Archive for Detroit Lions
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.
It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.
“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.
The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.
The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.
During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”
The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.
There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.
The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.
But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.
Chemistry is the worst word in sports.
It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.
Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.
Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.
It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.
Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.
This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.
The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.
Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.
So why can’t we just let him play football?
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.
Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.
There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.
Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.
At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.
Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.
Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.
Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.
Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.
The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.
I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.
I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.
Now, back to Suh.
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.
Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.
He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.
The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.
There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.
He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.
Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.
But that’s OK.
One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.
Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.
Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?
Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?
If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.
I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.
The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.
Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.
Starting on Thursday, May 8 and continuing throughout the weekend, Las Vegas will have nothing on the Big Apple.
With apologies to “Guys and Dolls,” 32 high rollers will gather and hold the world’s second oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.
It’s time for another NFL Draft.
The interviews are over. The combine is history. The Wonderlic scores are in. The mock drafts are (mercifully) shoved aside.
It’s time to roll the dice.
Entire futures of franchises are at stake. Coaches’ fates are in the hands of the players whose names will be read by the Commissioner. Fans are on the edge of their seats.
Luck, be a lady.
The terrific irony of all the preparation, speculation, mock drafts and scuttlebutt over which player will go to which team is…that all of it really doesn’t matter.
You can’t count cards at the NFL Draft. The house usually wins. Things often don’t go as planned.
Luck can be a blessing or a curse.
The NFL Draft is full of cases of “What if?”
The Lions, like so many teams, know that as well as anybody.
In 1960 a group of eight men called themselves The Foolish Club.
They were the original owners of the teams of the American Football League. They would challenge the mighty NFL, both on the field and in the courts. It didn’t take long before the AFL began challenging the NFL on draft day.
Four players who would become stars in the new league—in some cases, Pro Football Hall of Fame members—could have been Detroit Lions.
Should have been, really.
The Lions didn’t draft poorly in the ‘60s—they just didn’t have the best of luck, or the deepest of pockets.
The decade’s drafts would eventually bring star players such as Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney and Greg Landry to Detroit. But there could have been so much more.
The fledgling AFL screwed up the Lions’ plans.
It started in 1960—the AFL’s first year in existence.
Johnny Robinson was a gem of a player from Louisiana State University. He played in the backfield on both sides of the football—a stupendous defender in the secondary and a nifty ball carrier as a halfback on offense.
So heralded was Robinson in college that the Lions snapped him up as the third overall pick of the 1960 Draft.
But the Foolish Club liked Robinson, too. The Dallas Texans drafted Robinson as well.
The Lions of the established NFL and the Texans of the Foolish Club engaged in one of the first bidding wars between the two leagues.
The Foolish Club won. Robinson went to the Texans, who would become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Johnny Robinson played for the Texans/Chiefs for 12 years. He made nine All-Pro teams. He intercepted 57 passes as a safety in the AFL and NFL. Such was his impact that when Robinson intercepted a pass, the Chiefs’ record was 35-1-1.
Robinson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a member of the AFL’s All-Time team. He is considered by many to be one of the top five defensive backs in pro football history.
And the Lions lost him to the Foolish Club, in the AFL’s maiden year.
John Hadl was a multi-dimensional player from Kansas who played halfback and quarterback—and with such aplomb that the school named him as its Player of the Century.
Hadl was an All-American quarterback in his senior year of 1961, and in the 1962 draft the Lions took him with the 10th overall pick.
The San Diego Chargers of the Foolish Club picked Hadl, too.
The Lions had a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon at quarterback throughout the 1960s. A rifle-armed guy like John Hadl would have looked very nice in a Honolulu Blue jersey.
But Hadl, like Johnny Robinson two years earlier, snubbed the Lions and signed with the Chargers, who were coached by pass-happy Sid Gillman.
John Hadl would play 16 years of pro football and throw for over 33,000 yards, almost 27,000 of those coming with Gillman and the Chargers.
How would the Lions’ fortunes have changed with Hadl as their QB?
In 1964, there was a towering, quick defensive end from the University of Buffalo named Gerry Philbin. At Buffalo, Philbin earned all sorts of honors, including Little All America.
The Lions selected Philbin in the third round of the 1964 draft.
But once again, the Foolish Club fouled things up.
Philbin was also drafted by the New York Jets, a team just a hop, skip and a jump from Philbin’s home town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Philbin signed with the Jets, again leaving the Lions holding the bag.
