Friday, December 31, 2010

That Was the Year That Was: 2010 in My Written Word

For the third straight year, I look back at the year and pick out some of the highlights—and lowlights—of my written bleatings.



On Martin Mayhew:

“Mayhew was a splendid choice, as it turns out. He drafted better, in just one try, than his former boss, Millen, did in his eight drafts combined, just about. In October ’08, Mayhew, still interim GM, fleeced Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys in his first few weeks on the job, taking them for a first round draft pick for receiver Roy Williams.

Mayhew spent most of 2009 combing the waiver wires, trying gamely to bring the most talented players he could find—defensive backs, especially—to the Lions. Not all of his expensive free agent signings during the off-season worked out, but the draft is where you really build a team. And in that area, Mayhew did wonderfully.”

Now all Mayhew has to do is…do it again, in 2011, for the Lions to contend in the NFC North.

On John Kuester/Pistons:

“The Pistons are, again, devoid of leadership. It’s been a black hole, a vacuum, ever since they traded Chauncey Billups away. Poor Michael Curry got swallowed up by it. Don’t believe me? Anyone see Michael lately?

The Pistons are a bunch of soft scorers and Ben Wallace. They play with no life, no urgency. The Palace is a great place to go to get caught up on some reading, or maybe study for a trigonometry test.”

Sadly, not much has changed around the Palace—the team’s ownership situation continuing to be an unsettling cloud hanging over the organization.

On Chris Osgood:

“So here we are, January 2010. And Osgood is suckering us again, or trying to. This year it’s Jimmy Howard, a rookie , who has some people thinking the Red Wings ought to leave Ozzie on the bench come playoff time—should the Wings qualify.

Why? Because Osgood is sandbagging it again in the regular season, while the kid Howard is doing things like stopping 51 of 52 shots, as he did in L.A. the other night.

I’m not much of a gambler. I can barely figure out how to work a slot machine. But if I saw Chris Osgood at a table, I’d beat it.

You want the rookie Howard in goal, instead of the proven Osgood, when the playoffs arrive—again, should the Red Wings qualify?

P.T. Barnum was right, and this is your minute.”

I missed on this one—Howard proved that he was more than ready to lead a team in the playoffs. And Osgood still looks suspect, too often.


On U-M football coach Rich Rodriguez:

“Rodriguez, heading into his third year as coach, still has stench on him. There’s a lot of sheister about him. Remember his clumsy parting from West Virginia? Remember the allegations of document shredding at WVU before the school could get its mitts on pertinent papers?

Remember the scuttlebutt over the amount and lengths of practices last summer? Remember the defection of players who were disgusted by the Rodriguez Doctrine?”

It’s looking more and more like Rodriguez will become “former Michigan coach” Rodriguez, doesn’t it?

On Johnny Damon/Carlos Guillen:

“If the Tigers sign Johnny Damon, as has been widely speculated, and insert him in left field, there wouldn’t seem to be any place for Carlos Guillen to play—at least not that involves putting on a mitt.

Guillen, whilst a Tiger, has been seen in various years at shortstop, first base, third base, and, most recently, in left field. Sadly, he’s also been seen very frequently on the Disabled List. He’s been more fragile than a carton of eggs.

The Damon signing might force the Tigers to do something I’ve been beseeching them to do for months: forget this notion of designated hitter-by-committee and make Guillen the full-time DH. Better than him being on the full-time DL.

Guillen’s glove ought to be swiped by the Tigers and hidden somewhere. Maybe that’s the only way to keep him healthy. Damon isn’t exactly a Gold Glover in his own right, but Guillen breaks too easily.”

Guillen, as usual, ended up on the disabled list, needing microfracture surgery on his knee. Surprise!

On Red Wings coach Mike Babcock:

"Mike Babcock is in his fifth season of coaching the Red Wings, so I suppose it’s about time to find out whether he can actually, you know, coach.

Don’t snicker—I’m not being flip. Since Babcock arrived in Detroit in the summer of 2005, when has he had to coach the team in the regular season like he has to at this very moment?

If the Red Wings were being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, their threat level would be elevated a color.

This is big doings, folks. We’re closing in on 20 games remaining in the regular season, and the Red Wings haven’t been cleared for playoff flight yet.

Enter Babcock, whose mystique as a prickly, no-nonsense guy is about to be put to the test in a manner like never before in Detroit."

Babcock passed the test with flying colors, turning in his best coaching job ever in Detroit (keep reading).


On Mike Babcock (again):

“Babcock is a great hockey coach, and is having his greatest of seasons.

His greatest season wasn’t in 2008, when he brought the Cup back to Detroit after a five year absence. It wasn’t last year, when he nearly did it again.

His greatest season is right here, right now, guiding what was, for most of the year, a M*A*S*H unit through the rigors of an NHL campaign.

Babcock should get the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, and mainly because he never put a pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.”

As expected, Babcock did NOT win the Jack Adams, but it doesn’t change the facts: last season was Babcock’s best in Detroit.

On Magglio Ordonez:

“If Ordonez can regain his mojo, the Tigers offense not only “sounds” better, it IS better.

It’d be terrific if the rookie Jackson and the grizzled veteran Damon can form a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the order. Cabrera will get his 30+/100+ in HR and RBI, no matter what.

But if the 36-year-old Ordonez, who figures to hit third, isn’t the Maggs we know and love, then the house of cards collapses.”

Sadly, Ordonez got hurt and the Tigers’ offense suffered immeasurably.

On Austin Jackson:

“We’re about to find out if this kid Jackson has the goods to not be dwarfed by the specter of playing centerfield in the big leagues. He’s not following Cobb or DiMaggio or Mantle or Mays, but you’d think so, gauging by the fans’ take in post-Granderson Detroit.”

Jackson more than held his own in Detroit, replacing Granderson at both the leadoff spot and in center field. Remember Jackson’s catch in the ninth inning of Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game?

On the state of the Pistons:

“Dumars has no vision anymore. He’s become Mr. Magoo, and no one is more of a shadow of himself than Joe D. He’s the Incredibly Shrinking GM.

The Pistons still try to use “Going to work” as a marketing hook and it’s laughable. This team only goes to work for coach John Kuester on occasion; the rest of the time it’s out to lunch.

It’s sad what’s happened to this team, but that sadness pales in comparison to the future’s outlook, which is chillingly bleak.”

As stated previously, the Pistons’ future is indeed bleak, easily the bleakest it’s been since the late-1970s, when Dick Vitale ruined the team in less than two years.

On MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, preparing for another March Madness run:

“Still, for all his success at MSU, Izzo has but one National Championship to show for it, and that came 10 years ago. Not that it’s for the lack of trying, or for not having come close. Izzo looks like he’s the most tormented man in America at times, coaching his kids in East Lansing, but somewhere deep down inside, he must like it.

But like I said, the guy’s a little nuts.”

Izzo would have a chance, a few months later, to prove how nuts he was—for MSU.


On Brendan Shanahan, who I interviewed in Trenton:

“Shanahan scored, and he fought. He also increased the interest in hockey among the females. Often all in the same game. The Brendan Shanahan Hat Trick was a goal, a fight, a swoon.

I wanted to know what this time of the year meant to an old NHL warrior like him.

‘You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.’”

Shanahan is now proving that he’s very adept at his new job—as an NHL Vice President.

On Austin Jackson’s fast start:

“Jackson is hitting a cool .306 with an OBA of .375. He already has four multiple-hit games. Nicely done, kid.

The Man who Replaced Curtis Granderson—how much longer before we drop THAT moniker?—is slapping extra base hits, playing solid defense, throwing runners out, and using his speed on the basepaths to make the other team nervous.

And there’s that keen batting eye, which belies his tender age.

Austin Jackson is the real deal. He’ll make folks around Detroit forget Curtis Granderson soon enough. Because he’ll be better than Curtis, when all is said and done.”

After Jackson’s rookie season played out in its entirety, I haven’t changed my opinion one bit.

On Miguel Cabrera, bouncing back from an ugly end to his 2009 season:

“His shoulders are plenty broad enough to carry the Tigers for stretches of time this season, if need be. And the need will be. Whether he does so won’t depend on his ability—it will depend on the space between his ears. The only thing Miguel Cabrera doesn’t have quite yet is a killer instinct in crunch time, when the games matter the most.

He’ll get that, too.

Scary, isn’t it?”

Cabrera had a monster year, and might be the best hitter in all of baseball in short order, if he isn’t already.


On the Twins-Tigers divisional race:

“This Twins-Tigers thing in 2010 is going to just about kill you, I’m certain.

They’re going to be so close to each other all summer, one will know what the other had for lunch. You won’t be able to get anything thicker than a credit card between them.

It’s going to be like this from now until the end, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh, someone will edge in front by a few games, beating their chest as the king of the hill. Then the other will yank them by the ankle and down they’ll go.

It’s going to be a back-and-forth, I got it-you take it sort of affair. Morneau will get as hot as a firecracker and the Twins will jump on board his shoulders for a week or two. Then Cabrera will see that and raise it a sawbuck.”

