Monday, November 25, 2013

Eat My Words

I blew it.  The Lions lost to the Bucs 24-21 at Ford Field yesterday.  I thought they should've won the game by a couple of scores.  So did writers at the News and Free Press.

Instead, it became an unmitigated debacle, mainly in the second half.  Matthew Stafford threw for four interceptions, and he wasn't helped at all by Calvin Johnson and Kris Durham allowing the ball to pop out and find its way into the Bucs' hands (Durham's catch was a fumble, while Johnson's catch popped out and into a Bucs DB's hands).

Mistakes, aside, it seemed like Tampa Bay wanted to give this game to Detroit, and the Lions kept refusing it.  Twice, they stopped the Bucs in the fourth quarter and the kicker missed two FGs.  This game was theirs to lose, and they did just that.

I just wrote an article criticizing Same Ol' Lions Fans (SOLFs), and there I was, minutes after they lost their second straight, put in the proverbial submission hold by my brother-in-law demanding me to say it: Same Ol' Lions.  I kept enough composure not to say it.

Still, I hate being undermined and having to eat my own words.  What looked like an easy path to the NFC North title now looks more like a hard slog, but it's yet to be seen if this is another epic collapse.

The Lions are still on top of the division at 6-5.  The Bears have the same record, but the Lions have the tie-breaker by virtue of the season sweep.  The Packers tied the Vikings, keeping them a half-game back of the Lions at 5-5-1.

With five games left, the Lions can still do this.  Key word: "can."  It's not going to be as easy as I originally thought.  Tampa Bay decided to start their season nine weeks after everyone else did.  Mostly the same can be said for Pittsburgh.

Regardless, there's no excuses.  The Lions have to win on Thanksgiving.  Earlier when I talked about getting monkeys off their back, they need to beat Green Bay and win the Thanksgiving classic.  They haven't beaten the Packers in three years and haven't won on turkey day since 2003.

Aaron Rodgers isn't playing, and everyone remembers what Matt Flynn did to them two years ago at Lambeau.  Give them credit: they're still hungry.  But they can't afford anymore slip ups the rest of the way.  10-6 will win the division, but you won't win anything playing like this.

It's time for Detroit to cut the mental mistakes and get on with playing.  It ain't over til it's over.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Same Ol' Lions Fans

I know plenty of "fans" around here.  The kind of people that as soon as the Lions slip like they did last week against an improving (as of late) Pittsburgh Steelers, it's back to "Same Ol' Lions."  They're the Same Ol' Lions Fans.

I have friends, acquaintances, and co-workers like these.  They tell me at work, on facebook, or at the bar. Even on the radio, the callers call in. Just when you think they've turned the corner, they get smacked in the mouth and the SOLF cries out "SEE?!?! SEE?!?! I TOLD YOU! SAME OL' LIONS!!!"

Why?  They think it gives them credibility. SOLFs are like the people who don't follow politics and rely on fallback cliches like "All politicians are liars/crooks/bought and paid for," "The system is rigged," or "They're just in there to get re-elected."  It's these stupid cliches that do nothing but absolve people from having to think critically.  After all, it's so much easier to think that than to actually use your brain and understand the nuances of politics, or in this case, football.

It's much easier to say that a historically bad franchise hasn't made positive steps when you watch them blow a 27-point second quarter performance the week before against a team that's been underwhelming.  Yes, it sucks.  SOLFs are only doing it to insulate themselves from the torment they've endured the last half-century. They can't be blamed totally, but even they need to recognize that change is inevitable.

The Lions are 6-4.  They're not just in the thick of the playoff race, but have the best chance since 1995 to actually win the division, thereby host a playoff game.  Green Bay and Chicago's starting quarterbacks are injured and GB's Aaron Rodgers may not even be 100%, let alone ready for the Lions in four days at Ford Field.

The Lions still have to play Tampa Bay (home), Green Bay (home), Philadelphia (away), Baltimore (home-Monday Night), NY Giants (home), and Minnesota (away).  Tampa Bay and Minnesota have nothing to play for.  Baltimore is a shell of its Super Bowl winning team from a year ago.  Philadelphia and New York are in the worst division in football, and Green Bay's season may end up being a wash.  The scariest game for me is in Philadelphia, but even that game's winnable (assuming Nick Foles' play comes back down to Earth).

10-6 is likely, but 12-4 becomes a real possibility with each passing win.  12-4 could mean even a first round bye if New Orleans managed to slip up in the final six weeks.  This could be progress, but I would say "progress" is actually winning a playoff game.

