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!