Sunday, August 21, 2011

Like Karras Did, Suh Dominates In Trenches for Lions

The greatest defensive tackle in Lions history had a nose for the quarterback. He had to, because he couldn’t see the passer.

Alex Karras, the Golden Greek (aka Tippy Toes), had the eyesight of Mr. Magoo but the olfactory nerves of a shark in blood-tinged waters

Karras was a wrestler at the University of Iowa, and he used that experience to break free of pass protectors through the use of agility and leverage.

Amazingly, it was Karras who initially feared for his own safety.

“I learned at a very young age,” Karras once told NFL Films, “that if I ever lined up to do battle…that I could get hurt!”

Karras joined the Lions in 1958 as a rookie from Iowa, when the Lions were defending league champs. Needless to say, no other rookie has joined the team under those circumstances since then.

He came into the NFL with Wayne Walker, the linebacker from Idaho. Together they were part of some very good defenses in Detroit, often when the offense was nowhere nearly as competent.

But that was the NFL, circa the mid-to-late 1950s through most of the 1960s: The league was filled with gritty, nasty defenders who rarely made a tackle below the jaw line. Helmets of the so-called “skill” players popped off like champagne corks on New Year’s Eve, in those days.

Occasionally, the player’s teammates would check to make sure the head wasn’t still inside.

This was the NFL of the day—the polar opposite of the upstart American Football League, whose game scores looked more like college basketball tilts than those of pro football.

The AFL had the Mad Bomber—Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica. The NFL had the Mad Stork—linebacker Ted Hendricks.

The Lions could play some defense, especially in the trenches, where Karras was joined in crime by partners Darris McCord, Sam Williams and Roger Brown. Behind them was middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, the pride of Pitt.

Then the Lions added Lem Barney to the secondary, which already included Dick LeBeau and Bruce Maher.

Too bad the offenses were often plodding units who needed a month of Sundays to score 50 points.

Karras was the ring leader, make no mistake. Alex adored the spotlight and the attention. He walked around training camp at Cranbrook wearing horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shorts and smoking a cigar.

“Alex was two different people,” longtime Chicago Bears center Mike Pyle told Ed Sabol’s folks at NFL Films. “On the field, he wanted to destroy anyone wearing the opposing uniform. But off the field, just a really nice guy.”

Karras played in the days when television was just starting to sink its claws into pro football. He once told me that the classic Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, when the Lions tore Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr limb from limb, was special to him because it was one of the first games Karras had played on national TV.

“You started to play the game for television in those days,” Karras told me.

Karras liked TV so much, he found a second career in it.

Some might argue against my opening sentence, refusing to believe that Karras was better than today’s Lions brute, Ndamukong Suh, even though Suh has played just one season in the NFL.

Sorry, but never can a man of one year’s experience be considered the best of anything.

However, I may be stupid, but I’m not foolish enough to tell that to Suh’s face.

Clearly, Suh has the potential to best Karras as the Lions best-ever defensive tackle. Granted, that might even happen this season. But it’s too soon to declare Suh the best—for now.

The Lions have themselves, in Suh, a weapon of mass destruction. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham ought to come to work handcuffed to a briefcase, inside of which holds the keys that are simultaneously inserted to turn Suh on.

The destructive powers of Suh, once unleashed, are irrevocable.

That is why the Lions should dismiss the fine that Suh received after his throwdown of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, which occurred early in last Friday’s exhibition opener.

The NFL nicked Suh for $20,000. But it’s not the money that has coach Jim Schwartz, GM Marty Mayhew and the Lions fan base worried.

It’s the reputation.

Suh, after just one season and one exhibition game, is smack in the middle of the NFL’s radar. He wears Honolulu Blue to us, but to the powers that be in the league offices, Suh wears a black hat. The fines started early last year, too—also in the preseason. And they never really stopped.

It’s troubling that Suh gets an inordinate amount of attention from the disciplinarians for his wont to cause mayhem. It’s not his fault that he has the strength to throw people around like rag dolls. Suh’s tackles just look worse than those of other, mortal men.

Helmets tend to fly off and arms and legs get splayed around, when Suh gets his mitts on a ball carrier.

But the Lions ought not to worry about the fines so much that they try to reel Suh in. He’s too good, too powerful, too dynamic to try to suppress.

Suh is the most dominating force the Lions have employed in years. Even Big Baby, Shaun Rogers, wasn’t this good in his heyday. Neither was Jerry Ball or Doug English or Al “Bubba” Baker.

Karras was, but Alex isn’t likely to hold his place as Best Ever Lions Defensive Tackle, for much longer.

The two of them—Alex Karras and Ndamukong Suh—have something else in common: both got themselves into hot water with the NFL; Karras for his gambling, Suh for his sadism.

“In pro football,” Karras told NFL Films, “you line up every Sunday to play the game of battle.”

