Archive for Detroit Lions
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.
He had just set a new National Football League record for longest field goal made, and he did it to win the game.
Tom Dempsey of the Saints, with half a right foot due to a birth deformity, blasted a 63 yard field goal to beat the Lions—naturally—in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. He obliterated the old mark by seven yards.
Dempsey. of course, was swarmed by reporters after the game at old Tulane Stadium.
One of the scribes asked Dempsey what was going through his mind as he lined up for the kick at his own 37 yard line (the goalposts were at the goal line in those days).
“I was thinking that the goal posts looked kind of small,” Dempsey said.
The funny thing about Dempsey, who was nothing more than a journeyman kicker in the NFL, was that he was hardly known for his kicking accuracy. In fact, after the Lions game in which he set the record, players from Detroit recalled seeing Dempsey in pregame practice missing kicks from all over the field.
Yet Dempsey kicked four field goals in the Saints victory, capped by the 63-yarder as time expired.
The record-setting kick exploded from Dempsey’s half-a-foot and traveled through the Nawlins’ air almost parallel to the ground, with none of the typical end-over-end trajectory—as if it had been shot out of a cannon.
The football dropped over the crossbar with perhaps a foot to spare.
Lions coaches remarked that the sound of Dempsey’s foot meeting the ball was like someone thwacking a wet mattress with a baseball bat.
You’d think that setting a new NFL record for longest field goal made would buy a guy some job security. But a year later, Dempsey was kicking for the Philadelphia Eagles and so began his meandering through the league, playing with four teams after the Saints in a career that ended in 1979.
You know what Dempsey’s rate of success in field goal attempts was in 1970, they year he kicked the 63 yarder?
He made 18 of 34 tries for a very mediocre 52.9 percent. In 1969, Dempsey was 1-for-11 in attempts 50 yards and beyond.
But with one historic swing of his leg, Tom Dempsey lives forever in the NFL record books—and in the memory of every Lions fan 50 years of age or older.
For his career, Dempsey made good on just over 61 percent of his kicks.
Yet as pedestrian as Dempsey’s career field goal percentage of success is, it’s still some 18 percent better than Nate Freese, the Lions kicker (for the moment).
Freese, the embattled rookie kicker from Boston College, has tried seven field goals so far in his NFL career. He has made just three of them for a 43 percent rate of success. He hasn’t made any beyond 40 yards, from where is is 0-for-4.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who showed restraint after Freese’s disastrous Week 2, when the rookie missed two kicks beyond 40 yards early in the game, wasn’t able to corral his frustration on Sunday, after the first half of his team’s 19-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Freese had pulled a 41 yard attempt left as time expired in the second quarter, moments after Matthew Stafford hooked up with Corey Fuller on a 52 yard bomb to put the Lions in (presumed) field goal range at the Packers’ 23 yard line.
Fox Sports’ Pam Oliver, at halftime, reported that she asked Caldwell during intermission about Freese and how to boost the youngster’s confidence.
Caldwell, who is not prone to hyperbole or emotion, didn’t mince words.
“I don’t have any sympathy,” Oliver said Caldwell told her. “This is the NFL. You have to make those kicks.”
Last week the Lions worked out three kickers with NFL experience in light of Freese’s early struggles. Yet, Caldwell decided to stay with the rookie, if only for another week.
Sadly, one of the kickers the Lions brought in was 36 year-old Rob Bironas, who died in a tragic car accident over the weekend.
After Caldwell showed confidence in Freese last week, albeit lukewarm in variety, it is hard to imagine that the Lions will stay with the kid from BC much longer, if at all.
The misses are piling up and no one’s confidence is being helped here.
Freese likely has little, and you think Caldwell would have had much, if he needed to send Freese into the game to kick a potential game-tying or game-winning three-pointer against the Packers on Sunday?
The fans lost confidence in Freese after Week 2.
It’s admirable to feel for Freese, who was a seventh round draft pick of the Lions last May. It certainly can’t be any fun being Nate Freese these days.
But coach Caldwell is right. This is the NFL. Fellow coach Jerry Glanville once said that NFL stands for Not For Long, if you don’t produce.
This is big boy football now. This isn’t college, and the only kicks that matter are the ones that you try during games—not the impressive 58 yarders you make in pregame warm-ups.
