Archive for Out of Bounds

The only thing worse than doing something posthumously is doing it because you missed the boat before things got posthumous.

First, let me say that I’m not normally one that’s quick on the trigger when it comes to calling for the retirement of uniform numbers. Frankly I think teams in all sports do too much number-retiring. It’s like the issuing of championship rings, which now extends to the folks who answer the phones, the custodial staff and the parking attendants. Everyone gets a ring!

This practice cheapens the very thing you’re extolling, which is the ring itself.

But I digress. Already.

The Lions have retired only five numbers in franchise history.

There is no. 7, for the old quarterback of the 1930s, Dutch Clark.

There is no. 20, for three players—Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders.

There is no. 22, for that partier and winner, quarterback Bobby Layne.

There is no. 37, for the great runner from Texas, Doak Walker.

And there is no. 56, for the father of middle linebacking, Joe Schmidt.

One more needs to be added to that list, and it’s awful that it now has to be done without the man himself present to see it.

Let’s power up the wayback machine and take it to the fall of 1970.

In the NFL, 1970 was, among other things, the Year of George Blanda.

It was the season where Blanda, 43 years old, rescued the Oakland Raiders time and again with his kicking leg or his passing arm. Sometimes he used both to slay the opponent, often in the game’s waning moments.

Blanda had already authored several come-from-behind victories by the time his Raiders invaded Detroit for the annual Thanksgiving Day game on November 26, 1970.

But on this Turkey Day, it started out as if the Raiders weren’t going to need Blanda’s heroics. Not by a long shot.

The John Madden-coached and Daryle Lamonica-quarterbacked Raiders stormed into Tiger Stadium and before anyone could say “Just Win, Baby!” the Lions were down, 14-0.

This wasn’t one of those years where the Lions showed up on Thanksgiving Day and just hoped to put on a good show on national television. They had serious playoff aspirations. Their record was 6-4 and even though the Central Division was a lost cause thanks to the Minnesota Vikings’ domination, the NFL had instituted something new for the 1970 season—the first after the NFL-AFL merger.

It was called the Wild Card.

No longer did a team have to win its division to play a post-season game. Because the new NFL’s alignment called for three divisions in each conference, in order to even things out, commissioner Pete Rozelle decreed that the second-place team with the best record in each conference would qualify as a Wild Card.

The 1970 Lions had a shot at this new Wild Card.

So falling behind 14-0 to the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day had real implications. More than just pride was on the line.

The Lions wore white jerseys that day, only the second time they had worn white at home in team history. The change was asked for by NBC television, which carried the game. NBC was fearful that the Raiders’ white jerseys and silver numbers weren’t a good made-for-TV combination—especially for those with black and white sets.

So the Raiders wore their menacing black while the Lions played a home game wearing their road duds.

The nerve!

Maybe the white jerseys at home played mind games with the Lions, who were sleepwalking while the Raiders put two quick touchdowns on the board.

My colleague and friend Jerry Green has often recalled that the Raiders were smirking and chuckling at the Lions on the sidelines after Oakland’s 14-0 getaway. In those days, both teams’ benches shared the same side of the field.

But then Charlie Sanders went to work.

Sanders, wearing his blue no. 88 on his still-clean white jersey, was about to get dirty. And the Raiders were about to feel filthy.

Sanders made two unbelievably acrobatic touchdown grabs—both of the diving variety, with his big body outstretched and parallel to the turf. On one of them, he landed tremendously hard on his shoulder.

Sanders’ first TD grab came late in the second quarter and tied the game, 14-14. It came from 20 yards out, from the passing arm of Greg Landry.

Sanders made another incredible grab in the end zone in the fourth quarter, from six yards out. That touchdown gave the Lions a 21-14 lead.

The Lions later added an insurance TD via a Mel Farr 11-yard run, and Detroit beat Oakland, 28-14. George Blanda couldn’t save the Raiders on this day.

The Lions moved to 7-4 and kept their playoff hopes alive. Three weeks later, the fans were tearing down the goal posts at the Stadium after the Lions beat the Green Bay Packers, 20-0, to clinch the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card with a 10-4 record.

It’s true that I’m cherry picking one of Sanders’ finest games, but this game was symptomatic, not an anomaly.

Charlie Sanders didn’t invent the tight end position, as Joe Schmidt has been credited with doing for middle linebacker. Sanders didn’t perfect it, either—as Tony Gonzalez would do some 30 years later.

But what Sanders did do from 1968-77 as one of the greatest Lions of all time, was set the gold standard for tight ends in Detroit.