Gerry Philbin became a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team and recorded 15 sacks for the 1968 Jets, winners of Super Bowl III.
And he did it all while not playing for the Lions.
The Lions kept drafting well but signing poorly.
It happened to them again the year after drafting Philbin.
Fred Biletnikoff was a sure-handed receiver out of Florida State—the school’s first consensus All-American.
The Lions could have used a playmaking receiver in 1965, with their plodding offense, led by unspectacular quarterbacks not named John Hadl.
Inspired by Biletnikoff’s college greatness at catching passes, the Lions selected him in the third round of the 1965 draft.
So did the Oakland Raiders of the AFL.
Naturally, Biletnikoff spurned the Lions and signed with Al Davis and the Raiders.
They named an award for Biletnikoff in 1994. It goes to the best receiver in college football. Biletnikoff was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 after a stellar, 14-year career with the Raiders.
What might the Lions have been in the 1960s and ‘70s, if Johnny Robinson, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Fred Biletnikoff hadn’t spurned them?
The Lions crapped out on all four of these AFL stars. Their stingy ways scared them all off. The house won.
It’s all ancient history now, but isn’t it the unalienable right of the Lions fan to ask “What if?”
Earl Morrall spent his entire career, it seemed, encased with a sign that said “In case of emergency, break glass.”
If he was a movie actor, he’d be a stand-in. The only part of him that you’d see would be from over his shoulder.
Morrall, the quarterback from Michigan State who passed away the other day at age 79, managed to stay on an NFL roster for 21 years, though he was usually the one on the sidelines with the cleanest jersey.
But Morrall had his moments, and those kept him on those rosters for those 21 years.
Morrall was the Forrest Gump of pro football—the guy whose face and famous crew cut always appeared in the background, behind images of such luminaries as Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.
But when Morrall got a chance to play, he was no slouch. It was just that he played behind some of the game’s greats.
There was 1968, for example.
Morrall, then playing for the Colts at age 34, was the starter for that season because Unitas went down with torn muscles in his arm in the final pre-season game.
Morrall was 34 but 1968 was only the second time in his career that he was his team’s starting QB. The other was in 1965, when Earl went 7-7 for the New York Giants.
So Morrall was 34 but his arm was probably nine years younger from limited use.
While Colts fans were crestfallen when defending league MVP Unitas was destined to be a season-long scratch, Earl Morrall, the stand-in QB from Muskegon, did his best stand-in work.
Earl almost made Johnny U turn into Johnny Who?
Playing with the talent that was always there but rarely given a chance to shine—even in Detroit, which had the thoroughly underwhelming Jim Ninowski and Milt Plum ahead of Earl in the early-1960s—Morrall authored a stunning season that earned him NFL MVP honors.
Morrall completed 57.4 percent of his passes—a considerably high rate in those days—and fired 26 TD passes among his 2,909 yards through the air for the 13-1 Colts, who won the league title and would meet the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
That’s when Morrall’s fantastic season made a horrifying turn.
Hardly anyone knows that Morrall was the NFL MVP in 1968, because Joe Namath and the Jets turned Earl and the Colts’ excellent year upside down.
The Jets upset the Colts, 16-7, and worse for Morrall, he didn’t see a wide open Jimmy Orr for what certainly would have been a crucial TD pass late in the first half.
And Morrall, who threw three interceptions, was eventually replaced late in the game by a clearly less-than-whole Unitas and his mangled arm.
That loss in SB III haunted Morrall and the rest of the Colts so heavily that even winning Super Bowl V two years later, with Morrall saving the day in relief of Unitas, couldn’t sweeten the bitterness of the loss to Namath and the Jets.
In 1972, Morrall was traded to the Miami Dolphins. The Colts decided to go with young Marty Domres at quarterback when it was evident that Unitas’ career was done.
In Miami, Mr. Backup took his usual place, standing in the shadows of the much younger Griese.
The Dolphins had appeared in Super Bowl VI, but Griese and company were manhandled by Dallas, 26-3. Don Shula, who coached Morrall in Baltimore, brought his old QB back in Miami, just in case the Dolphins would need a steady veteran’s calm if the unthinkable happened.
Griese went down with a broken ankle in Week 5. The Dolphins were undefeated but now their fate was in the hands of a 38-year-old career backup who hadn’t seen serious playing time in several years.
