Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas: Some Holiday Gifts for the Nice (and Naughty)

Wax up the sleigh. Check it for flight. Shine St. Nick’s boots. Make sure Rudy’s nose is bright and squeaky clean.
Test the GPS. Gather the weather reports. Check the sack for rips. Tell Mrs. C not to wait up.
It’s gonna be another long night, but then it always is on December 24.
The jolly, old, fat man is set to make his annual trek. Chimneys the world over wait. Fireplaces are about to be pounced on.
Santa has something for everyone, or so they say. Keeping the faith, I’m going to accept that statement as fact. So, with that in mind, let’s see if he can find room in his big, red pack, upon his back—as Andy Williams sang—for these goodies.
For Calvin Johnson, a new NFL record, but more importantly, a football team worthy of his gargantuan talent.
For Matthew Stafford, highlight reels of Slinging Sammy Baugh and Fran Tarkenton, so the kid knows that you don’t have to have perfect “mechanics” to be a winner in this league.
For Jim Schwartz, a general manager who will draft him some defense.
For Rick Porcello, a team who wants him.
For Jhonny Peralta, a new nickname: The Kitchenette, because they say he has no range.
For Torii Hunter, nothing—because he already had his Christmas when he signed with the Tigers.
For traffic lights throughout Metro Detroit, Anibal Sanchez’s timing.
For Alex Avila, health and happiness—and for him, they’re one and the same.
For Miguel Cabrera, the abolition of sabermetrics.
For Tigers fans, also nothing—because they already have their new third base coach.
For Tommy Brookens, the new third base coach, the best of luck.
For the NHL, coal in its hockey boot.
For Mark Dantonio, a quarterback.
For Brady Hoke, a headset.
For Joe Dumars, a slashing, scoring small forward in the draft, because it sure isn’t on his current roster.
For Lawrence Frank, a book on the Pistons of the 1960s—oh, wait, he’s already writing the remake.
For Andre Drummond, the career of Shaquille O’Neal, because Ray Scott told me that Andre reminds him of a young Shaq.
For Greg Monroe, the career of Bob Lanier, because (see above).
For Pistons fans, a new RV, because you can all fit in one.
For George Blaha, some recognition (finally) as a damn good football play-by-play guy.
For Charlie Villanueva, no regrets.
For Tayshaun Prince, a nice twilight so his career will be properly book-ended.
For all of us working stiffs, the longevity of Jim Brandstatter.
For all of us husbands, Brandy’s marriage, too.
For Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder’s smile at the next Thanksgiving table.
For Notre Dame football fans, you don’t get anything—your prayers were already answered.
For NHL fans, never Fehr.
For Alex Karras’ legacy, a diabolical plan to gain induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For Miguel Cabrera, whatever he wants.
For Dominic Raiola, a seven-second delay.
For Ndamukong Suh, peace.
For Louis Delmas, two good knees.
For the two Vs, Vinnie Goodwill and Vince Ellis (Pistons beat writers), a thesaurus to help them describe what they are forced to watch nightly.
For Jerry Green, many more Super Bowls.
For Rob Parker, see Dominic Raiola.
For Mark Sanchez, the hell out of New York.
For Toronto Blue Jays fans, somebody to pinch them.
For Chicago Cubs and Lions fans, a support group.
For Billy Crystal, the only known celebrity Los Angeles Clippers fan, a winner.
For Billy Crystal’s movie career, the same, for it’s as overdue as are the Clippers.
For Magic Johnson, all the success with the Dodgers as he had on the basketball court.
For the San Francisco Giants, the antithesis for Magic.
For Linda McCoy-Murray, happiness with her new man. But he’ll never write like Jim.
For Jim Leyland, we folks off his back already.
For our daughter, anything she wants, because she tamed Oakland University as a freshman like she had ice water in her veins.
For my wife, see Charlie Villanueva.
For all of you who read me every week, a year’s supply of Zantac.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Lions Cannot Win With This 2-Minute Defense