SOLFs need to face reality: this team is better than what you've seen in the last 50+ years.  Yes, William Clay Ford is a terrible owner.  The worst, in fact.  But it's possible that just maybe, it's finally time for the Lions to make their run.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Larry's Day

I went to Larry's viewing today in Flat Rock.  My ex-"boss," Kevin and I rode down together from EMU and went to Michigan Memorial Funeral Home where we saw some old faces and met his family.

It was more difficult than I thought it would be.  Perhaps it's because we know the pain of losing a family member, and we feel it through others even when the person lost isn't that close to us.  I thought I was going just to pay my respects.  But I ended up meeting a wonderful family who appreciated knowing how wide a circle Larry Cathey actually had.

In tragedy I gained some perspective.  We all have our struggles and many of us have to suffer in silence with whatever makes us miserable.  But sometimes you have to step outside yourself to see that others suffer, too.

A wife lost her husband.  A two-month old child will never know her father.  A mother and father had to bury their son.  I've never experienced any of these things.  But I will always keep this in mind: no matter how unfair life is, it is unfair to others in different ways that are just as cruel.

I wish them all nothing but good things from here on out.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

What Is This Team?

The Lions won a desperate victory in desperate fashion today, beating the Dallas Cowboys 31-30 in the final twelve seconds of the game.  This victory was highly improbable due to the Cowboys having amassed a ten-point lead in the middle of the 4th quarter. 

Down 27-17 with less than seven minutes to go, QB Matt Stafford engineered a touchdown scoring drive that put the Lions within a field goal to tie the game.  They got the ball back but failed to convert on a 4th down pass with under two minutes left to go, giving Dallas the ball at midfield.  The Lions defense took the field and managed to hold Dallas to another field goal, making it 30-24 with a 1:02 left in the game. 

The final drive started at the Lions' 20 yard line and Stafford's first completion went to Calvin Johnson down the seam for 17 yards.  Next came a deep 40-yard bomb to wide receiver Kris Durham, and then another completion to Johnson which put the Lions at the Cowboys' 1-yard line.  With under 20 seconds to go, Stafford called the offense to the line and signaled he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock.

Instead, Stafford faked everyone out and pushed the ball across the plane, but pulled it back and ran it in for a game-tying touchdown.   After the review, the referees ruled Stafford had crossed the plane and awarded the Lions six points.  David Akers came and kicked the go-ahead PAT, and on the ensuing kickoff, punter Sam Martin squib kicked the ball, which Dallas recovered.  On the final play, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completes a pass up the middle and after a series of bobbles and laterals, Dallas fails to score and the game ends.

Public opinion of the Lions falls into two camps: those who've drank the Kool-Aid and those who expect a collapse at any given moment.  I'm definitely in the former, the Kool-Aid drinking camp.  I put Lions butter on my mashed potatoes. 

The latter camp expects a collapse because they have seen it happen so many times.  In 2004, they started 4-2 and finished 6-10.  In 2007, they started 6-2, and finished 7-9.  Last year, they were 4-4 at the midway point and lost every game the rest of the way, many in heartbreaking fashion.  So it's understandable.  They "know" it'll happen and want to believe it so they feel they have credibility.  But deep down inside, they want to be wrong.

It seems quite clear to me that the Lions, at 5-3, are progressing.  They should be 7-1, notwithstanding the losses to Arizona and Cincinnati.  5-3 is close to where I had them, but I worried that the second half would be the true test of this team's resolve.

The evidence now suggests that at 5-3, they are contenders, not pretenders.  Not "Super Bowl" contenders, just contending for (1) a playoff spot, (2) a division title, and (3) a playoff victory.  Why would I say this?

This is a team with a franchise quarterback.  Stafford is developing.  He's making some good throws, and he's cut down on the number of bad throws.  He's learning the lesson Brett Favre had to learn years ago, which is to not try to do everything yourself. 

He had turned late round picks, undrafted free agents, and other teams' refuse into tangible players, such as RB Joique Bell, TE Joseph Fauria, and WR Durham.  As I and many others have said, in order for Stafford to take it to the next level, he needs to develop his own weapons and not rely on the Lions' front office drafting skill players in the 1st and 2nd rounds.

This is a team with resolve.  Lions teams of years past would have folded if they were down by 10 with time left in the 4th quarter.  Lions teams of years past would have found a way to squander a 10-point lead with time left in the 4th quarter.  This team doesn't quit.  Credit to coaching, Jim Schwartz!

This is a team that has a more balanced offense.  It does not a dominant running game, and it is not a team that has players like Adrian Peterson to grind out yards needed to shave minutes off the clock.  But the running aspect is a threat.  Reggie Bush is a threat to take it all the way on almost any play either by pass or by rush.  They will always be pass first with Johnson, but with Bush, they can now keep opposing defenses honest.

