Sunday, October 31, 2010

Osgood May Be Nearing End of Great Career

The 36-year-old defensive tackle, once called by his coach as “the greatest lineman I’ve ever seen in Detroit,” noticed something unnerving in how that same coach was now behaving whenever the defensive tackle was in his presence.

It was July, 1971 and another grueling football training camp at Cranbrook, the private school off Woodward Avenue in tony Bloomfield Hills. And Alex Karras began noticing something strange about Joe Schmidt, the Lions head coach.

“Whenever Joe would ask me if I still felt like playing, I’d tell him, ‘Yeah, I feel great,’” Karras related in a book he wrote calledEven Big Guys Cry. “But he wouldn’t look me in the eye when he asked me. And when I answered he’d kind of look down and just nod and say, ‘OK.’”

Karras said that Schmidt would ask him the same questions occasionally: How do you feel, Alex? Still think you can go another season?

The exhibition season came and went. Karras played, but not always very well. Sometimes he was pretty good; other times, he was pedestrian. And Karras knew it. He knew when some young whippersnapper guard got the best of him in the pretend games played in August and early-September.

Still, he was Alex Karras. The Lions’ first-round draft pick of 1958, 10th overall out of Iowa. A multiple Pro Bowler, multiple All-NFL—either first or second team. The great Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer, no less, professed his dislike of playing against Karras because Jerry couldn’t block him.

So he was 36 years old, so what? Maybe it just takes longer to get going.

Schmidt and Karras were teammates, even good friends at one point. Schmidt himself played until he was 35.

After the Lions’ final preseason game in 1971, Schmidt delivered the news: Karras was being fired—cut from the Lions after 12 seasons. Schmidt said it was one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make as a coach.

Schmidt explained that Karras’s production and skills were beginning to wane in 1970, when the 10-4 Lions made the playoffs. Karras didn’t agree, but that accounted for why Schmidt acted oddly in training camp, 1971 around the man known as “Tippy Toes” for his bemusing footwork in rushing the passer.

“Alex rushed the passer on mincing steps,” sportswriter Jerry Green once said.

But Schmidt fired Karras, and those mincing steps were on their way out of the NFL.

I can empathize with Joe Schmidt’s dilemma, faced with having to tell a former teammate and friend that his time as a pro football player had ended. Contrary to what you might think, football coaches dread cutting players. For them, they’re the cop in the middle of the night rapping on the door of a victim’s loved one.

I’m beginning to wonder if Red Wings coach Mike Babcock will soon be faced with the same dilemma regarding his veteran netminder, Chris Osgood.

Osgood has been a great Red Wing. For as long as I shall cover sports, I will never forget his tears, as he wept openly in front of his locker as a 21-year-old rookie, his gut wrenched over a puck he misplayed that ended up in the Detroit goal late in the third period, giving Game 7 of a 1994 first-round playoff series to the San Jose Sharks.

I’ll never forget his mother, hugging him tightly in the euphoric locker room inWashingtonin 1998, the Red Wings having just won a second consecutive Stanley Cup—a Cup that Osgood backstopped all by himself, overcoming one bad goal after another to play steely when it mattered most.

“You did it, Chris! You did it, baby!” his mother shrieked as she clutched her champagne-soaked son.

I’ll never forget the class and dignity he showed when the Red Wings cut him loose in 2001 in the wake of acquiring Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek.

And I’ll damn sure never forget how he rescued the Red Wings in 2008, taking over for the shaky Hasek in the first round of the playoffs and playing brilliantly, leading his team to yet another Stanley Cup.

I’ve written that Chris Osgood’s No. 30 sweater should hang from the rafters at Joe Louis Arena—or wherever the Red Wings end up playing—because of his years of service and multiple Stanley Cups won as starting goalie.

When Osgood struggled last year—his second straight sub-par regular season—I wrote that Osgood was merely sandbagging, and that he may yet be the starting goalie come playoff time, ahead of the rookie Jimmy Howard.

So don’t tell me that I haven’t been in his corner.

Howard has instilled himself as the No. 1 goalie in Detroit, without debate. Not even I, a longtime Osgood supporter, could deny that Howard played his way to first string, fair and square.

Osgood, who will be 38 next month, has accepted his status as permanent backup with his usual class and humility.

But backups still play in the NHL. Rare is the goalie who plays 70+ games nowadays.

Thursday night, Osgood was called upon, the situation rather urgent. Howard had come down with back spasms. The afternoon of the game, Babcock told Ozzie that he’d be between the pipes. It was a time when the backup had to gather himself and be ready at a moment’s notice.

Osgood didn’t appear ready once the puck was dropped.

The game barely 12 minutes old, the Red Wings were trailing, 3-0. The third goal was a seemingly harmless wrist shot from 40 feet out that eluded Osgood, who didn’t so much as touch it.

The Joe Louis Arena crowd shifted restlessly in their seats. Some verbally assaulted Osgood. You’d have thought Rush Limbaugh had just walked into the Democratic National Convention.

The Red Wings tried to come back but lost, 4-2, to the inferior Phoenix Coyotes.

It was yet another mediocre performance brought forth by Osgood, who made some nice saves but who also allowed the kind of goals that hockey people say the goalie “would like to have back.”

