Archive for Out of Bounds

Jan
12

Once Proud, Jackson’s Knicks Now a League Joke

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The cigar smoke wafted toward the lights above the court. The basketball Mecca was filled with stogies, men clutching rolled up programs and, most of all, breathless anticipation.

Would he, or wouldn’t he?

Could he, or couldn’t he?

Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was nigh, and Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan was brimming with drama.

The date was May 8, 1970.

New York Knicks center Willis Reed had missed Game 6 in Los Angeles with a severe thigh injury. If you were a betting man, the smart money would have been on Reed not playing in Game 7. Not because of his heart, but because of his body.

The thought of the Knicks going up against the powerful Lakers in Game 7 without Reed, even with the game being played at home, was daunting.

The tip-off was nearing and 11 Knicks were on the court, warming up. The missing Knick was no. 19, Willis Reed, who was in the locker room getting some last-ditch treatment on his bad thigh. No one could be certain whether the doctor’s frantic efforts would pay dividends.

The Lakers tried not to notice, but Reed’s absence was deafening.

ABC-TV was into its pre-game segment; Chris Schenkel and analyst Jack Twyman talked of a Game 7 without Reed.

Suddenly Twyman, on camera at the time, got wide-eyed. He pointed toward the court.

“I think we see Willis coming out now!” Twyman yelled.

The roar inside the Garden was tornado-like in its decibel level. Indeed, Willis Reed, dressed in his warmups, was emerging from the tunnel and making his way to the court. The walk was made gingerly; the gait was determined but clearly distressed.

Nobody cared, or noticed. All the fans knew was that Willis Reed was going to give it a shot.

Reed’s grand entrance that day in 1970 was voted as the greatest moment in the history of Madison Square Garden.

Reed started the game and hit his first two field goal attempts—mid-range jumpers that Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain refused to challenge.

“I don’t know what was going through Wilt’s mind,” Lakers guard Jerry West said about his teammate’s laissez-faire defense on the hobbled Reed. West, speaking to actor/filmmaker Michael Rapaport, added, “”But I never knew what Wilt was thinking.”

Each bucket that Reed made in the opening minutes of the game injected even more noise into the roar from the Garden crowd.

The Knicks didn’t really need Reed beyond those two jumpers, which were his only points in the game. Guard Walt Frazier scored 36 points and dished out 19 assists as the Knicks clobbered the mind-blown Lakers, 113-99, to claim the NBA title.

The Knicks won another title three years later, but the 1970 championship is the franchise’s watershed moment.

Those Knicks teams played in a time when Madison Square Garden was the place to be to watch professional basketball.

MSG wasn’t an arena, it was a place of worship.

The Knicks roster was filled with Hall of Famers: Reed, Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. The coach, Red Holzman, is in the Hall as well.

Basketball, college and pro, has always been an East Coast game. Up and down the Atlantic coast are cities where Dr. James Naismith’s invention has rattled gyms with impunity and glamour and glory.

But it was Madison Square Garden that rose to the top of all the gyms. It was basketball’s Broadway. It was like what Sinatra sang: If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.

Willis Reed’s spine-tingling entrance onto the court on May 8, 1970 absolutely deserves to be considered the Garden’s greatest moment.

The Knicks haven’t won a championship since 1973. There have been two Finals appearances since: in 1994 and in 1999, but no ring in 42 years.

Phil Jackson was a role player for those Knicks teams in 1970 and ’73. He went on to become perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history.

But Jackson’s rookie year as an NBA executive (Knicks president) is starting out as bad as the 1970 championship was good.

The Knicks of today, at this writing, are 5-35. They are doing a 1984 Detroit Tigers, in reverse. Words like grisly come to mind.

The Knicks still play at MSG, but they do so the same way a child plays inside his father’s car.

The Knicks have one star player, Carmelo Anthony, who after 12 seasons still can’t seem to find himself on a championship-caliber team. Anthony is injured now and the Knicks brain trust of Jackson and first-year coach Derek Fisher are trying to determine whether Anthony should even bother coming back this year.

This is turning out to be, by far, the worst Knicks team in franchise history. They are on pace to win 10 games.

Jackson doesn’t do losing. He never has—not as a player and certainly not as a coach. He was hired by the Knicks last summer with great fanfare and he didn’t come out of retirement to preside over a bloodletting.

You can say that hiring a rookie coach working for a rookie executive (Fisher was a player as recently as last season) wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Think Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg with the Lions in 2001.

But Jackson has continuously defended Fisher, flat out saying that this season of horrors “is not Derek’s fault.”

Jackson is pointing the finger of blame at himself.

Jackson just got done trading J.R. Smith in the first indication that the white flag of surrender has been planted at the Garden.

No matter what you think of Jackson or the Knicks, the NBA needs a strong franchise in New York. The Knicks are one of the cornerstones on which the NBA was built. Despite the 42-year championship drought, whenever the Knicks have been competitive since 1973, the league has been better for it.

But the past decade around the Garden has been pocked with strange hires (Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown), lawsuits (Thomas; sexual harassment) and bad basketball.

But nobody saw 5-35 coming.

And it’s not going to go away overnight. Jackson has a major rebuild job on his hands—maybe one he wasn’t expecting when he signed up.

Jackson is going to turn 70 years old in September. He already is grizzled with white hair. What on Earth will the Knicks do to him?

When the Knicks do manage to win a game, you can’t even light up a cigar. No smoking inside the arena, anymore.

And where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.

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Jan
04

Today’s Lions Have Chance to Avenge 5-0, 44 Years Ago

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So here the Lions are, in Dallas for a playoff game. I was wondering if they’d ever get a chance to toss some dirt on one of the most frustrating, horrible, maddening losses in that franchise’s frustrating, horrible, maddening history.

A couple weeks ago I flipped on the wayback machine and told you of a frustrating, horrible, maddening loss in Green Bay, in 1962.

But that was in the regular season. What happened in the Cotton Bowl on December 26, 1970 was in the playoffs.

Prior to 1970, there was no such thing as a Wild Card in the NFL playoffs. You got into the post-season by winning your division, of which there were two. Period. Occasionally there’d be a tie for a division, which would necessitate a one-game playoff. The Lions won one of those playoffs, a comeback victory in San Francisco, in 1957.

