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. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sometimes, Being Wrong Can Be Deliciously Sweet

I was wrong; I said the Lions would lose to the Chicago Bears.  Not only did they win, they are now tied for first in the NFC North at 3-1 with guess who, Chicago.

Man, talk about a difference one player makes, but Reggie Bush, good God.  This offense goes from a one-dimensional passing attack to when firing on all cylinders, it won't be fair.  With Bush, the Lions could have gone toe-to-toe with the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs two years ago.  Today was only the 9th time in his career he rushed for over 100 yards in a game (139 yards on 18 attempts with a TD).  Nine times?!?!?!?!  Go figure.

Matthew Stafford looked a little shaky early, overthrowing Calvin Johnson on a couple of throws, but once the second quarter hit, everything seemed to click.  The defense made turnovers and the offense made the Bears pay.  Stafford managed to spread the ball around, hitting six different receivers while going 23 for 35 with 242 yards, 1 TD, and 1 interception.  I'd take those kinds of numbers over last year when he'd throw for north of 350 in a loss.  The yardage was solid, the passes got more accurate as the game went on, and Stafford took a nice step forward.

Among the six different receivers, Brandon Pettigrew caught 7 passes.  Seven?!?!?!  Yes, he was only targeted twice last week, but this week he was targeted at least three times as much.  I'm not sure exactly how many targets he had, but I didn't see him drop a single pass.  He's been written off, but this might actually play well into his hands, quietly amassing more receptions and becoming the threat he was drafted to be in 2009.

Calvin Johnson was quiet today on his 28th birthday.  He caught only 4 passes for 44 yards, but did have a TD.  What with all the additional weapons Stafford has, Johnson will only become more dangerous.

The offensive line also played great, allowing only one sack on Stafford by Julius Peppers.  That one sack came off left tackle Riley Reiff, who did an otherwise commendable job protecting Stafford's blindside.  Peppers is getting up there in years, but Reiff still held his own, giving the QB the time he needed to find his receiver and throw it.

Then there's the defense.  No longer a liability, they are now a threat.  They're not great, but they can be very effective at creating turnovers and getting in the QB's head like they did with Jay Cutler today, sacking him three times, forcing three interceptions, and another turnover by fumble.

The defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh bullied and kicked around the Bears' offensive line allowing them to harass Cutler all afternoon.  Both safeties, Louis Delmas and Glover Quin had an interception (Delmas with two), but Cutler could've thrown five the way he was playing.

The score ended up being 40-32 Lions, but that's only because the Bears mounted a mini comeback after being down 24 points.  The final play of the game ended up being an onside kick recovered by Kris Durham, which sealed the victory for Detroit and put them in a first place tie with Chicago.

We're now 3-1, but that loss to Arizona feels like it's going to come back and bite us at the end of the season.  Still angry about that.

Next week will be the team's biggest test yet: can they finally win IN Green Bay?  The Packers were off with a bye this week, but enter next week's game 1-2.  The Lions haven't won at Lambeau since 1991, the last year they won a playoff game.  This streak has to end, and now it seems like they have the momentum to get yet another monkey off the team's back before doing anything like winning the division and winning a playoff game.

Judging by the Lions schedule the rest of the way, it looks a little more favorable now than when I first predicted they'd be a 9-7 team, but it's that Arizona loss that could be the difference maker in whether or not they get to the playoffs.  I'm still convinced the Wild Cards will come from the NFC West and South, but as for now, Detroit's definitely in play.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bears at Lions

What kind of team is Detroit?  Are they closer to the 10-6 team from 2011 or to the 4-12 disaster that was last season?  For whatever reason, I still can't get a read on this team unlike previous seasons (okay, 2012, I predicted they'd finish 10-6...shows what I know).

Tomorrow the Chicago Bears come to Ford Field and its considered to be a crucial game for both teams.  If Detroit wins, we move into first place in the NFC North.  If Chicago wins, they're 4-0 and begin to look like they're supplanting Green Bay as the class of the division.

The writers for both Detroit Free Press and News are unanimously picking Detroit to win, including Drew Sharp, although I did see Terry Foster predict a Bears victory due to Lions' history of falling short the week after a big victory.  Last week, Washington was the favorite over Detroit, and the Lions still pulled one out.  Goes to show you the value of our writers predicting the team's success.

What worries me most about the Lions this year is that I get the feeling they're a lot like the 1999 and 2000 teams.  In those two years, the Lions were well in the thick of the playoff chase, reaching as high as an 8-4 record before fading away, finishing 8-8 and 9-7 respectively (ironically, they backed into the playoffs at 8-8 and missed them at 9-7 the next year).  You couldn't exactly tell what the team was, just like this year's, and won't really know until late December.

I'm hoping history doesn't repeat itself and we end up collapsing the following year like we did in 2001.

A lot of people have been talking about recreating the magic that was the Monday Night game two years ago when Chicago came to town and Ford Field was rocking.  That was zenith of Lions' football in the last 15 years, and it goes to show how bad our team has really been when our most memorable game is a midseason Monday night win, but no playoff victories.  (How many wins has New England/Indianapolis/Green Bay had in the same game?)

