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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.
It’s almost here. The game so big, they need to use Roman numerals to name it.
The history of the Super Bowl is filled with pre-game antics, outlandish quotes, flaky players and impressive individual performances.
But it’s amazing what you can find out when you do a little research.
There are tons of nuggets out there.
So while you’re probably sick and tired (aside: why does “and tired” always follow “sick”?) of pre-game coverage of SB XLVIII by now, I hope you can find it in yourself to indulge in a few more tidbits.
Super Bowl I (Los Angeles, 1967). Coliseum security are called when the Kansas City Chiefs are caught trying to flee the stadium upon the arrival of the Green Bay Packers’ team bus. Authorities manage to corral the Chiefs back onto the field, where they are promptly buggy-whipped, 35-10.
Super Bowl III (Miami, 1969). Everyone knows of Joe Namath’s guarantee that his AFL New York Jets would defeat the mighty Baltimore Colts of the NFL, but how about the drunken guarantee made by Colts LB Mike Curtis, who told the media the day before the game that Namath would be embalmed at the fifty yard line by halftime?
Another fun fact: Jets coach Weeb Ewbank’s first name, spelled backward, is Beew.
Super Bowl IV (New Orleans, 1970). The Minnesota Vikings declare that SB III’s win by the Jets was a fluke and that the NFL is still the dominant league. The Vikes display that dominance by losing, 7 to 23. After the game, Vikings QB Joe Kapp’s ribs fall out. KC d-lineman Buck Buchanan adds BBQ sauce and engages in a post-game victory meal.
Super Bowl V (Miami, 1971). It was the most mistake-filled of all the games. There were six fumbles, six interceptions and 14 penalties—and that was all before kickoff. The fans weren’t much better. There were 12,787 beer spills, 9,452 mustard stains and three turnovers—women who went home with men other than their husbands.
Super Bowl VII (Los Angeles, 1973). The Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season is threatened when kicker Garo Yepremian’s ill-advised pass attempt after a blocked FG attempt late in the fourth quarter is returned for a touchdown by Washington’s Mike Bass, drawing the Redskins to within 14-7. Order is restored on the next series, when Miami fullback Larry Csonka runs out the clock with a five minute, 23-second rushing attempt for a one-yard gain, while Redskin defenders are unable to wrestle him to the ground.
Super Bowl X (Miami, 1976). Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann victimizes Dallas cornerback Mark Washington twice with acrobatic catches and once with an atomic wedgie. Steelers d-lineman Mean Joe Greene gets into the spirit of the upcoming USA Bicentennial by planting Cowboys QB Roger Staubach into the ground after a sack and painting his rear end red, white and blue.
Super Bowl XIII (Miami, 1979). Back in Miami for a rematch with the Steelers, Cowboys LB Tom “Hollywood” Henderson says before the game that Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and the “a.” Pittsburgh’s center Ray Mansfield responds that Dallas’s intellectual QB Roger Staubach couldn’t spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” even if you spotted him the “supercalifragilisticexp”.
Super Bowl XV (New Orleans, 1981). Raiders owner Al Davis is presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Oakland’s victory over Philadelphia by his nemesis, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. After the cameras are turned off, Davis pulls Rozelle’s suit jacket over his head and a hockey game breaks out. Raiders QB Jim Plunkett is ejected from the post-game celebration for being the third man in.
Super Bowl XVI (Pontiac, 1982). It’s the first SB played in a northern climate. Temps the week of the game dip below zero, with wind chills of up to -50 degrees. Paid attendance is 79,877, but actual attendance is estimated at being about 6,000 fewer, with those unable to attend found frozen into human popsicles on the streets of downtown Pontiac.
Super Bowl XVII (Pasadena, 1983). The big play of this game is Washington’s John Riggins breaking off left tackle for a 43-yard TD run to put the Redskins ahead of the Miami Dolphins to stay. Riggins is named MVP and immediately places a call after the game to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, starting a whirlwind courtship that would end dramatically months later.