Umm, not exactly. The Twins ran away and hid from the slumping Tigers, post-All Star break.

On whether Steve Yzerman should take the Tampa Bay Lightning GM job:

“The Lightning wants Stevie Y to be their new GM, the scuttlebutt is.

This isn’t the brass ring of GM jobs. It’s beneath Yzerman, frankly, to go to work for a team that didn’t exist until 1992—when he was starting his 10th season as a player.

Going from the Red Wings—as solidly run of a franchise as any in pro sports—to the Lightning is like stopping midway through a lobster dinner and switching to Spam.

It’s beneath Yzerman to work for such a Mickey Mouse franchise, which needs three home dates to fill its arena, in a city that is as much of a hockey hotbed as Hades.

Someone of Yzerman’s stature deserves much more than being the GM of the Tampa Bay Freaking Lightning.

Yet, as much as this pains me to say it, he ought to take the job.”

Stevie Y took the job, and his Lightning are, surprisingly, leading their division, playing some marvelous hockey.

On LeBron James, before he left Cleveland:

“Cleveland needs LeBron James a whole lot more than he needs Cleveland. Then again, Cleveland even needed Buddy Bell more than Buddy Bell needed Cleveland, so I guess that’s not really saying much.

If I’m James, I take a good look at New York and take my chances with the Knicks.

It’s not going to happen in Cleveland. Clearly.

Then again, what does?”

But I didn’t mean for LeBron to LeGo the way he did!


On Pavel Datsyuk, after winning yet another Selke Award for best defensive forward:

“He usually comes from behind you. Most of the good crimes start that way, I know. But even if you know he’s behind you, it doesn’t do you any good. In fact, Datsyuk could give you a call and set up an appointment and tell you that he’s going to relieve you of the puck and it wouldn’t mean jack squat.

A common method is for Datsyuk to glide up behind you and neatly use his stick to lift yours off the ice surface, mid-stickhandle. In a flash, he has the puck and is skating away with it. He does it so fast you’d swear he was playing with giant chopsticks, not a hockey stick.

Another modus operandi involves Datsyuk pretending like he doesn’t know you have the puck, allowing you to skate by him, presumably unnoticed. But then a flick of his stick later, he’s poke checked you, you’re sans the puck and he’s with it and you can’t wait to see what the security cameras show.”

On Magglio Ordonez, again:

“Ordonez is back.

He’s hitting .322, with 10 HR and 49 RBI. That’s .048, seven and 25 better than last year at this time. The ball again explodes from his bat. The swing is back to its upper cut smoothness.

It’s more, well, Ordonez-ish.

Seems like he hasn’t forgotten how to hit, after all.

And his resurgence is a huge reason why the Tigers’ 3-4-5 hitters are among the best in baseball right now.”

But at least Maggs will be back with the Tigers in 2011, eh?

On Red Wings executive Jimmy Devellano finally being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame:

“You’d like to say that Jimmy Devellano has forgotten more hockey than all of us know, except that I don’t think Jimmy has forgotten a lick.

The NHL shouldn’t enshrine him, they should clone him.

They’re finally putting Jimmy D. into the Hall of Fame. It’s almost a redundant move. Nothing’s been this overdue since an apology from Ann Coulter.”

Good for him.

On Dave Pallone, the only openly gay umpire in MLB history, and who I had the pleasure of interviewing:

“Pallone, for 10 big league seasons, was two people.

There was the tough, talented umpire Pallone, who toiled in the minor leagues for eight years before getting his chance in the wake of the infamous big league umpires strike of 1979. There was the guy who wouldn’t be shoved out, despite atrocious and reprehensible treatment by his so-called brethren who looked at him and saw scab.

Then there was the “other” Dave Pallone—the one who told bold-faced lies regularly.

The one who didn’t want anyone to know what he was really up to. The one who lived in daily fear of being found out.

That Dave Pallone was gay.”

Pallone was fired for being suspected of being part of a gay sex ring, which was proven to be untrue. Still, he chose not to sue baseball, taking a cash settlement instead.

On Tom Izzo as he contemplated leaving MSU for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers:

“Izzo is no more serious about taking this job in Cleveland than he is driving his car into a brick wall tonight.

But he won’t say that, because he gets off on this stuff. It’s enough for him to remind the people in East Lansing that he can crush them into a fine powder.

NBA teams keep Izzo’s phone number on speed dial because they haven’t been instructed not to—by Tom Izzo himself.

Izzo can end all this nonsense. He can come out and say, ‘Look, NBA, save your breath. I ain’t never turning pro! And you can’t make me.’”

Izzo stayed at MSU, and finally did close the door to the NBA, thankfully.

On Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game:

“Jim Joyce picked the worst possible time to be human.

Don Denkinger, move over—we’re seating a second at your table.

Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game but gained the respect of the entire country. Hell, the world.

At the precise moment when most mortal men would have collapsed or thrown a temper tantrum, Galarraga stood holding what should have been a baseball headed for the Hall of Fame this morning and smiled.


This is a story that we won’t ever forget in Detroit, and we should all be honored that we were around to see it unfold.


On Ben Wallace coaching the Pistons:

“Wallace was never a guard. The offense never ran through him. He never called plays, or even for time outs. His words can be measured by the handful.

But he’s won, and he’s been around a lot of different coaches. He can pull the best from many of them.

I wouldn’t put anything past an undrafted multiple All-Star and NBA champion who played a position that he’s several inches too short for, from Virginia Union.

Pistons coach Ben Wallace.

It’s just crazy enough to work.”

Another of my cockamamie ideas that will likely never see the light of day, but it was fun to throw out there.

On throwback linebacker Chris Spielman, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame:

“(When Spielman played) there should have been no facemasks or elbow pads. The forward pass should have been considered radical. The drop kick should have been part of the playbook.

The games should have been heard on radio, not seen on television. The accounts should have been read from a newspaper, not the Internet.

The players should have played both offense and defense. There should have been one coach per team.

Red Grange should have been around for advice. Jim Thorpe, too.

Chris Spielman was born too late. Like by about 50 years.”

On LeBron James leaving for Miami:

“James’s absconding to Miami was an act of cowardice because he didn’t have it inside of him to stick it out in Cleveland. His impatience is only matched by his gutlessness.

James had an opportunity to never turn his back on the folks in northern Ohio, and to see the journey to an NBA Championship all the way through. He had the chance to be a genuine hero, and to be placed shoulder-to-shoulder with other true NBA greats.

LeBron James can’t hold the jock straps of any of the superstars who won championships in the 1980s and 1990s. His heart is infinitely smaller. His fortitude is laughable.”

Why don’t I tell you what I REALLY think?

On lack of a quarterback controversy in Detroit:

“But mostly, Matthew Stafford won’t have any competition.

For the record, the backup QB is a guy named Shaun Hill. The Lions got him from the 49ers and he’s not a tomato can—he can actually play.

Still, I just as soon we not see him—no offense, Shaun.

The quarterback in Detroit is Matthew Stafford, and should be for years to come. Future signal callers will be drafted just so the Lions can be polite.”

Well, we saw Shaun Hill—a LOT of Shaun Hill. And not much Matthew Stafford. Let’s hope that’s not a scenario that’s repeated in 2011. Again, no offense, Shaun.

On Bob Probert, who died tragically on July 5:

“Bob Probert, the former Red Wings and Blackhawks player who died Monday at age 45, wasn’t a great player. Hundreds of men suited up for the Red Wings who had more talent in their left pinky than Probert possessed in his mammoth body.

But none of them owned Detroit like Probie owned it.

Probert wasn’t a hockey player, he was a spectacle.

Time was, you had a few pops in Greektown or the watering hole of your choosing, hopped on the People Mover to the Joe, and took in Probert first, the Red Wings game second.”

Probie’s loss was just one of several we suffered in Detroit in 2010, but he was by far the youngest of the ones who passed away.


On the Pistons signing Tracy McGrady:

“The Pistons-McGrady marriage couldn’t be one of more convenience if they put a Slurpee machine, some beef jerky, an ATM and a magazine rack in the locker room.

But that’s OK. This is a business and both parties need each other.

The Pistons need McGrady to put some fannies in the seats. McGrady needs the Pistons to showcase his talents.

Till death—or 2011—do they part.”

My opinion hasn’t changed, but it’s good to see McGrady beginning to play more like the superstar he used to be.

On the Granderson/Jackson trade:

“The trade is already a great one for the Tigers.

Austin Jackson is six years younger than Granderson and is every bit as good defensively. He doesn’t have Grandy’s power—not yet—but is OBA is a robust .352. Jackson also fans a lot, so that’s a wash.

As I’ve written before, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ve already seen the best of what Curtis Granderson can do. He’s topped out, in my mind, as a big league ballplayer.

Doesn’t mean he’s not a good one—just that I don’t see him getting much better, if at all.

Austin Jackson, on the other hand, has a ceiling that far exceeds Granderson’s.”

Granderson played OK for the Yankees, and Jackson was mostly outstanding for the Tigers.