This is a team that has a defense.  Again, not a dominant defense, but this team is less a liability than in years past.  The defensive line needs more depth.  The secondary needs maybe another corner and some more experience.  The linebackers are good enough, given they play a lot of nickel packages.  They will not stop you on every drive, but they can hold teams off more than years before.

Finally, this is a team that needs to score enough to maintain at least a two-possession lead throughout most the game.  The defense can be counted on to hold the opposing team off on a few drives, but not every drive, thus allowing them the needed insurance to secure a victory.

What are they?  They look more like a Mike Valenti-predicted 11-5 team than a metrichead-predicted 9-7 team.  I can't believe Valenti looks pollyannish compared to me, but 10-6 is more realistic, and I'd be happy with that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Life and Death Is Near and Far

I want to dedicate this column to a former colleague of mine who just passed away.  His name was Larry Cathey, and we both worked for our college student newspaper, The Eastern Echo.  Larry died of colon cancer on Saturday, about six months after he had been diagnosed.  He and his wife had just welcomed their first child into the world just two months ago. 

I use the term "colleague" as opposed to "friend" because I didn't have the fortune of knowing him like many of our mutual friends had.  But "acquaintance" seems like such a shallow and unfeeling description.  We had plenty of mutual friends, but he and I did know each other through our newspaper.  We'd see each other crossing paths on campus where it was a quick hello and off we went in various directions or at Echo functions like banquet here or a get-together there. 

Larry was a sports writer and a member of the Echo's executive/editorial board, whereas I was just a columnist.  Translation: while I was writing a dumb column and e-mailing it in to my editor, he was actually doing real work at the office in addition to covering athletic events. 

The only reason I know anything about his tragic passing is because we were facebook friends.  I can't recall if I requested him or vice versa, but at some point we interacted enough in each others lives to the point where we had some sort of marginal contact. 

When he first broke the news of his diagnosis, I felt genuinely saddened and sympathetic for him, knowing full well we hadn't spoken since about 2006, when we graduated from Eastern Michigan.  I wrote a supportive message on his status update where he disclosed his cancer, and hours later he "liked" it.  My message was nothing.  It was literally the least I could do.  I'm glad he liked it.  I wanted him to know that I was rooting for him to get through this anyway. 

You don't wish these kinds of things on other people.  I wonder how many other people who he had not heard from in years dropped him a note expressing their concern too.  Judging by the number of people who have posted to his wall in the last few days, he had a wider circle of friends and stayed in touch with more than I have with my circle in the years since.  I'd say he was lucky to have such a wide array of friends, but you have to be a decent human being to begin with.  So it wasn't all luck on his part.

My thoughts now turn to his family.  He left behind a wife and child.  This isn't meant to be an obituary, but I'm truly saddened that a wife lost her husband and a daughter will grow up with no memory of her father. 

I just learned there will be a viewing on Monday and a memorial on Tuesday in Flat Rock.  Not sure if it would be appropriate to attend.  I want to convey my sympathies without being awkward, so I may end up sending a card.

I'll say one last thing.  Larry had a battle cry when he announced his disease: Fuck Cancer.  That's one thing I'll say, he was to the point.  Normally, I think ribbons, bumper stickers, and sloganeering do nothing to fix the problem.  Otherwise, I'd have worn a ribbon for diabetes every day the last 15 years. 

But this isn't about me.  It's about him and honoring him.  So just for Larry, I stand with his spirit, even if I can't stand next to him:

Fuck Cancer.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What Was That All About?

The shutdown ended Wednesday.  The government of the United States will continue to operate and the debt ceiling can has been kicked down the road another 2-3 months.  Why?  Because of Obamacare.

What's Obamacare?  It was a bill full of Republican ideas that Republicans decided to oppose once a Democratic President supported them, and passed by a Democratic Congress who once opposed but now supported the ideas, then signed into law by a Democratic President who also opposed a lot its provisions.

The law helped galvanize conservative America, who after taking two vicious beatings in consecutive election cycles now delivered their own shellacking and took control of one house of Congress (The "House") and almost took the other (ahem, the Senate) in the 2010 midterms.

It made liberal America shake in their boots because they're a bunch of intellectual cowards who supported a law they once opposed, but due to political expediency, circled the wagons behind a President of the same party and voted on a law knowing full well they were kicking their dream of a single payer healthcare system down the road for another 30 years.

The law full of Republican ideas was then challenged by conservative activists and the mostly Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices decided to uphold it.

This was followed by a presidential election in which the Republican nominee, a former Massachusetts Governor who passed the original law Obamacare was based on, now opposed his own law (and everything else he stood for a decade earlier) and subsequently lost the election to the Democratic candidate whose party also gained more seats in Congress as a result.

