Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New-look Pistons Have Lowest Expectations In Nine Years

When the Pistons open the home portion of their season on Friday against Oklahoma City, the pre-game fanfare won't be all that.

No banners to raise. No pre-game speeches. No glow from any division title or from yet another appearance in the conference final. No pride, really, taken from anything that happened last season.

Check that---maybe they could raise a "2008-09: Glad THAT'S Over!" banner.

It'll be one of those fresh starts with several new faces. So many key players from last season's drama are gone: coach Michael Curry, whose tenure becomes more soiled by the day thanks to player retrospectives; Allen Iverson, the petulant superstar; Rasheed Wallace, the ticking time bomb; even nice guy Antonio McDyess wears another uniform this year.

The proceedings get underway tonight in Memphis---Iverson's new haunts---and only Rip Hamilton remains from the sordid love/hate triangle he formed with Curry and Iverson.

Not since 2000-01 have we gone into a Pistons campaign with so little to expect.

That was the George Irvine year, which was followed by Rick Carlisle and instant success in 2001-02.

Not since 2000 have we looked at the Pistons, shrugged, and said, "The playoffs would be nice---but don't count on it!"

Marty Mornhinweg's bar isn't very high.

Or is it?'s A. Sherrod Blakely, guesting on "The Knee Jerks" podcast I have with Big Al, a couple of weeks ago said he sees maybe 50 wins and a sure fire playoff spot for these 2009-10 Pistons.

Blakely likes the Pistons' blend of veterans and young talent, plus the comfort level of new coach John Kuester, who Blakely said has been looking very head coach-like in training camp---in control, confident, relaxed.

The further Curry's stint as coach gets in the rearview mirror, the uglier it looks. Kind of the opposite of when you approach the scene of an accident.

Curry had precious little control or respect last year, and that was highlighted once again when Hamilton, of all people, sided with Iverson in blasting the rookie coach for his lack of honesty with players.

"M.C. lied to us a million times," Hamilton was quoted the other day, talking about discussions Curry had with Iverson and him about playing time and coming off the bench.

Wow---a million times? That's a lot of talking!

Point received, Rip.

So only Hamilton remains, and he's impressed me---so far---with his attitude, willingness to lead, and overall excitement over what he feels will be a high-powered (potentially) Pistons offense---what with the additions of free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, plus the maturation of last year's holdovers and the NBA debuts of rookies like Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko.

Kuester's team has to defend, though, to have any real chance of attaining Blakely's projection of 50 wins and playoffs. Trouble is, Kuester and his teams have never been attached to the word "defense," at least not with a pin. Maybe with worn out Velcro.

New set of Pistons: Gordon (left) and Villanueva

Yet they talked about it a lot in camp, did Kuester and his players, and now there's even some scuttlebutt that oldtimer Ben Wallace, signed from near-retirement this summer, might be a starter once again. Big Ben's presence in the paint has, once again, been producing rebounds, blocked shots, and batted away passes. In the exhibition season.

Kuester told us several months ago that he believed Wallace to still have something left in the tank. And Ben's play during the pretend games hasn't belied that.

But there are 82 "real" games to play, and Wallace isn't a spring chicken.

As you probably know, I really don't do predictions here. But if you gave me one of those "do it or the girl gets it" threats, I'll tell you that 42-44 wins seems realistic. Whether that's good enough to make the playoffs, I don't know.

"I don't know." That might as well be the Pistons' slogan for this season.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Don't the Phillies Know That Philadelphia Is City of Chumps, Not Champs?

They don’t win championships in Philadelphia. If they do, it’s a fluke—something that someone pulled over on God.

Every three decades or so, one of the teams will screw up the ecosystem and snatch a title out from under fate’s nose.

What’s happening now is a travesty. The Phillies are in the World Series for the second year in a row. What’s worse, they actually won it last year.

This is all wrong. Philadelphia is a city full of miscreants and crabapples, with a fan base so jaded and tormented that it makes John McEnroe look like Dale Carnegie.

Philadelphia—City of Chumps, not Champs.

The biggest winner in Philly is Rocky, and he’s not even real.

The football Eagles annually tease and flirt with their fans, batting their eyelashes and giving the “come hither” look, only to turn into Margaret Thatcher once in the bedroom.

The Eagles last won the NFL Championship in 1960. Before that, 1940 something. It took them 20 years after the ’60 title to get to the Super Bowl. Then it took over a dozen years to get there again.

The Flyers won their last Stanley Cup in 1975. They’ve made it to the Finals five times since then, but not since 1997.

The last time the 76ers were world champs of the NBA was in 1983.

It took the Phillies about a hundred years to win their first World Series, in 1980. Took them another 28 years before they’d win their second, which is about the schedule they run on in Philadelphia—an accidental title every generation or so.

This is the City of Brotherly Love—as defined by fourth graders.

The late, great sportswriter Jim Murray professed his love for Philly’s acerbic personality this way: “When a plane lands in Philadelphia, everyone gets on; no one gets off.”

They booed Mike Schmidt in Philadelphia, which is only like Detroit booing Al Kaline, for cripe’s sakes.

Philly is also the home of Temple University, which last had a good football team before they came out with electricity, just about.

The Phillies are messing everything up now.

Needless to say, the Phillies have never won back-to-back World Series—unless you want to strike every Series from 1981 to 2007 from the record books. Then in that case, yeah, they have.

But here they are, two-time National League champions, awaiting either the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Angels.

This can’t be happening. The Phillies are going against nature, or at the very least, the baseball gods. It’s like that episode of The Brady Bunch in Hawaii when Peter finds the tiki, disturbing something all-powerful.

If the Phillies take leave of their senses and win the World Series again this year, then we’re officially closer to the Apocalypse. One of the Horsemen will have been slain.

Philadelphia can’t possibly handle two championships in a row, anyway. Back-to-back is what they do in New York (Yankees), what they do in Detroit (Pistons, Red Wings), what they do in Chicago (Bulls). Heck, they’ve even done it in San Antonio, which is famous for the Alamo, of all things.

But Philadelphia is as equipped for two straight Phillies World Series titles as a toddler is for his first solid food being a bowl of chili.

They don’t win championships in Philadelphia because the fans there don’t deserve them. It’s further proof that there are deities among us.

Sports fans in Philadelphia are petulant, unreasonable, paranoid, and mean-spirited. Unless you catch them on a good day and they’re just being jealous and unappreciative.

Philadelphia—which gave us the 1964 Phillies, who couldn’t find the handle on a six-game lead with 12 games to play and blew the pennant to St. Louis, which as a baseball city is to Philadelphia what, in fine cuisine, lobster is to beef jerky.

St. Louis wouldn’t dream of booing Stan Musial, either.

Philadelphia is the city that gave us Terrell Owens, and for that alone it deserves locusts descending on it.

The teams in Philadelphia have lost so much, have failed in such grand scale so often, that when their epic, abysmal championship droughts are actually broken with Halley’s Comet-like frequency, as was done by last year’s Phillies, it’s only natural to start looking for pestilence.

