Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best (and Worst) of Yours Truly, 2011

In a flash, a whirr and a blur, another year in sports came and went. 2011, it seemed, might have been missed had you blinked.

And what a year it was.

Tigers AND Lions in the playoffs, for the first time in the same year since 1935.

Pistons with a new coach (again).

Red Wings almost coming all the way back from an 0-3 playoff deficit against the San Jose Sharks.

Michiganfootball resurging under new coach Brady Hoke.

And I wrote about it all—with varying degrees of premonition and soothsaying.

For the fourth year in a row, I take you through the calendar and share some of my bon mots—and why they were or were not some of my best.


(on Steve Yzerman putting together a winner inTampaBay)

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer toCubathanCanada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHL; I looked it up.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Yzerman is turning theTampa(freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


Stevie’s team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, as a matter of fact.

(on why the Pistons should hang onto veteran Tracy McGrady)

McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn’t look like all has been done; not even close.

The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name; a player who wasn’t too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.

The Pistons didn’t need another swingman; in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn’t like NBA teams were knocking McGrady’s door down for

his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.

It’s not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.

The Pistons decided otherwise, and let McGrady walk away after one season in Detroit.

(on the once unthinkable retirement of former Piston Dennis Rodman’s number)

He worked as a janitor at theDallas-FortWorthAirportafter high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.

Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.

Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place calledCookeCountyCollegeinGainesville,Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.

From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.

The Pistons are going to do something on April 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.

On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.

Not long after, Rodman went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, for good measure.


(on the long overdue election of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.

I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

You heard me; it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.

This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.

Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.

It was very satisfying watching Ed, with son Steve by his side, giving his induction speech.


(on who should be the Tigers’ starting second baseman)

If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers’ second sacker.

Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He’s hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and he only made four errors in 53 games.

He’s a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that’s still seven years younger than (Carlos) Guillen.

Umm, you can’t win them all. Rhymes did indeed win the job in spring training, but he didn’t hit a lick and was lopped off the 40-man roster earlier this month.

(on the importance of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Tigers’ cause)

Jacksonis the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.

Jacksonstrikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player, but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.

Well, the batting average was .249, and the strikeouts jumped from 170 to 181. Yet the Tigers still won their division.


(on the sad state of veteran forward Mike Modano, who was on the outside looking in, for the most part, during the NHL playoffs)

Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.

Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back toDetroit.

Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.

“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”

Modano only got into two playoff games, and he retired over the summer, after having missed about three months of the season with a badly gashed wrist.


(on my frustration with the stubborn Tigers manager, Jim Leyland)

Jim Leyland, in case you haven’t heard, is a rocket scientist.

He presides over a job so sophisticated, so complicated, that it defies the understanding of those who aren’t rocket scientists.

He stands above all in his knowledge of his very scientific vocation, and therefore has no use for those whose brains simply cannot wrap themselves around the mesmerizing theorems, laws and corollaries that one must know in order to manage a baseball team.

OOPS; did I say Jim was a rocket scientist?

I made an assumption, since that’s how he treats his job, and those who dare question his logic.

The Marlboro Man had the last laugh, of course.

(on the prospects of new U-M football coach Brady Hoke)

Michiganfootball had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.

Michigandidn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.

…But Hoke needs to start beatingMichiganState, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith inMichiganfootball once again.

Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to saveMichiganfootball. That’s all.

And you know what?

I think he’s gouhnna do it.

That last sentence was my attempt at spelling how Hoke pronounces “gonna.” And, for the record, Hoke seems to be right on course, leading the Wolverines to a fine 10-2 season.

(on the Red Wings forcing a Game 7 in their conference semi-final series againstSan Jose, after dropping the first three games)

It’s now the thinkable.

The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the ‘51 Giants, the ‘78 Yankees. They’re the ‘68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.

The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy’s hold.

This isn’t happening, but yet it is. Even Disney’s Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.

The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?

The Red Wings dropped that Game 7 to the Sharks, but they made Hockeytown so extremely proud of them.

(on why the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been embraced by fans as a superstar player should)

We love the idea of Miguel Cabrera being on our team. But we don’t love him. In fact, there’s a bunch of us who may not even like him, because he’s not that likeable of a guy, frankly.

Which is all such a shame, because we probably have him figured out all wrong. His teammates liken him to a big, cuddly bear. That may be the case; they ought to know, after all.

But we don’t see that side because we don’t see him. All we see is a big, talented man wearing a Tigers uniform. That may be enough for some, but it falls way short for most.

We don’t know Miguel Cabrera because we never hear from him. This is his fourth season as a Tiger and the man is a blank canvas, save for some splotches that have been tossed onto it.

I stand by this, though he ingratiated himself more as the season wore on.


(on LeBron James, after the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals toDallas)

The Miami Heat won’t soon live this one down, folks. Maybe not ever. History, me thinks, will be in a cranky mood when it passes judgment on the 2010-11MiamiHeat—the team LeBron James couldn’t wait to join. The team that so easily seduced him, but that he also disappointed by leaving during the NBA Finals.

Until he wins a championship—and there’s no guarantee that he ever will—LeBron James should go down as one of the most laughable “superstars” that pro sports has ever seen. He should go down as a less-than-brilliant, heartless, gutless player who managed to fool his public even while hiding in plain sight.

But LeBron didn’t just fool them; he failed them.

His name doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Michael Jordan’s, unless it’s to create a grocery list of reasons why it doesn’t.

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

(on the death of former Tiger Jim Northrup, and my personal dealings with him)

Jim Northrup always got his hacks in—whether it was at the plate or at the table.

I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.

I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.

I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office to vent.

He was one of a kind, Jim Northrup was. RIP.


(on the potential end of Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s career)

So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard’s backup are over with.

Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin—a goalie’s worst enemy.

Osgood is another who isn’t making things easy forHolland. Ozzie hasn’t offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it’s doubtful that he will.

But Osgood’s reticence hasn’t stoppedHollandfrom carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Kris Draper) that a new contract wouldn’t be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.

It wasn’t, and Ozzie retired to help coach the organization’s young goalies.

(on the All-Star season authored by Tigers catcher AlexAvila)

Now I know why they call April 1, April Fool’s Day.

For that was the date, after just one game had been played in the 2011 season, that sports talk radio was lit up with phone calls from loudmouths on their cell phones, calling for the ouster of catcher Alex Avila from not only the Tigers starting lineup, but from the roster, from Detroit, and probably even the state of Michigan—to be on the safe side.

The Tigers had lost on Opening Day to the Yankees inNew York, and I won’t argue that it wasn’t one ofAvila’s crowning moments. He was shaky behind the plate and he looked overmatched with the bat—albeit he was going against southpaw CC Sabathia.

After one game, the callers were frothing at the mouth.

By mid-season, those same callers were urging fellow fans to vote for Avila for the All-Star team.


(on the importance of Lions QB Matthew Stafford staying healthy for the whole season)

Every timeStaffordgets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.

The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.

…The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other thanStafford, I will grant you that.

There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.

There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.

There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.

But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.

So far, so good.

(on my [then] disappointment with Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera)

Baloney, I say, to those who would tell me that I expect too much from Miguel Cabrera.

Look at his numbers, they’ll say. He grinds out an MVP-like season almost annually.

So how come Cabrera has never truly ever, in his four years as a Tiger, put the team on his back for any extended period of time?

Has he? Go ahead—I’ll wait while you come up with some examples. Or one, even.

Cabrera is doing it again, his timing again impeccably bad.

He has pedestrian numbers, this season, for a man of his talents. He swings too much at the first pitch. He grounds out to shortstop more than I thought was humanly possible.

This is the column that I took the most heat from. And Cabrera turned it around almost immediately and I gladly ate crow.

(on the Pistons hiring yet another new coach—Lawrence Frank)

They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.

There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible n Latin, his head bowed.

The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.

It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.

Let’s hope Frank proves to be something other than just another Pistons coach who stays for a couple years then is jettisoned.


(on Lions coach Jim Schwartz)

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

...A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.

Schwartz has the 10-5 Lions in the playoffs, three years after 0-16. Looks good to me!


(on the prospects of the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom)

Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.

There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

Sooner rather than later, the Red Wings will have to pursue the Cup without Lidstrom, a frightening thought indeed.

(on why the Tigers beating the Yankees in the playoffs couldn’t really be celebrated)

It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.

The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.