Even though Detroit has lost Jason Jones for the year and Nate Burleson for an indefinite amount of time, the Bears have lost stud defensive tackle Henry Melton.  One player shouldn't make that big of a difference, but if Charles Tillman is hurting more than he's letting on, Calvin Johnson should be in for a big day. 

My head says until Chicago shows me otherwise, it's Da Bears, 27-21.  I will gladly take any criticism that comes my way if the Lions win.  I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Screw Arizona, Let's Talk Washington!

Man, there's nothing worse than my work schedule.  I get off work at 8:00 am Sunday mornings.  Most Lions games start at 1:00 pm, which means I usually have less than four hours for sleep before I can watch the game.  I caught a break the first two games, but I was really struggling today to stay awake during the second and third quarters.

Last week, the Lions blew it.  Sunday, the played pretty much the same way, but a different outcome and a huge, HUGE monkey came off their backs.

The good.

Matthew Stafford threw for 385 yards and 2 TDs.

Calvin Johnson caught the last touchdown that put the Lions up 10 and the game out of reach for Washington.

Joique Bell ran the ball effectively and gashed the Redskins' defense for some chunk yardage in the first half.

Ndamukong Suh created havok in the trenches and deserves credit Ziggy Ansah's sacks.

DeAndre Levy led the team with 12 tackles.  He's stepping into his own this year.

Nate Burleson: 6 catches, 113 yards.

The offensive line.  Protected Stafford all day to make clutch throws.

The defense.  The defense.  The defense.  They're not supposed to be this good.

Jim Schwartz deserves credit for getting another monkey off our back by winning at Washington, something that's never been done in Detroit Lions' history.  He ended the 19-game winning streak in 2009.  He ended the consecutive road loss streak even though he was there for a big portion of it.  He led the Lions to the playoffs for the first time in twelve years.  If Schwartz is fired after this season, let us remember he wasn't a complete failure, but had more along the lines of a Wayne Fontes' type of success here.

Next up for Schwartz: win at Green Bay, win on Thanksgiving, win the division, win a playoff game, and get us to the Super Bowl.  (Methinks the first two would mean beating Green Bay twice in a season, not done since 1991.  It's one or the other this year).

The bad.

Scott Linehan's play calling.  Virtually every play from scrimmage had Stafford in the shotgun or pistol formation.  They must not have much faith in Bell to carry the team in the run game, otherwise Linehan would've balanced the offense a little.  I don't care that they won, I think Linehan needs to go.  They can't keep this up for 13 more games.

Dominic Raiola's snap to Matt Stafford when he wasn't ready for it.  Stafford acted quickly enough and got rid of it, so the worst was that it was a broken play.

The referees penalizing Rashean Mathis for hitting a "defenseless receiver."  Some part of me says Mathis should've known better.  But a stupid rule is a stupid rule.  Nobody was even close to getting hurt.

Nick Fairley.  Disruptive but left the game twice due to injury.  Not his fault.  I am concerned.

Jason Jones.  Done for the year.  We need him.

Detroit Lions fans: I hear way too many fans calling in and complaining, AFTER A VICTORY.  Not just a victory, the first victory ever at Washington.  A win's a win.  No style points.  I'm talking to you, caller "CJ" on Karsch and Anderson Monday morning.  Not to mention that it was a ROAD victory.  Good god.  Love the Lions, hate the Lions fans.  Sometimes.

Next on tap: Bears at Lions.  Bears' DT Henry Melton out for the year with a torn ACL.  Our chances just went up.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lions in 2013/Vikings at Lions

Before I began to write, I have two things to say.  First, I couldn't access my blog because of some error on blogger's end.  Wasn't sure how to fix it and I was forced to just wait it out and hope that problem would eventually be corrected, which it did.

Second, I thought long and hard about what the Lions final record would be.  They look like they could be an 11-5 team, but then again, they could be 6-10.  There are so many unknowns to me, mostly about other teams: Chicago, Baltimore, the NFC East.

So, I'm going to write in a record of 9-7.  A winning season, but no playoffs as the NFC is loaded with more playoff-caliber teams than the AFC.  San Francisco, Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, Atlanta, and the winner of the NFC (L)East are likely to be the playoff teams (with Atlanta and Seattle getting the Wild Cards).

I don't know who will win the NFC East.  That division looks terrible.  You never know how what New York Giants team will show up this season.  Philadelphia has a new system with an aging quarterback and a team looking like it's falling apart, according to reports.  Dallas has talent, but they've been stuck in the same place with Tony Romo forever, and he'll never get any better than he is.  Washington has an RG III QB who's got a bad knee and should take a step back from his stellar rookie year.

It's conceivable the Lions could go 10-6 (even 11-5 in a best case scenario) and still miss the playoffs because of NFC South and NFC West.  We're sort of bottle necked with teams like Chicago, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and the whole NFC East.  If we go 9-7 or better and miss the playoffs, Jim Schwartz keeps his job.

Minnesota at Detroit: Lions win!  Put it in the books!  The first half it was same old Lions.

Mental mistakes were all over the place.  Brandon Pettigrew was dropping passes.  The other tight end, Tony Scheffler, was targeted once and dropped a ball that would've been a touchdown.  Ndamukong Suh chop blocked the Vikings' John Sullivan, nullifying an interception return for a touchdown by DeAndre Levy.