Nate Freese is probably a terrific young man. But his misses are killing the Lions and this isn’t about tiptoeing around the kicker’s feelings. It’s about winning football games.
Freese has no resume in the NFL. It’s not like he’s a 10-year veteran and the Lions can wait out what is likely a flukey slump.
The Packers waited out veteran kicker Mason Crosby last year when he was in a horrible funk. But Crosby wasn’t a rookie and he’d made several big kicks for the Packers in the past. Crosby eventually got his act together.
Kickers, as a lot, usually don’t have wide margins for error. The patience of coaches is known to wear thin for erratic performance.
It doesn’t help Freese that he’s playing in Detroit, which had two kickers—TWO—between 1980 and 2012 (Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson).
Lions fans aren’t used to thinking of their kickers the same way Tigers fans think of their closers.
The bottom line is this: does Jim Caldwell, a spiritual man, have faith that Nate Freese can make a big kick late in a close game?
If the coach doesn’t, then there’s no room for Freese on the Lions roster.
In fact, Freese may be an ex-Lion by the time you read this.
Right now, to steal from Tom Dempsey, the goalposts are looking kind of small for Freese.
And we’re not talking 63 yarders here.
It was yet another funereal post-game press conference for a Lions coach. The scene took place in Anaheim, with another sound defeat in the books.
The Lions had been manhandled by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, dropping their record to 1-4.
The coach, Monte Clark, stepped up to the podium, ready to answer the usual “What happened?” questions.
Clark gave his version of what happened, trying to explain away the bloodletting on the gridiron. But just before stepping down and heading back to the locker room, Clark added one more comment.
“See you at the cemetery,” Clark told the media.
The inference was clear. Clark wouldn’t have been surprised if his firing was impending.
Clark wasn’t alone in that feeling.
The Lions were 9-7 in 1980 but missed the playoffs, despite a 4-0 start, which prompted some players to record a bastardized version of Queen’s hit song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The Lions went 8-8 in 1981, missing the playoffs on the final Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed Detroit its only home loss of the season to swipe the Central Division crown.
The Lions made the playoffs in 1982′s strike-shortened year, despite a 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins, eventual Super Bowl champs, demolished Clark’s team, showing what they thought of a team with a losing record making the postseason.
Then came 1983′s 1-4 start, which prompted Clark, in his sixth season as Lions coach, to make his ominous remark.
Clark survived the season, and in fact, the Lions won the division with a 9-7 record. They went 8-3 after the coach’s words of resignation.
Monte Clark’s “See you at the cemetery” line is just one of many defining moments of Lions coaches that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons.
Darryl Rogers, Clark’s successor, had his moment when he gazed up at the pigeons that had landed on the Silverdome’s roof during practice, circa 1988, with the Lions foundering as usual. Some writers were nearby, within earshot.
“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” was Rogers’ iconic moment.
Wayne Fontes said “I’m the big buck” as he talked about the criticism levied his way in the early-1990s.
Bobby Ross, Fontes’ successor, in a fit of frustration and anger after a loss on the road, railed “I don’t coach that stuff!” as he agonized over yet another mistake-filled loss.
Marty Mornhinweg, the overmatched coach tabbed by rookie GM Matt Millen in 2001, said at his introductory press conference, “The bar is high.”
Twenty-seven losses in 32 games followed. Maybe Marty meant that the bar of embarrassment was high.
Steve Mariucci followed, and his introduction was over the top at Ford Field. There was a long walk to the stage and the whole thing was awash in pomp and circumstance.
“Wow,” Mooch said as he gazed at the press in 2003 as Millen and the Lions presented him as the savior.
A little more than two years later, Mariucci was fired after a cringe-inducing loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Atlanta Falcons.
Rod Marinelli, Mariucci’s successor, talked of “pounding the rock.” The Lions pounded it to the tune of a winless season in 2008.
Jim Schwartz came after Marinelli, and Schwartz was a hothead that couldn’t execute a post-game handshake without drama. His players got into trouble off the field a lot. Schwartz also gave it to the fans last year with a less-than-respectful gesture. The players, under Schwartz, took on his personality, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Before all of the above, Harry Gilmer was pelted with snowballs as he jogged off the Tiger Stadium field after what would turn out to be his final game as Lions coach, in 1966.