But if the Phillies of 2009 are going to put us all in mortal danger by winning their second straight World Series, then it may as well be with the team they have—which is pretty darn exciting, and good.

There’s first baseman Ryan Howard, a slugger of Herculean strength, who doesn’t hit home runs, he makes them with his bare hands. There’s center fielder Shane Victorino, who covers so much real estate in the outfield that you should call him Century 22.

There’s right fielder Jayson Werth, the feast or famine kid who can blow you away with his power or with the wind from his frequent whiffs. But guaranteed that you stick around for his at-bat, regardless.

There’s the pesky double play combo of 2B Chase Utley and SS Jimmy Rollins, two guys who can flash leather and then knock in the game-winning run on any given day.

There’s veteran LF Raul Ibanez, who turned 37 this summer but it’s all in your mind. Ibanez stroked 34 homers.

The top three starting pitchers are Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, and Cole Hamels. You can do worse.

The closer is Brad Lidge, who actually “gets” what being an athlete playing in Philadelphia is all about. For Lidge went from being 41-for-41 in save opportunities with a 1.95 ERA in 2008, to being 31-for-42 in 2009, despite an ERA in the thin high air of 7.21 in 2009.

Attaboy, Brad! You knew better than to put together two fabulous seasons in a row. You’re a Phillie, after all.

Batten down the hatches. The Phillies are in the World Series again, and it only took them a year to get back there this time instead of a generation. As Neil Diamond once sang, pack up the babies and grab the old ladies!

Cuz everyone knows it’s the City of Brotherly Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Osgood's No. 30 Ought to be in Rafters Post-Retirement

So this much we know.

One evening, in the not-too-distant future, fans will look to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena---or wherever the Red Wings will be playing by then---and see a large red "jersey" with a white No. 5 and the name "LIDSTROM" adorning it, the years played for the Red Wings listed below it, in red on a white band.

That much we know.

But, and I know my timing isn't great here, I submit that those same fans should also be able to crane their necks and see a big red swatch of fabric with a white No. 30 and the name "OSGOOD" sewn onto it.

You heard me.

It's a few weeks into the NHL regular season, and that may turn some people on, but this is the perfect time to be an argument starter, if you ask me. Let these October games drone on in the background while we muck it up in the corner, figuratively speaking.

Chris Osgood's number retired? You betcha.

By the time he hangs them up for good, Osgood will have likely passed the great Terry Sawchuk for most wins by a Red Wings goaltender. For starters.

He has three Stanley Cups, two earned as the starter throughout the playoffs---and ten years apart, which must be some sort of record, somewhere.

Your honor, the defense rests.

Oh, I know I'll have to do some cross-examining here. I can practically hear the keyboards being pounded on furiously by those opposed to me. That's OK. Nothing is ever a slam dunk when it comes to Chris Osgood's virtues in Detroit.

I don't know why some are so resistant to back off and just accept that Osgood has had a fine career. The arguments against him have turned almost spiteful and personal, and I have no idea why.

The naysayers talk like this: The Red Wings win in spite of him, especially in 1998. He has great teams in front of him, so that's why his numbers look so good. Blah-blah-blah.

As if Sawchuk played with a bunch of chopped liver back in the day.

I promise you, it's OK to give Osgood his due. It really is. I promise the sun will rise tomorrow, and in the east. No children or pets will be harmed. Promise.

And it's also OK to not only give him his due, but to also raise his number among the team's all-time greats because---and here's where it really gets fun---Chris Osgood is, in fact, one of the team's all-time greats.

Let's play a little game.

Name me three goalies in team history better than Osgood. Just three, other than Sawchuck.

I'll even play along with you.

There was the kewpie doll-faced Harry Lumley, who was between the pipes during the Red Wings' successful 1950 Stanley Cup run. Lumley won 163 games for the Red Wings in six seasons (1944-50). I might give you that one out of benevolence.

There was Mike Vernon, with his 1997 Cup. But Mike didn't play in Detroit very long, and I'm not sure he was all that much better, if at all, than Ozzie.

Here's one: Dominik Hasek. It's hard not to give you Dom, although he wasn't a Red Wing all that long. But you almost have to include him because of his overall career.

So you have Lumley, Vernon, and Hasek. I'd scratch Vernon. And Hasek gets the nod mostly for his time in Buffalo.

Any others?

The question begs: Why wouldn't you so honor the second-best goalie in franchise history?

Because that's what Chris Osgood is, like it or not.

I'm putting Ozzie ahead of Lumley because of longevity, and I'm even slotting him in front of Hasek for the same reason, though I wouldn't squawk if you put Dom ahead of Osgood.

But you're not going to raise Hasek's No. 39 to the rafters because he wasn't a Red Wing long enough.

The Osgood haters spew the same tired arguments, already listed above. And it's not a very long list anyhow.

How exactly do the Red Wings win in spite of Chris Osgood?

The team surrendered nearly three goals a game during the regular season last year, an unheard of number in Detroit. Osgood was largely to blame for that, and he wouldn't argue. But the Red Wings came within a whisker of winning another Cup.

Why? Because Osgood raised his game several notches, and was a genuine Conn Smythe candidate until the Penguins captured Game Seven.

This is going to draw more venom, but I'm telling you that Chris Osgood is the greatest money goalie I've ever seen in Detroit. Bar none, even Hasek.

No one bounced back from bad games like Osgood. No one came up bigger in more pressure situations than Osgood. And no one was as unflappable as Osgood is between the pipes, because no one was better between the ears.

Give me Chris Osgood if I need a game to be won, over anyone who's ever worn a Red Wings jersey, save for Sawchuk, who was the best ever, regardless of decade or era or generation.

Retiring his No. 30 and raising it to sway above the ice along with Yzerman and Lindsay and Howe and Abel and Delvecchio and Sawchuk and (eventually) Lidstrom is a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned.

Go ahead. Make your case.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": 50 Minutes of Detroit Sports Pop Culture with Bob Page!

It was slightly truncated, thanks to that wacky server at Blog Talk Radio, but we managed 50 delightful minutes with colorful broadcaster Bob Page last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Bob was in rare form, regaling us with one story after another about old school Detroit sports. For anyone older than 30, especially, this was even better than Bob's appearance in mid-July. And for the youngens? You'll learn a thing or two!

Sadly, BTR's server crashed around 11:51 p.m., and we were forced to halt the proceedings.

But it was a terrific 50 minutes, and I urge you to check it out!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, for updates on scheduled guests, time changes, etc.

Next week's guest: (tentative) Former Detroit Lions great Alex Karras!

Upcoming guests:

Oct. 26 Former Lions great Alex Karras (tentative, but we're guardedly optimistic!)
Nov. 2 Jose Canseco (yes, THE Jose Canseco!!)
Nov. 9 TBA (but likely a Red Wings beat writer)

You can listen to the shorter-than-usual episode by clicking below!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Schwartz Era Not Immune to Sunday Stinkers

Things are apparently so bad with the Lions that they don't even show up for their games anymore.

