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.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Will Seven-Year Itch Doom Babcock, Red Wings?

It’s hockey season in Detroit again. Time to put up with another 82-game grind. In our self-ascribed “Hockeytown,” it’s considered par, not impolite, to look past the months of October through March so that we can worry about playoff match-ups.

The 82-game regular season is something we tolerate. It’s a longer opening act than a bad comedian.

We actually had to pay attention, a little, to the regular season two years ago, when the calendar turned to 2010 and the Red Wings were still monkeying around, trying to secure a playoff spot. But that drama was short-lived and by the end of February, order was restored as the Red Wings distanced themselves from the bottom feeders.

It’s never a matter of if the Red Wings will make the playoffs. It’s, “How far will they go?”

The 2011-12 season is just underway, but I submit that this campaign might, just might, provide a legitimate sidebar.

Mike Babcock, the steel-jawed, facially scarred coach, is into his seventh season helming the Red Wings. Yes, seventh.

That’s longer than any Red Wings coach since Jack Adams, with two exceptions: Sid Abel (11 years) and Scotty Bowman (nine years).

The fear is this, simply: will the Red Wings get a seven-year itch with Babcock?

Is seven years, in this day of modern pro sports, too long for one coach with the same team?

I suppose we’re about to find out.

Coaching and longevity are fickle partners. You can be a coaching “lifer,” but that’s typically done with a whistle in one hand and a road map in the other.

The coach who stays put in one city for any longer than three years is, frankly, usually a “dean” in his division.

Terry Francona just had a rather messy break-up with the Boston Red Sox. All Francona did in his eight years as Red Sox manager was make the playoffs just about every year and win two World Series—ending the franchise’s 86-year drought with the first one.

Yet a bad September this year proved to be Terry’s death knell.

The seven-year itch inDetroitwhen it comes to Babcock and his players might just be the warped bleatings of a worry wart sports blogger.

Yet I suggest that the Red Wings are entering into a potential danger zone with Mike Babcock. And it has nothing to do with whether he’s the best coach in the entire NHL—which he is.

It won’t matter how good of a coach Babcock is if he can’t get his players to keep him tuned in.

The coach’s voice starts to grate after a few years, depending on the character of the team involved.

Which makes it a decent bet that my Chicken Little hand-wringing over the Red Wings and their seventh-year coach is much ado about nothing.

The Red Wings are veteran-laden. Their captain is 41 years old and his face doesn’t look a day over 30. They have worked in some younger players over the past several years but their core is still Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom—not a spring chicken among the group.

Hey, is Chris Chelios still on the team?

He may as well be.

The greatness of the Red Wings organization is that, for them, familiarity hasn’t bred any contempt.

They’ve had the same owner since 1982.

They’ve had the same GM since 1997.

They’ve had the same assistant GM since about that time, too.

They’ve had the same VP since 1990—and he started in 1982, too.

They’ve had the same trainers, equipment guys, masseuses and probably even the same mechanic for the Zamboni machine for years.

And, of course, they’ve had the same players, for the most part.

When you play for the Red Wings, you skate for them until they pull the sweater over your head and tell you that enough is enough.

Oh, they do it in a nice way, but Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Chris Osgood have all departed in recent years, and in every instance, they were pretty much stared down by management.

In a nice way.

But the flip side to that is that when you’re done as a player wearing the Winged Wheel, you stay with the organization in some capacity. The Red Wings reward their fully-vested employees almost as much as Bob Ficano does inWayneCounty.

The ex-Red Wings, in addition to the aforementioned—who all have jobs with the club—dot the org chart.

There’s Mark Howe, who heads the advanced scouting department.

There’s Aaron Downey, who works in strength and conditioning.

There’s Jiri Fischer, whose domain is player development.

To name a few.

Yet the coach, Babcock, is the one we should keep an eye on. It’s always the coach, isn’t it? That is, if it isn’t the goalie.

Babcock brought in two new assistant coaches this season, perhaps as a nod to the concern of the players hearing the same voice, being preached the same thing in the same fashion.

The seven-year itch.

It didn’t get Bowman, who lasted nine. But they weren’t exactly nine blissful years. Just ask Steve Yzerman, or Brendan Shanahan. Two Hall of Famers, each who would have liked to jam a puck down Scotty’s throat from time to time.

Babcock, in six seasons as Red Wings coach, has delivered a Stanley Cup, two Finals appearances and three conference final appearances.

But the two most recent seasons have seen the Red Wings bumped out of the playoffs in the second round—to the same team.

This is Hockeytown, which is theBronxof the NHL. A season that doesn’t end with the Red Wings raising the Stanley Cup over their heads is a season wasted, followed by a summer of consternation.

It’s been that way since Bowman re-instilled a level of excellence that had been missing for decades.

Now Babcock is the keeper of that flame. He’s going on seven years of being on the job. That’s a mighty long time, anymore.

