for, is still a few weeks away from being realistic, due to Stanton's recovery from a thumb injury. And to do so, anyhow, would be a throwing-in-the-towel move, which you hate to see in mid-September, even by the Lions.

There are far more problems with the Detroit Lions than just their quarterback. On that, we can all agree. But with such an important position as quarterback, that the Lions have no one to turn to who has any NFL experience is unconscionable. And, worse, just plain dumb.

The names of the past might not be Hall of Famers (Landry, Bill Munson, Gary Danielson, Eric Hipple, Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer), but many of them had some degree of NFL experience under their belts by the time they were embroiled in their little tug-of-wars in Detroit.

You think Jon Kitna feels pushed by Orlovsky and Stanton?

Where's Steve DeBerg when you need him?

Brewers Show Lack Of Intelligence By Firing Yost

I've seen plenty of dumb things in my time, following and/or covering baseball since 1971.

Baffling free agent signings. The designated hitter. The Houston Astros' rainbow uniforms. The Chicago White Sox wearing shorts. Jose Canseco having a baseball bounce off his head and into the stands for a home run. George Steinbrenner and Charlie O. Finley. Randy Smith.

Here's one more for the list: the Brewers firing manager Ned Yost. With less than two weeks left in the season. With the team in the thick of the playoff race.

In fact, this might be among the Top 5 in terms of stupidity.

Who does this, anyway? Unless it's another Steinbrenner-Billy Martin drama, who does this? And even King George never had the temerity to can a manager in the shadows of October, the post-season beckoning.

Does a team that's battling for its playoff life REALLY need something to add to the cauldron of emotions? Are the Brewers, who admittedly have been struggling lately, REALLY helped by a change of leaders at this juncture?

The Brewers haven't been to the playoffs since 1982, and they're panicking.

They haven't been quite the same since the Cubs came into Milwaukee in late-July and spanked the Brewers in four straight, by a combined score of 31-11. But they've managed to stay afloat, and are just one-half game behind the Mets for the Wild Card. But like I said, they're panicking. They haven't had much success to speak of since '82, and now they have no clue how to handle it, nor the pressure that a playoff race brings. Firing Ned Yost now is the ultimate panic move.

Yost: deposed in a fit of panic, and stupidity

The Yankees don't fire managers now. The Red Sox don't. The White Sox don't. The Twins don't. The Braves don't. The Mets don't. The Dodgers don't. And the Tigers certainly wouldn't, given the same circumstances. No one, in fact, does what the Brewers have just done, unless they, like the Brewers, are so foreign to money baseball that they overreact to a bumpy stretch.

It's a big PR risk, too. If the Brewers stumble and fail to make the playoffs under interim manager Dale Sveum, then they will be rightfully roasted and sliced and diced by the fans and the media for firing Yost. And if the Brewers would have failed to make the playoffs under Yost, do you think there would have been a bunch of folks saying, "If they only had FIRED him with two weeks to go!"?

I doubt it.

OK, but what if they make the playoffs after all?

Still doesn't excuse the move. In fact, you could argue that the Brewers dug deep and got themselves in, despite the boneheaded move to fire Yost.

If you want to fire a manager in mid-season, you do so in May, or June, or July. Sometimes in August. But there are two months in which you should not fire your manager, of all the months in the year: April and September. And September is only permissible if your team is way out of contention.

Baseball observers are especially surprised because the firing was done by GM Doug Melvin, who's regarded as being very conservative and not one prone to risk-taking. So naturally, speculation has begun that has Melvin simply being the hatchet man for the people upstairs.

But whether it was Doug Melvin on his own or the front office in collaboration, the decision to let Yost go now was dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Panicky and reckless, to boot. The move of losers who have no idea, really, how to win.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Packers Fans Needn't Have Worried; Their Opponents Can't Close The Deal

Being an NFL fan on Sundays can be, to quote Jerry Maguire, a "pride-swallowing siege". You can ride the proverbial emotional roller coaster, boy, and there are moments when you see your life flashing before your eyes.

