Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Time For Hamilton To Lead, Like It Or Not

Rip Hamilton appears to be done grieving, and that's a step in the right direction, anyway.

Hamilton chatted up the team during Media Day on Monday, and he spoke with a twinkle in his eyes and often times barely able to suppress a grin.

"We have to teach the newer guys, the younger guys, how to win," Hamilton said as the press people cornered him in his creamy white Pistons home uniform.

I know who "we" is, in Rip's mind, but he'd be best off placing himself at the top of the list of "we."

The Pistons are Hamilton's team, for better or for worse. And he'd better start acting like it.

Monday was a good start, albeit in a venue and situation where everyone tends to say all the right things.

But it's still progress for Rip, because last season he didn't come close to saying any of the right things. At all.

Hamilton went into mourning and soaked himself in grief after the Pistons traded longtime teammate and friend Chauncey Billups to Denver for one Allen Iverson. Then Rip got hurt. Then he didn't want to be the sixth man. Then he openly and brazenly challenged rookie head coach Mike Curry.

Rip Hamilton fussed and kicked and screamed and it was hardly what a new coach like Curry needed---heaped on top of the Iverson debacle and the degradation in skills and attitude of Rasheed Wallace.

But Hamilton didn't care, clearly. It was all about him and how things affected...him.

I'm willing to give Rip a pass and call last season a fluke---something we'd all like to forget in Pistons Land---if he's willing to step up and be a leader.

The Pistons could use one, you know.

In the Billups days, the Pistons liked to portray themselves as a team bereft of superstars but who get the job done because of their work ethic and commitment to team. The sum was always greater than their parts.

They won a championship doing that, and came close to another one.

Not having a superstar was fine, because Billups was more of a leader than we knew, until it was too late.

The Pistons still don't have a megastar, but now they don't even have anyone in the captain's chair.

Hamilton better get used to that seat and the controls before him in the cockpit.

This is Rip's team, make no mistake. Whether he chooses to act like it, we'll see.

I don't want to hear this talk about "we're all in this together" and "we don't need a leader because we can all lead." And I especially don't want to hear it from Hamilton, who should know better. That's a bunch of doo-doo.

So newcomer Ben Gordon plays the same position? Tough. Deal with it.

The Pistons need a solitary leader, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that.

Who better than Hamilton, despite his gagging on the opportunity last season?

Hamilton (left) and newcomer Ben Gordon pose at Media Day

You're not going to get it from Tayshaun Prince, the Marcel Marceau of the Pistons. Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, the new free agents, are, well, new. Rodney Stuckey is still too wet behind the ears. Ben Wallace, back from sabbatical, has never wanted any part of leadership.

Who else?

Kwame Brown? Chris Wilcox?

It's Rip, by default.

But on Monday, at least, Hamilton seemed ready to take a step toward becoming the captain.

"Offensively, we can hold our own with anybody," Hamilton said, again trying to suppress the grin of a cat about to swallow a canary. "But we have to make a statement on defense, by stopping people. We have to get back to that."

So true, so obvious.

It's a start---because Hamilton didn't do or say the obvious things last year.

Maybe Rip finally has the Billups trade out of his system. For him, it's the "Billups trade." For the rest of us, it will be known as the "Iverson trade," because AI's last name is now synonymous in this town with "debacle."

Rip seems to be done pouting and grieving.

"I was told by one of my first coaches in the league that the more positions you know how to play, the better chance you have of staying on the floor," Hamilton said on Monday, smiling. "I look at it as a challenge, if I have to play the (small forward) position," he added, referring to the logjam at shooting guard, thanks to the addition of the flash scoring Gordon.

Those are some nice words, almost cleansing, after last season.

It's a start.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": Pistons Talk Put On Hold, But Some Good Rants

Our NBA talk got put on hold for a couple weeks last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Our guest, A. Sherrod Blakely---Pistons beat writer for caught up in some work-related stuff and couldn't be with us, after all. But he WILL be joining us on October 12, so we're pleased about that!

So given all that extra time to kill, Al and I started flapping our gums, as is our wont! And, as usual, a couple of good rants resulted.

We kicked things off by talking Tigers and their chances to wrap this division up (finally) this week.

Al, as usual, is a Nervous Nellie and I had to "talk him down," as he put it. Because, after all, I AMJ the "Voice of Reason"!!

I reminded Al that the Tigers just need to win two of four against the Twins and that they certainly can do that.

Next, we moved on to U-M and their win over Indiana. The health of QB Tate Forcier is an issue, and again I "reasoned" Al down from the ledge, assuring him that the Wolverines CAN win without Forcier.

A good rant developed in this segment as we veered off into the college basketball programs in this area, especially the sad state of affairs at University of Detroit-Mercy.

We wrapped things up with the Lions and their historic win on Sunday over Washington. Another good rant formed here when the subject turned to Joey Harrington and how he never really fit in with this town's fans.

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

Next week's guest: Marvin Hagler, Jr., who is launching a boxing career on October 10. Marvin will then fight Sugar Ray Leonard Jr. (I'm not making this up) in February.

Upcoming guests:

Oct. 5 Marvin Hagler Jr.
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 U-M football:
"(QB) Denard Robinson...if he's in there, the other team knows it's going to be a running play. But the defense can't stop a high school team right now."

On the Tigers: "I'm concerned about the Twins! Are they in the Tigers' heads? Carl Pavano's been unhittable against the Tigers this year."

On the UDM basketball program: "Perry Watson was a good coach and had a lot of ties to the PSL, but as far as selling the program and getting people excited about it, there wasn't much there."

On the Lions: "You have to say the 2009 draft was a home run. Look at all the guys who are starting. And they're getting some contributions from the players in the lower rounds, too. But they're still not a very good team yet."


On the Tigers:
"I think they can get the two wins they need against the Twins. As far as Pavano, no one can explain it. Pavano probably couldn't, and the Tigers probably couldn't. It's just one of those things. That's why baseball is such a great game."

On U-M football: "If Michigan can't win without Tate Forcier, then they have issues. The kid's been good, but let's not get carried away. I'm more concerned about their defense than the QB situation. Michigan is supposed to be deep at QB. So let's see it."

On UDM basketball: "One of the biggest recruiting obstacles is Calihan Hall. It's old, decrepit, and is just a glorified high school gym. Plus the campus is old and not very attractive. And it's in a bad part of town. You don't even want to park your car there. They won't even play Oakland University, because OU's program is way better."

On Matthew Stafford: "There's something about this kid that tells me that everything's going to be OK. He has that presence about him. We wanted to believe that about Joey Harrington, but he was from Oregon and he was a pretty boy who played the piano. It wasn't a good fit."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Streaking Lions Win First Straight Game

Every dog really does have his day.

Every blind squirrel really does find a nut.

The longshot came in. The House lost.

It was "any given Sunday," finally. The dice came up snake eyes.

Someone had to be the victims of the Lions' losing streak ending, and it happened to be the team with some of the most ravenous, venomous fans in the NFL.

The Washington Redskins are today's NFL patsies. They will now officially spend the longest week of their football lives.

The Redskins have lost to the Detroit Lions. No team in the league has been able to lay claim to such a distinction since December 23, 2007.

Oh, what a week they'll have in Washington, with all their radio shows and TV shows and chat rooms.

These aren't the Houston Texans the Lions beat. Not the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not some team that plays in a city where you can hear a pin drop.

These are the Redskins, and their followers were scared to death of this matchup with the Lions.

Worst fears, realized.

Like my friend Big Al wrote over at The Wayne Fontes Experience, let another team's fan base pull its hair out this week. Let another city's radio airwaves be filled with hate and frustration.

The Lions walked off the field winners Sunday, a homely 19-14 win over Washington, but it was the Lions' homely win and they'll take it.

Linebacker Larry Foote, the Detroit native and U-M grad, was caught by the candid cameras in the locker room after the game, pouring champagne over head coach Jim Schwartz's head. Not sure where Larry got the bubbly from, but someone obviously was holding it for just such an occasion.

The Lions won a football game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to hold their 26-game losing streak longer in purgatory. But here come the St. Louis Rams, who are halfway there with 13 straight losses.

Let the Rams' fans wring their hands now.

It's off now, that King Kong the Lions were lugging on their backs for 19 games. But ole King wasn't easy to pry off.

You just knew it couldn't end with QB Matthew Stafford taking a knee as the time ticked away. You knew the Lions wouldn't be able to be streak busters that easily.

No, it had to come down to a heart-stopping final drive by the Redskins, who managed to get to the Lions' 35 in the waning seconds.

But this wasn't Brett Favre, it was Jason Campbell. And this wasn't 31 of the 32 coaches in the NFL, it was Jim Zorn.

Zorn ought to know better. He was a gunslinging QB when he played for the Seattle Seahawks, bombing away to Steve Largent et al.

But he stared down the barrel of a franchise-shaking loss and shook like a leaf.