The number of goals that Chris Osgood would like to have back are piling up; they have been, going on three seasons now.

It may be time, sooner rather than later, for Mike Babcock and GM Kenny Holland to face that dreaded decision.

How to tell Osgood, a great Red Wing, that his services are no longer needed?

He’s helping to lose games for the team, and has been doing so for quite some time. Osgood, I’m sad to say, is no longer a serviceable NHL goalie.

I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to tell him that to his face.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MSU's Dantonio Returning Greatness to Spartan Football

It's amazing how often the saviors of college football programs arrive, and you didn't know it at the time.

When the University of Michigan tabbed him in 1969, Glenn E. "Bo" Schembechler was the head coach at Miami of Ohio, a school so unheralded they need to remind you what state they're from all the time.

Bo coached at Miami in the Mid-American Conference for six seasons, compiling a 40-17-3 record, yet one of the Detroit newspapers welcomed Schembechler to town with a derisive, two-word headline.

"Bo WHO?"

That November, on a gray day in Ann Arbor, his Wolverines having just upset the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, no one asked who Schembechler was. Instead, they wondered where he'd been.

Bo took over a Michigan program that was a shell of what it used to be (sound familiar?). The year prior to Bo's hiring, Woody Hayes's Buckeyes beat Michigan, 50-14. Late in the game, Hayes elected to go for a two-point conversion, despite the lopsided score. After the game, reporters asked him why.

"Why did I go for two?" Hayes growled. "Because I couldn't go for three!"

In 1969, behind the running of Billy Taylor, Michigan stunned previously unbeaten OSU, 24-12.

Schembechler, the coach from Miami (of Ohio), turned into one of the most successful coaches in college football history. Some would tell you he was the best ever at Michigan---even better than Fielding Yost.

Bo saved Michigan, even though no one could see it coming.

Mark Dantonio didn't drop out of the sky onto the campus of Michigan State University, but he may as well have.

Dantonio was an assistant at MSU and OSU before becoming head coach at Cincinnati, a nice little program but not exactly the career path to elite status. Just ask Brian Kelly. In Dantonio's three seasons coaching the Bearcats, his overall record was 18-17.

Mark WHO?

The Spartans, following the retirement of George Perles in 1995, have used the revolving door method with their football coaches. No one man ever stuck around long enough to get a good foothold on what they were going to do with the program.

MSU had Nick Saban for five years, then Bobby Williams for three, then John L. Smith for four. The Spartans' cumulative record during that time was 73-69-1. The wheels, they were a spinnin'.

Then came Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati, with his 18-17 record and a resume that most athletic directors may have tossed back into the pile.

It's looking like the hiring of Dantonio might be the best one MSU has made with the football program since plucking Perles from the pros in 1983.

It isn't just that Dantonio is an MSU guy; after all, so were Saban and Williams. It's that Dantonio has something that's hard to describe---a certain je ne sais quoi. He just feels like the right guy to make the Spartans relevant again in college football.

This isn't just the drumbeat for a guy who's enjoying a 7-0 start this season. Dantonio, since taking over in 2007, has been building something in East Lansing, though it hasn't always shown in the won-lost record.

There's some continuity forming in the football coaching at MSU, a program that needs such continuity in the worst way.

Winning football programs have that continuity. Few are the schools who change coaches with the frequency of leap years, who find success on the gridiron.

The University of Michigan, I fear, may be heading in that direction. The anti-Rich Rodriguez folks can certainly make their case for a change, but every time you change coaches, you potentially set the program back a couple of years, at least.

I hit Lloyd Carr with the situation going on at my alma mater, Eastern Michigan University, before we at the Wayne County Commission honored Carr and Perles with Lifetime Achievement Awards on October 7. EMU is being coached by Ron English, former defensive coordinator at U-M under Carr. The Eagles just snapped an 18-game losing streak.

Has Carr spoken with coach English, I wondered. He had.

"When you're a new coach at a school, it takes you a year, maybe two, just to figure out what you have and who can play," Carr told me about English, who's in his second year at Eastern.

And it was, ironically, John L. Smith, who said these words to me when I interviewed him in the summer of 2006 about what he was trying to do at MSU.

"We need to get some continuity here," Smith told me, "So we're not changing coaches every dadgum couple of years."

2006 would be Smith's last year at MSU.

Mark Dantonio is building something in East Lansing---something that campus hasn't seen the likes of in decades. It can be a powerhouse program again, maybe as soon as this season. No joke.

One thing's for certain. No one dares ask, "Mark WHO?"

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reasons for Latest Lions Loss Encoded Within Stat Sheet

Another football Sunday for the Lions, another time to play a little game to amuse yourself.

It's called "Why Did They Lose?" and it involves perusing the stat sheet after the game.

On some Sundays, you need to look hard, maybe two or three times, to find this skewed version of Waldo. Other times, it practically jumps out at you.

Let's take a peek, shall we, in the wake of the Lions' 28-20 loss to the Giants in the Meadowlands?

Let's see...

Oh, this is one of those weeks where you don't have to look very hard. Put the magnifying glass away, save the squinting. This week's game of "Why Did They Lose" must be for beginners---set at the remedial level.

Where do you want to begin?

