Archive for Out of Bounds

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.

————————

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.

————————————-

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.

————————————

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.

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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.

——————————–

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.

—————————————-

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…

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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?

———————————–

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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