Instead of chucking the ball into the end zone---for who knows what can happen when you do that, especially when the other team wears Honolulu Blue and Silver---Zorn had Campbell try one of those goofy hook-and-lateral plays after a measly 12-yard toss. The 'Skins didn't even sniff the 20 yard line, much less the end zone.

Ever since Cal beat Stanford in 1982, football teams have been trying to recapture that miracle. Hardly any have been successful.

Zorn would have been better off with a Hail Mary, but that's the other guys' deal to worry about today.

Zorn also made a questionable move to accept a penalty against the Lions, turning a 4th-and-four and a long FGA into a 3rd-and-14, which the Lions converted, enabling them to score a TD later in the drive.

They say you should never take points off the scoreboard, if you're on offense. And you should probably not take fourth downs off the board, either, if you're on defense. But Zorn did---more fuel for the fire that will engulf Washington and Redskin Nation this week.

They'll be talking about this one for years in D.C. The Lions---a team the Redskins have dominated (never having lost to them at home in over 75 years)---mustered their first win in 20 games against Dan Snyder's bunch.

The fun thing is, you don't have to be relegated to wishing you were the proverbial fly on the wall in order to see what they're saying in Washington. Thanks to Internet chat rooms, you can get a very nice picture indeed.

The Redskins fans want Zorn fired. Immediately. Some wanted him canned somewhere between Ford Field and Metro Airport. No joke.

The Lions are on the outside looking in again, but this time the view is just fine. This time the Lions can peer through the glass and watch debauchery and barroom brawls take place. The subject is still them, but in an entirely different way.

The Lions can watch as Redskins fans hurl empty beer mugs at Snyder and Zorn and Campbell and the like. They can press their noses against the glass and see a football team's entire fan base bust up the joint, beside themselves.

All over the little Lions.

The 1-2 Lions---same record as the Redskins.

Stafford was pretty good---21-for-36, 241 yards, a TD and NO interceptions. He played smart. He "left some plays on the field"---his words---but he made a veteran move by slinging the ball downfield when he saw Bryant Johnson in single coverage at the goal line in the fourth quarter, drawing a pass interference penalty.

There's the smattering of a connection developing now between the kid QB and the star receiver, Calvin Johnson. Stafford was also allowed to pass the ball on first down, when offensive coordinator Scott Linehan sensed a momentum shift.

The Lions will still likely only win two or three games this season. The Redskins are hardly a barometer against which to judge your team's development. But a win is a win as they say, and though it was no Mona Lisa, it's the Lions' and they'll take it.

The million-to-one shot came in. The tortoise won a race. William Hung came away with "Best Singer." The Italian Army won a war.

The Lions are 1-0 in their last one game.

But keep the champagne chilled. No more bubbly in September. Never again, right?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Red Wings' Run of Excellence Taken for Granted in Detroit

I was in New York, one of my favorite towns, and I started walking. It was a June day, some 18 years ago, and if you haven’t been to New York in June, then your life officially has a missing ingredient.

I set out around Times Square and headed north, up Sixth Avenue, from around 42nd Street. Maybe a half hour or so had passed when I decided to stop and look behind me, to see how much concrete I had covered.

The blocks and blocks of midtown Manhattan that I had engulfed boggled my mind.

Wow, I thought—did I really do all that?

It’s time now that certain people stop in their tracks and take a look back—at the Detroit Red Wings and what they’ve accomplished since 1991.

There are still old-timers among us—I’m not quite in that fraternity—who remember the 1950s, and how the Red Wings, along with the hated Montreal Canadiens, dominated the six-team NHL.

Back and forth the Red Wings and Canadiens went, seemingly handing the Stanley Cup off to each other every spring. It was like the Lions and Cleveland Browns in the same decade, only more so.

The Red Wings—they of Howe and Lindsay and Wilson and Kelly and Sawchuk, meeting the Canadiens of Richard and Moore and Geoffrion and Beliveau and Worsley—every late April for a showdown for the Cup.

The old-timers will tell you that this was the heyday of Detroit hockey. The Red Wings did win four Stanley Cups in six seasons, from 1949-50 thru 1954-55. And when they weren’t winning them, they were coming damn close.

But those Red Wings teams, as mighty as they were, filled with as many legends of the game as they were, did not do what today’s late-20th, early-21st century Red Wings are doing—with no signs of letting up.

In a town besmirched by its football team, abandoned for 13 seasons by its baseball team until 2006, and teased relentlessly by its NBA entry almost yearly, the Red Wings’ annual contention for hockey’s Holy Grail is accepted almost casually, with a feeling of entitlement oozing from its faithful.

I have never been a fan of the designation of “Hockeytown,” which the team encouraged its fans to use in describing Detroit, sometime around the mid-1990s. Those of you unfortunate enough to consider yourselves regular readers will attest that I’ve derided that self-aggrandizing moniker with stubborn consistency.

“Hockeytown.” HA!

The Canadiens have won over twice as many Stanley Cups as the Red Wings have managed—with both franchises’ timelines running almost concurrently.

So what does that make Montreal? “Chopped Livertown”?

The Red Wings play in Detroit, er, Hockeytown, and it’s a yearly ritual to set out in June and take in a hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. A game with Stanley Cup implications, of course.

The hockey denizens in town are aghast when their team doesn’t win the chalice.

I was on the ice at JLA, in the aftermath of last June’s Game 7 triumph by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Hockeytown was being vandalized by a group of happy Penguins and their families and staff.

Champagne was being sprayed into the expensive seats by Penguins players—who were soaking their own fans who made the trek from Pittsburgh, and who were hanging over the glass, trying to get blasted.

Player wives and children hugged husbands and daddies. Business-suited men and professionally-dressed women—presumably part of the behind-the-scenes functionaries—gleefully meandered on the same ice surface that, less than an hour prior, was being urgently skated on by dead tired Red Wings players trying to muster one more goal.

There were tears. There were hugs. There was hooting and hollering.

By the Pittsburgh Penguins!!

They had the temerity to win the Stanley Cup in Hockeytown. The horror!

The Red Wings of today have won four Cups in the past 11 seasons. In these modern days, that would qualify as a dynasty of sorts.

But there’s this.

Since the 1991-92 campaign—that’s 17 seasons in a row—the Red Wings have begun the post-season as legitimate Cup contenders. Not maybe contenders. Not “if everything goes perfectly” contenders.

Real, honest-to-goodness, they’re-likely-to-win-the-whole-darn-thing contenders.

For 17 straight springs.

The old-timers can’t boast of that kind of run from their 1950s Red Wings.

Nor can any team, in any sport.

Has there been the same legitimate World Series contender since 1991?

Not even the vaunted New York Yankees can say they were World Series ready in the early-1990s. And certainly no other team can lay claim to constant championship contention for 17 straight years.

The NBA has had its flavor-of-the-day dynasties—the Bulls of the 1990s, the Lakers of the early 2000s. And blips on the screen in between. But no NBA club has been consistently in the hunt since 1991-92.

The NFL, the League of Parity, purposely has constructed itself to prevent dynasties. And none of its teams can come close to describing itself as a Super Bowl contender—legitimately—on an annual basis since 1991.

But the Detroit Red Wings have gone into the playoffs every April, starting in 1992, with genuine hopes of raising the Stanley Cup two months later.

Every single year since 1992.

There have been first round knockouts, for sure. Conference finals meltdowns, yeah. Bizarre second round losses, absolutely.

And a couple of disappointments in the Cup Finals themselves.

But there have been those four Cups and deep playoff runs in most years.

Yet you won’t hear or read much about that in Detroit.

Instead, it’s always about why the Red Wings can’t, or won’t contend. Why the goal-tending will surely fail. Or some such worry.

A few years back, after the lockout, the league operating under a genuine salary cap for the first time, the haters were out in full force.

Let’s see how fast the Red Wings fall when their bottomless money pit is no longer to their avail, the haters said—many hailing from Hockeytown, USA.

This fall, the trendy thing to do is to pick the young, hungry Chicago Blackhawks to become the new rulers of the West. The worry du jour is all the free agents the Red Wings lost this summer.

It says here that the hockey fans in Detroit don’t know how good they’ve had it, in the time it takes a child to be born, grow up, and graduate high school.

They’ve been walking with the Red Wings for 17 blocks now, and it never occurs to them to stop and look back at all that’s been accomplished.

It’s a fan base that’s been spoiled rotten, and I wonder anymore how many of them know that we had another name for the NHL franchise in Detroit long before Hockeytown became all the rage.

The Dead Things.

Folks around here ought to remember from where their team came, and immerse themselves in the historical significance of what the Red Wings are doing at this very moment.

Because it ain’t been done, anywhere, since the great Yankees teams of the 1940s, ‘50s, and early-‘60s.

Yet they never called New York, the greatest of all our cities, “Baseballtown.”

They didn’t have to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whether Forced Or Not, Jimmy D Got Rooked In Federko Trade

Jimmy Devellano, recently announced as a winner of the Lester Patrick Trophy for dedication toward hockey, was the first man hired by Mike Ilitch when the latter purchased the sad sack Detroit Red Wings in 1982. One of the reasons was Jimmy D's uncanny ability to sniff out NHL talent from the woodwork of small North American towns, and from other NHL teams.