Tight end wasn’t much of a position in Detroit prior to Sanders’ arrival in 1968 from the University of Minnesota. Before Charlie came, the tight end functioned mainly as a sixth offensive lineman, and not much more.

The tight end certainly wasn’t expected to get 20 yards downfield in less than three seconds and haul in a pass over the middle, as Sanders did with frequency as a Lion.

Such was Sanders’ impact on the football field, that every tight end drafted by and traded for by the Lions since 1977 is compared, no matter how unfavorably, to Charlie.

Usually it goes like this.

“Well, (fill in the blank) is definitely no Charlie Sanders!”

No, but who was? Who has come close in Detroit, Pontiac and now Detroit again?

David Hill? Jimmie Giles? Pete Metzelaars? David Sloan? Brandon Pettigrew?

Sanders didn’t post eye-popping career numbers, at least not by today’s standards. His 336 career grabs can be achieved in about six good years—maybe fewer—by the modern tight end.

Sanders didn’t have big numbers but he had big catches. He never caught a football when he was wide open. Every grab was made in rush hour traffic.

Charlie Sanders might have been the most punished—and punishing—tight end in pro football history.

Charlie, as you know by now, is gone—passed away last week at age 68. That indomitable foe—cancer—did Charlie in, moving through his body with insidious speed.

The Lions fumbled the ball on this one. They let the clock run out with time outs left on the board.

They should have retired Charlie Sanders’ no. 88 not long after Charlie made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, way back in 2007.

Without question, 88 should have joined 7, 20, 22, 37 and 56 in Lions eternal glory, sometime during that 2007 season.

That Charlie only played in one playoff game in his 10-year career should hardly be a referendum on his greatness.

There were years when Sanders was the best offensive player on the Lions—including quarterback.

Sanders’ impact on the Lions organization was felt long after his retirement as a player.

Charlie coached. Charlie broadcasted. Charlie worked in the personnel department. Charlie mentored many Lions players, and not just tight ends. Charlie was one of the Lions’ best-ever ambassadors.

Of course, no. 88 can still be retired but now it has to be done after Charlie’s death.

The Lions blew this one. Shame on them.

 

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Dave Lewis finally got his opportunity. But he never had a chance.

Scotty Bowman skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice. It was a June evening in 2002.

Bowman had just won his ninth Cup as coach, and third with the Red Wings. He was 68 years old.

During the on-ice celebration, Bowman—arguably the greatest coach in professional sports history—whispered into captain Steve Yzerman’s ear that this was it. Scotty was retiring.

Bowman had been the Red Wings coach for nine seasons. After a rough first season (first round playoff KO at the hands of the upstart San Jose Sharks), there was much success. Three Stanley Cups speak for themselves.

With Scotty’s self-ziggy, the Red Wings needed a new coach, and there wasn’t any real competition for the plum job.

Lewis, ex-Red Wings player and longtime assistant coach who’d worked for three head coaches in Detroit, was tabbed as Bowman’s replacement.

It was hailed as the proper comeuppance for a loyal employee.

This was Dave Lewis’ big chance, but truth be told, Lewis didn’t have a prayer as Scotty Bowman’s successor.

Lewis was too close to the players as an assistant, especially given Bowman’s sometimes prickly relationship with his players. When the players in pro sports have a beef with the boss, they take those beefs to the assistants.

Lewis had been that assistant, for some 14 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Bowman. For 14 years, Dave Lewis played the role of confidante and sounding board for the players.

That role evaporates when you move into the big office.

Lewis had two good regular seasons in Detroit as head coach, but he failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. In his first year, Lewis’ Red Wings were swept in the first round by a surprising Anaheim team that would make it to the Cup Finals.

The Mighty Ducks were coached by some guy named Mike Babcock.

In year two, Lewis managed to make it past Nashville before being blasted out by Calgary in another playoff upset.

Then the lockout happened, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

When play resumed in 2005, Lewis was out as coach of the Red Wings.

Babcock replaced him, and three years later the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.

Dave Lewis is the cautionary tale among Red Wings coaches.

He was Exhibit A in the argument that longtime assistants shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded with promotions.

Lewis didn’t get along with some of the veterans as head coach, notably Brett Hull, who in Lewis’ defense could be a handful.

Things change when you go from assistant to head man.

The Red Wings, as I write this, are homing in on their new coach, to replace Babcock, who signed with Toronto.

He is Jeff Blashill, a loyal, longtime employee of the Red Wings organization and current coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Blashill appears to be on the verge of being hired with virtually  no competition.