The Lions yesterday set football back in Detroit all the way to...2008.

If this is them turning the corner, then they just ran smack dab into a bus, like that girl in that scene from "Final Destination."


The Green Bay Packers, if this was dinner time, would have been scolded by their mother for playing with their food, as they skipped out to a 14-0 lead before adding a slew of field goals when touchdowns would have made things butt ugly.

The 26-0 whitewashing was about as much of an indication of how much the Packers dominated the Lions as a scoop of white rice tells you how much of the stuff they have in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.

The Packers committed penalties by the boatload. Their offense mysteriously stalled in the "red zone" when it was a hot knife to the Lions' butter between the 20s. Yet the Pack was never not in control.

It's amazing the number of transgressions you can commit in a football game and still never be in danger of losing it, when you're playing the Lions.

This wasn't a football game---it was serio-comic performance art, played out in front of 50,000-plus bloodthirsty zealots.

The Lions lost control of this one as soon as Jason Hanson's toe met the football for the opening kickoff, which was taken all the way back for an apparent touchdown. But the Packers were flagged, as usual, and it appeared as if the Lions dodged a bullet.

Yeah, they dodged a bullet alright---just like Bonnie and Clyde did in their car before being eventually aerated by lead.

It was painfully similar to so many of the Lions games last season, when the folks who were late to the game might as well have been ordered back at the gate by the ushers and the police.

"Nothing to see here, folks. Just move back to your cars and exit quietly."

It was 14-0 before all the first beers and hot dogs were in the Packers' fans tummies.

Then the Pack got sloppy and acquired a field goal fetish, making the final score marginally respectable.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was the latest passer to need a drool cup for all the salivating he did while looking over the Lions' secondary. The Lions' pass defending corps---which I had foolishly declared on "The Knee Jerks" podcast a few weeks ago was improving steadily---is the "easy" setting in the NFL for opposing QBs, while the rest of the league is categorized as either "moderate," "tough," or "expert."

There weren't seams in the Lions' defensive backfield---there were canyons. Watching the other team pass against the Lions is like watching no-contact drills in practice. The Packers' receivers might as well have been wearing just helmets and shorts.

As bad as it was, you figured that there might be Sundays like this, even in the Jim Schwartz Era. This made the Saints game in Week 1 look good. But what Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham inherited could not possibly be fixed in one year. So a stinker like Sunday's in Green Bay shouldn't be too terribly shocking.

The idea, of course, is to have far fewer of them in 2009, and even fewer in 2010, and so on.

The Lions were a little banged up---especially on offense with QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson out with injuries, and on the d-line---and that didn't help. At all. But this is the NFL, and others must step up, not step back.

Lions QB Daunte Culpepper was frightfully ineffective, and the game plan is so much more conservative with him in the game than when Stafford plays. It's like o-coordinator Scott Linehan doesn't believe that Culpepper can zing the ball further than 20 yards at a time.

Maybe he can't.

So take this one and pitch it. Burn the tape, as they say. The Lions will now go into their bye week with the after taste of castor oil in their mouths. For almost two weeks.

The Lions didn't play football on Sunday---they committed it.

I wonder if they wrapped Lambeau Field in crime scene tape after the game.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Baseball Needs Yankees Back Under Bright Lights of World Series

It was the vaudevillian comedian Joe E. Brown who went on the record about it most famously. It was he who put it into words with so much brevity yet pith.

“Rooting for the Yankees,” Brown was jotted down as having said, “is like rooting for U.S. Steel.”

Those Damn Yankees—welcome back to the playoff spotlight.

The Yankees are in a tussle for the right to represent the American League in the World Series, facing off against the very formidable Los Angeles Angels—right coast versus left coast. It’s the Yankees’ first appearance in the ALCS—alphabet soup for American League Championship Series—since way back in 2004.

Remember 2004?

Of course you do—but in baseball years in New York, that may as well be in the days of Alexander Cartwright and the marking off of the very first base path in the 1870s.

Yankees fans aren’t used to there being five years between series of this magnitude—and this isn’t even the big Kahuna.

The one they want, of course, is the World Series, and the Yankees haven’t been in one of those since 2003.


The Yankees, when last seen in an ALCS, were coughing up a three games to none lead to the arch rival Boston Red Sox. Four straight times the Red Sox beat the Yankees to appear in, and eventually win, the ’04 World Series—the Red Sox’ first championship since Babe Ruth pitched for them (1918).

The Yankees are back playing for the figurative pennant, and that’s terrific. If they make it to the World Series, it’d be even better.

Yeah, they may be U.S. Steel—or, to update Brown’s quote, Microsoft. But that’s what makes their presence in baseball’s Final Four even more mandatory.

You don’t have Dudley Do-Right, after all, without there being a Black Bart over whom to conquer.

Professional sports needs its black hats in the spotlight.

The hypocrites in the NBA may have cried foul about the tactics of our very own “Bad Boys”, the Detroit Pistons of the late-1980s, early-1990s, but without the Pistons donning those black hats, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls couldn’t have existed.

The Bulls would have been champions, but missing a certain je ne sais quoi.

The Bulls, in many people’s eyes, returned championship basketball to its rightful place, where the fouls were soft and the personality was vanilla.

Yet with no Detroit Pistons against whom to root, Jordan’s Bulls would not have been nearly as compelling. They would have been just another superstar-led team who beat back a bunch of faceless inferior opponents—like they were in the middle of the 1990s, when the Pistons were in rebuilding mode.

You remember the Bulls hacking away at the Pistons’ tree trunk until it fell, beating them in the playoffs after three straight years of being schooled—leading to a three-year reign as world champions. But the second three-peat—achieved from 1996-98—wasn’t nearly as juicy, because there was no Black Bart over whom to triumph.

The NFL needs the Dallas Cowboys to be good and of championship caliber. It’s fun to root against an organization ostentatiously dubbed “America’s Team” without the rest of our permission. The Red Wings—sorry to break this to the “Hockeytown” faithful—aren’t the darlings that you think they are, across North America, outside of Detroit.

Far from it, in fact. The Red Wings’ loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals was triumph over tragedy, as far as the majority of hockey fans were concerned.

The NBA needs the Boston Celtics circling over the rest of the league. Or the Los Angeles Lakers; they’ll do, too.

And baseball needs the Yankees.

Is the ALCS as interesting if the Yankees aren’t in it?

The World Series certainly isn’t, so how can the ALCS even hope to be?

I’m not a Yankees fan. Not even close. I’ve reveled in their recent playoff foibles, and have chuckled derisively at the abject failure of their superstar Alex Rodriguez as he’s struggled mightily in the first round.

But Rodriguez awoke from his post-season slumber this year, almost single-handedly demolishing the poor Minnesota Twins. And the Yankees are back where they belong.

I’m not a Yankees fan but I admit to being glad that they’re back in the ALCS. Because while I had some fun at their first round expense, that kind of fun isn’t as grand as watching them possibly go down against the Angels, or better yet, against the Phillies or the Dodgers in the Fall Classic.

