Monday, November 25, 2013

Lions Again Prove That They Prefer Playing in a Pressure Cooker

The Detroit Lions have five games remaining on their 2013 schedule. The league says those games are against the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens, the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings.
That's only part of the story.
The Lions are, in truth, playing not only those aforementioned teams, but a plethora of other opponents.
They are, in no particular order: their own history; their culture; the space between their ears.
Two weeks ago, the Lions were 6-3 and in first place all by themselves. It was rarefied air for a franchise that hasn't won a divisional title in 20 years.
Then the Lions went into Pittsburgh, and that's where history showed up, along with the Steelers in their bumble bee uniforms.
No Lions team had walked off the field in Pittsburgh with a victory since 1955. And the 2013 Lions didn't, either. A strange fake field goal call on the wet, sloppy field turned the tide in the Steelers' favor.
Sunday, the Lions , presumably after a week of licking their wounds, came home to play the 2-8 Tampa Bay Bucs. First place was still where the Lions resided, even after the loss in Pittsburgh. The Bears shared the penthouse with a 6-4 record, but Chicago's 6-4 wasn't as good as Detroit's 6-4, because the Lions have beaten the Bears twice.
The Bucs didn't have to bother showing up, because the Lions beat themselves.
Five turnovers, and a blocked punt inside the 20 yard line---that's what the Lions did to self-destruct. The Lions proved to be a far more difficult opponent for the Lions than the Bucs did.
Fox Sports' Brian Billick tried to sell the viewers on the old "they're the best 2-8 team you'll ever see" theory regarding the Bucs all afternoon. The Bucs could be 6-4, Billick repeatedly bleated.
If only!
The Buccaneers were 2-8 because if the Lions had played a similar football game against, say, the New England Patriots, the Pats would have been ahead by three touchdowns in the closing moments, instead of hanging on for dear life and hoping for another Lions turnover, as the Bucs were on the Lions' final drive.
So now the Lions are 6-5. The Bears lost on Sunday, as well, and the Packers tied the Vikings. First place is still Lions territory, unbelievably.
Maybe this is the way the Lions prefer it.
More often than not in the Jim Schwartz/Matthew Stafford Era, the Lions have fared better when they've needed the flair for the dramatic. They seem to have a visceral need for playing football with guns pointed at their heads.
When they don't play under that kind of pressure, the gun is held in their own hands and is pointed squarely at their feet.
There are five games remaining, and a division which was the Lions' to lose is on the verge of being lost.
They have to play their on-field opponents, as well as battle the mystique of being the Lions.
Isiah Thomas once spoke of going up against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs in the mid-1980s, when the Pistons were trying like mad to be where the Celtics had been for decades---championship contenders.
"When you play the Celtics, you're not just playing a team," Thomas said. "You're playing a mind set. You're playing against history, the court, the leprechauns. The Celtics aren't supposed to lose."
The same can be said when you talk about the Lions when they play...the Lions.
The Lions are playing a mind set now. They're playing against history. The Lions aren't supposed to win.
Maybe this is best. Maybe this two-game slide back to the pack (no pun intended) in the NFC North is where the Lions are truly most comfortable.
Maybe they can't win unless they play football in a ring of fire.
"It's a five game season," coach Schwartz said after Sunday's debacle against Tampa.
It's a five game season because the Lions have made like a magician and turned it into one.
The players still speak of controlling their own destiny. It's technically true. The division is still the Lions' to lose, given the tie breaker edge over the Bears.
The trouble with having a division be yours to lose is that when it's been 20 years since the last time you finished first, no one is around who remembers what it was like.
The Lions have never been ones to make things easy on themselves, or on their fans.
Here we go again.

If Hoke Can't Fix Michigan Soon, He May Have to Walk Back to San Diego

When Brady Hoke got the call from Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon to come back to Ann Arbor and take over the Wolverines football program in January, 2011, Brady told the press that he would have “walked to Michigan” from San Diego State.

With each week, with each disturbing performance on the football field, the Michigan fans are increasing in number who’d like to see Hoke indeed hit the road.

These are the times that try Michigan men’s souls.

Rich Rodriguez was given three years, taking over for the retiring Lloyd Carr, and by the end of Year Three he was holding hands at the annual Football Bust as schmaltzy music played. He all but pleaded for his job publicly. It was, frankly, pathetic.

The knock on Rich-Rod was that he was a square peg in a round hole. There wasn’t much “Michigan” about him. Rodriguez’s tenure was deemed an experiment gone horribly wrong.

Fine. You want a Michigan Man? Coming right up!

But the MM the football folks wanted, was Les Miles, the wildly successful coach at LSU. The fans wanted Les in 2007, as well, when Carr was in his last season. Miles, like Hoke, was a longtime U-M assistant (though under Bo Schembechler, while Hoke worked under Carr), before carving out his own legacy at Oklahoma State and then LSU.

Twice Miles was in demand by the fans, but not as much in demand by those making the decisions upstairs. And also not necessarily anointed by a segment of the alumni.

The first time around—about six years ago this month—then-AD Bill Martin didn’t even bring Miles in for an interview, nor did he fly to see Les. Instead, Martin basically told Miles that if Les was interested, he could fill out a job application like anyone else and get in line.

Miles, with good reason, felt offended.

The second go-round, after Rodriguez was let go, Brandon made a trip to see Miles in Louisiana, but it turned out be a cursory visit.

Michigan fans also wanted Jim Harbaugh, fresh off a run of winning at Stanford.

Harbaugh wasn’t interviewed.

But Brady Hoke was, and he jumped out of his skin at the opportunity. Hoke assisted Carr for eight years then ran the programs at Ball State, then San Diego State.

Hoke, while not the popular first choice, at least had some Ann Arbor pedigree.

He was a Michigan Man—a term that is beginning to be more laughable than serious these days.

Hoke, frankly, looked more like he belonged at Michigan, coaching football, than his predecessor. His name even sounded more like Michigan than his predecessor, if you want to be even more superficial.

To Rodriguez’s muscular build, good looks and Latino last name, Hoke offered a squishy body, a moon face and a name of a left tackle.

To Rodriguez’s mild manner and soft voice, Hoke’s demeanor conjured humorous comparisons to the late comedian Chris Farley’s satirical motivational speaker.

Then they started to play the football games.

And here, near the end of Year Three under Hoke, the Michigan football program is in no better shape now than when Rodriguez was given the ziggy. It may actually be worse.

There’s the quarterback, who was under enough pressure before the school saddled him with jersey no. 98—legend Tom Harmon’s old number.

There’s the offensive line, which despite having an All-American on it, too often collapses like a house of cards.

There’s the lack of playmaking on both sides of the ball.

There’s a bewildering lack of imagination in the offensive play calling and seeming inability to make adjustments on the fly—whether within a game or, more shockingly, within a season.

Michigan football, under Hoke, at this very moment is playing a brand that would make Schembechler spin in his grave.

There’s nothing smash mouth about what is happening with Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges’ offense.

There isn’t an Anthony Carter, a Braylon Edwards or even a Steve Breaston catching footballs.

There isn’t a Huckleby or a Morris or even a Biakabutuka carrying the pigskin.

And there certainly isn’t a Harbaugh or a Wangler or a Brady behind center.