Well, there were the penalties---11 of them for 91 yards of precious football real estate, compared to just two for 15 yards for the well-behaved Giants. The Giants were awarded four first downs thanks to penalties; the Lions---none.

Here's another---the Giants had 167 rushing yards on just 30 carries (5.6 avg); the Lions managed a measly 64 yards on 21 attempts (3.0 avg). The Lions' leading rusher was their third-string quarterback, Drew Stanton. Take away Drew's 30 yards on three carries, and the other runners combined for 34 yards on 18 carries.

Moving down the stat sheet...

Turnovers: the Lions had three, the Giants just one.

Thanks for playing "Why Did They Lose?"!!

The game also had the usual fourth quarter backbreaker. This time it was the Lions surrendering a 45-yard run to Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw late in the quarter, not long after the Lions had pulled to within 21-17. That set up a Brandon Jacobs TD run, and the Giants were safely ahead by 11 once again.

Another football Sunday for the Lions.

As for the penalties, the Lions are in the middle of a cruel, vicious cycle.

They haven't won for eons, thus they don't typically get the borderline calls from the officials. And, because they're talent-challenged, they have a smaller margin for error than most clubs. On top of all that, the Lions commit preventable, foolish infractions that kill momentum and wipe out what little good this team is able to muster.

I'm looking at you, Stephen Peterman.

The guard ran roughshod over a Giants DB, leading into him with his helmet, in an overzealous attempt to "clean up" a good gainer for the Lions. The boneheaded move cost the Lions 15 yards and changed the complexion of a critical possession.

The Lions have 106 feet on the legs of their 53-man roster, and they've just about shot them all off and we're only six games into the season.

I'll suggest it yet again. I believe that NFL games are more lost than they are won. Every week it's a game of "Who can make the fewest mistakes?"

The question that resonates more every week isn't, "What did Team A do to win?" It's, "What did Team B do to lose?"

It's usually easier to spot the loser on a pro football scoresheet than it is the winner.

You want a bright spot? Then I submit to you Mr. Stanton, who played reasonably well after being pressed into duty late in the first half thanks to Shaun Hill's arm injury.

What is it with Lions QBs and the ends of halves this season?

Stanton turned the ball over twice and his accuracy issues occasionally reared their heads, but considering the circumstances, I thought he acquitted himself OK---better than I feared, let's put it that way.

But the Lions couldn't get RB Jahvid Best going, and that's becoming a weekly concern.

Best, when he's on, is the closest thing to Barry Sanders in terms of slipperiness that we've seen since Barry retired in 1999. But his flashes have been few and far between. He's battling turf toe, but 16 yards on 12 carries---his production Sunday---is still unacceptable.

The Lions tried several first down runs, but they often gained nothing and at 2nd-and-9, 2nd-and-10, the Giants could think pass and nothing else, with impunity.

Too often 2nd-and-10 turned into 3rd-and-long, which turned into Nick Harris-awaiting-the-snap.

It all added up to another loss---that's 24 straight on the road if you're keeping score at home---and anyone who has the gall to act surprised and wonder why only needs to have the stat sheet thrust beneath their nose.

The answer can be found within that document; it usually is, after all.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tricky Babcock Slipped a Red Wings Transition Past Us

The second-best coach in Red Wings history has just pulled off a sleight of hand of epic proportions. Henning, Blackstone, Blaine, Copperfield—they got nothing on Mike Babcock.

It was a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of thing. Heck, even if you propped your eyelids open with toothpicks, you still would have missed it. That’s how tricky Babcock is.

The second-best coach in Red Wings history, trailing only that enigmatic savant, Scotty Bowman, guided the franchise through a transition period and I bet you didn’t even know that until the very moment you’re reading this.

But more on that in a bit.

This week the Red Wings announced they have signed Babcock, their coach since 2005, to a four-year extension, running through the 2014-15 season.

The news was greeted with the customary yawns and shrugs befitting an organization that never seems to make the wrong move. The Red Wings could have announced they’d signed Babcock to a 10-year extension and no one would have said boo.

It was like peanut butter announcing it was renewing its contract with jelly for another four years.

The Red Wings were so bad for so long—from the late-1960s through the mid-1980s—that it’s easy to forget that, prior to Bowman and Babcock, not every man who stood behind the Detroit bench was a shmuck.

There was Jack Adams, for whom the league’s Coach of the Year Award is named. Jack’s Red Wings teams were almost always solid, sometimes spectacular, when he coached them from 1927 thru 1947, winning three Stanley Cups along the way.

There was Tommy Ivan, who won Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 1950, ’52, and ’54.

And there was Jimmy Skinner, a Cup winner in 1955 in Detroit.

But Babcock has already, in just his sixth season as Red Wings coach, leap-frogged his way past Messrs. Adams, et al to be nipping on Bowman’s heels in terms of greatness in the Motor City.

A typical Red Wings season under Babcock, averaging his five in Detroit, has been 52 wins, 20 losses, and 10 overtime/shootout losses. That’s the mean. That’s greatness.

All that, plus a couple Presidents’ Trophies for the league’s best regular season record, a Stanley Cup, and a near-miss. Oh, and a 100-point season last year, when injuries ravaged his team—plus a first round playoff victory.

But it’s Babcock’s aforementioned sleight of hand that gets me.

Did you know that the Red Wings underwent a transition period from 2005 to 2007?

