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.