Kind of like Dave Lewis was in 2002.

But Blashill has an advantage over Lewis: Blashill only stood behind the Red Wings bench as an assistant for one year. Several players at the NHL level know Blashill from their days at Grand Rapids.

But there’s a distinct difference between being a former Babcock assistant and an AHL coach, and being head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Blashill is, apparently, about to find out. He is expected to be named Red Wings head coach any day now.

The Red Wings, unlike with the Dave Lewis hire in 2002, are doing the right thing. My opinion.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone outside of the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to replace Babcock.

The Red Wings, if they’re anything, are prepared.

As early as last summer, the Red Wings had a hunch that Babcock might bolt when his contract expired come July 1, 2015. So they locked up Blashill, doubling his salary at Grand Rapids with the provision that he not entertain any offers (he would have gotten some) from NHL teams throughout the 2014-15 season.

Now Babcock is gone, as feared, and the Red Wings have their next coach all lined up.

Preparation.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone other than Blashill because the Red Wings have groomed him for this moment. Now that it’s here, why look elsewhere?

 

The eggs are all in the Blashill basket, but that’s OK, because if there was ever a “good” time for arguably the best coach in the NHL to flee Detroit, it’s now.

Mike Babcock—with some definite help from GM Ken Holland—has left the team in good shape for a young, inexperienced (NHL-wise) coach such as Jeff Blashill to commandeer.

Babcock has coached up the Grand Rapids Griffins-turned-Red Wings who’ve turned up on the NHL roster over the past three years. Players that Blashill had first crack at.

Blashill coaches in the same manner, it’s said, as Babcock. Certainly Blashill, in Grand Rapids, believes in the same system that they use in Detroit.

The next couple of years should be fascinating to watch when it comes to Red Wings hockey.

There’s going to be a referendum, one way or the other.

The question to be answered will be, “How much will the Red Wings miss Mike Babcock?”

That’s where Jeff Blashill comes in, because if he’s able to lift the Red Wings to the next level, i.e. past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it won’t be about Babcock anymore.

With Dave Lewis, the shadow of Scotty Bowman always loomed. Lewis took over the defending Stanley Cup champs and a team that won three Cups in six years.

There was nowhere to go but down for Lewie.

Blashill is succeeding a high profile guy behind the Red Wings bench, but at the same time, it’s not a terribly tough act to follow.

Babcock has a great resume and the hardware to support it, but the hard fact remains that the Red Wings haven’t advanced to round three of the playoffs in six years.

In the six years prior to Lewis taking over the Red Wings in 2002, the team had won three Cups.

Dave Lewis, in retrospect, never really had a chance as Red Wings coach.

Jeff Blashill seems to have a great chance.

We’ll see.

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Ever since Jim Harbaugh was named Michigan’s football coach in December, he’s been on tour.

You can hardly pick up the Internet these days and not read Harbaugh’s name in a headline on some website somewhere.

First he’s helping distressed motorists. Then he’s being passive/aggressive with fellow coaches. Then he’s posing for a selfie with the First Lady of the land. And pretty much everything in between.

Harbaugh will talk about anything, to anyone.

You wanna talk khakis? Harbaugh will bend your ear.

It’s as if Harbaugh has been charged with selling Michigan football—barnstorming the land, espousing the Michigan Way. You keep looking for the back of a truck and the bottle of Love Potion no. 10.

Harbaugh, after just four months on the job, has already gotten more positive press as Michigan’s football coach than Brady Hoke got in four years.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when Harbaugh was even remotely undecided about his future beyond the San Francisco 49ers.

There hasn’t been this much buzz about Michigan football since the man who coached Harbaugh roamed the sidelines on Ann Arbor Saturdays.

With all apologies to Lloyd Carr, a fine man and coach, Harbaugh has the state and the nation on pins and needles about the block M in a way that reminds the old-timers (like yours truly) of when Bo Schembechler donned the headset, sunglasses and ball cap.

College football was never boring in these parts when Bo coached Michigan.

Whether he was turning red with anger at yet another question about his kicking game, or working the officials on the sidelines, or getting into the face of one of his players, Schembechler WAS Michigan football.

Bo never would have conceded that fact, but it was 100 percent true.

Now, with Harbaugh, the Wolverines finally have a coach that is the face of the program, and right from the jump.

There is deliciousness in the connection between Harbaugh and Schembechler—a direct link that can never be broken.

Camaraderie among the brotherhood of coaches is nice and all, but it doesn’t come close to the relationship between player and coach—especially when that player is a quarterback.