Morrall finished the Dolphins’ perfect 14-0 season by taking the last nine games home with his precise, if less-than-impressive, arm.
Morrall threw just 150 passes in those nine games, as the Dolphins’ trio of runners—Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris—made sure that Earl’s signature play of the season was the handoff.
Griese recovered from his injury in time to start for Miami in Super Bowl VII, in which the Dolphins would attempt to finish the 1972 season a perfect 17-0.
Morrall was again relegated to backup duty, despite his 9-0 record as Miami’s starter in place of Griese.
“A younger player might have sulked,” Morrall once said about his personal disappointment but professionalism in respecting Shula’s choice.
Miami beat Washington, 14-7, as Morrall’s only claim to fame in the big game was as being the holder when Garo Yepremian’s famous “pass” after a blocked field goal attempt was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Michigan’s Mike Bass.
Morrall stuck around Miami for four more years, throwing 134 passes combined, before retiring at age 42.
Morrall was Mr. Backup, yet he led two different teams to the Super Bowl as a starting quarterback—and he and Kurt Warner are the only two guys to ever have done that. And Morrall is, to this day, the only QB in Super Bowl history to come off the bench and lead his team to victory (SB V).
Earl’s old coach in Baltimore and Miami, Don Shula, put Morrall’s career in perspective after learning of Earl’s death.
“All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench,” Shula said in a statement. “And he did it in such a humble way—he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates.”
Morrall showed that humility when he was asked who he thought the Dolphins’ MVP was in that perfect 1972 season.
“Bob Griese for breaking his ankle so I could play.”
Earl Morrall made a career out of being the other guy. But, as Coach Shula said, all the old QB ever did was win games.
There always seemed to be someone who was better than Morrall, except when that QB went down and Earl managed to get on the field.
“I always wondered why he wasn’t starting,” Morrall’s old Lions teammate, receiver Gail Cogdill, once said of Earl’s years in Detroit (1958-64), when no one named Tarkenton, Unitas or Griese were remotely on the roster.
But that’s another column entirely.
Maybe Bill Ford wasn’t cutthroat enough.
Pro sports ownership is unlike any other business. Some of the basic tenets of corporate life just don’t apply. Improving the bottom line often isn’t as simple as cutting costs if you can’t increase revenue. Pro sports is a crazy business, truthfully. That’s part of why some of our wackiest public figures have been team owners.
Bill Veeck. Charlie O. Finley. George Steinbrenner. Al Davis. Mark Cuban.
Only in pro sports could men of this bombastic nature have been successful.
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.
Part of that not knowing was exhibited in his nearly blind faith and trust in Thomas and Millen.
Ford didn’t have the hardened heart of a Davis, who ran the Oakland Raiders with swagger and a mentality that matched his team’s nickname and logo.
Ford didn’t have the creativity and outside the box thinking as an Edward DeBartolo, who took the San Francisco 49ers in his ownership from losers to Super Bowl champs within five years.
Ford didn’t have the daring of a Robert Kraft, who has been winning with the New England Patriots almost from the moment he bought the Pats in 1995.
And, in his defense, Ford didn’t have the luck of an Art Rooney, who as Pittsburgh Steelers owner hired a rookie coach named Chuck Noll in 1969, watched him suffer through a 1-13 first season, and then also watched as Noll drafted incredibly well in building a four-time Super Bowl champion.
What Ford did have, was an almost fatherly kindness and unwavering faith in those he hired, for better or for worse.
That’s fine in the “normal” business world, but as has been noted, pro sports isn’t normal.
Lions fans had a problem with Ford because they felt that he put his loyalty in the wrong people and places.
Where was the loyalty to the fans, for example?
In pro sports, tough decisions need to be made—decisions that affect families, tarnish careers and leave people scrambling. But America doesn’t tolerate losing, so these decisions are necessary, more often than the decision maker would prefer. And those decisions are decisions that are made in loyalty to the paying customers, not necessarily to those on the payroll.
Bill Ford never truly understood that. Or, at the very least, he didn’t want to face it. So he didn’t, more often than not.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who worked for Ford who would have anything bad to say about him. A cynic would scoff and say, “Of course you wouldn’t. There wasn’t any accountability.”
I don’t think that lack of accountability was the issue. It was too many second chances.