But because I have empathy for that fan, I wish I could reach out to them on the Sundays that their team is engaged in football play against the Detroit Lions. I wish I could rock them in my arms, gently, and whisper in their ear, "It'll be OK, my friend.'ll be OK. You're playing the Lions."

I wish I could do that when their team is in the midst of a late-game, furious drive for the winning score. I wish I could do that when their team happens to fall behind the Lions big, early. And I wish I could do that when the Lions themselves are marching down the field in a bid to tie or win a game.

"It'll be OK.'ll be OK."

I had the same desire yesterday, the Lions having swung that age-old thing called momentum supposedly in their favor, courtesy of a 25-3 run that edged them in front of the Green Bay Packers, 25-24 with about nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. I'm sure there were edgy Packers fans watching at home, gnawing at their knuckles and nibbling at their fingernails. A 21-0 lead had gone poof, and a once-mute Lions crowd -- too bothered to even boo the home team earlier in the game -- was rocking Ford Field. I'm sure horror stories flashed in the Packers fan brain: what if we blow this game to the ... Detroit Lions?

And I wasn't there to say, softly, "It'll be OK.'ll be OK."

A few minutes later, of course, it was OK -- for the Packers and their fans. And this turnaround was quick and stunning, even by Lions standards.

The Pack scored 24 points in the amount of time it normally takes to run up to the store for a loaf of bread, and Green Bay had itself a 48-25 win, turning that nailbiter into a laugher, lickety split.

See, Packers fans? Now don't you feel silly for doing all that worrying?

Of course, maybe this postulation doesn't really apply to Packers fans, because they see the Lions twice a year and therefore are more closely in tune with how wretched this team is, and how they couldn't close the deal even if a customer ran up to them with his wallet dangling from his mouth. The Lions talked after yesterday's game about not being able to "put the nail in the coffin", but the Packers weren't even in the vicinity of any coffin, not being down by one measly point and nearly two-thirds of the fourth quarter yet to play. The Lions can't even get their metaphors right.

You just knew that both the Packers offense, and the Lions defense for that matter, had another big Green Bay play left in the holster, despite the supposed momentum turn. Sure enough, with the Packers pinned inside their 20-yard line on the possession after the Lions took their precarious lead, Aaron (Matt Ryan) Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for a 62-yard catch-and-run (against a pass defense that dabbles in catch-and-release), and the Packers were back in business, and the muzzles were back on the Lions crowd. More on the crowd momentarily.

And you know what followed: a Packers FG. A Jon Kitna pick. A Packers TD. A Kitna pick, returned for a Packers TD. Another Kitna pick, returned for a Packers TD. It was suddenly like watching the Packers and Lions play in a video game -- one team controlled by a 14-year-old boy (Packers) and the other by his mother (Lions).

"HA HA Mom! Another pick six! Whoo Hoo!"

"I tell you, son, I'll never get the hang of these video games," Mom would say. "Well, I gotta go make dinner."

Now, back to that Lions crowd. I don't know if the Fox microphones weren't potted up all the way or what, but the crowd seemed flat, even before the now-requisite 0-21 hole the Lions built for themselves. They rocked during that fourth quarter, Calvin Johnson-led rally, but what NFL crowd wouldn't? They didn't even have the heart to boo all that much, like I said -- and that, to me, is more telling than anything. It's one thing to not be all that loud, but it's quite another to see your team have diarrhea all over the field and not have the passion to let the boys in Honolulu Blue have it. The fans seem resigned, already, to another 2-14, 3-13 horror.

Even the national TV dudes are finding the Lions' situation hopeless and, worse, boring.

"Detroit's a mess. I'm tired of wondering if they're going to get any better," new analyst Michael Strahan was quoted as saying during the pregame show.