You’re excused. No one else noticed it, either. It’s another tribute to Babcock’s greatness as an NHL coach.

It may be hard for you to believe, but the Red Wings were a team at a crossroads when Babcock joined them in 2005, on the heels of the infamous labor lockout, which canceled the entire 2004-05 season.

It was barely perceptible, but it was there.

The Red Wings were coming off two seasons of being coached by Dave Lewis, Bowman’s longtime assistant who was—wrongly, I believe—promoted after Scotty retired in the glow of the 2002 Cup.

Lewis’s teams had great regular seasons—continuing tradition—but were largely busts in the playoffs. The 2003 team was swept by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round, and the 2004 squad didn’t make it past the second round.

The coach of the Mighty Ducks in 2003—a team that made it all the way to the Cup Finals as the league’s Cinderella story—was none other than Mike Babcock.

Lewis was canned during the lockout, and Red Wings GM Ken Holland wanted Babcock and no one else. Holland remembered what Babcock’s ’03 team did to the Red Wings, and he also knew what Babcock had done previously as coach of a minor league team in Cincinnati that was partly affiliated with the Red Wings.

So Babcock came to town with his scarred rock jaw and his intense stare and clothes that needed pressing more than a Panini sandwich and proceeded to rub his veteran players the wrong way.

But it didn’t take him long to learn to back off and realize that his was a locker room full of Hall of Famers, not AHLers.

Ahh, but where was the transition, you might ask?

Within his first two seasons at the helm, Babcock lost veterans Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan—for starters. At the same time, he was cultivating and blending in younger players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen.

Babcock’s starting goalie when he arrived in Detroit was the fragile Manny Legace.

Yet the Red Wings kept winning.

There was a disappointing first round playoff loss in 2006 to the Edmonton Oilers, who would go on to play in the Finals. But after that, Babcock’s teams went to three straight Conference Finals, winning two of them.

You missed the transition again, didn’t you?

OK, stay with me here.

Babcock took over a Red Wings team coming off two straight disappointing playoffs, a lockout, and that was about to see its roster evolve, with legendary players leaving and bright new stars entering.

All that, and Babcock had to adapt his fiery, oppressive coaching style to suit his plethora of veteran players.

Yet the Red Wings kept winning, kept going to the Final Four, and won a Stanley Cup and damn near a second.

So you can see why the news of Babcock’s four-year contract extension was hardly Earth-shattering. The better question isn’t why the Red Wings extended him; it’s, why didn’t they extend him longer?

The second-best coach in Red Wings history has just been given four more years in Detroit—years during which he just might do the ultimate frog leap: pass Scotty Bowman in terms of Hockeytown coaching greatness.

Who knows what that tricky Mike Babcock has up his sleeve, eh?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Maltby Will Be Missed, Except By Opposing Forwards

The stage was the biggest, the lights were the brightest, and so the ovation was the loudest.

Hockey shifts are like a stack of resumes on a hiring manager's desk. They all start to look the same after awhile, but then suddenly, one stands out.

Kirk Maltby skated to the bench that June evening in 2009, his work done, his helmet laying on the ice. Whenever the hockey player's head isn't inside the wayward bucket, it's a start.

The Joe Louis Arena crowd rose to its feet and roared its approval. Maltby had just given the patrons 45 seconds of thrills and the Pittsburgh Penguins three-quarters-of-a-minute of torment.

In those 45 seconds, Maltby did what he did best---make a nuisance of himself with relentless skating, checking, and pick-pocketing. The Penguins were the substitute teacher and Maltby was the derelict class clown who wouldn't stop acting out.

It was 45 seconds inside Game 1 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, and Grind Liner Maltby had just schooled the Penguins in the art of grinding.

The Red Wings won the game (though they would, sadly, not win the series), and afterward I trudged down to the locker room at the Joe and queried the player his teammates called "Malts" about those 45 seconds where Maltby made himself into a weapon of mass destruction.

His smile went from ear to ear. He knew exactly of which 45 seconds I was speaking.

"Yeah, that was great," Maltby said of the ovation he received as he made his way back to the bench, leaving a cadre of frustrated Penguins in his wake.

I asked Maltby if it reminded him of the salad days of the Grind Line, when he teamed with Kris Draper and Joey Kocur---and later Darren McCarty---in the late 1990s to form a trio of hockey pests par excellence.

Again with the smile and the "Aw, shucks" shrug.

"Yeah, I guess it did," he told me, as if the idea had never occurred to him prior to me bringing it up. "It's fun to get the crowd fired up," he added.

Maltby's NHL career has now come to an, ahem, grinding halt.

Maltby has retired. The odds were stacked against him to be a Red Wing this season, and to just have that chance would mean bus trips and three games in three nights, because to continue playing hockey, Maltby would have to be a Grand Rapids Griffin first, a Red Wing second. Maybe.

“I knew, coming into the season, my situation with signing a two-way contract. I knew where my situation stood and that there was a possibility that if not making it here, going to Grand Rapids," Maltby said yesterday at a press conference.

"Ultimately, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to go there … it was an easy decision. I’m very comfortable with it. I want to watch my kids grow up. It’s tough. I’m going to miss the game; I’m going to miss being around the guys. I think that’s going to be the hardest.”