Super Bowl XX (New Orleans, 1986). The Bears destroy the Patriots, with even DT William “Refrigerator” Perry scoring a touchdown as a fullback instead of Bears Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton, whose anger spills over into the locker room after the game. Feuding head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan placate Payton by hugging each other, showing Payton the true meaning of Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXII (San Diego, 1988). The Redskins score a Super Bowl-record 35 points in the second quarter against the Broncos and hop on a plane at halftime. The second half is played by members of the 1972 Redskins, giving them the feeling of victory they missed out against Miami. The ’72 Skins outscore the ’87 Broncos, 7-0, after intermission.
Super Bowl XXIV (New Orleans, 1990). The Broncos show up in the SB for the fourth time—well, maybe that’s an overstatement, as they lose to the 49ers, 55-10. San Francisco QB Joe Montana slings touchdown passes all over the place to Jerry Rice, even connecting with no. 80 on a 25-yard strike in the men’s bathroom.
Super Bowl XXVIII (Atlanta, 1994). The Buffalo Bills suffer their fourth straight SB defeat and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue bans them from future appearances, a ban that despite several legal attempts by the Bills to undo, remains in place to this day.
Super Bowl XXXI (New Orleans, 1997). Green Bay’s Desmond Howard, the game’s MVP, returns a third quarter kickoff 97 yards for a game-clinching touchdown, and returns a post-game salami sandwich 965 yards to a New Orleans deli for extra provolone.
Super Bowl XXXIV (Atlanta, 2000). Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson is stopped one yard shy of the end zone on the game’s final play as the Rams’ victory is secured. The Titans immediately file a court injunction to have the field reduced to 98 yards long but judges don’t work on Sundays, preserving St. Louis’s win. Rams coach Dick Vermeil sheds tears of joy as his players cheer, then roll their eyes behind his back.
Super Bowl XXXVII (San Diego, 2003). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally yank off their cloak of franchise futility by capturing a 48-21 victory over Oakland. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who coached the Raiders just the year before, is asked to come back to Oakland by Al Davis, but Gruden scowls the Raiders owner into the fetal position.
Super Bowl XLI (Miami, 2007). The Indianapolis Colts, behind QB and MVP Peyton Manning, defeat the Chicago Bears. Television microphones capture Manning’s audibles, as he yells out every state capital and other popular city names at least once during the game, though his attempt at Albuquerque results in a delay of game penalty.
Super Bowl XLII (Glendale, 2008). The New York Giants ruin the New England Patriots’ bid for a perfect 19-0 season when Peyton’s little brother Eli Manning makes a remarkable play late in the game, eluding a sack and throwing for a long gain. Eli’s Giants win the game, but that doesn’t stop Peyton from wrestling Eli to the ground after the game, a move that only ends when Eli yells, “I can’t breathe.”
Super Bowl XLVII (New Orleans, 2013). The game is remembered for a lengthy delay in the third quarter when the lights go out. After the stoppage, the Baltimore Ravens take control, their dominance enhanced when the 49ers complain to the officials repeatedly that their wallets are now missing.
So there you have it—crack research at its best, with an emphasis on “crack.”
What nuggets will SB XLVIII produce?
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.
It was never about the coordinators.
The images are iconic.
Woody Hayes, with his black baseball cap with the red block O outlined in white, prowling—and that was the word—the sidelines with his rumpled white shirt and thin black necktie, working the officials and, in one unfortunate incident, the opponent’s players.
Bear Bryant, with his checkered fedora, steel-jawed and squinting into the Saturday afternoon sun, the wheels turning in his mind as to how to grab a few yards on a crucial third down against Auburn.
Lou Holtz, marching up and down the sidelines in front of his team, moving 20 to 30 yards without even looking up from the ground, his play calling sheet folded up and jammed into his back pants pocket, the next chess moves racing around in his brain.
And Bo Schembechler, wearing the cap with the maize block M, holding a headset to his ear, crouched and peering through his sunglasses, wearing athletic cleats and white socks.
These were just a few of the men who ran college football’s most prestigious programs. They were in charge. The assistants were mere satellites—lieutenants to the four-star general.
Only the most die-hard, obsessed fans of Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan knew who the offensive and defensive coordinators were for those schools when Woody, Bear, Lou and Bo were the big cheeses.
And there certainly weren’t any press conferences announcing the hiring of coordinators.