If this garbage continues much longer -- like to the tune of 0-6, 2-9, something like that, it may be time to fire the coach. I've resigned myself to believe that GM Matt Millen has nearly the same job security as Bill Ford Sr. himself, so I'm not even going to go there. All that's left, then, is to fire the coach -- AGAIN. Start over. AGAIN. Watch Millen pick the wrong guy. AGAIN.

If there indeed is a coaching change in Detroit (AGAIN), then I hope the next guy has an actual head coaching resume. It's time to pay someone some serious bucks -- AFTER some due diligence, which wasn't done with Steve Mariucci -- and it must be someone who's been an NFL head coach and has won. We thought Mooch was that guy, but his personnel was ill-suited for his offense, which if this was fashion, would have been bell bottoms in the 1980s anyway. Who runs the West Coast offense with any success anymore, in the NFL? Or, who tries to run it with personnel that is the square peg for your round hole?

But I digress. Rod Marinelli isn't on the hot seat yet, but it's getting warm. All we heard about this year was how the coach is weeding out the players who don't buy in, and how this team, in his third year, is FINALLY made up of "his guys." Fine. And, in two straight weeks, "his guys" have failed to show up until the other dudes race out to a 21-0 lead. It's, frankly, unacceptable.

But what's unacceptable to the rest of the NFL isn't necessarily what's unacceptable in Detroit -- clearly.

So to those 49ers fans next week who may find themselves balled up in the fetal position sometime during their team's game with the Lions: "It'll be OK. I promise."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

“Slushy” Knee Spelled Doom For The Bird; Similar Fate For Zumaya?

Perhaps they should change his nickname to “Doom Doom”.

Joel Zumaya – “Zoom Zoom” they call him – has something the matter with him again. The powerful right shoulder that is able to propel a baseball 100 miles per hour (and that’s no exaggeration) now has a stress fracture, according to the docs, and for the next six to eight weeks, it’s reported, Zoom Zoom is not to engage in “any sort of baseball activity.” Therefore, it’s questionable whether he will be healthy when spring training begins next February, due to the rehabilitation necessary after such inactivity.

There’s always something the matter, it seems, with Zumaya.

He burst onto the scene in 2006, in the seventh inning of an Opening Day win in Kansas City. His debut was much anticipated, for he was one of two rookie Tigers pitchers that we read a lot about during spring training. The other was Justin Verlander. Today, Verlander battles his own demons, though his may be between the ears.

Anyhow, Zumaya entered the game, the Tigers clinging to a slim lead. He looked crisp and, at times, dominant, retiring six of the eight hitters he faced in two innings of work. In a fit of jingoism, I wrote the next day that the new kid Zumaya, 21 at the time, was going to make the seventh and eighth innings fun again. I stumbled all over myself in praising the kid, enamored with his triple digit potential when it came to the speed of his pitches.

Actually, it was one of the few times when my crystal ball wasn’t foggy. Zumaya indeed turned Detroit on in the summer of ’06. He’d enter the game, always in a key seventh or eighth inning situation, and the Comerica Park crowd would go wild. Stirring music would thump from the sound system, and Zumaya’s hulking body would jog from the bullpen in left field to the mound, the excitement building. After the requisite warm-ups, Zumaya would throw his first pitch in that menacing delivery where it looks like he’s about 20 feet from the mound when he releases the ball, and the fans would snap their necks to the scoreboard, where they post the speed of the pitch just thrown.

98. The crowd oohed.

99. The crowd aahed.

100. You can imagine.

Zumaya owned Detroit in the summer of ’06, which may as well be 22 years ago, instead of just two. Then the injuries started coming. Too numerous, and depressing, to mention here.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the summer of ’06 may as well be 32 years ago – which is how long ago it was when another Tigers rookie pitcher claimed the Motor City as his own.

I asked Mark Fidrych a year or so ago when he knew that something was the matter with him, on that fateful spring training day in March, 1977.

