Saturday, July 31, 2010

Handicapping Tuesday's GOP Primary

We'll be picking a new Governor in November. It will be a Republican. The question is not who will win, but which Republican will be the winner of this Tuesday's primary.

On the GOP side, you have five candidates running, three of whom are locked in a dead heat. The top three are Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder, Rep. Pete Hoekstra from Holland, and Attorney General Mike Cox of Livonia. The other two, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and State Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo are the long shots.

Over on the other side, you have two Democrats, Speaker of the House, Andy Dillon of Redford Township, and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. The race between the two is in flux largely due to the number of undecideds among likely Democratic voters. In January, the Democratic field had more candidates, including the Lt. Governor John Cherry of Clio, and State Representative Alma Wheeler Smith of Salem Township (Ann Arbor). Polls indicate a seesaw battle between Dillon and Bernero.

Cherry was the favorite until he dropped out after realizing 1) he couldn't raise enough money, and 2) had no chance because of his ties to political pariah Jennifer Granholm. If Cherry had won the nomination, all the GOP candidate would have needed to do was refer to the "Granholm-Cherry administration," and his cause was lost. Smith, the most liberal of the Democratic contenders, simply couldn't raise enough money, either. Her catch-22 was that she couldn't be taken seriously as a candidate because she couldn't raise enough money, and because she couldn't raise money, she couldn't make a name for herself.

But the Republicans pose a more interesting race to watch. Snyder has cast himself as the outsider, "the tough nerd." He's positioned himself as slightly more moderate than the other two, Cox and Hoekstra. He favors embryonic stem cell research, has the endorsement of environmental groups and the support of a political scion, former Governor Bill Milliken.

(To be honest, I'm not sure how much weight Milliken's endorsement really carries anyway - he's been out of office since 1982, and his left-of-center record as governor has long since rubbed the dominant conservative wing of his party wrong in the decades since. Besides, how many voters under the age of 40 remember him?)

But he's a neophyte. He has no political experience, in a state where we need more career politicians to address the difficulties this state is facing. Having little experience failed Granholm, whereas it had helped previous Governors Engler, Blanchard, and Milliken.

Hoekstra is a nine-term Congressman whose most impressive credential is that he was the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee up until 2007. He has cast himself as a maverick courting the MEA and public educators with his opposition to No Child Left Behind. While he supports Michigan becoming a "right-to-work" state, he knows that such an issue is too divisive in a labor-friendly state like ours.

I don't really know what he would bring to the table as the next Governor. It's not as though he's an outsider. A Lansing outsider, perhaps. But he's still been in politics since the early 1990s; it's not as though he's something new.

Then there's Mike Cox. Here's what Cox has going for him. He's won statewide office twice (in years that favored Democrats). He's got name recognition, and he's the GOP's perennial darling. He's very personable in interviews, and communicates well as I've heard when he's called in to the Drew and Mike Show on WRIF in Detroit.

But there's the other side of Mike Cox. First, his name. If I need to spell it out, reading this becomes pointless.

More curious though, Cox is connected to the mysterious Manoogian Mansion party that allegedly occurred in 2002. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) Cox has long since asserted that there isn't enough evidence to prove a party happened. Critics contend the State Police investigation was hastily concluded, which leads some to extrapolate that Cox may have something to hide. That is, notwithstanding the recent allegation that Cox was at the party, which has been widely dismissed.

I believe there was a party, however, I don't have enough information to make a guess as to whether or not Cox is trying to cover up the party. It could be that Cox simply didn't have enough to go on, and in this cash-strapped state, that's not unreasonable of an AG to decide not to go after a red herring if he thinks it's one.

Moreover, some of his recent campaign tactics have stoked the ire of Republicans across the state. Accusing rival Snyder of sending jobs to China is the exact same thing the Democrats did to Dick DeVos in 2006. It worked. If you want to win your party's nomination, channeling the other party's chairman can go a long way to hurting your chances.

Cox is a former Marine as well. It kind of shows. His bullying tactics of Snyder remind me of obnoxious Marines who forget to leave "Semper Fi" back in the Corps once they've been discharged. He's apparently never cultivated much of a relationship with the Secretary of State, Terri Lynn Land, who's the only other Republican to win statewide office in a state that has trended strongly Democratic in the last decade. Land even went as far as to join Bouchard on his ticket, which apparently backfired, given Bouchard's inability to gain traction.

(I also suspect she's kicking herself for joining the ticket since Rep. Vern Ehlers announced his decision to retire this year. She's a former Kent County Clerk who lives in his district, she wanted to succeed him, and would have been a shoe-in had she known he would leave Congress).

Michael Bouchard was the GOP nominee for the US Senate in 2006. He did poorly against incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. He does have some name recognition, and he can deliver Oakland County for Republicans, but he's past his political prime. Oakland County is no longer the GOP bastion it once was.

I can sum up Sen. Tom George in one word. Who? To be fair, he has positioned himself as the candidate closest to the center. But George is ranked dead last in every poll. His stance that the state can't afford more tax cuts puts him at odds with Republican Kool-Aid drinkers. If not for constitutionally mandated term limits, I think George could have served the state well for years to come.

Since I've written more than I expected too, I'm going to handicap this November’s sacrificial lambs the Democrats tomorrow.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Training Camp Begins Today (The Hard Stuff Tomorrow)

As I write this, the Detroit Lions will begin to make preparations for the upcoming 2010 season. Training camp springs optimism for Lions' diaspora. So far all is well in Allen Park with the one exception: Ndamokung Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft has yet to sign a contract, and thus, cannot attend camp. Don't expect that to last long; I wouldn't be surprised if he's on the field before the end of the weekend.