It’s one thing to say that you are returning to be the head coach at a place where you were once an assistant. That’s a nice little story.

It’s quite another to have once been the BMOC and then return to campus to take the head coaching job—a job once held so grandly by your mentor and practically second father.

We’ve all seen the photos and the videos of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, no. 4, being given a talking to by Schembechler on a fall Saturday in the mid-1980s. Their relationship was not atypical when it comes to that of QB and coach. Tough love comes to mind.

Now Harbaugh is the coach, and unlike when Bo arrived in Ann Arbor as a virtual unknown in 1969, Harbaugh bounces into town with a nifty resume and a cult following.

You’d never catch Bo making the rounds as publicly as Harbaugh has this year, but that’s more of a sign of the times than anything else.

Schembechler was larger than life and he didn’t have social media to help him—not that he needed it.

Harbaugh has all the trappings of being the next great Michigan football coach (again with apologies to Carr, who did a very good but not great job), but no matter his win/loss record, one thing is for certain: there’s a lot more juice in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry now.

Remember Michigan-Ohio State?

The rivalry hasn’t been the same since Woody Hayes was forced out of Columbus after the 1978 season.

Bo coached Michigan for 11 more years, but nine years of Earle Bruce and two of John Cooper at OSU didn’t move the meter nearly the way Bo and Woody did between 1969 and 1978.

In fairness to their successors, Bo and Woody coached their teams partly during an era where you didn’t go to a bowl game unless you went to the Rose Bowl for winning the Big Ten—otherwise known as the Big Two and Little Eight in the 1970s. So there was a lot riding on that final game of the year in Columbus or Ann Arbor.

But the fact remains that Michigan-Ohio State hasn’t had the star power at the head coaching position—on both teams—since Bo and Woody cast their large shadows.

Until now.

Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Urban Meyer at Ohio State form arguably the most intriguing coaching matchup in college football today.

Finally, both schools have star power under the headsets.

This Michigan-Ohio State thing has some juice again. Meyer’s program has the leg up on Michigan’s, but for how long?

The recruiting battle will be fierce. The gamesmanship will be fascinating to watch.

More importantly, the football played on the field will be exquisite, once Harbaugh fully sinks his meat hooks into the job.

The coaches don’t have catchy names like Bo and Woody. “Jim and Urban” lacks in that department.

But the coaches could be named Frick and Frack for all anyone cares. What will matter, and what is finally back in this rivalry, is the intensity. For too many years since Woody left OSU, either Michigan or Ohio State have gone on streaks of dominance that have relegated the rivalry to second class status.

It’s not a true rivalry if one team is constantly beating the brains out of the other.

As long as Harbaugh and Meyer are at U-M and OSU, respectively, there shouldn’t be dominance by one school over the other.

Bo’s record vs. Woody was 5-4-1, to show you.

Remember Michigan-Michigan State?

That just got a lot better, too.

Harbaugh-Mark Dantonio won’t be chopped liver, either.

Jim Harbaugh is the rock star college coach. He tours and he has a following and he hangs with celebrities.

He brings a je ne sais quoi to the table.

He also wins.

Life has been breathed back into Michigan football.

Finally.

Categories : football, Out of Bounds
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Apr
04

Second National Title Still Eludes Izzo, But Not Honor

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In the end, the clock struck midnight. The carriage turned into a pumpkin. The BMOC got the girl. The house won another.

The NCAA men’s basketball championship will be a battle of no. 1 seeds, after all.

Duke University put an end to another furious March Madness run by Michigan State.

It is April, after all.

The Blue Devils, with their legendary coach and decades of basketball excellence, pretty much flicked the seventh-seeded Spartans off their shoulder in a decisive 81-61 romp that never really was much of a game.

MSU has a legendary coach, too. They have decades of basketball excellence on their resume, too.

But on Saturday night in Indianapolis, Duke showed why they entered the tournament as one of the top-four seeded teams in the country, while the Spartans showed that sometimes you can only go so far on grit, determination and a good story.

Going into this Final Four, MSU was the one team that showed up as an interloper—a supposed hanger-on that couldn’t possibly have been one of the last teams standing because their talent didn’t measure up.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have none of that talk prior to the game, telling anyone that would listen that the Spartans did indeed have players, not just moxie. It wasn’t just coach speak. Krzyzewski has been around long enough to know that any team that wins four games to reach the Final Four didn’t get there without guys that can play.

Coach K also knew that those players were being guided by Tom Izzo, who takes to March like a fish to water.

Izzo and his teams show up to the tournament and it’s as if nothing that happened prior to March matters in the least.