The Yankees are the greatest of all our franchises, in any sport, playing in the greatest of our cities. You’re damn right they were U.S. Steel in Joe E. Brown’s day, and they’re damn well Microsoft—or Comcast—in these modern times.

Pick a decade and the Yankees were likely in a World Series, or several, during it.

It all started with the iconic Ruth in the 1920s, and continued with the Yankees teams of Dickey and Gomez of the 1930s, those of DiMaggio in the 1940s, and with the 1950s squads of Berra and Mantle and Ford. It lapped into the first half of the 1960s as well, with names like Richardson and Maris and Howard joining the fray.

Who can forget what Reggie Jackson did to the Dodgers in 1977, with his three homers on three straight pitches off three different pitchers in the decisive Game 6?

Finally, in the 1980s, the streak of at least one Yankees World Series victory in every decade ended, although they did make it to the 1981 series.

It started back up again in the 1990s with three world titles, and the 2000s were also soiled by a Yankees triumph, over the cross town Mets in 2000.

Now, the Yankees have the chance to bookend the decade of the 2000s with World Series wins, before we get into the 2010s next year.

The Yankees are Notre Dame football, Comcast, the Boston Celtics, the Republicans, and the Detroit Red Wings all wrapped into one.

Welcome back to late-October, old, hateful friend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spanking in Buffalo Not All Bad for Red Wings

The Red Wings got a good, old-fashioned facewash Tuesday night in Buffalo. A regular butt kicking. The Sabres booted the Red Wings halfway back to Detroit, using a second period, four-goal barrage to beat them, 6-2.

It was utter, total annihilation, dropping the team to 2-3 on the season.

And that's a good thing.

Don't look at me that way. Send back the men in the white jackets. Put the thermometer away. I'm fine, I swear.

When a team has had as much success as the Red Wings have had since, oh, 1991, it's not a bad thing to get your nose rubbed into the ice surface on occasion---to remind you that laurels are great for reminiscing about but not something on which you rest.

The Red Wings are going to have to earn it this season. For real this time.

This is still a 100+ point hockey team, and is still a Stanley Cup contender. Legitimately, as they say. Any unit that can trot out the forwards the Red Wings can, not to mention the top four defensemen that they have, is a threat to hoist the chalice in June. Period, no matter what the haters out there might have you believe.

They lost a lot of players to free agency and injury, but the Red Wings also happened to have been the deepest team in the league, so now it's time to prove it. And they will.

But that imaginary gap, the one that has long separated the Red Wings from the rest of the league, is shrinking, and fast. Again, not a bad thing.

The Sabres dominated the Red Wings in just about every area, even faceoffs, and you wonder which is the stronger emotion for the Wings today---anger or surprise.

If it's a mixture of both, then the Sabres' win might just be what the Red Wings needed.

The season opened with a couple of unseemly losses overseas, in Sweden. Then some home cooking corrected things for two games. Now, in the first "real" road game of the season, the Red Wings got spanked.

Hard work is going to have to trump talent this season. A champion's will to show everyone that it's far too early to declare them also-rans is going to have to bob to the surface.

And yes, some anger is fine. Hurt pride can be a springboard to righting the ship.

The Red Wings got waylaid in Buffalo, and they're smart enough to know that it will happen more and more, if they don;t correct their play.

"They were better than us," coach Mike Babcock said of the Sabres. "In all areas. They were just better."

But the Red Wings are still better than the Sabres, and are better than just about all the teams in the league, on most nights.

They're just going to have to work harder to prove it, is all.

And that's not a bad thing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": Hoopin' It Up, with A. Sherrod Blakely

The Detroit Pistons and the NBA took center court, if you will, last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

That's because our guest was A. Sherrod Blakely, who is the Pistons beat writer for

Sherrod gave us his insights on the Pistons and the league, from his vantage point as a training camp observer and beat writer. We covered the gamut, from new acquisitions like Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and draft pick Austin Daye, to returning veterans like Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and oldie but goodie Ben Wallace.

So does Sherrod think this year's Pistons squad is in the midst of rebuilding, or is his beer mug half full? I guess you'll have to listen to the show to find out!

After Sherrod's segment, Al and I dove right into yet another busy slate of talking points.

We started by giving our final thoughts on the Tigers' epic (?) one-game playoff in Minnesota, and what we would have done differently if we were in the dugout pushing the buttons. Hint: we both agree that a certain left-handed swinging rookie should have been called upon to pinch-hit!

From there, I, once again, had to be "The Voice of Reason" and talk Al down a little bit when it came to the Red Wings and the loss of Johan Franzen.

We wrapped things up by dissecting the Lions' 28-20 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, and Al went on a mini-rant, panning Daunte Culpepper's performance.

The piece de resistance, of course, was the show-ending Jerks of the Week!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, for updates on scheduled guests, time changes, etc.

Next week's guest: the always colorful Bob Page, retired (in theory) broadcaster of Detroit and New York.

Upcoming guests:

Oct. 19 Bob Page
Oct. 26 Former Lions great Alex Karras (tentative, but we're guardedly optimistic!)
Nov. 2 Jose Canseco (yes, THE Jose Canseco!!)

Some highlights from last night:

Big Al

On the Tigers' offense:
"Adam Everett is a good player, but he doesn't hit and the Tigers had four batting slots full of Adam Everetts this season. The Tigers need to find a good blend of offense and defense; no more of this one or the other stuff."

On Franzen: "Who knows if he'll be 100 percent when he returns, because this is a torn ACL injury. But I'll take a 75 percent Johan Franzen over a lot of guys in the league."

On Culpepper: "He made some mistakes that Matthew Stafford, as a rookie, wouldn't have made. I think it's time to sit him down and see what you have in Drew Stanton."


On the one-game playoff:
"It was like the whole month of September in a microcosm. The Tigers get off to a lead and the Twins peck away at it. In the end, the Tigers couldn't execute fundamentals and the Twins did, and that was the difference."

On the Red Wings losing Franzen: "They don't ever have the mentality of, 'If one guy goes down, the whole thing collapses,' like some other teams in town. They just kind of hunker down and say, 'We have enough talent to overcome this.' They still have Cleary and Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and others. I'm more concerned about the penalty kill."

On the Lions-Steelers game: "Isn't it funny how the good teams like the Steelers, who are defending champions, can dial up three sacks like that when they need it? The Lions wouldn't have been able to do that against Ben Roethlisberger. But that's why the Steelers are the champs."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Just Like That, Steel Curtain Closes On Lions' Chances

They say more NFL games than you know come down to a handful of plays. The talent level, supposedly, is so close from team to team that in any given game, wins and losses are often decided by maybe no more than three or four percent of the total number of plays run.

Usually, though, those three or four plays are scattered throughout the game's sixty minutes. They're rarely bunched together, rat-a-tat-tat, at the end of the match.

But that's exactly what happened at Ford Field---a.k.a. Heinz Field North---on Sunday as the Pittsburgh Steelers fended off the Lions, 28-20.