On Mike Modano signing with the Red Wings:

“A 40-year-old hockey player with 21 NHL years behind him ought to have a face that looks like un-ironed corduroy. His voice should be raspy and his tongue should be pocked with marks from hitting the gaps caused by his missing teeth.

His face shouldn’t be tanned, it should be yellowed. You should be half looking for bolts coming out of his neck.

But there Modano sat, chatting as if he was an author on a book tour, not a 40-year-old giving the NHL another go, having wondered mere weeks ago if he had it in him to play another season.”

Unfortunately, Modano was felled a quarter through the season with a gashed wrist.


On the Lions’ recent kick return game, and newcomer Stefan Logan:

“In the 2000s, the Lions have been returning kicks politely. Their return men frequently collapse to the ground easily. They’ve been as elusive as a turtle, and as slippery as flypaper.

In 2010, there’s a new kid back there fielding kickoffs. His name is Stefan Logan and he’s the size of a matchbox. Maybe the Lions are hoping it’ll be 20 yards before anyone finds him, let alone tackles him.

Logan had one decent return last Sunday, just before halftime—and just before the ill-fated sack of QB Matthew Stafford. Beyond that, he didn’t show me much.”

Logan ended up having a solid season—showing me something, after all.

On the reborn Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry:

“This is going to be a doozy for the NHL for years to come. Rumors of the Red Wings’ death have been greatly exaggerated.

Thanks to a second round KO last spring, the Red Wings have had much more time off than they’re used to getting. It got so weird that superstar center Henrik Zetterberg got married to a beautiful Swedish TV personality, and was STILL hunkering to get back to Detroit to get into hockey mode.”

It’s always fun when two of the Original Six are league rivals.

On Matthew Stafford, yet again:

“Stafford is the unchallenged, unquestioned leader of the Lions, in just his second season. He’s the closest thing to Elway and Montana and Favre and Manning that the franchise has ever had. By far.

Stafford is handsome, football smart, possessor of a cannon for an arm, and with leadership skills beyond his tender age. He has everyone’s trust in the Lions organization.

Matthew Stafford is going to make Detroit go crazy.

You get that feeling.”

That craziness will have to wait until next year, at least.


On the U-M/MSU football rivalry, in the week leading up to the game:

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.”

MSU won for the third straight year, and Rodriguez’s detractors are still out in full force.

On Jimmy Howard:

“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?”

Howard hasn’t done anything to “mess up” the Red Wings’ chances this season.

On John Kuester:

“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!”

Poor John Kuester.


On Tigers retiring No. 11:

“Yes sir, the Tigers should retire no. 11, and erect a statue of the man who wore that number proudly.

Why haven’t the Tigers so honored Bill Freehan?

Excuse me—did you think I was speaking of someone else?

In the wake of the sad news of Sparky Anderson’s passing, there’s been a call to retire Sparky’s no. 11. The dispute between Sparky and the Ilitches aside, I can see where a case could be made to formally ensure that no Tiger ever again slips on no. 11, even by accident.

But that number shouldn’t have been available to Sparky to begin with. So says me.

Freehan, a Tiger (and ONLY a Tiger) from 1961-76, was the best catcher of the 1960s—American or National League, Earth or any other planet you got. Period.”

I’ve long wondered when the Tigers were going to come to their senses and honor Freehan, a local kid and a great Tiger.

On the ageless Nick Lidstrom:

“Lidstrom plays hockey with the efficiency of a coffee filter, and with about as much effort. He plays 30 minutes a game but he doesn’t actually play them, he conducts them, like clinics. Have you ever seen him sweat?

Lidstrom isn’t human, I’m telling you.

This is a man who ends opponents’ rushes into the Detroit zone like an altar boy with a candle snuffer. Some Fancy Dans have tried stickhandling past him, but that’s like trying to beat a frog in a staring contest, or a man trying to win a fight with his wife.

Others have tried sucking Lidstrom into them and then passing the puck, but Nick’s hockey stick is more precise than a surgeon’s scalpel. He’s ruined more passes than a girl in a bar full of drunks.”

Lidstrom is having a great season, even by his standards. It’s amazing.

On the passing of Sparky Anderson:

“With the Tigers, Sparky took a collection of young, impressionable men who thought they knew a lot and was able to, at the same time, both remind them that they knew precious little, as well as turn them into champions. He also made them into men in the process, even if they didn’t know it at the time.

They know it now. Upon the news yesterday that Sparky had been placed into hospice care, one by one his former players spoke of how much he taught them about baseball and about life.

Pain don’t hurt, Sparky once said.

But his death sure does.”


On Rich Rodriguez’s performance at the U-M football bust:

“U-M coach Rich Rodriguez, in his clumsy, ham-handed attempt to ingratiate himself with the Wolverine faithful, instead brought the program to the national forefront as a big, fat, maize and blue joke.

The desperate plea by Rodriguez that he wants to be a “Michigan Man,” the hand-holding, the biblical quotes, the swaying back and forth while “You Raise Me Up” played in the background—it all added up to staining Michigan football for untold years to come.

The display confirmed what I’ve suspected for quite some time—that Rodriguez puts himself first.”

So there you have it—the bon mots from 2010. As usual, there were hits and misses

Here’s to a great 2011, everyone!

Monday, December 27, 2010

For the Rolling Lions and Their Fans, a 5-10 Record Never Looked So Good

I'd like to report a crime.

I'd like to report a mass abduction.

Someone has kidnapped the Detroit Lions, stashed them away, and replaced them with impostors.

These new Lions are resilient. They come from behind. They feel like they're going to make the big play. They have a winning streak---on the road.

No, I know it's not a crime that's been committed, but you sure can't blame anyone for thinking that.

Speaking of committed, that's what the Lions have been doing lately (and when I say lately, I mean the entire 21st century)---they haven't been playing football, they've been committing it. They've come out every Sunday and left the field rife with fingerprints of botched plays, penalties, dropped passes, and a defense that wilts at the worst possible times.

The Lions have not only been piling up losses, they've been accumulating indictments.

There was another indictment yesterday in Miami, but this time the defendants were the Miami Dolphins, and especially quarterback Chad Henne, our old friend from Michigan.

The Dolphins have finished the 2010 season 1-7 at home, and the last two of those losses have come in successive weeks against the Bills and Lions.

Sunday, it was quite evident why the Dolphins may have a better record than the Lions (7-8 vs. 5-10), but might not be the better team.

These are two teams going in opposite directions, like two trains passing each other. Only, the Dolphins' might be veering off its track.

The Lions won it, 34-27, scoring 17 fourth quarter points before you could say, "Is Tony Sparano coming back in 2011?"

Jim Schwartz will be coming back, for sure---which is more than you can say about Miami's coach, who is likely to be sweating out the Monday after the season finale---also known as "Black Monday," when suffering head coaches in the NFL are told to come to the owner's office with their playbook.

Schwartz has his team playing hard, believing in itself and, get this---expecting to win.

I know the feeling.

Watching the game yesterday---and this is what a two-game winning streak can do in Lions Land---I had the distinct feeling that the Lions weren't going to go away easily, even when down by 10 points with about seven minutes to play.

Two games---that's all it took for me to think that the Lions were going to figure out how to win the game. Now, that could have been more because they were playing the Dolphins, who've been miserable at home. But it's also because the Lions appear to be a different team.

So if I feel that way, can you imagine how the players feel?

It works both ways, you know.

When the Lions were stuck in neutral---and we're only talking a few weeks ago---some of their players even admitted to getting that "Here we go again" feeling when something would go wrong, especially in the fourth quarter. Which is the same feeling the fans had, exponentially.

So here the Lions were, down 27-17, and all didn't seem lost, for whatever reason.

Then Shaun Hill hit Jahvid Best with a 53-yard touchdown pass, and that comeback feeling only grew stronger.

I know a lot of folks around here are pulling for ex-Wolverine Henne, but it was sure nice to see the other team implode in the fourth quarter because of poor quarterback play, for a change.

Henne threw two interceptions in the game's final few minutes, which led to 10 Lions points, including the game-winning touchdown courtesy of DeAndre Levy's pick-six. Henne was booed off the field, something that we know a little bit about in Detroit.

The Lions have won three straight. For three straight weeks, it's been left to the other team to answer that base question that gets asked by reporters of the losers after the game: "Hey, what happened out there?"

For the third straight week, the Lions got to answer questions like, "Can you keep this thing going?" and "How about that big play by (fill in the blank)?"

Here's something else, which may simply be a quirk but is also indicative of the scrappiness of this bunch and how banged up thev've been.

The Lions have been led to victory this season by three different quarterbacks.

It's true. Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton each have Ws to their credit this season. I'm not even sure if that's happened in franchise history. Off the top of my head, I don't think it's happened since I've been following/covering the team, which dates back to 1970.

All the more quirky, considering the Lions only have five wins to spread among the three QBs.

Now, about those five wins.