This is Hoke’s mess now. The “Fire Rich-Rod” signs might pop up on eBay these days, but that rallying cry is no more. No one can play the “blame Rodriguez” card anymore.

The statute of limitations has run out on Michigan football under Rodriguez (who is doing OK at Arizona, if you were wondering).

This is on Brady Hoke, this season of degeneration. The embarrassing wins over Akron and Connecticut are all on Hoke. The bizarre win over Indiana is on Hoke. So are the feckless losses to MSU and Nebraska and the latest—a second half collapse in Iowa.

All on Hoke now. This is his baby. This is the dream job he wanted. Now he’s being given the virtual heave ho. Talk radio is lighting up with the same names, but one in particular: Jim Harbaugh.

It’s Year Three and there’s essentially the same venom for Hoke as there was for Rodriguez—with the only difference being that it’s not because Hoke isn’t a Michigan Man. It’s that he’s the wrong Michigan Man.

The 24-21 loss to Iowa—after Michigan had taken a 21-7 halftime lead—has driven the Michigan maniacs apoplectic. They want blood—especially the Maize and Blue stuff that courses through Hoke’s veins.

The book on Hoke that is being ghost written by the U-M faithful—and it could be debated that this is simplistic and unfair—is that Hoke can out-recruit you but you can end around him on the field.

He can sell the kids on Michigan, but then he doesn’t know what to do with them once they get there. That’s the book.

It’s probably not fair. Hoke’s first season was an 11-2 delight, including a win over Ohio State. He is 2-3 against MSU and the Buckeyes, combined, heading into next week’s showdown against OSU in Ann Arbor. That isn’t awful.

But what is awful is the way the Wolverines are playing right now, and have been for several weeks running. Can you imagine the fit that Bo would have, if his team gave up sacks the way this squad is doing to Gardner?

And as for Gardner, the kid is regressing. He has the confidence of a teen boy with acne at the school dance. His offensive line is killing him, both physically and mentally.

Hoke will survive this season. He will get a fourth year at Michigan, unlike Rodriguez. But the seat is getting considerably warmer. Normally, that’s not a bad thing when the temps are dropping like they are now. But when you coach football at Michigan, you’d like that seat to be freezing, thank you very much.

Right now, Hoke, like his football team, can’t get out of his own way. If he doesn’t figure it out soon, he might be asked to walk back to San Diego—this time by people who actually matter.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

This Time, Babcock's Hand Wringing is Warranted

Back in the day, it used to be difficult for Mike Babcock to find anything wrong with his Red Wings.

How could there be, when the other team never had the puck?

Babcock's players would throw the Winged Wheel onto the ice on the blood red sweaters, play tic-tac-toe with the puck, bury a few pretty ones behind the enemy net minder and skate off the ice with another two points in their back pockets.

Not that Babcock didn't try to find something amiss. He'd stand before reporters after another night of toying with the opponent, set his rock jaw and nitpick. Nobody was buying it. The Red Wings were elite, and the other teams didn't beat them so much as the Red Wings beat themselves, which wasn't very often.

Babcock doesn't have to pretend these days. It's not a tough sell when he puts on his concerned coach face and rattles off reasons why his team isn't very good.

"We're facing some adversity here," he said the other day.

And this: "If I saw our team play from the outside, I'd say that we don't have a coach. And that hurts my feelings."

Now, Mike Babcock is not a guy whose feelings you want to hurt, if you're one of his players. It's like waking up a bear, mid-hibernation.

Babcock has never sugar coated things since he arrived as Red Wings coach in 2005. He wasn't always easy to believe, when his team was having its way with everyone every night, but when the Red Wings have stumbled in recent years, "Babs" tells it like it is, complete with odors.

He won't throw a player under the team bus, but he doesn't have to. Babcock just won't play him, or he'll demote the offending player. And if he's asked about it, he'll tell you why, and it won't be a spin job.

Scotty Bowman, when he was in Detroit, had a reputation for playing mind games with his players. Babcock cuts to the chase. He doesn't do the passive/aggressive thing.

So here we are, the Red Wings on a four-game losing streak, and about to play four games out west.

"A west coast trip is exactly what we need," Babcock said after the Red Wings let another one slip through their hockey gloves, 3-2 in overtime at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

Babcock says the Red Wings are in search of an identity. He said that the four-game winning streak of a couple weeks back was "fool's gold," with the way they were playing.

Mostly, he said the team isn't playing with the puck enough. And it's surrendering far too many shots on goal.

"I look at the stat sheet and I see 40 shots against," Babcock said after the Rangers game. "That's way too many shots. Twenty-eight is too many."

It's not difficult to see why the coach is aghast. It used to take the other teams two games to get 40 shots on the Red Wings, and half of those would be fired from near the blue line. Remember when we fretted that the Red Wings goalie du jour would get rusty or bored during a game?

Now, it's all Jimmy Howard can do to swat pucks away as if they're being fired from a batting cage machine.

The Red Wings are still a talented group---they've been talented since Reagan was president---but the talent and skill isn't so much that it separates the Red Wings from the rest of the NHL like it used to. You could drive a Mack truck through the gap between the Red Wings' skill and their brethren's. Now, you can barely slip a credit card in there.

So what do you do in hockey when you can't just show up and grab two points? You work hard and you are hard to work against. Neither has happened too much in this young season, and that's why Babcock's jaw is set even firmer these days. That's why the post-game comments are dripping more with disdain.

Babcock never did look happy behind the bench, even when the Red Wings were waltzing through their schedule. But back then, he looked concerned just to be polite to the other team.

Then again, what hockey coach does look happy, mad or sad? Bowman's expression changed as much as Mona Lisa's.

These are tough times for Babcock's bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can't be, due to injury---like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.

Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven't been yet---Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.

Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.

And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn't need to give us a hard sell on it.

"Right now, with the way we're playing, we have no chance," he said after the Rangers game.

No eye rolling from anyone this time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Suh's "Dirty" Reputation a Cash Cow for the NFL