Ford’s lineage was to a time when the auto industry was in its heyday—when a worker for the Big Three put in his 40 hours, stayed with the company for 30 years, and got his gold watch. The worker was loyal to the company—even after the advent of unions—and the company was loyal to the employee.
But that isn’t pro sports.
In Thomas’s era as GM, with Ford’s blessing, the Lions traditionally went cheap with the coach. The results weren’t good, with the exception of Joe Schmidt’s six years. To make matters worse, several assistants who worked for the Lions during Thomas’s time ended up finding success elsewhere as head coach.
Don Shula, Chuck Knox, Jerry Glanville and Bill Belichick were four assistants who used the Lions as springboards, which made Ford’s ownership look even worse.
The same thing went for players, particularly in the AFL-NFL bidding wars of the 1960s.
Fred Biletnikoff, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Johnny Robinson were four AFL stars who were drafted by the Lions but, because of money, opted to sign with the “other” league instead. It’s mind-boggling to think of how different the Lions’ fate would have been with those players on the roster.
As it was, the Lions fielded some pretty decent rosters in the 1960s and ’70s, but tended to underachieve, big time.
The gaping hole during Bill Ford’s ownership of the Lions was the lack of a strong, proven football man at the top. As a mostly hands-off owner (though he did talk to his head coaches every week), Ford needed that brilliant football mind to run the show on a day-to-day basis. He never found that mind, wasting 30 years on Thomas and Millen instead.
Ford took his team north to Pontiac in 1975, but returned it to Detroit proper in 2002. Both were the right moves at the time.
The Lions organization, under Ford, was first class. The facilities, the generosity and loyalty, were all regarded as top drawer by those within the NFL. The Ford family’s support of the league by way of TV advertising in the 1960s helped stabilize the league in its early days of TV contracts.
But little of that mattered to a fan base that hasn’t known a championship for 57 years now and counting.
The only bottom line that fans pay attention to is the won/loss record. They couldn’t care less if the team owner is a mean, heartless son of a bitch, as long as their guys win.
I believe Lions president Tom Lewand, who said in a prepared statement in the wake of Ford’s death this morning that “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions.”
I also don’t doubt for a moment that Ford wanted to win a Super Bowl.
But his being tone deaf to his fan base yet at the same time being loyal to the incompetent, chafed Lions followers, and with good reason.
Bill Ford was a decent, kind man in a business where that wasn’t a prerequisite for success. He lacked the meanness and dog-eat-dog mentality necessary to end up on top in February.
There is no crime in that. It just didn’t work.
In a way, Dominic Raiola is the last man standing. He’s like the ruins of Rome. He’s the remembrance of a monarchy. He just needs a tour guide and a brochure for the passing patrons.
In April, 2001, Raiola, a stubby center out of Nebraska, was the second draft pick ever made for the Lions by President Matt Millen. Doubtless that Raiola had no idea what he was being drafted into.
There is no one on the current Lions roster that better symbolizes the ruins of the Millen Era than Raiola.
Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver, dates back to Millen’s tenure, but CJ was drafted in 2007 and Millen was gone a year later.
Raiola joined the Lions organization just three months after Millen did. Millen finally got fired early in the 0-16 2008 season, but Raiola and Jeff Backus, the tackle from Michigan drafted ahead of his offensive linemate in ’01, weren’t so lucky; part of their penance was to remain behind—guilty as sin of being drafted by Millen.
Could anyone have possibly known that, 13 seasons later, Dominic Raiola would still be squatting on Sundays, gripping the football and readying it for a snap—all 13 years spent with the Lions?
Raiola plays arguably football’s most thankless position. Nothing can happen until the center does his thing, but aside from that, you hike the football and then ten second later, you pull yourself out from a pile of humanity.
The centers for the game’s greatest quarterbacks are remembered no more than the fellow who broke the four-minute mile after Roger Bannister, the second guy to climb Mt. Everest and the act that followed the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Center in football is not a position played for notoriety, though Raiola has tried to be the story in the past.
There have been some ill-advised, occasionally outrageous comments. He’s gotten into it with the fans, walking off the field. There was an alleged incident with a marching band before a game, with an ugly epithet supposedly tossed around by Raiola.
And through it all there’s been one playoff game in 13 years, a monumental occasion that so overwhelmed Raiola, his comments leading up to the game indicated that he could scarcely believe it was happening. By the time he realized it was real, the Lions were being lapped by the New Orleans Saints, 45-28.