That was also the year of the Lions’ last championship, as you no doubt know. Nineteen fifty-seven means to the Lions what 1955 used to mean to the Red Wings and what 1984 still means to the Tigers.

But in 1970 the NFL and the AFL merged, and just like that, the NFL was a 26-team conglomerate. The league split, like an amoeba, into six divisions and two conferences.

The league stopped being so stingy with playoff spots, introducing a “wild card” entry into each conference.

And the Detroit Lions, though never having appeared in a Super Bowl, have the distinction of being the first-ever Wild Card in the NFC.

It was poetic justice, in a way.

The 1962 Lions went 11-3 yet there was no playoffs for them. The Packers won the Western Division with a 13-1 record.

The Lions did play in something the NFL put on in those days called the Runners Up Bowl in Miami, but that hardly counts as “playoffs.”

So it was fitting that the 10-4 Lions of 1970 got invited to the post-season party, despite finishing second in the Central Division to the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions always finished second to the Vikings in the 1970s.

The Lions’ first “real” playoff game in 13 years would take place in the Cotton Bowl, against the Cowboys.

The 1970 Lions, like today’s version, were lauded for all of their “offensive weapons.”

There were Mel Farr and Altie Taylor in the backfield. Earl McCullouch and Larry Walton at wide receiver. The great Charlie Sanders at tight end. There was the capable though not brilliant Greg Landry and Bill Munson at quarterback—two-headed signal callers. The offensive line was pretty good.

The Lions won their final five games down the stretch, and their offense averaged nearly 25 points per game. The defense was stubborn, giving up just 14+ points per contest.

It had the makings of a Super Bowl team, especially in the eight-team tournament that the NFL post-season was in 1970.

The Cowboys were no slouches, of course. They, too, were 10-4 in 1970. They were led by Craig Morton at quarterback, who had running back Duane Thomas, receiver Bob Hayes and a stellar offensive line with which to work. The defense was sprinkled with future Hall of Famers. And they were coached by the legendary Tom Landry.

The game was ruled by the defenses. It was turned into a punting contest. It was football’s version of a pitching duel.

The Cowboys did manage a 26-yard field goal from Mike Clark in the first quarter. The game was still a 3-0 affair early in the fourth quarter (punts still rained down) when the Lions, pinned deep in their own zone, tried to pass their way out of the shadow of their own goalposts.

Landry was besieged by the Cowboys pass rush and was sacked in the end zone by Jethro Pugh for a Dallas safety.

Yet the score was still only 5-0. A touchdown would put the Lions in the lead.

Just one, measly touchdown.

But this was the defense’s day. It was the Cowboys and this was the first emergence of what would be called the Doomsday Defense by the football pundits.

The Lions launched one final, frantic drive. Coach Joe Schmidt replaced Landry with Bill Munson, which was a typical move. When Schmidt wasn’t replacing Landry with Munson, he was replacing Munson with Landry. The typical quarterback carousel in Detroit.

Munson breathed some life into the Lions. They actually started to move the football against the vaunted Cowboys defense.

Less than a minute remained on the clock when Munson moved the football past the 50-yard line. As Lions fans watched on TV at the edge of their sofa seats, the Cotton Bowl crowd grew antsy.

Munson faded back to pass yet again. His target was McCullouch.

But the pass was slightly high and McCullouch couldn’t reel it in. The football deflected off his fingers and into the opportunistic hands of Dallas’ Mel Renfro. Just like the opportunistic hands of Green Bay’s Herb Adderley in that awful loss in 1962.

The interception effectively ended the game and the Lions’ season.

Final score: Dallas 5, Detroit 0.

There isn’t a Lions fan worth his salt who doesn’t carry that awful final score around with him.

5-0.

It was also the final game of Alex Karras’ career. Alex would say later that he felt like the Lions would have won the Super Bowl had they managed six points against the Cowboys in Dallas.

The Lions did get back at the Cowboys, sort of, in 1991. They beat Dallas in the divisional round, at the Silverdome. It remains the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957.

But for the Lions to go to Texas today and beat the Cowboys in the playoffs would be the ultimate erasure of that brutal 5-0 loss in 1970.

5-0 wouldn’t be forgotten (it never will be), but it would be shoved further back into the recesses of the Lions’ frustrating, horrible and maddening history.

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Dec
31

The Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno, 2014

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You know those annoying end-of-the-year letters you get from family members around the holidays?

The ones that tell about little Johnny’s new teeth and sister Sarah’s new puppy and the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon? And how mom has taken up embroidery and dad ran a half marathon?

Or, something like that.

Well, this is your annual annoying blog post from yours truly.

The one that reviews the year through the lens of my writing, and which serves to remind everyone that the words that appear on this site don’t always ring true. As if you didn’t already know that.

But sometimes I get it right, or at least semi-right!

So what follows, as usual, is a look back at words of false prophecy and (occasionally) wisdom.

January

On the Tigers’ acquisition of closer Joe Nathan:

Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.

He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.

Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.

If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.

Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).

He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.

Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.

It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.

As they say about goalies who let in a soft one, I might want to have that one back.

————————-

On U-M football coach Brady Hoke firing offensive coordinator Al Borges:

Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.

He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.

The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.

So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.

“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.

The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.

Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.

Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.

“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.

Hoke smiled.

But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.

And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.

If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.

It pretty much was as simple as that.

————————

March

On the passing of Lions owner William Clay Ford:

Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.

Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.

Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.

The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.

Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.

Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.

Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.

Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.

Too bad Ford didn’t live to see another playoff appearance, but at least things look to be trending in the right direction, especially with the coaching.

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On the Tigers starting a rookie at third base in 2014:

Nick Castellanos might want to read up a bit on Mays. Hell, maybe the blabbermouths with cell phones who call into sports talk radio should read, too.

Can you imagine if Castellanos, the rookie ordained to play third base for the Tigers starting this year and for many years beyond, starts his 2014 season in a Mays-like 1-for-26 funk?

Why, it could be enough for folks to call for (gulp) Don Kelly!