The video still exists, if you nose around You Tube long enough. The craggy old basketball announcer screams into his microphone, crying of the humanity of it all to his radio listeners, in the same vein as Herb Morrison did in describing the explosion of the Hindenburg.
“Oh, the way they do things here!” Johnny Most screamed to his Boston listeners. Video cameras caught Most, pounding his hand onto the press table.
The Pistons had committed another rough foul on the Celtics. It was during a tense (weren’t they all?) playoff game at the Silverdome.
“Oh, (Bill) Laimbeer! What a gutless, despicable player!” Most shrieked.
Pistons thuggery!
These were the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, and this was Johnny Most, riling up his listeners with another embellished version of what actually was happening on the basketball court. Fortunately for radio announcers, there isn’t a video screen accompanying the words.
The Bad Boys Pistons of Isiah, Laimbeer, Mahorn, Rodman et al wore the black hats in the NBA, and with pride. There was the Rolling Stone magazine cover, featuring Laimbeer and Mahorn, squeezing a basketball into deflation and terrorizing a rim for the photographer.
Everywhere the Pistons went, bad press followed them. They came to your town like the villains in a Spaghetti Western—daring local law enforcement to do something to stop them. They were the Dirty Dozen, literally.
The joke was on the critics and the out-of-town radio announcers. The more people complained about the Pistons’ style of rough, physical play, the more it steeled the Bad Boy—and the more steeled they were, the better they played. And the more games they won.
The Bad Boys won two straight NBA championships, even though Isiah Thomas declared the Bad Boys an expired moniker in the White House in celebrating the first title in early-1990.
The Bad Boys Pistons aren’t alone when it comes to Detroit athletes who have earned the scorn of others around the country—and in Canada.
Bob Probert, goon extraordinaire, was the NHL’s heavyweight champion, but in the way that the wrestling people do it. Probert was the NHL’s heel, to use a pro wrestling term. He was the guy everyone was gunning for. He wore the belt.
There were the Red Wings, and there was Probert. He was in a league of his own. Probert ruled with his fists. He took on all comers. Such was his reputation of fighting prowess that when the home town goon even landed a punch, that guy’s fans went wild. Then Probert would get an arm free and moments later, the fight was over.
Probert wasn’t considered dirty, per se, but he wasn’t always clean, either.
Probert reminded some old-timers of Gordie Howe, because Gordie wasn’t above slipping in an elbow or a face wash when the guys in the zebras weren’t looking. Even when they were looking, Gordie still managed to inflict some extracurricular pain.
Ndamukong Suh is the latest Detroit sports star who is on the top of his league’s Most Wanted list.
Suh plays the game of football with an angry edge. He’s a rules bender. He’s another football player whose personality is that of Jekyll and Hyde—sweet as pie with kids, soft spoken with the media, but diabolical and maybe a tad deranged on the gridiron every Sunday.
That’s what they said about past mad men like Alex Karras and Dick Butkus—that off the field they were the nicest guys, humble even, but for 60 minutes every Sunday, they turned nasty.
Suh’s reputation precedes him like a man who had a Limburger and garlic sandwich for lunch.
Suh hits someone and the play gets analyzed like it’s the Zapruder film. Surely there must be something wrong!
The league has fined Suh almost continuously since he came into the league as a  rookie from Nebraska in 2010. Some of the disciplinary action—suspensions and fines—have been warranted. Others have been “reputation” punishment.
“I think there’s always going to be a microscope on me,” Suh said recently.
More like a Hubble telescope.
Suh’s latest fine, a $31,500 debit for hitting Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden last Sunday, is laughable. But it’s not really funny.
Suh rushed the quarterback, as he does so well, and while he led with his helmet, kind of, it was Suh’s body that slammed Weeden to the turf just after the Browns QB released a pass. It was a hit that defines professional football—clean and hard, with no malice other than to put the quarterback on his keister.
There was no penalty flag on the play, even though it occurred right in front of the referee.
For that hit, the NFL fined Suh.
The telescope got brought out again.
The league has its Jason and its Freddy Krueger, in Ndamukong Suh. And don’t think that they don’t love that idea.
Pro sports are often as much about who fans root against as it is who they root for. No doubt that the NBA profited from the Bad Boys, financially and from a publicity standpoint. There was more licensed merchandise derived from it, and more tickets were sold in enemy arenas, when the Bad Boys rode into town.
The NFL and those who cover it decry Suh on one hand, and can’t stop talking about him on the other. They want Suh to go straight publicly, but privately they are terrified of that.
So what you get are fines that wouldn’t be levied on other players. The fine for the Weeden hit was a disgrace.
Suh is having an exemplary year. His play on the field has been fierce, as usual, but even better than what we’ve seen since he entered the league. He tosses around blockers like rag dolls and opens up space for his teammates to make plays.
He is also the NFL’s biggest villain, as cooked up by the league’s marketing department, working in conjunction with the disciplinarians.
Lots of what has been done to Suh’s pocketbook hasn’t been fair. Some of what he’s done on the field hasn’t been, either.
But nobody should want, honestly, for Suh to change the way he plays. The fans shouldn’t, the press shouldn’t, and the NFL shouldn’t.

Where’s the fun—and the money—in that?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Cleary's "Backwards" Money Grab is Refreshing

Danny Cleary isn't in it for the money.
This story is for everyone who says that professional athletes are forever chasing the money. This is for those who think loyalty and sports should never belong in the same sentence.
Granted, it’s easy to roll your eyes when the newly-signed free agent says it’s not about the dough as they’re backing up a Brinks truck at the press conference. Especially when the player’s new team isn’t even close to printing playoff tickets.
If Cleary was only interested in money, he wouldn’t have driven five hours to Traverse City to beg the Red Wings for a contract.He could have hopped on a plane for Philadelphia, where an offer was awaiting his signature—an offer worth far more money than he could have hoped to get from the Red Wings.
Cleary, the gritty, resilient, hard-working forward who has been a Red Wing since 2005, saw push come to shove and when it did, he couldn’t get on that plane for Philly.
It happened a few weeks ago, and it’s the insatiable appetite for the negative that shoved Cleary’s story to the figurative back page.
It was fireman rescues kitty stuff, so naturally nobody wanted to report it, outside of Detroit.
Apparently loyalty isn’t sexy.
Cleary, a free agent after last season, nixed an initial offer from the Red Wings early in the off-season. He thought he’d try the open market.
I know this is starting out like so many other athlete-chases-money story. But the Red Wings were up against a hard salary cap and therefore couldn’t make a first offer that was quite up to par for someone of Cleary’s service and value.
Most of the money that was freed up went to new signees Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, signed from Ottawa and Florida, respectively. Both were brought to Detroit to jump start a sluggish power play and add scoring depth to the top two lines.
Cleary, 34, is a lot of things, but pure goal scorer isn’t one of them. Nor is he a premier playmaker. Alfredsson is the former and Weiss the latter.
It’s not that Cleary is a stranger to scoring goals, and it’s not that he hasn’t made a few nifty passes in his day. He’s just not a 30-goal, 40-assist man, and he never will be.
That’s OK—Cleary’s role with the Red Wings was never about that.
His game in Detroit has been 60 minutes of skating hard up and down the ice, popping in a few goals, throwing a few elbows and leading by example. It’s not score sheet fill, but it has been no less important to the cause.
The Red Wings never wanted to see Cleary go, but the reality of today’s NHL is that you can’t bring everyone back, every year. The days of GM Ken Holland breaking off another of Mike Ilitch’s checks at will are long gone.
After bringing Alfredsson and Weiss into the fold, there wasn’t much left in Mother Holland’s cupboard for Cleary. Plus, the Red Wings were at their limit as far as forwards on their roster.
The summer came and went and Cleary was having trouble finding suitors, which was a little surprising, given his resume and what he has meant to a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender every year.
Training camp was nigh and Cleary was still unemployed.
In 2008, when the Red Wings won their last Cup, Cleary played in 22 playoff games and scored two goals. Two lousy goals. He recorded one measly assist.
But take him off the team, and maybe the Wings don’t win that Cup.
Now, it might seem folly to suggest that a forward who contributed just three points in 22 playoff games is somehow indispensable, but that’s Dan Cleary. You don’t win wars with all generals, you know.
Maybe Cleary’s age scared some teams off. Regardless, it wasn’t looking good for him, until the Philadelphia Flyers showed some interest.
The Flyers offered Cleary a three-year deal worth about $7.75 million. The catch was that it wasn’t a guaranteed contract; Cleary would be brought in, officially, on a tryout basis. But there was little doubt among NHL people that Cleary would make the Flyers, who aren’t chopped liver.
The Red Wings bussed their way to Traverse City for training camp. Cleary had a plane to catch—to Philadelphia.
This is where the story changes from the typical.
Cleary’s eight years with the Red Wings tugged at him. Eight years of wearing the Winged Wheel on a player’s chest has often meant that it sinks into the heart. Never was this more true than with Cleary.
Push came to shove and Cleary couldn't get on the plane bound for Philadelphia. So he didn't.
Instead, Dan Cleary drove, on his own dime, to Traverse City—with little more than hope and an impromptu sales pitch. He wanted to be a Red Wing again.
This is not how it usually works. The free agent isn’t supposed to court the team. But Cleary couldn't go to Philadelphia, which is another team that could win the Stanley Cup this season. 
He was a Red Wing, period.
Now, all he had to do was get Holland and the Red Wings to offer him a contract.
The Red Wings wanted Cleary, and Cleary wanted the Red Wings. But wanting something and getting it isn’t always possible when you’re working with a tight budget and a full roster.
Cleary and the Red Wings talked it over in the rink at Traverse City, while the signed players were skating, no doubt aware that Cleary was in the building, meeting behind the scenes.
The Red Wings offered Cleary a one-year deal, at $1.75 million—or roughly six million less than he could have earned with the Flyers, and with two fewer years of job security. No matter. He pounced on the offer like it was a loose puck.
The Red Wings didn’t have to do that. The addition of Cleary put the team at one forward too many. Someone will have to be lopped off the roster.
But this is how it goes when loyalty works both ways—when player and management each acknowledge what the other has done for them.
The Red Wings didn’t have to say yes to Cleary just because he drove up to Traverse City to ask for his old job back—especially not after it was reported that he was on the verge of signing with another team.
This one’s for loyalty and for not always chasing the money. This is for everyone who doubts that pro sports teams and players really will scratch each other’s backs—when push comes to shove.
Dan Cleary said no to the money, and yes to being a Red Wing. The team said no to convenience and yes to rewarding past performance.
How about that?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lions Are 0-for-Washington, So Why Bother?