Centers don’t typically play their best football in their 13th season. Two reasons for this: 1) centers don’t typically play 13 seasons; 2) their bodies age as well as bananas.
Yet Raiola, in 2013, was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second best center in the NFL. Not bad, considering the Lions almost didn’t bring him back after season no. 12.
There won’t be any doubt of Raiola’s coming back in 2014. Moved by perhaps his best season ever, the Lions recently rewarded their center with a one-year contract and a reportedly sizable raise—from $1 million in 2013 to $1.525 million in ’14.
Raiola captained an offensive line that, despite a 60% turnover from 2012, was among the NFL’s best and most consistent units in 2013.
“It’s humbling to me that I earned another year in the NFL, that’s first and foremost,” Raiola told the Detroit Free Press on February 7, after the Lions announced the signing.
“I’m in the same spot as I was last year, another proving ground. Can this 35-going-on-36-year-old play? And I’m going to work hard and let my play do the talking.”
Raiola, like Backus before the latter retired a year ago, is often guilty by association with the Lions when it comes to his legacy. He has never made the Pro Bowl, despite missing just four games in his 12 years as a full-time starter (all four came in 2008). Consequently, he’s often been portrayed as part of what’s wrong with the Lions instead of being lauded for his durability and solid play.
But Raiola hasn’t helped his own cause with some of his antics, usually involving his mouth.
Raiola hopes to play 15 years and hang them up. His newest contract is for one year, so like he said, it’s proving time again in 2014.
Since becoming a starter in his second season, here’s who Raiola has hiked the football to: Joey Harrington; Mike McMahon; Jeff Garcia; Jon Kitna; J.T. O’Sullivan; Dan Orlovsky; Daunte Culpepper; Drew Stanton; Shaun Hill and Matthew Stafford.
That’s 10 quarterbacks, and only Stafford was worth a hill of beans. It’s also a big reason why the Lions’ record while Raiola has been with the team is a putrid 60-148.
Hence the guilt by association thing.
It doesn’t matter that Raiola is hardly why the Lions have been so bad for so long—he’s been here, and that makes him part of the problem in the fans’ eyes.
Also, Raiola lives in his native Hawaii in the off-season, which doesn’t help. He’s not Nate Burleson, the recently released receiver whose gregarious demeanor and frequent appearances on national networks, pumping the Lions and the city of Detroit, have ingratiated him to the fan base.
Raiola leaves the mainland after the season and never makes it back unless there are OTAs to be conducted.
Plus, well, he’s a freaking center.
But the Lions aren’t bringing Raiola back for a 14th season out of pity or nostalgia. Salary cap dollars are too precious for anything silly like that. Witness the cashiering this past week of Burleson and safety Louie Delmas—two vocal leaders and proud Lions.
It’s about whether you can still play football, no matter what the birth certificate and the calendar have to say.
The Lions inked Raiola for another year because they don’t have a ready replacement, and his 2013 season was pretty damned good. And by all indications, the new deal is met with great appreciation by its recipient.
“I call (the Lions) my hometown team,” Raiola told the Free Press. “So it’s very humbling to me and I’m just thankful that they saw more gas in my tank.”
It’s funny. Raiola, the man who ends just about every play on the turf, is still standing when it comes to the Matt Millen Era.
The story is not apocryphal, which makes it even funnier.
“If you want a messenger, call Western Union.”
The speaker was Lions running back Joe Don Looney. The year was 1965.
The person Looney spoke those words to, incredibly, was his coach, Harry Gilmer.
Gilmer had wanted Looney to send in a play into the Lions huddle. And the free spirit from Oklahoma responded in a way that only Looney could.
Gilmer, never incredibly popular with players or fans, lasted two gut-wrenching years as Lions coach. He was the first coach hired by Bill Ford, who had taken control of the team from a group of partners in early 1964. One of Ford’s first flexing of muscle was to inform the coach he inherited, George Wilson, to fire some assistants after the ’64 season. Wilson relented, and told Bill Ford to take his job and shove it.
Gilmer’s last game as Lions coach ends on a December Sunday in 1966 at Tiger Stadium. Gilmer, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, is peppered with snowballs as he runs off the field and into the dugout.