Therefore, instead of letting go of the law that they opposed but was full of their ideas, they doubled and tripled down time and time again by attempting to repeal it.  That tactic failed again and again because they don't control the Senate or the White House, because they lost it in the last election.  In one last desperate attempt, they then shut down the government for 17 days and waited until the final hour to capitulate, perfecting their humiliation before the world to see.

So let's recap: Obamacare is (1) a law that is full of Republican ideas but Republicans oppose and also (2) a law that Democrats support but is full of ideas they opposed because they capitulated on their dream of a single payer healthcare system, but (3) were at least smart enough to hide their hypocrisy and let the Republicans go full retard. 

I think I just lost my mind.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Make It 23 In a Row

The Lions added to their consecutive losing streak at Lambeau Field, losing to the Green Bay Packers 22-9.  They haven't won their since 1991 and today's loss makes it 23 games in a row. 

In the days leading up to the game I was about 11-9 odds that Green Bay would win.  Detroit was in place to end the streak (which is an NFL record by the way) and Jim Schwartz was about to get yet another monkey off this organization's back.  This morning I was thinking of a scenario in which Jim Schwartz could keep his job even if the Lions didn't make the playoffs, and that would be to go 7-9 but win at both Washington and Green Bay. 

Well, that didn't happen, and one reason why was the absence of Calvin Johnson.  Hours before the game, Johnson was listed as out for the game due to a knee injury he suffered.  He attempted to make a go for today, but ultimately decided he couldn't play, and that right there pretty much took the wind out of the Lions' sail right before kickoff.

Johnson's absence did more than cost the game.  It exposed what's probably the most glaring deficiency in Matthew Stafford's game: the inability to "make" his wide receivers.  Because Johnson was not playing, that meant the only other home run threat the Lions had on offense was running back Reggie Bush.  The Packers were able to narrow their focus on him and made the Lions' offense inert.

Stafford's play wasn't terrible; 25/40 passing with 262 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INT.  But today's game clearly underscored the need for Stafford to take the next step in his development if he wants to take Detroit deep into the playoffs.  And that next step is to make players out of nothing.

Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, if not the best quarterback in the game, he'd be the first player taken by every team if they wished to start an NFL team from scratch.  Rodgers is relatively young, makes good decisions, and has the perfect complement of speed, accuracy, and throwing strength needed to be among the elite players in the game.  Stafford is almost to the point of making as good a decision as Rodgers, and almost there with accuracy, but his arm strength is no concern as his throwing arm is probably the strongest in the NFL.

What makes Rodgers better is that he is able to make players out of guys who came to the league with little fanfare instead of having to rely on the the Packers using all of their high picks on just skill players.  The same can be said for Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady. 

Stafford has had the luxury of having Calvin Johnson (taken 2nd overall in 2007) when he arrived, but the Lions have attempted to surround him with receivers and running backs in the 1st-3rd Rounds of the draft in every year but 2013.  Many of those high picks haven't worked out, such as WR Derrick Williams (3rd Rd, 2009), HB Jahvid Best (1st Rd, 2010), WR Titus Young (2nd, 2011), HB Mikel Leshoure (2nd, 2011), and WR Ryan Broyles (2nd Rd, 2012). 

I still say the jury's out on Broyles and TE Brandon Pettigrew (1st, 2009) until after this season's over.  Until Stafford can figure a way to make lemonade out of lemons, he's relegated to that 2nd tier of QBs with Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub.


But today's loss isn't totally bad news.  Hardly anyone with any sense of objectivity thought the Lions would win this game.  Fact is, they're 3-2, and with the Bears losing to the Saints today, they still sit at the top of the division.

Today's game was quite encouraging.  I think they showed there's hope in beating the Packers when they come to Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.  Just as I predicted, the NFC East is the once again the NFC Least.  Philadelphia has no defense.  Dallas had a spark today, but Tony Romo reverted to his old self just in time to throw a game clinching interception to seal the win for Denver.  And the New York football Giants are 0-5.

The AFC North is probably the 2nd weakest division and the Lions play all four teams making it very possible they could go 4-0 against their conference counterparts.  That includes defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.  Once-perennial contenders Pittsburgh Steelers are old and haven't won a game all year.  Cleveland was expected to tank the season and with the sudden loss of Bryan Hoyer, they'll revert back to being in the league cellar.  No one has a read on Cincinnati.

That leaves one more team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, another team that is winless and will probably tank the season now that they've given up on the once promising Josh Freeman. Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and the Giants are three winless teams that I would consider likely victories for the Lions.  The last five games of the schedule, which I thought would be the reason the Lions miss the playoffs, now seem much more favorable. 

I'm obviously upbeat despite the loss.  But let's see how the season plays out.