If the Vikings lose in Philadelphia on Tuesday night---those poor Vikings keep getting their games moved around, geographically and chronologically---they and the Lions will be tied with 5-10 records. Which means that the season finale in Detroit next Sunday will be the Battle for Third Place in the NFC North, i.e. no stigma of being the division's cellar dweller.

5-10 never looked so good, has it?

If the Lions end up running the table and finishing 6-10, you'll almost be able to hear the more gambling-prone of us yelling in anguish, for that would have been a bet that could have been a life-changer.

How much cash would you be raking in now if, when the Lions were 2-10, you bet they'd win out and finish with six victories?

Sunday in Miami, the new-look, new-minded Lions didn't play great football for much of the game. Their defensive line, for 52 minutes, was pedestrian, maybe a little better than average but nothing more. The offense was OK. Nothing terrific.

But this what success in the National Football League is, and has always been: the ability to muddle your way to victory, even when you've been at less than your best for much of the game.

All the great teams have been able to do it. As snazzy as the 1970 Steelers were, or the 1980s 49ers, or the 1990s Cowboys, don't think that they played super-duper football 16-out-of-16 times every season. They played some stinkers, too. They would lose, sure. But they also figured out a way to win those stinkers more than the losing teams did.

The Lions were OK Sunday, nothing more, when Best caught that pass from Hill and, despite his toe troubles, found enough YAC in his aching feet to ramble 53 yards to paydirt.

Best, by the way, still isn't right. He had a carry in the second half where he turned the corner on the near sideline, and the old, pre-injury Best would have exploded for 10-15 yards. This version of Best, with his turfed toes, lacked that explosion and only mustered four yards.

But Best produced a big play when the Lions needed it most, didn't he?

The defensive line was OK, nothing more, until the final few minutes, when it harassed Henne relentlessly, making the young quarterback uncomfortable and unable to look downfield for any considerable distance.

And then here was Levy, who has his own injury demons to contend with, jumping a route and picking off Henne, channeling Barry Sanders and twisting and turning, on his way to the end zone---perhaps the Lions' biggest and most timely defensive play this century. No joke.

So it's a three-game winning streak, folks---and two straight on the road. It's a chance to play a meaningful season finale, albeit in a skewed, garish way, and in a way that doesn't involve a Top Three draft position.

Center Dominic Raiola put it succinctly, in answering one of those happy questions in the locker room after Sunday's game.

"It's awesome," Dom said.

Care to argue?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Naughty or Nice, These Heroes and Goats Deserve Gifts, Too

Who says you can’t still get excited on Christmas morning, just because you’re all grown up? Where is it written that “thou shall not race into the front room, eager to open gifts,” if you’re beyond the age of 18?

Our sports heroes and goats should be able to enjoy December 25, too. Santa Claus ought not to skip over their houses!

To that end, here’s what I hope ole St. Nick will leave under the tree for some of them as he makes his rounds in the wee hours.

For Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford: the folks from “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV show, to rebuild his shoulders with bionics—because they HAVE the technology.

For Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who wants to own another dog: a nice, fluffy, stuffed facsimile—and nothing more.

For Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood, who’s on the verge of career win No. 400: a Hall of Fame induction speech—just in case.

For Tigers injury-prone, jack-of-all-trades Carlos Guillen, recovering from micro-fracture surgery on his knee: see Matthew Stafford, but for Carlos’s entire body.

For MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo: another Final Four appearance, and the kind where you lift the trophy at the end of it.

For U-M athletic director David Brandon: a plate of pancakes for breakfast, to replace all the waffling of late.

For Pistons coach John Kuester: a year’s supply of Pepto-Bismol.

For Tigers fans: outfielder Magglio Ordonez—oops, you already got that!

For ESPN: royalties on Brett Favres’s life; he couldn’t have stayed in the news without you, oh Worldwide Leader.

For Pistons guard Rip Hamilton: a nice, new snuggie, binkie, and sippy cup.

For Red Wings superstar Pavel Datsyuk, who has a broken hand: see Matthew Stafford, too.

For the Miami Heat: another basketball. They’ll need it, eventually.

For Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga: a made-for-TV movie about his sudden link to umpire Jim Joyce, entitled “Perfect Strangers.”

For Red Wings defenseman Nick Lidstrom: whatever he damn well wants.

For Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge: a brand new bat that’s guaranteed to hit .250 or higher.

For U-M quarterback Denard Robinson: a defense that doesn’t belie your offensive prowess.

For former Lions playing great and coach Joe Schmidt: all the continued good health in the world, and much thanks for sticking around and staying a Detroiter for life.

For Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay: ditto.

For former NFL kicker Tom Dempsey, who recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of his record-setting 63-yard field goal that beat the Lions: my forgiveness, and congratulations—you continue to be the league’s unlikeliest record holder.

For Red Wings center Mike Modano, recovering from a sliced wrist: a clean bill of health for the playoffs.

For Lions receiver Calvin Johnson: reasons to stick around, i.e. more wins.

For MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who wants to add another tier of playoffs to a post-season that already has trouble ending before Election Day: a freezer full of snowballs, ready for whoever throws out the first pitches at future World Series games.

For the 4-10 Arizona Cardinals, who were in the Super Bowl just two years ago: a chance to renew its deal with the Devil.

For oft-injured Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya: any bionics left over from Matthew Stafford and Carlos Guillen.

For Tigers manager Jim Leyland: fresh gallons of paint for the All-Star break, so his teams can stop fading in the second half.

For basketball coach Larry Brown, who just left his 13th coaching gig, with the Charlotte Bobcats: a new job as spokesperson for

For the Los Angeles Clippers: a proclamation from Gov. Schwarzenegger declaring them a disaster area, so they can qualify for federal aid.

For baseballs everywhere in the big leagues: an extra layer of padding for whenever Miguel Cabrera is at the plate. Poor things.

For fans at games who hold up the letter “D” and a piece of fence: a new rebus, already.

For Red Wings coach Mike Babcock: a Jack Adams Trophy, sooner or later.

For U-M football coach Rich Rodriguez: a job as an evangelist, in case his current one doesn’t work out.

For injured Pistons forward Jonas Jerebko: a nice card, telling him that we miss him and are thinking about him.

For Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: a key to the City of Detroit, if we can get it back from Curtis Granderson.

For Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander: a piece of coal, because like Jack Morris and Bob Gibson, Justin pitches better when he’s angry.

For Lions coach Jim Schwartz: a badge making him an honorary member of the CIA, for his handling of player injury reports.

For my lovely wife, who puts up with my sports-ness: a better husband for 2011. Here’s hoping.

For everyone who reads, listens to “The Knee Jerks,” or both: fulfilled dreams, health, and many thanks.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

25 Years Ago, Red Wings Were NHL's Biggest Losers

It’s another anniversary that I cannot believe has encompassed so many years–25 of them, as a matter of fact.

A quarter century has passed since the Red Wings iced the absolute worst team in the mostly glorious history of their venerable franchise.

Put an NC-17 rating on this post. Tell the kiddies to leave the room. You might want to make sure any senior citizens who may be floating about have taken their medication.

I’m going to tell you a story of a hockey team that stumbled through a season of horrors, made even worse because before it began, the Red Wings actually thought they had put themselves back on the map after so many years of drudgery.

Let’s step into the wayback machine, to the summer of 1985. Consider yourself warned.

The Red Wings were coming off two straight playoff appearances, but they were token. The NHL let the top four teams in each of the four divisions make the playoffs in those days, regardless of record. And it just so happened that the Red Wings were in a division that contained the Toronto Maple Leafs, a.k.a. the Toronto Maple Laughs.

The Red Wings couldn’t help but finish ahead of the Leafs in 1984 and ‘85, despite the fact that the Red Wings’ records in both years were nowhere near .500.

As a result, the Red Wings crashed the playoff party with teams that should have been golfing by February, if it weren’t for the Maple Leafs.

In 1984, the Red Wings were knocked out in the best-of-five first round, 3-1, by St. Louis. The next year, the Blackhawks blasted them out in three straight, every game a blowout.

That should have been a red flag.

Well, it was in a way, because GM Jimmy Devellano was given carte blanche to sign as many free agents as he could find. The Red Wings went on a spending spree, signing college free agents to lavish contracts—trivia answers like Ray Staszak and Tim Friday and Dale Krentz—as well as aging NHL veterans.

Owner Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough was being invested in question marks and has beens, but Devellano was told to spend, so he spent.

From the NHL ranks, the Red Wings signed a big forward named Warren Young from Pittsburgh. Young was coming off a career season in which he scored 40 goals—playing on a line with Mario Lemieux. That was another red flag that was missed, for the Red Wings had no one on their roster in Lemieux’s galaxy, let alone area code.

Also added were veteran defensemen Harold Snepsts and Mike McEwen.

Ilitch proudly told the media that his team was “going for it”, meaning gunning for the Norris Division crown.

The rest of the teams in the league scowled and crabbed, complaining that Devellano’s contract offers were falsely driving up the market.

There was a new coach, too—veteran hockey man Harry Neale, whose claim to fame was having coached the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association, and leading the Cinderella Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982.