A couple years later, Joe Schmidt sits in a bar across from Alex Karras. After a couple of seasons as coach—Schmidt was tabbed to replace Gilmer—Schmidt complains over his beer to his defensive tackle and former teammate.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Schmidt tells Karras. “I can’t take all the second guessing and the meddling.”
Schmidt was in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas. And every Monday during the football season, Schmidt was subject to weekly meetings with Thomas and owner Ford—meetings that Schmidt derisively calls the “How come?” Sessions.
“Well,” Karras tells his coach, “if it’s that bad, why don’t you quit?”
Schmidt sneers at Karras. “That’s the stupidest f***ing idea I’ve ever heard!”
There’s a press conference in January, 1973. Schmidt tells the assembled media, “Coaching isn’t fun anymore.”
Schmidt had given himself the ziggy—a word he invented for when the coach gets fired.
He took Karras’s advice, after all—some four years later.
It is the fall of 1973. Don McCafferty, the new Lions coach, is beside himself. The Lions, struggling out of the gate, have just lost to the woeful Baltimore Colts.
“We can’t even beat the Colts,” McCafferty moans.
“(The players) don’t look like they have any pride,” the owner Ford says in anger.
McCafferty would drop dead less than a year later, during training camp.
It’s October, 1976. Someone named Rick Forzano is coaching the Lions. Forzano was a McCafferty assistant and inherited the head coaching job. He has become Lions coach much the same way that Jerry Ford became President of the United States—by default, never having an interview, never having to survive a challenge for the job.
Forzano is called into Ford’s office and is given the ziggy. Another unknown named Tommy Hudpseth—he was working in the team’s player personnel department at the time—is given Forzano’s old job.
Hudspeth coaches the Lions for a year and a half, in total obscurity. And awash in mediocrity.
It’s January, 1978. The big, bear of a man stands before the Detroit media, beaming. He learned his pro football as an offensive lineman, playing for Paul Brown in Cleveland. After retirement as a player, the offensive lineman is hired by Don Shula in Miami and guides the offensive line for Shula and the Dolphins.
The Dolphins are in their heyday, going undefeated in 1972 and winning two Super Bowls in a row. Following the success in Miami as an assistant, Monte Clark is hired by the 49ers as head coach for the 1976 season.
It starts out well for Monte, then the team tanks. He is fired in a dispute with GM Joe Thomas, after just one year on the Bay.
Now Clark has been hired to coach the Lions. He is given the additional title of Director of Football Operations. It’s an empty title, because Russ Thomas is still around, pissing people off as GM. Everyone, that is, except Bill Ford, indebted to Thomas for personal reasons that have forever gone unreported.
Clark lasts seven seasons as Lions coach, a lifetime for a football coach in Detroit. He takes the team to a couple of playoffs. He coaches the team to a 4-0 start in 1980, a start so heady that his players record a song—a bastardized version of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Yet the lasting image of Monte Clark as Lions coach is that of Clark holding his hands up in prayer, prior to an Eddie Murray FG attempt in the 1983 playoffs in San Francisco.
It’s 1988. The Lions coach is staring at the roof of the Silverdome. A newspaper columnist sidles over and asks Darryl Rogers what he is looking at.
“I’m just counting the pigeons,” Rogers says.
Later, Rogers, deep into his fourth season, his team mired in bad, boring football, asks openly to some gathered reporters, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
The new Lions coach, rotund and with a big, cherubic face, smiles broadly and pulls owner Ford against his big body. He clutches the owner as if he’s still a defensive back for the New York Titans and Michigan State, making a tackle.
“I just wanna thank Mr. Ford for this opportunity,” Wayne Fontes says. Fontes took over for Rogers in that lovely “interim” basis. After five auditions, the Lions going 2-3 (both wins were over a bad Packers team), Ford decides he’s seen enough and eschews a coaching search. The owner gives Fontes, who’d never been a head coach at any level of football, a multi-year contract to be the head coach of the Lions—after five games as interim coach.
Fontes’ days, amazingly, are still today considered the apex of Lions football during the Ford ownership. Wayne takes the Lions to the playoffs four times in eight years, and manages to win a game in the post-season in the process.
“I’m the big buck,” Fontes famously says during one of the many times where he was in the fans’ crosshairs, explaining that he can take the heat.
Even after being fired in 1996, Fontes shows up during Ford’s press conference announcing the dismissal and gives the owner one more bear hug.