Or that nothing could be better.

As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.

And that’s as far as the Tigers got, thanks to Texas’s Nelson Cruz.


(on why Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is good for the NFL’s business, good guy or bad guy)

It doesn’t matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.

Suh’s entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.

Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.

The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.

Suh’s play on the field seemed to take a slight step backward in his sophomore season, but his presence in the league is still high-profile and impactful.

(on former Lions guard—and paraplegic—Mike Utley’s battle to once again walk sans crutches)

Utley then made one of the most famous gestures inDetroitsports history.

His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.

He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.

Thumbs up!

The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.

Thumbs up!

Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed toWashingtonin the NFC Championship game in January.

It’s hard to find a more inspirational figure than Mike Utley.

(on the mid-season struggles of Lions QB Matthew Stafford)

But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There’s no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is ifStaffordis hurt—there’s no QB controversy here.

Staffordisn’t right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.

The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.

The Lions fixed him—i.e., his broken right index finger healed—and Stafford is as hot as they come heading into the playoffs.


(on a new era of Lions football, being ushered in by coach Schwartz, after the team clinched a playoff berth)

It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.

If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.

We just might.

(on new Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and his dual charge: to make the Pistons competitive and likeable)

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 inNew Jerseya few years ago.

The Pistons won’t scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders.

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

After three games, the likeable part looks to be more feasible than the competitive part, for now.

There you have it! 2011 in a nutshell.

See ya next year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lions Theft in Oakland Biggest Win in Years

The man with half a foot and a stump for an arm trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. The least likely pro football record holder was a pudgy, roly-poly man with what looked like a block of wood for a right foot.

As Tom Dempsey strode onto the field, with two seconds remaining and the ball on his Saints' 44-yard line, his team trailing the Lions, 17-16, chortles began in the Lions defensive huddle.

Alex Karras has confirmed it, on many occasions. He and his teammates openly mocked the Saints and Dempsey for attempting a 63-yard field goal, when the current record was merely 56 yards.

But the Saints only needed three points for the win, and new coach J.D. Roberts (he took over for the fired Tom Fears that week) figured the chances were just as good, if not better, of Dempsey getting a good "foot" into one, rather than tossing a Hail Mary pass.

So the Saints lined up for the kick. In Dempsey's own words, as told to the Detroit Free Press's George Puscas back in 1992, "The goalposts looked far away."

They were.

Dempsey's kick was square and true. His club foot made a sound like a cannon going off, according to those who were there that day, when it made contact with the football.

The pigskin traveled like a missile instead of a kicked football. It didn't really go end-over-end, like a normal kick. Rather, Dempsey's shot kind of sailed with the ends of the ball parallel to the field. Only at the very end did it return to end-over-end status, and plopped just over the crossbar.

The Saints beat the Lions, 19-17. Karras, who moments earlier was among the mockers, had actually tried his damndest to block the kick but barely missed it with his outstretched hand.

It was impossible for old goats like yours truly to not flash back to that November day in 1970, when Sebastian Janikowski jogged onto the field in Oakland on Sunday, preparing to swing his left foot into a 65-yard field goal attempt.

The CBS announcer in New Orleans was Don Criqui.

"Dempsey will set a new National Football League record," Criqui said into the microphone, which can be relived courtesy of YouTube. "In addition to winning the game."

Janikowski would have set a new National Football League record with his kick. In addition to winning the game.

Could the Detroit Lions fall victim to such crapola twice?

If any franchise could, it would be the Lions, right?

Not this time.

Ndamukong Suh, compared by I earlier this season to the great DT Karras, succeeded where old no. 71 failed. Suh blocked Janikowski's kick, causing it to flutter harmlessly away from the goalposts.

And the Lions had sealed an improbable 28-27 win.

In the euphoria of such a win, i.e. the 24 hours or so after it happens, it's easy to overstate its importance, and its place in history.

It's so easy for those who rap on keyboards and who blab into sports talk radio microphones to get overly giddy about a win like Sunday's, in which the Lions trailed by 13 points with 7:47 remaining.

Go ahead. Get giddy. Everyone has my permission.

This wasn't just a win, after all. The bloggers and radio hosts are right this time.

The Lions franchise has turned the corner, I tell you. Four comeback wins of 13+ points in the same season---never before done in the 90+ year history of the NFL.

It's a team that can look maddeningly undisciplined and neutralized on the one hand, but then look like a juggernaut on the other.

But the NFL is perhaps the most "bottom line" of all the four major pro sports leagues. There are only 16 regular season games, and every one of them is the most important game of the year, starting with opening day.

So the only thing that matters in the NFL is this: did you win, or did you lose?


The Lions have been able to say they won nine times this season. Which, after 14 games, puts them on the precipice of their first playoff appearance since the 2oth century (1999).

The Lions are winning games this season like they've never won before. And the best part is that they haven't really lost like they used to lose, i.e. games they shouldn't have lost.

Look at who's beaten the Lions this season.

The 49ers, who are 10-3.

The Falcons, who are 9-5.

The Bears, who were riding a hot streak at the time.

The Packers. Enough said.

The Saints, who are 11-3.

So it's not like the Lions are losing to chopped liver.

You win for a reason in the NFL, and, more telling, you lose for a reason, too.

No team can look at their record after 16 games and say that luck or flukes played a factor.

You're 3-13 for a reason. And, conversely, you're 13-3 for a reason as well.

The Lions are 9-5 and that's that. They are a 9-5 team for a reason.

And they are tantalizingly close to that elusive playoff appearance. A winning record is already secured, their first since 2000.

Also in the 20th century, by the way.

The Lions are, like so many teams in the NFL, a flawed, imperfect platoon. They are capable of so much greatness, and so much exasperating play, too.

Just like every other team in the league, even the Packers.

A win like Sunday's in Oakland can do so much for the psyche of a football team, just like the crazy comeback wins engineered over the Vikings and Cowboys earlier this season, on successive weeks, both on the road.

Matthew Stafford leading a 99-yard drive with just over two minutes to play, sans timeouts, brazenly throwing the football to the man who everyone in the stadium knows shouldn't beat you (Calvin Johnson), was like Justin Verlander striking out three straight All-Stars with first base open to seal a win.

It shouldn't happen. But it did.

Stafford is the best quarterback not named Bobby Layne in Lions history. Already.

He's just getting started, and when you look at the Lions' young talent and developing depth, it's hard not to say the same thing about this team.

Go ahead, get giddy. It's about damn time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pistons' Frank Has to Make Team Likable AND Competitive

Auburn Hills is a 35-minute drive north of Detroit. Make that almost an hour if you dare try it in the shadow of 5:00 traffic. It’s a rather uninspiring trek up I-75, with warehouses and impersonal office buildings surrounding you on the east and west.

The starkness of the Detroit city limits gives way to those of the industrialized Troy as you head north, with a lovely view of the Oakland Mall to your right. Your passengers can practically reach out and touch Macy’s.

Then there’s a woodsy interlude before more commercialization, in the form of the Great Lakes Crossing shopping complex. More retail outlets and fast food joints than you can shake a stick at.

Finally, there it is, to your left, off Lapeer Road. The Palace of Auburn Hills, sitting by its lonesome self, like the Silverdome did so infamously in Pontiac.

The Palace, built in the middle of the woods in 1988, is a state-of-the-art facility that continues to be a model of engineering for those seeking out new sports arenas.

It’s a delightful arena with wonderful sight lines and plenty of parking. You don’t have to settle for a space in another part of town and take a shuttle (or a People Mover) to get there. There isn’t a parking structure with which to contend.

The problem is that it’s too far away from…anything.

Certainly too far to travel to watch an unlikable pro-basketball team lose on a snowy January night.

Professional hoops has never been the easiest sell in our town. The Pistons, in their sometimes-inglorious 54-year history in Detroit, have heavily discounted and given away more tickets than all the community theater performances of “Annie” put together.

When the Pistons first arrived in our town back in 1957, they played Olympia Stadium like they were the Beatles’ opening act.

The maintenance crews would throw some would panels onto the ice surface so the folks in the expensive seats wouldn’t slip and fall on their fannies. The court was also laid on said ice, which resulted in some players sliding too.

The crowds were a couple thousand of the most curious, or those who happened to see a voucher on a fast food counter.