All iconic moments and quotes from Lions coaches, and none of them good.
Jim Caldwell, the new head coach for 2014 and beyond, doesn’t seem to have that gene.
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.
Joe Schmidt (1967-72) remains the last Lions coach to leave the franchise with a winning record in Detroit. But Schmidt had his moments of frustration, which culminated in him resigning in January 1973, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.
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.
There doesn’t appear to be drama in the Lions’ future with Caldwell as coach. Even in this day of the NFL’s players on a string of bad behavior off the field, Caldwell exudes calm and control. You get the feeling that the ship is under a firm, experienced hand.
Again, whether that translates into wins and success remains to be seen.
The Lions are 1-0 at this writing, having summarily dismissed the considerably inferior New York Giants last Monday night.
But the Lions’ lack of discipline, a thorn in the team’s side for years, appeared to have reared its head against the Giants, with eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half.
It’s not clear what Caldwell said or did at halftime, but his team played a clean second half—zero penalties.
He even had a clean handshake after the game with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
The coach can’t make his players write, “I will not commit a holding penalty” 100 times on the chalkboard. He can’t make them stand in the corner, facing the wall. It’s not even as simple as benching a guy in favor of his backup.
But I do know that football players often take on the personality and behavior of their coach, for good or for bad.
I won’t make any predictions about the Lions’ won/loss record this year.
I will, though, say that it doesn’t seem like Jim Caldwell is destined to say or do anything goofy that will become his defining moment as Lions coach.
That, in of itself, would seem to be an upgrade over coaches of the past.
The game was played the day after Christmas, a Saturday in 1970. The match still haunts the Lions franchise.
The National Football League, expanded in one season from 16 to 26 teams thanks to the merger with the American Football League, changed its playoff format for the 1970 campaign.
The league had split, like an amoeba, into two conferences with three divisions in each of the NFC and AFC. So Commissioner Pete Rozelle added a Wild Card in each conference. The Wild Cards would combine with the three divisional winners to form a Final Four in each conference.
The Lions, for all their ignominy, nonetheless have the distinction of being the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card team.
The Lions won the last five games of their 1970 schedule and finished the season 10-4, which was the best record of all the second place teams in the NFC. Hence the Wild Card berth.
A trip to Dallas awaited the Lions to play the franchise’s first post-season game in 13 years. The playoff game against the Cowboys would be contested in the old Cotton Bowl. It was December 26, 1970.
It turned out to be a bizarre, frustrating, horribly iconic afternoon in Texas. One that the franchise still hasn’t truly gotten over.
It would be the only playoff game for a host of great Lions players: Alex Karras (his final game played); Wayne Walker; Lem Barney; Charlie Sanders; and Dick LeBeau to name a few.
The Lions lost in Dallas in that playoff game of 1970 by the maddening score of 5-0, despite the Lions possessing one of the NFL’s most potent offenses that year.
Barney and Sanders are Hall of Fame Lions, and only Barry Sanders has joined them in Canton as representing Detroit since the aforementioned Lions careers’ ended in the late-1970s.
Barry Sanders, for his part, played in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957—a busting up of Dallas in 1991-92. But Barry never saw any real team success as a Lion, despite a few other playoff appearances.
Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders—three Hall of Famers whose Lions careers all lacked any semblance of team success.
It would be a total shame if Calvin Johnson followed in that trio’s misfortune.
Johnson is the next Lions Hall of Fame player. With seven seasons under his belt and his eighth about to begin on Monday against the New York Football Giants, Johnson practically already possesses the individual stats needed to be inducted into the Hall.
In seven seasons, Johnson has played in one playoff game. In that respect, his career seems to be trending just like those of Barney and the two Sanders—heavy on personal greatness and light on the team’s.
But if you ask Johnson, that trend is about to turn the other way.
“I believe this is our best chance to win a championship.”
The speaker was Johnson earlier in the week and presumably he said it to the media with a straight face.
“I honestly believe that,” Johnson added about his heady prediction regarding the 2014 Lions.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism on the eve of a new football season. After all, if you can’t look at things through rose-colored glasses when your record is 0-0, then when can you?
It’s difficult to tell, when simply reading Johnson’s remarks, whether he was trying to convince the press or himself of the Lions’ championship chances. But he did expound, apparently with conviction. And the man reverently called Megatron was heaping praise on his new head coach, Jim Caldwell.