Spirits were high in Detroit for their hockey team. Sports Illustrated, no less, did a big spread on the Red Wings just prior to the season opener.

Then they dropped the puck, and before too long it was evident that Devellano’s spending spree was going horribly wrong.

On opening night, the Red Wings blew a big lead at home and tied Minnesota, 6-6. Another red flag.

Two nights later, also at home, the Red Wings got hammered by Boston, 9-2.

Two nights after that, it was off to Buffalo, where they lost to the Sabres, 6-1.

After a 4-3 loss at home to Winnipeg, the Red Wings traveled to Minnesota and the North Stars laid a licking on them, to the tune of 10-1.

Chicago came in and beat the Red Wings, 6-2. Then Vancouver visited and waltzed out of Detroit with a 5-0 win.

After nine games, the Red Wings were 0-8-1, having surrendered an astounding 58 goals—more than six per game.

Yes, it really was as bad as the record indicated. The Red Wings didn’t play defense; they all but wore matador costumes and waved opposing teams toward their net. Which would have been halfway sufferable if they had some decent goaltending, but the Detroit netminders—Eddie Mio and Corrado Micalef primarily—were Swiss cheese on skates.

Neale, by the end of October, wore the same tired, shellshocked look on his face during every post-mortem as he tried to explain away another blowout defeat.

By mid-December, the Red Wings had given up 10 goals in a game on four separate occasions.

The free agents were all busts. Young proved that he wasn’t half the player the Red Wings thought he was, sans Lemieux. Snepsts tore up a knee in December. McEwen was useless and was traded just after Christmas. The college kids were, well, college kids.

There was one college free agent signed in the summer of 1985, however, who made something of himself in the NHL—a kid from RPI named Adam Oates.

The day before New Year’s Eve, the Red Wings put Neale out of his misery, firing him in what was widely considered a mercy killing.

The blend of rookie free agents, veteran free agents, and holdovers from the previous years was more dysfunctional than the guest lineup for a season’s worth of Jerry Springer shows.

To replace Neale, Devellano hired Brad Park, the veteran, Hall of Fame defenseman who finished his brilliant career with two years as a Red Wing.

Park told folks close to him that he could “have this thing turned around in six weeks.”

Brad Park made a much better defenseman than he did a prognosticator—and a coach.

The Red Wings were 8-23-4 when Park took over. Six weeks later, when Park boasted he’d have things “turned around,” the Red Wings had compiled a 4-15-1 record under their new coach.

On March 14, in Edmonton, the Oilers drilled the Red Wings, 12-3—the fifth time the team surrendered double digits in goals in a single game.

When the season mercifully ended, the Red Wings had won 17, lost 57, and tied six. They gave up a mind-boggling 415 goals—more than five a game.

Not long after the season, Devellano fired Park, too. Jimmy D and the ill-equipped coach didn’t get along at all.

“We were like oil and water,” Devellano explained after giving Park the ziggy.

That summer, Devellano bended the rules and recruited the St. Louis Blues coach to come to Detroit to truly “get things turned around.”

Jacques Demers bounced into town, full of vim, vigor, and a French-Canadian accent never before heard out of a Red Wings’ coach’s mouth.

Demers, with his short, cropped hair, eyeglasses and mustache, was a trenchcoat away from looking like Inspector Clouseau.

But Demers did get things turned around; one year after the 1985-86 debacle, the Red Wings made the first of two straight appearances in the Conference Finals.

It’s a testament to Ilitch that he stuck with Devellano despite the train wreck that was the 1985-86 season. Lots of GMs would have been told to go away and never return after such a misjudgment.

But Devellano was allowed to stay and try it again—the right way, via the draft and with eagle-eyed scouting.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So the next time you watch today’s Red Wings play the game with the typical skill and grace seen around these parts for the last two decades, remember that 25 years ago, the Joe Louis Arena ice surface was soiled by a team so bad, the organization could have charged folks to leave and made a mint.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lions Buck All Trends in Win in Tampa


No, this isn’t a story about tax forms. It’s a story about a pro football team that finally has “W-2″ in the column under “Streak.”

The Detroit Lions have won two straight games, for the first time in over three years.

On November 11, 2007, the Lions went into Arizona to play the Cardinals. The Lions were 6-2, finally living the high life in Matt Millen’s seventh year at the helm. Fans started bantying about the “p” word—playoffs—which hadn’t been even remotely possible since the end of the 2000 season.

The Lions’ sixth win, the one that gave them their gaudy 6-2 record, was a 44-7 slaughter of the Denver Broncos at Ford Field. The win was punctuated by a pick six by defensive tackle Shaun “Big Baby” Rogers, of all people.

The fans at Ford Field laughed, danced, and had a good old time; Rogers’ rumble was the icy cold beer at the 19th hole following a great round of golf.

Life was good in LionsLand.

I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what was about to occur.

The Lions lost the next week in Arizona, 31-21, and that started a stretch of football that had rarely been seen in the NFL prior, and certainly never in Detroit.

That started a 26-game losing streak on the road. It started a 53-game run during which the Lions won just six games, including the 0-16 debacle of 2008. It started the end of coach Rod Marinelli’s brief tenure.

The Lions are still a bad football team, not to be confused (at all) with the league’s elite. But for one Sunday, it was their turn to whoop and holler and enjoy a thrilling victory—on another team’s home field.

The Lions, hosting the New York Jets several weeks prior, lost more than a football game, when they disintegrated late and blew a 10-point lead and lost in overtime.

They lost so much more than a football game—they lost a real chance to be taken seriously. They lost a chance to make the second half of their season meaningful. They lost a chance to shed the “same old Lions” label.

Conversely, the Lions did more than win a football game Sunday in Tampa, beating the Bucs 23-20 in overtime.

They did more than end that 26-game road losing streak.

Maybe now they have learned that they, too, can win a close football game. They, too, can drive for a game-tying field goal with less than two minutes remaining and devoid of timeouts—with their third string quarterback, no less.

The Lions, too, can make big plays—both on offense and defense—when it matters most.

Since imploding on Thanksgiving Day against the Patriots and players sniping afterward, the Lions have played three tough-minded football games in a row. They came up short against the Bears, but they dampened the playoff hopes of the Packers and the Bucs in successive weeks.

The Lions are playing hard, playing with pride, and playing to win—and their season has been over for about a month now, if not longer.

Say what you will about coach Jim Schwartz—and I have, several times. But Schwartz hasn’t lost this team—not even close—as had been suggested after some of the quotes spewed forth following the Patriots game.

The Lions are playing hard for Schwartz. When teams do that in the season’s final quarter, when all playoff hope is lost, that’s the opposite of an indictment on the coach. That’s a ringing endorsement.

Say what you will about quarterback Drew Stanton—and I have, several times. But Stanton has shown me a toughness—mentally and physically—that I didn’t know he possessed. I had been convinced that Stanton couldn’t play in the NFL. I was wrong.

Say what you will about left tackle Jeff Backus—and I have, several times. But Backus has quietly had a very good season, maybe the best of his 10-year career. And he has been one of the linchpins of a newfound running game that has immensely helped the Lions win the past two weeks.

Say what you will about the secondary—and I have, several times. But despite a breakdown on the Bucs’ first touchdown, the patchork unit held its own. Nathan Vasher, another who was picked off the scrap heap, played tough on Mike Williams during a crucial third-and-goal from the 12-yard line, swatting away a pass that could have put the Bucs up by four points.

Say what you will about the play calling—and I have, several times. But the Lions finally found out how grand life can be when they get the ball to Calvin Johnson. CJ had 10 catches, just about every one of them for a first down, it seemed, and he again showed why he’s a giant running pass routes among Lilliputians. Throwing to Johnson is like throwing to a man on stilts wearing a Velcro suit.

Say what you will about the officials—and I have, several times. But they came through with two big calls that were both correct, and that both went the Lions’ way: the no-call against Vasher, and the offensive pass interference call on Kellen Winslow, which negated a Bucs touchdown.

Say what you will about the Lions in general—and I have, too many times to count. But maybe, just maybe, this team is learning a little about themselves. Maybe they now have the confidence that they can win close games—and that nothing is destined to sabotage them, whether it’s the officials or themselves.

The Lions have won two straight, against teams that came into the game with records of 8-4 and 8-5, respectively. Two teams whose playoff hopes have been damaged thanks to losing to the Lions.

Two teams who have found out that despite another season of double-digit losses, the Lions are, in center Dominic Raiola’s words—”Not gonna be anyone’s punks anymore!”

The Miami Dolphins had better look out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Detroit Still Lags as a Basketball Town

Detroit never has, never will be, a basketball town.

At times it can be a great football town. Witness the multiple sell-outs at Ford Field for a team that has been, by far, the worst in the NFL for the past 10 years.

Detroit is also a city that calls itself Hockeytown, the ultimate in metropolitan-wide hubris. But it's hard to deny that status, what with Joe Louis Arena tightly packed on most nights.