Or, to move Miguel Cabrera back to third base and stick someone like Jordan Lennerton at first base. Or Victor Martinez, and have DH-by-committee.

The Chicken Little people would be out in full force, should Castellanos stumble out of the gate as badly as Mays did some 63 years ago.

On March 31, Castellanos finally makes the transition from prospect to big leaguer, when he slips the creamy white jersey with the Old English D over his 6’4″ frame and gets after it as a full-fledged player — not one of these September call-ups. On March 31, Castellanos is no longer the third baseman of the future. He is no longer a player waiting for a position to open up in Detroit.

You know what? The kid will be fine.

Sure, it’s a hunch, but it says here that a flame out isn’t on the horizon. There may be some cringe-inducing moments. Maybe he’ll throw wild to first base, costing the team a game in the late innings. Some nasty right-hander will eat him alive with some sliders from Hell. There may be days at a time where it looks like the bright lights of the big leagues are blinding him with their glare.

Castellanos was no Mike Schmidt and he needs to improve his range, but he wasn’t the Tigers’ Achilles heel, either.

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On the retirement of Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5 jersey:

If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.

The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him  ”a Genius in Spikes.”

Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”

Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and  angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.

Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.

As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?

We still miss Lidstrom but the transition has been less painful than was anticipated.

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April

On the hotness of Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist heading into the playoffs:

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

Nyquist continues to show that he can be a consistent 30+ goal scorer in the NHL.

———————————

May

On the Tigers’ fast start in 2014, and what it meant to the AL Central race:

It may not matter, because the AL Central pretty much shapes up like this: there are the Tigers and four pretenders.

This race may be over before Memorial Day, folks.

The Tigers are distancing themselves from the division pack as if the other teams all had Limburger and onion sandwiches for lunch.

This isn’t a pennant race, it’s an anointing. The only way the Tigers don’t win this division is if they stop showing up—and even then they might squeak it out by a game or two.

This was supposed to be the Kansas City Royals‘ year. The Royals won 86 games last year and their young talent and all that pitching was to mesh and bring post-season baseball back to KC for the first time in 29 years.

But the Royals can’t hit, they never could hit, and the trendy folks who picked the Royals to be serious threats to the Tigers either ignored the lack of offense or tried to see through it.

The Royals’ so-called young studs—Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer—can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag. It takes them a week to launch a home run, and two weeks to score 20 runs.

The AL Central is child’s play now. The division will be clinched by the All-Star break, at the latest.

I took a lot of grief for this piece on Bless You Boys, as well I should have!

———————————-

On the Pistons’ hiring of Stan Van Gundy to be coach and president of basketball operations:

Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.

This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.

This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”

Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.

He can coach, big time.

This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.

I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.

This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.

It may not be Matt Millen, but it’s not good—yet. Maybe the cashiering of Josh Smith will be the turning point of the season.

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June

On the prospects of injured Andy Dirks (back) returning to the Tigers in 2014:

Backs are funny things, and I don’t mean ha-ha.

Remember the sight of Rick Mahorn lying on his stomach, rather than sitting on the bench, when he wasn’t in games as a Pistons Bad Boy? The unusual posture was best for Mahorn’s trick back.

Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks is, reportedly, about to begin a rehab assignment that is designed to put him closer to rejoining the Tigers, perhaps sometime around the All-Star Break. The rehab is the culmination of his recovery from lower back surgery that he underwent in March.

Dirks’ bat and glove are already being penciled into the Tigers lineup with zeal by fans who are begging for a left-handed hitting alternative in left field, despite the unexpected success of righty-swinging J.D. Martinez.

It is assumed by the Tigers faithful that, once cleared after his rehab assignment, Andy Dirks will step into the lineup and start producing like nothing ever happened to him.

Good luck with that.

But don’t be too disappointed if, for the rest of the season, Dirks has to take occasional days off to rest his still-tender back. And don’t be surprised if we don’t see a true facsimile of the Dirks of old until 2015.

Dirks never dd come back, and his career seems to be hanging in the balance.

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July

On why the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh shouldn’t be considered a leader:

There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.

Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?

You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.

The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.

They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.

So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.

He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.

He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.

But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.

Yet new coach Jim Caldwell designated Suh one of the team captains this season. It continues to be a crown that rests uneasily on his huge head.

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September

On why Brady Hoke’s lack of winning might be a good set-up for his successor:

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Somewhere, it turned out, was San Francisco.

—————————

On why new Lions coach Jim Caldwell might succeed where so many predecessors failed:

It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.

The Lions coach seems to have his act together.

There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.

Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.

Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced  coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.

That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.

The Lions played more disciplined football, overall, than under Jim Schwartz. They didn’t jump offsides and they rarely committed stupid personal fouls at inopportune moments. Now, about those hard-to-control feet…

————————————-

December

On U-M’s chances of landing Jim Harbaugh as its new football coach:

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

I saved my worst for last, right?

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So there it is. If you hung in there and are still reading, my hats off to you. And I hope you resolve to keep reading in 2015, warts and all.

Happy New Year!

Gustav Nyquist kept the puck on his stick for 28 seconds, which in hockey is an eternity. It’s the world’s fastest team sport—a game predicated on moving the puck quickly and in tic-tac-toe fashion.

Yet here was Nyquist, the puck seemingly glued to his stick, literally skating circles around the Ottawa Senators and his own teammates on Saturday night in overtime, in the Senators’ zone.

Nyquist made three revolutions around the perimeter of the Ottawa zone, hogging the puck. He was a one-man, ice rink version of the Harlem Globetrotters. All that was missing was “Sweet Georgia Brown” blaring from the arena sound system.

It was overtime, so there was more ice with which to work, since the NHL plays 4-on-4 for the extra session in the regular season. And Nyquist used the extra ice to glide around with the puck as if he was a man playing among boys.

I have never seen one player keep the puck for as long as Nyquist kept it on Saturday night. Not even a video game player keeps it for nearly 30 seconds.

The solo puck possession was impressive enough in its length, but Nyquist finished the display by rifling a shot past Senators goalie Craig Anderson from the top of the right circle. Game over. Red Wings win, 3-2.

Just call him Gustav “Curly Neal” Nyquist.