Adrian Peterson gashed the Lions' defense on their very first offensive play of the season, taking the rock home on a 78-yard run.  It happened to be of course, on a misdirection play, the Lions' biggest weakness against the run.

The fact that the Lions went into halftime down 14-13 was practically a miracle.  Once the second half kicked in, it was all Lions.  Matthew Stafford didn't need to throw the ball all day to Calvin Johnson because Reggie Bush was there, displaying his dangerous home run capabilities that the Lions have missed since Jahvid Best's career ended.

Detroit went on to outscore Minnesota 21-10 in the second half to come out the winner, 34-24.  A lot of talk ensued about the lack of discipline, the impending fine/possible suspension for Ndamukong Suh (he was given an initial $100,000 fine that's still on appeal), and what hadn't changed since a year ago.

As I'm posting this, I'm about eight days late, and the Lions just came off a close loss, which I plan to write about.  What's clear to me about this game and the Arizona game is that the deficiencies are still there.  We still don't know what kind of coach Jim Schwartz is, and I think after going 1-1, it is becoming more evident that he may be on his way out of Detroit if this team can't do better than 8-8.

More in the coming days.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Best Weekend of the Year

Damn, what a weekend!  I am exhausted from everything that went down.  So much so, I wanted to post my game-by-game breakdown predicting the outcome of all sixteen regular season games for the Detroit Lions. But with everything that had gone down: an El Ten Eleven concert, Michigan and Michigan State winning on Saturday, and today's Lions win over the Vikings (minus Doug Fister's disappointing outing against the Royals), this has been the best weekend of the year, so far.

I managed to finagle a switch in my shift to allow me to work a double on Thursday into Friday and got Sunday and Monday off.  Two whole days!  I should ask my boss if I can do this permanently.

Saturday night, I went to Ann Arbor to see my second or third favorite band, El Ten Eleven at the Blind Pig.  It didn't occur to me until the two days prior that this game was taking place the same night as the Michigan-Notre Dame game.  I thought traffic would be a nightmare getting there.  I got it half right.

Getting into town was easy as I arrived in A2 by 8:25 and parked a couple of blocks from the Blind Pig.  The show began with an opening performance from Eliot Lipp, who played a variety of keyboard and other fancy electro-pop music that was heavy and enjoyable.  Then came El Ten Eleven, and played a 12-song set.  They sounded great, which was a shock to me, considering the last time I was at the Blind Pig, the band that played didn't sound so good.

I got to see Kristian Dunn (guitarist) and Tim Fogarty (drums) after the show and told them how great the show was.  We shook hands and I left soon after.  The show ended about an hour after the Michigan-Notre Dame game, which of course meant that traffic going out of town would be impossible.

So, I was hungry and I ventured over to Pizza House, betting that trying to get back into town would be 1,000 times easier than trying to get out.  It was only 100 times, instead.  Pizza House was slammed.  I walked in, looked around, and walked out.

I went over to Pinball Pete's and played a few games before checking out Pizza House again, and it was still packed.  I wanted to muscle my way to the bar to sit down and order food, but gave up after a few minutes and went for another walk.  It was after 2:00 am; I get it, Michigan won, but come on kids, go to bed.  I wanted my Pizza House.

It just so happened I discovered a new Pita Pit had opened.  I worked at one for three weeks in January 2007 making good money doing deliveries until the owner said he was filing for bankruptcy, which sucked.  I began to enjoy it there after a week and a half.

Round 3: made into Pizza House, bullied my way to an empty seat at the bar, and managed to order my favorite pie.  The waitress said it'd be an hour.  It took 20 minutes, slightly more than the 10-minute average, so it was okay.  I was willing to wait an hour, but this was kosher enough.

I found out watching the ESPN highlights that Michigan State had "won," which is okay.  Haven't watched a game, but through osmosis, I'm learning they're going to be a one-dimensional, defensive team again.  I like State.  Maybe not as much as Michigan.  But when Sparty wins, I'm still happy that a Michigan school is winning. 

So I ate my pizza and left for home.  Went to bed to wake up at 11:30 am.  Showered, got dressed, put on the Stafford jersey.  Headed to Hartland to continue the family tradition of Lions football with my sister's husband and her family.

The first half was typical, Same Ol' Lions.  Detroit was down 14-13 at the half, but judging by the way they played, it should've been 24-3, Minnesota.  But the Lions showed grit and mental toughness and dominated the second half, taking the game 34-24. 

My favorite band played the same day Michigan and Michigan State won. The Lions won.  It's always a great weekend when those three win.  I'll happily forget that Doug Fister had a disappointing outing, losing a 5-2 decision to Kansas City.  He pitched a great for four innings, though.  Yeah, okay, however you want to spin it.

Why can't more weekends be like this?

Friday, August 30, 2013

10-0 Becomes 10-1.

Wednesday night I did something I thought I'd never do: attend my third Tigers' game in one year, and the second in ten days.

But, my brother-in-law wanted to go and all I had to do was swap a co-worker a couple of nights and next thing I knew: done deal, Comerica Park, Wednesday night.

The game was brutal.  Berr-rutal.  The Tigers lost 14-4 to the Oakland A's.  I said about a week ago that I'm a team's lucky charm.  I was 10-0.  Key word: was.