It wasn't a smooth ride at the beginning. Three years after his hire, Devellano presided over a brutal 17-57-6 season, his attempts at a quick fix via free agency---college and pro---having failed miserably.

But three years after that, the Red Wings were on the right path, seemingly.

Two consecutive visits to the Conference Finals, plus another Norris Division title in 1988-89, gave cause to believe that Devellano was finally the genius executive the Red Wings had been looking for, for decades.

Until he made The Trade.

There are urban legends---whispered myths---that Devellano engineered one of the most lopsided trades in team history because of something not hockey related, spurious in nature. I can neither confirm nor deny that.

But what can be confirmed is that, 20 years ago this summer, Devellano got absolutely fleeced by the intra-division St. Louis Blues.

A reminder of Jimmy D's temporary loss of sanity and genius stands behind the Red Wings bench today, and has for four seasons now.

Current assistant coach Paul MacLean, one of Mike Babcock's lieutenants, was shipped away in 1989 to St. Louis, along with burgeoning center Adam Oates, for aging center Bernie Federko and plugging forward Tony McKegney.


Coach Jacques Demers had Federko in St. Louis while Jacques coached the Blues and he loved him. Loved him so much, apparently, that he was able to convince Devellano to do whatever it took to bring him to Detroit to provide more veteran leadership.

The Blues said, "OK, you want Federko that bad? Then we want MacLean---and Oates."

And Jimmy Devellano, usually so wise when it comes to personnel, agreed to such a travesty of a trade.

Federko (left) and Oates, who would eventually be traded for each other

MacLean, acquired from Winnipeg just one year prior, did what he was supposed to do, scoring 36 goals for the Red Wings in '88-'89. And Oates was on the verge of greatness. He was 27 and had just recorded a whopping 62 assists.

But off they both went, to St. Louis, for 33-year-old Federko and McKegney, who was 31. McKegney scored 40 goals in 1987-88, but slipped to 25 one year later.

At the time, the trade was looked at with suspicion, but Jimmy D was on a mini-run and everyone liked Demers, so maybe he could work more magic with Federko and the question mark McKegney.

Not even close.

Federko played one clumsy season in Detroit before retiring, scoring 17 goals, and McKegney was gone after just 14 games as a Red Wing, shipped to Quebec for defenseman Robert Picard.

MacLean and Oates did wonders for the divisional rival Blues---MacLean scoring 33 goals, and Oates registering 79 assists as he combined with Brett Hull lethally.

The Red Wings failed to make the playoffs in 1989-90, the last year they did so.

OK, about the urban legend regarding this trade.

The young bachelor Oates was rumored to have done something untoward that didn't please Mike Ilitch in the least. Ilitch, the legend goes, demanded that Devellano trade Oates. So Jimmy D was acting with a distinct lack of leverage, and it showed---if this is true.

Don't know for sure, but that's your urban legend.

Regardless, let it be known that 20 summers ago, the Red Wings made maybe their worst trade under the Ilitch ownership, long before the folks around town took to calling their city "Hockeytown, USA."

Adam Oates and Paul MacLean for Bernie Federko and Tony McKegney, straight up.

Not too many have rooked the Red Wings since that travesty.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": Can the Shaky Tigers Hold On?

The Tigers' wobbly state as a first place team took center stage last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Our guest was Johnny Lawrence, one of the featured Detroit Tigers columnists for The Bleacher Report.

Johnny gave us his take on the Tigers' chances to finally put the division to bed, and their outlook for the playoffs. While Johnny doesn't see the Tigers advancing past ALDS, we all acknowledged that "anything can happen."

The chat room was chock full of folks, which we appreciate. Of course, many were fans of Johnny's, so we'll see what happens next week!

After Johnny's segment, Al and I got busy in a football kind of way.

We started by eulogizing ex-Lions coach Monte Clark, who passed away last week. It was mutually agreed that Monte got shafted by the Lions, being fired just one season removed from a divisional title.

Then we lamented the deaths of so many in the Lions family, past and present, in 2009. I called it "weird and sad."

Speaking of weird and sad, Al said, let's talk about the Lions on Sunday against the Vikings!

So we did.

To top things off, Al ranted about NFL officiating, particularly the mysterious chop block call on Gosder Cherilus.

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

Some highlights from last night:

Big Al

On the second half meltdown:
"It's talent. The Lions just don't have enough of it. You can talk schemes and strategy all you want, but it boils down to talent."

On Jeff Backus: "His 'miscommunication' damn near got Matthew Stafford killed!"

On Brett Favre: "He's nothing more than a 'game manager' now. And isn't that another way of saying that you can't win games anymore? Brett Favre didn't beat the Lions on Sunday."

On NFL officiating: "Make these guys full time, number one. All the other leagues do it. And you should be able to challenge more calls than you can now. As a fan it's incredibly frustrating."


On the second half meltdown:
"I'm concerned that this new staff is being schooled by the other team's coaches at halftime. The Lions played reasonably well for 30 minutes then just fell apart."

On Calvin Johnson: "I love it when the Lions run Johnson on a reverse. No one can tackle him; he's going up against these little DBs with a head of steam. I wish they ran that play more."

On Brett Favre: "He may be a 'game manager,' but he's still an upgrade from what they had, and that's the bottom line."

On NFL officiating: "I'm not sure making the officials full-time is the answer. They're still going to make bad calls. But maybe they should broaden the scope of plays that you can challenge. Video replay showed that the Gosder play was no chop block."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Coaches And Players, But Lions Still Getting "INC" Grade Every Sunday

The Detroit Lions have been Kings of the incompletion.

Not talking about passing here; talking about overall performance.

On select Sundays, the Lions will play perhaps 15, 20 minutes of decent football. On special occasions, they might squeeze out 30 minutes. Things could even get dicey and they might tease you with 45 minutes, just to mess with your mind.

Two years ago, the Lions were also Kings of the incomplete season.

They sprinted out to a 6-2 start and folks who should know better started to talk about the playoffs.

Their hideous won/loss record in the 21st century has been pocked with weekly displays of incomplete football games.

Maybe they'll fall behind in monstrous fashion---often in the opening few minutes---only to put together 15, 20 minutes of acceptable football before collapsing again into a heap.

The Lions have many other variations of this theme; but they switch it up, though---you have to give them that.

Sunday at Ford Field, in the home opener, the Lions gave us a rather simple, meat-and-potatoes version of their incomplete performance displays.

This version against the Minnesota Vikings wasn't very creative, but it was no less an example of the Lions' propensity to not put it all together.

The version was this: play 30 "not bad" minutes of football, then slide into oblivion for the second 30.

It was another example of halftime vexing the Lions and reviving their opponents. New coach Jim Schwartz and his crack staff have proven to be just as feeble as their predecessors in matching wits with their counterparts during intermission.

The Lions jogged into the locker room at the half, holding a precarious yet well-earned 10-7 lead. The seven points by the Vikings weren't gotten until the waning moments of the second quarter. The Lions had established a bit of a running game, and were keeping Brett Favre and his offense in check.

Matthew Stafford had thrown his first career NFL TD pass. The Vikings looked out of sorts.

Fast forward to the final few minutes of the fourth quarter, and there were the all-too-familiar, telltale signs of another Lions game.

The other team on the sidelines, laughing, joking, relaxed. Relieved even. A safe 27-13 lead in their vest pockets as the clock ticks away.

The Lions hanging and shaking their heads on the bench, and wearing that look of defeat. It may as well be their official look, like how The Joker's garish white makeup with the blood-red and green accents is synonymous with him.

Defeat isn't just makeup on the Lions' faces, though---it's now embedded into their skin, like tattoos.

The Vikings played with their dinner for the first 30 minutes of Sunday's game, then returned from another of those infusing halftimes and started devouring hungrily.

Lions rookie QB Matthew Stafford was sacked right out of the gate in the third quarter, and the route was on---despite the scoreboard showing the Lions with a three-point lead.

The Vikings made those adjustments that every NFL team supposedly makes at the break, and the Lions were ill-prepared for them. Again.

Turnovers---those guaranteed haunters---did the Lions in. They made three of them, which the Vikings turned into 14 points.

Fourteen points also happened to be the Vikes' margin of victory. Fancy that.

About Stafford: the kid is hellbent on learning the hard way, which all kid QBs do. Matthew's favorite seems to be the forced pass that turns into an easy interception. That mistake du jour might as well be on the rookie QB's "Greatest Hits" album.

In the fourth quarter, the Lions were down just ten, 20-10, and were beginning to twitch. They made a couple first downs. The crowd was being reintroduced into the game.

Then Stafford struck again---throwing a groaner of a pick that Favre and company turned into a touchdown and an insurmountable 27-10 advantage.

So that's 19 losses in a row, if you're scoring at home. The last time the Lions won a game was two Christmases and two Pistons coaches ago. Hillary Clinton was the front runner to be the Democratic nominee for president. No one had heard of Susan Boyle, Jon and Kate Gosselin, or Twitter. Everyone still used MySpace instead of Facebook.