Nyquist’s overtime goal was much needed, as it meant that the Red Wings would avoid the shootout, which is like Superman avoiding Kryptonite.

It’s also no secret that the Red Wings’ offense comes and goes without warning. First they’re popping four and five goals into the net per night, then it takes them a week to score that many.

The NHL isn’t sprinkled with the liberal amount of snipers that used to grace the ice as recently as 10 years ago. Like baseball, which is going through an offensive malaise, the NHL hasn’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard with any consistency for a number of years.

Pure goal scorers don’t grow on trees. This is true. Gone are the Brett Hulls of the world—at least for now.

The Red Wings have raised some eyebrows this season among the so-called experts, as they are sitting in the elite tier of the Eastern Conference and have been almost since the season began in October. The pre-season prognosticators didn’t give the Winged Wheelers much love.

Unlike the Stanley Cup-winning years of 1997 and beyond, today’s Red Wings have to scratch and claw to put every puck they can past enemy goalies. That’s why you see fits of scoring closely followed by bouts of sparseness, and vice-versa.

The Red Wings’ goal-scoring chart, if you spread the games played from left to right, would look like an EKG.

There may not be a true sniper available within the league, but the Buffalo Sabres have made it known that RW Chris Stewart could be had in a trade.

The Red Wings should place a phone call.

Stewart is trade bait because he is a pending, unrestricted free agent next summer and it’s doubtful that the small market Sabres want any part of a long-term, expensive deal with the 27-year-old. He is in the final year of a contract that pays him $4.15 million this season.

Stewart has only scored 20+ goals twice in his career (and hasn’t done so since the 2010-11 season), but he’s certainly a 15-20 goal guy who shoots right and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. He’s a Justin Abdelkader type but with maybe a little more skill.

Stewart isn’t having a great year so far (just five goals and a minus-14) but he likely would perk up if traded to a team that has a chance to actually do something, which the Sabres are not, despite their recent stretch of solid play.

So far there have been no indications that the Red Wings are in on Stewart, but they should be.

Buffalo’s Stewart is on the trading block. The Red Wings ought to be interested. (Getty Images)

Stewart will be 28 when next season starts, which should be the start of the prime of his career. He’s already played on some good teams in Colorado and St. Louis, so he knows a little about winning. With the Red Wings, he should get a healthy dose of that culture of success for many years to come, should he sign with them long-term next summer.

Watching the Red Wings on a nightly basis, you get the feeling that the team is still one goal scorer away from being a serious Stanley Cup contender. Even with the return of the oft-injured Stephen Weiss, who has been effective, there’s still a missing je ne sais quoi.

The inconsistent offense is a reason why coach Mike Babcock feels it necessary to occasionally pair Henrik Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk to jump start things. If the coach had his druthers, he’d play those two veteran stars on different lines to spread the wealth.

Nyquist could be a 20-goal guy (at least) every year, for sure. He has 15 goals this season in 36 games, and he popped in 28 goals in 57 games last season.

But one more sniper-type guy—just one—and the Red Wings could make this a special season after all.

The defense doesn’t have the lapses it has had in the recent past. The younger guys back there are maturing. Goalie Jimmy Howard is enjoying a nice bounce back from a checkered 2013-14 season. There’s some toughness and grit up front, with forwards who often outwork their opponents. Their coach is still among the best in the league.

The Red Wings of 2014-15 can’t throw their sweaters with the famous logo on it, onto the ice every night and chalk up two points. Those days are long gone. This squad can’t be outworked or it will lose. But it has something going, and if they can add one more guy who can put the puck into the net, the sky’s the limit.

Easier said than done, I know. But isn’t that why GM Ken Holland makes the big bucks?

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Dec
22

Lions Have to Beat More than Packers on Sunday

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The helmet whizzed past Milt Plum’s head, missing his melon by inches. The hurled headgear slammed against the locker room wall.

It was October 7, 1962.

A few weeks later, the country would be captivated and would squirm on their living room sofas, as they followed with racing hearts the tense missile crisis playing out in Cuba.

But in Green Bay, the Lions had a potentially explosive situation going on in their dressing quarters.

The Packers, sad sacks in the latter part of the 1950s, had been rebuilt by coach Vince Lombardi. The former New York Giants assistant had molded prior losers like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jimmy Taylor et al into a unit that played for the NFL Championship in 1960, where they were edged by the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 1961, the Pack drilled Lombardi’s old team, 37-0, at Yankee Stadium to win the franchise’s first championship in 17 years.

The Lions were re-building something as well, under coach George Wilson.

League champions in 1957, the Lions lost their way in 1958 and struggled for a few years but by 1962, the team was reloaded and ready to end Green Bay’s two-year reign as Western Division champs.

Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records. The winner would capture first place in the division, which was important because neither squad looked like it was going to lose too many games that season. A one-game deficit in October would be difficult for the loser to overcome during the course of the fall.

On that fateful day in Green Bay in 1962, the field conditions were less-than-spectacular, thanks to heavy rains. Mud ruled.

The conditions didn’t lend themselves to much offense, and with the Lions’ stout defense, that was even more accentuated at City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965).

The Lions managed to forge a delicate 7-6 lead. They had the football near midfield in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.

A third down presented itself. A first down might have killed the rest of the clock, but a failed conversion and a subsequent punt would have pinned the Packers deep in their own territory.

The safe bet would have been to run the football then punt.

Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, two stalwarts of the defense, were slapping each other on the back on the sidelines with congratulations on a victory that seemed certain.

Then they saw Lions quarterback Plum fade back to pass.

“What the hell is he doing?” Karras recalled saying in his book, Even Big Guys Cry.

Plum’s intended receiver fell down. Packers defensive back Herb Adderley intercepted and ran the ball deep into Lions territory.

The Packers ran a couple of token plays into the Lions’ line, then Hornung booted a 26-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.

It was a cruel, bitter loss—perhaps one of the worst in Lions history, which is saying something.

Afterward, in the locker room, members of the defense screamed, asking who the idiot was who called the pass play.

No one responded, until Plum finally said, “None of your business.”

That set Karras off.