But in today’s world of college football, I am reminded of a gem of a quote from former NFL head coach Chuck Knox, who once was an assistant for the Lions.
“I’ve seen situations where the defensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the defense, and the offensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the offense, and you had a head coach who was in charge of nothing.”
In today’s game, the coordinators are almost more of the media and fan darlings—and goats—than their bosses.
The coordinators, if they are considered hot shot, are the anointed ones for another program, somewhere. They are just what the other program needs, according to the other program’s head coach and athletic director.
Pat Narduzzi is hot shot today. He’s the defensive coordinator at Michigan State and to hear some tell it, the Spartans wouldn’t be 13-1 and no. 3 in the country if head coach Mark Dantonio had someone else in charge of the defense.
Narduzzi, already the rejecter of the University of Connecticut for their head coaching position, was in the running for the top job at Louisville, filled last week by the ne’er-do-well Bobby Petrino.
Narduzzi is the flavor of the month.
Across the state, in Ann Arbor, Al Borges was the day old bread.
Borges was 180 degrees opposite of Narduzzi in terms of popularity at his school.
Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.
He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.
The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.
So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.
“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.
The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.
Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.
Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.
“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.
This is what college football has become. Head coaches standing off to the side, listening to coordinators have a press conference.
This is also what college football has become: coaching trios instead of solo artists.
You don’t just hire a head coach. You hire two coordinators who come with him.
But the head coach can still offload coordinators. Michigan fans demanded a sacrificial lamb after 2013’s 7-6 record, and Hoke threw them one, in Borges.
But the head coach can only toss so many lambs out before he himself is offered up to the angry masses.
Coordinators are used as fodder, and as currency with which the head coach can buy some time.
Brady Hoke cashed in his Al Borges, and in doing so, purchased another year or two as head coach at Michigan.
Everyone knows what’s going on here.
Hoke felt the pressure, presumably from his superiors, and made the swap of Borges for Nussmeier. And everyone knows that if this doesn’t work, Hoke will be the next lamb.
Everyone knows that Nick Saban wanted Kiffin very badly at Alabama to coordinate his offense, and thus Nussmeier became expendable.
But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.
And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.
If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.
Is Brady Hoke, to invoke Chuck Knox’s words, a head coach in charge of nothing?
That’s actually OK, as long as the coordinators below you produce results.
It’s not how Woody, Bear, Lou or Bo would have done it, but this is a different 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.
The Chairman of the Board of college football coaches in Michigan never thought he’d even consider leaving his school. He was firmly entrenched, his fan base and alumni loved him, and besides, he was a Midwestern guy all the way.
There wasn’t a lot of Texas in Bo Schembechler, except for maybe his moniker.
Schembechler was a Glenn, by birth, and he was Bo in nickname only. The University of Michigan coach wasn’t the cowboy type and never would be.
Schembechler learned his football in Ohio, like so many of the game’s greats, and he was more small town than he was “Texas big.”
But in early 1982, Schembechler had some of that Texas money thrown at him and it gave him pause.
Schembechler had just completed his 13th season in Ann Arbor, and he had come a long way since a newspaper trumpeted his hiring with the headline, “Bo WHO?”
Texas A&M came calling in January ’82. And they came hauling a bagful of cash.
The Aggies were prepared to make Bo the highest paid coach in college football at the time. There was even talk of adding Athletic Director to his title, or at least after he was done coaching.
A&M offered Bo nearly $3 million for 10 years. Today that’s a drop in the bucket. But in 1982, it was high stakes, Texas Hold ‘Em stuff.
It was close. Bo was tempted. He was never one to use another school to leverage Michigan, but he didn’t have to. U-M AD Don Canham made a counter offer, the terms undisclosed.
For several days the newspapers, TV and radio stations played “Will he or won’t he?” in regard to Bo’s future at Michigan, and whether he’d chuck it all for College Station’s money and added power of athletic director.
When A&M reached out to him, Bo was one year removed from finally grabbing his elusive first Rose Bowl victory. In a quirk of scheduling, Michigan actually won two bowl games in 1981—the Rose Bowl on January 1 and the Bluebonnet Bowl in the Houston Astrodome on New Year’s Eve.