But the Lions were playing incomplete football games back then, and beyond. And very much so, today.

Nice to know that there are still things in this world on which you can count, isn't it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Miguel Cabrera's Shoulders Getting Narrow at the Wrong Time

It was in a fit of frustration, earlier in this unusual baseball season, when Tigers manager Jim Leyland tried his hardest to inflict a scolding on his star first baseman without naming him.

“It’s time,” Leyland said, while the Tigers were again laboring so hard to score some runs, “for the big boys to be the big boys.”

You can lose the “s” and thus the plural version of that phrase, for Leyland had one player and one player only in mind.

The “big boy” was Miguel Cabrera. Still is.

It was a time when Cabrera was padding his statistics without any real impact on his team’s won/loss column. Miguel’s done that quite a bit this year, actually—and that’s largely why the Tigers suddenly find themselves in a dogfight for a division that they led by seven full games an eye blink ago.

Leyland all but begged his slugger, when he made the “big boys” comment, to broaden his shoulders and lug the Tigers along for a period of time. It was a cry for help, the “big boys” comment was—literally and figuratively.

Cabrera is a wonderful talent. A freak of a hitter, when he gets it going, puts it all together—all that rot. He ought to have the shoulders of Atlas, not that of Ray Bolger’s scarecrow from Wizard of Oz.

Cabrera’s shoulders broadened for a scintillating couple of weeks in late-August, when the Tigers started to pile onto their division lead. But now they’ve become puny again.

There are plenty of suspects in the Tigers’ lineup against whom you can levy charges for aiding and abetting a popgun offense.

Curtis Granderson, the formerly exciting leadoff hitter, who used to slap doubles and triples all over Comerica Park’s vastness, but who has this season fallen in love with the long ball and now cannot hit left-handers to save his soul.

Magglio Ordonez, once a gigantic hero in this town, by virtue of swatting the Tigers into the World Series in 2006, and by winning the batting crown the following year. But Ordonez vanished on the Tigers for such long stretches that it was summarily discussed whether to cut him from the roster, like some commoner.

Gerald Laird, the good field, no hit catcher whose bat is where rallies go to die.

There are more of them who you have my permission to look at cross-eyed.

Gutsy third baseman Brandon Inge, who’d play until his body fell apart if you let him. But Inge’s heroics—playing on one good leg—could be argued are hurting the Tigers more than helping.

The Tigers—the first place, wobbly Tigers—have instead relied on the unproven and the young—the so-called “role players,” for assistance.

Rookie catcher Alex Avila wasn’t even supposed to be anywhere near Detroit in 2009, his big league debut penciled in for 2010, but the Tigers were getting nothing from the bats of Laird and backup Dusty Ryan. So in a moment of weakness or desperation—take your pick—the Tigers summoned Avila from the minor leagues.

And the kid who wasn’t supposed to be a Tiger yet ended up becoming a player on which the team relied for clutch hitting—shaming Leyland’s “big boys” in the process. Others, like Ryan Raburn and Clete Thomas, also became heroes when those paid the big bucks disappeared.

Oops—my bad. I pluralized big boy again, a couple sentences ago.

Miguel Cabrera—he of the big bat, big contract, and big expectations—has pulled another vanishing act, and at the worst possible time.

Cabrera’s talent is in rarified air. When he’s on, he’s a rightfully feared hitter who can break the spirit of entire teams. He has the goods to swing the bat of Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard. It is company with which he ought to feel comfortable.

But Cabrera is failing the Tigers now. Maybe it’s a lack of maturity or temerity, but Cabrera is proving to be a fraud in the broad shoulders department.

I’ve seen players of far lesser talent than what Cabrera possesses hunker down and pile the Tigers on their backs.

I thrilled to Kirk Gibson, who returned from the strike of 1981 as if a man on a mission. Gibby destroyed American League pitching in the second half of that divided season, batting a robust .375 from August 10 on, leading the Tigers straight into a truncated but no less real pennant race with the Milwaukee Brewers.

I remember Johnny Grubb—the Gentleman from Virginia—carrying the Tigers for several weeks in 1986 as the team scrambled to give the Boston Red Sox a run for their money.

Neither Gibson nor Grubb had anywhere near the talent that Miguel Cabrera has. Perhaps Cabrera has more of it in his left bicep than Gibson or Grubb had in their entire bodies.

But Kirk Gibson was the greatest money hitter I’ve ever seen in Detroit. By far.

Cabrera has a wonderful chance to own this town, right now. It’s all there for him. He should, by rights, be allowing his teammates to board him as he lugs them across the finish line, quite heroically.

The Tigers need a pick-me-up in the worst way right now. As I bash the keyboard, the Tigers have lost eight of eleven games and on most nights are looking feeble in the process. Their prized pitching staff is finally starting to show signs of wear and tear. And the offense isn’t there to provide the pitchers with quid pro quo.

Their once-mighty lead in the Central Division has shrunk to three measly games. The untrustworthy Minnesota Twins are up to their old tricks again.

This ought to be Miguel Cabrera’s time. This is when the genuinely great players rise to the occasion. This is where the “big boys” separate themselves from the mere mortals.

But this isn’t proving to be Cabrera’s time—unless you mean his time to gag along with his teammates as the air gets tougher to breathe due to all the heat of a pennant race that shouldn’t be happening.

Cabrera’s numbers will look moderately gaudy at the end of the season, at first blush. Folks outside of Detroit who don’t know better will look at his HR/RBI/BA and whistle, duly impressed.

They will not know the true story.

The story of a marvelous ballplayer who stared down the barrel of true greatness and blinked.

He’s no Kirk Gibson.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cemetery, Sadly, Now Beckons Clark For Real

"See you at the cemetery."

Sadly, those words are no longer simply metaphorical.

Monte Clark is gone---dead at 72 after a long illness---and this has been a ghastly year for sports deaths, if you're a follower of the teams in Detroit.

The following list is only partial: George Kell; Bill Davidson; Chuck Daly; Mark Fidrych; Brad Van Pelt; John Gordy. And Ernie Harwell is likely dying.

Most tributes to Clark, the former Lions coach (1978-84), like this one from my friend Big Al, have mentioned in vivid detail the "praying hands" that Clark displayed prior to Eddie Murray's FG try in the 1983 playoffs in San Francisco. As well they should, for that might have been one of the most iconic images in Detroit sports history, bar none.

But the opening line of this post resonated with me almost as much.

For there would have been no playoff appearance in '83 if the Lions hadn't rebounded from a 1-4 start.

It was in Anaheim, after that fourth loss, when Clark---a former offensive lineman and a hulk of a man---stood before the cadre of media folks who all wanted to know the answer of the typical post-game question for the loser: "What happened out there?"

In a hushed tone, filled with gallows humor, Clark placed himself on the hot seat---practically giving himself the ziggy.

"See you at the cemetery," he said, then stepped away from the microphones and notepads.

The inference was impossible not to understand. Monte knew that the papers on Monday morning were going to be filled with poison, so might as well do a pre-emptive strike.

Well, now we truly will see Monte at the cemetery, thanks to his passing.

Clark was the first football coach in Detroit to be given the highbrow title of Director of Football Operations, even though GM Russ Thomas was far from retirement. Monte wanted some control beyond just that of drawing up plays and game plans. He wanted some say so in drafting, trades, and other personnel matters.

The highbrow title was mandatory, if the Lions wanted Clark as their next coach. It was a distinct lack of control, working for eccentric GM Joe Thomas, that slayed Clark after just one year as coach of the 49ers, in 1976.

Thomas dumped Clark rather unexpectedly after that '76 season, and the experience stung Monte. So when the Lions came calling, looking for a coach to replace Tommy Hudspeth, Clark insisted on the broadened title and increased input, beyond that of "just" a coach.

Monte was Don Shula's o-line coach in Miami for many years, and there are far worse folks from whom to learn your coaching chops than Mr. Shula.

Monte Clark, as he looked when he became the Lions' new coach in 1978

The Lions started 1-6 in Monte's first season, but gathered themselves and went 6-3 the rest of the way.

Then came a fateful exhibition game at the end of the 1979 pre-season.

QB Gary Danielson, who led the Lions to their fine finish the year before, went down with a serious knee injury, in Baltimore. He was done for the season.

The Lions had creaky Joe Reed as their backup, and by the third game Reed was done, also by injury.

The Lions were then QBd by rookie Jeff Komlo---he died this year, too---and the result was a horrific 2-14 season.

The Lions went through Reed, Komlo, Jerry Golsteyn, and Scott Hunter behind center, but Komlo by far got the most playing time. He completed about 50 percent of his passes and threw a ton of interceptions.

But that 2-14 year enabled the Lions to draft Billy Sims with the No. 1 overall pick, and playoff contention was just around the corner.

Clark avoided the coaching cemetery in 1983, but fell victim to it one year later after a disappointing 4-11-1 record, thanks largely to losing Sims to a career-ending knee injury in October.