“I was shagging flyballs in the outfield,” Fidrych explained, and it was hardly the first time the story had been recounted, but I wanted to know how he reacted to the moment. “(Teammate) Rusty (Staub) told me to be careful. He thought I was being a little careless.” The exchange with Staub jibes with Rusty himself, who has gone on record as saying he worried about Fidrych’s antics that day.

“So I leap for a ball, and I came down funny on my knee. It felt slushy,” Fidrych continued in that Boston-laced accent of his, using words only he can use. When else have you heard of a knee being described as “slushy”?

“I went up to Rusty and said, ‘My knee feels kind of slushy.’ He told me to see the trainer.”

Fidrych’s “slushy” knee was trouble, though had the injury happened nowadays, today’s technology may have allowed for a scope, and the injury wouldn’t have been as serious. But this was 1977, which in terms of medical advancement may as well be 1877.

The prognosis was somber, but not career-threatening – at first. Surgery was ordered, and “The Bird” would be back in relatively short order.

He was. It was late May, 1977. The opponents were the expansion Seattle Mariners, at Tiger Stadium. What would normally have been a ho-hum affair between the new Mariners and the sub-.500 Tigers turned into a circus-like atmosphere. I should know, for I was there. I never got to see Fidrych pitch in his amazing ’76 rookie season, but this was the next best thing. A click over to the wonderful baseball research site known as tells me that Fidrych pitched all nine innings, giving up just two runs (only one earned), yet he lost, 2-1, to the M’s. The date was May 27, 1977, just as I recalled.

The next time I saw Fidrych pitch, it was in 1980. He was making the billionth comeback of his lightning-in-a-bottle career. He got pounded, as was usually the case at that time.

The slushy knee healed, but then tendonitis developed in his right arm. In another oft-told bit, the tendonitis was blamed on mechanics changing in his delivery as Fidrych compensated for his tender knee. But it doesn’t really matter why it happened. After some decent games in ’77, the arm flared and thus began the series of comebacks and rehab stints. They would last all the way until 1981, when Fidrych – by this time waived and picked up by the Boston Red Sox – gave it a shot with the Red Sox’ minor league team in Pawtucket. He got knocked around some more. Finally, at age 26, Fidrych retired.

I’m beginning to feel like Chicken Little here, for wasn’t it just a few weeks ago when I suggested that Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis might have Steve Blass Syndrome? Well, here I go again, wondering if the snake bitten Zumaya ends up being another Mark Fidrych – the young man whose potential is never reached because his body continually betrays him. Zoom Zoom is 23. I hope that it’s still far too early to start calling him Doom Doom.

But I can't help but wonder. And it makes my stomach feel slushy.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Phil Who?: Bengston Victim Of Bad Timing, Luck With Pack

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

They are some of the most well-known names in modern football history, for various reasons.

Vince Lombardi: really nothing else need be said. The league's championship trophy is named after him -- and that's just for starters.

Dan Devine: Extremely successful college coach -- at Missouri and Notre Dame -- who often gets overlooked because of the Bear Bryants and Bo Schembechlers of the world.

Bart Starr: Hall of Fame quarterback -- the field general of all those great Packers teams in the 1960s.

Forrest Gregg: A key cog of those bruising o-lines during the '60s dynasty.

Mike Holmgren: Quietly has built a case for his own Hall of Fame induction someday, as a coach.

All of the above men have been head coach of the Green Bay Packers. If you look at the list, which is chronological, you'll see that the best of the lot are the top and bottom of a sandwich, which within contains the likes of Devine, Starr, and Gregg.

But wait -- we'r
e forgetting someone.

Ray Rhodes? Well, yes, Rhodes came between Holmgren and Mike Sherman, for one year. But that's not who I'm talking about.

Lindy Infante? You mean the last coach before Holmgren and Brett Favre arrived in the Bay? Well, yes, there was Lindy, but this post isn't about him, either.