The defensive tackle flung his helmet at Plum’s head, barely missing his target.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, the Lions, bent on revenge, destroyed Starr and the Packers. But it was too late. Green Bay won the division with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3.

Had the game in Green Bay gone differently, both teams would have finished 12-2 and a playoff for the division would have been needed.

“No one would have heard of Vince Lombardi,” Karras wrote, lamenting the fate of the 1962 season.

Whatever ill will the football gods anointed over the Lions in Green Bay, it began on that muddy field in 1962.

In the 1970s and 1980s, both the Lions and the Packers were usually pretty bad, so wins and losses by the clubs on each other’s fields were mostly inconsequential.

The 1990s ushered in the Brett Favre Era in Green Bay, and the Lions stopped winning in Wisconsin. Period.

You all know the inglorious history of the Lions on the road in Green Bay.

No wins since 1991. Including playoffs, 23 straight losses.

Favre left Green Bay in 2008 but the misery continued for the Lions. Aaron Rodgers simply took the torch and has been burning the Lions with it ever since.

The thing about streaks—winning, losing, hitting, missing—is that they all end. Eventually.

In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills could never beat the Miami Dolphins. Literally. No matter where the game was played.

The Bills beat the Dolphins in November, 1969, when both were members of the American Football League.

The Bills’ next win over the Dolphins didn’t happen until September, 1980. Twenty straight defeats to the Dolphins occurred in between.

All streaks end, for better or for worse.

The Lions, for all their ignominy of never winning in Green Bay through five-and-a-half presidential terms, have never played a game during The Streak as big in magnitude, in the regular season, in Wisconsin as the one they’re about to play next Sunday.

This one’s for the NFC North marbles.

This isn’t a mid-season game in October with the Lions foundering and the Packers gearing up for another successful season.

This isn’t a meaningless (for the Lions) contest played out on the frozen tundra with the Packers playoff-bound.

This isn’t an early-September game with optimism still high, only to be crushed as the season wears on.

This is for the division title.

Now, the loser still makes the playoffs. This isn’t being played under the no-wild card rules of 1962.

But the loser doesn’t get a home playoff game, which is crucial for both teams. The Lions are 7-1 in Detroit; the Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field.

Despite their team’s surprising success this season, few fans feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in the playoffs, even if the game is played at the winner of the NFC South’s field.

Trouble is, the fans don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in Green Bay, either.

Yet Lambeau Field is where the Lions have to win, in order to capture their first divisional title since 1993.

The Packers are used to these moments. They are a battle-tested, playoff-veteran team, laden with individual and team success.

And they are playing at home, which is a double whammy against their opponents, though the Packers’ magic at home in the playoffs has taken a few hits in recent years.

But this is all new for the Lions.

The Lions don’t play for the division, head-to-head, on the last week of the season. They just don’t.  In fact, they haven’t done so since 1981, at home. And they lost, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On Sunday, in a house of horrors that the forces have refused to smile on them even once in 22 years, the Lions have to find a way to win a stinking football game against odds, history, aura and the whole bit.

Three things have been certain since 1991: death, taxes and the Lions losing in Green Bay.

Maybe high stakes, which have never been higher for the Lions in Green Bay since maybe that game in 1962, will somehow change the course of football history.

Tee it up on Sunday and let’s find out.

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The last two Michigan football coaches were defined by who they weren’t, not by who they were.

Rich Rodriguez wasn’t a Michigan Man, and he wasn’t Les Miles. He also wasn’t the school’s first choice. The fans and alumni felt that their university settled.

Brady Hoke wasn’t Jim Harbaugh, and he also wasn’t Michigan’s first choice.

The next coach runs the risk of also not being Harbaugh.

There was a time when Michigan didn’t have to search outside of campus to find a football coach.

Gary Moeller was promoted from within after Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season. When Moeller had a notorious, drunken flare up at a Southfield restaurant in 1995, Lloyd Carr got the job, and Carr was another assistant coach who was head coach-ready.

Carr retired in 2008 and Michigan has been wandering in the wilderness ever since, save an 11-2 season and a bowl win in Hoke’s first year (2011).

First, let’s get something straight. All major football programs have gone through this sort of thing.

You think Alabama has always been a big deal after Bear Bryant left? Oklahoma, after Barry Switzer? Nebraska, after Tom Osborne? Notre Dame, after Lou Holtz?

Show me a quote-unquote storied college football program and I will show you an era where that program fell out of relevance.

Michigan fans should know very well of Notre Dame’s dark days, having played them every September for about 35 years.

Remember when they made “Oust Faust” signs in South Bend?

The Fighting Irish elevated Gerry Faust from high school and made him the football coach at Notre Dame in 1981. It was dubbed The Great Experiment. And it failed, miserably.

Faust was indeed ousted after five seasons (actually, he resigned under pressure). Then Notre Dame hired Holtz.

Holtz presided over a rebirth of college football at Notre Dame, but after Lou left in 1996, the program went wandering again.

Program after program has lost its way.

Harbaugh, the darling of the fans in Ann Arbor, has as part of his appeal the rejuvenation of Stanford football on his resume.

Stanford, once so strong on the gridiron, had fallen into doormat status in the Pac-12 before Harbaugh arrived and, working with quarterback Andrew Luck, put the Big Red “S” back into prominence.

Alabama was wandering before Nick Saban put away his mercurial ways and became the Crimson Tide’s savior.

Michigan, in fact, has gone through this before, in the 1960s. The football program was an also-ran in the Big Ten before a guy from Ohio named Schembechler arrived on campus.

Every college football program has lost its way. The key is to keep the hemorrhaging to a minimum.

The danger of Michigan football and its supporters putting all their eggs in the Jim Harbaugh basket should be obvious.

What happens if you don’t get Jim Harbaugh?

It could be “Here we go again,” i.e. introducing a new football coach who isn’t someone else.

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

On the surface, when rumors of Hoke’s dismissal began as early as in October, it appeared as if the timing was right with Michigan getting Harbaugh, the embattled San Francisco 49ers coach and former Wolverines quarterback under Schembechler in the mid-1980s. It looked like, at first blush, that Michigan was poised to lure Harbaugh back home.