History tells us that the Lions shouldn’t even bother making the trip to Washington, D.C. this weekend.
Save the airplane fuel. Don’t bother packing the bags. Stay home this Sunday and spend some time with the family. Mow the lawn. Grill something.
Do anything, other than make the poor equipment people load up the tons of gear and fly it to the Nation’s Capital.
Why bother?
The Lions and the Redskins have been in the NFL together since 1934 (the Redskins franchise played in Boston until 1937). And not once, in 76 years, have the Lions made the trip to Washington and won a football game.
It’s not like the Redskins have always been world beaters. Even in the years when the Lions were the superior team, the final score always had Washington on top, when the game was played in the shadow of the Monument.
The Lions should just phone this one in. Call in sick. Take the loss and get ready for the Bears on September 29.
The Lions have never won in Washington, in some 80 years of being members of the NFL. True, Detroit doesn’t play there every year, but they have done so 21 times, and not once have they come away as winners.
From Sammy Baugh to Sonny Jurgensen to Joe Theismann to Doug Williams to Mark Rypien to Jason Campbell—it doesn’t matter who QBs the ‘Skins, they always win. It’s mattered even less who’s quarterbacked the Lions.
The Lions at Washington is like the Italian Army in any war. It’s Wiley Coyote at the Roadrunner. Charlie Brown kicking from the hold of Lucy.
When the Lions first played at Washington in 1939, they were beaten on the field. Then the series evolved to where the Lions were beaten on the bus trip to the stadium. Then they were beaten when the plane landed. Now, they’re beaten before the ink dries on the schedule.
Of all the seasons of losses in Washington, 1991 is perhaps the oddest.
In the opening week, the Lions, playing without RB Barry Sanders, laid a 45-0 egg against the Redskins. It was yet another loss in Washington, and on this occasion the Lions didn’t even belong on the same field as the ‘Skins.
Some 18 weeks or so later, the Lions returned to the scene of the slaughter, to participate in the NFC Championship Game.
After playing with the Redskins for a half, the Lions got run roughshod over after the intermission, losing 41-10. So in 1991, the Lions book ended their season with losses in D.C., just to freshen things up a bit. They got outscored, 86-10, in the process.
The gridiron in Washington hasn’t been a football field for the Lions, it’s been a graveyard. The Lions team bus is accompanied by vultures. The stadium plays a funeral march when the team takes the field. Watching the Lions play in Washington is, as the late great sports writer Jim Murray would say, like watching a man walk into a noose.
The question isn’t will the Lions lose in Washington, but by how much, and how, period.
Will it be a pick-six on overtime? A bombardment of long passes for touchdowns by the Redskins? A mistake-filled afternoon by the Lions? An inability to stop the run (by the Lions, of course)? Will it be a blowout? A close but no cigar affair?
All of the above have happened to the Lions in Washington, and more.
It’s the country’s longest-running comedy show, starting in the days of radio and continuing in the days of streaming on the Internet.
The Lions started playing in Washington when FDR was president. They were losers in the capital then and are losers now. Even the Washington Generals have beaten the Harlem Globetrotters a few times, while the Lions have been losing to the ‘Skins on the road. Race relations have made more progress than the Lions have made in Washington.
So why has a professional football team been unable to win in a particular city for 80 years? Even the 10-4 Lions of 1970, one of the best football teams assembled in Detroit, suffered a loss in Washington—and the Redskins were a mediocre team in 1970.
The aforementioned 1991 Lions were 12-4, and one of those four losses was in D.C.
So what gives?
The Lions, clearly!
Much is made of the Lions’ inability to win in Green Bay, where they haven’t won since 1991. But that is ballyhooed because the Lions play the Packers twice every year. And, the Lions have won in Green Bay.
Yet in 80 years of being in the NFL, the Lions are 0-for-Washington.
They’re going give it another go on Sunday. Despite my advice, the bags are packed, the footballs are pumped up, and the game plans are set. The team practiced all week and the flight hasn’t been canceled, so I guess the Lions are going to go through with it, after all.
They’re going to fly to Washington, land, de-board, take a bus to their hotel and spend Saturday night dreaming of touchdowns and defensive stops. They’re going to imagine themselves walking off the field on Sunday as victors.
Dutch Clark couldn’t do it. Neither could Bobby Layne or Joe Schmidt. Lem Barney was never a winner in Washington, nor was Charlie Sanders.
Sorry, Chuck Long. Scott Mitchell, you couldn’t win there either (Mitchell was the one who threw the game-winning pick-six in overtime to Darrell Green in 1995).
So you have to give this 2013 group of Lions an “A” for guts and gall. They fancy themselves as the squad that can fly home from Washington as winners. That the Redskins are 0-2 and not exactly one of the league’s best teams perhaps buoys them. But the quality of the two teams has meant diddlysquat in years past. It’s always been Goliath beating David, no matter what.
Detroit at Washington, NFL style. Forget the spread; take the ‘Skins. It’s the lock of the century, every time. The house always wins. It’s been the biggest waste of three hours on a Sunday for eight decades and counting.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Chelios' Hockey Journey Didn't Take the Recommended Route

He was the accidental Red Wing. He never dreamed of playing in Detroit, never fantasized about pulling the blood red sweater with the winged wheel over his chest. Far from it, as a matter of fact.

