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.

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