Then the Pistons took their act to brand new Cobo Arena in 1961. Cobo, a pill-shaped venue on the Detroit River, was gorgeous in its own way but too vast for the Pistons crowds. Cobo seated about 11,000 for basketball and on most nights about 8,000 of those were empty.

In 1978, the Pistons moved into the Pontiac Silverdome, an even more cavernous facility. It was like moving a mouse into a mansion.

Ten years later, the Pistons inched even further north, into the glitzy Palace of Auburn Hills.

For a time it worked. The team was winning championships—two for two in the first two years in the Palace. The drive north didn’t turn too many people away, as it turned out.

But as soon as the losing returned to a franchise that had been quite used to it—circa 1993-96—the Palace seemed like a faraway place.

The championship of 2004 and the near miss a year later made the Palace seem closer again. Funny how that works.

Today, the Palace is far away, once more.

Lawrence Frank is the Pistons’ new coach. His charge isn’t necessarily just to make a winning team. He has to make people like the Pistons—enough to want to venture to the Palace on a snowy night in January to see them battle the rest of the NBA. On most nights, those battles will likely end up in the other team’s favor.

Some would say that the challenge of making the Pistons likable again is more daunting than that of making them winners once more.

Let’s wind the clocks back to June 2004.

There the Pistons were, championship t-shirts and caps on their bodies and heads, confetti dumping on them from the Palace rafters.

World Champions!

There was no superstar on that Pistons roster, which was greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons were bucking the trend that said you had to have at least one megastar, if not two or three, to win the whole shebang.

It was all a fluke, as it turned out.

You DO have to have at least one white-hot star on your roster to win an NBA championship. Two would be even better, thank you.

The Miami Heat notwithstanding, that’s the reality of today’s NBA.

The Pistons, who will begin play the day after Christmas to tip-off the truncated 2011-12 season, have no superstars. Not even close. They have a roster full of guys who are 6’8”. No one does anything particularly well.

The Pistons were last in the playoffs in 2008 and that ended in an ugly fashion on a May evening in Boston. The Pistons who had confetti rain on them in the Palace in 2004—Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, et al—had turned into petulant, shameful crybabies.

The 2007-08 season was the culmination of four years of almost greatness that instilled an unattractive sense of entitlement into a team whose players felt like all they needed to do was show up, and a return trip to the NBA Finals would be theirs.

The Pistons made it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, but in the last three they progressively regressed physically and mentally.

It all ended with an ejected Wallace tearing his jersey off and the Pistons imploding in Boston in 2008. Billups was traded early the next season, and the die was cast.

Since then, it’s been three seasons of bad coaching hires, inmates running the asylum, questionable trades, suspect free-agent signings and general disdain.

Lawrence Frank has a rookie point guard, Brandon Knight, who might be something. He has a second-year big man, Greg Monroe, who showed promise in the second half of last season.

He has a healthy Jonas Jerebko, one of those 6’8” guys, but has some potential as an X-factor or a sixth man.

Frank has Tayshaun Prince, newly signed to a four-year pact. Another 6’8” guy that could have championship pedigree.

Frank also has the disappointing free-agent class of 2009—Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Frank doesn’t have Hamilton any longer—but this is addition by subtraction.

That’s pretty much it. Everyone else is either a hard-worker, a role guy, or both, like the ancient warrior Ben Wallace.

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons' fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 in New Jersey a few years ago.

The Pistons won't scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders:

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lions Win, But Not Before Their Playoff Hopes Flash Before Their Eyes

The penalty was for one yard. Three measly feet. Yet it seemed like a mile, and it felt like a reminder to us of Lions ineptitude and bad timing.

One more act of stupidity, right? One very Lions-esque thing to do, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turn what had been a fun, festive Sunday afternoon into something that Stephen King might have penned.

Cliff Avril was the Lions player this time. He was the one looking to the heavens, shaking his head, wondering why he had just done what he had just done.

It's been a question asked too often by and about Lions players of the past.

What did Cliff Avril just do?? Are you kidding me?

Avril had inexplicably jumped offsides, as if he'd been shot out of a toy cannon, with the Minnesota Vikings on the Lions' two-yard line, sans time outs, and the clock heading for single digits.

The blunder stopped the clock, of course, with nine ticks remaining.

The infraction moved the Vikings merely a yard closer to paydirt, but that yard carried a big stick.

It was but a yard, but it appeared to represent so much more.

Avril's gift of a yard to the Vikings looked like it would be the three feet that QB Joe Webb needed to march his team to the winning score. The Lions led 34-28 but never before did a six-point lead look so fragile. It wasn't a lead, it was a fraying rope with a piano tied to it, hovering over the Lions' playoff hopes.

And Avril, it looked like, had just held a blowtorch to that fraying piece of rope.

He did WHAT?

Tell me that your thoughts didn't go back to Bobby Ross going for two or Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind. Tell me they didn't and I'll call you a liar.

Tell me, as the Vikings lined up at the one-yard line with nine seconds left, on the verge of wiping out a 21-point deficit and squeezing the life out of the Lions' season, that you didn't think back to the Matt Millen Era and the Paul Edinger field goal on the last play of the 2000 season which led to said Era.

Avril's random act of madness caused a packed house at Ford Field to cease breathing, which the faithful didn't re-commence doing until Avril, of all people, finally pounced on a football (aka the greased pigskin) that bounded some 50 yards downfield after it was slapped from Webb's hands by a blitzing DeAndre Levy.

The final play of Sunday's game was like the final scene of a horror movie---the kind where the girl is about to get killed and the hero shoots the villain from behind, when you didn't even know the hero was around.

It was a stunning finish to a game that the Lions should have had in their back pocket, except that pocket had a hole the size of Joe Webb in it.

The Lions had no clue as to how to deal with Webb, who bounced around like a pinball in the Vikings backfield, rattling off one would-be Lions tackler after the other, and always ending up in a bonus cup.

Webb ran around and around and around---sometimes appearing to run half the length of the football field, except horizontally and in zig-zag fashion.

As Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward as he was still catching his breath, his team tried everything against Webb. And still Webb almost led the Vikings back from a 31-14 second half deficit.

Webb started the comeback by managing to gallop from the pocket to the end zone, some 65 yards away, with no Lions defender within a 10-yard radius. He made Denard Robinson look like Scott Mitchell.

It all came down to the Vikings at the Lions' one, with nine seconds left. Three feet away from a tying touchdown and the near-certain go-ahead PAT.

Three feet from the apparent end of the Lions' season, or certainly the beginning of the end.

Three feet from another brutal loss that this town would be talking about for years to come.

Then Levy struck, blowing up Webb and the Vikes' hopes of an improbable victory.

"I was nervous, watching that football," Schwartz said afterward of Webb's game-ending fumble, his words captured by Fox 2 Detroit's post-game show camera. "I thought (Webb) would pick it up and start running around with it again."

Good thing Webb didn't. I don't think football fans can hold their breath that long.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Not-Ready-For-Prime Time Players

October seems like eons ago.

It was a grand time, October was.

The Tigers were thrilling us in the playoffs. The Red Wings were about to begin another Cup Quest. The Pistons were forcibly removed from our thoughts, thank God.

And the Lions?

The Lions, in October, were on a nine-game winning streak, in a broken arrow way dating back to last season. They were shoving memories of the "same old Lions" further into the recesses of our minds.

They seemed to be handling their new-found success just fine under head coach Jim Schwartz, a humorless sort who really should have been a Secret Service agent.

The Lions got off to a 5-0 jackrabbit start and their heads seemed of the proper proportions. They appeared to understand that Super Bowls aren't won in October, though they can be lost that soon.

Even a two-game stumble at home against San Francisco and Atlanta seemed to be tolerable after the Lions went into Denver and made those who believed in Tim Tebow look foolish.

Then came the bye week.

For whatever reason, the Lions came back from their week off as if they'd been brainwashed at a commune.

"Discipline bad. Thuggish behavior good," is what must have been drilled into their heads.

Since the bye, the Lions are 1-3, their star d-lineman has been shamed, suspended and ridiculed and they've twice embarrassed themselves on national TV with this Bad News Lions act that isn't cute anymore.

The Lions are disintegrating before our eyes, their playoff hopes dying a slow death as their play has been one part dumb, two parts exasperating.

The latest meltdown occurred last night in New Orleans, with all the world---and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth---to see.