A couple weeks after trouncing UCLA in Houston, Bo was approached by the Aggies, who tried to make a play for what would have been the Shot Heard ‘Round the World when it comes to college football.
There was some strong feeling at the time that Bo would leave Michigan, even though Texas A&M didn’t seem like a good fit for him—from a personality standpoint and from a coaching perspective.
Schembechler and Woody Hayes had combined to define Big Ten football in the 10 years they coached U-M and Ohio State, respectively, from 1969-78—before Woody was run out of Columbus in shame for slugging a Clemson player during a bowl game.
So would Bo actually leave Ann Arbor and his Midwest roots and his CEO status among Big Ten coaches, for a stinking job in Texas of all places?
For a couple days, it was dicey. It was like a patient teetering between life and death in the hospital.
But eventually Schembechler made his decision, and in doing so everyone associated with Michigan football heaved a sigh of relief.
“Frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money,” Bo told the press in making his announcement. “For that reason, I’ve decided to stay at Michigan.”
And stay Bo did—for eight more seasons before retiring from coaching.
Mark Dantonio is, at this moment, the Chairman of the Board of college football coaches in the state of Michigan. At first he assumed the title by default, after Lloyd Carr retired in 2008. But now, Michigan State’s Dantonio has earned it, fair and square.
Dantonio, without question, currently runs the premier college football program in the state. His 2013 Spartans, Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs, represent his finest hour in coaching.
All of this heady success, in the college ranks, usually makes you a hot commodity and your name starts to roll off the tongues of the rumor mongers when it comes to available jobs elsewhere.
Another school in Texas has been mentioned as a possible destination for Dantonio.
The University of Texas, in Austin, has been reported to have wanted Dantonio to fly down and interview for their coaching job, vacated by the resignation of Mack Brown.
Those reports now appear moot, as the school is reportedly on the verge of hiring Louisville coach Charlie Strong to replace Brown.
But Texas’ hiring of Strong, if it comes to be, won’t do a thing to squash rumors of Dantonio going, well, just about anywhere. Such is the case when you become hot stuff.
Only Mark Dantonio can stop the rumors.
Like his basketball counterpart in East Lansing, Dantonio seems destined to be mentioned whenever high profile schools are looking for coaches.
Dantonio, though, is another Midwestern guy. His roots are firm here. The idea of Dantonio leaving for a money grab doesn’t mesh with his persona.
But that won’t stop the speculation.
Again, only Dantonio can snuff out the rumor mongers.
Only Dantonio can tell the media, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m happy at Michigan State and this is my home.”
Of course, there will be those who won’t believe him, even though Dantonio has no track record of flitting from job to job. In fact, he left MSU as an assistant but bounced right back, a few years later, as the Spartans’ head coach.
The fact that Dantonio hasn’t stomped out the rumors might give some Spartan boosters consternation over the coach’s intentions, but like Bo Schembechler, Mark Dantonio appears to be content to be a Michigander and not a Texan, or anything else.
The balance of power in college football in Michigan has unquestioningly swung to East Lansing these days. Dantonio’s program is stronger than ever.
His name will be bandied about, going forward, attached to high profile jobs across the country.
It’s just something Spartan fans will have to live with as being part of the cost of doing business as an elite college football program—which MSU currently is.
Why else would everyone across the lower 48 states want Dantonio to coach at their school?
Joe Schmidt introduced two things to the NFL: the middle linebacker position, and the ziggy.
The former put Schmidt into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the latter became an iconic term for a coach getting fired. The ziggy is as Detroit as Vernor’s, Stroh’s, Uniroyal and Better Made potato chips.
Ironically, even though he coined the term, Schmidt himself rendered a self-ziggy, when he quit as coach of the Lions in January, 1973—the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.
“Coaching is not fun anymore,” Schmidt declared on the day he gave himself the ziggy.
To this day, almost 41 years later, Joe Schmidt remains the only head coach of the Lions to leave the job with a winning record in Detroit (43-34-7, plus a playoff loss).
Since Schmidt, the Lions have tried 13 men as coach—a baker’s dozen—and none have been able to get the team over the “hump.” The word is Tom Lewand’s.