“You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coaches’ philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coaches want us to do, and if we’re not, if something is not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us and we’re going to get better at it and he only has to tell us one time.”
That doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of success of everyone from Rick Forzano to Jim Schwartz, but there you have it.
Johnson is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above his league brethren at wide receiver. He is bound for Canton, wearing the mustard yellow blazer and giving an acceptance speech. Someday.
But it would be awfully nice if, in addition to all the personal accolades, Calvin Johnson turns out to be a Hall of Fame Detroit Lion who has more than just an impressive set of individual numbers on his resume.
Or, to put it more bluntly, it would be criminal if the Lions wasted yet another superstar career with zero team success.
It took Barney and Charlie Sanders several appearances on the ballot before they were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the Lions’ mostly losing ways contributed greatly to Lem and Charlie’s delayed inductions, given that they were each among the best of their respective positions for most of their careers.
Barry Sanders was a first-ballot inductee, but that was a no-brainer, no matter what team he played for. Think Gale Sayers and those awful Bears teams.
Now here we have Johnson, who is the Lions’ best player since Barry Sanders, and Calvin is eight years into a professional career that has seen as many winless seasons as playoff games.
But the rub is that Johnson, I believe, today plays on as good of a Lions team as Barry Sanders ever did, and there ought to be some multiple playoff appearances in the near future.
Johnson’s remarks certainly agree with my very non-expert opinion.
It all has to be proven on the field, of course. And the Lions traditionally don’t do that.
The Lions wasted the genius of Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders. They’d better not do so with Calvin Johnson, their next Hall of Famer.
He was a moon-faced behemoth of a defensive tackle out of Clemson, with a grin as wide as his generously-sized rear end. And he soon became a pawn between his head coach and his defensive coordinator.
They called William Perry “The Refrigerator” and not long after the Chicago Bears picked him in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1985 NFL Draft, the wisdom of his selection was bandied about between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
The coach and the DC didn’t get along, and since Perry was Ditka’s pick, naturally Ryan was against it.
Ryan reacted by refusing to play Perry on the Bears’ talented defensive line. Ditka responded by using Perry as an oversized fullback in short yardage situations.
All this drama played out during the Bears’ 15-1 season, which culminated in a blowout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
About mid-season, Ryan relented once he realized how talented Perry was, despite his extreme girth (Fridge weighed over 375 pounds).
Perry still carried the football on occasion and even caught a pass, but he was a defensive tackle by trade—and he proved to be a pretty good one.
Perry might have been great, but continuous battles with the scale torpedoed him and limited his career to good status.
Perry played 10 years in the NFL but he could have been so much more.
Fast forward to 2014. Another talented defensive tackle is finding that fast food and doughnuts are proving to be more challenging than offensive guards.
But it could be that it’s not just calories that are bedeviling Nick Fairley.
Fairley, the Lions’ DT who was the team’s first round pick in 2011, was supposed to be, by now, forming a ridiculous tandem with Ndamukong Suh on the defensive interior front for Detroit.
The two slabs of beef were supposed to make it damn near impossible for opponents to run against the Lions between the tackles. And as a bonus, the pass rush from the inside was to be terrifying.
After Fairley’s first three years in the league, the expectations have far exceeded reality.
Suh, for the most part, has (ahem) carried his weight.
Fairley has turned out to be one of the Lions’ most enigmatic players in memory, and considering the perplexing sorts who have worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, that’s saying a lot.
It’s easy to look at Fairley’s spotty production and blame it on his weight. After all, the next time the Lions are flagged for too many men on the field on defense, two of them might be Fairley.
But as William Perry proved, you can play at a high level even when the scales are begging you to get off.
The trouble with Nick Fairley isn’t just what goes on between his hips. It’s what happens between his ears.
The Lions have tried to challenge Fairley to get better. So far the results have been sketchy at best.
They declined the option on the fifth year of his rookie contract, making this season a make-or-break year of sorts for Fairley.
The Lions demoted Fairley this training camp to second string.
Things have gotten so desperate that even Suh, not exactly known as a player who exhibits model behavior himself off the field, tried to motivate Fairley recently by declaring the Auburn grad more talented than Suh, a three-time Pro Bowler.