It was a night that saw three---THREE---offensive pass interference penalties on the same receiver. A night that saw the Lions shove, throw footballs and slap face masks. A night with 11 penalties for over 100 yards.

The Lions have had two consecutive shots to show the nation what they're made of. Two straight chances to validate their 5-0 start, and prove that it was no fluke. Two straight games on a big stage, against big time opponents---golden opportunities to wipe the smirks off the faces of football fans outside of Detroit.

The only thing that got wiped on anyone's face was egg on the Lions'.

I've said it before: NFL games are lost far more than they are won. The teams that make the fewest mistakes win on a ridiculously consistent basis.

The Lions' 31-17 loss to the Saints on NBC only stoked the fire that is raging about how the Lions play football on the brink of disaster.

They are like the guy in that old kids game, Tip-It. Remember him? The one who precariously balanced on top of the pinnacle, always destined to fall?

It was always just a matter of time when the Tip-It dude would come tumbling down.

The word is out on the Lions. The book on players and teams in the NFL spreads like wildfire. It doesn't take long for your opponents to catch on, and once they do, you'd better change your ways, and fast.

The book is this: the Lions can be baited. They can be toyed with, almost, until they do something suicidal in nature.

An ill-timed personal foul. A cheap shot. An unsportsmanlike foul. Just a little trash talk, or a slight shove after the whistle, and you can get the Lions off and running---toward their own goal.

One of the Packers players said as much after the Thanksgiving Day game.

Just be patient, the player said, and the Lions will do something stupid.

"They've done it all year," the Packers player, so wise, said.

Indeed they have, but it's getting worse as the year goes on, not better.

In the salad days of October, I heaped praise on Coach Schwartz for keeping his players on an even keel despite the heady 5-0 start.

But then Schwartz himself went sideways against 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after that loss in Detroit, and ever since his team has followed suit with mind-numbingly stupid play.

If one is to give Schwartz credit for what happened in September and October, then he has to take the heat for the shameful play that has taken place since.

The Lions are 7-5 and even though their playoff chances are tenuous, they have pretty much lost games that we expected them to lose and won most of the games we expected them to win, i.e. against the bad teams.

They will likely beat Minnesota next Sunday and move to 8-5. After that it's a crap shoot.

So it's not that they're doing anything completely unexpected when it comes to wins and losses. Did you have them beating the Bears in Chicago, the Packers on Thanksgiving or the Saints in New Orleans?

I had them losing all three---and they obliged.

It's one thing, though, to get beat by superior teams. It's another to commit football Hari-kari and show yourself to be, in a way, the "same old Lions."

It's not like this is the first time stupid penalties and dumb play has vexed them.

It's just happening when the stakes are higher, that's all.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Red Wings Set in Goal With the Late-Blooming Howard

The most celebrated goaltender in Red Wings history—indeed, maybe in NHL history—was a tormented man. It’s been said that you have to be a little off your rocker to want to throw yourself into the path of vulcanized rubber discs for a living. Terry Sawchuk may not have been crazy, but he wasn’t happy.

It’s been documented—by his teammates, by his son, by those who covered him. Sawchuk, the Hall of Famer who did three stints with the Red Wings from 1949 to 1969, was a tragically sad man, for the most part.

Sawchuk was like the comedian who makes your sides burst with laughter, but who himself is devoid of joy. Kind of like the troubled Lenny Bruce, who, like Sawchuk, was dead by age 40.

Sawchuk dominated NHL shooters in his day, racking up 103 shutouts (a record long considered unbreakable until New Jersey’s Marty Brodeur proved otherwise) and guarding the Detroit goal like an Irish beat cop in the Bowery.

He gave Red Wings fans much joy—and helped lead his teammates to three Stanley Cups—but Sawchuk was joyless in the process. He was afflicted with untreated depression, and nearly had a nervous breakdown in 1957 while playing for Boston.

It should be noted that Sawchuk, at age 37, led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Leafs haven’t really come close to winning it since.

Yet even the great Terry Sawchuk was dispatched out of Detroit because there was someone else to take his place. It happened in 1955, when the Red Wings, fresh off another Stanley Cup victory, dealt Sawchuk to Boston to make room for youngster Glenn Hall.

It was like trading Sinatra to make room for a young Perry Como.

The two-headed goalie in Detroit has been a monster seen all too often in the Motor City. The parallel between the Red Wings goalie situations and those of the Lions’ quarterbacks are eerily similar.

Both teams can point to the mid-to-late-1950s as to when the two-headed monsters made their debut.

On the gridiron we had Layne and Rote then Plum and Sweetan then Munson and Landry then…well, you don’t really want me to go on, do you?

On the ice it hasn’t been all that different.

Sawchuk gave way to Hall, then the Red Wings brought Sawchuk back and got rid of Hall, who is a Hall of Famer in his own right.

Sawchuk was with the Red Wings until 1964, then the merry-go-round in the Detroit net really began.

It hasn’t mattered if the Red Wings were atrocious, as they were for most of the 1970s until the late-1980s, or if they were annual Cup contenders, as they have been for the past 20 years.

The two-headed goalie monster has reared its head often, regardless.

Remember the two heads of Glen Hanlon and Greg Stefan? They led the Red Wings to the NHL’s version of the Final Four in 1987 and ’88.

How about Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood? They presided over a 62-win season in 1996, then took turns leading the Red Wings to the Cup—Vernon in 1997 and Osgood in 1998.

Dominik Hasek. Curtis Joseph. Manny Legace. Hasek again. Osgood again. Hasek again. Osgood again.

The Red Wings, with their two-headed monster between the pipes, won four Stanley Cups in an 11-year stretch.

The goalie controversies have been much kinder to the Red Wings than the QB ones have been to the Lions.

But you can say goodbye to both two-headed monsters—the one on the football field, and the one on the ice rink.

The Lions, with the young gunslinger Matthew Stafford, are set at quarterback for the next 10 years, his recent interception fetish notwithstanding.

And the Red Wings have no more worries in goal—provided they can keep Jimmy Howard shackled to a contract befitting his skills.

Howard, from the University of Maine, was the only Red Wing earning his paycheck for the first month of this season. And those are some big paychecks we’re talking about.

Howard is pretty much established now as one of the upper echelon goalies in the NHL. So say I.
He’s in his third full season, a late bloomer of sorts.

Howard is 27, and will be 28 in March. He didn’t become the Red Wings starting goalie until 2009, a full six years after being drafted in the second round.

He’s proving to be worth the wait.

Howard is no Sawchuk, and I mean that in a good way.

Jimmy Howard isn’t tormented. He isn’t in a dark place mentally. He hasn’t had to miss a half season at age 27 from mental exhaustion, as Sawchuk did back in 1957, when the media and fans in Boston rode him mercilessly.

And it’s not like Howard is playing incognito.

You can’t hide in Detroit if you’re a goalie. Or if you’re a quarterback. It’s not unlike other pro sports burgs that have NHL and NFL teams.

Goalie and quarterback, in most towns, are not positions for the faint of heart or weak of character.

Howard took over goaltending duties in 2009, somewhat shoving out the veteran Osgood, the starter for two of those four Cups between ’97 and ’08. There was some concern about Howard’s status come playoff time. Folks wondered aloud if the kid had what it takes to navigate through the choppy playoff waters.

Good thing the water is frozen in hockey, eh?

Howard acquitted himself well in the 2010 post-season, and even more so in 2011, even though the Red Wings didn’t make it out of the second round in either spring.

Now he’s got a stranglehold on the starting job, with only 35-year-old Ty Conklin around to back him up. Conklin will be lucky to appear in 20 games this season.

It took Jimmy Howard a wee bit longer than most NHL goalies to emerge and stake his claim to being the No. 1 guy in net.

Now all the Red Wings have to do is keep him signed and happy.

The happy part shouldn’t be a problem.

Howard is no Sawchuk, after all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lions’ Suh Wears NFL’s Black Hat, and the League Loves It

Ndamukong Suh was born about 40 years too late.

Suh, the Lions' defensive tackle with a fuse shorter than Verne Troyer, would have been right at home playing in the NFL of the 1960s and '70s.

Suh would have been just one of many players back then who had the disposition of a bear awoken during hibernation.

The league some 40-plus years ago was filled with defenders who bent the rules like a double-jointed thumb.

None of them got suspended.