Harbaugh was perceived to be a short-timer in San Francisco, and the Michigan job was going to be open. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure it out.

But the timing wasn’t right, after all. Harbaugh, by all accounts, has gotten college football out of his system. He’s a pro football lifer now. Not even the lure of Ann Arbor can change that.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

But lust is often blind.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

The Super Bowl is football’s grandest prize, and the chase for it can be intoxicating. The money is crazy good if you’re considered an elite coach. And if you wear out your welcome with one franchise, there will always be another ready to hire you. Then when the coaching jobs dry up, you put on a suit and blab into a microphone. That pays pretty good, too.

In college, Harbaugh would have to sit in living rooms again, talking to kids and their parents, begging and pleading with them to attend a school that he knows in his heart shouldn’t need any selling. At Michigan, he’d be working with a president who knows nothing about big time college athletics and a rookie athletic director.

There was a window of time, a few weeks ago, when I thought that if any college program could lure Harbaugh out of the professional ranks, it would be Michigan’s.

I have amended that to say that if Michigan can’t lure Harbaugh from the pros, no program can. And no program will.

Coaching in the NFL is the ultimate job for someone as competitive and as fiery as Jim Harbaugh. No college experience can replicate it. Not even Michigan.

So now what?

So many folks who support Michigan football have set their sights on Harbaugh, that anyone else will be, at least initially, considered a secondary choice. Even Carr publicly stated his desire for Harbaugh.

The new coach has the unenviable task of not being Jim Harbaugh and having to win right away. The win-now mandate is there because Michigan is going on too many years of wandering to continue to do so for very much longer.

The new guy will be the third straight hire at Michigan who will be regarded as not being Miles or Harbaugh. That’s not a clean slate and that’s not a good start.

But winning will end all that. Hence needing to win right away.

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

Categories : football, Out of Bounds
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Chris Spielman sat in front of his locker and fumed.

It was a potentially explosive moment. The Lions had just been demolished, 45-0, at the hands of the Washington Redskins. It was the opening week of the 1991 season and the Lions had traveled to the Nation’s Capital to take on the ‘Skins without Barry Sanders, who sat out the game due to injury.

The Lions were never in the game.

In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, Washington was driving yet again and moved the football inside the Lions’ five-yard-line. Less than a minute remained on the clock.

But instead of running another play, Washington QB Mark Rypien took a knee—a mercy knee—and the clock drained.

Rypien and the Redskins didn’t want to pile onto the Lions’ misery.

Yet that didn’t sit well with Spielman, the Lions’ fiercely competitive middle linebacker.

After the game, Spielman did a slow burn in front of reporters. He didn’t like the mercy knee, not at all.

On the field in those final seconds, Spielman screamed at the Redskins, imploring them to continue to play football. Spielman sensed that Washington coach Joe Gibbs was calling off the hogs and that wasn’t in the MLB’s DNA.

“I’ve never had any team take mercy on my team on the football field,” Spielman said after the game, his soft and low voice belying his anger and embarrassment.

Spielman, beloved in Detroit, made the locals forgive and forget that he played at Ohio State. He was Honolulu Blue collar.

The Lions season started and ended in Washington in 1991, because four months after the 45-0 blowout, the Lions met the Redskins for the NFC Championship.

Washington won again, 41-10. No mercy knees were taken.

Chris Spielman’s indignation at the Redskins not playing football until the final gun in 1991 contrasts sharply with the attitude of Dominic Raiola, the irascible center of today’s Lions.

Raiola admitted that he put a cheap shot on the New England Patriots Sunday on the game’s final knee down.

The reason for Raiola’s ire was the Pats scoring a touchdown late in the game, with the score already 27-9 in favor of New England.

So Raiola, who has a history of taking matters into his own hands, leveled a cheap shot. He dove at the knees of nose tackle Zach Moore at the game’s final snap.

“I cut him. We took a knee, so I cut the nose [tackle],” Raiola shamelessly explained after the game. “They went for six [a touchdown]. They went for a touchdown at two minutes. They could have took three knees and the game could have been over. It’s football. He wants to keep playing football, let’s play football. Not a big deal. It’s football.”

Compare Raiola’s reaction to that of Chris Spielman, who was enraged because the opponent did take a knee.

I get Raiola’s frustration. He’s in his 14th season and only once has his team made the playoffs. But he’s also part of the reason why the Lions have been mostly losers since Raiola was drafted out of Nebraska in 2001.

Raiola’s past has included giving the finger to fans, arguing with band members and other punk-like moves, of which Sunday’s was another.

You ever notice how the boorish, loudmouth boobs who do a lot of yapping usually play for losing teams?

Me thinks that Dominic Raiola protests too much.

This is the NFL, not Little League. A 35-year-old pro football veteran ought to be able to take a late touchdown that makes the score 34-9.

It wasn’t like the Patriots were trying to pile on; the Lions actually gave New England new life on the drive in question.

Moments before the touchdown, the Pats were content to kick a field goal—actually, someone should check with Raiola to make sure that was OK—but the Lions were flagged for a personal foul for slapping the helmet of the snapper.

New life, new set of downs inside the five-yard-line.

The Patriots would have looked foolish to take three knees—that’s how many they would have needed to take in order to drain the clock—that close to the goal line.

It would have looked totally ridiculous; a complete mercy job. Both teams would have been the subject of ridicule.

What were the Patriots to do?

They already kicked their field goal. But the Lions had committed yet another bonehead play to give New England a fresh set of downs.

The difference between Chris Spielman’s indignation and that of Dominic Raiola is so telling.

Spielman respected the game of football and he showed it by his actions on and off the field.

Raiola, for whatever reason, sees himself as the chief of the competition police.

The Lions weren’t champions when Spielman played in Detroit, but they made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991-95, including the last three in a row.

Raiola’s Lions haven’t done diddlysquat. Yet Raiola seems to put his cleat in his mouth time and again.

The players who yell the loudest are usually the ones who play for losing organizations. Must be an inferiority complex.

Late last week, Lions safety James Ihedigbo spouted off, saying that Patriots QB Tom Brady should be scared of the Lions defense.