It always is. It's a running theme with most of the former athletes I've spoken to---they badly miss the camaraderie, the locker room banter.

"I even missed practice!" I remember former Red Wings great Bill Gadsby telling me several years ago.

Kirk Maltby was a good Red Wing, and among the most successful, what with winning four Stanley Cups and all. He was a man of little scoring but if effort translated to the scoresheet, Maltby would have been an Art Ross Trophy candidate every season.

Maltby will stay with the Red Wings (don't they all?), working as a scout.

“I feel truly privileged for what my career has brought me,” Maltby said.

I think Red Wings fans would say, "Right back at ya, Malts!"

Monday, October 11, 2010

Winning a Game is Great, Now Lions Have to Learn to Do it More Often

The pro football coach never smiles on the sidelines. It's the one facial contortion that he doesn't allow himself.

Even when others are around him, laughing and slapping backs and fists, the football coach stays in character, looking concerned even when the score and the time remaining belie any thoughts of a comeback by the other team.

The football coach is never happy.

Most of the time.

In the waning minutes of Sunday's football game at Ford Field, his team comfortably---even for the Lions---ahead of the St. Louis Rams, 44-6, Lions coach Jim Schwartz stepped out of character briefly and allowed the corners of his mouth to curl upward.

He shook hands with those around him, the mouth officially in a smile. This time, when he removed his headset, signifying the end of his coaching for the day, it wasn't with a sigh of defeat and disgust. It was with "validation." The word is Schwartz's.

"Even though we had played well in spots, we had never validated it with a victory. I think today was good validation,'' Schwartz told reporters afterward.

It was a victory for the Lions--just their fourth in their past 45 games. But they have just about as much time as every other NFL team has to enjoy it---that is, 24 hours, tops.

There can be no parade down Woodward Avenue. No parties well into the night. A Lions win would seem to lend itself to such celebration, but today it's back to work, to prepare for the big, bad New York Football Giants.

When you've lost as many football games as the Lions have this century, it's no longer about learning how to handle losing. It's, how do you handle winning?

The Lions have won a football game. So how do they handle it?

There are dozens of players who barely know what to do with themselves today. They won't have to watch film of Sunday's game and wince, or sink into their seats, hoping no one will see them. They won't have to explain to the media types what went wrong out there.

Not much went wrong, that's for sure.

The Lions manhandled the Rams, beating them on offense, on defense, and on special teams. For once the other team looked like, well, the Lions----what with the dropped passes and the shoddy tackling and the shaky play of an overwhelmed, rookie quarterback.

The NFL continues to amaze me, with the difference seven days can make to so many of its teams. Last Sunday the Rams won their second straight, totally shutting down the Seattle Seahawks, 20-3. They came into Detroit with what appeared to be a stubborn defense and a rising young quarterback on a mini-roll.

Then they go out and lay an ostrich egg on the Ford Field turf.

It's one reason why only a fool bets on pro football games.

The Lions go into New York next Sunday and only fools would pick them to win, despite what happened yesterday. The Lions could have beaten the Rams 84-6 and they'd still be sizable underdogs to Eli Manning's bunch.

Yesterday's game is ancient history. The Lions will have their hands completely full with the Giants' relentless pass rush. Or so it would seem.

For one Sunday, it was the Lions' turn to laugh, slap backs, and have fun on the sidelines. It was the other team's fans' turn to look at the game through parted fingers, hands on their faces. It was the other team's turn to have a long flight back home.

But there won't be any true progress made until the Lions can string a few of these gems together. It's the next step in the process---not only to win a football game, but to respond to winning with more winning. The great teams put victories behind them just as quickly as they do losses, if not quicker.

It was the great Bill Parcells who once said it best, talking to NFL Films.

"I was walking from the sidelines to the tunnel after a quote, 'big win'," Parcells said, describing his early head coaching career. "And before I got to our locker room I was already thinking about our next game.."

So you can understand why the pro football head coach never smiles on the sidelines. He's the chess player who gets his opponent into checkmate, only to have another man waiting to play him right away.

Schwartz allowed himself the smallest of grins as the clock ticked down on the Rams yesterday.

It didn't last long, unsurprisingly.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

U-M/MSU Football Rivalry Relevant Once Again

Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies. Batten down the hatches. Tell Katy to bar the door.

I don’t know where you’ll be Saturday afternoon around 3:30, but wherever it is, kneel down and place your ear against the soil. That low rumble you’ll hear can be traced directly back to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is Michigan-Michigan State Week, in case you’ve been unable to push that rock from on top of you. This is a week where co-workers who would normally be as cordial to each other as the attendees of a British tea party sneer as they pass by in the hall.

This is Michigan-Michigan State Week, where the logos from the respective schools are branded on the foreheads of the graduates. It’s Civil War, minus the civility.

It’s Michigan-Michigan State Week, and this time the game actually matters.

It’s a football game played annually, alternately in the corn fields of East Lansing or in the chic, quasi-cosmopolitan Ann Arbor.

It’s a game that will be coached by a Rich and a Mark. It used to be coached by guys named Biggie and Duffy and Fielding and Bump and Bo.