Chris Chelios was as Chicago as the Cubs, Second City and dirty politics. His was a Greek family couched in Evergreen Park, Illinois, where the Blackhawks ruled the roost when it came to hockey teams you rooted for.

When Chelios entered the world, the NHL had six teams and if you weren’t born in Canada, it was almost a death knell for your chances of playing in the league.

Americans played hockey, but they just didn’t play it in the NHL, which at the time only had about 120 jobs available, and it seemed like 115 of them went to Canucks. The European invasion was still a decade off in 1962, when Chelios was born.

It didn’t help Chelios when his family moved to Southern California in 1977. If you were an American and harbored dreams of being an NHLer, moving to the beaches of San Diego wasn’t exactly the way to make those dreams come true.

There wasn’t any high school hockey, number one. Chelios played youth hockey in Illinois, but when he got to San Diego as a 16-year-old he was a boy without a team. In San Diego, they used sticks to pick up sushi, not to swat at vulcanized rubber pucks.

Because he didn’t play hockey at the high school level, no colleges recruited Chris Chelios. At that point, playing in the NHL was the mother of all pipe dreams.

Strangely, there was actually an NCAA Division I hockey program that was San Diego-based. In fact, it was the only such program west of the Rockies. It was called U.S. International University, and it floated Chelios a scholarship offer.

“Sure, kid. Show up to campus and let’s see what you got,” might have been the terms of the scholarship.

It didn’t work out so well for Chelly at U.S. International. He arrived on campus in 1979 and immediately he knew he was outclassed. The other players were bigger, stronger, and many were steeped in junior hockey experience. Not surprisingly, Chelios was cut from the team. The mother of all pipe dreams looked to be going poof.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, so Chelios decided to try Canada, where just about every boy is born with a black eye and sharp elbows.

He tried out for a couple of Junior B teams in Canada and was cut both times. Chelios was Rocky Balboa, but going in the wrong direction.

Chelios returned to California—he had to borrow money from strangers to get back home—and it looked like hockey wasn’t going to be his vocation.

Then a fascinating thing happened to him, physically. It was like something out of a Charles Atlas magazine ad.

Chelly grew a few inches and put on about 40 pounds, most of it muscle. No one was going to kick snow in his face any longer.

From that point on, Chelios’ hockey story made an about face. He made the Moose Jaw Canucks—that could only be a hockey team—of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and he terrorized the league.

In his final season at Moose Jaw, Chelios had 87 points and 175 penalty minutes in just 54 games. It was enough to be drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, no less, in 1981.

From bumming a ride to California to being drafted by an Original Six team, in just two years, Chelios was hockey’s ugly duckling that turned swan.

After being drafted by Montreal, Chelios went to college, that level of hockey that at one time didn’t recruit him, and played a couple years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While in college, Chelios played in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship and in 1983, he was part of the Badgers’ NCAA championship team.

By this time, Americans had been infiltrating the NHL in greater numbers. Europeans were dotting league rosters at a growing rate as well. You no longer had to be Canadian to play in the NHL. Your birth certificate was made moot.

Chelios played for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics, and then made his debut for Les Canadiens, playing in 12 games. Two years later, he was hoisting the Stanley Cup for the 1986 Montreal team that beat the Calgary Flames.

Not bad for a guy who, just seven years prior, was being shoved around like a runt by other teens.

Chelios’ hockey story came full circle in the summer of 1990, when the Canadiens traded him to Chicago for Denis Savard, even up. Chelly was a defenseman, Savard was a center—a magician with the puck who was adored in the Windy City. The trade wasn’t exactly received with bells and whistles in Chicago, despite Chelios being a native son of sorts.

Chelios wore number 24 in Montreal, but that wasn’t going to happen with the Blackhawks. In Chicago, fellow defenseman Doug Wilson wore that number, and Wilson was almost as revered by the Blackhawk faithful as Savard was. So Chelly pulled on number seven.

In Chicago, Chelios gave the Blackhawks nearly nine full seasons, sticking his big, fat Greek nose in other people’s business to the tune of about 200 penalty minutes per season. He was especially despised in Detroit, whose rivalry with the Blackhawks had been reinvigorated as the Red Wings did their own ugly duckling to swan move and began dominating hockey in the 1990s.

But as the Red Wings rose, the Blackhawks began to fall. After facing the Red Wings in the 1995 Conference Finals, the Blackhawks soon turned slapstick more than slap shot. It got so bad that late in the 1998-99 season, Chicago hockey management started dumping salaries—including that of hometown kid-made-good, Chris Chelios.

I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news that the Red Wings had acquired Chelios in March, 1999 at the trading deadline. I was in my car, and nearly ran it into a ditch.

Chris Chelios, a Red Wing?

It was Ted Williams to the Yankees. Larry Bird to the Lakers. A Hatfield to the McCoys.

Chelios was 37 when the trade was made, and it looked like so many the Red Wings were famous for making—a wily veteran on his last legs, for a prospect that would never find serious ice time in Detroit anyhow.

Chelios was traded for a defenseman named Anders Eriksson, who was 24 at the time and who would play in the NHL for another 11 years, but whose career reads more like a travelogue. Eriksson played for six more teams after being traded to Chicago, never carving out much of a niche anywhere he went.

But a funny thing happened with this Chelios-for-Eriksson deal. Despite being 13 years Eriksson’s senior, Chelly nearly played in the NHL for as long as Eriksson would last.

Chelios became a Red Wing, and eventually the Winged Wheel was tattooed emotionally on his heart. Detroit slowly replaced Chicago as Chelios’ home. He opened restaurants in metro Detroit, got involved in charity work and won two more Stanley Cups along the way (2002 and 2008). He played in Detroit until he was 46 years old, beating Gordie Howe in that category by three years in the age department.

Last week, Chelios—along with fellow Red Wing Brendan Shanahan—was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Hockey’s HOF isn’t like baseball’s. The inducted player doesn’t have to choose a sweater, like baseball folks have to choose which hat they’re going to wear on their plaques. Remember the controversy when Sparky Anderson chose to be depicted wearing a Cincinnati Reds lid?

But if hockey did have that requirement, I have little doubt that Chelly would choose to go into the Hall as a Red Wing. He is still employed by the Red Wings, as GM Kenny Holland’s Executive Advisor.

“I always say I’m from Chicago, proud of that fact, but Detroit has been my home now for the last 13 years. I love it,” Chelios told the Free Press last week.