I'm talking about Phil Bengston.

You're more than excused for your furrowed brow and your "WHO?"; I understand.

Bengston was Yankees right field after Babe Ruth; Red Wings right wing after Gordie Howe; Bulls shooting guard after Michael Jordan.

But in truth, Bengston was the Packers' coach after Lombardi.

Not a tough act to follow, eh?

The Packers were coming off their third straight NFL championship -- and second straight Super Bowl win -- when Lombardi retired and moved into the GM's chair. For the '68 season, Lombardi announced that Bengston, one of his assistants, would take the helm on the sidelines.

But the Packers were an aging team who maybe didn't accord Bengston the same respect and benefit of doubt that they would have for the coach if Lombardi had stuck around.

Bengston (right) was the luckless Lombardi assistant tabbed to replace the legendary coach in 1968

Bengston was head coach of the Packers from 1968-1970, and in those three years, the team went 20-21-1. In
the glory years, it would have taken the Packers seven or eight seasons to lose 21 games; Bengston's teams managed to do it in three. His quiet, low-key style was not only a stark contrast from Lombardi's, but it did nothing to ingratiate the veterans to him, many of whom felt Bengston was in over his head. In 1971, he was replaced by Devine, who came over from Missouri. By '72, Devine had led the Packers into the playoffs, behind a marketing campaign of "The Pack is Back." Devine was also blessed with following Phil Bengston instead of Vince Lombardi.

By the way, Starr and Gregg proved to be far better players than coaches, but then again, that's not unusual in pro sports. So it's not surprising that Lombardi and Holmgren, the top and bottom of that aforementioned coaching sandwich, were highly successful coaches who were nondescript players, for the most part.

Bengston resurfaced as interim coach of the 1972 Patriots -- a far easier act to follow. He died in 1994 at the age of 81.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nearly Ten Years After Trade, Chelios Still In The League -- And Still A Red Wing

At the trading deadline in 1999, Red Wings GM Ken Holland made quite a splash, as he tried to bring a third straight Stanley Cup to Detroit. He brought in Wendel Clark, a former Red Wings nemesis, from Tampa Bay. He traded for defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. He snagged goalie Bill Ranford. And he dealt for a 37-year-old defenseman that many feared was way too past his prime to be of any use in the long term. How much longer would Chris Chelios even be IN the NHL, let alone be effective?

Well, that was over nine years ago, and Chelios, who just signed another one-year deal to stay with the Red Wings past his 47th birthday in January, will retire having played more seasons with the Red Wings than with the Chicago Blackhawks or Montreal Canadiens -- the teams with which he had been so closely associated. It's like Carlton Fisk, the venerable catcher, and the sudden realization that he was a Chicago White Sock longer than he was a Boston Red Sock.

All the players Holland acquired on that trade deadline day in '99 were long in the tooth. And the strategy failed; the Red Wings lost in the second round to Colorado. And since Chelios was so entrenched in the Chicago scene, being a native son, a restaurant owner in the Windy City, and an almost nine-year Blackhawk (including several years as team captain), his acquisition looked like a stopgap measure. Few figured Cheli would warm up to playing for the arch rival Red Wings, or cozy up to the city of Detroit.

Chelios himself wondered that. On more than one occasion, early in his Red Wings career, Chelios admitted to there being quite an adjustment in both his personal and his hockey lives. There was the "fish out of water" feeling for a couple years. But then he opened up a couple restaurants in town, the team won two more Stanley Cups, and there's that new distinction about being a Red Wing longer than anything. Oh, he still admits to Chicago being "home", in his heart (who can blame him there?), but Detroit runs a very close second.

Still, all this brings to light just how amazing Gordie Howe's longevity was, as if we needed another reason to heap praise on Mr. Hockey.