Thirty-three points at home, in the NFL, ought to win you a boatload of football games. You score 33 points, your offense should be on the sideline, laughing and joking in the waning moments. Or better yet, on the field, the quarterback kneeling down, the clock draining away.
You have a 12-point lead, at home, in the NFL, with less than five minutes to play? The only sound should be that of nails being pounded into the opponents’ coffin.
Yet there was Matthew Stafford, the gun slinging Lions quarterback, kneeling alright—but his knee was on the sideline, his head bowed, as if in prayer. He couldn’t bear to watch. His counterpart for the Indianapolis Colts, the rookie Andrew Luck, was a hot knife and Stafford’s team’s defense was butter. Stafford couldn’t bear to watch, and who could blame him?
The CBS cameras caught Stafford, during the Colts’ final, game-winning drive, alternately staring up at the jumbo TV on the Ford Field scoreboard and covering his eyes. He was speaking, non-verbally, for the entire Lions fan base.
The Lions scored 33 points, had intercepted Luck three times, had rarely trailed in the game, were playing at home, and Calvin Johnson set a career high for receptions in a single game (13).
Yet Stafford couldn’t bear to watch the ending.
You think the Green Bay Packers would have let that game slip away at Lambeau Field? You think the New England Patriots would have coughed it up in their stadium? The Pittsburgh Steelers, in theirs? The New York Giants, in their house?
That would be four big time NOs.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. More games in the NFL are lost than are ever won. More games are decided by the plays that weren’t made than by the ones that were.
If you break down a typical NFL game—and it’s amazing how many of these things are decided by a touchdown or less—you’re more likely to be talking about the plays the losing team didn’t make. A typical NFL game breakdown is filled with coulda, shoulda and wouldas, along with a healthy dose of ifs, ands or buts.
The Lions have just lost three straight games in their own building, at a time when they could have lifted themselves back into the playoff picture, and all of them after they held the lead at the two-minute warning.
Imagine the Tigers blowing three straight games in a pennant race, all in the ninth inning or later.
Or the Red Wings coming from ahead to lose three straight games in a playoff series.
Hey, imagine the Red Wings playing, period.
The good teams in the NFL—the ones annually playing in January—simply don’t lose the types of games the Lions have lost in 2012. Or throughout the inglorious history of Detroit football, as far as that goes.
Just off the top of the head…
The 5-0 playoff loss in Dallas. The 1980 Thanksgiving Day stunner to Chicago, on a kickoff return in overtime. Eddie Murray, wide right, in the 1983 playoffs. Sterling Sharpe, wide open in the end zone in the 1993 playoffs. Barry Sanders: 13 carries for -1 yard in the 1994 playoffs. Laying an ostrich egg in Philadelphia in the 1995 playoffs. Taking the wind in overtime in 2001. Jim Schwartz’s ill-timed challenge flag on Thanksgiving, not two weeks ago.
And what happened on Sunday against the Colts.
It really was no mystery, the game-winning play. Colts receiver Donnie Avery ran the perfect safety valve route, bleeding off the line of scrimmage in the flat, available in case Luck found no luck in the end zone. The Lions lost contain of the QB, and that was the death knell. After that, it was a simple pitch and catch, and Avery waltzed into the end zone, just like you and I could have done.
You hear a lot of talk about two-minute offenses. The Lions need a two-minute defense.
The Lions are a defense that can make interceptions between the 20s; make a sack in the first quarter; stuff a run in the third quarter; and get a three-and-out on the first series of the fourth quarter.
They cannot do any of the above when the game is truly on the line.
You can crab all you want about the Lions’ conservative play calling on their final drive on offense, when a 3rd-and-5 could have, perhaps, been converted with a pass, in effect ending the game with two minutes to play because the Colts had no timeouts.
You can crab about that, and you’d have a valid point.
But the Lions’ two-minute defense is too often bereft of playmaking. See? We’re talking about plays that weren’t made.
The two-minute defense is one that says, “OK, you made the score close. That’s all well and good. Now here’s my foot on your throat. And here’s me applying pressure.”
There’s no way that the Packers, Patriots, Steelers or Giants surrender that game-winning drive to a kid on their home turf, I don’t care how wise he is beyond his years. Those teams would have made the key stop. They would have made the interception, or forced the fumble, or gotten the back breaking sack. They certainly wouldn’t have allowed their opponents anywhere near sniffing distance of the end zone.
The Lions, despite their brief rise to respectability in 2011, still do not know what it takes to win football games that are not blowouts. It is tempting to say they are incapable. That may be harsh, but the truth is this: the longer it takes you to win these close games—the more times you end up on the wrong end of the score—the harder it is to believe in your ability to do so.
I don’t know if the Lions thought something bad was going to happen on the final Colts drive. But they didn’t play with any killer instinct whatsoever.
Here’s hoping that GM Martin Mayhew, who has to be taking some heat sooner or later, will seriously address the defense in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The Lions need difference makers in the worst way on that side of the football.
They need players who have to be accounted for. Players who are whirling dervishes on the field, swarming to the football and tackling in a no doubt manner. Ball hawks. Speed demons who can chase QBs and RBs down, laterally.
The Lions have no two-minute defense. They afford no assurance to an offense that gives them 33 points to work with. They were given 31 points on Thanksgiving against the Houston Texans, and you saw how that turned out, though there were guilty parties on offense that day, to be sure.
The Lions gave up 160 yards worth of offense to the Colts on Indy’s final two drives, which each ended in touchdowns.
They are 4-8 for a reason.