In this case, Chicago truly is the Second City.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Titus Young’s Downward Spiral Reminiscent of Charlie Rogers

Ten years ago last month, Charlie Rogers stood in front of the media, wearing a Detroit Lions baseball cap and proudly holding his brand new Honolulu blue and silver jersey with No. 1 on the front, signifying his status as a first round draft choice.
There were smiles all around. President Matt Millen smiled. New coach Steve Mariucci smiled. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. smiled. Lions fans all over the country smiled.
It was a giddy time.
The Lions felt like they were on to something. The year prior, the team drafted their quote-unquote franchise quarterback, Joey Harrington, from Oregon.
Now they were adding Rogers, out of Michigan State, to be the franchise receiver.
Finally—a real quarterback and receiver tandem!
Harrington proved himself to be a bust, a nice young man but without the intangibles needed to be a winning professional quarterback. The Lions did him no favors, never able to surround Harrington with bona fide talent. Within three years, the Lions pulled the plug on the Harrington Era.
Rogers was a bust too, maybe one of the biggest in NFL history. But his problem wasn’t lack of talent. It was lack of moral character and decency.
The Lions, as usual under Millen’s leadership, failed to do their due diligence before drafting Rogers. Had they done some digging, they likely would have learned about Charlie’s skeletons at MSU. The failed drug tests, for one—Rogers failed one each year at MSU, it came to light years later. And, some MSU folks said, Rogers wasn’t exactly the hardest working player on the team.
But Rogers was loaded with talent. In his last season at MSU (2002), Rogers won the Paul Warfield Trophy as the best college wide receiver in the country. He was a unanimous first team All-American.
It never came close to happening for Rogers in the NFL.
Rogers was released by the Lions just before the 2006 season after two seasons cut short by injury and one cut short by multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, resulting in suspension. His NFL career consisted of 15 games played and 36 catches, for 440 yards and four TDs.
In 2008, Rogers was arrested for assault and battery of his girlfriend. In a separate incident, he violated probation, testing positive for the pain killer Vicodin. In 2009 he was arrested in Novi for drunk driving. Less than a year later, Rogers was arrested again, having passed out drunk—again in Novi.
It was easy for those of us not connected to Charlie Rogers personally to smirk and shake our head at his misadventures. No matter how many times he got arrested, Charlie Rogers was still known as “that NFL bust.” He wasn’t a person—and that was the problem.
Rogers didn’t have an inner circle of friends who gave two you-know-whats about him, once his NFL days were done. He had tons of “friends” when football was his world—a world that he, at times, appeared to have in the palm of his big hand.
But when the football was in the rearview mirror, Rogers’ posse evaporated. They moved on to other folks on whose coat tails they could ride.
Charlie Rogers was troubled, but worse than that, he was alone.
Lacking a support group of sorts, Rogers kept getting into trouble.
In 2010, Rogers was ordered to return to the Lions $6.1 million of the $9.1 singing bonus he received in 2003. A judge agreed with the Lions’ contention that Rogers’ drug use equated a breach of contract.
In December 2011, Rogers was pulled over in Saginaw. Police found an open container of alcohol in his vehicle. That incident is still without resolution. Possible charges are pending.
Throughout all of these misadventures, Charlie Rogers was never helped. No one took Rogers in. No one reached out to him. He wasn’t a star football player anymore, so screw him—that seemed to be the attitude.
Today Rogers is approaching his 32nd birthday (it’s May 23). He has no future to speak of. He never earned his degree from MSU. He is perhaps unemployable.
No one said it better about Rogers, than Rogers himself.
In an interview in August 2009 with ESPN’s Jemele Hill, whose journalism roots include Detroit, Rogers said, "I got a little greedy. The girls played a part in it.” Then, even more astutely, Charlie added, "I fucked up. Point blank, simple."
Ten years after Rogers’ drafting into the NFL, there’s another former Lions receiver battling demons.
Titus Young was a 2nd round draft choice of the Lions in 2011, out of that pass happy program, Boise State. Like Rogers, Young exhibited some troubling behavior in college. And, like in Rogers’ case, the Lions chose to ignore it.
At Boise State, Young was suspended for most of his sophomore season for fighting with a teammate.
Young was the 44th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. His off-field behavior scared some teams off. It didn’t scare off the Lions.
Young is in a downward spiral right now. He keeps getting arrested. Last summer, Young punched teammate Louis Delmas in practice and that started the spiral as a Lion.
Young ran wrong routes on purpose in a game against Green Bay last season, it was charged. He was causing trouble for his coaches in practice and during games. The Lions finally benched him.
Young took to Twitter in January and got into spats with fans on social media. The Lions released him the day after the Super Bowl. The St. Louis Rams, another franchise not known for smart decisions, claimed Young. But even the Rams had second thoughts and released Young nine days later.
This month, Young has been arrested three times, for alleged violations ranging from drunk driving to theft to resisting arrest. Last week, Young’s father said that his son has a severe mental disorder and needs help.
It’s not about football anymore for Titus Young. It’s about life, and his ability to survive it. It should be pointed out that Young is the father of a nine-month old baby boy, Titus Jr.
Again we smirk and shake our heads at Young’s personal life, as we did at Charlie Rogers’.
Rogers never got any help. Young’s father’s comment gives hope that Titus can get some help and support. Maybe there will be a personal posse that will gather and help Young battle his demons.
Charlie Rogers is 32, broke, and has no future. The world that was once his oyster is now his living hell.
That’s nothing to smirk about.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Former Big League Umpire Pallone All Too Familiar With Jason Collins's Secret Life

As a straight male, I don't even pretend to know what someone like Jason Collins must have been going through, living a secret life as a gay man while an active player in the NBA.

This isn't like grief. It's not a few quiet moments at a funeral home, when someone goes up to a relative of the deceased and offers some trite comments of "Hey, I've been there," just because that person has also experienced the death of a loved one. Those feelings aren't totally congruent, either, by the way.

No one who is straight can purport to place themselves in Collins's Nikes.

Collins, the longtime (and still active) NBA center who came out as gay in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated, has mainly gotten support (at least publicly) for his self outing. Lord knows the missives he's received privately likely aren't all warm and fuzzy. Again, never been there. Maybe Hank Aaron could comment; the letters of vitriol sent to Hank as he pursued Babe Ruth's all-time home run record remain a black eye on our society.

It didn't take me long, once I heard of Collins's outing, for me to reach out to someone who I know has an inkling of Collins's feelings---both before and after the announcement.

I am proud to consider Dave Pallone a friend. Dave remains the only big league umpire to have been identified as gay. Only, Pallone didn't have the option of announcing his lifestyle on his own terms. He was outed---viciously, when his name was bantied about in a sex ring, of which he had no part, by the way.

Try that on for size.

Via email, I asked Pallone (left), who umpired in the National League from 1979 to 1988, about Collins and what it might mean for athletes in the future to out themselves. Not only is Pallone an openly gay man, he's also a public and motivational speaker whose message largely involves encouraging folks to be happy with who they are, among other positive thoughts.

"My coming out was different than Jason's," Pallone wrote me. "I was outed, so I didn't have the chance to do it on my own. But the relief I had was tremendous. It was like a 2000 pound weight on my shoulders finally falling off."

Pallone went one step further.

"For me (being outed) was nothing less than psychological rape."

I asked Pallone if he felt that Collins's coming out would lead to others doing so, not unlike a domino effect.

"There is no question that more athletes will now follow. It's like a kid and his friends at a lake. Everyone waits for someone to jump in and when he does and they see he's OK, they jump in with him."

I wondered if Pallone saw today's sociological landscape as being more fertile for society to accept gay professional athletes without a whole lot of angst. His reply was, thankfully, upbeat.

"Things are much different (now) than they were in the 1980s and 1990s," Pallone wrote. "Athletes are much more versed in social issues now and sexual orientation is always being talked about. 'Gay' is now NOT an evil word."

Pallone led a secret, double life throughout his umpiring career, which began in the late-1970s in the minor leagues. When I first met him, I remember he telling me of making up stories of sexual encounters he supposedly had with women, whenever his umpiring colleagues would ask him how his weekend was.