This is Michigan-Michigan State, and upstairs Duffy Daugherty is giving Bo Schembechler the skunk eye. Fielding Yost doesn’t trust Biggie Munn’s backfield formation. Someone in a fur coat carrying a flask and a noisemaker is letting the air out of the tires of someone’s Packard.

You could scour this entire great nation of ours and not find a bigger college football game this week.

Correction—this isn’t a football game, not really. To steal and paraphrase from the late, great sportswriter Jim Murray, “Yeah, this is a football game—the same way the Nazis’ game was 20 Questions.”

Michigan-Michigan State. Two unbeatens, both a little crabby. The Wolverines are tired of hearing how bad their defense is and how they haven’t played any real competition yet. The Spartans are tired of hearing how they’re, well, the Spartans—a football team that has often collapsed like a cheap tent after mid-October.

In the past, this was a synthetic rivalry, designed to look like the real thing but rarely did it deliver the goods. Michigan-Ohio State was sugar; Michigan-Michigan State was Splenda.

In the past, Michigan coaches would politely tell anyone who asked that, yeah, this was a big game for the school. It took all they could to not roll their eyes and stifle a chuckle. Then on Saturday, the Wolverines would politely hand the Spartans their rear end on a platter.

That was then.

MSU is riding a two-game winning streak in this ancient series, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, imagine Charlie Brown with a two kick streak against Lucy; Sylvester burping up the remains of Tweety Bird.

MSU hasn’t beaten Michigan three times in a row since the Johnson Administration.

This is where the churlish Wolverine fan asks, “Andrew Johnson?”

No—Lyndon—but that’s still over 40 years ago, 1965-67 to be exact. It was a time when MSU was among college football’s elite, with a brutal defense anchored by lineman Bubba Smith and linebacker George Webster. Michigan was the so-called “little brother” back then.

Michigan hasn’t beaten MSU since 2007, which in regular time is just three years ago, but in Rivalry Time is just this side of eternity.

The teams go into Saturday’s tilt both ranked in the Top 20, both with 5-0 records.

That’s the kind of stuff that used to be associated with Oklahoma-Nebraska or Notre Dame-USC or Florida-Florida State, back in the day. Or Michigan and that school in Columbus.

Michigan-Michigan State—a game that hasn’t been talked about like it has this week, in years. You bring it up this week and it’s not a hollow or phony discussion, not contrived rivalry talk. It’s not Splenda.

This is a game with subplots. The physical health of MSU coach Mark Dantonio. The employment health of U-M coach Rich Rodriguez. The All-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones of Michigan State versus the dynamic Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. That two-game MSU winning streak.

This could be a shootout like they used to have at the OK Corral. Bo and Duffy are spinning in their graves. We could see 70+ points scored on Saturday. In the days of Schembechler and Daugherty, it could take three meetings, combined, to hit 70.

Michigan and Michigan State are going to get it on and this is serious business, folks. This isn’t a rivalry in name only. It’s not a titular game. There won’t be any little brothers on the football field. Michigan can’t play this one with one arm tied behind their back, like so many of the other encounters.

The loser of this one will look like he bit into a lemon for a whole year, just about. It’ll be almost 52 weeks of grumpiness, a year of Monday mornings.

And for the winner? Well, MSU doesn’t play Ohio State this season, so if they win Saturday, the Big Ten title doesn’t look like anything like a fantasy. If U-M wins, Rodriguez’s detractors will temporarily have a sweat sock stuffed in their mouths.

Now, about this Denard Robinson kid.

Michigan hasn’t had a player this dynamic since Desmond Howard. But this is bigger than Desmond, because Denard—who is the spitting image of Howard, what with the 1000-watt smile—touches the ball on every snap.

Players like MSU’s Jones have never faced a player like Robinson, certainly not this season and maybe not in their entire lives. The emergence of Robinson as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate adds bling to this game, not that it needs it.

People used to ask, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Today, I ask you in advance, “Where will you be on October 9, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.?”

Michigan-Michigan State. This is not your father’s rivalry anymore.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Red Wings Just Need Howard To Not Mess Things Up For Them

The opening is framed by red-painted steel pipes that extend four feet vertically from the ice surface and are set six feet apart, connected by a horizontal cross bar. It's the most important 24 square feet in sports.

On average, that 24 square-foot area is targeted anywhere from 25 to 35 times per game, per side, in the National Hockey League. Most of the time, the pucks are easily seen, easily turned away. Then, in a heartbeat, there's a flurry of activity near the goal, and the puck is banging off skates and sticks and boards like a pinball game gone mad.

The goaltender is the loneliest man in sports. No one would trade places with him---no one in his right mind. He's the beat cop at night in the most dangerous part of town, unarmed with only a bulletproof vest and a pair of handcuffs. His teammates walk around him carrying ten-foot poles.

Hockey talk is like a sauce in the pan before it's reduced. The ingredients to it are things like plus/minus stats and how many lines you can roll and team speed and puck control and special teams play.

Then it gets boiled down and you're left with one flavor that overpowers all the others.


It always comes down to that, doesn't it?

The Red Wings open the 2010-11 season at home against the Anaheim Ducks. Between those pipes set six feet apart for the Wings will be one James Howard, 26 years old and in his second full season, which means he's not only not a rookie anymore, he'd better damn well be the next Terry Sawchuk.

I only exaggerate slightly.

