Monday, June 25, 2012

Lions Suddenly Model of Consistency in Today's NFL

Roger Staubach stood at the rostrum at his Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio in 1985 and addressed the crowd. He was barking out signals one last time.

But this was no football huddle, and the play that Staubach was calling moved him to tears.

Staubach, the legendary Dallas Cowboys QB, found his voice quaking and his lower lip trembling when his list of thank yous finally came down to his coach. “That man in the funny hat,” Staubach managed, before emotions overwhelmed him and he had to pause to regain composure.

Tom Landry, the man in the funny hat, was the only NFL coach Staubach had. Heck, Landry was the only coach any Dallas Cowboy had, if that player’s career spanned any period from 1960 to 1988.

The relationship between quarterback and coach in the NFL, if allowed to progress for any longer than a couple of years, is not unlike that of husband and wife. There’s arguing, rolling of eyes, tears and ecstasy. There’s name-calling, yelling and hugs. Then, eventually, there’s often divorce.

Staubach and Landry experienced all of the above, including divorce, albeit retirement-induced. Landry continued to coach the Cowboys for nine more years after Staubach hung up his right arm following the 1979 season.

After Staubach, Landry was married to Danny White. Before Staubach, the coach was hitched to Dandy Don Meredith. Before Meredith, Landry’s football spouse was tiny Eddie LeBaron, all of 5’7”, who needed a step ladder in order to read defenses.

The Cowboys’ continued success, after their growing pains of the early-1960s passed, was because of remarkable consistency in their organizational chart. The Cowboys operated for nearly three decades with Tex Schramm running the show from the top of the chart, Gil Brandt manning the scouting department, and Tom Landry coaching the players afforded him by the first two.

The Cowboys didn’t change anything when that trio formed the team’s football pyramid.

The helmets didn’t change; the blue Lone Star on silver was the same helmet worn from Meredith to Hogeboom, from Lilly to Jeffcoat, from Hayes to Pearson. The white jerseys didn’t change. The fact that the Cowboys were the only team to wear white for every home game didn’t change.

The philosophy on both sides of the football didn’t change. Landry’s famously intricate defenses especially didn’t change.

Yet all of that consistency met its match with the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s.

Landry’s Cowboys went up against Vince Lombardi’s Packers twice in the NFL Championship Game (1966 and ’67) and came up short both times. The latter came during the famous Ice Bowl game on New Year’s Eve, 1967.

The Packers had their own consistency going; Lombardi and QB Bart Starr formed another famous married couple, another relationship filled with head butting and challenges and respectful disdain.

In the AFL, the Oakland Raiders, in the latter part of the ’60s, were forming their own powerhouse platoon, led by their irascible, bombastic owner Al Davis.

Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, a discard of the Buffalo Bills, came to Oakland and Davis, through his coaches, turned Lamonica loose with an offense that was a precursor to the video games of today: have Lamonica fade back five steps and heave the football as far as he could. It was an offense that earned the quarterback the moniker of The Mad Bomber.

John Madden took over as coach in 1969 and he and Lamonica, then he and Kenny Stabler, provided the coach-and-quarterback consistency so vital to NFL success.

Davis, the Raiders’ common denominator all by himself, presided over one AFL Championship and four Super Bowl titles.

The cause and effect of franchise consistency can be found all over the history of the NFL.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s had one coach (Chuck Noll) and one quarterback (Terry Bradshaw). The San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s had one coach (Bill Walsh, though George Seifert coached the 1989 team) and one QB (Joe Montana). The Cowboys returned to glory in the 1990s with one quarterback (Troy Aikman).

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of research to ascertain that NFL teams who are changing quarterbacks and/or coaches like socks, are likely teams finding themselves at or near the bottom of the standings every year.

The NFL’s dynasties, starting in the 1950s with the Cleveland Browns, can be neatly divided into decades and further identified by coach and quarterback. Cleveland had Paul Brown coaching and Otto Graham quarterbacking. The Packers had Lombardi and Starr. The Steelers had Noll and Bradshaw. The 49ers had Walsh and Montana. The Cowboys had Jimmy Johnson and Aikman (Barry Switzer coached the team to its third Super Bowl win of the 1990s in 1995-96).

All this talk of consistency within a franchise’s org chart is probably making Lions fans’ eyes glaze over, like I’m writing of the components of nuclear physics. Yet it shouldn’t, because something fascinating is happening with the Lions right now.

The team that couldn’t shoot straight when it came to coaching and quarterback hires now has both of those positions locked up as tight as a drum. The 2012 season will be the fourth straight for Jim Schwartz as coach and Matthew Stafford as quarterback. You have to go so far back into the team’s history books to find such a streak that you’d need to blow the dust off before reading about it.

Four years in a row might not sound like a lot, but not since the Lions of the 1950s have they had the same coach and unquestioned starting QB for four straight years (Buddy Parker and Bobby Layne).

While the Packers ruled the 1960s, the Lions were shuffling quarterbacks and coaches. When the Steelers ruled the 1970s, the Lions were shuffling quarterbacks and coaches. When the 49ers ruled the 1980s, the Lions were…well, you get the idea.

It’s both pathetic and amazing to write this, but it’s been almost 60 years since the Lions have been so well set at coach and quarterback, at the same time, as they are now with Schwartz and Stafford.

Schwartz enters 2012 in the last year of his four-year contract, signed in January 2009, just weeks after the Lions finished the first 0-16 season in NFL history. Since then, Schwartz has led the Lions from zero wins to two, two wins to six, and six wins to ten (and a playoff berth). The progress the team has made in terms of wins and losses has been like a checker moving across the board.

Stafford missed large portions of his first two seasons due to injury, but he was still here and he was still the unquestioned no. 1 QB, hurt or not.