The Steelers sacked Lions QB Daunte Culpepper three straight times within the final 90 seconds of regulation, turning a 1st-and-10 from the Steelers' 21 into 4th-and-34 from their 45, thus sealing the victory.

Only the Lions could turn such a golden opportunity for a tying score into a desperate, Hail Mary situation in a matter of seconds.

Well, the Lions---and the Steelers themselves.

This is no ordinary defense, the one they have in Pittsburgh. Pro Bowler James Harrison spent almost as much time in the Lions backfield as running back Kevin Smith. The Steelers pressured Culpepper more than what the Hoover Dam deals with every day.

And the Lions have no ordinary offensive line. In fact, they'd kill for ordinary, because they're still not quite at mediocre yet.

And you hoped that Matthew Stafford would play on Sunday? Heck, we might be eulogizing him this morning.

Culpepper, though, didn't exactly show much elusiveness in that final drive, which was surprisingly punctuated by a couple of nice catches by rookie Derrick Williams. Daunte may have lost a lot of weight, but he went down sometimes if he was breathed on funny.

Sadly, he picked a couple of those times during that fateful three-play stretch. Steelers DB William Gay blitzed on the third sack, and clipped Culpepper with his arms, and the Lions QB plopped to the turf, his attempt at avoiding Gay about the most pathetic you'll ever see.

Would Stafford had done better? Even if he had---on that play---let's just say that the kid picked a good game to miss.

And the Steelers fans picked a good game not to miss.

They came in droves to Detroit, and if there was a home field advantage for the Lions, it was a trickle---the Steelers fans filtering it capably.

But it was because of those Steelers zealots that the game was sold out in time for the NFL to lift the blackout.

Which meant, of course, that we were lucky enough to see those three rat-a-tat-tat sacks that effectively squashed the Lions' hopes of tying the game.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the former Lion, is up for Hall of Fame consideration. It's debatable whether it's more for his exploits on the field or on the sidelines. But in about 30 seconds on Sunday, LeBeau sealed his induction, as far as I'm concerned.

Those three sacks should go down in Steelers lore, albeit them coming against the---no pun intended---sad-sack Lions. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a team change a game so definitively and so dramatically, so quickly and so late?

That's a lot of "sos," I know, but goodness gracious---LeBeau dialed up the pressure and his players responded, big time.

Ahh, players. The Steelers, like most NFL teams save a handful, have more good ones than the Lions have. But the Lions showed some moxie, making big plays on both sides of the ball and converting 11-of-18 third downs, which is their new thing this year.

DB William James had a "pick six" for the Lions, and I think the last one of those might be Shaun Rogers' long gallop against the Denver Broncos at Ford Field, two years ago.

But Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 passes in a row after James' interception, proving why he's one of the game's greats. The elite guys bounce back like super balls following such duress.

As for the Lions, despite the new cast of characters, you still don't get the feeling that any late-game drives are going to end up positively, such as Sunday's. And you won't, until they actually start to occur. But here's the rub: I think they might, sooner rather than later.

The o-line is bad, but the Lions put a scare into the Steelers without Calvin Johnson, injured earlier. The playcalling is the main reason; o-coordinator Scott Linehan calls a good game, for the most part. Until the Lions get reinforcements on the line, they'll struggle, but the talent level and Linehan's mind will just have to combine for at least one heroic, late-game drive this year.

The Steelers fans who piled into their vehicles and made the trek to Detroit went home happy.

You can only wonder when you can start saying that with any consistency about the hometown folks, whose twenty, thirty minute jaunts have seemed longer than the one from Detroit to Pittsburgh in recent years.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Red Wings Enforcer Polonich Never Same After Brutal Attack

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, as he is wont to do, succinctly summarized why his team had signed Brad May to a contract.

“We had him for a few exhibition games and no one bothered our guys,” Babcock said. “Then we didn’t have him and people started taking some liberties.

“I don’t mind it when tough guys are tough guys. But when guys who aren’t tough start playing tough, that drives me crazy. And we’d seen enough of that.”

So the Red Wings found May, a 37-year-old notorious tough guy, on the scrap heap a couple weeks ago, gave him a tryout in the preseason, and signed him to a one-year deal the afternoon of the team’s home opener Thursday.

“May provides something that no one else on the team does,” Babcock continued, ever the pragmatist. “So he’ll always have a role.”

Tough guy. Enforcer. They used to call them policemen, back when I first started following hockey in the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Babcock has often said that players like May “keep the flies off” the more skilled, star guys.

Once upon a time, the skilled, star guys functioned as their own bodyguards.

You think Gordie Howe needed someone to keep the flies off him? Ted Lindsay was another who could score as well as fight.

Bobby Hull could take care of himself. So could Johnny Bucyk and Rocket Richard. And many others.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, we lost that triple threat hockey player—one who could check, score, and fight.

The Red Wings employed one such pugnacious, tenacious little guy in the 1970s named Dennis Polonich.

Polo, they called him. No one said hockey nicknames were overly creative.

Polonich was a homegrown Red Wing, drafted by the team in the eighth round in 1973 and nurtured through the minor league system. He must have had that Napoleonic Complex, because Polo was all of 5′6″ and that measurement was surely taken while he was on skates.

Polonich was a Red Wing in the thick of the worst stretch the franchise ever had, in terms of success on the ice. He played on teams that were cringe-inducing in their ineptitude.

But Dennis Polonich could play hockey a little bit, in addition to being the team’s resident tough guy. He was a triple threat, indeed. No Henrik Zetterberg, but not an unskilled hack, either.

A quick check of confirms my suspicions.

In 1976-77, Polonich scored 19 goals. The following season, 16. And that was despite being whistled for 528 minutes in penalties in those two seasons combined.

Then Polonich’s career changed.

It was in October, 1978—the Red Wings entertaining a team called the Colorado Rockies, the hockey version, pre-baseball.

Another triple threat player named Wilf Paiement tangled with Polonich and words were exchanged. Your typical heat-of-the-moment hockey stuff. Shortly thereafter, Paiement and Polonich met again on the ice. Things escalated, as they tend to do.

It all happened so quickly.

Paiement took his stick—by all accounts with two hands near the top, and swung. His aim was for Polonich’s face, and he connected.

Polonich went down in a heap, in a flash, and it was so fast that many at Olympia Stadium didn’t even see what had happened.

The result of Paiement’s stick swinging was not only a league reprimand of 15 games worth of suspension, but also a lawsuit filed by Polonich against his attacker.

The violent thwack of Paiement’s stick against Polonich’s head only caused Polo to miss 18 games in the 1978-79 season, which was amazing considering the magnitude of the attack, which had left him with a concussion, severe facial lacerations, and a broken nose that required reconstructive surgery—resulting in lifelong breathing problems.

He was never the same.

Polonich scored 10 goals that season, played just 109 NHL games after that, and scored a grand total of four more goals in those 109 matches, after scoring 55 goals in his previous 277 contests.

Before Wilf Paiement rearranged his face, Polonich was a tough guy who could score on occasion and who “kept the flies off” the Red Wings’ more skilled players—and they had precious few in those days.