Nothing has really worked.
Fairley sank on the depth chart because he deserved it—not just as a way to light a fire under his big butt.
MLive.com reported that Fairley has isolated himself from teammates and his practice efforts leave a lot to be desired.
“I don’t know where his head’s at. I wish I knew,” d-line cohort C.J. Mosley was quoted by NFL.com last week.
“If I knew, man, I’d grab his head and bring it back to where it’s supposed to be. I just don’t know.”
I once wrote that Shaun Rogers, aka “Big Baby,” another supremely talented defensive tackle who played for the Lions in the mid-to-late 2000s, could have owned Detroit.
Rogers was big but he played big. He was an unmovable force at times and when he rambled some 50-plus yards for a touchdown after a fumble recovery against Denver in 2007, the Ford Field crowd roared. The score was a punctuation mark to a 44-7 Lions victory—and a 6-2 record.
But after that game, Rogers didn’t want to talk to the media. He didn’t seize his moment, which I found odd and disturbing.
Maybe Rogers knew something that we didn’t, because after that win, the Lions lost 24 of their next 25 games.
Regardless, Shaun Rogers played big but only when the spirit moved him, which wasn’t nearly often enough to achieve greatness.
Refrigerator Perry survived 10 NFL seasons and while he probably didn’t realize his potential, his effort was never questioned—especially at the buffet.
Nick Fairley is four years into a pro football career that has been pocked with head scratching, eye rolling and frustrated sighs—from fans, teammates and coaches alike.
So far, no one has been able to push the right buttons.
This may be it for Fairley—his last stab at the NFL in anything more than benchwarming capacity. There’s a new coach, who seems to be more than willing to give Fairley the benefit of the doubt and who has almost gone out of his way to toss no. 98 a bone of praise that is quite possibly undeserving. Fairley, it seems, has a clean slate with Jim Caldwell.
But will it be enough?
Fairley showed up to camp weighing in at 305 pounds, but last week it was reported that the scales actually were tipping past 315.
“My eating habits have got in the way in the past two weeks,” Fairley told reporters as he tried to explain his pedestrian performances in practice and in the first two preseason games.
I don’t think the Lions should be worried about Fairley’s eating habits.
They should be worried about his thinking habits.
The scales that measure those are on the football field—if Fairley can ever get on it.
Twenty years ago, Scott Mitchell was the NFL’s biggest winner. Two decades later, he’s trying to be the Biggest Loser.
Lions fans no doubt snickered upon the news this week that former quarterback Mitchell was going to be among the contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” which is a competition show—in this case, to see who can lose the most weight.
And Mitchell has a lot to lose.
Mitchell, it was announced, checks in these days at 366 pounds. He is now as big as the behemoths assigned to protect him on the offensive line back in the day.
It’s fitting that Mitchell has a lot to lose, because never did an NFL quarterback gain as much as Mitchell did from someone else’s Achilles heel injury.
I have often wondered if Mitchell sends Dan Marino a Christmas card every year. Or maybe a check would be more appropriate.
In 1994, Mitchell was a free agent. He parlayed an injury to Marino’s Achilles in 1993 into big bucks with the Lions.
I remember watching the game where Miami’s Marino went down. It was in Cleveland. The play was innocuous. Marino, who was never much of a scrambler, got some happy feet in the pocket during a pass rush and in a freak way, landed funny on his Achilles.
He heard that dreadful “pop” sound and went down like a sack of doorknobs.
The date was October 10, 1993.
Mitchell was 25 years old at the time, a fourth round draft pick in 1990 out of Utah. In his first three seasons as a Dolphin, Mitchell threw eight NFL passes, completing two.
Now he was called upon to replace the greatest QB in Dolphins history and one of the best to ever play the position in NFL history.
The Dolphins had a bye week after Marino’s injury, which put him out for the rest of the season. In a panic, the Dolphins signed 39 year-old Steve DeBerg as insurance.
But DeBerg didn’t know the Dolphins’ offense. Mitchell did. Three seasons plus five games holding a clipboard teaches you something, I suppose.
Mitchell won his first start, a 41-27 win over the dreadful (at the time) Indianapolis Colts. Mitchell completed 12 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.
The next week, Mitchell was much better, against a much better opponent.