The true old-timers will tell you that Detroit is none of those---that it's a baseball town, and one of the best in America. Again, hard to deny, when 30,000+ file through the turnstiles in a summer when half the town is out of work, practically.

Baseball goes farther back in history than any of the sports in Detroit; we're talking the late-19th century, for goodness sakes.

Detroit---the city of Cobb and Heilmann and Greenberg and Gehringer. Of Kaline and Cash and Lolich and Horton. And so on.

Detroit could be any of those three things: Football city; Hockeytown; Baseball city.

What it is not, is much of a basketball burg.

The Pistons, ever since landing on Detroit's doorstep in a basket with a note signed by Fort Wayne, Indiana, has lagged behind its three sports brethren in town.

The Pistons wouldn't have made it through the 1960s if it wasn't for freebies distributed at the local fast food joints and other retailers. They wouldn't have made it through the '70s if it wasn't for Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.

And they wouldn't have made it into the Palace if it hadn't been for the inflated attendance figures at the Silverdome, a facility that enabled the Pistons to again hand out freebies and heavily discounted tickets so that they could boast ridiculous crowds like 50,000 for an NBA game.

The fans cheered the Pistons fiercely in the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, early-1990s, and they went mad for them during the championship run of 2004 and the near-miss of 2005.

But the Pistons are unlike the three other major teams in town, in that they typically don't get the love when they're down.

The Pistons were a sideshow in the 1960s, playing in sparkling new Cobo Arena before crowds that hovered around 3,000 or so a night. Then they moved to the Silverdome in 1978, probably a necessity at the time, so they could play in a facility that could hold tens of thousands of curious onlookers---thus exposing more folks to the wonders of the NBA.

The Pistons play in a beautiful arena---the Palace was ahead of its time when it was built in 1988---but they are, once again, the redheaded stepchild of Detroit sports.

Detroit isn't a basketball town. What it is, is a frontrunner town when it comes to pro hoops.

Win, and the people will show up. Lose, and they won't. They never have.

The Pistons have never been supported in their down years like the Lions, Red Wings and Tigers have. Not even close.

Yes, the Red Wings were moribund when Mike Ilitch bought them in 1982. But that was only after a stretch in which the team failed to make the playoffs in 11 of the 12 previous years. It took a long time for the Red Wings to lose fan support.

It traditionally has taken the Pistons about a year, maybe two, to see a dramatic downturn in attendance when they've struggled to string together some wins.

I was at Game 3 of the 2004 Finals against the Lakers, and I've never been in an area as loud as the Palace was that night. And I was at JLA in April 1984 when Isiah Thomas made us go bonkers with 16 points in 90 seconds against the Knicks in the playoffs.

I was also at the last game at Olympia Stadium, the roof of which I thought was going to collapse after Greg Joly scored on an end-to-end rush late in the third period to tie a game the Red Wings had once trailed in, 4-0.

But neither of those legendary nights compared to the deafening noise that engulfed the Palace on that June evening in 2004.

The Pistons played the Atlanta Hawks last night at the Palace and the arena, by all accounts, was a nice place to go to get some homework done, or to get caught up on your reading.

Detroit isn't a basketball town, and it's not just because the team plays way up in freaking Auburn Hills, which doesn't help attendance on a cold, snowy night when any team not named the Celtics, Lakers or Heat are visiting.

Detroit isn't New York. Or Philadelphia. Or Boston---cities where pro basketball wasn't invented, but where it sure was refined and made legitimate.

Detroit loves pro basketball when its team is winning. When the Pistons aren't, then the people around here will always find something better to do.

It's been like that since 1957, when the Pistons switched cities.

Yet I see the Lions sell out when they've won but six of their past 51 games. I've seen crowds at Comerica Park that weren't befitting the Tigers' lack of success on the field.

The Red Wings have been good forever, but even the 17-win team of 1985-86 could draw some crowds.

Pro basketball has never really been a good fit for Detroit, for whatever reason. It's had its moments, but those moments have come when the Pistons were an on-court delight.

Now that the Pistons have returned to losing ways, you're seeing the true degree of which they're supported in Detroit.

That is to say, not very much.

The next owner ought to move them back into the city. It couldn't hurt. But it's not a slam dunk to say that it will help, either.

Monday, December 13, 2010

This Time, It’s the Lions’ Opponents Who Have the ‘Splaining to Do

There---now you can finally say it, officially.

The Detroit Lions are improving. Their record says so.

The Lions, in fact, have made a 50% leap in improvement---and there are still three games to go.

It's number crunching---and in a way that shows the Lions in the best possible light.

The Lions, after outlasting the Green Bay Packers, 7-3, Sunday at Ford Field, sit at 3-10. They won two games all of last year.

So their two wins of 2009 increased to three in 2010 (so far)---and that, according to mathematics and statistics, is a 50% jump in the win column.

What do you mean, those numbers don't tell the story?

You don't think the Lions are 50% better now than they were last year?

That's OK---me neither.

But improvement is improvement, and the Lions officially entered the land of improvement by scratching and clawing their way to theird third win of the season.

Lucy didn't pull the football away this time. The other guys stepped on the rake and smacked themselves in the face for a change. The Packers got squirted with the daisy---got zapped by the joy buzzer.

It was a Sunday when the other team's quarterback got knocked silly and out of commission. It was the other inexperienced quarterback's turn to throw a terrible interception in the end zone (though the Lions' Drew Stanton did that, too---so maybe it was a push).

This time, it's not the Lions' duty to explain a curious play call that might have cost the loser the game. It's not for them to lament too many penalties or to be foiled by an official's yellow flag.

It's not the Lions who have to enlighten the fans and the press as to why they couldn't run the football consistently.

The Lions and their fanbase waited at the station for the fourth quarter train to come and take them to Loserville, but it never arrived. The Packers hopped on and bypassed the Lions at the stop.

The Lions won, 7-3. Only the Lions could win 7-3---just like only the Lions could lose 7-3.

But this wasn't dumb fool luck.

It's not a case of a blind squirrel finding a nut when your defensive line spends about a third of the game laying their hands on Packers QBs and runners behind the line of scrimmage.

It's not sheer fortune when you hold a Packers offense that frequently scores north of 30 points per game, to a mere field goal.

This was Lions-Packers, and ever since Brett Favre left, that has meant a stat line for Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers that resembles one plucked from an intra-squad, no contact drill.

You know the kind. The kind where Rodgers connects on about 75% of his passes, chucks the football for about 300 yards, and tosses a couple TD passes, with no interceptions or dirt on his jersey.

But on Sunday, Rodgers spent the second half in a concussed, dazed state, thanks to being planted into the turf by Lions LB Landon Johnson, a hit that left Rodgers' body twisted and mangled like an abused Gumby doll.

I don't like to see players get hurt, but wasn't it nice to see the Lions knock a QB out of the game, for a change?

And, it was a good, clean hit by Johnson. Rodgers has no one but himself to blame, since he eschewed the slide for a couple meaningless yards.

So Rodgers didn't carve up the Lions like he usually does. Even prior to the hit that knocked him out, Rodgers had mediocre numbers, at best. Yes, Greg Jennings flubbed a probable touchdown catch and run, but Rodgers wasn't himself on this day. In fact, he played like he suffered a concussion during breakfast.

Sunday's game was the big bully and the 98-pound weakling getting together for another mismatch, except that the bully stubbed his toes trying to kick sand in the weakling's face again.

Given new life after Rodger's understudy, Matt Flynn, threw a miserable interception in the end zone to DeAndre Levy, the Lions clung to the Packers and never let go, keeping the score 3-0 Green Bay until the fourth quarter.

Till that point, Lions QB Drew Stanton was looking like, well, Drew Stanton. But then he peeled off his mask, like in a "Mission: Impossible" movie, and revealed a real life NFL quarterback underneath---the kind who can engineer a fourth quarter, 80-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown.

Stanton was good for basically one drive---and it was the most important one. A 13-yard screen pass to tight end Will Heller capped it off.

But there was more than enough time for the Packers, even with the kid Flynn at QB, to mount a deflating comeback.

The Lions D-line said, "Not this week."

They continued harrassing the Pack just enough to keep them off rhythm and off the scoreboard the rest of the day.

A couple weeks ago, after the Lions went into the tank in the fourth quarter on Thanksgiving Day and sniped at each other afterward, I said on "The Knee Jerks" podcast that the in-fighting didn't bother me so much; it's to be expected when another season has turned to dust.

What I wanted to see, I said, was an effort in the final five games that Lions fans could be proud of. The remainder of the schedule was bursting with teams jockeying for playoff positioning. Let's see if the Lions can spoil other teams' fun, I wanted to know.

Coach Jim Schwartz's handle on his team wasn't proven or disproven because of some heated remarks after another loss, I said. But how his team played down the stretch, the season essentially over, would be far more telling as to whether Schwartz has lost his men or not.

Last week the Lions may have collapsed a bit in the fourth quarter against the Bears, but their effort was good, especially out of the gate.

Yesterday, no one could rightly accuse the Lions of packing it in (no pun intended) against Green Bay, another team whose final games mean everything to them.

