Archive for Detroit Lions
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.
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.
Ask any Tigers fan about GM Dave Dombrowski, and while they may not always agree with what he does or how he does it, the fans will likely know, at the very least, what Dombrowski’s blueprint is for success.
Power pitching. Power hitting. Big names. Three-run homers and 95 mile-an-hour fastballs.
Sidle up to a Red Wings “Wing Nut” and ask about GM Kenny Holland. The fan will be able to deliver a soliloquy about how there’s a “Red Wings way” and how the team relies on savvy drafting and player development in Grand Rapids.
Catch a Pistons zealot coming out of The Palace and even though Stan Van Gundy has only been on the job for less than a year, the fan will at least know that Stan has a plan—and a long resume of winning in the NBA.
Stop a Lions fan and ask if there’s a Lions Way. Ask if the GM seems to have a plan.
The response is likely to be unfit to print here.
Martin Mayhew has been at this GM thing with the Lions since 2008. He’s not a newbie. Before succeeding Matt Millen, Mayhew served in the Lions front office for some seven years. So this is Mayhew’s 14th year roaming the halls in Allen Park and at Ford Field.
Fourteen years and we’re still waiting for Mayhew’s plan. We’re still waiting for the Lions Way.
Mayhew’s clumsy handling, along with partner in crime Tom Lewand, of the Ndamukong Suh situation, was made worse when Mayhew spoke to the media last week.
Mayhew, as has become his way, talked out of both sides of his mouth. He tried to play both sides to the middle in explaining why Suh leaving may not be bad, after all.
“I think anytime you lose a quality player like (Suh), especially in the short term, that is to your detriment,” Mayhew said over lunch with beat reporters last week at the NFL owners meetings. “I think in the long term, I think we’re going to be glad we don’t have that contract on our books. But in the short term, that’s an issue.”
The best defensive player in franchise history walked away, and Mayhew is trying to sell the fan base that, in the long term, everyone should be “glad” that Suh’s contract isn’t on the books.
The fans don’t want financial prudence; they want a freaking championship.
Those old enough to remember the Lions’ last championship in 1957 are pushing 70 years of age.
Can you imagine if the Lions had let Barry Sanders walk away, only to comfort us with the knowledge that Barry’s fat contract will be off the books?
Certain players come down the pike in a franchise’s history and they should never be allowed to leave, no matter the cost.
Ndamukong Suh was one of those players.
But he’s gone now so it’s time to move on. I get it.
The trouble is, the Lions are once again a store in need of minding, and it’s unclear who is doing that now.
For those of you who thought the problem with the team was the owner, think again.
Bill Ford is passed away and his widow, Martha, ostensibly is in charge.
Yet I haven’t heard vitriol directed at Mrs. Ford. Nor should there be.
The trouble with the Lions isn’t with their owner, it’s with the reporting structure.
The team needs another football man with keys to the executive washroom.
Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance, as direct reports to the owner. They’ve had six full seasons to craft a plan. And all they have to show for it are two playoff appearances—and two playoff losses.
It seems that the Lions are always reacting; they’re not proactive. Everything is done under duress. They can’t draft right.
The scrambling that’s done at Ford Field isn’t limited to the quarterback.
Mayhew and Lewand report directly to Martha Ford. Neither of them can fire the other.
Bill Ford Jr. is too wrapped up in the car company to be hands-on with the Lions on a daily basis.
It says here that the Lions need another football man—someone steeped in experience and wise in the ways of an NFL front office—to act as another layer of reporting between Mayhew/Lewand and Mrs. Ford.
There isn’t a Lions Way. There isn’t a plan. If there is, no one is talking about it.
The only “plan” since Mayhew took over from Millen has been to stock the shelves with skill players in hopes of making Matthew Stafford better.
When Dombrowski realized that the Tigers were highly unlikely to be able to sign Max Scherzer to a long-term extension, he executed Plan B: trading for David Price last July.