But after, Polonich was a shell of his former self. He still accumulated some penalty minutes, but not as many and his fights were less frequent. He just wasn’t the same, period—physically or mentally. He was out of the NHL by 1982—the same year in which Polonich finally collected some money from Paiement—an $850,000 settlement.

Some who would know say that Paiement’s attack on Polonich was the most violent act ever committed in an NHL game.

But because of Polo’s reputation as an instigator and pest, he wasn’t exactly portrayed as the traditional victim, despite the horrific nature of the attack. There was a lot of “he got what he deserved” from those around the NHL.

In Detroit, the fans loved Dennis Polonich. He was a shrimp but he didn’t hesitate to take on the biggest and baddest that the NHL had to offer. Go to YouTube and type his name in the search box and have some fun.

The Broad Street Bullies themselves, the Philadelphia Flyers, would invade Olympia and those were some fantastic wars—despite the distance between the two teams in the standings. When the Flyers came to Detroit, blood was shed and the Red Wings often won the game.

And Polonich often led the charge, engaging Dave Schultz or Moose Dupont or Bob Kelly in some rock ‘em, sock ‘em fisticuffs.

All that went away after Paiement used his stick as a golf club and Polonich’s head as the teed up ball.

Brad May, today’s Red Wings enforcer, is to make certain that no nonsense goes on involving the Zetterbergs and Datsyuks and Lidstroms. Not on his watch, anyway.

May is still in the NHL at age 37 because his kind is a coveted asset.

Dennis Polonich only played in the NHL until he was 29, but would have played longer, likely, if it wasn’t for Wilf Paiement.

Polo probably would have given the 850 grand back in exchange for remaining an impact player.

Few things are sadder in hockey than an enforcer who doesn’t scare anybody anymore.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Will (gasp!) Backup Goalie Be Red Wings' Bugaboo?

Can a backup goaltender, of all things, decide whether a hockey team reaches the promised land or not?

We're about to find out.

The Detroit Red Wings pull the curtain back tonight for the first time in front of their home crowd in the 2009-10 campaign. And their fans will see something that they haven't seen in 20 years: an 0-2 Red Wings team.

But the Wings are 0-0 in North America!

The much ballyhooed trip to Sweden proved to be more distraction than it was worth, the Red Wings blowing two-goal leads in both games to the inferior (but improving) St. Louis Blues.

Let's look at that word, inferior.

First there's the inferior backup goaltender, Jimmy Howard---in comparison to last year's No. 2 man, Ty Conklin. But the concern in Detroit is that Howard is not only inferior to Ty Conklin, but also to Ty Cobb, when it comes to being a goalie.

Chris Osgood, the No. 1 netminder, wasn't very good in Sweden. Howard, though, was downright awful.

But it was just one game, right?

Yes and no.

It was one game this season, yes, but for a guy who's been taking his sweet time developing, Howard was expected---check that, required---to play a lot better coming out of the gate.

There's worry in Detroit about the goaltending---surprise, surprise---but for the first time that I can recall (and if you know me, that's a lot of recalling), the worry isn't so much about the starter, but about the guy sitting on the bench most nights.

Jimmy Howard might be the only backup goalie in the NHL who's on the hot seat. And the guy doesn't even have anyone playing behind him!

It's the opposite of the old NFL adage about quarterback controversies: the best quarterback is the one not playing.

In Detroit, not only is the best goalie the one who is playing, the second-best goalie is the one not even on the team right now.

Coach Mike Babcock said in training camp that he expects 25 victories from his backup goalie this season. Good luck with that, Michael.

Do you see 25 wins somewhere in and around Jimmy Howard's body? Heck, do you even see 25 games?

These are the Red Wings. They don't put up with some of the nonsense that teams in other NHL cities are forced to put up with. And one of those things is putting a backup goalie in net and watching the game with one eye open and the other one closed.

If Howard doesn't right himself, and quick, he won't be on the team. It's as simple as that. The Red Wings don't owe him anything. He's not some bonus baby in which the team has a lot of Mike Ilitch's pizza dough invested. They've been patient with Howard. It's all on him now.

Howard has the additional misfortune of following Conklin's act, which was superb last season, pulling the Red Wings through the Chris Osgood Ordeal---during that 82-game thing that we call, in Detroit, "preparing for the playoffs."

I have some good news for the Howard Haters today. Don't worry so much. Babcock, GM Ken Holland et al aren't going to be very patient anymore. Prediction: Howard isn't the backup come Christmas. Just a hunch. Could be time for young Daniel Larsson, or someone from outside the organization.

Now back to that word inferior once more.

I called the Blues inferior, but the other biggie is wondering how many other teams we can say that about, in comparison to the mighty Red Wings.

It's trendy and chic to say that the list of teams you can pencil in beneath the Red Wings in terms of overall strength is dwindling. Perhaps it is. Not so sure, though.

John Buccigross of, in his Western Conference preview, has the Red Wings fourth, behind Calgary, Chicago, and San Jose. He's another who's fallen prey to the trend-setters.

The Blackhawks, of course, are a legitimate threat to the Red Wings' supremacy in the Central (I wish they called it the Norris again) Division. But Buccigross makes a fantastic leap of faith in picking them second in the conference.

Here's Buccigross on the Blackhawks' Achilles heel---starting goalie Cristobal Huet:

"So far, not good. Last season, he was outplayed and lost his starting job. His career had a nice, steady arc before last season's expectations. So it is reasonable to believe he can return to form. But can you picture him as a Stanley Cup-winning goalie? If you can, then this team has as good a chance as any."

Wow. That's a big supposition to make, in calling a team the second best in its conference.

The good news: no backup goalie worries in Chicago. The bad news: that's because they're all focused on the starter.

More about the Blackhawks: Buccigross also likes the Marian Hossa signing---as well he should. But Hossa is out until Lord knows when thanks to off-season surgery. Will it take him time to get revved up? Then again, he might be in peak condition come playoff time. It's not like he couldn't use a (ahem) strong playoff, you know?

About the Flames, supposedly No. 1 in the West in Buccigross's four eyes, the offensive power dazzles him, as does the acquisition of free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from Florida.

Ahh, but there's this about the Flames and their goaltending situation, i.e. Mikka Kiprusoff:

"Kiprusoff's goals-against average has gone up every year he has been in Calgary. The past four seasons, his games played looks like this: 74-74-76-76. That is insane. He turns 33 later this month. He can't sniff that amount of games and expect to finish the season with a kick. Kiprusoff is obviously a grinder. He takes every goal to heart. Having him play that amount of games wears down his brain, and anyone who believes otherwise doesn't understand goalies or people like Kiprusoff. He is not a John Deere tractor on the Sutter farm. He is a man, he's 33 and he needs to be handled better this season or he will have another .884 playoff save percentage like this past spring."

Does that sound like an argument for why the Flames are the best in the West? Sounds more like the opposite, to me.

So Buccigross---and I'm sorry to pick on just him---is making two huge leaps of faith about other teams' goaltending situations in placing them ahead of the Red Wings in the so-called "power rankings."