But yes, that image of Monte praying to the football gods prior to Murray's 43-yard try on the final play in, of all places, San Francisco, will be burned into the minds of all Lions fans old enough to remember it when it happened.

I'm one of those, and that December 31, 1983 game ruined my New Year's celebration, as it did millions of others'.

The funny thing is, if you ask, most Lions fans will tell you that as soon as they saw Clark praying, they knew Murray was going to miss. I was one of those, too.

The Lions are the NFL's fallen angels, and those types don't have prayers answered.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Osgood Must Make Good On Yet Another Promise

Ty Conklin did everything the Red Wings wanted him to, and more, and now he's gone---bugging out of town after just one season in Detroit.

Conklin, the Red Wings' ace in the hole last season in net, is the typical vagabond goalie on tour---taking his act from city to city on a yearly basis, almost.

It began in Edmonton, and then moved to Pittsburgh. Last season, Conklin performed in Detroit, and to rave reviews. This year, he'll do his thing in St. Louis.

If it wasn't for Conklin, who knows where the Red Wings would have been last season---as far as the non-playoff version goes. He outplayed supposed No. 1 netminder Chris Osgood all season, and there was talk that Conklin, not Ozzie, would be the best choice to be between the pipes when the curtain opened on the post-season.

Osgood had, by his own admission, a horrible regular season. Then, in very Ozzie-like fashion, he promised us he would be ready when the playoffs arrived.

Was he ever!

After being shut down, basically, in February so he could mentally re-charge, Osgood was perhaps the Red Wings' playoff MVP. He likely would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy---awarded to the MVP of the NHL playoffs---if he and his teammates could have pulled off one more victory in the tournament.

The Red Wings won't have Ty Conklin and his safety net this season. Instead, unproven, slow-to-develop Jimmy Howard figures to be Osgood's backup.

It could be a dicey situation.

Osgood, for one, has made another promise. And far be it from us to not believe him, for Chris Osgood almost always makes good on his promises and almost always bounces back from sub-par work.

"I will never, EVER, have another regular season like I did (in 2008-09)," Ozzie told us media types before the Stanley Cup Finals, on Media Day. "I found out the hard way that I wasn't prepared---mentally or physically---for the season, coming off winning the Cup."

It won't happen again, Ozzie promised.

I believe him.

Still, if Howard doesn't wee-wee and is thus asked to remove himself from the pot, then the Red Wings will be in a pickle. It would be unfortunate to make Osgood---who'll turn 37 in November---play in any more than 50-55 games during the season, if the team can help it.

If Conklin isn't around last season, or if he doesn't play as stellar as he did, then the Red Wings, with sieve-like Chris Osgood as the No. 1 goalie, likely don't win the Central Division. It's that simple.

Because Conklin was around, providing veteran play and calming folks around the team, the Red Wings felt they could be more patient with Osgood---letting him get prepared for the playoffs at his own, leisurely pace. That's not easy to do when the No. 2 is young and/or shaky.

This year, the Red Wings might have young and shaky on the bench most nights, opening the swinging door for teammates during games.

As a result---barring a trade for a veteran goalie (don't count on blast from the past Dan Cloutier, who's in camp on a tryout)---the Red Wings need Chris Osgood to make good on one of his promises yet again.

The Red Wings don't have that "Cup hangover" this year. Coach Mike Babcock admitted recently it's there, for every defending champion. But he said he wasn't about to share that with his team last training camp---why should he have?

Osgood doesn't have the hangover, either. He promises to be ready, promises not to be a big piece of Swiss cheese in net for the Red Wings.

After all, he'll never, ever let that happen again.

His word's been as solid as the ice on which he plays, so may as well believe him.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": Hey, Hey Hockeytown!!

It was finally time to talk some serious hockey again last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Our guest was, as Big Al calls him, "The Godfather" of hockey blogging, Paul Kukla of Kukla's Korner.

Paul joined us for a look back at the Red Wings' off-season, and what to look for during training camp. We didn't stop there. We pressed on, asking Paul to name us some key players for 2009-10 and where he sees the Red Wings ending up next spring.

(Note: Mr. Kukla's glass is half full, which should reassure lots of Red Wings followers).

After Paul gave us his rich insight, Al and I got to chatting.

We began with the Tigers---Al is on the bandwagon with me and agrees the Tigers have all but sewn up the division---and their post-season chances. Then it was time to talk some football, U-M and Lions style. We dissected Michigan's big win over Notre Dame (is Tate Forcier a Heisman candidate of the future?) and the Lions' garish loss in New Orleans.

Finally, it was time for the requisite Jerks of the Week. Mine wasn't sports related, but when you hear who it was, I think you'll understand!

Fun times, as always!

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

Some highlights:

Big Al

On U-M freshman QB Tate Forcier:
"Forcier for Heisman in a couple of years? Looks like RichRod might have found his Pat White."

On the Tigers' chances in the playoffs against the Yankees: "Don't forget that it's a shorter series, so anything can happen. We didn't think they'd beat the Yankees in 2006, either."

On the bullpen: "Do you make Brandon Lyon the closer now? He's been lights out since May. How about next year? The Tigers might lose BOTH Lyon and Fernando Rodney to free agency. I think I'd rather keep Lyon, because Rodney might be easier to replace."

On the Lions coach Jim Schwartz: "Jim Schwartz LOOKS like a head coach. He did a pretty good job of game management in New Orleans. Unfortunately, he's been put in a sh*tty situation!"


On Forcier:
"Enjoy him now. That win over Notre Dame was huge. But there'll be a game where he just blows up, because he's so young. But if he's for real, Michigan should win a lot of football games over the next four years."

On the Tigers: "They lost five games in a row and only lost a game-and-a-half off their lead. That's an indictment of the division. They're going to win the division. And if they're going to beat the Yankees, it's more likely to happen in a 3-of-5 than a 4-of-7."

On the bullpen dynamic: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Keep Lyon as the set-up man for those tough outs in the seventh and eighth innings. I hope the Tigers don't lose both of them to free agency. Ryan Perry isn't ready yet to assume a bigger role. He's too erratic."

On the Lions: "The revamped defense was shockingly like last year's. I think Matthew Stafford had the usual first game jitters. The Lions need to give him a running game, somehow."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Not Too Much Unexpected As Lions Fall To Saints

It was a storied line, uttered by the most powerful man in the world, once upon a time.

The quote is attributed to President John Kennedy, in 1961, recently installed into the Oval Office after a bitterly contested election against Dick Nixon.

"What we found out," JFK said, "was that things were just as bad as we said they were. Maybe worse."

My thoughts turned to that quote as I watched new Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whenever the FOX Sports people flashed him on the sidelines, taking in his team's 45-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints Sunday in the Superdome.

"My goodness," Schwartz seemed to think, "what have I gotten myself into?"

Actually, Schwartz, who's not a dummy, no doubt had some inkling that his football team wasn't exactly an upper echelon unit. He knew it when he was hired in January. He knew it even more during OTAs. He knew it a little more during mini-camps. And he certainly was fully educated in training camp and the pre-season.

Still, you wonder if Schwartz---the erstwhile d-coordinator for the Tennessee Titans---was a little taken aback by how woefully ineffective his defense was in N'awlins.

And poor Gunther Cunningham, the man in charge of the defenders, must have damn near blown out an artery.

As expected, Saints QB Drew Brees and his receiving corps, ahem, breezed through the Lions all afternoon. But what wasn't expected was that the defense didn't seem to show one ounce of improvement over last season.


As radio's Jamie Samuelsen pointed out on Twitter yesterday, last year the Lions gave up a TD on the third play from scrimmage in the opener in Atlanta. Sunday, it took the Saints five plays to score their first touchdown.

Progress, Jamie said!

Once again, the Lions turned their attempts to stop a capable quarterback into a video game. Brees had himself six touchdown passes---the fantasy football geeks must have thought they died and had gone to heaven---and his uniform likely skipped the laundry basket after the game.

Might as well slap his nearly-pristine jersey onto its hanger and let it sit till next time.

The Lions put as much heat on Brees as a refrigerator Sunday, scarcely able to put a finger on him all afternoon.

In a fit of exasperation during Sunday's game, I Tweeted, "The more things change...."

Didn't need to finish the sentence.

OK, we know the defense has issues, but what about the much-ballyhooed debut of the Matthew Stafford Era?

The kid suffered through an afternoon typical of the newbie NFL starting QB: he overthrew open receivers; he underthrew open receivers; he zipped it when he should have flicked it; he flicked it when he should have zipped it.

Stafford was probably a little too hyped up, and you can't blame him. Not only was he battling the adrenalin of his first start, he had himself a 14-0 deficit just like that.

But that's OK. Matthew got his first game over with, and it wasn't an unmitigated disaster. Only a partly mitigated one.

Naah---not a disaster at all. I suspect his accuracy and touch---very evident in the pretend games of August---will return to a degree next week at home against the Vikings.

Stafford didn't look flustered. He didn't seem to panic. Nor did his teammates, frankly.