Perhaps the most important reason I went was because Doug Fister was pitching and this would be the first time I had gone to see him pitch all year.  The only other time I went was the final home game at Comerica where Fister set the AL record for most consecutive strikeouts.

Fister had a pretty bad night, going only five innings and giving up seven runs.  The A's were hitting practically everything.  The game was so out of reach that Manager Jim Leyland pulled Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder after the 7th inning.

So the Tigers lost 14-4.  Not fun?  Not exactly.  Sure, I 'd always take a win over a loss, but I think I had more fun at this game than I did my first game back in April this year.  I took a date.  It didn't go so well.

We barely saw any of the game, but the Tigers won.  It was a disaster.  A mutual friend of ours was there with a friend of his, and it became one girl and three guys.  Never okay.  They ended up hijacking my evening and bored me to the point that I drank too much.  My date and I never took our seats, and I never got anything to eat at the game (I wanted some chili cheese fries - months later I found out they're overrated).

I had planned on, once the game ended, to go inside The D Shop and look around.  Couldn't buy anything since everything sold there is about $15 cheaper at DC Sports, GameDay Detroit, or online.  We didn't do that.

Instead, someone had the brilliant idea of: "Let's go to Greektown!"  They had me at "No fucking way would I willingly go in there."  I hate the casinos.  I don't gamble and can barely breathe through all the cigarette fumes.  But being the too nice a guy I am, I went along without saying anything.

It wasn't fun in there.  We didn't play slots long because they're kind of confusing and I lack the motivation to truly understand how to play them.  I was still drinking, but I was really starving.

By the time we left Greektown, I demanded we go to Five Guys, to the point of running away from my group and ordering my food.  I was so drunk, my food sucked.  The fries were disgusting, and the burger didn't taste like anything special.

Last Wednesday was way more entertaining.  We began to notice people leaving the game early.  My brother-in-law was indifferent to leaving.  But I wanted to stay because even if the Tigers are losing, I still enjoy the ambiance.  I take it all in.  We had great seats and there was always a chance a home run ball could land in our laps.  It didn't but the little kids next to us got a ball from Torii Hunter.

We left the game with my first loss.  I knew my good fortune had to run out at some point.  But it was still more fun than last April's game (although not as fun as game ten days earlier).

I think the most important thing I took from this game is that maybe I'm finally turning a corner and am not so much of a fair weather fan as I am becoming a real fan.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What's With All the Tom Brady Hate?

Tom Brady is a hated man.  He's loved in New England, but hated everywhere else.  I get that he's to be despised in places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New York, among 27 other cities.  What I don't get is why there's so much hatred over here in Michigan.  

I listened to the Valenti and Foster show the day after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in 2012 to the Giants for the second time, and I remember hearing an irate caller blast Brady for being overrated and was sick and tired about hearing "how good he is."  I've heard the same thing over the course of the last few years on local and national sports talk radio, including Friday afternoon on the Karsch and Anderson show, on the day after the Patriots lost to the Lions at Ford Field.

The hatred for Tom Terrific can be summed up in two ways:

The only reason he's good is because he's coached by Bill Belichick.  He's a product of one of the greatest coaches and one of the greatest systems ever.  He's been surrounded with talent like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Correy Dillon.  On top of that, Matt Cassel took over for Brady when he was lost for the season in 2008 and led the team to an 11-5 record, despite missing the playoffs.  Since leaving the Patriots, Cassel has never replicated his performance in four years with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Or, the Patriots were exposed as a result of Spygate, where the Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets' play calling and used it to their advantage to cheat.  The saying goes that ever since Spygate, Brady has never won a Super Bowl.  These are two ridiculous arguments that can easily be debunked by simple logic.

First, Belichick wasn't that great a coach prior to his arrival to New England.  He failed miserably in Cleveland and he quit coaching the New York Jets a day or two after accepting the job. 

Second, Cassel did perform well in relief of Brady in 2008.  But in 2007, the Patriots went undefeated and made it to the Super Bowl.  They made another appearance in the Super Bowl four years later under Brady's leadership.  Plus, Cassel was a relative unknown.  He was in his second year in New England, so he already had a grasp of Belichick's system.  There was little game tape for other teams to study him and find his weaknesses.  It was only when he went to an inferior team like the Chiefs, where he was more easily exposed.

Third, yes, Brady did have Randy Moss.  From 2007 until 2010.  Not his entire career.  The other players I mention were good, but they were developed in the Patriots' system.  Wes Welker was a nobody.  When the Patriots won three Super Bowls, players like Bethel Johnson, David Givens, and Troy Smith were average to slightly above average receivers.  Later on, he had Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.  Neither of those guys were anything before playing with Brady.  Tom Brady makes them better, as do the elite quarterbacks.

As far as Spygate goes, remember, they did still play another fifteen games to go undefeated.  And like I said, they went to the Super Bowl, twice.  To expect them to go there and win it every year is ridiculous, as not even Peyton Manning has those kinds of expectations.