Just something to chew on, as you bide your time waiting for the playoffs.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Unlike in 1980, Smart Money Is on Lions in 2011

The NFL season is chopped into fours, not unlike what the ponies have to deal with at Pimlico.

It’s often times just as foolhardy to put good money on the leaders at the first turn in pro football as it is on the fast starting horses sprinting out of the gate at the track.

The NFL gives us 16 games per team, per year—nice and divisible by four. The NFL has always been fond of quarters, as you know.

The first turn of 2011 is going to be made after Monday night’s game. Each team will have played four games. As usual, there are some horses making that turn that are either the real deal or destined for the glue factory.

OH—look at who’s charging on the outside. Our own Detroit Lions!

The Lions don’t charge out of the gate, as a rule. The past decade has been filled with false starts, if you will. If it were harness racing, many years the Lions would have been passed by the pace car before the gate folded up.

But here we are, at the first turn of 2011, and the Lions can be no worse than 3-1 after their game at Dallas on Sunday.

ESPN has the Lions ranked fourth in all the NFL after their 3-0 start. Fourth!

This is tortoise keeping up with the hare kind of stuff. It’s McGovern keeping pace with Nixon. The ’67 Arabs giving the Israelis all they can handle.

What in the name of Darryl Rogers is going on here?

Should you cash your paycheck and put it on the Lions’ Honolulu Blue number?

Even during the playoff years under Wayne Fontes, the Lions jumped out to a 3-0 start. They did 0-3—and still made the playoffs in 1995. They limped into the first turn in ’95 but finished 10-6. So you never know.

In fact, Jimmy Carter was president the last time the Lions started 3-0. It was also the last time they started 4-0.

Jimmy “Spiderman” Allen was an eccentric defensive back for the Lions in 1980. What else could he be, with a nickname like Spiderman?

Allen was also with the team in 1979, when the Lions lost starting QB Gary Danielson for the season to a knee injury in the final exhibition game, dooming Detroit to a 2-14 finish.

So when the 1980 Lions got off to a rollicking 4-0 getaway—thanks in part to the electrifying rookie runner Billy Sims, who was the team’s haul for finishing 2-14 in ’79—Allen got a bright idea.

Allen recruited several of his very willing teammates and cut a record.

It was a Lions take on the Queen hit, “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Coach Monte Clark wasn’t too keen on it. Clark blocked for Jim Brown in Cleveland as a player and assisted Don Shula in Miami as a coach. Monte was more buttoned down than Bob Newhart.

But when an eccentric puts his mind to something, there isn’t much you can do to stop him. So Clark winced and waited for the song to come out.

All the radio stations in town played Allen and company’s bastardized version of Freddie Mercury’s tune, which had lyrics like, “See Billy run—you can’t catch him with a gun.”

It wasn’t Grammy stuff.

But the fans loved it. The Lions were 4-0! They were among the leaders of the pack at the first turn.

The smart money wasn’t on the Lions, after all. During quarters two, three and four, the Lions fell back to the rest of the also-ran horses. They finished the season 9-7, out of the playoffs. Allen’s ditty took a nosedive on the radio play lists.

So it has been some 31 years since the Lions have had a shot at finishing the first turn undefeated.

Should you place any hard-earned dimes on the Honolulu Blue number?

I would—if those numbers are No. 9, No. 81,No. 90 and No. 4.

Those would be, respectively, QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, DT Ndamukong Suh and kicker Jason Hanson.

The 1980 Lions had no one at those positions even remotely as good as the aforementioned quartet. And that’s no disrespect to Danielson, Freddie Scott, Dave Pureifory and Eddie Murray—the 1980 versions of that foursome.

The ’80 Lions were a 9-7 team that was probably exactly that—a 9-7 team.

The 2011 bunch is more talented, but so is the NFL.

The NFL has turned into something much different than what it was in 1980.

In 1980, you had haves and have-nots. The same teams, for the most part, made the playoffs every year. You had the Vikings and the Rams, the Cowboys and the Steelers, the Raiders,the Oilers and the Chargers. Pretty much every year.

Today, the teams peak and valley like the Dow Jones. Their year-to-year chart, if you plotted wins, would look like an EKG readout.

It’s not a favorite word in the league office, but it’s called parity.

Teams make the playoffs one year and fade into oblivion the next. Look at the Kansas City Chiefs. I dare you. The Chiefs made the playoffs last year at 10-6. This season, they’re 0-3 and barely competitive.

Look at the Buffalo Bills. With both eyes open, for a change. Last year the Bills didn’t win their first game until you could almost smell the Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven. In fact, it came against the Lions, last November 14. Fancy that.

This year, the Bills are another of the 3-0 teams entering the first turn. Last Sunday they rallied from 21 points down to beat the vaunted New England Patriots.

The football experts are also debating the true worth of the Bills, as they do with the Lions. Put good money on the Honolulu Blue number? I think I might, as long as you can keep Suh out of the recording studio.

Just hope he doesn’t put his mind to it. Who’s going to stop him?