Running back Kevin Smith didn't get too many carries, mainly because the Lions were again playing from behind so early. Receiver Calvin Johnson, once again, didn't touch the ball nearly enough. I thought Schwartz and o-coordinator Scott Linehan were smarter than that!

Still, the Lions were an annoyance to the Saints most of the game, and they made the fans in the Dome uncomfortable at times.

Stafford threw his first brutal, "Welcome to the NFL" interception late in the first half, after the Lions recovered butterfingered Reggie Bush's muffed punt deep in New Orleans territory.

Darren Sharper has made a living picking off Lions QBs---whether he's been a Viking or a Packer or a Saint. And he was at it again, as Stafford tried to force a ball into the end zone after the Bush turnover.

The Lions were down 28-10 at the time and could have gone into the locker room trailing by just 11. But the Sharper pick squashed that.

Stafford will learn. That's the good thing about all this.

He'll likely progress faster than his team will, which isn't so good.

The defense seems a lost cause after just one game. The new LBs---Julian Peterson and Larry Foote---were mostly invisible. The tackling was again atrocious.

Teeny-tiny bright spot: as much as Brees had his way with them, the Lions broke up more passes than I'm used to seeing. The secondary was bad but more aggressive and "into" it, if that makes any sense.

Heck, we're talking about the Lions here.

I should do like The Talking Heads and stop making sense.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

20 Years Ago, Sanders Turned Lions Fans On From Carry No. 1

The rigors of another NFL training camp were past. The meaningless dress rehearsals known as exhibition games, all four of them, had been played. The fates of certain pro football players—the fringe guys on that imaginary “bubble”—were now hanging in the balance.

And the fate of a franchise tilted and swayed.

Would he, or wouldn’t he?

The Detroit Lions, 20 years ago last spring, became the beneficiaries of one of the most boneheaded, outlandish, and just plain stupid draft day moves—or non-moves—in league history.

Imagine—the Lions, taking advantage of someone else’s egregious personnel error.

But it happened, royally.

The Lions, with the third pick of the ’89 draft, prayed to the football gods that the jitterbug running back Barry Sanders, from Oklahoma State, would still be on the board. Only two teams would have to pass him up, and one of them—the Dallas Cowboys—seemed hellbent on selecting QB Troy Aikman with the No. 1 choice overall.

That left the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers were a rotten team in 1989—and a case could be made that they were more odiferous than the Lions, because of the four wins by the Lions in 1988, two of them were claimed against Green Bay.

A brand new, exciting running back like Barry Sanders would have been more than enough to put football back on the map in Green Bay, the tiny burg that once proclaimed itself “Title Town,” due to the championship ways of its pro football team in the 1960s.

The Packers had no running attack. They were a plodding, vanilla, boring outfit. Just like the Lions.

So with Sanders dangling in front of them, ripe for the picking, the Packers said, “Naah,” and drafted mammoth offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, from Michigan State.

I could scarcely believe my eyes and ears when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stood behind the podium at the draft and announced Mandarich’s name as the Packers’ pick with the No. 2 pick off the board.

I wasn’t alone.

Mandarich was a fine college lineman, and big as a house. He played left tackle, that prized position on the line, reserved for the very best blocker on the roster.

But he wasn’t worth that high of a pick, when Barry Sanders was also available.

The Lions, their prayers answered, nabbed Sanders. Rozelle might has well have just stayed at the podium and read Sanders’ name immediately after Mandarich’s.

Yet before Barry played one down, he was already showing off his elusiveness.

The Lions found out—the hard way, naturally—that it was much easier to draft Sanders than it was to sign him to a contract.

Barry was represented by dual agents, and neither of them were easy to deal with. And the Lions were represented by GM Russ Thomas, and no one gave old Russ bouquets for being an easy negotiator.

Training camp began in July, and when coach Wayne Fontes took attendance, there was a glaring absence: the prized rookie Barry Sanders.

Barry’s people wanted this; Thomas was offering that.

This and that weren’t jibing. Not even close.

Camp droned on. The media people and the fans kept talking about what Barry could add to the Lions’ moribund offense. If only he would sign a contract and actually suit up for them.

The talks between Barry’s people and Thomas became more and more acrimonious. Barry’s people made threats—likely empty, but who knew—of taking their client north of the border to play in the inferior Canadian League.

Lions fans became antsy. They wanted Barry on their team, and it’s always easy to spend other people’s money, so what’s the holdup?

Camp finished. The pretend games—the exhibition season—began.

Barry was nowhere near being signed, we were told.

The Lions’ other first-round pick that year, QB Rodney Peete from USC, was signed and progressing nicely. He was on pace to be the team’s starter.

Whether Peete would be handing the ball off to Barry Sanders was another matter indeed.

Some fans started to turn on Barry—accusing him of being just another spoiled brat athlete. Maybe he just wants to avoid training camp, they said. The word “lazy” reared its ugly head.

The week of the Lions’ regular season opener arrived, and Fontes took attendance once again. Barry was still absent, but with an excuse: he had no contract. Still.

The Lions prepared to play the Cardinals, at the Silverdome. The week marched onward. It was Friday afternoon—48 hours before the game—when the news broke.

Barry Sanders signed a contract!

He wouldn’t play in the tundra of Canada, after all. As if.

But he had no practices under his belt. No training camp to learn plays—although I’m not sure what Barry had to learn, in retrospect. Football players will tell you, though, that even a few practices are necessary—if nothing else but to get hit and immerse yourself into football mode, physically and mentally.

Barry would have little opportunity for that, since he signed his contract on Friday afternoon.

The Lions ran him through a few drills on Friday and Saturday, but certainly nothing too rigorous or involved.

On Sunday, Fontes inserted Barry into the game sometime in the second quarter. The Lions fans, maybe even those who spit on Sanders’ image and called him lazy, stood and roared.

Peete had been hurt in the final pretend game and so the QB was a journeyman—surprise, surprise—named Bob Gagliano. And so it was Gagliano who gave Sanders his first career handoff in the NFL.

And Barry, the ink barely dry on his contract, with little to no practice time, took the football from Gagliano and juked and slithered his way for a brilliant 19-yard run.

I was listening on the radio, and play-by-play man Mark Champion had a baby announcing Barry’s first carry. I might have risen from my seat, in my dining room.

So who needs practice? Who needs training camp?

That was 20 years ago this week. The adage is true: where does the time go?

Mandarich, by the way, got caught as a steroids user and was out of football within three years—one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history.

The Packers would make up for that transgression, however, while the Lions spun their wheels in the mud.

The Lions’ prized rookie of Sanders’ debut, 20 years hence, is QB Matthew Stafford, who was much easier to sign. He had himself mini-camps and regular camps and pretend games and everything. And his start Sunday in New Orleans is no less anticipated than Barry’s 20 years ago against the Cardinals.

Wouldn’t it be something if the kid tossed a bomb on his first throw?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Decision Is Made, So Might As Well Wish Stafford The Best

Occasionally, pro sports provides us with delicious irony and poetry.

Seven years ago, the Lions beamed with pride. Finally, a genuine article at the quarterback position. In the second year of what would derisively and painfully be known as the Matt Millen Era.

The Lions would no longer be "married" to erstwhile QB Charlie Batch. The word was Millen's, uttered shortly after arriving into town as the franchise's savior, in January 2001. From the day Matt Millen told the media that the Lions were, for the moment, "married" to Batch at quarterback, the marriage had no chance of succeeding.

Millen wanted his own man, his own quarterback to help stamp his mark on the Lions.

Joey Harrington breezed into town as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft and the Lions had found the quarterback that they were looking for during the entire span of the Ford ownership, which began in 1964.

This week, Harrington, now a vagabond player, was cut by the New Orleans Saints---the same Saints team that the Lions open with this Sunday. Around the same time, rookie Matthew Stafford was named the Lions starting quarterback.

The Matt Millen Era ended, in a way, when the Lions president was fired last fall. But it ended officially this past off-season, as one Millen-acquired player after the other was released or traded. The purge continued in training camp, almost until nothing but a thin, brittle shell of Millen's outhouse could be seen.

Joey Harrington's career is on the ropes. The Saints might bring him back---they've done it before---but there are no guarantees. If the Saints don't come through for him, it's very questionable whether another NFL team will sign Pal Joey.

Seven years ago, in a game at Ford Field against the Saints, ironically, I saw Harrington throw some footballs which ended up nestled into the arms of Lions receivers---some 30, 40 yards downfield. The balls were feathered, sometimes zipped. But with accuracy, either way.

"Finally!," I remember screaming at the TV. "A quarterback in Detroit!"

It wasn't the first time that I called it wrong, and it won't be the last.

I hope this isn't another of those times where I'm wrong, because I'm telling you that Matthew Stafford has the best arm of any quarterback I've ever seen in Detroit.

At first blush, that might not seem like a very powerful statement. The Lions haven't sent a QB to the Pro Bowl in nearly 40 years, after all.