Tom Brady shouldn't be so vilified around here, unless you're a Michigan State fan or a Buckeye transplant.  He played here in Michigan.  Brady wasn't a 4- or 5-star recruit.  Brady came to Michigan when Brian Griese and Scott Dreisbach were going back and forth for the starting quarterback position.  In 1998, Brady finally beat out Dreisbach after Griese had left.  The same year, another highly touted recruit, Drew Henson arrived in Ann Arbor and shared playing time with Brady.

Brady eventually had a successful career at Michigan, despite constantly looking over his shoulder with Henson expected to be leading this team to Big Ten Championships, Rose Bowl Championships, and National Championships.  Henson's story fit the Michigan narrative perfectly.  Coming out of Brighton, MI, Henson was a blue chip player whose potential was virtually unlimited.  A two-sport athlete, Henson was destined to play either in the NFL or the MLB.

Henson was the future, even if Brady was the present.  Henson eventually led the Wolverines to a share of the Big Ten title in 2000.  He was expected to lead Michigan to a National Championship and be selected Number 1 overall in the 2002 NFL Draft before baseball came a callin' with George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees.

Henson's career in baseball was brief.  He couldn't hit a curve ball on the big stage.  His career MLB totals were going 1-for-9.  When baseball wasn't going anywhere, he opted for the NFL.  He was drafted in the 6th Round of the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.  Then his rights were traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a 4th Round pick the next year.  Henson never took off in the NFL as he languished in Dallas, Minnesota, and one year on the 0-16 Detroit Lions.

Brady on the other hand came from San Mateo, California.  While not highly touted like Henson two years later, Brady was a find.  His story in many ways, is more compelling because he had to work so much harder to earn his place at Michigan.  Despite leading the Wolverines to victory at the Orange Bowl over Arkansas on January 1, 2000, he wasn't expected to go very far in the NFL.

Brady managed to be skipped over 198 times before the Patriots drafted him in at 199 in the 6th Round of the 2000 NFL Draft.  He looked like an average athlete with nothing tangible to separate him from every other quarterback.  He spent his rookie year playing behind franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who had been the guy for eight years and led the Pats to a Super Bowl in 1996.

The rest became history.  Brady went on to win his first Super Bowl in his second year, a feat later accomplished by Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.  He won two more and appeared in a total of five Super Bowls. He's also been selected to eight Pro Bowls, two First Team All Pro, three Second Team All Pro, and won two MVP awards and two Super Bowl MVPs.  The guy's resume makes him a sure lock, a first ballot Hall of Famer.

If anything, Brady's story should be a great teaching lesson about the shortfalls of promise and the reward of dedication and determination.  He never came to Michigan as the next big thing.  He wasn't even a savior in New England as they already had their franchise quarterback in Bledsoe.  But the forces of history soon allowed Brady a favorable route. He put in the time and effort to realize his own potential.

Henson is not a bad guy.  He was flashy, and had a high ceiling.  I think he had a greater love for baseball, and because it didn't work out, he tried the NFL.  The NFL didn't work because he had been out of the game for too long.  He took a gamble many of us only dream about.  If I were a two-sport athlete, I too would've taken the $11 million contract the Yankees were offering.  The risk of career ending injury in football is much, much greater than in baseball and had he been seriously injured in 2001, he may have been left with no career in either sport.

Brady and Henson will be forever linked.  Both had success at Michigan.  Brady went on to have even more success at the next level.  More success than any other quarterback with the possible exceptions of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.  I like Brady because he's a Michigan quarterback, even if he doesn't play for the Lions.  Michiganders should be proud to call him one of our own, even if he only played in Ann Arbor for four years.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Did I Mention I'm Every Team That I Root For's MVP?

Time for a humble brag.  I get to because I suck at most other things in life.

I've been to ten sporting events, college and professional, and not one time has my team ever lost.  Last Sunday, my record jumped to 10-0 and 5-0 for the Tigers.  Just my being there for the team is really all they need to win.  It's a fact.  It's science.

January 1996: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons.  Grant Hill was in his second year with Detroit and already an NBA all star.  I was at the Palace of Auburn Hills because our high school basketball team was invited to play one of our rivals, Hale.  Hale ended up beating Atlanta, but in my first pro game ever, the Pistons eked out a 99-95 victory over David Robinson and the Spurs.  1-0.

To be fair, my 10-0 record is a little inflated.  I was a Pistons fan way back when, but I don't follow the team anymore and don't care for the NBA.  I've got two others, which one could argue that I'm either  8-1 or 8-0.

May 3, 2003: Some NL team at Chicago Cubs.  My 23rd birthday happened to coincide with my brother in law's bachelor weekend.  We got to see Sammy Sosa and the Cubs take on a team and win.  Don't remember the score, either.  2-0.

I used to be a Cubs and White Sox fan as I watched games on WGN in the summertime as a teenager.  By the time I went to the Cubs game, I only went because I was with a group, but I still enjoyed seeing Wrigley Field and all. 

August 2004: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers.  My first Tiger game ever.  I had never been to Tiger Stadium, but this was my first of five games I attended there.  I went with my roommate and watched Dmitri Young hit a solo home run and the Tigers went on to win 4-1.  3-0.

October 31, 2004.  Michigan State at Michigan.  I was working on a Congressional campaign for Dr. Joe Schwarz.  It was the final weekend of the 2004 Presidential campaign, and I was going door-to-door in Tecumseh, MI, when after we finished, I was invited to attend the game.  Couldn't pass up my first time ever inside the Big House.  It was a beautiful day, too.