Pistons Fans Again Proving to Be Fair Weather In Nature

Life on the road in the NBA is supposed to be a battle of attrition, fraught with jet lag, living out of suitcases and sleeping in airports. It’s supposed to be filled with games in enemy arenas tilted with unfriendly whistles and acerbic leather lungs in the champagne seats.
There are supposed to be no gimmes on the road in the NBA. Even the dregs of the league can manage to play at least .500 ball in their own building.
That’s the way it is, pretty much, for visiting teams. Until they come to Detroit, er, Auburn Hills.
They’re papering the houses for Pistons games again. Just like they did when the team got dropped off on Detroit’s porch by owner Fred Zollner in 1957, when he moved his Pistons from Fort Wayne, IN.
First at Olympia Stadium, then at Cobo Arena, the Pistons would be lucky to fill a third of the building. Phony attendance figures would be announced over the PA. Even among the puny crowds, a good portion of them got in for free or at reduced rates, thanks to all the coupons floating around town.
When the Pistons grew up enough to build their own basketball Palace back in 1988, it was thought that the days of papering the houses were long gone.
But the franchise has returned to its old ways.
They’re not counting too good at the Palace, and it’s getting embarrassing.
The Palace can’t possibly afford the Pistons much in the way of a home court advantage these days. It’s too quiet, too polite an atmosphere. Once again the building is less than half full, like the old days of Pistons basketball, when the shorts had buckles and the socks were wool and sagging.
The attendance figures are again papering the house. The other night against thePhoenix Suns, the public address announced a crowd of 10,000-plus. Like the old joke goes, maybe there were 10,000 people—but 7,000 came disguised as empty seats.
I watched the game on television, and try as you might as a director in the production truck, you can’t hide empty seats—especially when they were in as long supply as they were that night. No offense to the ladies, but the crowd looked like that of a WNBAgame.
The Pistons would make a basket, make a defensive stop, do something else good—and there was plenty of good in the 117-77 romp—and the efforts would be greeted with polite applause. Golf claps, if you will.
Fans dotted the landscape at generous distances from each other, as if everyone had consumed garlic for dinner. It was a good night if you had to get up often to run to the bathroom or the refreshment stand, or merely stretch out.
Yet the Pistons had the gall and audacity to announce a crowd of over 10,000 on a night when the fans could hear the players talk—and vice versa. Maybe they counted everyone twice, to be safe.
This was Pistons basketball, some 45 to 50 years ago, when Cobo was visited by only the most curious, and sometimes for free. They announced phony crowds back then, too.
I never thought those days would return.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, because once again, Detroit is proving itself to be a front-running town when it comes to pro basketball.
Two of the loudest venues I’ve ever experienced, however, have involved Pistons games.
They were 20 years apart.
The first was in April 1984, at Joe Louis Arena. First round of the playoffs—the Pistons first appearance in the postseason in seven years. The fifth and deciding game—the night Isiah Thomas went crazy against the New York Knicks, scoring 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation in a game in which the Pistons lost in overtime.
JLA was as loud that night as I’ve heard it for Red Wings playoff games—and I’m including Stanley Cup Finals tilts.
The crowd was spellbound by the drama being played out on the court, in a game that would decide the series—Bernard King of the Knicks seemingly going 1-on-1 with Isiah Thomas, the other eight players on the court merely place setters, bit players on stage.
The other occasion of loudness took place two decades later—Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals, at the Palace. The Pistons were manhandling the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, on their way to a third league championship.
The Palace reverberated. If you wanted to think, you couldn’t hear yourself doing so. Ididn’t know that building could be so loud—and I’d attended rock concerts there as well.
But those were shrieking crowds pulling for playoff contenders. Not papered houses, and the term “fair-weather fans” comes to mind.
Detroit, from the moment the Pistons showed up, kicking and screaming on the city’s doorstep, has never truly been a basketball town. It never will be. Detroit, when it comes to its pro basketball, is a front-runner’s town. The fans have been fair weather since 1957.
Ah, 1957.
That’s the last time the Lions won a championship. It’s been 55 years, and in that time, the Lions have won a grand total of one playoff game. One.
There have been winless seasons, and seasons nearly so. There have been poor coaching hires, bad drafting and the handing over of the team’s reins to a color analyst.
Yet the Lions need only to open the doors at Ford Field and the place will be packed on Sundays. And on Thanksgiving Day. The folks here can’t get enough of its football, the same way a masochist can’t get enough lashes with a whip.
The Red Wings have a fan base deeply rooted and passed down by generations. It's a core group that has never abandoned its team, even in the darkest days—and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, those days were dark indeed, and they couldn’t all be blamed on Ned Harkness, whose name formed an unfortunate rhyme.
Mention the Tigers and folks’ hearts naturally warm. The mention will invoke memories of first visits to Tiger (or Briggs) Stadium; of family and Boy Scouts outings; first dates; the thrill of seeing Kaline, Cash, ColavitoLolichFreehanMcLain, Gibson, Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell et al doing their thing in their creamy white uniforms with the Old English D branded over their hearts.
No fair-weather baseball fans here. No sir.
The Pistons, today, are losers. They are trying desperately to remake themselves on the fly, so as not to be tagged with that dreaded “rebuilding” label. Rebuilding smacks of years and years of suffering. But the fans won’t be fooled. They know how far away the years of playoff contention and shrieking for winners are, and those days aren’t exactly right around the corner.
So the Palace is half empty, at least, on most nights, while the 10 players do their thing on the court. Detroit can open its wallets and its hearts to losers in the other sports, but not with the Pistons.
Some say the detachment is due to geography. The Pistons should move back downtown, they say. I think you could plop a Pistons game across the street from some of the so-called fans here, but if the team is losing, they won’t bother to make the walk.
The Pistons have been Detroit’s redheaded stepchild and always will be.
Fair-weather fans!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lions' Lack of Discipline, Calm Directly Tied to Schwartz