Going up against the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Montana, Mitchell went 22-for-33 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. The Dolphins won, 30-10 to improve to 6-1 on the season.
Then, a loss to the New York Jets. Mitchell was 23/44 for 297 yards with a TD and an interception. A dose of reality struck.
The following week, Mitchell was bad before an injury put him out of the game. Miami coach Don Shula turned to DeBerg as the Dolphins season was teetering.
DeBerg went 2-2 as the starter before he relinquished the job back to Mitchell, who was now healed.
The Dolphins’ 7-2 start spiraled into a 9-7 finish, which put them out of the playoffs.
But it was Mitchell’s personal performance in relief of Marino that made him a hot commodity as the 1994 free agent season beckoned, despite the team’s decline toward the end of the season.
His numbers as Marino’s replacement weren’t gaudy but they weren’t bad, either: 133/233 (57.1); 1,773 yards; 12 TD; 8 interceptions. His record was 3-4.
It wasn’t Johnny Unitas stuff, but the Lions, as usual, were desperate for a quarterback.
They had tried a triumvirate of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware in 1993, and even though the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, that three-headed monster wasn’t going to be the answer at the game’s most important position.
So the Lions gave Mitchell’s agent a ring in early 1994.
If Mitchell was good enough for Shula to make do with, then who were the Lions to question?
Mitchell signed a fat contract with Detroit. The Lions finally found their quarterback!
There was a lot to like about Scott Mitchell in 1994. He was 6-foot-6. He was agile. He had learned the position at the feet of Marino and Shula, two Hall of Famers. And he had been pressed into action in 1993 and while the results weren’t overwhelming, nor were they atrocious.
Mitchell struggled to start the 1994 season before he went down with an injury about halfway through the season. The injury was well-timed, because the fans were well on their way to dismembering Mitchell on sports talk radio and around the water cooler—and at the Silverdome.
He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, which in the era of rules designed to punish defensive backs, was shockingly bad.
Veteran Dave Krieg took over for Mitchell and led the Lions to the playoffs. But Krieg split as a free agent after the season.
Mitchell, healed, set records for the Lions in 1995 in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. The Lions made the playoffs for the third year in a row, with three different starting quarterbacks, which is just like them.
But under the postseason spotlight in Philadelphia, Mitchell laid one of the biggest eggs of any quarterback in league playoff history.
Mitchell was 13/29 with a TD and four interceptions—all in the first half, after which the Eagles led the Lions, 38-7. One of the four picks was returned for a touchdown.
Two years later, the Lions made the playoffs again and Mitchell pulled another infamous postseason stunt.
In Tampa, running a sneak play, the players all got up from the turf accept for one: Scott Mitchell.
Mitchell was down and he stayed down for several minutes. It was a stinking sneak play but Mitchell acted like he had been shot.
He was carted off the field on a stretcher. The Lions lost.
Whatever doubts Lions fans—and teammates—had about Mitchell’s durability and, frankly, courage, were confirmed on the field at Tampa in that playoff game.
Two games into the 1998 season, after throwing a pick-six in overtime at home against Cincinnati, Mitchell was demoted to being rookie Charlie Batch’s backup.
Three years later, Mitchell was out of the league.
He coached some high school football at his alma mater (2008-2012) before resigning to spend more time at his software business.
Now he’s 366 pounds and wants to be the Biggest Loser.
Mitchell turned his good fortune due to Marino’s injury into two bad (for the Lions) contracts—his original one signed in 1994 and an extension a couple years later. Marino’s popped Achilles made Scott Mitchell millions.
According to Mitchell’s bio on “The Biggest Loser” website, the former QB suffers from sleep apnea and high blood pressure. He blames poor diet choices and a busy lifestyle for the startling weight gain.
Mitchell’s era at quarterback is one of many dark spots in Lions history. But his father died earlier this year from obesity-related issues and if there’s anytime to root for Scott Mitchell to lose, it’s now.
The irony is that, 20 years ago, when he came to Detroit, Mitchell had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.
The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.
In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.
Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.
But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.
Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.
Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.
The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.
While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.
But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.
The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.
It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.
Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.
Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.
The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.
Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.
“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.
“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.
“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”
The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.
The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.
But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.
Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.
Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.
Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.
Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.
But that’s all ancient history now, right?
Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.
He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.
I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.