Howe retired from the NHL -- for good -- at the end of the 1979-80 season. He was 52. He played in all 80 games for the Hartford Whalers that season, and chipped in 15 goals. And yet Chelios, for all his worth, will still be five years behind Howe in terms of being the oldest player to lace up an NHL skate. And, in fairness to Howe, who was a regular player until the day of his retirement, Chelios will return to the Red Wings in '08-'09 as a part-timer. He may only play in about half of the team's games, if that.

"He won't play 25 minutes a game anymore," Holland told the media yesterday about Chelios's participation with the Red Wings this season. "But can he play 15? Absolutely."

Wendel Clark, Ulf Samuelsson, and Bill Ranford are all long ago retired. You'd expect that, of course, from deadline day acquisitions some nine years ago. They were old, after all, when the Red Wings traded for them. But Chelios was old, too. He was 37. Yet he will be on the Wings' roster on the 10th anniversary of the trade. Maybe that's not Gordie Howe great, but that's still pretty damn unbelievable.

Monday, September 08, 2008

After Just One Week, The Lions Have Already "Accomplished" A Lot

In 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a rookie head coach, at home, and were coming off a hideous 1968 season in which they went 2-11-1. Their opponents? The Detroit Lions. The result? The Steelers won, 16-13.

But then the Steelers went on to lose the remaining 13 games on their schedule. And the Lions regrouped to finish 9-4-1. The rookie Steelers coach? Just someone named Chuck Noll.

Now, I don't mean to say that the Atlanta Falcons will go 1-15 (although the Carolina Panthers did that a few years back, with a rookie QB in tow, after winning on Opening Day) -- and I ESPECIALLY don't mean to say that the Lions will finish 11-5 or something wacky like that. I just mean to point out that, as usual, just when you think that the Lions have done something new in the negative column, turns out that in their inglorious past they already did it.

Yesterday, the "new and improved" Lions defense made rookie QB Matt Ryan and his running back tandem of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood look like, well, Noll's combo of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Rocky Bleier during the Steelers' heyday.

But I doubt that any of the Steelers' opponents in the 1970s ever tackled as atrociously as the Lions did in Atlanta.

It was beyond annoying, or even beyond "the same old Lions". It wasn't even funny. It was disgusting and embarrassing. The Lions have done this before, too -- made pedestrian running backs look like Jim Brown. But never have they done it with such a feeble effort as was witnessed in the Georgia Dome. It was a nightmare, watching Turner and Norwood cut through the Lions like a hot knife through butter.

It's funny, but despite the Lions' woes in the Matt Millen Era, they entered yesterday with a 4-1 record in their five previous openers. And we all know how those years have turned out -- which is also why the Falcons and their fans should be careful before they anoint Ryan and think that 2008 is going to be "their year." After all, they beat the Lions, not the Cowboys.

Still, the Lions were supposedly going to win this game, and not necessarily because they were 4-0 in the preseason. They are supposed to be, simply, the better team. Not all that much better, but better. And certainly not bad enough to fall behind the Falcons 21-0 before 1:30 in the afternoon.

But that's exactly what the Lions did, and despite a gallant second quarter comeback -- a quarter in which they did not abandon the run, a la Mike Martz -- the hole was too big. Kind of like the holes Turner and Norwood found as the Lions' front seven put up as much resistance as balsa wood.

So here we were, barely 20 minutes of football into the new season, and the Lions are down 21-zip and there's QB Jon Kitna getting into it with receivers coach Shawn Jefferson. I mean, really getting into it. Made me think of Buddy Ryan socking Kevin Gilbride in the face in Houston, back in the day. But, we were told, this sort of thing happens all the time, and so it was no big deal. It just happened to be played out in front of the TV cameras. But the TV cameras are everywhere anymore, and I don't recall seeing that kind of display on a weekly basis. Whatever. But maybe Kitna and Jefferson should squabble more often; post-blowup, the Lions went on a 14-0 run.