Vince Lombardi is dead. Mike Ditka has faded away.
Bill Belichick is all the rage. Mike McCarthy lives on.
The Lions, the team that can’t shoot straight and hasn’t since 1957, is once againzigging when the league’s winners are zagging.
They are a team wound tight, and it all starts with their coach.
Lombardi and Ditka, two larger-than-life coaches, were godfathers of their time. There was no coach in the NFL that could evade the shadow cast by Lombardi in the 1960s, a decade he and his Green Bay Packers owned.
“What the HELL is going on out there?” Lombardi bellows even today from the sidelines, his immortal self still pumped through our televisions thanks to NFL Films. “You’re supposed to be a helluva defensive team! Didn’t look like it to me! Eighty yards down the field, just like that!”
“Nobody’s tackling out there! Everybody’s grabbing. NOBODY tackling. Grab, grab, grab!”
It’s forever iconic—Lombardi on the sidelines, in his winter coat and hat, gap-toothed and angry as his defense jogs off after surrendering a long scoring drive. Wanna bet that the Packers won the game anyway?
Ditka, aka Iron Mike, is also forever captured on celluloid and stamped on our consciousness. Chomping on his gum, Ditka gets in the faces of Richard Dent, SteveMcMichael, Jim McMahon and at whoever else Iron Mike wants to rattle his saber.
Like Lombardi in the ‘60s, Ditka was the coach with the big shadow in the 1980s. His Bearsonly won one Super Bowl in the decade, but his teams were always contenders and his 1985 squad might be among the Top 5 teams in NFL history.
Lombardi and Ditka were coaches wound tight at a time when that worked. They were rah-rah and fiery and the Knute Rocknes of their time, when Knute Rockne was still relevant even in death.
That was then.
Having a head coach that is a loose cannon isn’t what works in today’s NFL.
Belichick, the New England Patriots coach since 2000, would come in last in a Mister Congeniality Contest. He has the personality of mold. You’ll find better quotes from a frog.
McCarthy, today’s Packers coach, is the anti-Lombardi. McCarthy doesn’t toss his rolled up play sheet to the ground. He doesn’t bark. He hasn’t uttered any iconic quotes and never will. Whereas Lombardi looked like a football coach, McCarthy could be your next door neighbor who borrows your lawn mower. Probably even the one who loans you his.
Boring works in today’s NFL. Staid is the way. A general calm, from top to bottom, is what today’s winning franchises exude.
Today’s winners don’t bitch about not getting respect, especially when none is deserved.
The Lions are a team wound tight, in a freefall from their brief stay at respectability. If you want to finger point, you can skip the 53 guys in uniform and zero in on their coach, Jim Schwartz.
This is a guy who can’t even get through a post-game handshake without a hockey game breaking out.
I’ve been a supporter of Schwartz’s, and with good reason. He took a team from the abyss of 0-16 and gradually and steadily improved them, going from two wins in his first season to six in his second to 10 (and a playoff berth) in his third.
But going 2-14 and 6-10 and 10-6 (plus a first round playoff knockout) is one thing. Being consistently good and being spoken of in annual Super Bowl contender discussions is quite another.
Teams like the Patriots, Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens et al, teams who always seem to have 10+ wins every year and show up annually to the NFL playoff party, are franchises rooted in calm and which have cool heads from top to bottom.
They don’t act impetuously. Their players don’t whine to the media, or run afoul of the law or the league’s rules. Their coaches don’t act like raving lunatics.
If the Lions are going to be more than occasional (read: flukey) playoff participants, they have to calm the heck down.
They have to stop stewing about lack of respect, as center Dominic Raiola did before last Sunday’s game against the Packers. The (then) 4-5 Lions, Raiola felt, weren’t getting any love from national media websites who were dismissing his team’s playoff chances. He dared to compare the Lions to the also 4-5 New Orleans Saints.
“But then the Saints are 4-5 and they’re right in the hunt,” Raiola told the Detroit Free Press. “How the (bleep) does that work out? I don’t know. Whatever. We’re 4-5, too. So they’re basically writing us off.”
The Saints won the Super Bowl three years ago. They have been winners for several years running. The Lions have one playoff win in 55 years. And still Raiola wonders why the Saints’ 4-5 isn’t treated the same as the Lions’ 4-5.
When was the last time you heard a player from the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Ravenset al complain about a lack of respect?
Raiola was at it again earlier this week, after the Lions imploded against the Packers and before the 9-1 Houston Texans came to town for the annual Thanksgiving Day game. He was speaking about Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who is having a remarkable season.
“Bring it,” Raiola dared Watt through the media.
So Watt brung it, to the tune of three sacks, several quarterback hurries, five tackles and a couple of batted down passes. And the Lions lost.
The Lions, against the Texans, let another game slip away largely because of a gaffe committed by their head coach that was borderline incompetent.
Schwartz tried to challenge a touchdown scored by Houston running back Justin Forsett, an 81-yard gallop that should have been nullified by virtue of the fact that Forsett was clearly down according to TV cameras, yet the officials’ whistles didn’t blow. A booth review, automatic on all scoring plays, surely would have called the touchdown back.
But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.
Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”
But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.
“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.
The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.
Just like their coach.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

With Stafford & Co., OK For Lions to Be Pass-Happy

Wayne Fontes, the moon-faced, chubby Lions coach from 20+ years ago, had been on the job for only a few months in early-1989 when he had a plan.

Fontes had taken over the Lions from Darryl Rogers, which was like taking over Japan after Hiroshima.

The Lions were a sickly, offensively-challenged platoon in 1988, when Rogers was given the ziggy in November and replaced with Fontes, his defensive coordinator.

It was Bill Ford, the owner, who levied the stinging indictment against Rogers after announcing his cashiering.
“We’re boring,” Ford complained to the media guys.

No one argued.

Fontes had five games with which to prove himself in 1988, the Lions 2-9 at the time of Rogers’ dismissal. 

Fontes was saddled with that tag of “interim,” which was usually code for “After the season, you’ll never see this chump again.”

But that didn’t stop Fontes from trying his hardest with his five-game contract.

He brought in former NFL quarterback Lynn Dickey to work with the offense and impart his pass-happy wisdom to Lions starting signal caller Rusty Hilger.

The Lions won two of their final five games, and even though both wins were over awful Green Bay, the Lions played the very good Bears very tough in Chicago, and it was all enough to show Ford that Fontes didn’t need the interim label any longer.

Fontes returned Ford’s generosity with a big old bear hug in front of the local TV cameras and ink-stained wretches.

Not long after being named the real coach of the Lions, Fontes went to work on that whole “boring” thing that his owner crabbed about in discussing Darryl Rogers.

First, Fontes drafted a running back, Barry Sanders from Oklahoma State. As good as Barry was in college, no one could have predicted the greatness that he would embody for the next 10 years.

His running back in place, Fontes went against NFL form and decided that he would build an offense not necessarily around the running game, but around the pass.

A strange idea, indeed, considering Fontes had the best running back on any college campus in America set to don the Honolulu Blue and Silver in 1989.

Undaunted, Fontes looked at the Houston Oilers, a pretty good NFL team, and became enamored with the Oilers’ offense, which placed one runner in the backfield, four receivers spread out, and which eschewed a tight end.

Fontes, a defensive coach to the core, thought through the prism of an opposing defensive coordinator. With someone as dynamic as Sanders in the backfield, what would be nightmarish?

So Fontes decided to copy the Oilers’ pass-happy offense, leaving Sanders to do his thing against defenses spread out to guard against all those pass receivers.

They called it the Run-n-Shoot, and while Sanders took care of the Run part, the Lions weren’t nearly as good at the Shoot.