Almost regretted it at first.  Michigan State built a commanding 17-point lead headed into the fourth quarter.  I was surrounded by Spartan fans, too.  Michigan rallied to tie the game at the end of regulation.  Michigan went on to win in a classic that took three overtimes, capped off by Braylon Edwards' dramatic touchdown catch that sealed the deal for the Wolverines.  I don't remember the score.  But I remembered how much fun it was.

Added bonus: I was seated behind the endzone where both teams had to run the ball in to score, so I had a better view of what happened than most others there. 4-0.

It behooves me to mention I'm one of those "State of Michigan" fans that roots for all Michigan schools.  So even if Michigan and Michigan State are hated rivals like Sunnis and Shi'as, I'm sort of like, well, I'll give a political answer to who should win in a head-to-head matchup.  But every other team they play, I root for the Wolverines AND Spartans.  This day, I was a Wolverine fan.  Fair weather?  Go ahead.  You could say this counts as a loss, too, but I wore a Michigan shirt.

July 2007: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers.  My second Tigers game.  I don't remember much about it beyond the Tigers winning the game. Don't even remember the score.  I do remember Curtis Granderson hitting an in-the-park home run, though.  5-0.

December 12, 2010: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions.  My first Lions game ever!  You'd think my obsession with a bad football team that I'd have gone to a game by now.  Nope.  Not even to the Silverdome.  The Lions started the game with their third string quarterback, Drew Stanton.  Matthew Stafford was in his second year, but was headed for injured reserve after aggravating an injury to his throwing shoulder.  I was all about rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  Every time he made a play, the energy at Ford Field was so palpable, the crowd chants "SSSSSSSSSSSUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHH."  I think I feed off that as much as Suh does.

The Lions won 7-3.  Aaron Rodgers was injured on Green Bay's last drive of the first half and was replaced by Matt Flynn.  A lot of people were trying to take away credit from the Lions because Rodgers went down, but they seem to neglect to mention the Lions PLAYED THE WHOLE F@#KING GAME WITH A 3RD STRING QUARTERBACK.  

This game was pivotal.  The Lions came in 2-10, badly needing a win to show progress after another embarassing Thanksgiving Day loss to New England.  They closed out the season winning the rest of their games, going 6-10.  They even started 2011 5-0, which technically was a nine game winning streak that carried over from the year before.  Meanwhile, Green Bay also never lost a game again and went on to win the Super Bowl, establishing Rodgers as an elite quarterback.  6-0.

December 2011: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions.  For the first time in twelve years, the Leos were in control of their destiny for the playoffs.  I thought this would become an annual tradition with me and my brothers-in-law.  This game I actually got to see Stafford, but not Suh as he was serving a 2-game suspension for the infamous "stomp" on a Green Bay Packer in the weeks prior.

The Lions had a 20-point lead in the third quarter, but Minnesota with their third string quarterback, managed to rally and make a game of it.  A blown call that actually benefited Detroit (for once) saved the Lions and the game.  Defensive End Cliff Avril should have been flagged for being offsides, but the referees didn't catch it, and the Lions stole the game by less than a touchdown.  But come on, the Lions were screwed out of twelve calls for every bad one that went their way that year.  Get over it, Drew Sharp.  7-0.

September 27, 2012: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers.  I finally got to see Doug Fister at Comerica Park.  I'm like a hipster music snob in this sense: I knew about Fister before everyone else.  Well, he was "my Tiger" before a lot of others, and I had the jersey to prove it.  I donned The Doug Fister Jersey in the final regular season game at Comerica and watched him set the AL record for nine consecutive strike outs, just one shy of Tom Seaver's MLB record of ten. I don't remember the score, but I remember being so stoked the whole time I was there.  8-0.

April 29, 2013: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers.  I took a date to this game.  I did not have a fun date.  I did get to see a little of Max Scherzer build on what's become an epic season.  The Tigers won 4-3.  It was great that they won, but my night didn't get much better.  9-0.

August 18, 2013: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers.  Oddly enough, my third time seeing the Royals, I was a bit nervous as the Tigers dropped five of their last seven.  But Scherzer was on the mound again, and pitched another gem, going eight innings and giving up two runs.  The Tigers won 6-3.  I was with my sister's family and my aunt.  After the game, my nieces got to run the bases, and I snapped a ton of photos from the field including mundane shots of the dugout.

The grounds crew yelled at me to stay off the field; I didn't notice my right foot touched the grass, but now I can say I was on the field.  Technically.  10-0. 

So there it is.  I'm obviously a good luck charm of sorts.  I should be paid to sit in and watch these games.

One could argue that I should only be 8-0 since I'm not much of a Cubs or Pistons fan, or be 8-1 because the Michigan State loss.  But I still say, based on my attendance records, the Tigers should pay me to attend games.

World Series MVP?  Metrichead.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How I Fell In Love With Baseball Again

On Sunday, I went to see the Tigers play for the 5th time ever.  They beat the Kansas City Royals 6-3.  I watched Miguel Cabrera hit his 361st home run, tying Joe DiMaggio for 77th all time. 