Lions President Lewand mentioned the insurmountable (so far) hump several times as he spoke to the media today. explaining away the firing of Jim Schwartz after five rough and tumble seasons.
The hump, according to Lewand, is what needs to be gotten over, and the Lions under Schwartz just couldn’t quite do it.
I won’t speculate as to who the next coach will be. I’ll leave that to Twitter, Facebook and the area around the water cooler.
I do know this. The Lions job is as attractive as it’s ever been under the Ford ownership, which just completed its 50th year.
Never before on the Ford family’s watch—including when Schmidt resigned after leading some pretty good Lions teams of the early-1970s—has the Lions roster been as rich with talent for a new coach as it is right now.
So no wonder that Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew’s phones were ringing constantly (Lewand said) with interested agents and coaches after the news broke that Schwartz had been given the ziggy, around noon today.
Oh, to have access to those men’s caller IDs, eh?
Schwartz is gone because after five years, the Lions were still shooting themselves in the foot with dumb penalties, ill-timed turnovers and bad decisions—some of them the coach’s. More disturbing is that, in the last two second halves of seasons, the Lions are 2-14 under Schwartz. That is maybe the most damning indictment.
Pay no heed to Schwartz’s players. They spouted the usual tripe after the coach gets the ziggy.
It was the usual stuff.
He’s a great guy. He’s a good coach. It wasn’t his fault. We loved playing for him.
NFL players are the last people to know what’s good for them when it comes to coaching. The so-called “player’s coaches” are beloved, sure. You’d like a guy, too, if he rarely held you accountable for your actions.
Listen carefully next time you hear of former players talk about Lombardi, Noll, Walsh, Belichik and Parcells.
You won’t hear a lot of warm and fuzzies. Respect? You bet. Actual “like”? Not so much.
I once asked former Lion Ron Rice what it was like playing for Wayne Fontes.
“Loved it” he gushed. “Wayne was a great guy.”
Well, yeah—nobody is denying that.
You think the Red Wings felt close and friendly with Scotty Bowman? Did any of his players, wherever Scotty coached?
“With Scotty, you hated his guts for 364 days and on the 365th, you held up the Stanley Cup,” one of his players once said.
Now, the Lions don’t have to hire a jerk. And nice guys can win. Tony Dungy comes to mind.
But the Lions of today don’t need someone they’d have a beer with after the game. They need a leader—and not someone who can turn a post-game handshake into must-see TV or one who will hold the fans more accountable than his players. They don’t need someone who constantly thinks that he’s the smartest guy in the room.
Jim Schwartz, in the end, was the Lions’ transitional guy. Lots of championship teams have had them.
Let’s take Detroit. Might as well.
Alan Trammell. Rick Carlisle. Jacques Demers.
Those are just three examples of coaches who took over the dregs of their respective leagues, with the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings respectively, and who brought their teams to relevancy and a level of competitiveness that was respectable.
Each of them was succeeded by someone who took it to the next level, that ancient term.
There’s no shame in being the Lions’ transitional guy. The trouble is, the Lions haven’t transitioned to anything in 56 years and counting.
Schwartz took over a team that went 0-16 in 2008. He was, in many ways, the Lions’ Scotty Robertson.
Robertson was the Pistons coach from 1980-83. The roster he inherited from the destruction of predecessor Dick Vitale was expansion-like in quality. Along with new GM Jack McCloskey, Robertson lifted the Pistons to respectability, taking a team that won 16 games in 1979-80 to win totals of 21, 39 and 37 before being given the ziggy in 1983.
Chuck Daly took over and carved a Hall of Fame coaching career in Detroit.
It should be noted that when Daly took the coaching reins with the Pistons, the franchise had won nothing of note since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957.
The Lions haven’t won anything since 1957, either.
Schwartz took a winless team and improved it (with GM Mayhew’s help, of course), but he plateaued. Four of the five years were losing ones. The 10-6 playoff year of 2011 turned out to be the exception, not the rule.
“Our unwavering commitment is to bring a consistently winning football team to Detroit, immediately,” Lewand said at today’s presser.
The word “immediately” ought to make Lions fans’ hearts warm. Ownership isn’t interested in a rebuilding project, and neither are the paying customers—the ones who Schwartz immaturely and foolishly (and brazenly) called out after the loss to the Giants on December 22.