The consistency doesn’t end with Schwartz and Stafford. The Lions will begin 2012 also in their fourth straight year with Martin Mayhew as GM, Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator and Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator. That’s consistency not found in every NFL city, just so you know.

So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.

All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.

Funny how that works.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hometown Hero Hearns Lifted Detroiters In the Nick of Time

To the cynical, Joe Louis Arena is aptly named.

Name a hockey arena after a boxer?

Well, you’ve heard the old joke. “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out.”

It’s thought of with a smirk to the old-timer—that the Red Wings play in a building with a prizefighter as its namesake.

Appropriate, also, for a city that has stood from its seats for Howie Young, Dennis Polonich, Dan Maloney, Bobby Probert, Joey Kocur and Darren McCarty. Fighters, all of them, and some of the best who ever laced on gloves—and skates.

And, Joe Louis, of course. Sans the skates.

But on August 2, 1980, they actually held a boxing match in the arena named for a boxer. That was the night that Tommy Hearns got ‘em off their feet.

Detroit roared that evening.

There wasn’t much to cheer about in Detroit sports from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, save the Tigers’ 1984 World Championship. It was mostly a dead decade. Playoffs were either not qualified for or experienced very briefly.

Starting in 1975, the Lions were perpetually .500 or worse. The Tigers were beginning a painful rebuilding project. The Red Wings were awful. The Pistons weren’t much better.

Then along came Tommy Hearns, and finally, there was something to cheer about.

Nothing like a guy with a lethal right hand to bring the city together.

On Sunday, they’re putting Tommy into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. It’s about damn time.

Hearns was a Tennessee kid, born in 1958, the youngest of three children, the product of his mom’s first marriage. Then, she remarried and it was like the Brady Bunch—six more children joined the first three as a result.

Tommy was five when Mrs. Hearns left Grand Junction, TN, and migrated north to Detroit. Note there's no mention here of Tommy’s biological dad.

Growing up in Detroit as an adolescent, Tommy started using his fists—but in the boxing ring. Fortunately, that ring was run by Emanuel Steward of Kronk Gym.

If I had a dime for every time boxing manager/trainer Steward has been referred to by his fighters as a father figure, I could buy Joe Louis Arena and put some money down on Comerica Park.

But it’s true. Emanuel Steward doesn’t just train boxers. He raises them, in some instances. He’s referred to as a father figure in the literal sense; it’s not really a metaphor.

I’ve been to the Steward home, and when I was there, it was the usual: young boxers coming in and out, house guests as well as trainees. Steward has opened his home to more pugilists than a juvenile detention facility.

Tommy Hearns became ensnared, as a teen, by Kronk and its prospects of fame and fortune as a professional fighter. And guess how Tommy describes Steward?

"Emanuel—he’s been like a father to me,” Tommy told Mike Brudenell of the Free Press this week.

“Emanuel to me is the next best thing to a daddy. He taught me everything I know about boxing and living right."

Correction: Emanuel wasn’t the next best thing to Tommy’s daddy—he was, in many respects, Tommy’s daddy.

Mrs. Hearns was a remarkable mom, but it’s too often when kids from the inner city who don’t have that father figure, go sideways. Hearns might have been one of them, if it wasn’t for Steward and Kronk.

"The Kronk has been my life for over 40 years," Tommy told Brudenell. "I have to say, if I wouldn't have got involved with the Kronk, I don't know what I would have done.”

It’s nice not to wonder that, and instead talk about what Tommy did do.

Hearns rose through the ranks as a teen fighting in Kronk’s basement gym with its air as stale as a week-old cigar.

Hearns kept sparring in that gym, slicing his lightning-quick arms through that thick, stale air, eventually capturing the the National Amateur Athletic Union Light Welterweight Championship in 1977. That same year, Tommy also won the National Golden Gloves Light Welterweight Championship.

All this while Detroit’s pro sports teams tripped over themselves, trying to be the worst of the four.

Joe Louis Arena opened in December 1979. A college basketball game featuring the University of Detroit was the initial event. The Red Wings christened it for hockey on December 27. They lost.

A tad over seven months later, on 8/2/80 inside “the Joe,” Tommy Hearns, with Steward providing support in his corner, took on Pipino Cuevas for the WBA World Welterweight belt.

Cuevas was only 22 years old, but he was already the 10-time defending champion in that weight class for the WBA. Cuevas won the belt as an 18-year-old in 1976 and then started making a habit of demolishing any and all challengers. Most of the bouts were so short, you could have bought an ice cream cone and still had some left over when Cuevas’s opponent was being counted out.

Until the night of August 2, 1980.

Hearns, fighting in his adopted hometown, with a full house shrieking their lungs out in JLA, had five inches of height on Cuevas (6’1” to 5’8”). And the extended reach of Hearns’ famously long arms proved fatal to the champ.

Hearns laid a right hand on Cuevas’s jaw that turned the champ’s legs to cooked spaghetti. Cuevas looked like one of those Weeble toys. As soon as the crowd saw what was happening, the roar was deafening.

Then, Tommy finished him off, dropping Cuevas to the canvas with a series of punches. It was only the second round.

Detroit finally had a champion! Not since 1968’s Tigers, some 12 years prior, had the city been able to boast a hometown champion.

Tommy Hearns gave them one, destroying the 10-time defending welterweight champion Cuevas.

That was the beginning, really, of Hearns’s hold on Detroiters, a fanbase that had finally been energized by the Motor City Cobra.

Hearns gave the good folks of Detroit—and by Detroit I mean the city proper and the surrounding suburbs—something to crow about and to stick their chest out about.

I mean, he was the Motor City Cobra.

Later, Hearns would be known as The Hit Man, as he captivated the boxing world on the national stage as well.

Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.

He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.

But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.

Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.

For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.