Week 1 is in the books, and already the Lions have: a) made a rookie QB look as comfy as a puppy snuggled in a box in a blanket; b) turned two average RBs into Harris and Bleier; c) given a rookie head coach his first win; d) had in-fighting on their sideline; e) experienced yet another Dan Campbell injury (hamstring); f) cast aspersions on coach Rod Marinelli's "kind of players"; g) had one of their front-line players insist the team isn't that bad (Cory Redding).

Ahh, Redding. Quoting him, Redding said, "Don't be writing us off yet. We're good. We just didn't show up."

Great! Opening Day and the team is already not showing up. I feel much better now, Cory -- thanks!

Next up: the Packers, who are likely to come into Detroit and cheese whiz all over the place.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Vitale, Davidson Have Each Other To Thank For Hall Of Fame Careers

It was nearly 29 years ago, and two men were at crossroads in their professional lives – crossroads that materialized because of their failed partnership.

Bill Davidson was a five-year loser in the world of professional basketball. He had wanted badly to get into ownership. You could make the old joke here: He wanted to own a team in the worst way – and that’s exactly what he did.

Davidson bought out his partners in 1974 and took over sole ownership of the Detroit Pistons, but only because a look-see into owning a football team didn’t come to pass. In an interview with Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, published this week, Davidson said his first inclination was to own the Lions, if they were available. He and former Lions coach Joe Schmidt, Davidson said, explored owning another football team, which he didn’t identify. But football wasn’t his destiny. Davidson would be stuck with the Pistons – an apt word. The team had been in Detroit for 17 seasons, and in only two of them did their wins exceed their losses. Their time in the Motor City had been more slapstick than serious. But they were Davidson’s, and his alone, after he bought out his compatriots.

Dick Vitale was an abject failure as Pistons coach when he was fired by Davidson in November 1979. Davidson hired Vitale in the spring of 1978, having fallen under Dickie V’s spell and his snake oil salesman act. Vitale promised Davidson “ReVITALEization” and spoke of “Pistons Paradise.” For the owner’s time and trouble, Vitale delivered a 34-60 record.

Bill Davidson is a lot smarter now, by the way.

So here Davidson and Vitale were, losers in basketball, and, by extension, in life. The notion that either of them would survive in the game, let alone become enshrined in its Hall of Fame, was folly.

Then one man changed all that, for both parties.

Jack McCloskey was a grizzled former college basketball coach and a vagabond NBA head coach and assistant, minding his own business on the bench of the Indiana Pacers, helping his old friend Slick Leonard, when Vitale approached him. Dickie V told McCloskey that Davidson was looking for a “basketball man” to run his operation in Detroit. Vitale and McCloskey knew each other from their time spent coaching along the Atlantic Coast – McCloskey at Penn and Vitale in high school in New Jersey.

And Vitale, deposed in Detroit, held no grudges toward Davidson. In fact, not only did Dickie tell McCloskey about the vacancy in Detroit, he whispered McCloskey’s name in Davidson’s ear.

A meeting was set up, between McCloskey, Davidson, and Pistons legal counsel Oscar Feldman. McCloskey impressed, and Davidson wanted to hire him as his new GM, right away. But the Pacers were reluctant to let McCloskey out of his commitment. It looked like Davidson wouldn’t get Vitale’s referral after all.

But the Pacers came around, and Jack McCloskey took over the woeful Pistons in December, 1979.

“To this day, whenever I see Dick, I thank him,” McCloskey told me a couple years ago, on the verge of his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

Speaking of thanks, Vitale has long spoken of how thankful he was that he got canned by the Pistons.

“Mr. Davidson probably saved my life,” Vitale said in a recently-published interview.

Vitale quit the University of Detroit in 1977 because of ulcers. And his early days with the Pistons were pock-marked with stomach ailments, too.

“I probably would have been dead before I was 50,” Vitale said.