Schwartz had never been a head coach in the NFL before taking the Lions’ gig, which isn’t new for a franchise that’s hired guys like Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Darryl Rogers, Marty Mornhinweg and Rod Marinelli.
But this time, the Lions coaching job isn’t a dog. This time, the organization ought not to settle for a coordinator looking for his big break.
Hearing Lewand and Mayhew speak to the media today, it sounded a lot like they were interested in a man with a head coaching resume. We’ll see.
The Green Bay Packers, despite losing QB Aaron Rodgers for extended time and going 0-4-1 in November, are the NFC North champs—with a hardly impressive record of 8-7-1.
The fact that the Pack was able to pull that off, when the Lions were 6-3 at one point and in firm control of the division after throttling Green Bay, 40-10 on Thanksgiving Day, gave the Ford family great consternation. Opportunities like the one the Lions had this year don’t grow on trees. They fall from the sky and if you fumble it, you can pay for years.
The Lions let the Packers off the hook, and it disgusted the Fords.
“The fact that we’re not hosting a playoff game this weekend, if not having a bye, is why we’re having this discussion today,” Lewand said at today’s presser.
The next coach will walk into this history: 56 years with one playoff victory and no appearances in the Super Bowl, which is XLVIII years old.
But he’ll also inherit a crazy loyal fan base, talent at key positions and stable, albeit unsuccessful thus far, ownership.
It’s a plum of a job, frankly.
It was clear after this season’s disaster that Jim Schwartz had taken the Lions as far as he could, which was far from good enough.
It’s the epitaph of every Lions coach that Bill Ford has hired.
The owner is 88 years old. His time is running out, and he knows it.
The next coach the Ford family hires might be the last one before the patriarch passes.
No wonder Lewand invoked the word “immediately.”
It’s a question that has tantalized the football fans in these parts for some 55 years (and counting).
“What’s wrong with the Lions?”
At this point in their inglorious history, I can give you 1,964 reasons why the Lionsaren’t winners.
That number, 1,964, happens to be the total yardage rolled up by receiver Calvin Johnson in the 2012 season. It was record-setting stuff. More yards than any NFL pass catcher has accumulated in a single season. Ever. The previous record holder was the great Jerry Rice, no less.
It’s a remarkable achievement, for sure. The 1,964 represents over 120 yards per game. Just call him Two Yards a Minute Calvin.
Opposing defenses looked at the Lions offense this year just like they did in the 1990s, when they looked at the Lions during Barry Sanders’ heyday. Opponents looked at the Lions in 2012 and in one sweep of the arm, knocked all the skill players off the board and honed in on stopping Johnson, just as they did with Barry some 20 years ago.
With Sanders, sometimes it worked, to focus strictly on him. Barry was the most elusive, trickiest, slippery runner of his time. Of any time, truth be told. Jamming seven defenders near the line of scrimmage, each with the expressed assignment of getting their hands on No. 20, sometimes worked. But not very often.
Johnson, it can be argued, is the Barry Sanders of receivers in today’s NFL. Just as Barry was better than any other runner at avoiding tackles and thus was frequently able to make defenses designed primarily to stop him look silly, so does Calvin Johnson make defensive coordinators’ game plans as ineffectual as a breath mint after limburgercheese.
Every week the charge to the defense was “Don’t let Calvin Johnson beat you.” Sometimes coordinators settled for “Don’t let Calvin Johnson humiliate you.”
It clearly didn’t matter that Johnson was the only player on the Lions offense that you had to worry about. He got his yards anyway. 1,964 of them, shattering the record set by Rice some 17 years ago.
Here’s another number that, when combined with the 1,964, hints at why the Lions won just four games in 2012, a year after winning 10 and making the playoffs.
That number would be five.
Johnson scored just five touchdowns to go with his 1,964 yards. In 1995, when Rice caught passes totaling 1,848 yards, the 49ers receiver caught 15 touchdown passes.
The 1995 49ers won 11 games and captured their division. They were the defending Super Bowl champs. And Jerry Rice scored three times as many touchdowns with his 1,848 yards as Johnson did with his 1,964.
