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.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

NBA Draft Should Be Off-Limits for Teenagers

At first blush, it would appear that Tigers great Al Kaline and Pistons draftee Andre Drummond have about as much in common as Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow.
But it’s very appropriate that Drummond was drafted this week.
For it was 59 years ago last Monday when Kaline made his big league debut, subbing late in the game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. It was so long ago, the Athletics were still two stops away from playing in Oakland.
The tie-in to Drummond? Kaline was all of 18 years and six months old when he spelled Jim Delsing in center field that day in Philly.
Drummond is 18. He’s yet another baby that the NBA allows to be drafted with impunity. And he’ll strive to be the first teenager to have any success in Detroit pro sports since Steve Yzerman, and Stevie was the first to do it since Kaline.
Kaline had just 28 at-bats as an 18-year-old, but as a 19-year-old “veteran,” Kaline had 504 at-bats and hit at a .276 clip. Not bad for someone who was just a few years removed from having his meat cut up for him.
In his first year as a non-teen, in 1955, Kaline became the youngest player ever to win a league batting title.
So there you have it. I’m comparing Drummond to Al Kaline. But what’s a little more pressure to put on a kid, eh?
Can’t be any more than what is heaped on these youngsters who are practically ripped from their mother’s wombs and deemed to be saviors of various NBA franchises.
The first two kiddies plucked off the board Thursday night were both from Kentucky—which continues to churn out NBA players like Penn State did with NFL linebackers back in the day—and both teenagers: power forward Anthony Davis and the very appropriately named guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
It was the first time in league history that the first two players selected both came from the same school. But it was hardly the first time that the first two were barely old enough to vote. In this year’s draft, the top three picks were teens.
The NBA Draft used to be as intriguing as its NFL counterpart, because there was actually a time when the league drafted young men, not adolescents.
It was about a generation ago when the incoming NBA players were three or four-year starters in college. They still played at the Kentuckys and the Dukes and the North Carolinas, but they played there long enough for us to at least see them on a few Saturday afternoons on television.
We knew the incoming pro players because we watched them, we read about them and we saw their big plays on the 11:00 news highlights—for at least three years, if not four.
Kentucky—naturally—had a guard in the late-1970s named Kyle Macy. He was a starter on the 1978 national championship team. But since Macy was a transfer, we heard about him, and because the rules mandated that he sit out one full year after his transfer, by the time he graduated you would have sworn that Macy was college basketball’s first six-year player; that’s how much and how long it seemed we saw of Kyle Macy playing for Kentucky.
So when it came time for these young men to be drafted into the NBA, there was some familiarity. There was some attachment. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses.
But above all, we knew their freaking names.
Full disclosure: I’m not a hard core NBA guy, to the degree that I can keep tabs on prospects one year removed from attending fourth hour and remembering locker combinations along with half court plays. But I suspect I am far from being the Lone Ranger in this area.
I picked up a few names as the draft grew closer. I knew of Davis, of course, and North Carolina’s John Henson, because he was projected as a possible Pistons choice. And a few others, Drummond included. It was like I had to do a crash course—pull an all-nighter or two to get marginally up to speed.
The feeder schools didn’t change; still the usual suspects who have been birthing NBA players since the days of the four-corner offense. But oh, those player names.
But that’s the way it is nowadays; colleges are lucky to get more than one year out of their superstars, before they take their basketballs and backpacks and crayons, for all I know, to the NBA.
Andre Drummond, a seven-footer from Connecticut, has been described as a freak. The people who know about such things say that Drummond, who skipped his last year of prep school to enroll at UConn, is a premier defender, shot blocker and, with a 7’6’ wingspan, a Pterodactyl on hardwood.
What they also say is, don’t expect big things from him for 2-3 years. Then, he will team with Greg Monroe to give the Pistons a frontcourt worth the price of admission.
Huh—don’t expect big things for 2-3 years? Then why draft him now?
Because the NBA allows it.
Here comes the old fuddy-duddy in me, bursting to the surface.
If I was David Stern, NBA Commissioner, I would insist that no one be eligible for my league’s draft until his 20th birthday occurs no later than October 31 of the draft year in question—which is right around the start of most seasons.
This year’s draftees had to be born by December 31, 1993. Under my rules, the cut off would be October 31, 1992.
No more one-and-done in college. No more festooning teenagers with millions, just a year after their high school senior proms. No more using college basketball as a faux attempt at a bachelor’s degree.
You want to play in my league, son? Then put in at least two years of college ball, then we’ll talk.
You want to make millions? Then give me two years of college, at least, to put yourself on the path to a degree so you can be something after your basketball skills erode.
But if you want to use college basketball as nothing more than a hop, skip or a jump to the pros, we politely decline.
Don’t come at me with age discrimination or that I’m unfairly denying someone a right to earn a living. Playing in the NBA ought to be a privilege, not a right. And the commissioner ought to draw the line at teen players.
Not that 20 year-olds are bastions of maturity—but you have to start somewhere.
Meanwhile, the rules are what they are, and Andre Drummond will suit up for the Pistons this fall, like so many of his first round brethren, as a teenage “freak” making millions, more than two years away from his first legal sip of alcohol.
Drummond will know more about the pick and roll than economics; more about setting screens than U.S. history; more about the half court than the Supreme Court. And he’ll make a king’s ransom doing it.
Then one day he’ll be 33 years old and in the twilight of his career, at an age where most men are just finding their professional stride.
I wonder what that one year of college will do for him then?