Look bad in a road loss in January? Cough up a game at home against a lesser opponent in February?

None of it matters to Izzo and his kids when March gets Mad.

The success Izzo has enjoyed in the tournament has been oft-repeated, and everyone knows it has all resulted in just the one championship (2000). But even if Izzo doesn’t win another championship, his teams will go down as ones that scare the dickens out of everyone before they’re finally defeated.

On Saturday, it took a great team from a great basketball school to put an end to Izzo’s latest improbable tournament run.

The Spartans got off to a 14-6 lead before Duke found their sea legs and ran MSU out of the gym.

Izzo wins in March, but Krzyzewski wins more. And Krzyzewski wins in April, too.

And the Blue Devils win in Indianapolis, where they captured national championships in 1991 and 2010.

Krzyzewski is 9-3 in Final Four games. Izzo is now 3-4.

So the pursuit for the elusive second championship that will ensure Izzo’s place on a level that is slightly higher on which he currently sits, continues.

Krzyzewski, meanwhile, seeks national title no. 5 on Monday night against Wisconsin, which upended Kentucky, 71-64 in the other semi-final game.

An all-Big Ten Final was oh, so close to happening, as it turned out.

But Duke was too smothering, too well-oiled, too on their game for MSU.

“After the first four minutes, we were a different team. We played great basketball tonight, especially on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said.

Indeed.

Part of the genius of Izzo in March is that, while his teams certainly are not untalented, MSU has never embraced the one-and-d0ne method of going after players who pass through college like a commuter train. MSU isn’t a basketball factory, per se—its players stick around long enough to plant some roots and learn the campus without needing a directory.

Now, whether Tom Izzo can reach the mountain top again by offering recruits the more traditional, old school collegiate athletic experience, remains to be seen. He wants to produce NBA players, too, but he prefers to do it without his kids needing “HELLO My Name Is” tags at practice.

Duke is moving on. Again. Goliath advances. The hare beats the tortoise.

After Saturday’s loss, Izzo lamented the game. He was allowed.

“I feel bad because I didn’t think people got to see the team that won 12 out of 15 games,” the coach said. “So give Duke credit and give our team credit for getting someplace most people didn’t think we could go.”

That last sentence has often been attached to Tom Izzo-coached teams in the NCAA tournament.

Once again, Izzo got the Spartans to a place most people didn’t think they could go.

Once again, MSU got to a Final Four improbably.

But there is hardly any dishonor in losing to Duke, a school that doesn’t get there improbably. It’s only improbable if the Blue Devils don’t make the Final Four.

“It’s an amazing thing, I mean, just to be in the Final Four, but to play on Monday night is the ultimate honor,” Krzyzewski said.

“Now they’ve got a chance to play for a national championship, and damn, damn how great is that?”

It never gets old for these coaching legends, does it?

 

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Mar
14

Austin’s Coaching Chops to Be Put to Test, Sans Suh

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In 1962, the only “sack” was something filled with potatoes. The word certainly wasn’t used in the same sentence with “quarterback,” unless you were directing your signal caller to go to the market.

The term “sacking the quarterback” was coined by Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones, sometime in the mid-1960s. Prior to Deacon’s creativity, on the quarterback’s stats line, what we know as a sack today was called “times tackled for loss.”

Yawn.

There were no sacks, per se, on that Thanksgiving Day in 1962. But Bart Starr’s body didn’t know the difference.

The Detroit Lions, on one of their most glorious days since their 1957 championship, brutalized and punished Green Bay’s Starr on national television while the nation feasted on turkey. Eleven times Starr faded back to pass and was “tackled for a loss.”

Sacked!

The effort was payback for the Lions letting the Packers off the hook in Green Bay a month earlier.

The Lions’ defensive line in those days were the “original” Fearsome Foursome—several years before Jones and company got tagged with that moniker with the Los Angeles Rams.

Darris McCord and Sam Williams at the ends. Alex Karras and Roger Brown in the interior. Those four collapsed the vaunted Packers offensive line—filled with future Hall of Famers—all afternoon on that Thanksgiving Day of ’62. Sometimes the linebackers, like Joe Schmidt, would get into the act.

The Lions won, 26-14, and it was Green Bay’s only loss of the season. The Packers would go on to repeat as NFL Champions a month later.

But the Lions, on their way to an 11-3 season in ’62, had their day against the Pack.

The Lions defense in the early-1960s was a force. All eleven men worked in unison to be among the league leaders in fewest yards and points allowed from 1960-62.