Davidson, in the five years prior to hiring McCloskey, had presided over a mess with the Pistons, culminating with a controversial move from downtown to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1978. After the Vitale Era proved to be a colossal failure, Davidson looked almost as much of a clown as Vitale himself, which is saying something.

McCloskey changed all that.

By the end of the 1980s, the Pistons were one of the NBA’s elite. They won championships in 1989 and 1990, and came damn close in 1987 and ’88, too. All of it – ALL of it – was due to the drafting and coaching hires orchestrated by McCloskey.

Vitale, meanwhile, turned his failure into success after being hired by the newly-born sports network ESPN to be a college basketball analyst.

Friday, Vitale and Davidson were both enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Davidson went in for his accomplishments as an owner and as a guardian of the league, and Vitale was inducted for his tenure behind a microphone and, peripherally, for his authoring several books about the game. They may laugh at Dick Vitale, but it’s irrefutable that he got a whole bunch of folks interested in the college game simply because of his brash, catch phrase-tinged style.

“They need a T.O., babyyyyy!”

“He’s a PTPer!”

And so on.

Neither of the two men – Davidson and Vitale – would have been in Springfield, being honored along with such greats as Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and Pat Riley and Adrian Dantley, if it wasn’t for their parting of ways in November 1979.

Davidson saved Vitale’s life by firing him. And Vitale saved Davidson’s face by recommending he hire Jack McCloskey.

Sometimes we don’t see how funny life is, until, say, 29 years later.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Falcons Used To Be Annual Lions Victims, Believe It Or Not

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

The Atlanta Falcons' running back hit the line, then bounced outside, to the left. He picked up positive yardage, then the whistle blew. Then the game was stopped -- unheard of in today's NFL, if it doesn't involve a television commercial or an injury. A brief ceremony was held, right there on the field. And the Falcons, presumably with the NFL's blessing, honored Dave Hampton as he became the first runner in team history to gain 1,000 yards in one season.

The opponents were the Kansas City Chiefs, and Hampton, 25, was sitting at 1,001 yards for the season, in its final game. The game was resumed.

On his next rushing attempt, Hampton was nailed for a six-yard loss. He wouldn't get another carry. So he finished the season with 995 yards -- but the Falcons didn't un-honor him. That would have been tacky -- almost as tacky as honoring him before the game ended, knowing that such an embarrassing thing could happen.

Hampton rushed for 997 yards in 1973, then missed '74 with an injury. But he finally got his 1,000 when he hit for 1,002 in 1975 and was named the Comeback Player of the Year.

The embarrassment with Hampton in '72 was typical for the Falcons, who needed 13 seasons in the league before finally making the playoffs in 1978.

But they could be fun, with Norm Van Brocklin as their second coach.

Van Brocklin as a Rams QB in the 1950s

The Dutchman coached the Falcons from 1968-74, and he wasn't exactly known as someone with a long fuse. He was like that as an All-Pro quarterback with the Rams and the Eagles, and the way he was as the first coach of the Minnesota Vikings, when he practically ran Fran Tarkenton out of town by himself.

One of Van Brocklin's rants was caught by the NFL Films cameras and microphones. The Dutchman was mocking Steelers DB Paul Martha.

"Ah, couldn't cover me!", Van Brocklin bellowed. When someone on the Falcons sideline laughed, admiring the line, VB turned and chuckled devilishly.

Van Brocklin's temper and impatience with his team boiled over, though, and he was fired by the Falcons midway thru the '74 season.

The Lions, incidentally, used to beat the Falcons like a pinata. The first nine times the Lions played them, the Falcons lost. How'd you like THAT distinction? To be dominated by the Detroit Lions for 11 years -- 11 years in which the Lions made the playoffs once?

But those were the Atlanta Falcons. Now they're back toward the bottom again, among the dregs of the league. The Michael Vick Era is over with, but the stench left behind is still wafting. But there's a new prized rookie quarterback, and Joey Harrington is gone. Life could be worse in Atlanta.