To use a baseball metaphor, it was a life constantly lived facing an 0-2 count.

So Pallone knows what Collins has been going through as an NBA player---constantly afraid of being "found out," unable to publicly be who he really was.

"(Collins's) life, as mine, had to be hard," Pallone wrote. "Think that at (age) 34 he now finally can be true to himself."

I asked Pallone if he had anything else to add. He did.

"This is just not an LGBT story, but it's an American story. This is a huge deal, and for me it's humbling to know I helped in some small way to make this day happen."

You can check out more of Dave Pallone and his life story, along with his positive messages about life, at

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lions First Round Gamble Has "All or Nothing" Feel

Ziggy Ansah has one thing in common with his new NFL team post-Matt Millen. Neither started playing football until 2010.

Ansah’s is a tale that, in the past 48 hours, has been re-told more than a bedtime story.

Ansah, the defensive end from BYU who the Lions selected with the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday night, is the kid you’ve been hearing about who has only played organized football for three years.

He failed at basketball so turned his 6’5, 271-pound body to the gridiron.

Now, this is a decision that is typically made while in public school, not in college—and not with the idea of playing in the NFL. And definitely not with the idea of being drafted after just four names have been called.

Ever since Lawrence Taylor did to the outside linebacker position in football what Bobby Orr did to the defenseman position in hockey—that is, transform it forever—NFL teams have been looking for those pass rushing specialists flying at quarterbacks from the left and the right.

Nowadays, it’s not good enough to just have linebackers doing what Taylor did so famously for so many years. Defensive coaches want the ends on the line to be athletic monsters who can stuff an off tackle run, drop back into pass coverage if necessary, and of course rush the passer.

Ziggy Ansah may be able to do all these things, or he may be able to do none of them. He’ll be a jack of all trades or a master of none. There doesn’t seem to be any gray area here. The kid will either get it at the pro level, or he won’t.

And don’t say the p-word—project—around Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.

“We wouldn’t take a project at that pick,” Schwartz told the curious media Thursday. “We drafted him to be on the field for us.”

The coach better be right, because Ansah has a first name that could fit Schwartz like a glove if this goes wrong.

Before the drafting of Ansah, Ziggy was a word—a Detroit word—used to describe the firing of a coach.
And it was originated by a Lions coach, as a matter of fact.

It was Joe Schmidt, Hall of Fame linebacker turned Lions head coach, who used “ziggy” when he resigned in a huff after the 1972 season, tired of the power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.

The word caught on, and giving the coach the ziggy has been used around these parts ever since.

Schwartz, along with GM Marty Mayhew, is banking on a kid who played as much football as me, through 2009, to not only replace DE Cliff Avril (free agent who jumped to Seattle) but to be better than Avril.

Frankly, there are some who think Ansah, a big block of clay, with the right molding can be one of the greatest Lions pass rushers of all time.

Or, he’ll be a bust.

That’s pretty much the consensus among football people when it comes to Ansah’s future in the NFL. He’ll either be great or he’ll be out of the game in a couple of years.

First, Ansah, from Ghana, doesn’t look like anyone capable of squashing an ant, let alone a quarterback.

When the ESPN cameras flashed Ansah’s face for the first time after being drafted, I thought, “My goodness, the Lions have drafted Urkel on steroids.”

There Ansah was, with those big horn-rimmed glasses that didn’t even look like they had lenses in the frames. He looked as mild mannered as Clark Kent. You’d have thought he was being drafted into the Army, not the NFL.

But apparently Ansah has an insatiable appetite for quarterbacks, which is what defensive coordinators love. The coaches want their pass rushers to run QBs down like a cheetah with its prey. You can thank Lawrence Taylor for that.

So how can the Lions expect a kid from Ghana with no football on his resume before 2010, to be worthy of the fifth overall draft pick?

This is where you’re allowed to roll your eyes and say, “Only the Lions.”

Schwartz and Mayhew are betting against the house with this one. All the chips are going on 47, which was Ansah’s number at BYU.

Boom or bust.

Now, this isn’t to say that no one had Ansah rated this high in the days leading to the draft. The Lions didn’t just find Ziggy like Jed Clampett found “Texas Tea.”

Ansah’s stock rose throughout the 2012 season, and the Lions coaching staff ended up guiding the West in the Senior Bowl, so they got a chance to see Ansah, up close and personal, for about a week.

It must have been a whirlwind courtship, because sitting there for the taking along with Ansah was Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, and if the Lions need anything, it’s help in the secondary, which hasn’t been good for about 20 years.

The talking heads on ESPN, once it was the Lions’ turn to pick, theorized with all their wisdom and savvy that Milliner would go to Detroit.

“I think you gotta go Dee Milliner here if you’re the Lions,” Jon Gruden said with his trademark, smiling scowl.

Mel Kiper Jr., supposed draft guru, concurred.

Milliner to the Lions!

Naturally, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell strode to the podium along with former Lions great Barry Sanders, and Barry spoke Ansah’s name into the microphone.

The mock drafters mocked once again!

Of course, there are no sure bets in the NFL Draft. The greats of today often become the busts of tomorrow. And the ignored and overlooked can turn into Hall of Famers.

It’s the ultimate crapshoot.

The whole idea of the draft is volatile enough. You hardly need to add to its propensity for being tenuous.

Yet that’s what the Lions have done, by picking hugely talented but terribly raw DE Ziggy Ansah, number five off the board. This kid could become the best pass rusher to wear Honolulu Blue since Bubba Baker.

Or he may flat out stink.

Boom or bust. Star or dud. Genius or folly.

Pretty much describes the NFL Draft as a whole, I’d say.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Summerall's Low Key Announcing Style a Rarity and a Joy

If it wasn't for the good grooming habits of his roommate, Pat Summerall might never have made a living speaking subtly into a microphone, calling sporting events.

Summerall himself told the story, in a TV special back in the 1990s---a documentary about the history of sports on television.

Summerall was nearing the end of his career as a New York Giants placekicker. His roommate was quarterback Charlie Conerly, who was also in the twilight of his playing days. One day, while Conerly was in the shower, the phone rang.

"It was a TV producer," Summerall recalled. "He wanted to speak to Charlie about auditioning for a sports announcing job after Charlie's career was finished."

Summerall told the producer that Conerly was indisposed. After a pause, the producer asked Summerall if he was available that afternoon.

Thankfully for us, the listening audience, Summerall took the producer up on the offer.

In a business where it seems as if sports announcers are being paid by the decibel and by word count, Pat Summerall offered a quiet calm. Where some of his colleagues sounded as if they were describing the Hindenburg explosion, Summerall kept his wits about him. He proved that louder wasn't always better; that loquaciousness didn't always equal wisdom.

Summerall, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 82, announced pro football with the efficiency of concentrated cleaner. He was a man of fewer words than most of his brethren, but he painted no less vivid of a picture. Summerall knew that his medium, television, was visual---so why paint over the images with needless blather? The folks at home could see what was happening.

So a 40-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson would go like this.

"Second and ten. (ball is snapped) Staubach......back to pass.....(the play develops; we see Staubach dropping back; the Redskins pass rush converges)...firing.....(there goes the football, in a perfect spiral)...Pearson.....(we see Pearson catch the football in the end zone).........TOUCHDOWN, Cowboys."