The architect of the defense was a young former NFL defensive back for the Cleveland Browns who soaked up the teachings of the legendary Paul Brown.

Don Shula was hired by the Lions after a couple of seasons of coaching in college ball. George Wilson made Shula his defensive coordinator, though that wasn’t the term used in 1960.

Under Shula, the Lions terrorized opposing offenses. There was that great line, Schmidt and Wayne Walker led the linebackers, and the secondary had Night Train Lane, Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary and Gary Lowe, all ball-hawking defenders and in Lane’s case, head-hunting. Schmidt, Lane and LeBeau are enshrined in Canton.

In Shula’s three years running Detroit’s defense, the Lions were 26-13-1. But there was no wild card back then so there were no playoffs, thanks to the Packers winning the West Division all three years.

Shula was 33 when Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom tabbed the Lions assistant to be the Colts’ new head coach.

Shula thus became the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.

Wilson stayed head coach of the Lions through 1964 before resigning in protest. The person he was protesting was new Lions owner William Clay Ford.

Had Shula not been pilfered by the forward-thinking Rosenbloom, he probably would have remained on Wilson’s staff, and maybe Don Shula would have been the next Lions head coach instead of the unsavory Harry Gilmer.

Speaking of unsavory, during this Ndamukong Suh free agency mess, my thoughts turned to Shula’s time with the Lions.

I thought of Shula because right now the Lions have a young, up-and-coming defensive coordinator who has been getting some play as a possible future head coach.

Teryl Austin put together a defense in 2014 that was among the league’s best. He interviewed for some head coaching positions in January. The Lions, though happy for him, heaved a sigh of relief when Austin was bypassed by those teams.

But Austin’s defense was anchored by Suh, the destructive defensive tackle who signed with Miami last week—Shula’s old team, if you like your irony cruel.

Austin will have to answer the question going forward: Was he, not Suh, the real reason the Lions had a superior defense, by the numbers, last season?

We’re about to find out.

It’s a defense not without holes.

Even with the trade for DT Haloti Ngata, the line is a shell of its former self. Suh is gone and so is the inconsistent but potentially dominant Nick Fairley.

The secondary could use another top-flight cornerback. Or two.

Austin’s coaching chops will be put to the test in 2015.

Is he another Don Shula?

That’s a loaded question but this is the NFL, which one former sage coach once said stands for Not For Long, if you don’t get the job done.

Last year, Teryl Austin was a darling among defensive coordinators. He looked like head coaching material after just one year of running a defense.

But Austin had Suh last year.

The NFL is a league of adjustments and no D-coordinator in the league will have to adjust as much as Austin in 2015, and not just because of losing Suh.

In fairness, in Shula’s days with the Lions, there was no free agency to speak of. Shula didn’t have to fear losing Karras or McCord or Schmidt or Lane to another team.

But while he had those players, Shula drew every ounce of performance from them in three years.

It’s no coincidence that after Shula left for Baltimore, the Lions defense wasn’t quite the same even though most of the players were.

 

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Someday in the future, a defensive player as destructive as Ndamukong Suh will enter the NFL. Maybe.

It’s highly unlikely that if such a player will ever exist, that he will play for the Detroit Lions.

It’s really just a matter of odds.

The second coming of Dick Butkus has yet to play in the league, and Butkus retired over 40 years ago.

Has there been another Joe Greene? Who has filled Lawrence Taylor’s cleats?

Players like Suh, the enigmatic force of nature that he is, come down the pike with the frequency of Halley’s Comet.

They are not only franchise players in the present, they’re names that should be forever linked to one football team.

Jim Brown with the Cleveland Browns. Butkus with the Chicago Bears. Taylor with the New York Giants. Greene with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Barry Sanders with the Detroit Lions.

There should be no good reason to allow someone like Suh, a probable Hall of Famer, to ever slip into another team’s uniform.

The Philadelphia Eagles made that mistake with Reggie White, and there are some fans who forget that White was anything before he was a Green Bay Packer, a franchise for which White helped win a Super Bowl—something the Eagles have never done.

Yet here we are, with Suh on the verge of signing with the Miami Dolphins, as he keeps his vow to sign with the highest bidder in his very brief foray into free agency.

The Lions, as has been their wont, bungled this one. They got the money messed up over the years with Suh’s contract and they couldn’t cough up enough dough in the end to keep him.

In the weeks and months leading up to Suh’s free agency, Lions President Tom Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew talked a tough game, another thing for which the Lions have been known to do, though it’s usually the players who have blown the hot air.

Lewand and Mayhew talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk, and now the one who is walking is Suh.