Fontes had his receivers, but they weren’t exactly Pro Bowl in quality, like the Oilers had in Houston. And Fontes’ quarterback, rookie Rodney Peete, was no Warren Moon of Houston.

But Fontes tried. He did succeed on one point: the Lions weren’t boring any longer. Peete and the other QB, Bob Gagliano, flung the football all over the field, with various degrees of success. And Sanders was a one-man highlight reel; never before did fans ooh and ahh over a three-yard loss, as they did with Barry.

The Lions scored as never before, but their leaky defense turned many games into shootouts. Still, the Lions made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991 and 1995. They weren’t boring, that’s for sure.

The Lions ran various versions of the Run-n-Shoot for most of Fontes’ tenure as Lions coach (1988-96). Not only were the Lions not boring anymore, some folks even worried that they scored too fast, thus not giving the defense time to catch its breath.

The Lions under Fontes had a supreme running back and a few good receivers here and there but never could come up with “that” quarterback, the same old refrain four decades running.

Today’s Lions are just a few weeks away from Opening Sunday, 2012. They are the exact opposite of Fontes’ Barry Sanders teams.

The Lions of today are a premier passing unit, among the best in the league. And they have more question marks at running back than the Riddler’s costume.

In the Run-n-Shoot days of the 1990s, the Lions tried to be a high octane passing team, sometimes at the expense of their best weapon, Sanders.

If I was an opposing defensive coordinator back then, I’d have looked to the heavens and said thank you every time Sanders didn’t touch the football.

It’s called playing to your strength, no matter what the Pro Football Handbook might say about striking a balance between running and passing.

The football handbook people are wringing their hands over this year’s Lions. They look at the running game and worry that it can’t crank out enough yards to keep defenses honest.


With Matthew Stafford throwing and Calvin Johnson catching, plus all the other competent receivers on the roster, it really won’t matter if the Lions run the football well or not.

The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.

Why force feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?

It makes no sense.

It makes no sense to suppress Stafford and Co., because great players make great plays, whether the other team is stacked to stop it or not.

The Lions ought to play to their strength. They ought not to worry so much about running the football.
In a perfect football world, you’d gain four yards on a first down running play, all game long. But life isn’t perfect, and neither is any football team.

The Wayne Fontes Detroit Lions force fed the Run-n-Shoot when they didn’t really have the proper personnel, other than the best running back on the planet.

The Lions of today would be foolish to run the football for the sake of running it, when they possess a passer like Stafford and receivers like Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew.

It makes no sense.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lions' Hanson Still Kicking After All These Years

It’s fitting, really, that the Detroit Lions, lovers of tumult for decades, should have stability at a position that doesn’t even really qualify as a football player.

Since Jimmy Carter was president, the Lions have employed two full-time place kickers. Two.

Eddie Murray arrived as a rookie in 1980, and 12 years later, Murray was usurped by Jason Hanson, a rookie from Washington State.

Today, Hanson is 42 years old and is about to begin his 21st season of sidewinding his right leg toward an oblong pigskin for the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

Not that he’s a football player, any more than Henny Youngman was a violinist or Elvis Presley was an actor.

Hanson isn’t a football player, but in twisted irony that proves God has a sense of humor, he has been the most consistent of anyone wearing a Lions uniform since first suiting up in Chicago back in September 1992.

You want proof that Hanson isn’t a football player? Just look at his face.

With the exception of a hairline that has retreated more than the Italian Army, Hanson looks pretty much now as he did when he was a rookie 20 years ago.

A real football player, had he been able to survive in the NFL for two decades, would have facial skin as tough as a dime steak, a beard like sandpaper and would creak when he walks. He’d have more concussions than teeth.

Yet there Hanson is during Lions games and practices in his football costume, holding his helmet absently and sighing, acting like an adolescent bored at his grandmother’s house, and whether you choose to believe it or not, he’s a paid NFL player.

Hanson is not only not a football player; he’s an exception to the rule.

Few kickers in league history have enjoyed the job security that Hanson has since 1992 with the Lions.

More times than you can count, the shelf life of an NFL kicker is shorter than a gallon of milk. It’s the ultimate what have you done for me lately? job in sports. Kickers make hockey goalies look as entrenched as Supreme Court Justices.

A kicker can find himself in several training camps—in one month. He can be signed on a Thursday, flown in on a Friday, kicking in a game on Sunday and, if the wind doesn’t go his way or the laces aren’t spun just right or the snap is a little low, can be back in his hometown on Monday night, jobless yet again.

Have leg, will travel.

But not Jason Hanson.

Hanson not only has been the Lions’ kicker since 1992, he hasn’t had any serious competition for his job since then. The guys who have kicked in Hanson’s stead have done so only because injury has necessitated the Lions bringing in an understudy.

Even when Dave Rayner kicked for the Lions in 2010 and did a fine job filling in for the injured Hanson, who was then 40 years old, there wasn’t really any serious threat to Hanson’s job.

Usually, when the Lions have brought in a kicker during training camp, that guy’s job amounted to little more than giving Hanson a fellow kicker with whom to talk. By the end of camp, the other guy was sent packing, his chances of unseating Hanson about as good as you hitting the lotto.

It’s a great gig Hanson has had since 1992, so it’s no wonder that he’s in no hurry to give it up.

"I'm working so that my goal is, if I'm going to play, to show up and have them be like, 'He's the same',” Hanson told the Free Press’s Carlos Monarrez this week. “And if ever that day comes where it's not, then maybe I'll be fishing in the fall. But it's not going to be this year. And that's always just been my goal, to make sure I can still kick like I always have."

Let’s be clear—Hanson’s job security hasn’t been charity by the Lions. Kickers don’t stay in the league for 21 years, much less for the same team, unless they can kick the stuffing out of the football, with accuracy. Hanson has earned his keep.

And he has a message for those who think his leg has lost too much of its thump.