So I guess I'll amend that a bit. Stafford has one of the five best arms of any QB, anywhere, who's entered the league in the 21st century. At least.

I've written, many times, that the Lions would be best served to keep Stafford on the sidelines, ball cap firmly on head, clipboard firmly in hand. I fretted over the offensive line's ability to protect the team's prized signal caller.

But the decision has been made. Stafford has beaten out Daunte Culpepper, so why yammer on about all my concerns at this point?

Congratulations to The Kid. He exhibited a keen grasping of the offense, supreme confidence, and a je ne sais quoi that successful NFL QBs need---that ability to shrug off mistakes and move onward, among other intangibles.

I wish him well. Truly.

As for Culpepper, he released a statement through the Lions yesterday that was drenched in class and professionalism. He, too, wished Stafford well. And though terribly disappointed, Daunte maintained that he will be right there for the rookie, whenever needed.

Daunte Culpepper proved during training camp that he can, once again, be a productive quarterback in the league. I always suspected that he was playing for his next job, anyway. He's not stupid. The future in Detroit is Stafford. Culpepper was using the Lions as an audition for future NFL work.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

It was a win-win situation, really.

The Lions held a spirited competition, both pushing the rookie and providing incentive to the veteran. The Lions won because they got their rookie ready in a hurry. Stafford won because he's the starter. And Culpepper won because he proved his worth to potential employers after Detroit.

Oh, and the fans win, because they want to see The Kid sooner than later, if you were to run a poll.

Matthew Stafford is the Lions' future. Not sure you could have said that about Pal Joey Harrington, back in the day. The entire weight of the franchise rests on Stafford's strong right arm, while Harrington was supposed to be merely a piece of the puzzle that Matt Millen was cutting with his poorly-calibrated jigsaw.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz has a team that's not going to the playoffs. Not even close. I suppose he figures that the best man for the job is Stafford, so why wait? It's not like a few blown games with a rookie QB---if it comes down to that---is going to make much difference in the standings.

Stafford can, if this works according to plan, practically obliterate, with one giant sweep of the eraser, the ghoulish memories of Jeff Komlo and Chuck Long and Andre Ware and Batch and Harrington. Not to mention about 50 others who've stuck their hands under center during the wacky Bill Ford ownership.

I wish him well. The best man won the job.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": A Football Fest, With U-M and Lions Radio Guy Jim Brandstatter!

It was a football frenzy last night on "The Knee Jerks", my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Our guest was U-M and Lions radio analyst Jim Brandstatter, who gave us some insight on Michigan football after the Wolves' 31-7 win over WMU on Saturday. And yes, we touched on the controversy brewing in Ann Arbor over practice time.

"I believe Michigan does things right," Brandy said, admittedly not surprisingly!

We did about 25 minutes on U-M, then another 25 on the Lions. More big news to talk about there, with the naming of Matthew Stafford as the starting QB.

"It was just a matter of time," Brandstatter said of Stafford becoming the starter.

We thank Mr. Brandstatter, who hustled back home after a couple days up north with his family to do a special Labor Day edition of TKJ. Thanks, Brandy!

After Brandstatter, Al and I gave our opinions on Michigan and the Lions, then we launched into a spirited discussion about the Tigers and their playoff chances (I declared the race over and done with). As we talked, a dark horse name emerged as the team's third starter in the playoffs.

By the time we got done with football and the Tigers---which included handicapping Jim Leyland's chances of being Manager of the Year, Miggy Cabrera's chances of being AL MVP, and Placido Polanco's chances of being a Tiger next year (he's a free agent after the season and young 2B Scott Sizemore is in the wings)---it was time to name our Jerks of the Week, which we colorfully did, as usual!

Some highlights:

Big Al

On U-M QB Denard Robinson:
"This kid has another gear that I didn't think was humanly possible. A couple defenders had an angle on him during his touchdown run and he just ran right past them!"

On new D-coordinator Greg Robinson: "Robinson might be the best 'acquisition' Michigan picked up in the off-season. The defense was aggressive and not reactive, as under (2008's coordinator) Scott Shaffer."

On Cabrera: "We got on his case earlier in the season for putting up empty stats, but this guy's been on fire since the All-Star Break."

On Leyland: "He has that 2006 aura going on right now."


On who should be the starting QB for U-M:
"Sooner or later you have to throw the ball, and while I like Robinson's athleticism, I think Tate Forcier's the best choice, long term."

On Rich Rodriguez: "The win over WMU was nice, but he's going to have to do a lot more than that to ingratiate himself in the Michigan culture. If he beats Notre Dame, that's a huge step in the right direction."

On U-M/Notre Dame: "I see a blowout for Michigan. I don't know what it is, but I just sense Michigan winning by at least two touchdowns. I think Charlie Weis is overrated, too."

On Polanco: "If the Tigers only offer him a one-year deal, that's an insult. And why not move Scott Sizemore to shortstop and let him play there until Polanco's ready to move on or retire?"

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Michigan's Coaching Job Not All That Anymore? Don't You Believe It

The press conference was held in a conservative little room, with the principals leaning forward on a sofa, a smattering of microphones on stands, propped up on the coffee table. A far cry from the made-for-TV events of today.

They bunched together on the couch: the athletic director, and the new coach.

Doubtless that the press folks were rolling their eyes, now charged with learning how to spell a new, lonnng name.

The first name was easy enough: Bo.

But Schembechler?

A nightmare, for the writers and the headline guys—unless they chose to get on a first-name basis with the new coach, and right quick.

One of the local papers in Detroit eschewed the last name entirely, upon learning who would coach the football players at tradition-rich University of Michigan.


That was the headline, when Michigan reached into the Mid-American Conference and hired Glenn E. “Bo” Schembechler from Miami of Ohio to run their football program.

Bo was 40 years old, and soon it was revealed that his resume included some time in as a disciple of an already-established coaching legend. But the legend was Woody Hayes of Ohio State, and you can imagine how that news went over in Ann Arbor.

Yeah, Bo coached for Woody, at a time when neither of them had an inkling that they would go on to author one of the greatest 10-year stretches of any sports rivalry anywhere, college or pro.

But before that Ten Year War, as it’s been called, Bo had to sit on a couch and appear fit to take over Michigan, which had fallen on some hard times under his predecessor, Bump Elliott.

Bo was 40 but he looked older, with a receding hair line and already with that weathered, grizzled look that befalls all coaches. A little over a year later, Bo got even older when he had a heart attack on the eve of the Rose Bowl—an opportunity made possible by Michigan’s grand upset of Ohio State.

In 1969, when Bo took over a stumbling U-M program—Michigan had lost to Ohio State 50-14 in 1968—the only baggage he had was that no one knew who the hell he was.

The current coach, Rich Rodriguez, has the opposite problem. Everyone seems to have a Rodriguez story, and few of them are very flattering nowadays.

Rodriguez needs a personal bellhop, with all the baggage he has brought to the school of Yost and Crisler and Oosterbaan and Harmon and, of course, Schembechler.

More on that a little later.

Bo Schembechler coached Michigan for 21 years, and except for a blip here and there—Bo would occasionally blow up at a reporter—there wasn’t much news about the program that wasn’t directly related to the football on the field.

Oh, the people at Texas A&M tried to get Bo to bolt in the late-‘70s—he was thinking about it—but the Aggies’ effort failed and that story quickly faded.

Then Bo retired in 1989 and offensive coordinator Gary Moeller—Mo, they called him, so we had a nice little Bo-to-Mo thing—took over, and it was still all about the football until Mo had a few too many drinks at the Excalibur restaurant in Southfield and was caught by a bootlegged recording device as he was in the midst of a tearful, maudlin, drunken diatribe, alleging an affair between his wife and then-U-M assistant Les Miles.

That ended Mo’s time at Ann Arbor after five years, and another loyal assistant, defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr, took the reins.

Lloyd Carr—a Michigan man, both in terms of the school and the state.

He was a high school coach at Westland John Glenn, then moved into the college ranks as an assistant at Eastern Michigan. From EMU, Carr moved out of state for a couple of years at Illinois, then returned to Michigan as an assistant under Bo. And that’s where he stayed, until Mo had his disorderly conduct incident and resigned.

Carr did a wonderful job putting the pieces of the program back together after Gary Moeller shamed it. The Moeller incident was soon forgotten in Ann Arbor because Lloyd did the best thing possible to induce amnesia in fans and boosters: he won football games—lots of them.

There was a co-national title in 1997, and everything was about the football, still.

If you’re one who’s prone to believe everything you read and hear, then you might be a lost cause, but I’m going to try this anyway.

Perhaps you’ve heard a real dandy that started almost two years ago—a doggone knee-slapper. But only if you’re an independent thinker, that is. So if you’re not, pay close attention here.

Here’s the punch line: Coaching Michigan isn’t the football job it once was.

I know you’ve heard it. I know you’ve read it. I know you have, because once it took hold, it became a mantra almost—chanted by anti-Michigan and pro-Michigan people alike. It pervaded talk radio and was virulent on the Internet and even infested the water coolers at work on Monday mornings.