As soon as I read Ihedigbo’s words, I knew they would come back to bite the Lions in the you-know-where.

“Man, look at the names, and guys we’ve got on this team. You should be intimidated by the people we’ve got on this team,” Ihedigbo said Wednesday. “We got (Ndamukong) Suh; we got guys that are beasts in this league, not even just on this team. So why should we take a backseat to anybody? Why should we?”

The Lions didn’t just take a backseat on Sunday in New England—they found themselves riding in the trunk.

These next five weeks will go a long way to determining whether Lions fans will hop on the Jim Caldwell train, for real.

I wrote a few weeks ago about discipline and how Caldwell has seemed to instill it in the Lions since taking over for Jim “Handshake” Schwartz.

But two losses later, things are starting to look like they’re fraying.

Caldwell isn’t just trying to shake off a two-game losing streak here; he’s coaching against history. He’s coaching against a mindset. He’s coaching against whatever is the opposite of a mystique.

The Lions need to win a football game right quick. Maybe the short turnaround before the Thanksgiving Day game is just what the doctor ordered.

Sometimes coaches like short weeks. Their players get to put the last game out of their minds quickly. There is no time for feeling down in the dumps.

This isn’t just about making the playoffs. Wins and losses are crucial, but these next five weeks are also about seeing how the Lions handle success, something they have failed at miserably in the past. It’s about whether they truly have bought into Caldwell’s preaching, or if it’s all just a bunch of hooey yet again.

What Dominic Raiola did on Sunday and his shameless admission about it afterward, doesn’t help matters.

Now, there is off-the-field distraction nonsense to deal with when the Lions are fighting for their playoff lives.

Again.

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Nov
17

Pistons Can Play in Timbuktu as Long as They Win

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It’s the refrain of the real estate professional.

Location, location, location!

It’s true. You can take the same 1200 square foot ranch house, lift it from its current lot and plunk it down in another, and the property value will go up or down based on the neighborhood and other location-related factors.

The home itself is officially the thing that is being appraised, but everyone knows that where that home is located largely determines what price a prospective buyer is expected to pay.

Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Free Press and self-admitted non-basketball fan, recently joined the latest mini-consortium of folks who are calling for the Pistons to move downtown.

“We left at halftime because it was too hard to stay,” Riley wrote of a recent trip to the Palace with a girlfriend to watch the Pistons play. “The parking lot wasn’t full. The highway was clear. It took less than an hour to drive back. It just wasn’t the same.”

It wasn’t the same—she compared it to going to a game in 2004—because the team hasn’t won in years.

You want the Pistons to move downtown?

They tried that—remember?

In 1960, the Pistons started playing in a shiny new, circular-shaped arena at the riverfront called Cobo. The arena was an extension of Cobo Hall, which was built for conventions and other big events.

The team was three years removed from moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Pistons shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings in those days—and the experience was often less than desirable.

The floor would get slippery from the condensation that formed due to the basketball court being placed on top of the ice surface. The seats near the court—the supposed “good” seats—gave the patrons cold feet, literally.

The Red Wings were the primary tenants, and they weren’t about to constantly melt and re-freeze the ice to accommodate the new basketball team. So the court was plunked on top of the ice with minimal wooden planking in between.

On top of that, the Pistons were losers in the 1960s. Attendance was always going to be a challenge because basketball was—and still is—running fourth place in a four-team race for market share in Detroit, behind the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings.

Even the drafting of Hall of Famers Dave Bing (1966) and Bob Lanier (1970) couldn’t lift attendance at Cobo into five figures for a night on anything more than rare occasions, even when the Pistons won 52 games in 1973-74.

Owner Bill Davidson finally pulled up the stakes and moved the Pistons north in 1978, starting with the Silverdome in Pontiac and, 10 years later, the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Pistons have been in the northern burgs for 36 years—15 years longer than they spent playing downtown. That’s about 60 percent of their 57 years since moving from Fort Wayne.

The Pistons are in a conundrum, and they partly have their arena to blame.

The Palace continues to be one of the NBA’s crown jewels—still a state-of-the-art facility that was built ahead of its time, with some suites positioned at mezzanine level instead of in the nose bleed part of the arena, as was the norm for so many hockey and basketball arenas built in the 1970s and beyond. It simply isn’t old and decrepit and in need of replacing, as is Joe Louis Arena.

The Palace is a great venue but now that the Pistons are losing again, suddenly it’s in the wrong part of town?

In pro sports, the real estate mantra doesn’t apply.

It’s not about location—it’s about winning.

If the Palace was where Cobo Arena is, and the Pistons were losing like they are now, attendance would still be a challenge, despite the arena’s amenities.

Conversely, if you put the Pistons in a dump like JLA and the team is winning, the arena could be in Kalkaska and the attendance would be OK.

Fans will drive a bit to see a winner. The Pistons have proved that—twice.

They proved it in the late-1980s and they proved it again for most of the 2000s. The common denominator? Winning, championship-caliber basketball.

The Pistons simply don’t have, and never will have, the kind of following in Metro Detroit that their three brethren enjoy; i.e. the ability to draw fans even when the team isn’t all that.

The Pistons rely on winning for their attendance figures to remain aloft, more than any pro team in Detroit. It’s been that way since 1957 and that will never change.

Detroit has never been a pro basketball town. The major colleges draw very well, but the pro game is still the redheaded stepchild of Detroit sports.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been pretty diplomatic when the subject of the Pistons moving downtown crops up, even when broached by heavy hitters like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Gores knows he has a gem in the Palace. He has backed up that adoration by pumping millions of dollars of improvements into the arena, including a monstrous new scoreboard, aiming to enhance the basketball attendance experience.

So when the question arises of the team moving back downtown, Gores has deftly demurred. He doesn’t want to hurt feelings, but he also wants folks to know that, for now, the Pistons are happy to play at the Palace, some 45 minutes north of downtown Detroit.

The question isn’t whether the Pistons should move downtown. It’s, when will they be good again?

The quality of the team has always driven Pistons attendance, not the location of the arena.

Been there, done that.

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If you happen to be in the Minneapolis area and see a young man curled in the fetal position, it just might be Teddy Bridgewater.