"I still have the distance we need, I think,” he told Monarrez. “(My length) won't limit us in any way. I can still hit the long ball when we need it."

He hit it last year, when Hanson connected on 5-of-7 from 50-plus yards, a 71.4 accuracy rating that put him in the top 10 in the league.

The problem with Hanson has been that there’s been too much Hanson.

Actually, you don’t mind seeing Hanson trotting onto the field, except that it’s too often been to kick field goals instead of extra points. That changed dramatically in 2011, when the Lions’ Silver Bullet offense emerged as one of the most lethal in the league.

Hanson kicked a lot of extra points last season—54 of them, by far a season high for him. It was the Year of the Anomaly.

Usually, Hanson has been the symbol of both the Lions’ ineptitude and his own success. The more the Lions offense has sputtered, the more we saw Hanson, kicking field goals. And the more he kicked field goals, the more we marveled at his consistency and cursed his teammates’ deficiencies.

For years during the Black Hole of the Matt Millen years, Lions fans looked at Hanson and saw the best player on the team—which is ironic because, as has been determined, he’s not a football player. No kicker truly is.

Now, with the offense finally coming around, maybe the Lions won’t need all those 50-plus-yard kicks. But Hanson doesn’t want to turn into some sort of short-yardage specialist, kicking style.

“I'd rather have them cut me than have them have me do that," he told Monarrez of being looked at as a short-distance kicker. "That's my attitude. If it came to that, I don't know, maybe I'd be like, 'Well, I can still kick under 45.' But I don't want any part of that.”

Spoken like a true football player—even if he isn’t one.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lions Must Control Themselves If They Want to Just Win, Baby

They wore black, like all the bad guys in the Westerns. They had a player everyone called Big Ben who wore a handlebar mustache and who spoke with a voice that sounded like it was coming out of a cement mixer.

They had a bald guy named Otis Sistrunk, who looked like someone with a name like Otis Sistrunk. They had a craggy, old gunslinger, George Blanda, who John Wayne might have played.

The collection of nicknames read like a proper gang of bad guys. The Mad Bomber. The Stork. The Assassin. The Snake.

They were coached by big, fat John Madden, because every group of henchmen is led by someone they call Mr. Big, right?

The owner, Al Davis, wore slick-backed hair and jewelry and sunglasses and he said “Just Win, Baby!” and he was out of Central Casting, too—as the Money Man who wanted to win at all costs.

They were the Oakland Raiders, and their reign of terror in the NFL lasted about 20 years, from 1970-90, until the franchise kind of lost their way—and their edge.

Davis yanked the Raiders from Oakland in 1982 and relocated them in Los Angeles, but that didn’t change their countenance. It wasn’t like the beach mellowed them.

The Raiders were the NFL’s Bad Boys, with apologies to the Detroit Pistons. There was an aura about them. Davis instilled what he called a Commitment to Excellence to the franchise, which operated like a rogue college program—if that program was committed to not only excellence but to absorbing other schools’ ruffians.

Davis operated as if he wasn’t happy unless his team’s roster was full of the kookiest players in the league. His franchise welcomed the downtrodden, the castaways, the washed up. The Raiders made it a habit of trading for or signing players other teams wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Jim Plunkett was a two-time loser, a ballyhooed quarterback out of Stanford University who was drafted first overall in 1971 to be the savior of the New England (nee Boston) Patriots. He failed. He was shipped back to northern California in 1976, to resurrect the San Francisco 49ers, still searching for a QB several years after the retirement of John Brodie.

Plunkett failed again, this time miserably, with the 49ers.

Typical of Davis, he looked at Plunkett and saw opportunity where others saw bust. In 1978, Davis brought Plunkett across the Bay to play for the Raiders, looking for someone to replace the aging and departed Kenny Stabler.

Plunkett, the two-time loser, became a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Raiders deep into his 30s, capturing the Lombardi Trophy in 1981 and 1984 (at age 36).

Davis brought maniacal defensive end Lyle Alzado, then 33, over from Cleveland in 1982 when it looked like Alzado’s career was on the decline. Alzado, like so many Raiders before and after him, was revived in Silver and Black.

The Raiders were penalized a lot, but that was OK because they were good enough to overcome them. Davis always constructed a team built around the pass, a carryover from the wild, wide open days of the AFL, which never met a fly pattern it didn’t like.

What Al Davis’s Raiders did was intimidate players and officials alike, as they snarled and didn’t just win, baby—they pillaged.

But what the Raiders didn’t do, despite having more ne’er do-wells on their roster than any other NFL team on an annual basis, was run afoul of the law.

The league rules? Those were bent like a Gumby doll. But the criminal justice system? Even the Raiders knew better than to take on the police and the courts.

The Detroit Lions, modern day version, are doing it all wrong.

Where the Raiders in their heyday were sly and stealth in their sometimes disregard for the rulebook, the Lions are about as subtle as a bull in a china shop. Where the Raiders made the record books, the Lions are making the police blotter.

Where the Raiders intimidated, the Lions are mocked and ridiculed for their apparent lack of self-control—on and off the field.

The longest off-season in Lions history is mercifully over. Training camp has begun, the NFL’s version of prison.

It was an arresting off-season, literally and figuratively, for the Lions. The team had more mug shots than photo shoots. Their players posted more bail than a 1970s rock band.

This off-season came on the heels of a 2011 season that, while playoff worthy, was also rife with undisciplined and just plain stupid play on the field.

Naturally, some of the Lions players want to channel all this negativity and take the hackneyed approach of “us against the world,” and use it as a motivator.

Again, wrong, wrong, wrong.

In case the Lions haven’t noticed, the rest of the league is not impressed with the Lions’ “bad boy” image.