It is a horrible Sunday for the Lions in 1999. The coach, Bobby Ross, has tried an ill-advised two-point conversion that has indirectly cost the Lions a game against the Arizona Cardinals, on the road. Ross, ultra defensive, berates the media for daring to question the move.
Sometime later that season, Ross would lose it again, after another Sunday of foolish penalties and other sundry mistakes.
“I don’t coach that stuff!” Ross screams, a man coming unglued.
A year later, Ross quits on the Lions during the season, his team a respectable but apparently anguished 6-5.
It is January, 2001. The rookie football executive has chosen his first head coach. Both the executive and the coach will be learning on the job, because the coach is someone named Marty Mornhinweg—supposedly a hot shot offensive assistant who worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay.
“The bar is high,” Mornhinweg tells the mystified media. “We want to win Super Bowls.”
Sometime early in his first training camp, Mornhinweg, upset by something on the practice field, dramatically hops on his motorcycle and drives away. Just like that.
About 18 months later, Mornhinweg is given the ziggy, after a 5-27 record.
The Lions are introducing their new coach. It is January, 2003.
The new coach stands before the media and someone needs to pinch him.
“Wow,” the new coach says, grinning in disbelief at the pomp and circumstance surrounding his opening press conference—a real show put on by the Lions.
Steve Mariucci is the man Matt Millen wanted to hired two years prior, when Millen settled for Mornhinweg.
Mariucci is another ex-49ers coach, but one who has some playoff success under his belt, at least.
Mariucci, with northern Michigan roots, is a big name hire, given the ziggy by the 49ers a few weeks earlier. Not long before that, Millen gives Marty Mornhinweg a vote of confidence.
“Marty will be the Lions coach in 2003,” Millen tells the papers.
Then Mariucci becomes available, and Millen drops Marty like a hot potato.
It is Thanksgiving, 2005. The Lions lay another egg on national TV, a bad loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
A day after the game, Millen calls Mariucci—the man Millen wanted oh-so-badly—into his office and renders Mooch the ziggy.
The new Lions coach is a balding, ex-military man. He greets the media with, “Good morning, men,” just like a military man would.
Rod Marinelli is another assistant who has never been a head coach anywhere, at any level of football.
Marinelli talks of “pounding the rock” and of pride and of discipline.
Two years later, the Lions suffer the ignominy of being the first—and only—NFL team to go 0-16.
It’s January, 2009. The new Lions coach is another assistant coach—a defensive coordinator from Tennessee. But coming off 0-16, it’s the best the Lions can do.
“Bobby Layne doesn’t play here anymore,” Jim Schwartz tells the media who have once again been bugled to Ford Field to meet a new coach. The new coach has chosen to give a history lesson, right off the bat.
Schwartz gets his next Bobby Layne three months later, when the Lions draft Matthew Stafford, a quarterback from Georgia, with the first overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
It is pointed out that Stafford attended the very same high school as Layne did, in suburban Dallas. As if.
It is October, 2011, and the Lions have suffered their first loss after five wins, to the 49ers in Detroit. Schwartz shakes the hand of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, but something goes terribly wrong. Within moments, the Lions coach is screaming and chasing after Harbaugh. Video replays will show that Schwartz looks like a man who is unhinged. It’s a freaking post-game handshake, and Schwartz has turned it into must-see TV.
Two years later, Schwartz is caught on camera screaming again, this time at fans at Ford Field. The fans have booed the Lions’ decision to drain out the clock in a crucial game against the Giants and take their chances in overtime.
The fans hate the decision, which is dripping in cowardice.
Schwartz doesn’t like the booing and turns and gives it to the fans.
“I was just trying to fire up my players,” Schwartz feebly explains after the game.
Eight days later, Schwartz is given the ziggy, his teams carrying a well-deserved reputation of being talented but terribly undisciplined and a bunch of hotheads. They are a reflection of their coach.
Which brings us to…
“The time is now. Not two, three years down the road. Right here, right now,” Jim Caldwell tells the media as he’s introduced as the 16th coach hired by Bill Ford, today at Ford Field.
Caldwell is a change for the Lions. He’s actually been a head coach, for starters. And he’s been to the Super Bowl.
Then again, so had Bobby Ross. And Don McCafferty, who won it with Baltimore in 1970.