Dick Butkus made no bones about his intentions. The Bears' middle linebacker didn't try to sidestep anything. He didn't try to vex the media with double talk and sugarcoat his motives. Butkus tried to hurt his opponents—physically and mentally. Usually the fear of the former led to the latter.

Butkus was interviewed by NFL Films early in his career and expressed his fascination with the film "Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte."

Butkus described a scene from the movie, and as he did, his youthful, cherubic face started to display an almost psychotic-looking smile.

"I kind of liked it when that head come rolling down the stairs," Butkus told Ed Sabol's camera. "I like to project those things happening on the football field. And not to me."

Like I said, there was no question about Butkus' mindset when he stepped onto the gridiron.

Butkus used to verbally taunt Lions center Ed Flanagan. Then Butkus would spit on Flanagan's hands as the center grabbed hold of the football prior to the snap.

There have been multiple stories told of Butkus' antics, like the ones they tell of Bonnie and Clyde, or Ivan the Terrible.

There are tales of biting, scratching, stepping onto torsos, eyes being poked; some of Butkus' opponents recall him literally growling before the snap.

Butkus was like so many of his brethren—the maniacal defender on the field who was soft-spoken and cerebral off it.

Defensive lineman Deacon Jones, another of Butkus's contemporaries, has been credited with coining the word "sack" in reference to leveling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Jones has also been tagged with the label of mad man on the football field. Jones wore the black hat and loved it. Deacon ate up the reputation—and even propagated it—of a dirty player whose intention was to maim.

Conrad Dobler was an eccentric, nasty offensive guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills. Dobler, for several seasons, was widely recognized as the dirtiest player in the NFL for most of the 1970s. The things that Dobler did beyond the range of vision of the officials would have him up on charges in all 50 states.

Yet Dobler never got suspended, let alone arrested.

Neither did Butkus, Jones or any of their partners in crime. They didn't even try the political spin. Suh, had he played in those days, would have been held up as part of the NFL legacy of dirtiness, which is now folklore and winked at.

But Suh plays today and the NFL loves this kid. I believe that the more he transgresses, the more he's liked by the league.

Don't be fooled by the veneer of disgust and scorn that the NFL will publicly cast on Suh. Privately, the league can barely contain itself. The NFL, more than any of the four major sports leagues, subscribes to the words of literary giant Oscar Wilde.

"The only thing worse than being talked about," Wilde once opined, "is NOT being talked about."

The NFL welcomes all publicity—good, bad and ugly.

The league does a marvelous job of keeping itself in the public consciousness all year round. From the 24/7 NFL Network on TV to the games on Sundays, from January to December the NFL keeps itself on the forefront of its fans' minds.

It doesn't matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.

Suh's entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.

Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.

The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.

The NFL has wanted a shining light on defense for a long time—and it doesn't matter if that light has a dirty tinge.

The league is filled with high profile heroes on the offensive side of the ball. There is no shortage of quarterbacks, receivers and running backs who catch the fans' fancy.

But on defense? Not so much.

Suh is a villain in the eyes of his colleagues, who recently voted him as the dirtiest player in the league. He's a villain in the eyes of the hypocritical media, who will lambaste Suh out of one side of their mouth, and privately ask their colleague, "Isn't this great?" out of the other.

Suh is even a villain among the fan base—some of them Detroit Lions supporters, newly on board the "Suh is Dirty" train after his shameful behavior in Thursday's nationally-televised game against the World Champion Green Bay Packers.

But here's the rub: it doesn't matter if the aura surrounding Ndamukong Suh is negative in nature. The league only cares that there is an aura.

Suh has people talking. He has people sneering in disdain. He even has folks who had previously defended him calling for suspensions in the wake of his stomping on Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, which got him booted from the Thanksgiving Day game.

Suh will likely get suspended for his actions, even though Butkus, Jones, Dobler et al never did and they committed worse atrocities, more often, than Suh has so far in his young career.

The NFL will publicly assail Suh for his lack of anger management. Then the league will retreat to its private bunker and be positively giddy with the realization of what they have.

The NFL has a big name on defense who no one can stop talking about. The fact that the reason no one can stop talking about him is because of his violent, almost criminal behavior, is of no concern to the NFL.

The NFL has its new Dick Butkus.

The difference between Butkus and Suh is that Butkus didn’t offer up delusional, lame excuses for his sadistic ways, as Suh did after Thursday’s game.

If you think the NFL is legitimately outraged by Ndamukong Suh’s out-of-control behavior then you’re almost as delusional as Suh is.

The league loves this stuff. They have a Bad Guy on their hands and no one can stop talking about him. And he plays defense.

Ndamukong Suh, in a twisted way, is good for business.

Don’t you think otherwise.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lions' Smith A Story Too Good To Be True?

The Lions have a shiny 7-3 record because of a quarterback who came to Detroit after 0-16 and a defensive tackle who came a year after that.

The Lions are 7-3 because of a GM who followed the abysmal Matt Millen and began cleaning up almost as soon as Millen was fired.

The Lions are 7-3 because of a head coach who came from Tennessee, where he learned under the consistent and tenured Jeff Fisher.

The Lions are 7-3 because of three successful drafts and some deft personnel moves by the aforementioned GM.

The Lions are 7-3 because they have infused their roster with talent not seen in Detroit since the jolly Wayne Fontes coached here.

The Lions, though, are not 7-3 because they make it a habit of signing re-treads and bringing back reminders of that ghoulish 0-16 record.

Kevin Smith, you could say, is both of those things---a re-tread and a sour reminder of that dreadful 2008 season.

Smith, the running back who ran wild over, around and through the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, was a Lions rookie in 2008---the season of OH! and 16.

A couple weeks ago, Smith was a running back in training, and a doting father. He was watching the Lions from his sofa, like so many of us.

On Sunday, Smith was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Lions.

You could practically hear the Lions fans weeping in thanks.

A running game!

Smith gashed the Panthers for 140 yards on 16 carries. That's an 8.8 yards per carry average. The last time a Lions running back had numbers like that, he was wearing no. 20 and taking our breath away.

Smith scored two TDs on the ground and a third via pass. He was heaven sent, really. It's an old joke: the Lions have wanted to run the football in the worst way---and that's exactly how they'd been running it (cue rim shot).

I've had my eye on Stephen Jackson, the bruising runner for the pathetic St. Louis Rams, a team beneath his talents. Jackson is someone who would look delectable in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

But that's food for thought sometime in the future. Next year, maybe. For now, Kevin Smith looks to be the man lugging the football for the Lions the rest of the season, with Best apparently nowhere near ready for clearance.

If Sunday was any indication, the Lions may not miss Best at all.

Smith isn't as quick or explosive as Best, but he can run between the tackles better and the man looks energized and fresh---which you would expect of someone who has been playing with his kid, not with a football.

"Get up at 7 a.m., train till noon, play with my son," Smith told the media afterward about his daily regimen this autumn, before the Lions brought him in for a workout during the bye week.

Unless that kid of his hits like a 265-pound linebacker, you had to be surprised to see what Smith did on the gridiron on Sunday.

"I think the NFL would be hard-pressed to come up with a better storyline than Kevin Smith," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told the press after Sunday's game, in what surely must be considered a candidate for Understatement of the Year.

This performance of Smith's was about as unexpected as Clam Chowder served on a Tuesday.

But this is the NFL, which has a shelf life of seven days. The league is as crazily unpredictable as it's ever been. A team can look wretched one week and then look like Super Bowl contenders the next.

The NFL might not hear of Kevin Smith the rest of the season. In the Lions' remaining six games, Smith's production may turn pedestrian and insignificant.

Sunday's game might be it for Smith as far as productivity. Who knows?

But if it's not, and if the Lions have stumbled upon a Godsend here, then all of a sudden the team's one-dimensional offense in Jahvid Best's absence isn't so one-dimensional anymore.

If the Lions can somehow turn Kevin Smith from Flavor of the Week to the Special of the Month, then the running game may be solved---or at least just good enough to make Matthew Stafford and his receiving crew dangerous enough to be playoff-ready.

Which means that despite all the Lions' offensive weapons, their playoff fortunes might be resting on a player who was running Daddy Day Care just two weeks ago.

The NFL is a funny, funny league.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Former Lions Guard Utley Determined to Do His Own "Walk-Off"

I don’t know if it’s in the front of the NFL player’s mind, the middle, or the back, but it’s in there somewhere. The idea that when you run onto the field, you might not run off is in there somewhere. It has to be.