Bridgewater, the Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback, is going to see Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Lions defensive line in his sleep. The sweat will be cold, the images will be all-too-real. It might be like that cartoon of back in the day.

“Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a quarterback anymore!”

This was Thanksgiving Day, 1962, all over again. Upstairs, Alex Karras is grinning.

The Lions made mincemeat of Bridgewater and the Vikings on Sunday. Bridgewater played the part of Green Bay’s Bart Starr and Ansah, George Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were Karras, Darris McCord, Roger Brown and Sam Williams.

The Lions’ front four spent more time in the Vikings backfield than the referee. Or at least, as much. Bridgewater was harassed more than the only girl at a fraternity party.

Every pass play the Vikings tried in their 17-3 loss to the Lions looked like a Chinese fire drill. Bridgewater would snap the football and then immediately start running around, in survival mode. He spent more time trying to find his wits about him than finding a receiver.

In the rare times when Bridgewater found a man, the pass was often dropped, or tipped into the hands of a Lions defender for an interception. Just ask Tahir Whitehead, who if this was hockey would be called “Johnny on the Spot” by Mickey Redmond.

The slaughter wasn’t limited to passing plays.

If the Vikings tried to run the football, the Lions front four was there, too, like white on rice.

With the exception of an interception the rookie threw in the end zone in which he was baited by safety Glover Quin, the Vikings didn’t sniff paydirt. Every play they ran was between the 30 yard lines, it seemed.

The words “Lions” and “dominant defense” haven’t been used in the same sentence very much since the days of the 1960s and early-1970s, when every year the defense was way ahead of the offense—which was never more evident than in the Lions’ 5-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970 playoffs.

The aforementioned Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, in which the Lions poured through the usually vaunted Packers O-line and battered Starr to the tune of 11 sacks, is legendary stuff.

“Lord, we were ready for the Packers that day,” Karras wrote in his autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry.

The motivation in ’62 was the game the Lions blew in Green Bay earlier that season—a travesty that pitted the offense against the defense for years, thanks to a horrible pass play that was called in a situation that screamed for a conservative running play.

The pass was intercepted and the Packers kicked a game-winning field goal.

So on national TV on Turkey Day, the Lions destroyed the Packers, racing to a 26-0 lead as they punished Starr for the game in Green Bay,  before winning 26-14.

On Sunday, Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil was about as effective against the hard-charging Ansah as a screen door in a submarine. Ansah tossed Kalil around all day like a rag doll.

Ansah was the biggest and baddest Lion on a day when the defense surrendered yardage as begrudgingly as a mother-in-law doles out compliments. Ansah was credited with 2.5 sacks but that doesn’t begin to illustrate the disruption the second-year defensive end caused on Sunday.

The Lions allowed just 212 total yards of offense.

So let’s talk about this defense, seriously.

It’s only six weeks, but the Lions are ranked no. 1 in the NFL and they haven’t only victimized rookies.

In Week 1, the Lions made two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning look like, well, a rookie.

In Week 3, the great Aaron Rodgers, another Super Bowl champion and a likely Hall of Famer, was flummoxed. He and partner in crime Jordy Nelson were turned into a pair of juvenile delinquents.

Granted, in Weeks 4 and 6 (the Jets’ Geno Smith and Minnesota’s Bridgewater, respectively), the Lions weren’t exactly facing elite quarterbacks. But isn’t that what (gasp!) dominant defenses do? Remind the young how young they are?

On countless occasions in the past decade, the Lions have made pedestrian, even mediocre passers look like a combination of Unitas, Montana and Elway.

Not this season, so far.

You can’t pass against the Lions. You can’t run on them. You can’t even wait for a foolish personal foul or encroachment penalty.

Let’s not underestimate the Jim Caldwell factor.

The Lions’ new head coach promised that his team would clean up the penalties. He preached discipline.

And it’s working.

Few and far between have been the roughing the passer fouls and the silly jumping offsides, induced by quarterbacks using simple changes in cadence.

There have been an acceptably low number of penalties in the defensive backfield as well.

Darius Slay, the second-year cornerback, is quietly having a Pro Bowl-type year. He did a commendable job on Nelson in Week 3, a receiver who could make a career highlight reel solely based on games against the Lions. Slay is far from a “shut down” corner, but he’s also proving to be a member of the league’s upper class, and getting better every week.

That’s another strange thing to say: the Lions finding a superior cornerback in the draft. But they have, in Slay.

Here’s another breath of fresh air: the Lions don’t have to blitz anymore to pressure the passer. They can invade handily by sending just four guys.

But despite all this slap-happiness, leave it to the no-nonsense Suh to keep things in perspective.

“(Sunday’s win) is definitely something to be proud of, but at the end of the day it’s very early in the season,” said Suh, who had two sacks. “If we’re talking Week 17 or Week 16 and we’re still at this pace, which I expect this defense to do, then we can start to be really excited about it because it’s translating to wins.”

True that. The Lions have played just six games.

But at the same time, I can’t recall a six-game stretch where the Lions have played anywhere near this good on defense in decades.

It’s not like the Lions added a boatload of new players from last year, either. They did, however, add a new defensive coordinator.

If this keeps up, Teryl Austin is going to have a statue built in his likeness in front of Ford Field, by the fans themselves.

The Lions are 4-2 and should be 5-1 if their kicker hadn’t torpedoed them. In all the wins with the exception of the Giants game, the defense has bailed out the scuffling offense.

Check for tie-dye. Are people saying “groovy”? Are the Beatles charting?

Surely this must be a time warp that we’re in.

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When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.

OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.

Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.

The comment broke the room up.

There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.

Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.

My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.

It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.

Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.

Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.

But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?

Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.

So the “Michigan Man” term was born!

There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).

Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.

Oh, how good those years look now, eh?

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.

The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.

That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.

Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?

But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.

When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.

Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.

Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.

With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.

Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.

You heard me.

Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.

But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.

In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.

Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.

The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.

It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.

But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.

That’s not a good sign.

The wild card, however, is Brandon.

The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.

John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.

“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”

Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.

What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.

Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.

But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.

In fact, it may be at its best place in years.

Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories : football, Out of Bounds
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