I don’t want to hear about financial prudence or that no one is worth the kind of money that the Dolphins are throwing at Suh or how losing someone of Suh’s magnitude is actually a good thing because the Lions now have $17 million of salary cap space.

Bullpucky!

The Lions are not a better team without Ndamukong Suh, just as pizza isn’t better without cheese and a golf bag isn’t better without a driver.

But it goes further. The Lions are a worse franchise for this.

It’s true that Greene and Butkus and Brown and Taylor played their careers before the advent of true free agency. But there were trades, and none of those players were ever off-loaded in the name of saving some cash.

That’s because they were game-changers and brilliant at their craft, and because their respective franchises knew that players of that degree of excellence come along once in a generation, if you’re lucky.

The Lions, whose last championship is creeping up on 60 years ago, are a worse franchise for letting Suh go because if they are truly serious about delivering a pro football title to the long-suffering fans in Detroit, you are either all in or you’re not.

It’s not enough to say that you made Suh a “competitive offer.” It’s not enough to throw your hands up and cry about the financial landscape of today’s NFL.

It’s not enough.

Those three words might as well be emblazoned on team headquarters in Allen Park.

When you have a player like Suh land in your lap, as he did when the Lions drafted him second overall in 2010, you make him a member of your franchise for life. You build around him.

The Lions never let Barry Sanders sniff free agency, and the fact that the team could never make deep playoff runs while Sanders played in Detroit is not a case study against keeping him as a Lion for life.

Suh should have been the defensive version of Sanders—a player who would forever wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver, for good or for bad, til death do us part.

The pleas for financial reason and letting Suh walk should fall on deaf ears because while he is one player of 53 on the roster, he is a genuine building block. You pay the big boys and fill in with draft picks and second tier free agents.

Ahh, that’s the rub.

The reason there was hand-wringing over Suh’s status after that playoff game in Dallas is because the Lions haven’t been very good at finding capable NFL players beyond the second round of the draft.

Had they possessed the track record of, say, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots—teams that always draft low but always manage to keep their rosters replenished with mid-to-late round picks, the argument to pay Suh would be much easier to make.

But because the Lions have been so bad for so long, they have consistently drafted in the top five, which means they have lots of money tied up in just a few players. And that would be fine if they were adept at finding good players on the cheap, or better at prioritizing their needs smarter.

Suh leaving the Lions isn’t just another case of a pro football player chasing the almighty dollar and leaving for greener (literally and figuratively) pastures. Players come and go all the time in the NFL, and lots of times it’s all about money. And why shouldn’t it be?

The average length of an NFL career is about three years. Three! I say let the players make all the money they want, as fast as they can.

Suh leaving the Lions the way he did, with his former team holding the bag, is yet another indictment on a franchise that has quite a rap sheet.

It doesn’t matter that Suh can be a perplexing, frustrating, weird dude. It doesn’t matter that he has been, at times on the exterior, cool to the city of Detroit and distant with the football fans within it.

Professional sports these days is more about financial stability and less about loyalty and warm and fuzzies. I get that. But the Lions didn’t need Suh to wear his love for Detroit on his sleeve—they just needed for him to suit up and wreck offenses on Sundays until he retired.

Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive tackle to be drafted into the NFL in years, and will likely be the best to be drafted for years to come. He is without question the most dominant player on the D-line the Lions have had. Ever. Short of defensive back Night Train Lane, Suh is the most feared Lions defender of all time as well.

And the Lions let him go.

But hey, they made him a competitive offer.

It’s not enough.

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Mar
02

Crafty Holland Plays It Safe, Smart Just Before Trade Deadline

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The 36-year-old defenseman arrived in Detroit, a moving piece in one of those NHL trade deadline deals, toting his equipment bag and maybe a bottle of Geritol. It was a chance for another “kick at the can,” as the hockey people like to say about the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The aging blueliner, booed out of his previous city, had already won two Cups by the time he was traded to the Red Wings in March of 1997. He gained those rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in consecutive years (1991-92).

Larry Murphy was already on his fourth team and was 11 years into his NHL career when he helped lead the Penguins to glory, but that was five years ago and he had added a fifth team to his travelogue when the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs swung a deadline trade.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf fans funneled their frustration with the team’s proclivity to spin its wheels on Murphy.

They booed whenever he touched the puck. They jeered him at every turn. If there ever was a player who needed to be moved, it was Murphy from the Maple Leafs in 1997.

The trade is listed on Hockey-Reference.com as Murphy to the Red Wings on March 18, 1997 for “future considerations.”