Next week the Lions travel to Tampa, where the Bucs are in a life-or-death struggle to make the playoffs.

Then it's off to Miami, where the Dolphins certainly have a lot to play for.

The Vikings in Week 17 might even have a Wild Card shot, should they get on a roll here.

It would make five straight opponents for the Lions whose seasons are on the line, following the Thanksgiving debacle.

So far, the Lions are 2-for-2 in playing such opponents with some moxie and grit.

Schwartz is slowly making a case for himself that he's the guy to see this project to at least the next step, if his team keeps playing these superior, incentive-laden opponents tough and even beating them on occasion, when the Lions' season is again reduced to "Where Will We Draft Next Year"?

For one week, at least, the Lions didn't have to defend themselves to the fans and to the media after the game. They didn't have to muster up another explanation for why things went horribly wrong at the worst possible time. They didn't have to shake their heads at some wacky play that turned momentum.

Good for them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Howard Not Fearless; He's Just Playing That Way

Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, for those old enough to recall, was a bruising winger for the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams of the 1970s. Schultz could occasionally put the puck into the net, but his specialty was the right cross.

His nickname wasn’t “The Hammer” because of his beautiful hockey skills, let’s put it that way.

Schultz didn’t appear to play with any fear. The only scared players on the ice when he was playing were members of the opposing team.

Wrong, according to Schultz’s former teammate, Bill Clement.

“Dave Schultz taught me that courage isn’t the absence of fear,” Clement said on a recent NHL Network special chronicling the game’s tough guys. “Courage is defined by how you confront your fears.”

Schultz confronted his fears by beating the tar out of guys not wearing Flyer orange and black.

However you choose to define it, I believe there are no more courageous men in pro sports than hockey goalies.

You might say there are no crazier men than goalies.

Put arrogant and cocky in there as well for some of the very best goalies of all time.

Patrick Roy is less popular in Detroit than ketchup on a coney, but you can’t help but admire his bursting sense of confidence.

That’s thinly-veiled code for cockiness, but there you have it.

Roy, the Hall of Fame goalie and multiple Stanley Cup winner, played the game with disdain for the shooters who bore down on him. He sneered and smirked and believed that he was above reproach—or being scored on. He was more arrogant than a customer service rep in a booming economy.

In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, Roy’s Colorado Avalanche raced to a 3-1 series lead over the Red Wings, largely due to winning Games 1 and 2 in Detroit.

Finally, in Game Five the Red Wings beat Roy’s Avs at Joe Louis Arena.

Talking to the press after the game, Roy was asked about the Red Wings.

“Well, you’d think they’d win a home game sooner or later,” Roy said with a smirk and in his French-Canadian accent, drenched with smarminess.

Roy and the Avalanche dumped the Red Wings out of the playoffs in the next game played in Denver. Four games after that, Roy had won his third Stanley Cup.

Patrick Roy was the most arrogant, cocky, showboating goalie I’ve ever seen in my 41 years of watching hockey.

It wasn’t until after Roy retired that I fully appreciated his greatness and the edge that he had over his fellow net-minders and opposing scorers.

To play goalie in the NHL, and to play it in rarefied air, you can’t step onto the ice hoping the puck hits you and not the back of the net. You have to expect to stop pucks, and be genuinely surprised when you fail to do so.

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is in his second full season—the dreaded sophomore campaign following a brilliant rookie year.

Sports history says—or many would have you believe—that a kid’s second season is the one fraught with pitfalls, trap doors, and banana peels.

Howard was nearly the league’s Rookie of the Year last season. After several years of knocking on the door, being on the peripheral of the Red Wings’ goaltending depth chart, Howard kicked the door down and helped bail his team out of some sticky situations.

Over the summer, in my self-anointed wisdom, I wrote that of all the players on the Red Wings’ talent-laden roster, only one had a real chance of fouling things up for the team’s chances; that would be one James Howard, the sophomore goalie.

Not only is Howard not succumbing to any sophomore jinx—whether a real or imagined phenomenon—he’s acquiring, almost game-by-game, that swagger so vital to a goaltender’s success.

It’s in his body language. It’s in his post-game comments. It’s in his nastiness on the ice, mixing it up with opponents who dare to invade his crease.

The Red Wings have their goalie of the next several years, and by then who knows how supremely confident Jimmy Howard will be?

He couldn’t be learning from a better mentor.

Chris Osgood, the 38-year-old backup, is another, net-minder brimming with confidence. Osgood, for my money, is up there with Roy and the other greats of his era in terms of mental toughness.

You can bend Osgood, but you can’t break him.

Osgood has let in some of the worst goals in Stanley Cup playoff history, but he’s bounced back from every one of them to the tune of twice leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cups.

If it wasn’t for Osgood’s play during the 2008 Cup run when he replaced the sieve-like Dominik Hasek five games into the first round, the Red Wings don’t win the Stanley Cup. Simple as that.

Osgood, in his heyday, would look you in the eye and choose his words carefully, honestly, and with a belief that he’s very good—which he was.

He would tell us not to worry—he wasn’t nearly as bothered by his soft goals as the hockey denizens in Detroit were, certainly.

Then he’d go out the next game and post a shutout or damn close to it.

Jimmy Howard is growing up exponentially before our very eyes. He’s not bothered by too much. Slowly but surely Howard is becoming a cocky, nasty SOB guarding the Red Wings’ net.

Oh, he’s still a fine young man—respectful and patient and courteous with reporters, which is something Roy often lacked.

But watch Jimmy Howard closely the next time the Red Wings play. Watch how he is stopping shots a little more effortlessly this season. Watch how he gives the business to those who give him a snow shower or who get a little too physical in the crease.

Watch him—because he’s playing with a rougher edge than last season. His confidence is growing in leaps and bounds—mainly because all he’s been doing for a season and a third is winning hockey games for one of the best teams on the planet.

Howard has fears—you bet he has. There isn’t a man who’s played goalie who hasn’t.

But he’s confronting those fears just fine.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Rodriguez's Display Causes U-M Football to "Jump the Shark"

There’s a term used in the circles of television called “Jumping the Shark.”

Simply, it’s the moment, whether because of a singular episode or a cumulative effect, when a television series loses its mojo and proceeds on a nosedive to irrelevance or embarrassment—or both.

The phrase was coined after “Happy Days” aired an episode featuring a leather jacketed Fonzie water skiing, jumping over a shark. The legendary show was never the same after that ridiculous sight.

So, from that point forward, “Jumping the Shark” became the dreaded designation for any long-running, successful television show that lost its way.

Or football programs that have lost their way.

The University of Michigan football program, I fear, had its “Jump the Shark” moment last Thursday night, in a banquet hall in Livonia.

How fitting, this time, that they call the Wolverines’ annual football banquet, the football “bust.”

It’s the most talked about football banquet around these parts since Lions coach Buddy Parker walked off the dais and off the job, quitting in August, 1957 at the team’s annual pre-season function.

U-M coach Rich Rodriguez, in his clumsy, ham-handed attempt to ingratiate himself with the Wolverine faithful, instead brought the program to the national forefront as a big, fat, maize and blue joke.

The desperate plea by Rodriguez that he wants to be a “Michigan Man,” the hand-holding, the biblical quotes, the swaying back and forth while “You Raise Me Up” played in the background—it all added up to staining Michigan football for untold years to come.

The display confirmed what I’ve suspected for quite some time—that Rodriguez puts himself first.

The term I used on “The Knee Jerks” podcast a couple weeks ago was, “Rich isn’t in the bunker with these guys.”

And that was before what happened in Livonia last week.

From a strictly etiquette point of view, the football bust wasn’t the time nor the place for Rodriguez to make a spectacle of his tenuous job security. Everyone from Miss Manners to Dear Abby will tell you that the bust is an event to highlight the positives that happened during the season. It’s a feel good event, designed to temporarily forget the program’s ills.

It’s not a job interview. It’s not an audition.

It’s not about the coach.

A true “moment,” one that you treasure, would be a player—or players—making impromptu remarks of support for the coach.

Not a contrived, choreographed, syrupy display that makes people reach for saccharin.

Michigan football has jumped the shark. What happened last Thursday night in Livonia won’t go away anytime soon.

You don’t think they’re laughing in Columbus? In East Lansing? In South Bend?

The U-M football program is spinning its wheels, led by a good, round coach in a square hole.

It’s not that Rodriguez is a bad coach—it’s that he’s a bad coach for Michigan. And there’s no shame in that.

There’s no shame in going to a big time program and things not working out. Good people have failed in all sorts of situations, where it turns out that it’s not a good fit.

Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon almost has a freebie here. He’s barely been on the job and he’s already being hit with what could be the defining moment of his tenure. But he, in a way, has a freebie.

I haven’t been one to espouse the firing of Rodriguez. My feeling is that by doing so, you’re likely to set the program back a couple years before things start getting better again. But, I have also said, if the Michigan fan base is willing to do that, then God bless them.

Jim Harbaugh, Stanford’s coach and as Michigan Man as it gets when it comes to available coaches, is out there, the white elephant in the room. Harbaugh is Les Miles all over again.