But that's OK. It'll be refreshing to watch the Red Wings play a regular season in which they're not on the tips of everyone's tongues in the "who's winning the Stanley Cup?" discussions.

By the way, the Red Wings should still be in those discussions, heavily. They're still pretty damn good, despite their losses in free agency. They still have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen and Daniel Cleary and Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall. And more.

I think you're sniffing the goalpost paint if you pick the Red Wings anything less than best in the Central and second in the conference, but what do I know? I picked the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in 2008, and I picked them again in 2009. Boy, did I miss that one by a mile, eh?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": We Put the Gloves On, Then Took 'Em Off!

We turned extra combative last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

That's because our guest was none other than Marvin Hagler, Jr., son of the multiple world champion boxer.

Junior was on to discuss his upcoming professional boxing debut, set to take place on Saturday near Philadelphia. It's the headliner of a Celebrity Boxing card, but Marvin is no typical celebrity boxer. He's got that famous pedigree, and, at age 33, he's considering making this more than just a passing fling.

One bombshell was laid on us. It involves Marvin and his dad, and I guess you'll have to listen to the show to find out what it is!

Oh, and BTW, Big Al asked Marvin which of his father's fights was his favorite, and he selected the "Eight Minutes of Fury" bout against Thomas Hearns in 1985, which Hagler Sr. won by TKO in the third round.

"Sorry, Detroit," Junior said.

After Marvin, there was, as usual, a boatload of things to rant about.

We started with the ever-developing Miguel Cabrera saga. Al and I spent about 30 minutes dissecting it, along with offering our opinions on how the Tigers as an organization handled things. (Hint: not very well).

Then it was on to today's one-game playoff in Minnesota.

We offered up who we thought needed to have a big game (care to take a guess), and why the Tigers got to this point to begin with.

There was some time left for the Lions and their 30-minute performance in Chicago on Sunday. This gave Al another glorious opportunity to utter his two favorite words, "FIRE KWAN!!," as in special teams coach Stan Kwan, whose unit was torched for one big kick return after the other, surrendering field position all afternoon.

By the time we got through all that, Michigan-Michigan State got left out in the cold! They were the guest on "The Tonight Show" that Johnny didn't have time for.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, for updates on scheduled guests, time changes, etc.

Next week's guest: A. Sherrod Blakely, Pistons' beat writer for

Upcoming guests:

Oct. 12 A. Sherrod Blakely
Oct. 19 Bob Page
Oct. 26 TBA
Nov. 2 Jose Canseco (yes, THE Jose Canseco!!)

Some highlights from last night:

Big Al

On Cabrera:
"The Tigers were put in a tough situation but they exacerbated it. They were foolish to think they could keep something like this quiet."

On Cabrera II: "I was 26 years old once, and I did my share of drinking. But I wasn't being paid $120 million and asked to carry a team to the playoffs. The only good thing was that he wasn't driving. But if that's the only good thing you can say..."

On the Lions: "I've been calling for them to fire Kwan, but in all fairness he's coaching with one hand tied behind his back. He just doesn't have the talent."

On Matthew Stafford: "He missed some plays, but in a couple years he's not going to miss them and this offense is going to start to hum."


On Cabrera:
"I hope the Tigers get him some help. This wasn't a case of a guy going out once, getting drunk once, and getting belligerent, once. These were the actions of someone with a problem. He needs to go into rehab between now and spring training and get cleaned up."

On Cabrera II: "His numbers were good but not great. He had 33 HR and 101 RBI, but he's capable of 40 and 120, easily. I don't care that he doesn't have much support in the lineup. Tough. That's what he's getting paid to do."

On the Lions: "They need to address the defensive line in next year's draft, big time. That's the crux of their problems on defense. No contain, no pressure on the quarterback, no plays for negative yardage."

On Matthew Stafford: "Yes, he missed some open receivers, but at least they were open. I like that the tight ends got involved, too. Stafford's mistakes are coachable, so that's a good thing."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Lions Once Again Kings of 30-Minute Football

The Lions turned in another of those 30-minute jobs yesterday in Chicago, and it cost them, big time.

A 21-21 halftime tie turned into a 48-24 laugher for the Bears, but here's what's NOT funny.

Matthew Stafford dislocated his knee cap, according to ESPN.

The thing popped back into place on the sidelines, following a sack in the fourth quarter, when Stafford was clearly seen grimacing in pain and grabbing his right leg.

No, no laughing about that.

Early reports say QB Stafford could miss a game, maybe two.

But today there will be those dreaded tests, and how many Black Mondays have their been in the NFL for teams over the years?

What is sometimes considered a minor injury has too often turned into something more, and of the season-ending variety, to boot.

Sorry to be Chicken Little here, but you never know what an MRI might reveal when it comes to a football player's knee.

Stafford took some more baby steps Sunday, in his quest to be a bona fide NFL signal caller.

He threw for nearly 300 yards, plus a touchdown. He again exhibited his arm strength. There were some missed receivers, but that now seems to be part of his M.O. At least the receivers are getting open.

See? No Chicken Little talk there.

Fox analyst Brian Billick, himself once considered one of those NFL offensive "geniuses," correctly pointed out that Stafford needs to get a little more air under some of his passes. Stafford did so on the game's first play, a 50+ yarder to Calvin Johnson, but then went back into laser mode on other throws when he should have lofted.

But like offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said last week, "We can pull back on that (overthrowing). I'd be more concerned if he couldn't get it there."

Amen, because we sure have seen enough of the latter in Detroit.

So it wasn't Stafford who cost the Lions on Sunday---not even his injury, which came when the game was pretty much decided.

The two culprits were the (sadly) usual suspects: the overall defense and the special teams' kick coverage.

The Lions covered kicks yesterday as if the return man was carrying around Swine Flu all over his jersey. It was an abysmal display, and constantly gave the Bears field position at or around midfield.

The defense was sieve-like, once again, and it's truly a wonder that the Washington Redskins could manage but 14 points against the Lions last week.

Tackling was poor. Little to no pressure on the QB---again.

Bears RB Matt Forte came into the game with a yards-per-carry average of 2.5, yet traversed the entire length of the field, almost, in just two carries, on his way to 121 yards on 11 tries.

But that's nothing new; the Lions make pedestrian runners look like Jim Brown all the time. They're like the Tigers that way, who turn nondescript pitchers into Cy Young on a regular basis.

Some positives, though, were gleaned from Soldier Field.

Don't look now, but the offense is piling up long touchdown drives with some consistency.

They did it against the Redskins and did it some more against the Bears. They're converting third downs a lot better than any Lions team in recent memory. And they did it yesterday without any real contribution from the running game, which had been productive in Weeks Two and Three.

But it's hard to win when the defense doesn't pick up the offense one iota.

The tone was set in the second half when rookie Johnny Knox---it's tempting to keep going with his name, thanks to the star of the "Jackass" franchise---took the half-opening kickoff 102 yards to paydirt. Maybe someday we'll find out why they call it "paydirt," by the way.