The Red Wings are, once again, among the most skilled, deep, experienced teams in the entire NHL. If you placed a sawbuck on them to win the Stanley Cup, no one had better call you a fool.

They are a team that doesn't need Sawchuk in goal to win, but they certainly don't need a fraudulent Howard to lose it for them, either.

There was a lot of commotion in Hockeytown over the summer, what with the Red Wings signing veteran center Mike Modano and nasty defenseman Ruslan Salei and bringing back the jitterbug winger Jiri Hudler after one season in Russia.

There was talk of how rested the players are after lasting just five games into the second round of the playoffs last spring, after two consecutive years playing well into June.

You can have all that talk and it won't mean a hill of beans if Howard doesn't pick up where he left off last season, when he finished second in voting for Rookie of the Year.

You've heard the cautionary tales of goalies like Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who followed up a brilliant rookie season in 2008-09 with something pedestrian last campaign.

The Red Wings don't need Howard to stand on his head---one of my favorite hockey terms. They just need him to be competent.

The Red Wings, in their four Cup wins and one near-miss over the past 13 years, have only really leaned on their netminder once---in 2002, when Dominik Hasek stole some games for them in just about every round. Other than that, the Red Wings have looked at their goalies and said something like, "Don't mess this up for us and we'll be OK."

Howard's journey to second place in the Calder Trophy voting wasn't like Mason's rapid rise. Mason was a 20-year-old punk kid when he stepped between the pipes for the Jackets two Octobers ago and proceeded to record 10 shutouts and post a 2.29 GAA.

Howard was the Little Engine That Could, chugging up the mountain and slipping back occasionally. Howard had three different tastes of the NHL, beginning during the 2005-06 season, before he finally stuck with the Red Wings last season---and that was only because Chris Osgood continued his freefall into obscurity.

I wasn't very kind to Howard in this space a year or so ago, when I announced that he should pee or get off the pot, or something to that effect. I was concerned that he hadn't, by age 25, shown that he had the goods to stay in the NHL.

He proved me wrong---for now.

The goalie's resume is the length of his last game, at its longest. Often, it's not even "What have you done for me lately?" It's, "What have you done for me the last shift?"

The Red Wings, it says here, will be among the final four teams standing next May---with one big caveat.

If Jimmy Howard doesn't mess it up for them.

Isn't the life of a goaltender grand?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Lions Deserved to Lose, Because That's What Happened

Professional football plays no favorites, abides by no accounting other than what is deserved. It's the ultimate reap-what-you-sow sport.

There are 120 or so snaps in a typical NFL game, and every one of them plays a role in the outcome.

This isn't baseball, where the sins of errors and leaving men on base can be atoned by one swing of the bat in the bottom of the ninth.

This isn't hockey, where a fluke deflection of the puck off the skate of a goalie's own teammate can end up in the net for the winning tally.

And this isn't basketball, where the heroics of one superstar can overcome the combined efforts of five opposing men.

This is pro football, and you get what you deserve---good or bad. Contrary to what some believe, luck doesn't play much of a factor at all.

NFL games are 60 minutes, 120+ snaps of who can make the best plays at the most opportune times. It's like taking a college entrance exam of 120 questions, where any of the questions can be used at random for or against you, to determine whether you qualify.

There is an accounting in pro football, and that accounting is as impartial as a tornado.

You decide your own fate in the NFL, week after week. You can point as many fingers as you want, but the sport forces you to look into the mirror every Sunday after the final gun goes off.

Lions quarterback Shaun Hill, his gut wrenched in the wake of another defeat, tried an end-around against one of pro football's hard and fast rules as he spoke to the media yesterday in Green Bay following his team's 28-26 loss to the Packers.

"We deserved that win," Hill said. "We deserved to get the feeling of that win."

I feel Hill's pain, but he's as wrong as the day is long.

I firmly believe that every team that wins or loses an NFL game deserves what it got, every week.

In fact, you could even say that more NFL games are lost than are ever won, and I wouldn't give you much of an argument.

The Lions lost to the Packers, and that's what they deserved, Shaun Hill's emotional plea notwithstanding.

The Packers won because, when they needed it most, their mostly unproductive offense rammed the football down the Lions' throats to eat up the final six-and-a-half minutes of the game.

The Lions lost because they committed penalties, dropped passes, threw interceptions, and kicked field goals instead of extra points.

It was, perhaps, a game lost rather than a game won.

But it was, indefatigably, what the Lions deserved. The Packers, too.

The Lions' players, to a man, believe they're getting better. They believe they're getting closer to winning football games. They "should be 3-1, 2-2 at the least," according to LB Julian Peterson.

The players bemoan their mistakes, yet make them week after week. They speak of things "you just can't do" on the football field, but go ahead and do them anyway.

"It's on me."

"That was my fault."

"I can't let that happen."

"We can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot."

"We self-destructed. We beat ourselves."

Those are quotes from football players every week in half of the locker rooms in the NFL. They've been quotes of Lions players after 41 of the past 44 games.

And those quotes underline my hypothesis---that the losing pro football team gets exactly what it deserves.

Yeah, I know the Lions got jobbed in Week One in Chicago. But were they truly the better football team that day?