Two years ago, I never thought I'd write something like that.  I only got interested in the Tigers somewhere late in the 2011 season during the playoffs.  If someone calls me a fair weather fan, I'd say guilty as charged.  Same could never be said for the Lions.

I grew up in a Detroit Tigers household.  My earliest memories of the team are watching them on Channel 4 in Detroit in the summer of 1985, a year after they won the World Series.  Sports came to me kind of slowly; the next sport I fell in love with was basketball via the Detroit Pistons.  Then came football and the Detroit Lions and hockey with the Red Wings.

My favorite Tigers player growing up was Cecil Fielder.  "Big Daddy" came out of nowhere in 1990 to hit 51 home runs, with the last two on the final day of the year in dramatic fashion.  Fielder was the first player to hit 50 homers since 1977.  Before 1990, he was a journeyman ball player having bounced around the Toronto Blue Jays and some teams in Japan. 

Fielder was an All Star on teams that had heavy hitters, but only average pitching.  Fielder, along with Mickey Tettleton and Rob Deer managed to hit more than 30 home runs in 1992, the same year Tom Monaghan sold the team to Mike Illitch. 

1993 was the last year the Tigers would have a winning season until the 2006 season.  After an underachieving 1992 season, the Tigers suddenly got hot in May and June, taking a commanding lead of the AL Central.  They cooled off in early July, and despite losing the division, still remained above .500. 

Two things happened that made me lose interest in the team.  The 1994 strike and the subsequent bottoming out in 1996.  I didn't understand the politics and business side of baseball much, but the strike that year ended the season and baseball wouldn't come back until the first half of an abbreviated 1995 season. 

Illitch hired Randy Smith to be the new GM, despite having a losing record with Florida and the team never posted a winning record under his tenure.  Baseball wasn't fun for a long time, despite the 1998 season where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated Roger Maris' single season home run record and the New York Yankees posted a record win season and won the World Series.  Those were exciting times despite the Tigers' irrelevance.

After 2002, Randy Smith was fired and Illitich hired Dave Dombrowski as the new GM.  Dombrowski's first move was to hire Tigers' great Alan Trammell, the MVP of the 1984 World Series Tigers.  They won only 43 games that year, barely avoiding the record for most losses in a season. 

By then I had accepted the Tigers' irrelevancy as part of summer.  Detroit had improved in each of the next two years under Trammell, but 2005 wasn't good enough and Dombrowski let go of Trammell for failing to post a winning season.

The same year, the steroid scandal went public after Jose Canseco (a former crush of my sister's) wrote a tell-all about steroids in baseball and dropped names.  To me, the scandal was hypocritical.  So many players were found to have "cheated," including McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ken Caminiti. 

My stance on performance enhancing drugs are the same now as they were eight years ago: let them eat PEDs.  It's not cheating if everyone's doing it.  No, not every ball player was using steroids, but it's hypocritical for baseball to be outraged when the league has for years done things to juice the game (ending the "Dead Ball Era," adding lights to night games, lowering the pitching mound, etc).  Just tell the players what's in them and let them decide if the risks are worth it.  I'd rather see home runs galore.

But the Tigers apparently weren't using them enough as they still couldn't post a .500 record or better.  Until Dave Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland to manage the club in 2006.  That year, the Tigers not only posted their first winning season, but went all the way to the World Series and lost to St. Louis in five games.

We had a World Series contender, and I still didn't really care.  The steroid "scandal" maintained my apathy.  The Tigers managed to stay competitive, despite underachieving from 2007-2010. 

Something finally clicked towards the end of 2011.  The Tigers were in the ALCS, facing the Texas Rangers.  Despite having one of the best pitchers in the game, Justin Verlander, he struggled and it was another pitcher they had acquired at the trade deadline that got me curious about the Tigers again: Doug Fister. 

Fister managed to play well when their ace and other pitchers on the staff couldn't.  Before being traded, Fister was another nameless pitcher on a languishing ball club in Seattle.  He never had a winning record until he was traded to Detroit.  He went 8-1 in the second half of 2011 and Dombrowski pulled off another of many coups (the trade for Cabrera, the trade that got Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson, and more recently, the trade for Anibal Sanchez). 

In 2012, the Tigers were expected to compete for the World Series.  They got off to a hot start, but cooled off and struggled most the summer.  Fister injured his right costochondral muscle (rib cage) and struggle to get healthy for the next two months.  He arrived just in time for the team to get hot.  Luckily, Scherzer managed to find his game in the middle of that year, and the Tigers had a solid 1-2-3 rotation with ace Verlander, Fister, and Scherzer.  Adding Sanchez late in the year gave them what's now the best starting rotation in the league with Rick Porcello rounding out the rotation.

We thought once the playoffs had rolled around, that Verlander finally found his way in the big game.  Verlander had struggled in the 2006 World Series, and again in the years where he was playing in prime time.  He played brilliantly against the Oakland A's in the Divisional, and the Yankees in the ALCS, but was shelled in Game 1 of the World Series at San Francisco. 