I started this by saying that there were 1,964 reasons why the Lions didn’t win diddly-poo (to steal from Jim Mora’s lexicon) in 2012.
As yet another lousy Lions football season went down the drain, the focus became, yet again, on hollow personal stats.
Would Johnson break Rice’s record? Would quarterback Matthew Stafford throw for 5,000 yards again? Would he set a record for most passes attempted in a single season?
These are questions asked by losers, as the calendar flips to December.
Rice’s 1995 season notwithstanding, the NFL’s pedigree is such that, for the most part, seasons of terrific individual accomplishment are generally not paired with team success.
The Packers of the 1960s featured the running back tandem of Paul Hornung (Mr. Outside) and Jim Taylor (Mr. Inside). Taylor did have a monster year in 1962, when the Packers finished 13-1 and won the NFL Championship: 1,474 yards rushing (5.4 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns. Hornung never rushed for more than 681 yards in any given season of his career.
Taylor’s individual auspiciousness and the Packers’ great team success in 1962 is an anomaly. And even so, the Packers’ emphasis wasn’t on Taylor leading the league in rushing or scoring more TDs than any running back in the league. Their coach, Vince Lombardi, would have none of that. Taylor’s numbers were a byproduct of the Packers’ system and their Hall of Fame-laden offensive line.
O.J. Simpson became the first rusher in NFL history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark for a single season, in 1973. His team, the Buffalo Bills, missed the playoffs.
Eric Dickerson was the second runner to hit 2,000 yards, in 1984. His Los AngelesRams lasted one playoff game.
The Lions’ Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards in 1997. Those Lions didn’t win a playoff game, either.
Even Rice’s 1995 49ers lasted just one playoff game in his record-setting year.
The racking up of yards by Johnson and Stafford in 2012 and the questions about whether they’d be record setting in nature (Stafford had the chance to become just the second passer in league history to throw for 5,000+ yards twice in his career), became annoying and, worse, were symptomatic of the Lions’ problems.
Break Rice’s record? Become the first receiver to hit the 2,000 yard mark? Throw for 5,000 yards again? Throw more passes in one season than anyone else?
I have one more question for you, to go with those.
We were down this road before with the Lions. It happened, ironically enough, during Rice’s great 1995 season.
The ’95 Lions had Sanders running the ball, Scott Mitchell throwing it, and Herman Moore and Brett Perriman catching it.
Sanders had 1,500 yards rushing, on the button. Moore caught 123 passes for 1,686 yards. Perriman had 108 catches for 1,488 yards. Mitchell threw for 4,338 yards and 32TDs. Moore and Perriman became the first teammates to each have 100+ catches in one season.
Yards, yards, yards. And more yards. Bodacious in nature. A whole lotta yards.
So the Lions took all those yards and went into the playoffs against the Eagles in Philadelphia. That was the embarrassing 58-37 loss, a game in which the Eagles once led 51-7.
The Lions in 2012 once again became a team boiled down to a couple of individuals chasing hollow records. Johnson’s achievement was noteworthy, but what did it do for the team’s fortunes?
1,964 yards. Five touchdowns. A TD every 400 yards, just about.
It’s become an annual tradition. Look back at 12 months of tripe and pick out the stuff that I either got very wrong, very right, or that makes one think I might be onto something (or on something, whichever).
So without further ado, here’s the Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno for 2012.
On the state of the Lions after their 45-28 playoff loss in New Orleans:
“There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.”
Yet that’s exactly what GM Marty Mayhew did, for the most part, as his draft was less than spectacular. And you saw what happened.
On what the Tigers should do in the wake of the Victor Martinez knee injury:
“Is there a Martinez on the list?
The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.
The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.
The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.
So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.
Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.
But Vlad won’t hit .330, and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.
Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.
My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.”
They didn’t sign Guerrero for a year. They signed Fielder for nine.
On the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom playing in his 1,000th career game:
“Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.
You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?”
Sadly, Holmstrom hasn’t been able to add to his total, thanks to the lockout. And it’s no sure bet that he’ll be back, anyhow.
On the status of Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch:
“Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.
Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?
Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.
Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?”
Jackson had a breakout year of sorts, and Boesch…didn’t. Shows you how much I know.