The NFL is 60 minutes each week of locomotives running into each other at breakneck speed—sometimes literally.

But it wasn’t a high-speed collision that changed Mike Utley’s life. It was just another play in just another game, on just another Sunday.

It happened 20 years ago this past Thursday.

The Lions were hosting the Los Angeles Rams, and moving the football down the field. Utley, a guard, was doing his thing as part of the five-man chain gang that is an NFL offensive line.

Blocking, driving, lowering himself for leverage. Whatever it took to gain an advantage over his defensive counterpart.

The chain gang was succeeding. The Lions were moving the ball. They were nearing the so-called red zone—that prime real estate that lies 20 yards and closer to the goal line.

Then it happened—on just another play on just another drive in just another game.

Utley, a mountain of a man listed as 6’6” and 288 pounds, was pass blocking when he lost balance. His pass rushing opponent, David Rocker, was winning this particular down, and Rocker kept driving in his effort to reach the quarterback.

Utley fell awkwardly and onto his head, breaking his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae.

If you ever want to hear how quiet a sports venue can be, try a pro football game with a player lying on the field, unmoving.

It’s a horrible, intestine-twisting silence.

Utley, after many pained minutes, was finally loaded onto a stretcher. Only when it was wheeled away did anyone in the Silverdome exhale, let alone make a sound.

But the Lions fans did indeed make a sound. It started as nervous applause, then as the stretcher made its way to the players’ tunnel, the applause turned into a small cheer, then eventually into a roar.

Utley then made one of the most famous gestures in Detroit sports history.

His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.

He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.

Thumbs up!

The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.

Thumbs up!

Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed to Washington in the NFC Championship game in January.

November 17, 1991 is a date forever etched onto Mike Utley’s brain.

It’s been 20 years, and still there is some unresolved business.

Utley intends to, once again, walk off an NFL field.

“A man walks on the field of battle, and he walks off the field of battle,” Utley explained last month to

Utley has to do the walking off part yet—and without the benefit of braces, a walker, or anything else.

“I can walk with ankle braces, I can walk with crutches or a walker,” Utley says. “The problem is, it’s not really functional, as in to be independent, to be able to go to the grocery store. It’s still more feasible and—safety-wise—it’s more productive for me to be able to transfer into my chair and go to the mall, go shopping, get groceries, clean up around the house.”

Utley has no doubt in his mind that one day he will walk again, sans accessories.

It’s one reason why Utley, along with his wife Dani, started the Mike Utley Foundation—to find out more about spinal cord injuries and to help others battling paralysis. And, of course, to ultimately find a cure for such horrendous injuries.

Utley has the will, but he needs the science...and the dollars.

It’s among the biggest of moral victories, that Mike Utley can do as much as he can, considering from where he came on November 17, 1991.

But Utley is an NFL guy at heart and in the NFL there are no moral victories. You either win, or you lose.

You either walk...or you don’t.

So it’s up at 5 a.m. on most mornings in suburban Seattle (he attended Washington State University), pushing himself in physical therapy twice a week and lifting four times a week.

Normally, I don’t care for the athlete or the celebrity who talks about himself in the third person, but Utley is an exception.

“Mike Utley will walk off Ford Field, his game plan is today,” Utley says. “If it’s not today, it will be tomorrow.”

Since Utley’s injury, which was preceded and then followed shortly thereafter by other horrifying incidents, the NFL has become much more conscious of protecting players—especially when it comes to anything in the head or neck areas.

So you’d think that Utley, through his Foundation, would be totally on board with the rules changes the league has implemented.

“No,” Utley immediately says when prodded about potential drastic rule changes such as linemen beginning every play in a standing position. “Listen, let the fellas play. You want the best players in the world to get on that gridiron. You want the fastest and the best athletes. Let them play.”

OK then.

Meanwhile, between pushing himself to the limit physically in the pursuit of walking, Utley tirelessly raises money for the Foundation, speaks and encourages. It’s not uncommon for the NFL to bring Utley in to talk to players facing the ends of their careers due to injury, though they didn’t suffer the same horrific end that Utley suffered.

Utley, after all, was once read his last rites, when blood clots that formed after the injury almost killed him.

But slowly he made progress. In 1999, Utley stood up and moved his feet for the first time with the assistance of braces on his legs.

But it’s not enough. Just another moral victory.

Utley, to hear him tell it, will walk off Ford Field someday, finally finishing his unfinished business. And then?

“(I’d like) to be able to walk with the wife on the beach. Something as small as that,” he says.

Thumbs up!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stafford Must Be Fixed For the Lions to Compete for Playoffs

Maybe Matthew Stafford wore gloves so as not to leave any fingerprints as he committed crimes against football humanity.

If so, that idea backfired---as did the entire Detroit Lions offense---as Stafford and his offensive teammates (you can pronounce "offensive" with the emphasis on the second syllable if you'd like) laid an ostrich egg on the Soldier Field turf on Sunday.

This was an homage to Lions teams of the past. And when I say past, I mean the first eight years of the 21st century.

Watching the Lions' 37-13 dismantling at the hands of the Chicago Bears was like watching a twisted compilation reel of the Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli years.

All of your old "favorites" were back: pick-sixes; fumbles; bad special teams coverage/strategy; inopportune personal fouls.

They all came roaring back---no pun intended---in one game, and after a bye week, no less, when teams are supposed to be fresh and re-focused.

Stafford was a mystery, yet again.

The Lions' franchise QB was a ghoulish mix of Joey Harrington and Ty Detmer. He was far from the confident young gun that led the Lions to a 5-0 start. In the current 1-3 slide, Stafford has too often looked confused, beaten and devoid of confidence.

The 45-10 pummeling of the Denver Broncos propelled the Lions to 6-2 going into their week off, and they had set themselves up nicely for a second half playoff run. Stafford looked like he had solved whatever had troubled him in consecutive losses to the 49ers and the Falcons.

But the bye week wasn't refreshing at all. Instead, it set football back three years in Detroit.

The defense played OK. Ndamukong Suh and Company only surrendered 16 of the 37 points, and no back breaking big plays, either.

The Lions still would have lost, though, even without all those returns for TDs, because the offense with Stafford at the helm was a frightful blend of slapstick and masochism.

Please, sir, may I have another turnover?

You almost hope that something is wrong with Stafford physically, because the alternative is too disturbing to consider.

It's only one game, but is it?

Is it a one-game clunker, or is it part and parcel of a four-game rut?

The Lions beat who they should have in the past four games, and lost to three teams who are in the upper echelon of a suspect conference.

That, also, smacks of Lions teams of the past---even in the Wayne Fontes years when the Lions would fatten their record against the NFL's dregs then play brutal games against "real" teams.

A bottom feeder comes to town next week---the Carolina Panthers. The Lions should handle the Panthers, with their rookie QB, at Ford Field.

And unless they lose to the Panthers, I suggest that you look at it this way.

Did you truly have the Lions winning yesterday, in Chicago? With the Bears thirsting for revenge for what happened on Monday Night Football? And with the Bears desperate to stay in the playoff race?

I didn't.

So if the Lions win Sunday against Carolina and go into the Thanksgiving tilt with Green Bay at 7-3, that's OK with me. It will just be the Lions following suit---you know, when you play that schedule game of "WIN" and "LOSE" before the season as you tick down the list of opponents and where the game is being played.

There's no question that the way the Lions lost to the Bears far overshadows that they lost.

As Sparky Anderson said about a particularly bad Tigers loss back in the day, "There's not enough perfume in the world to make that one smell good."

But it was just one loss---and the first egg they've laid, and we're in mid-November.

That in of itself is an improvement. Usually we've had four or five of these abominations by now.

But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There's no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is if Stafford is hurt---there's no QB controversy here.

Stafford isn't right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.

The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Paterno's Self-Suppression of Power Protected Wrong People

The irony is, Joe Paterno could have covered the spread easily.

He had home field advantage. He had all the weapons at his disposal. It was a cupcake on the schedule. One of those pre-conference games against an opponent whose only goals were to get out of town with their wits and a cool paycheck from the gate.

Paterno could have swatted this one away with hardly breaking a sweat.

When you’re Joe Paterno, iconic football coach at a big time university, you can do some things. It’s like a playbook on 2nd and 1. There are options not available to a lower profile coach.