Then-AD Bill Martin fouled up the Miles-to-Michigan courtship by having the gall to tell the former U-M assistant that he’d have to go through the interview process like any other candidate.

But Miles wasn’t just any other candidate, and he became offended by the notion that he was. Miles told Michigan where they could stick it, and he remained at LSU.

Brandon has his Les Miles now in Jim Harbaugh.

Brandon has a freebie, as I said, because he can make this very easy on himself. Brandon didn’t hire Rodriguez; letting him go wouldn’t be an admission of his own poor judgment.

Brandon could take the high road, buy Rodriguez out, declare that he appreciates everything Rodriguez has done, and simply say that it didn’t work out. Brandon should also mention that he’d be making the move for the “long-term” good of the program—code for “we’re taking a step back to hopefully take two steps forward.”

Who could find fault with such an approach?

Even the pro-Rodriguez people would be hard-pressed to be aghast, because a new AD bringing in a new coach is hardly considered as being reckless.

Let’s wipe the slate clean, Brandon could say, and let’s heal this program.

Let’s not become Notre Dame, which has been wandering around in the woods for almost 20 years now.

Rich Rodriguez didn’t do himself any favors last Thursday night. He didn’t do his kids any favors. And he didn’t do the program any favors.

All he did was put the school high on Google and YouTube searches, and for all the wrong reasons.

Michigan football has taken its hits in the past three seasons. Some of it has been on Rodriguez, some of it hasn’t.

But it took no bigger, more embarrassing hit than it took at what should have been another humdrum, routine, end-of-the-season football banquet.

U-M football has jumped the shark. Heaven help them now.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

After 19 Years, Hanson Still Has a Leg Up on His Teammates

If you ever met Jason Hanson, you might be tempted to ask him about the 1953 NFL Championship Game, and what it was like on the sidelines as Bobby Layne jogged onto the field, whiskey on his breath and a game-winning drive in his back pocket.

You’d like to ask about Doak Walker and what it was like to play for Buddy Parker. You’d want the juicy gossip about the gambling scandal involving Alex Karras and how sweet it was to beat the stuffing out of the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, 1962.

You might want to know how the locker rooms were at Tiger Stadium, and what it was like watching a counterpart kick a 63-yard field goal to beat your team at the final gun.

Hanson, the Lions kicker, hasn’t been with the team since the glory days of the 1950s. It just seems like he has.

Hanson is in his 19th season of kicking footballs for the Lions—19 seasons of suffering mostly abject failure, when it comes to the team’s dismal showing.

Hanson’s 2010 season is done with. Nearly two decades of swinging his leg into pigskins is taking its toll. In training camp there was arthroscopic surgery to his left knee. He has tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon. Now another injury, this one to his right knee, suffered in the game against the Jets last month.

The Lions put Hanson, 40, on injured reserve on Thursday, meaning he can’t play anymore this season.

You’d think that might be it for Hanson’s career. George Blanda, the kicker/quarterback who played until he was damn near 50 years old, died a few months ago but his kind truly died when he retired 35 years ago. The football player past the age of 40 is only a football player in name, like how we address former presidents of this country as “Mr. President” for life.

Hanson is 40 years old and has 19 seasons under his belt. But in kicker years, he’s 30 with 10 seasons played.

Guys who just kick can last amazingly long in the NFL anymore. For kickers, 40 is the new 30.

Hanson’s Lions career doesn’t go back to Buddy Parker, but it does go back to Wayne Fontes, and those years are further and further in the rearview mirror, ain’t they?

The Lions had just bid adieu to longtime kicker Eddie Murray, who booted footballs for them for 12 seasons (1980-91), when they drafted Hanson from Washington State University in 1992.

It’s deliciously fitting that the Lions should have great consistency at the position of kicker more than at any other on the roster. It’s so them.

The Lions have had two kickers, basically, since 1980. That’s 31 seasons of pro football. Some teams have had 10, 12, even more guys employed as kickers in that time frame.

In 1992, Hanson was The Guy Who’s Replacing Eddie Murray. Now he’s The Guy Who’s Still Kicking for the Lions, Can You Believe It?

But for how much longer? Hanson’s latest injury, easily the most severe he’s ever endured as a Lion, has folks wondering—can he make it back next year, when he’ll be 41 years old?

“It’s a bummer to already be thinking about next year,” Hanson said the other day.

But he’s not only thinking about next year; he’s planning on suiting up in his No. 4 uniform and being the Lions’ kicker, right on schedule.

“I feel like I can still kick," Hanson said. "You don't get to pick to your ending, but I don't feel satisfied finishing like this. So I'll do whatever it takes to make an effort to be at my best form next year and try it again."

Hanson joined the Lions when they were coached by Fontes, a playful buffoon whose tenure was vilified toward the end of it, but is now looked at as the salad days.

The Lions under Fontes went 9-7 and 10-6 a lot. They even managed to go 12-4, in 1991. Sometimes they’d win the division; other times, they snuck into the playoffs as the NFC Wild Card.

A Lions coach could be elected mayor of Detroit with such accomplishments nowadays.

Hanson has seen it all with the Lions, and that’s not a throwaway remark.

He’s played for Fontes, the self-anointed “Big Buck.” He’s played for Bobby “I Don’t Coach That Stuff!” Ross. He played for Gary “I Call My Veterans Upper Classmen” Moeller.

Then it was Marty “The Bar is High” Mornhinweg, followed by Steve “I Love Jeff Garcia” Mariucci.

Dick “I Used to Play for the Lions” Jauron was in there for a few games, followed by Rod “Pound the Rock” Marinelli. Now it’s Jim “I Treat Injuries Like Pentagon Secrets” Schwartz.

Hanson has played in the Silverdome and in Ford Field. He’s worn black alternate jerseys, blue throwbacks, and a few other incarnations in between. He played with Barry Sanders and Erik Kramer; Herman Moore and Scott Mitchell.

That’s eight coaches, probably 700-900 different teammates, two stadiums, a closet full of jerseys, and—this is the worst part—no playoff victories.

It’s a great trivia question: who was the Lions’ kicker the last time the team tasted a post-season win?

Not Hanson, who was drafted three months after the Lions beat the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992.

It was Murray, who was let go because the Lions thought he was losing leg strength. And Eddie was just 35 years old when the Lions cut him loose. Just a baby.

Hanson is 0-5 in the playoffs as a Lion, but at least he can talk about what the playoffs are like. With the Lions, the playoffs are something spoken of around a campfire, or scrawled in hieroglyphics.

Hanson was actually present during playoff games, which makes him the team’s Yoda.

Now he’s hurt, with a bum knee on his kicking leg. Next year he’ll be 41. The end must be on the horizon, no?

“I hope and I think I'll be in top form again next year," Hanson said.

Why not? He’ll really only be 31, entering his 11th season.

Never trust a kicker’s birth certificate. They use some funny math.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

This is More Like It: Red Wings Dismantling the NHL

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Detroit Red Wings programming.

The salad days, after a one-year hiatus, are back.

This is what we're used to in Hockeytown, and missed so badly last season.

The Red Wings are making mincemeat of the rest of the NHL in the regular season, sealing up a playoff spot by Thanksgiving.

It's a return to the days of being on pace for 110-plus points, 50-plus wins, and putting on the cloak of being "the team to beat," that arcane phrase.

All that talk of the Red Wings being well-rested after their second-round playoff exit last spring is being backed up with on-ice actions.

They lost center Mike Modano for several months with a nasty wrist injury, but don't think that will slow them down. The Red Wings are deeper than the salt mines that run beneath the city.

This is a team with a purpose, on a mission. They were cranky coming into training camp, but channeled that angst into positive energy. This is a group of players that isn't used to putting the skates away until mid-June.

Last season's playoff run ended for the Red Wings on the garishly early date of May 8. Imagine the racing folks putting on the 10 Hours of Daytona, or the Indianapolis 200. The Masters shutting down after 36 holes.

The Red Wings said the rest would do them well, and they weren't kidding; they weren't just floating gratuitous quotes out there for our consumption.

The Red Wings invaded the HP Pavilion in San Jose Tuesday night, the scene of their inglorious playoff elimination last May.

This isn't last May.

The Red Wings skated around, through, and past the Sharks, swatting them away 5-3 and lengthening their lead in the Western Conference standings.

The Sharks only have themselves to blame; they were the ones responsible for giving a giant a good summer's sleep.

Now the Red Wings are awake and as fresh as a daisy, thanks to the Sharks.

The rest of the NHL has my permission to flood the Sharks' mailbox with angry cards and letters.

We might have seen this coming. The Red Wings finished last year's regular season on a 13-1-2 tear, before struggling past the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round and being bumped out in the second round by the Sharks in five games.

This year's squad sits at 16-4-2, making them 29-5-4 in their last 38 regular season contests.

This is more like what we're used to in Detroit when it comes to hockey season.

The Red Wings have 60 games left to tune up for the playoffs.

See ya next June.