On the off-season (up to that point) of Lions GM Mayhew:
“Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.
The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.
Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.
His off-season, thus far, has been A+.”
That was BEFORE the draft, which wasn’t very good, to say the least. And Mayhew is suddenly on the hot seat, perhaps.
On Pistons (then) rookie point guard Brandon Knight:
“Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.
“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.
“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”
There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.
Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.”
Knight this season, at times, appears to be regressing, or at the very least, not progressing as much as hoped.
On the dreaded retirement of Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, after it was made official:
“You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.
All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.
But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now (LA and New Jersey).
The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.”
And there STILL haven’t been any games played since, to see what life post-Lidstrom is like.
On Pistons big man Greg Monroe, as said by frequent “Knee Jerks” guest and former Pistons player and coach, Ray Scott:
“It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.
“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.
For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.
Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.”
Nothing that Monroe has done this season indicates that Coach is wrong.
On the Lions’ consistency:
“So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.
All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.”
On the hype over Quintin Berry:
“Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.
Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.
But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.
Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.
Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.”
Berry faltered, as I expected, though his spot on the 2013 roster seems secure, for now.
On Tommy Hearns’ induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame:
“Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.
He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.
But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.
Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.
For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”
I think we can all agree that this was long overdue.
On the worry over the Lions’ lack of a bona fide running attack:
The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.
Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?
It makes no sense.”
I stand behind this, despite 2012′s 4-12 record.
On the MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout:
“Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.
Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.
It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.
Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.
If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.”
Thankfully the right decision was made!
On the future of Lions RB Jahvid Best, and his role in today’s NFL, when it comes to concussions:
“Some have suggested that Best hang up his spikes and call it a career, despite his tender age and this being just his third pro season. The brain is nothing to be trifled with, they say. Maybe because of Best’s youth, he should consider retirement.
Best has given no indication that he will retire. Lions fans, eager to see what Best can do for an extended period of time, haven’t exactly blown the horn for retirement, either.
No matter what Best’s fate turns out to be—short-lived career or full recovery and longevity—the NFL has a problem on its hands.”
The NFL needs to work on better helmets, among other things. Best won’t be the last player imperiled.
On the Pistons using big men Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond at the same time:
“Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.
Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.
Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.
Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.
It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.
About time the Pistons tried it.”
Coach Lawrence Frank has been trying it more, with success, and to the pleasure of the fans.
On Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who I obviously soured on after the beginning of 2012:
“But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.
Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”
But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.
“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.
The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.
Just like their coach.”
It’s been reported that Schwartz’s job is “under review” by the Ford family, largely because of this kind of stuff.
On Matthew Stafford’s inconsistency:
“The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.
Too many errant throws.
It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.
The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.”
Though I certainly didn’t foresee an 0-8 second half.
On the Tigers’ signing of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and the future of Rick Porcello:
“High profile, expensive free agent pitchers, as soon as the ink dries on their signature, become as unpredictable as tomorrow’s weather. Their arms get fragile. They need a GPS to find home plate. They spend more time on the disabled list than eggs on a grocery list.
But if you’re going to have an embarrassment of riches anywhere on your roster, then it may as well be in your starting rotation. You could do worse.
The Tigers can now trot out, weekly, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and a pitcher to be named later, who might as well be Dontrelle Willis. The critique is that they’re all right-handed (except for Willis). But that’s like saying the one thing wrong with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is that they all wear number 12.
In a business where teams struggle to even name four starting pitchers, the Tigers have four who could lead many rotations in baseball. The Tigers are so rich in starting pitchers that they actually have six of them.
Ricky Porcello, the oldest 23-year-old pitcher in baseball, will apparently battle it out with lefty Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation. But there should be no battle here. Keep the southpaw Smyly, whose ceiling is ridiculously high (witness what he did in Game 1 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, after the Tigers were waylaid by Jose Valverde in the ninth inning), and trade Porcello.”
Time will tell, but I maintain that Porcello is more valuable as trade bait than as a long reliever.
On the city’s two octogenarian sports owners—Mike Ilitch and Bill Ford:
“The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.
Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.
But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.
Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.
Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.”
Anyone want to disagree with that?
So there you have it. The highlights (and lowlights) of another year of scribbling.
Hope you have a great 2013!