Anyhow, that was the harbinger of bad things to come for the Lions, which often does following intermission.

A quick word or two about the Lions' running game.

Kevin Smith is a real nice guy and means well. He's a competitor and all that.

He's just not very good.

A runner of greater ability, awareness, and vision than Smith would have turned some of the negative and short yardage plays Sunday into something positive.

Yeah, I know---I'm still blinded by what Barry Sanders did routinely for ten years.

But a runner doesn't have to be Barry to have made something of what Smith was given by his offensive line on Sunday in Chicago.

I know Smith wasn't 100%. I get that.

But he just doesn't seem to have that intangible---the ability to turn something from nothing, even just a little bit. Perhaps he'll get better in that area, but I kind of think that you either have that or you don't. It seems innate to me.

We'll see.

So it was another half of a performance from the Lions. Another reminder that the NFL means being competitive for 60 minutes, and the Lions simply don't have the horses to hang with most teams for that long.

That's not an indictment of coach Jim Schwartz. He just needs more talent, is all.

Oh, and it would be nice to hear OLB Julian Peterson's name called every now and again. That would be splendid.

Meanwhile, we await news on what is now suddenly the most famous knee in Michigan.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Stafford Has QB Presence Like No Other Lion in Years

It was Super Bowl week, and Thomas Henderson wanted to try out some new material.

What better opportunity than Media Day—held on Tuesday before The Big Game—to show how brilliant you are, and how much the other guy isn’t?

Henderson, the bombastic Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker who encouraged the use of the nickname “Hollywood” for himself, wanted to tell reporters just what he thought of the opposing quarterback, Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This was before Super Bowl XIII in January 1979, with Bradshaw’s Steelers already having won two championships, after the 1974 and ’75 seasons.

Henderson made sure the eyes were on him and the pens were put to notepads and the tape recorders were whirring.

“Terry Bradshaw,” Henderson said, “couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’.”

Laugh, chortle, guffaw!

In a game whose strategic tactics are often compared to that of chess and military theaters, Bradshaw, playing what should then be the most cerebral of all of football’s positions—quarterback, for goodness sakes—somehow garnered a reputation of being a little shy in the smarts department.

It’s a reputation that still follows him, to this day.

The country bumpkin from Louisiana proceeded to go out, in the wake of Hollywood Henderson’s biting comedy, and victimize the Cowboys with one big play after the other.

Bradshaw carved up Hollywood and his Cowboys for his third Super Bowl victory. He’d win another, the following season.

Country bumpkin Terry retired undefeated in The Big Game, 4-0.

Not bad for someone who was allegedly absent the day they handed out brains.

Bradshaw, today pulling down way more dough as a Fox Sports studio analyst than he ever did being a Hall of Fame quarterback, last week harkened back to his then-fledgling football-playing career.

The subject was our own Matthew Stafford, the Lions’ rookie quarterback, who had just earned his first NFL victory.

Jimmy Johnson, a Super Bowl-winning coach before being lured into the bosom of TV, reminded everyone that he had Troy Aikman as a rookie in 1989, and Troy went 1-15 in his debut season.

“Sometimes you gotta throw these kids to the wolves!,” Jimmy said with emphasis.

Then Bradshaw offered a truism.

“That’s what happened to me; I got thrown to the wolves,” Terry said.

Did he ever.

Bradshaw joined the Steelers in 1970 from Louisiana Tech as the NFL’s first overall pick, when the Steelers were coming off a 1-13 season.

It didn’t start off smoothly for him.

What else do you call it, when they hang the quarterback in effigy at his home stadium?

They did with Terry in Pittsburgh—his “likeness” purposely portrayed with a goofy, idiotic, cross-eyed look on his face.

The more Bradshaw struggled in his rookie season, the louder the whispers became.

Terry Bradshaw, those so wise in such things said, is too dumb to be a pro quarterback.

So they said—in so many words.

Sometimes in those exact words, actually.

Hollywood Henderson, before that XIIIth Super Bowl, tried to revive the “Bradshaw is dumb” thing, despite Terry being twice a champion at the time.

He can’t spell “cat” even if you spot him the “c” and the “a.”

But Bradshaw could spell “win” very nicely, thank you.

Stafford is, indeed, being thrown to the wolves in Detroit. When your new team went 0-16 the year before your arrival, you’re also being smeared with raw meat before being chucked.

It’s a monumental task, to lead the Lions from historic depths to the look and feel of a winning unit.

But the kid is going to be OK.

It’s hard to make my case, I understand that, because it’s rooted in gut feel and held together with intangibles, but I’m telling you that Stafford has “it.”

Matthew Stafford carries himself more like a pro quarterback, after just three regular season games, better than so many of the other bozos the Lions have thrust under center.

He also fits this town very well, despite coming from the University of Georgia.

Ty Cobb was a Georgia Peach, too, and look how he fit in, in Detroit. So it has been done before.

Stafford has embraced Detroit—its people, its financial hardships and its grit. He did so almost immediately after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Lions in April. He’s a good-looking kid but there’s no “pretty boy” about him. He has already spoken of getting involved with the community, helping in any way that he can.

So many things went wrong with the last highly-drafted quarterback the Lions had, but if Joey Harrington had one flaw that stood out above the rest, it was this.

Joey wasn’t a Detroiter. He was wine and cheese, being drafted into a shot-and-beer town. He was an “aw, shucks” guy coming into a “you got a problem with that?” city.

Joey was “pretty boy,” absolutely.

He arrived in town playing the piano—literally—and no one in Detroit even owns a piano, much less plays one.

We play electric guitar here; this is Detroit Rock City, after all!

But we were willing to overlook Joey and from where he came, because he was new and exciting and maybe he could play quarterback a little bit—and in that case, who cares what his pedigree is?

Big oaf Tony Siragusa, several years back, made some snide remarks about Harrington, in Tony’s role as another of those Fox Sports blabbermouths.

Joey was soft; he was all about champagne and strawberries, or something like that, Siragusa said, when you need your QB to be piss and vinegar. Tony then questioned Harrington’s manhood, in an indirect way, not too subtly.

We were aghast in Detroit. Or, at least we pretended to be.

I bet you that a lot of the people who purported to be offended, on Joey Harrington’s behalf, by Siragusa’s comments, secretly made an admission at the same time.

Tony Siragusa, in our heart of hearts, was right. Only, we didn’t want to believe it.

In retrospect, Siragusa was spot on about Joey.

Stafford shows fearlessness on the football field. There’s some mad bomber in him. He’s always eager to show off his rocket arm. He’s not afraid to fail.

There’s no panic. No happy feet in the pocket; Harrington danced the cha-cha back there as a Lion.

Stafford always believed, from Day One, that he was going to start for the Lions—and right now. Not next year; not in Week Six. Now.

He carries himself like a pro quarterback. He has a good head on his shoulders. He’s already ingratiating himself with his teammates—offense and defense included—fabulously. They believe in him, to a man.

I’ll even go out on a limb and say that Stafford can spell “win”, without being spotted the “w” and the “i.”

Just a hunch.