I can't help but be excited. Even though a majority of fans expect another losing season, I think we're witnessing the making of what could finally be a great football product. Matt Millen is gone, and everyone from General Manager Martin Mayhew to Coach Jim Schwartz to Matthew Stafford, and on down to the 80th man on the roster is on the same page. While we're still a year or two from adding all the ingredients, I think we're on the verge of something special.

No one should assume that just because everyone's on the same page that the playoffs (and a Super Bowl victory) are just around the corner. It's not a guarantee but it helps. Matt Millen drafted Joey Harrington over Marty Mornhinweg's objections in 2002, and that ended badly. Mike Martz differed in philosophy with Rod Marinelli. Steve Mariucci was an overrated Head Coach. It was always "their fault," never Millen's.

Last year I predicted Detroit would go 3-13 before the season began. I usually don't make a prediction until the last preseason game because I don't know what the 53-man roster will look like until then. Between now and the next six weeks, we'll see twenty seven players get cut, seven of which will be signed to the practice squad for future development or some other utility.

The Lions finished 2-14. Like most prognosticators, the information you have at hand changes on a week-to-week basis in the NFL. Injuries are ubiquitous, some players just don't play up to expectations. When the Lions won against the Washington Redskins, snapping their 19-game losing streak, my expectations changed. I thought for sure they'd lose their first six games before their bye-week and then the winning would follow.

As it turned out, the Redskins were in disarray, allowing Detroit to take advantage and put out a victory, 19-14. At one point, I thought it was feasible for the Lions to go 6-10. But a loss to St. Louis, and blowing a 17-0 lead against the Seattle Seahawks made it unlikely they'd win more than three.

It was clear after last year, the three biggest concerns for the Lions were the defensive line, secondary, and the interior offensive line (specifically the Left Guard position). I didn't think the Running Back spot was as questionable, since Kevin Smith would most likely return to the team by the start of 2010. The Lions addressed the defensive line in the offseason by drafting Suh, and signing veteran Defensive Tackle Corey Williams and Defensive End Kyle Vanden Bosch.

They then traded their 2nd round pick to move back into the 1st Round and took RB Jahvid Best at No. 30. In the offseason, they added Tight End Tony Scheffler out of Denver by trading Ernie Sims to Philadelphia. I'm guessing the Lions thought Sims just wasn't that good, or was only good in a Tampa Two system. They also signed free agent LG Rob Sims out of Seattle. While questions remain on the defense, the offense seems to be solid at every position. I hope.

With Matthew Stafford expected to make the leap this year (even though I think he'll fall short of a Pro Bowl or the playoffs), the offense will be the reason this team wins more games this year. The biggest question marks for the defense are 1) Who will start at weakside Linebacker? 2) Who will be starting in the secondary, besides Free Safety Louis Delmas?

Can't wait for September.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Whadd'ya Mean, No Quarterback Controversy?

For the past few weeks at the Detroit Free Press, I've been noticing some reader columns that the paper has decided to publish (running short of actual columnists?). I don't know if they're doing this for the other major sports teams, since I don't follow too closely the Red Wings, Tigers, or Pistons.

But this latest article by a reader, Greg Eno, has got me to thinking, is there really no Quarterback controversy with the Detroit Lions? Eno insists like many others in print and radio that for once, the Lions are settled on the hardest position to play in Detroit sports (sorry Red Wings' goalies).

There's an old saying that the most popular athlete on the team is the backup QB. The Lions haven't had a regular standard bearer since Bobby Layne, that is true. And I kind of agree to some extent Eno's point about QBs not having enough gas left in the tank after fighting off an internal challenge (it's just that QB competitions are supposed to MAKE all your QBs better). After all, the constant looking over your shoulder could lead to distractions which will eventually lead to you making your way to the bench.

Nonetheless, I don't think it's true the Lions have no QB controversy. Matthew Stafford is the undisputed future of the team. But he's the undisputed future for this year. He has four years to show whether or not he can be "The Guy." Stafford is expected to make a serious leap this year.

At this point in Stafford's career, it is simply too early to tell how far he'll go. At this time in 2003, Joey Harrington was the future of the team. There was no controversy. It wasn't until 2005 when the Lions brought in Jeff Garcia to challenge Harrington. Harrington won the competition in training camp, but was eventually replaced by Garcia after five games. Garcia was clearly the inferior of the two, as his poor play hurt the Lions more than Harrington.

Same could be said for Charlie Batch in 1999. Or how about Chuck Long in 1987. Actually, I can't go back that far, since I wasn't following the team much when I was 7.

Rookie seasons cannot stand alone as an indicator of how far a QB will go in his career. Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Ryan are the anomalies. Rick Mirer outperformed Drew Bledsoe in 1993. But Mirer never got any better while Bledsoe flourished. Joe Flacco led his team the AFC Title game his rookie year, but seemingly took a step back last year. Mark Sanchez repeated Flacco's success taking the New York Jets to one game (or one half) of the Super Bowl. No one knows where the Jets will go this year with the attention on them.

Everyone knows Stafford had next to nothing to work with. This year, the Lions have brought in Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best, Tony Scheffler, and Rob Sims. All are expected to contribute significantly to the franchise's turnaround. They are key to Stafford's development. But they don't guarantee Stafford will go from a 13/20 TD-Interception ratio to a 20-15 or even better ratio.

Ultimately it is up to Stafford himself to make that leap forward this year. If he can't, it won't be long before Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz begin to look at their options again. If he doesn't show tangible progress between now and the end of 2011, the Lions are highly probable to either bring in a hot-ticket free agent that will compete/supplant Stafford, or look to the draft in 2012 or 2013. Stafford won't be here after four years if his potential isn't realized; the Lions simply don't have the option to pay a guy $15 million to lead them to a 6-10 record.