But Caldwell, the perceived second choice when the Lions lost Ken Whisenhunt to Tennessee, seems to be a level-headed, smart football man who has been around some very good people, such as Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning and John Harbaugh, to name a few.
“My father worked in the auto industry for 35 years,” Caldwell tells the folks who are feverishly converting everything he says into 140-character bites. “My brother is in his 34th year of working in the auto industry. The UAW has supported my family for almost 40 years.”
Caldwell doesn’t know his history as well as Jim Schwartz, who spoke of Bobby Layne. Someone ought to tell Caldwell that his employer’s ancestors fought the formation of the UAW tooth and nail.
No matter. Caldwell is the Lions coach, fair and square.
Bill Ford has owned the Lions for 50 years, and the 15 men preceding Caldwell as coach have never been heard from again after leaving Detroit. The Lions are the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL, when it comes to head coaches.
“I have been hired to deliver a championship,” Caldwell said today.
That might be the last time the new coach and the Lions fans agree for quite some time.
Matthew Stafford has won no playoff games, no divisional titles and has a career won/lost record of 24-37 as a starter in the NFL—a winning percentage of under .400.
Yet the Lions are apparently involving their quarterback in the team’s coaching search.
Stafford reportedly sat in on the Lions’ interview of Jim Caldwell last week. This should cause great consternation among Lions fans.
Stafford no more belongs in the interview room as I do. Or as you do. Or as your uncle does, or as your uncle’s barber.
The inclusion of Stafford, regardless that he’s the Lions’ franchise QB, sends up more red flags than a Russian parade.
First, Stafford isn’t Tom Brady. Or Peyton Manning. Or Drew Brees—all veteran quarterbacks steeped in experience, knowledge, and championships.
And even the above guys haven’t been part of a coaching interview process, that anyone knows about.
The inclusion of Stafford makes one wonder what has been pumped into his head since becoming a Lion in 2009.
It raises questions about what level of culpability management holds Stafford regarding all the losing that’s been going on.
Stafford, more than any other player, was responsible for the Lions’ collapse this season. His turnover-prone play torpedoed the Lions’ playoff chances, when the team went 1-6 down the stretch.
A cynic could say that the Lions are merely giving Stafford hiring power to go along with the firing power he already has, as his play got Jim Schwartz canned.
But seriously, folks, this is a slippery slope the Lions are going down.
Caldwell, for his part, was well-prepared for his interview with the Lions. He supposedly watched every single pass that Stafford threw in 2013, and the former Colts head coach came armed with suggestions of how to improve Stafford’s mechanics.
That still doesn’t justify having Stafford sit in on Caldwell’s interview.
This has tail-wagging-the-dog written all over it, and raises serious questions about the treatment of Stafford versus the other 52 men on the roster.
So does this mean that Stafford will be included in every coaching interview? Why stop with Caldwell? Or better yet, why start with Caldwell?
Another disturbing thing occurred regarding Stafford. It came shortly after the 2013 season ended with a thud.
Stafford was asked about whether he’d be open to working with a “quarterback guru” or some such person in the off-season.
“It’s not something that I feel would be my style or beneficial to me,” he said.
That’s not his style? It wouldn’t be beneficial?
It’s not his style to be the best quarterback that he can be? Even Tiger Woods has a swing coach, for goodness sake.
It all makes me wonder how much Stafford is being coddled by the people upstairs. How much he isn’t being challenged.
It also makes me wonder whether the change in culture needed with the Lions should have ended with just changing the head coach.
The Lions don’t need Matthew Stafford’s approval before they hire a new coach. They don’t even need him to like the new guy.
The new coach ought to be hired based on what management thinks, and Stafford will just need to deal with it.
This inclusion of Stafford in the interview process is pretty much unprecedented, and with good reason.
The coach coaches. The players play.
How many employees get a say as to who their new boss is going to be?
And from a candidate’s perspective, it’s tough enough to impress the brass in an interview, without having to wow the quarterback as well.
It’s fair now to be concerned about how much influence Stafford has around the Lions, and whether he is being held as accountable as he should for the monkey shines that are going on.
The inclusion of the quarterback in coaching interviews and his resistance to quarterback specialists because it’s “not my style”, ought to baffle folks and make them curious as to how Stafford has been bred since the Lions drafted him no. 1 overall in 2009.