Summerall lent his baritone sound to other sports, too---notably golf. He was CBS' lead man at the Masters for years.

Then they teamed Summerall with John Madden, starting with the 1982 Super Bowl at the Silverdome---and Pat had even less incentive to speak.

Madden was the perfect foil to Summerall's low-key style. Where Summerall was staid and dignified, Madden was loud and obnoxious. To Summerall's efficiency with words, Madden offered diarrhea of the mouth.

But they made a great team, quickly becoming CBS's (and evenutally Fox's) lead NFL announcing team. If your team drew Summerall and Madden behind the microphone, it was a proud moment.

Before Madden, Summerall was joined at the hip by another former player, Tom Brookshier, who had once been a standout defensive back for the Eagles. But a serious leg injury ended Brookshier's career, dumping him into announcing in his early-30s.

Brookshier, aka "Brooky", was another good Summerall foil. Brooky was witty, Brooky was clever. Brooky knew football. Their partnership began on the old NFL Films show, "This Week in Pro Football," on which they began pairing in the late-1960s. It carried over onto Sundays as CBS's No. 1 team in the 1970s.

Brooky is gone, too---he passed away in 2010.

Summerall's biggest challenge wasn't behind the microphone, it was under the bottle. He was a recovering alcoholic, and there were some not so pretty times. He became sober in the early-1990s, and stayed that way, though he did eventually need a liver transplant in 2004.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Summerall---and his old Giants teammate turned announcer, Frank Gifford---via phone in December 2008 as the NFL celebrated the 50th anniversary of the legendary championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. I had asked about the rivalry between the Giants offense and the defense---which sometimes scored more points than the offense, along with snarling and taunting them.

"Yeah, they didn't like us," Summerall conceded to me about the Giants defenders. "The Giants became one of the first teams to introduce the defense on the PA system instead of the offense before games."

I enjoyed listening to Pat Summerall announce pro football. He didn't muddy the air with unneeded words. He let the pictures tell most of the story. A lot better than the loudmouth boobs of today, who want to inject themselves into the moment---screaming at us as if we are unable to comprehend what we are watching.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hockeytown's Bridge Jumpers Will Never Give Howard His Due

The prevailing opinion among hockey fans in Detroit is that the Red Wings goalie doesn’t win games, he merely loses them. He won’t win you a playoff series, but he sure will foul one up for you.

The goalie in the Winged Wheel is like the closer in the Old English D—he’s guilty until proven innocent. Then when he goes back out there, he has to prove his innocence all over again.

There have been more thankless jobs. The gallows executioner and the tax man come to mind. After that, I’m not so sure.

It happens every night after a Red Wings loss. Turn on talk radio and listen to the therapist of the night—also known as the host—talk the city from jumping off the Ambassador Bridge.

There might be a beef or two about the forwards not back checking or the scorers not scoring or the defensemen coughing the puck up. But those calls are just the opening act.

It all comes back to the goalie.

“Jimmy Howard? I wouldn’t let him play goalie for my kid’s Pee Wee team!”

“We’ll never win the Stanley Cup with this guy Howard in net!”

“What has Jimmy Howard ever won?”

“Howard can’t get it done in the playoffs!”

The Red Wings might have lost, 2-1, but it’s still Howard’s fault, somehow.

The wolves were out again this week, as news came to light that the Red Wings are about to outfit Howard with a six-year, $31.8 million contract. It should be signed any day now, after some final details are hammered out.

The therapists on talk radio, namely Bob Wojnowski and Jamie Samuelsen, had a bunch of apoplectics on their hands Thursday evening when the topic of discussion turned to Howard and his soon-to-be new contract.

The bridge jumpers were aghast. They didn’t like the length of the deal. They thought GM Ken Holland was “overpaying” for one of his own. They didn’t like the money, as if they were each being shaken down for a share of the payout.

Mainly, they didn’t like the idea of Jimmy Howard playing goalie for the Red Wings for the next six years.

Naturally, the bridge jumpers didn’t offer any alternatives. They paid their fee—being put on hold—so all they wanted was their say, i.e., to bitch.

Jimmy Howard, the bridge jumpers said, hasn’t proven himself worthy of such a lavish deal. He can’t win in the playoffs, they said. He doesn’t make the “big” save when you need him to make it.

One caller even said, “Whenever I see a guy coming in on Howard on a breakaway, I automatically count it as a goal.”

It’s amazing how much hockey these folks purport to see, watching it with blinders on.

The $5.3 (roughly) million that Howard is set to get per year is about on par with what goalies in the upper echelon in the NHL are being paid these days. It’s neither an extravagant contract, nor is Howard getting jobbed by the Red Wings.

In other words, if the Red Wings chose to look outside the organ-eye-zay-shun for a veteran goalie, they’d pay about the same amount of Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough as they’re prepared to give Howard.

I don’t know what NHL games the bridge jumpers have been watching this season, because it sure doesn’t appear that they’ve been watching the Red Wings.

If they had, they’d see that on many a night—too many a night, really—Jimmy Howard has been the best player on the ice for the Red Wings. Sometimes the best for both teams.

These aren’t the salad days of the mid-to-late 1990s and well into the 2000s, when the Red Wings could score four goals without breaking a sweat. The roster today isn’t exactly bursting with World Class players.

Too often the Red Wings struggle to score. Their power play didn’t score a goal on the road this season until almost 40 chances had gone into the books.

Howard, really, has been forced too often to be every bit as good as Dominik Hasek, Terry Sawchuk and Roger Crozier all rolled into one. With his team’s “offense,” Howard has the margin for error of a heart surgeon.

It’s appropriate that the Red Wings wear blood red at home, because that’s what the fans thirst for, if Howard doesn’t blank the opposition or limit them to one goal, tops.

The Cup-winning Red Wings teams didn’t need a Hall of Famer in goal, though they had one in Hasek. Their potent offense would overwhelm the other team. There were a lot of nights when you would need to score five goals to beat the Red Wings.

Thursday night was a case in point.

The Red Wings etched out a 2-1 lead early in the third period over the San Jose Sharks. As usual, it was like pulling teeth to score.

The Sharks tied the game, which went into overtime. Neither team scored in the extra five minutes, so off they went to one of those lovely shootouts that decide games nowadays.

Pavel Datsyuk started the shootout with a nifty goal. The Sharks scored on their turn. Then the Red Wings failed, but so did the Sharks. The Red Wings failed a second time.

That left the final shot up to the Sharks. A goal and the game would be over. Another save by Howard, and the shootout would drone on.

Patrick Marleau skated in on Howard and made a little deke and a deft stick handling move, and the puck was between Howard’s pads. Game over.

Howard skated off the ice and slammed his big goalie paddle against the glass in frustration, his margin for error again virtually non-existent.

Frankly, I don’t know what the bridge jumping hockey fans in Detroit want from Jimmy Howard. The team that skates in front of him isn’t anywhere near the team that skated in front of Osgood, Vernon, Hasek or even Manny Legace.

Howard has to be the Red Wings’ best player on most nights. And many times, he has been. The six-year contract the team is about to give him is reflective of that.

The Red Wings are now set in goal. They can start working on getting guys who can put the puck in the net. 

Wouldn’t that be nice?