Football coaches like Paterno, who’s been at Penn State since the Lyndon Johnson administration, don’t walk around campus—they are the campus. They get things named after them—streets, buildings and practice facilities.

They make friends in high places. They show up at a restaurant and the staff can’t seat them quickly enough.

Coaches like Paterno, if they appear in a commercial for a dry cleaners, can put all the other dry cleaners around campus out of business.

Paterno, 84, looks like someone Al Pacino is set to play at the drop of a hat.

Lombardi had the gap-toothed grin.

Bear Bryant had the checkered hat.

Bo Schembechler had the sunglasses under the baseball cap with the block M.

Woody Hayes had the white shirt and the skinny black tie.

Paterno has the big glasses and the big nose and the raspy, New York accent. Pacino could play him in his sleep.

Paterno is as iconic as it gets in the world of college athletics—forget just football.

So let’s be real.

Joe Paterno wasn’t at any disadvantage, when presented with evidence that his defensive coordinator had sexually assaulted a young boy—in a Penn State football facility, no less.

Paterno—his name ironically so close to sounding like “paternal”—could have snapped his fingers and the weight of the university’s tradition, standards of excellence and integrity would have collapsed onto coach Jerry Sandusky like a 16 ton weight.

Sandusky would have been ruined—much sooner than he now is, and before untold numbers of additional boys were harmed.

Paterno could have rained hell down on Sandusky, had Paterno wanted.


“In hindsight I wish I would have done more,” Paterno said in a prepared statement he released last week, when the tempest of the disgusting news swirling around PSU’s campus began to release its stench.

Paterno was referring to his role in the allegations—the role where he was told about Sandusky’s assault of a boy in a shower, and merely passed the charge on to the athletic director.

Paterno could have gone in for the kill. He had the other guys on their heels, in the shadow of their own end zone.

But Paterno chose to keep all of his power sheathed. It was a kneel down, a mercy job.

Sadly, Paterno chose to protect the wrong person.

A man of Joe Paterno’s stature doesn’t pass stuff like this along. He doesn’t treat charges of sexual abuse like a bag of peanuts in the middle of a row at a ballgame.

A man of Paterno’s importance at Penn State, just as with Bryant at Alabama, Schembechler at Michigan, et al, needs to be Harry Truman, not a middle man.

The buck should stop with them.

It’s an age-old debate.

Who is more culpable for certain heinous behavior?

The perpetrator, or the man who could have stopped him dead in his tracks?

Paterno should have done more than simply pass on the eyewitness account of Sandusky’s sick actions to his supposed boss. And Paterno knows it. He knew it long before he issued his milquetoast statement last week.

In hindsight, Joe? Really?

You needed hindsight to tell you that keeping inordinately quiet in the wake of such disturbing information was wrong?

Again, I ask, isn’t that worse, in a way, than what Sandusky allegedly did to who knows how many kids?

Paterno failed that child in the shower. And his willful suppression of his own powers failed subsequent kids.

Legally, they say, Paterno is in the clear. He did what he was legally obligated to do.

That may be, but I’m surprised Paterno has gotten a wink of sleep since.

You think all of this salacious behavior has been going on around Paterno without his knowledge? For almost 10 years?

The university did the right thing in firing Paterno and the school president, effective immediately. They saw Paterno’s offer to retire after the season and raised it.

They had to.

It was the only thing they could do and still salvage some of Penn State’s integrity.

A football program shouldn’t define a school, but it does in many people’s minds.

A football coach shouldn’t define a program, but he does.

And a terribly poor choice of judgment shouldn’t ruin a man forever, but it can, and it has.

Jerry Sandusky is small fish here, really. That sounds outrageous, because he’s the child predator, not anyone else in this story.

But see how the actions—or lack thereof—of someone like Joe Paterno can overshadow even a person with as vile of character as Jerry Sandusky?

Some say that this vile situation should put college football in perspective.


The bully pulpit of big time college athletics should have been used, by Joe Paterno, to put an end to Jerry Sandusky’s abhorrent acts against kids.

Paterno had everything at his disposal to stop the monster that might be Sandusky.

He took a knee instead.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Do I Miss the NBA? Depends!

Right about now, if the Hatfields and the McCoys had been able to settle their differences (that would be the players and the owners, or vice versa), the NBA season would be just underway.

The season would have tipped off after weeks of exhibition games, during which time the Miami Heat and LeBron James would have been unmercifully mocked and taunted for losing in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Followed by an entire 82-game regular season of the Miami Heat and LeBron James being unmercifully mocked and taunted for losing in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.

The Pistons would be just starting out under their new coach, Lawrence Frank, not long after stubbing their toe on him.

Do I miss the NBA?

Yeah, the same way I miss a root canal, Vanilla Ice and New Coke.

Do I miss looking at tattoos that make a player’s arm look like a 19th century treasure map? Do I miss shorts that go to the ankles?

Do I miss the NBA, you ask (or even if you didn’t)?

Do I miss wall-to-wall games on Christmas Day, the one day of the year in which the television should be turned off?

Do I miss Kobe Bryant? Do I miss the Charlotte Bobcats at the Palace on a Tuesday night?

Do I miss the NBA?

Do I miss that goofy, dotted half-circle under the hoop?

Do I miss a league where 95 percent of the players can’t execute a bounce pass? Or even know what one is?

Do I miss the NBA?

Do I miss four guys on one side of the court while the fifth dribbles the ball for 15 seconds, looking up at the shot clock?

Do I miss the final 30 seconds of a close game taking 30 minutes to play?

Do I miss the NBA?

Do I miss wondering on whose sidelines Larry Brown will turn up next?

Do I miss the latest season-ending injury suffered by Greg Oden?

Now, let me tell you about the NBA I do miss.

I miss shorts that went mid-thigh.

I miss the 24-second clock on the floor, in the corners.

I miss three-to-make-two.

I miss a final score of 132-127 that was played in regulation, not five overtimes.

I miss names like Coby Dietrick and Zaid Abdul-Aziz and Tom Boerwinkle.

I miss coaches like Doug Moe and Frank Layden, who were worth the price of admission just for their post-game comments. That, and Moe wore leisure suits and Layden looked like your tax guy.

I miss backcourt fouls and jump balls to start each quarter.

I miss every basket worth two points, even if you nailed it from 30 feet away.

I miss Pete Maravich and how he wore “Pistol” on the back of his jersey instead of his last name. And, of course, I miss his ball-handling skills, which even the Harlem Globetrotters would have been hard-pressed to match.

Do I miss the NBA?

Well, yes, if that NBA included arenas like the HemisFair and Kemper and the Fabulous Forum and Cobo.

I miss referee Earl Strom, the animated, Ron Luciano of the NBA.

I miss best-of-three playoff series.

I miss this oddball division: Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and PHOENIX.

I miss the year the Bullets were the Capitol Bullets—between being Baltimore and Washington.

While I’m at it, I miss the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.

I miss first round playoff matchups like Golden State and Chicago.

I miss the Vancouver Grizzlies, because how cool was it that the NBA was silly enough to put a team in Vancouver?

Do I miss the NBA?

I don’t miss Pau Gasol but I miss Swen Nater.

I don’t miss Phil Jackson the coach but I miss Phil Jackson the player. Oh, those shoulders.

I don’t miss Billy Hunter the players rep but I miss Billy Knight the scorer for the Pacers.

I don’t miss Gilbert Arenas calling himself Agent Zero but I miss John Williamson being called Super John.

Do I miss the NBA?

I don’t miss 6’11” small forwards but I miss 6’7” centers.

I don’t miss Nike but I miss Chuck Taylor. And I don’t miss leather but I miss canvas.

I don’t miss Jason Kidd but I miss Ernie DiGregorio.

I don’t miss the New Orleans Hornets but I miss the New Orleans Jazz.

I don’t miss Charles Barkley the commentator but I miss Charles Barkley the player. Because who wouldn’t miss someone dubbed “The Round Mound of Rebound?"

Do I miss the NBA?

Well, if you’re asking if I miss Gus the Dancing Vendor, hell yes. But if you’re asking if I miss the Automotion dance girls, hell no.

Don’t draw any conclusions from that, by the way.

I miss Leon the Barber.

I miss World B. Free, Harthorne Wingo, T.R. Dunn, Harvey Catchings and Joe C. Meriweather.

I miss David Thompson leaping from the free throw line for a dunk.

I miss the Buffalo Braves.