It was an example of forward thinking that simply doesn’t go on with the Lions.
Suh should have been signed, sealed and delivered a year ago this time, so the team could put that to bed and move on to other things.
It should never have come to free agency.
Suh is spilled milk, but his situation is also symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Lions—a team with no plan and no vision.
There’s too much desperation with the Lions. There isn’t the feeling that the hand at the wheel is steady amid the rough waters of the NFL.
The Lions need such a steady hand. They need a veteran NFL guy to oversee things.
They need someone like Ernie Accorsi.
Accorsi is steeped in NFL knowledge. He’s held a variety of jobs, including general manager, assistant GM, PR flak and consultant. He helped the Bears in their GM search in December.
He’s 73 years old and he’s available for a full-time position.
Running the Lions might be intriguing enough for someone like Accorsi, who laid the groundwork for a Super Bowl win with the 2007 Giants.
The Lions haven’t had a heavy hitter upstairs. They haven’t had heavy hitters on the sidelines either, really.
But Jim Caldwell seems fine as head coach. The problems don’t start with the coach.
The dysfunction is with the guys in the suits.
Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance. They’ve had six years. Now they need a football man to report to.
The Lions should give Ernie Accorsi a ring, but that phone call would have to come from Bill Ford Jr., who just might do something progressive, even by accident.
I will forgive you for not holding your breath, however.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the Tigers’ acquisition of closer Joe Nathan:
Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.
He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.
Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.
If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.
Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).
He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.
Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.
It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.
As they say about goalies who let in a soft one, I might want to have that one back.
On U-M football coach Brady Hoke firing offensive coordinator Al Borges:
Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.
He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.
The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.
So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.
“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.
The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.
Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.
Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.
“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.
Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.
No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.
I called SportsPhone.
We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.
Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.
Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”
SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.
Oh, how I miss those days.
There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.
SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.
The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.
Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?
Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.
The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.
The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.
So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?
Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.
Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.
I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.
It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.
The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.
I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.
You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.
I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.
One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.
This was when establishments had pay phones.
The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.
At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.
I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.
I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.
So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.
Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.
My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.
Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.
I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.
He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.
But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.
For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.
Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!
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.
If you happen to be in the Minneapolis area and see a young man curled in the fetal position, it just might be Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater, the Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback, is going to see Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Lions defensive line in his sleep. The sweat will be cold, the images will be all-too-real. It might be like that cartoon of back in the day.
“Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a quarterback anymore!”
This was Thanksgiving Day, 1962, all over again. Upstairs, Alex Karras is grinning.
The Lions made mincemeat of Bridgewater and the Vikings on Sunday. Bridgewater played the part of Green Bay’s Bart Starr and Ansah, George Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were Karras, Darris McCord, Roger Brown and Sam Williams.
The Lions’ front four spent more time in the Vikings backfield than the referee. Or at least, as much. Bridgewater was harassed more than the only girl at a fraternity party.
Every pass play the Vikings tried in their 17-3 loss to the Lions looked like a Chinese fire drill. Bridgewater would snap the football and then immediately start running around, in survival mode. He spent more time trying to find his wits about him than finding a receiver.
In the rare times when Bridgewater found a man, the pass was often dropped, or tipped into the hands of a Lions defender for an interception. Just ask Tahir Whitehead, who if this was hockey would be called “Johnny on the Spot” by Mickey Redmond.
The slaughter wasn’t limited to passing plays.
If the Vikings tried to run the football, the Lions front four was there, too, like white on rice.
With the exception of an interception the rookie threw in the end zone in which he was baited by safety Glover Quin, the Vikings didn’t sniff paydirt. Every play they ran was between the 30 yard lines, it seemed.
The words “Lions” and “dominant defense” haven’t been used in the same sentence very much since the days of the 1960s and early-1970s, when every year the defense was way ahead of the offense—which was never more evident than in the Lions’ 5-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970 playoffs.