Green Bay star receiver Greg Jennings, a product of Western Michigan University, recently openly wondered whether the Lions have what it takes upstairs to be a winning unit on the field. Jennings was pessimistic about the Lions’ chances of being disciplined enough on Sundays to ascend to division champion.

Jennings is not alone.

The folks who predict that the Lions will take a step back in 2012 from their 10-6 playoff season of 2011, say so because they, like Jennings, wonder about the Lions between the ears.

The good news is that the off-season nonsense is not—repeat, not—a reflection of coach Jim Schwartz, GM Martin Mayhew, owner Bill Ford or anyone else in the Lions organization.

At worst, the Lions are paying the price for perhaps recklessly acquiring players with suspect pasts. At best, the Lions’ off-season of Arrested Development is a fluke that could have happened to any team in the league.

The off-season is over with, and I say training camp couldn’t have come soon enough. But the Lions’ fate in 2012 won’t have a lick to do with how they helped keep the fingerprint ink people in business between January and July.

Their success (or lack thereof) will be tied to how they handle themselves on the field, between the ears, every Sunday.

The Oakland/LA Raiders of “Just Win, Baby” and a Commitment to Excellence may have been the NFL’s Bad Boys, but they were also crazy like a fox. The Raiders won because they learned to channel their aggression so that they could be successful with it, instead of in spite of it.

It’s a nuance that the 2012 Lions will have to master if they want to do in Honolulu Blue and Silver what the Raiders did in Silver and Black.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Paterno's Role in Cover-Up Forever Stains PSU Football

What I’d like to know is how Joe Paterno could even look at Jerry Sandusky for 14 years, let alone be a friend and confidante.

Oh the questions I’d like Paterno to take a crack at, if he were here to do so, instead of buried six feet under, along with his conscience.

Where was the little voice in your head, Joe? Where were all this character and leadership and purity that your former Penn State players insisted you had?

How could you work along side a predatory monster? Where did all the righteousness go?

Did you drive home on certain nights and ponder Sandusky and the atrocities he was doing to children within your hallowed halls? Did you wonder how you could wake up and face Sandusky’s phoniness for another day?

Did you think of your own grandchildren, Joe? Did you wonder what you’d feel if it were your grandkids who were getting penetrated up the rectum by a sick old man?

Were you at peace with yourself and your carefully plotted campaign of misdirection and concealment, going way back to 1998 when you were first informed of Sandusky’s acts of horror in your hall’s showers?

Forget how you could look at Sandusky, Joe—how could you look at yourself?

Paterno, the long time Penn State football coach who comes out smelling like the opposite of a rose in former FBI director Louie Freeh’s recently released report on the sexual monster and assistant coach Sandusky, is dead. The man who was endearingly called JoePa has taken to his grave the answers to my questions and many others.

Paterno, in death, will forever haunt us. Never again can we speak of him, look at a photo of him, or even watch another PSU football game without our minds shooting back to the sexual predator Sandusky and how Paterno—according to Freeh’s report—was at or near the top of ringleaders who chose to protect one man in the name of also protecting a bleeping football program, instead of all those kids who were being raped and otherwise abused.

Prior to Freeh’s report, especially since Paterno had passed away, there was that old benefit of the doubt that was being offered to the coach’s legacy. You know, that thing of not speaking ill of the dead.

That sheath of impunity is gone now. Paterno and his legacy are fair game. Take your shots. It’s your turn to have impunity.

There’s little that one can say about Paterno in the wake of Freeh’s report that could be considered gauche or inappropriate.

If Paterno was Bob Knight, or Woody Hayes, or hell even Nick Saban, there’d be a bunch of us who would gleefully participate in his ruination. It would be “ding dong, the witch is dead.”

But there was not really anything to dislike or to hate on when it came to Penn State football.

Paterno did not inspire anyone to say an ill word about him. He was that old man with glasses and a big nose who coached the team with the plain blue and white uniforms in a place called Happy Valley, of all things.

Penn State did not win enough to be the Yankees of college football, so rooting for them was not like rooting for U.S. Steel, as comedian Joe E. Brown once said of being a Bronx Bombers supporter.

Penn State was just…there. Theirs was a traditionally solid program, yes, but they were hard to hate, impossible, really. They won eight or nine games a year and went to some sort of bowl but rarely played for anything of value.

Penn State, under Paterno, was known for two things, mainly: the ridiculously simple uniforms and spitting out NFL-caliber linebackers.

The Nittany Lions would occasionally send a star running back (Franco Harris, Curt Warner) or a quarterback (Todd Blackledge) to the pros, but linebacker was their position of pride. Guys like Jack Ham, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington and yes, even our old friend Matt Millen are just a few of those who came from “Linebacker U.”

Who can hate a school that produces linebackers?

Paterno and his football program were not ones to despise or be jealous of. This was especially true as the coach got older and the voice got raspier and harder to hear without straining your ears.

Paterno moved through his 60s and 70s and as he did, there was not a whiff of scandal or cheating or anything that suggested anything untoward was happening on campus, as it related to the football program.

He got older and he became every college football fan’s grandfather. Paterno hit his 80s and by that time he, at worst, was pitied for his advanced age; at best he was lionized—no pun intended—for being a living legend.

None of us could have suspected the disgusting, filthy acts taking place in the place called Happy Valley.

Paterno’s big nose came in handy for Sandusky, because under it was happening, for 14 years, the abuse of children and the ensuing cover up.

A cover up that Freeh says included Paterno as more than a wingman—more than a pathetic, Mr. Magoo-like character.

This was Paterno being shockingly rotten to the core, devoid of character and without scruples. Freeh’s report portrays Paterno as a sort of football Godfather who was not to be trifled with and who wielded more power in his pinky than the entire Penn State administration appeared to possess in their whole, cowardly bodies.