I miss smoke in the arenas drifting to the lights above.

I miss when basketball players were called “cagers.”

I miss 20-second injury timeouts.

Do I miss the NBA?

I don’t miss three days off between playoff games—in the same city.

I don’t miss Bill Walton the commentator, and I really don’t miss Bill Walton the player all that much, either. Except for his headband.

Speaking of headbands, I don’t miss them on today’s players but I miss them on Slick Watts, who was bald.

I don’t miss Kevin McHale coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves but I miss Bill Russell coaching the Seattle Supersonics.

I miss saying Seattle Supersonics.

So, do I miss the NBA?

Which one you talking about?

Monday, October 31, 2011

These Lions Are Not Your 2007 Version

This time, the other guys are disillusioned about their supposed franchise quarterback.

This time, the other team has its falsely-hoped, tenuously-raucous crowd taken out of the game in the very first quarter.

This time, the other guys are mocked and made fun of.

This time, the serious questions about the health of the franchise are for the other guys to answer.

This time, the playoff talk isn't for the other guys.

The Lions are 6-2. But this isn't 2007's 6-2, which was a papier-mache 6-2.

The 2007 6-2 was also attained at the expense of the Denver Broncos, also in a blowout victory. The Lions beat them, 44-7 at Ford Field and the lingering image of that game was Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers rumbling for a touchdown after an interception.

How appropriate that it would be Rogers who took it to the house, because he partly symbolizes the false hope Lions. The Lions of unfulfilled promise.

The 2007 Lions were 6-2 by record only. Their true value would play out over the next 24 games, of which they lost 23.

There's no such feeling of foreboding about this version of the Lions, who got off their mini-schneide in a big way Sunday in Denver, thumping the Broncos, 45-10.

These aren't the Bucking Broncos---more like the Buckling Broncos.

The Broncos are a mess. They have a quarterback, Tim Tebow, who is less an NFL quarterback and more a suggestion thereof. They can't pass protect. Their receivers are mediocre. Their running game makes the Lions look like the Lombardi Packers of the 1960s.

There seems to be separation within the ranks in Denver about Tebow, and it's never a good thing when not everyone in an organization backs the guy under center.

Tebow was left in for every minute of Sunday's shellacking, which was just plain mean on the part of Broncos coach John Fox. If part of developing a young quarterback in the NFL is to handle his confidence like eggs, then Fox just made Tebow into an omelet.

Who knows how long it will take Tebow to recover, mentally, from Sunday's awful performance. The kid doesn't have it, didn't have it Sunday, and may never have it. But when it was painfully obvious that Tebow was little more than the Lions' pinata, why didn't Fox get him out of there?

Maybe because Fox is among those not sold on TebowMania?

Still, even if Fox isn't convinced that Tebow is his guy, the coach should be ashamed for not lifting the young man as early as midway through the third quarter. A day that began with hope ended with a bloodletting.

As for the Lions, they are 6-2 but as lovely of a win as Sunday's was, it's tempered by the fact that it came against the Broncos, one of the NFL's dregs and losing relevance by the week.

Denver's days of a playoff contender are so far in the rear view mirror, they are borderline in the category of "remember when?"

The 2011 Lions are not the 2007 Lions, by any stretch. A quick comparison of the rosters of the two squads should make that obvious.

I've written it before; any team can get lucky and fool folks for eight weeks. That happens almost every year. The contenders separate themselves from the pretenders in the next eight games---the ones they play in November and December.

The Lions are 6-2 and should contend in the season's second half, which begins after next week's bye.

The Broncos are 2-5 and you just have to wonder how bad the other teams were in Denver's two wins.

That's OK. Let the other team have to answer those kinds of questions. For a change.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life Without Lidstrom Terrifying Thought For Red Wings, Fans

Nick Lidstrom doesn’t block shots. He doesn’t body check anyone. He’s never thrown an elbow. His next fight will be his first.

The greatest hockey defenseman of his time—or maybe of any time—isn’t supposed to be so mild-mannered. He isn’t supposed to be less physical than a second baseman.

Lidstrom, the Red Wings' all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.

There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

He’s 41 and despite his lack of wear and tear, Lidstrom is on the back end of his career. Only a delusional fool would believe otherwise.

The topic came up Monday night on “The Knee Jerks,” the podcast I co-host each week with Big Al Beaton of The Wayne Fontes Experience.

What will life be like, we wondered, when Lidstrom neatly folds his sweater and hangs up his skates?The word “terrifying” came up, more than once.

It’s an annual question—one that we ask without really wanting to know the answer. You ask the question and then bury your face in something, shivering.

Last spring, Nick made us sweat a little bit more than normal. It took several weeks after the Red Wings were once again eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks for Lidstrom to consent to play his 20th season.

They could hear the sighs of relief from Detroit all the way to, well, San Jose.

It’s not just that Lidstrom has played 20 seasons, or that he’s played them flawlessly, or that he’s the perfect teammate or that he seamlessly took over as captain from Steve Yzerman, no less—which is like a singer stepping onto the stage right after a set by Sinatra and no one noticing.

No, it’s that Lidstrom has done all that while hardly missing a game.

His games-played column reads like an early-summer thermometer: 76, 78, 80, 77, 79, 80, 81.

The spooky notion of no more Nick Lidstrom is just as much the fear of the unknown as anything else.

We don’t want to think of the Red Wings without Lidstrom because we haven’t really seen the Red Wings without Lidstrom since before he was a Red Wing.

It’s History 101.The last time a Red Wings roster didn’t list Lidstrom’s name, George Bush The First was President. The Pistons were the defending NBA champs—but they were the Pistons of Isiah and Dumars, not Chauncey and Hamilton.

There was no Internet.

The kids graduating high school this year were still two years from being born.

Need I go on?

Lidstrom’s longevity is one thing; his durability is quite another.

As much as Yzerman is revered in Detroit—and he should be—Steve wasn’t exactly an Iron Man, unless you count his days spent in those hyperbaric chambers. Stevie Y was more Iron Lung than Iron Man.

Yzerman missed games in chunks, due to various injuries. He was the anti-Lidstrom, in a sense.

There was a serious knee injury in 1988. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As Yzerman got older, his body broke down more frequently. He played the 2002 playoffs on a knee so mangled that he managed to report to work for just 13 games the following season, recovering from the knee’s reconstruction.

There was more time lost in the 2005-06 season, Yzerman’s last as a player.

So we had heaping spoonfuls of Red Wings life without Steve Yzerman, making his retirement no less sad—just less of a shock to the system.Not so with Lidstrom, who has played with mind-numbing consistency and Lou Gehrig-like durability.

We have not been prepped for Lidstrom’s retirement.

If the Red Wings fan base thinks that another Lidstrom is being groomed, or that he can in any way be replaced, forget it. Not going to happen.

This is no affront to Niklas Kronwall or Brad Stuart or Jonathan Ericsson or to any of the prospects in the Red Wings’ system.

Players like Nick Lidstrom come by once in a franchise’s lifetime—if that.

How will the Red Wings ever replace him?

Did the Boston Bruins replace Raymond Bourque?

Yzerman, for all of his Hall of Fame worthiness, was in the process of being phased out by the time he retired in 2006. The cache of forwards the Red Wings employed made Stevie’s departure easier to digest.

All the Red Wings can do when Lidstrom finally bids farewell—and it’ll be sooner rather than later—is take a deep breath, exhale and hope that they have a defensive corps that can band together and do one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of things.

Because if you think he’s going to be replaced, you’re mad.The Red Wings have had four—four—players who’ve played 20-plus seasons for them: Lidstrom, Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.

This is significant.

The Montreal Canadiens, for all their history and Stanley Cups, have had just one player—Jean Beliveau—play as many as 19 seasons for them.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have had only George Armstrong play 20 seasons wearing the Leaf.

The New York Rangers have no 20-plus-year men.

The Boston Bruins have only Bourque, who played a tad over 20 in Beantown.

The Chicago Blackhawks had Stan Mikita for 21 years. That’s it.

The Red Wings have had four such men. It’s significant.

The most recent of the Red Wings’ 20-plus-year men might leave a void that none of his predecessors left—not even Howe, for Gordie “retired” with the team well on its way to being miserable for an entire decade.

How do the Red Wings replace Nick Lidstrom?

They don’t.

I guess he’ll just have to keep playing until we figure something out.