The aforementioned Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, in which the Lions poured through the usually vaunted Packers O-line and battered Starr to the tune of 11 sacks, is legendary stuff.
“Lord, we were ready for the Packers that day,” Karras wrote in his autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry.
The motivation in ’62 was the game the Lions blew in Green Bay earlier that season—a travesty that pitted the offense against the defense for years, thanks to a horrible pass play that was called in a situation that screamed for a conservative running play.
The pass was intercepted and the Packers kicked a game-winning field goal.
So on national TV on Turkey Day, the Lions destroyed the Packers, racing to a 26-0 lead as they punished Starr for the game in Green Bay, before winning 26-14.
On Sunday, Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil was about as effective against the hard-charging Ansah as a screen door in a submarine. Ansah tossed Kalil around all day like a rag doll.
Ansah was the biggest and baddest Lion on a day when the defense surrendered yardage as begrudgingly as a mother-in-law doles out compliments. Ansah was credited with 2.5 sacks but that doesn’t begin to illustrate the disruption the second-year defensive end caused on Sunday.
The Lions allowed just 212 total yards of offense.
So let’s talk about this defense, seriously.
It’s only six weeks, but the Lions are ranked no. 1 in the NFL and they haven’t only victimized rookies.
In Week 1, the Lions made two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning look like, well, a rookie.
In Week 3, the great Aaron Rodgers, another Super Bowl champion and a likely Hall of Famer, was flummoxed. He and partner in crime Jordy Nelson were turned into a pair of juvenile delinquents.
Granted, in Weeks 4 and 6 (the Jets’ Geno Smith and Minnesota’s Bridgewater, respectively), the Lions weren’t exactly facing elite quarterbacks. But isn’t that what (gasp!) dominant defenses do? Remind the young how young they are?
On countless occasions in the past decade, the Lions have made pedestrian, even mediocre passers look like a combination of Unitas, Montana and Elway.
Not this season, so far.
You can’t pass against the Lions. You can’t run on them. You can’t even wait for a foolish personal foul or encroachment penalty.
Let’s not underestimate the Jim Caldwell factor.
The Lions’ new head coach promised that his team would clean up the penalties. He preached discipline.
And it’s working.
Few and far between have been the roughing the passer fouls and the silly jumping offsides, induced by quarterbacks using simple changes in cadence.
There have been an acceptably low number of penalties in the defensive backfield as well.
Darius Slay, the second-year cornerback, is quietly having a Pro Bowl-type year. He did a commendable job on Nelson in Week 3, a receiver who could make a career highlight reel solely based on games against the Lions. Slay is far from a “shut down” corner, but he’s also proving to be a member of the league’s upper class, and getting better every week.
That’s another strange thing to say: the Lions finding a superior cornerback in the draft. But they have, in Slay.
Here’s another breath of fresh air: the Lions don’t have to blitz anymore to pressure the passer. They can invade handily by sending just four guys.
But despite all this slap-happiness, leave it to the no-nonsense Suh to keep things in perspective.
“(Sunday’s win) is definitely something to be proud of, but at the end of the day it’s very early in the season,” said Suh, who had two sacks. “If we’re talking Week 17 or Week 16 and we’re still at this pace, which I expect this defense to do, then we can start to be really excited about it because it’s translating to wins.”
True that. The Lions have played just six games.
But at the same time, I can’t recall a six-game stretch where the Lions have played anywhere near this good on defense in decades.
It’s not like the Lions added a boatload of new players from last year, either. They did, however, add a new defensive coordinator.
If this keeps up, Teryl Austin is going to have a statue built in his likeness in front of Ford Field, by the fans themselves.
The Lions are 4-2 and should be 5-1 if their kicker hadn’t torpedoed them. In all the wins with the exception of the Giants game, the defense has bailed out the scuffling offense.
Check for tie-dye. Are people saying “groovy”? Are the Beatles charting?
Surely this must be a time warp that we’re in.