Here’s Suh, speaking to the Free Press last week: “I'm not going to stop playing hard. Like I said before ... I owe it to my teammates, I owe it to the coaches, and I owe it to the fans first and foremost. That's the reason why they watch the game. It's one of the reasons football is football, cause it's physical contract, aggression that is made exciting.”

Karras and Suh—two defensive greats whose careers began over 50 years apart. Yet they sound like they could have been terrific teammates, in any era.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Nothing Good Happens for Lions if Stafford Can't Stay Upright

The roster says that Matthew Stafford is a third-year NFL quarterback. Don’t believe everything that you read.

Stafford is the Paper Lion, with apologies to George Plimpton. The kid reared in Texas was drafted first overall in 2009 by the Lions out of the University of Georgia, and he’s still working on a complete season of 16 games.

He stands at 13 games played after two seasons—10 in 2009, three last year. The other 19 have been missed because of his knees or his shoulders.

If this was baseball, 13-for-32 would be a cool .406 batting average—very Ted Williams-ish.

But this is pro football, where 13-for-32 for a quarterback isn’t good, no matter how you slice it. It’s not good as a completion percentage, and it’s downright disdainful as a playing percentage.

Stafford is entering his third year as a pro, but we don’t know enough about him to make a clear, confident assessment of his quarterbacking abilities.

Everything about Stafford is talked about as if you’re looking at him through a dirty screen door.

“Gosh,” folks will say, “he looks like a good quarterback.” Then, they’ll just as quickly add, “But I really can’t tell.

Well, he’d better be good, because for all the offensive weapons the Lions possess, they won’t mean a hill of beans if Stafford can’t stay upright for an entire season.

Speaking of hills, the Lions have one named Shaun, who will serve as Stafford’s backup. Even though Hill is a great guy and a gutsy player, the Lions hope he’s seen as often as Olivier’s understudy.

The Lions plunge into the 2011 season with more national and local buzz surrounding them than I can recall—and I’ve been following them since 1970. I think some of the old-timers whose recollection goes back much further would agree with me.

What do you call it when even Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, usually so wise, puts “Super Bowl” and “Detroit Lions” in the same sentence? And just three years after 0-16?

King went on record last week as hinting that the Lions, if things go right and this happens and that happens, could—maybe, might—find themselves in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Lions had the gall to win their last four games of the 2010 season, and as soon as they did, I knew they’d be the trendy pick of 2011.

Maybe the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have something to worry about, maybe they don’t.

But all of the nicey-nicey talk about the Lions, all the excitement and buzz and high expectations, all of it floats around an assumption that has yet to transpire.

The Lions will be a contender, the optimists say, because their assumption is that Matthew Stafford will be under center and not under the surgeon’s knife.

That’s quite an assumption. That’s a leap of epic proportions. It involves suspending disbelief.

Here’s the conundrum: Believers in Stafford and the Lions would convince you that the young QB isn’t snake-bitten, that he isn’t injury-prone. Yet the only way they can be proven right is if Stafford makes it through a full season without setting foot in a hospital, unless it’s to visit sick kids.

This injury-prone thing is going to follow Stafford, like it or not. And it should. The pessimists have history on their side.

The pessimists and haters look at Stafford cross-eyed, like he’s a defendant on trial and the prosecution has bags and bags of evidence and witnesses lining up around the block to testify: “He’s the one, your honor!”

You really can’t blame the pessimists.

The play that separated Stafford’s shoulder for the second time last season, in a November tilt against the New York Jets, didn’t appear to be anything that doesn’t happen to NFL quarterbacks every week.

Of all his injuries, I believe the one against the Jets is what turned a lot of folks in the Lions fanbase against Stafford.

And until he gets through at least one full season without serious injury, the discussion about Stafford’s durability will continue to fester.

Might as well call the dudes from Guinness, because we’re about to set a world’s record for most people holding their breath every Sunday, from September to January.

Every time Stafford gets 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 than Stafford, 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.

Let me take you back to 1979.

The Lions’ quarterback was the competent Gary Danielson, who didn’t have as much talent in his entire body as Stafford has in his left bicep. But Gary was good enough for the Lions and their rebuilding process. In 1978, against the Minnesota Vikings in the Silverdome, Danielson threw five TD passes—still a shared franchise record.

But in the final exhibition game of ’79 in Baltimore, Danielson wrecked his knee. He was lost for the season. The Lions didn’t have a capable backup, like they do today.

In an instant, the Lions went from being led by Danielson to relying on a rookie named Jeff Komlo. A 2-14 season ensued.

But all was not lost—that awful season enabled the Lions to draft running back Billy Sims in 1980. Sims was the Lions’ best player until a game in 1984, when he suffered a career-ending knee injury. Again the Lions went rebuilding.

The Lions have been rebuilding ever since. They’re the Bob Vila of the NFL.

The slapstick might be near an end. The Lions might have found the superstar quarterback they’ve been lacking for over half a century.

I think. Though, I can’t tell for sure.