The Lions contained the Packers' offense for almost the entire second half yesterday---except for the final 6:23 of the game, which just happened to be the most crucial 6:23 of the afternoon.

Just prior to that, the Lions had the ball on the Packers' 37 but elected to punt instead of trying a 54, 55-yard field goal to nudge ahead, 29-28.

The Lions never touched the ball after that cowardly decision.

The final score was exactly what they deserved, statistics be damned.

That's the NFL--a league whose games are the ultimate pass/fail course.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pistons' Kuester Better Hope Size Doesn't Matter

The gem of a line was uttered during what today’s generation of basketball fan would tell you was the Neanderthal days of pro hoops, i.e. B.J.—Before Jordan.

It was the late-1960s and the utterer was a coach named Butch van Breda Kolff, whose last name was truncated by headline writers to simply VBK.

It was a time before three-point shots in the NBA, when there was another pro league that played with a patriotic red, white and blue ball and which had the three-pointer in its rulebook.

It was a time when the shorts only went to early-thigh and the sneakers were canvas and above the ankle. The Afros on the players’ heads added two inches to their listed height.

It was a time when the Lakers and Celtics routinely battled for the NBA championship.

See? Some things never change.

So here was VBK, coach of the Lakers, speaking in a snit about his lumbering star center Wilt Chamberlain, with whom he had a love/hate relationship.

“If the basketball court was made of grass,” VBK said of his seven-footer, “Wilt would wear out a one-square-foot patch.”

To be fair to Chamberlain, his was a time when the center was anchored to the low key, near the basket. If Wilt would wear out a patch, so would most of the centers in the NBA.

But VBK had a way of saying and doing things like no other coach in my memory. Butch was one for wearing flashy leisure suits with open collars and no socks on his feet. He was a lover of steam baths, beer, and technical fouls. If you combined Billy Martin with Hugh Hefner, that was VBK.

Once, VBK, in a fit of anger over a call that didn’t go his way, tried to make like Pele and kicked the basketball toward the paying customers. His shoe flew off in the process.

“My shoe went further than the ball,” he moaned afterward.

VBK and Chamberlain existed, however dysfunctionally, in a time when the five players on the court had strict assignments and their positions were numbered one through five, like a baseball team.

Number One was the point guard—a small wizard with the basketball in charge of passes. Sometimes he would shoot, but only as a last resort.

Number Two was called the “shooting guard,” a gunner who would sometimes pass, but only as a last resort.

Number Three was a small forward, a man too tall for guard but too small for center or power forward (stay tuned). His duty was to get the ball at the perimeter and alternately shoot from the outside or drive to the basket in the hope of getting fouled.

Number Four was a power forward, a man too big for small forward and too stone-handed to be entrusted with the basketball for too long. His main job was to rebound and get the ball back to someone more trustworthy.

Number Five was the center, a behemoth of a man who played no further than five feet from the basket, and who was the last man up the court. At least half of the 24-second clock would expire by the time the center would take his position in the low key.

The center in VBK’s NBA, the position that Chamberlain, Russell, Alcindor and Thurmond played, was a rebounding machine whose field goal and free throw percentages were both in the 60s.

They used to say that you can’t win an NBA championship without a top-notch center. They said it at a time when the Celtics were winning the title every year with Bill Russell. Then they said it when the Milwaukee Bucks won in just their third year of existence with Lew Alcindor. They said it all the time, like rote.

Then guys who were not centers, named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, entered the NBA and it turned out that you could win championships with superstars who weren’t the size of Redwoods.

And if you still needed convincing, the Pistons won two straight championships under the leadership of a 6’1” mighty mite named Isiah Thomas.

But today’s NBA is still about size, and more importantly, versatility. The positions One through Five are still used, but everyone multi-tasks now.

The point guard is expected to be a scorer, too—sometimes before the passing. The shooting guard sometimes mimics the small forward’s job description. The frontline players—positions Three, Four, and Five, are practically interchangeable.

When you interview for a player’s job in today’s NBA, you’d better be more dimensional than a 3-D movie.

The Pistons have just begun training camp. When coach John Kuester surveys his troops, he sees a lot of guys between the heights of 6’6” and 6’9”. GM Joe Dumars has provided the coach with a lot of jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.

The center, aging Ben Wallace, is a 20-point scorer—if you give him a week to do it.

They have a couple of short guards and a boatload of guys who would be Twos and Threes in the old days. There aren’t really any Fours. Few of them know how to play defense.

From this strange roster, Kuester is being asked to elevate the Pistons from the 27-55 nightmare of last season to playoff contender.

John Kuester is, by all appearances, a nice guy, a real gentleman.

The Pistons’ coach is a pleasant enough looking man with thinning hair and an easy smile. He looks more like one of the dads at your kid’s school than an NBA head coach.

Kuester, a grad of that basketball institution North Carolina, has been called the “G” word by some in the NBA’s inner sanctum—a genius of offensive schemes and strategies. But that was as an assistant. He’s in his second year as a head coach and we still don’t know if he can really be a head coach or not, because last year’s Pistons were a fractured, splintered group—literally. Their injuries were early and often. Rip Hamilton hurt himself on opening night and the tone was set.

Kuester has a bunch of Twos and Threes and from that he’s supposed to accumulate a bunch of Ws.

Now THAT would be genius!