Murphy was an offensive defenseman who rocked the NHL as a rookie, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. He was 19 years old when the season began.

Sixteen years and two Stanley Cups later, Murphy was still known as a good puck-moving defenseman, except that the fans in Toronto used him as a figurative pinata. It is still a mystery as to why the Maple Leaf faithful turned on him so.

Regardless, Murphy jetted into Detroit on March 18, 1997 and there was one mission and one mission only: to win the Stanley Cup for a third time.

I asked Murphy about the treatment he got in Toronto. We chatted as we watched the Red Wings play Anaheim the night Steve Yzerman’s jersey went up into the rafters. It was January 2, 2007.

The brutality he went through in Toronto didn’t seem to have bothered Murphy all that much.

“Fans are fans,” he told me. “They pay their money.”

So it didn’t get to you?

“I thought it was kind of funny, actually,” Murphy said.

Murphy switched his Toronto blue for Detroit red and the results were palpable.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup the next two springs. Murphy was again on a team that won two straight Cups, the only player in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

The Larry Murphy trade is among the best the Red Wings ever made at the deadline. And they’ve made a lot of them.

Two years after Murphy, the Red Wings made a big splash at the deadline, acquiring forward Wendel Clark, goalie Bill Ranford and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Chelios in a whirlwind of trades.

But despite the pomp, the Red Wings were blasted out of the playoffs in the second round in 1999 by their arch nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes deadline deals make all the difference in the world; sometimes they don’t do a lick for your Stanley Cup chances.

In 2002, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, by that time a five-year veteran of the art of the deal, landed veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr at the deadline. It wasn’t looked at as much more than a move for depth. Slegr wasn’t expected to contribute too much.

Slegr didn’t play in a single playoff game for the Red Wings that spring, except for one: Game 5 of the Cup Finals.

In Game 4, fellow defenseman Jiri Fischer got suspended for a game after taking some liberties in Carolina.

Slegr, who was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season, got the call for Game 5. The Red Wings led the series, 3-1.

Slegr played 17 minutes that night at Joe Louis Arena as the Red Wings won their third Cup in six seasons.

You never know.

Holland, who inexplicably has never won an Executive of the Year Award, gathered his scouts and coaches at the Joe on Sunday and Monday. It’s a routine that gets played out every year on the eve of the trade deadline.

The list of potential acquisitions gets bandied about. Holland listens to input, takes notes, asks some questions. His money people are in the room, too, because it’s a salary cap world now and the contracts have to fit, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Holland was under no real urgency to do a deal. His team is playing well and while you can never have too much depth, the Red Wings didn’t have to go crazy and mortgage the future. If something made sense, Holland said he would do it. But it was felt that a move wasn’t a prerequisite for this spring’s playoff run.

There would be no 1999-like splash.

On Sunday, Holland got on the phone with former assistant Jim Nill, now the GM in Dallas. Two good friends talked trade.

When the cell phones closed, Holland had acquired 36-year-old forward Erik Cole for some lower level prospects. Cole can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future in Detroit beyond this season is uncertain to say the least.

On Monday, Holland fulfilled coach Mike Babcock’s wish for a right-handed shooting defenseman with some offense, getting Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky is 38 and he, too, is unrestricted come July 1.

These were old school Holland moves but with a new school team: bring in veteran guys who might be considered “rentals.” Only this time, the core of the Red Wings is more young than old, a reversal from the Cup-winning years.

But the price for Cole and Zidlicky was hardly steep, and in today’s NHL, these moves might be good enough to catapult the Red Wings.

The NHL post-season is a two-month roller coaster ride. It’s hockey’s version of March Madness, in that the eventual champion could be one of half a dozen (or more) teams. It’s not the NBA, where only a select few teams have a legitimate shot at the championship. You never see any six or seven seeds make it very far in pro basketball’s playoffs.

Whether you call it parity or just plain unpredictable, the NHL’s post-season is a crap shoot, like baseball and football’s.

For that reason, why unload a bunch of high-level prospects and front line players for someone who likely won’t improve your team’s Cup chances all that much?

This was Ken Holland at his best—accurately gauging his team’s current state and making smart, prudent moves without giving up the farm, literally.

Will Cole and Zidlicky do for the Red Wings, in their own way, what Larry Murphy did for them in 1997?

No one knows for sure, but again Holland has seemed to have improved his team without weakening its core.

One of these days, those who determine such things will name Holland the NHL’s Executive of the Year. It might be like when Paul Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for a movie that wasn’t his best work. But one day the voters are going to get smart.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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…

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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!