“Coaching Michigan isn’t the football job it once was.”


That statement is purely false in direct proportion to its ad nauseam repeating, and is so full of excrement, that if you believe such horsepucky, then I feel for your loss of brain matter.

Rich Rodriguez, lugging all those bags from West Virginia, is supposed to be proof of this falsehood.

Michigan had to settle for Rodriguez, the school’s third choice. That much I will grant you. RichRod, indeed, wasn’t the first person Athletic Director Bill Martin had in mind, nor called, when Lloyd Carr announced he would retire following the 2007 season.

But the fact that Michigan hired Rodriguez doesn’t make true the assertion that the job isn’t what it used to be.

In Carr’s final season, Michigan went 9-4, culminating in a thrilling upset over Florida in the Capital One Bowl. The school was still the possessors of the winningest program in college football history.

More wins than Notre Dame. More wins than Nebraska. More wins than USC or Alabama or Ohio State or LSU. More than Florida or Texas or Oklahoma or Penn State. More than Ole Miss or Arizona State or Arkansas.

All that, and a 9-4 2007 season under Lloyd Carr, plus a bowl win.

And all of a sudden the coaching job at Michigan isn’t what it once was?

Martin and, to a lesser degree, President Mary Sue Coleman, screwed everything up with their clumsy, pathetic little patty cake attempt to bring Miles back home from LSU. Martin made the school look so bad that it couldn’t even get Greg Schiano to leave tiny Rutgers, where it takes two home games, at least, to get the amount of fans Michigan gets into its stadium every Saturday.

If Michigan hires Miles, then we’re talking about how many national championships they’re going to win in Ann Arbor—not about NCAA violations and rebounding from 3-9 and waxing nostalgic about the good old days.

But this doesn’t mean the job at Michigan isn’t what it once was. It means the people making the decisions at Michigan aren’t who they used to be.

The old AD, Don Canham—the man who brought Bo in from the cold of Miami (OH)—would never have let Miles, a U-M guy, slip through his fingers, number one.

Michigan is stuck, at least for the time being, with Rodriguez, who’s in the papers far more often about stuff that’s not football than stuff that is. The latest is something about Rodriguez and a banned booster and some real estate hanky-panky. Terrific.

But U-M is stuck with him not because the coaching job isn’t what it used to be. If the right people were in place upstairs, you’d have to beat the candidates off with a stick. Who wouldn’t want to coach Michigan and put them back on the map, with the recruiting tool of, “Where else can you play in front of 110,000 fans every Saturday?”

Rodriguez has, in just one season and two off-seasons, soiled the Michigan program—shamed it as Gary Moeller did in a drunken fit, 14 years ago. But the fact that he did so has nothing to do with the waning quality of the job itself. It has everything to do with the bozos running the show in the halls of the administration.

Boot Bill Martin and then see if the Greg Schianos of the world ever say no to Michigan again—if they’re ever to be so honored to be asked, that is.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Better Late Than Never: LeBeau On Verge Of Hall Of Fame

Maybe the best compliment that could be paid to Dick LeBeau is that he turned out to be a better coach than a player---and he was a Hall of Fame player, so what does that make him as a coach?

A portion of the above sentence has been met with a stone wall for some 32 years---the part about him being a Hall of Fame player. But no one said that those who vote on such things always get it right.

LeBeau, 72 next week, is finally, after far too many years---decades, really---knocking on the door of that funny-shaped building in Canton, Ohio with the faux football protruding into the air.

It was announced last week that LeBeau is a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thanks to the senior committee, who frequently has had to ride to the rescue to right some wrongs. It happens all the time in baseball.

LeBeau will be lauded as the vote grows near---it'll happen early next year---as being Hall worthy because of what he did on the sidelines as a position coach and, more so, as a defensive coordinator for Super Bowl teams.

Let's see how many folks talk about his career as a player, and why that alone should have been good enough, even if he hadn't coached one practice in the NFL.

LeBeau is one-third of a trio of former Lions whose snub by the Hall voters was an annual rite of winter.

The others are both from the defense and you likely already know who they are: DT Alex Karras and LB Wayne Walker.

If the NFL had introduced the Wild Card entrant into the post-season party in the early-1960s, the Detroit Lions would have qualified frequently. They were often the Western Division's second-best team, usually behind the vaunted Green Bay Packers.

That seemingly irrelevant observation is anything but, because it's my belief that players like LeBeau, Karras, Walker, and Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders (who both had to wait too long for their inductions) all got the short shrift because of the distinct lack of post-season play on their resumes.

Don't come at me with Karras's gambling blip, which cost him the 1963 season due to suspension. Fellow NFLer Paul Hornung was suspended as well, and The Golden Boy is in the Hall, comfy and cozy.

Walker, until Jason Hanson broke it, held the Lions' record for career games played, with an even 200. He held that record for over 30 years. Walker was a Pro Bowl caliber player for several seasons.

LeBeau, a cornerback, intercepted 62 passes in his 14-year NFL career, which is good for seventh best of all-time.

LeBeau returning one of his 62 career interceptions

The Lions, ironically, were actually known far more for their defenses than their offenses during much of the Snubbed Trio's time in Detroit. Yet the lack of division titles trumped that, as far as Hall of Fame chances go.

But this isn't to diminish what LeBeau has done as a football coach, because that alone is Hall worthy.

Aside from three brutal seasons as head coach of the woeful Cincinnati Bengals, LeBeau's career on the sidelines has proven him to be a pioneer in certain aspects of football defense. It was LeBeau who's widely credited with developing the zone blitz---a dizzying, almost frenetic way of trying to both confuse the offense while also thwarting as many passing options as possible.

Before the zone blitz, defensive linemen hardly ever were asked to drift back into pass coverage. But they did after LeBeau sunk his talons into defense preparation.

"As far as I'm concerned," said Hall of Fame CB Rod Woodson and one of LeBeau's prized pupils, "Dick LeBeau has done more for the game than a lot of people in the Hall of Fame currently. He's done more than Vince Lombardi, if you ask me."

As a coach, that is.

But Dick LeBeau did a pretty damn good job wearing the helmet and pads, too. He just had the misfortune of doing it with the Lions. Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders were able to overcome that, but the Snubbed Trio hasn't.

Looks like one of the Trio, though, is about to break through. LeBeau won't go into the Hall as a Lion, per se, but at least he'll be in. Let's hope when they give the speeches in Canton someone remembers what LeBeau did on the field. As a Detroit Lion.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Last Night on the "The Knee Jerks": We Got Literary, Then Cranky (As Usual)

He was a little late, but our guest, author Marty Appel, showed up on "The Knee Jerks" Monday night, to enliven my weekly sports gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience.

Appel's new book is "Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankees Captain," and it's a terrific recollection of the great Yankees catcher who died in August 1979, when the private plane Munson was piloting made a crash landing in Canton, Ohio.

We spent a fun 30 minutes or so with Marty, who regaled us with stories of Munson and the "Bronx Zoo" days of the Yankees, circa 1976-79, along with his project.

After Marty's segment, Al and I tackled, so to speak, the current situation in Ann Arbor with U-M's football program. I got a little hot under the collar when the notion was brought up about Michigan not being a top program anymore, much to Al's surprise and glee.

After Michigan, we discussed the Tigers and why they're unable to run away with a horrible division; the Red Wings' signing of Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Williams, and Patrick Eaves; and, of course, the Lions as they prepare for the start of the regular season.

Some highlights:

Big Al

On U-M football:
"Rich Rodriguez is a square peg in a round hole. But Michigan is still a top five job. But if he wins...winning covers a multitude of sins."

On the Tigers: "They're contenders at home and pretenders on the road. They've won one of their last 11 road series. It's hard to think that a team that bad on the road can be a playoff team, but the division is so bad."

On the Red Wings: "I see where the Red Wings are coming from with the Bertuzzi signing. He can go into the corners and muck it up. And the price is right. But when Jason Williams was here, he had the reputation as a whiny underachiever."

On the Lions: "Daunte Culpepper is the safest option. NFL coaches are a notoriously conservative bunch. Matthew Stafford has the best arm of any Lions quarterback I've seen, bar none. But Culpepper gives the Lions the best chance to win."


On U-M football:
"Lloyd Carr won nine games in his last year (in 2007). So how come Michigan's not a good job anymore? It's not a good job anymore because the people running the show like (President) Mary Sue Coleman and (AD) Bill Martin are MAKING it a bad job!"

On the Tigers: "They'd have to completely tank not to win this ridiculous joke of a division. The fact that they're not running away with it is an indictment of them and their offense."

On the Red Wings: "All I know is, the Red Wings seem to have this knack of resurrecting the careers of veteran players. And Bertuzzi and Williams still know a lot of the people with the Red Wings and they know how to play 'Red Wings hockey.'"

On the Lions: "I think the Lions will start Daunte Culpepper in New Orleans. I think cooler heads will prevail. And I don't think you want Matthew Stafford to get into a gunslinging match with Drew Brees."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!