And Sandusky—let’s not forget he was the convicted perp, not Paterno—kept drawing a check as a member of Paterno’s wise guys, even while the head man knew that Sandusky had a thing for young boys.
This is tragic to the nth degree. At once, a football coaching legend, his legacy and the school he represented have all come crashing down under the weight of the worst kind of sexual scandal.

This now follows Penn State, just as Watergate followed Nixon and as steroids follow Bonds. Right or wrong, the football players who don the blue and white at PSU will forever be linked to a coach who put “the program” in front of child welfare and who protected a predator over the helpless.

Happy Valley, eh?

Sunday, July 08, 2012

For Once, Red Wings + $$ Don't = Free Agent du Jour

Since when did Hockeytown turn into the Second City?

What is happening here? The Red Wings being left at the altar? GM Kenny Holland having to return Mike Ilitch his checkbook?

No press conference? No blood red jersey with the name SUTER or PARISE stitched on the back in that very Red Wings font?

What free agent says no to the Red Wings? Who looks at 21 straight years in the playoffs, four Stanley Cups since 1997 (and almost a fifth), more tradition than Christmas, a packed house every night and says, “Thanks but no thanks”?

Who looks at Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and says there’s not enough to work with here? Who looks at Danny Cleary and Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi and decides there aren’t enough role players?

Or is it what they’re looking for and not seeing?

Nicklas Lidstrom? Well, he’s retired. This is true.

Brad Stuart? Gone, to San Jose. California kid returns home.

Jiri Hudler? Twenty-five goal scorer, off like a cheap suit, to the netherworld of Calgary.

The Red Wings lost out on the top two free agents of the class of 2012—winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter—after both of them chose to sign with the Minnesota Wild.

The Minnesota Wild?

Since when do the Red Wings lose out to the Minnesota Wild? Since when does anyone?

It’s like ice cream losing out to spinach. The high school quarterback losing the girl to the class nerd. The Israeli Army losing out to the Italians.

The headline should read “Sun to Set in East.”

The Red Wings would never say it publicly, but when Holland, special advisor Chris Chelios and owner Ilitch flew to Suter’s Wisconsin farm to give the official Hockeytown How Do last week, armed with a hefty contract offer and a diamond stick pen, they likely expected Suter to fly back with them.

Instead, Suter heard everything the Red Wings' brass had to offer, looked over the 13-year, $90 million job offer, and said, “I’ll call you.”

As for Parise, the Red Wings made a pitch to him, too, but it was Suter into whom they were putting forth their best effort and faith.

It should have been a red flag—no pun intended—when Suter wasn’t a Red Wing by the end of the first day of free agency (July 1). In fact, it should have been a red flag that the Red Wings had to board a plane.

In the salad days of acquiring other teams’ defects, the Red Wings looked at their watch, waited for 12:01 a.m. to hit and placed a phone call to the agent of their quarry.

Back then, the player boarded a plane, not the Red Wings.

Yet here were the Red Wings, flying out to Wisconsin—Wisconsin!—playing the role of Suter’s suitor to help them absorb the loss of Lidstrom. They brought it all except a dozen roses and a 10-pound box of chocolates.

Suter and Parise, both with family connections to Minnesota (Parise’s dad, Jean-Paul, played for the North Stars in the 1970s), went with the Wild.

“We lost out to family,” Holland said. “It’s hard to beat out family,” and you wondered if he was trying to convince the press or himself.

Ahh, family, shmamily.

Did Luc Robitaille, with roots planted in southern California deeper than the black hole, let something silly like family stop him from signing with the Red Wings in 2001? Lucky Luc, with a singer/model/wife whose career screamed Hollywood, considered one thing and one thing only: Where can I get a Stanley Cup?

That’s why they all came to Hockeytown.

That’s why Brett Hull came, the same summer as Robitaille. Hull won a Cup with the 1999 Dallas Stars and wanted that feeling one more time before he retired.

That’s why Curtis Joseph came, the superstar goalie who signed in 2002, trying to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail for the first time in his brilliant career.

The Red Wings didn’t need but a few hours of free-agent time to land big defenseman and hometown kid Derian Hatcher (Sterling Heights) in 2003, the 6’5” behemoth who left the Stars so he could win another Cup, in Detroit.

The list goes on and on.

The Red Wings didn’t have to work as hard, with all of them combined, as they had to work to get Suter. And they still lost out.

The family thing is a convenient out for Holland and the Red Wings organization when it comes to missing out on the two biggest fish in the 2012 free-agent sea.

But family hasn’t mattered in so many past free-agent signings the Red Wings have orchestrated.

The Red Wings, since appearing in the 2009 Cup Finals, haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs. This spring, they had the ignominy of being the first team drummed out of the postseason, lasting a measly five games against the Nashville Predators, of all teams.

They lost Lidstrom to retirement, Stuart to—you guessed it—family as well.

Players are retiring and fleeing the Good Ship Red Wing; are they doing it because they sense a capsizing?

Did Suter and Parise look at the Red Wings’ chances for a Stanley Cup in the near future and not see anything that they couldn’t see with half a dozen other teams?

The Minnesota Wild haven’t made the playoffs since 2008—and that was just their third time since joining the NHL in 2000. They have been, until signing Suter and Parise, one of the NHL’s most irrelevant franchises.

But the Wild beat the Red Wings in this free-agent frenzy. Dewey defeated Truman this time.

This is foreign soil for the Red Wings. They almost don’t know how to react. In the past, money + Red Wings has = player of their choice.

Not this time.

So cancel the press conferences. Hold off on the jersey stitching. Put the checkbook away—it won’t be needed.

The Red Wings put up a goose egg. Suter and Parise threw a shutout at them.

It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. Because, for two decades, it hasn’t.

Hey, Hey, Hockeytown—there are at least two stars who don’t think you’re so nifty. Stick that in your five hole.