Fister, on the other hand, showed he was pure clutch down the stretch.  Despite finishing with a 10-10 record on the year, Fister managed to be the pitcher Verlander was in 2011, a pitcher who comes in to stop the bleeding and get a win the team needed it most.  On the final home game of the 2012 season, a game I attended, he broke the AL record for consecutive strike outs with 9.  He was one shy of tying Tom Seaver's MLB record of 10 in a row. 

I was excited because I was probably the only one there that was wearing his jersey (even though I saw a fan a few rows away wearing a shirt with his name and number on it).  Make no mistake, my support of him can't be in question even if my support for baseball on the whole can be.

His reliability moved him up to No. 2 in the rotation and he earned the nod for Game 1 of the ALCS.  The Tigers swept the Yankees and Fister was called on again to start Game 2 at San Francisco.  Fister outperformed Verlander, but ended up picking up the loss despite giving up only one run.  The game was most memorable for Fister taking a line drive to the back of the head from a hit off of Gregor Blanco's bat.  What initially looked like a deflection of his glove was in fact a ball that smacked the back of his head behind his right ear.  I have no idea how he was still alive, let alone able to continue playing.

The Tigers got swept, and that loss was tough to take.  Come 2013, the Tigers currently have a 7-game lead and the 2nd best record in baseball behind the Atlanta Braves (as of August 19).  Fister is currently 10-6 and has an ERA of 3.63.  I predicted he'd win 20 games and he started off going 5-0 before hitting a wall with some bad luck from the offense and a about three or four poor outings. 

He should have won about 15 games by now, but he's still one of the best in baseball.  Both he and Verlander have since been eclipsed by Max Scherzer, who's pitching out of his mind and now stands at 18-1 on the year with a 2.82 ERA. 

But I'm not mad.  Between Fister, Sanchez, and Verlander, any of those three could fall in the 2-4 spot.  If Fister is the No.3 come playoff time, I suspect he'll be pitching in Game 7s if need be.  Despite Scherzer's season and Verlander's resume, I'd go with Fister in a Game 7 situation.

As the season begins to wind down, my chances to see Fister pitch are left to two or three games.  In order for him to win 20 games, he'll have to win every start from here on out.  That's too much to ask.  But I have to see him play in person at least one time this year. 

Even if I don't get to see him, I have faith he and the Tigers are going to win the World Series.  Although I'd like to see them play San Francisco in a rematch, it's highly unlikely, given the Giants' record. 

If Doug Fister can't win 20 games, this year, may he at least be the pitcher who seals the deal for Detroit in October.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Preseason Doldroms

I'm not going to panic about the Lions yet, based on their two preseason performances.  But I am going to make a mental note about recent history and remind myself the rebuilding period is over.  It's make-or-break time.

We're in Year 5 of the Mayhew/Schwartz regime.  This is sort of uncharted waters.  In years passed, coaches were fired somewhere between the middle of Year 3 to the end of Year 4.  Franchise quarterbacks found themselves "Lionized" - a term coined by local beat writers that meant the QB reached the point of hopelessness.  Just see Jon Kitna, Joey Harrington, and Scott Mitchell, et al.

I have only watched parts of the second preseason game against Cleveland.  The preseason is difficult to gauge a team.  I personally think it's too long and should be cut by one game.  But it's clear from what highlights and I've seen and what's been written, they haven't looked good.

We can make all the excuses in the world we want for them right now: preseason games are meaningless. They're shaking off the rust.  They didn't have Calvin Johnson. Whatever, I don't care.  The fact is, this team is built to make a playoff run.  The fans should demand not just a playoff appearance, but at least a victory.  Something tangible to take into the 2014 season.

Next week is the big dress rehearsal.  That's just the way the preseason works. Game 1, you briefly see the starters probably no more than a couple of series.  Game 2, you see a little more of the first team, maybe they play into the second quarter.

Game 3 is the most important.  This is the closest it gets to a meaningful game in the preseason.  The depth charts have been finalized for Week 1 and hopefully the rest of the year.  The key thing is to get everyone on the same page, create some form of continuity, and keep them healthy.

The Lions will get a huge test in the form of the New England Patriots on Thursday.  Two years ago, the Lions beat the Patriots in the same dress rehearsal game, and they went on to a 10-6 season and a short trip to the playoffs.

The last preseason game is meaningless to starters, but valuable to coaches and players on the bubble of being cut.  The Lions can't afford injuries and the goal for most players is to make it through without injury.  But the Lions can use the extra game time to develop rookies and second-year players.

The goal from here on out should be playoffs every year.  Realistically, they look right now to be a 7-9 or 8-8 team (not my official prediction, YET).  They can make the playoffs.  They need to make the playoffs and do so without any dumb luck or outside factors, like a blown call here and there by the referees.  I want solid, decisive victories.

Bottom line: the Lions need to win, or both Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew need to be released.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

So Long, Blimpy Burger (For Now)

Today's the last day to get a burger at the current Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor.  The owners announced a while back that they would be forced to move after the original owner, who still owned the property, decided to sell out to the University of Michigan to make way for more dormitories. 

I went there on Monday afternoon at 3:45 in the afternoon.  I checked my watch to see how long I'd have to wait once I got my food.  I ended up being in line for about 45 minutes.  The line wasn't as long when I first arrived, but when I left, it was probably a good 30 feet longer when I left. 

I ordered a quint, with bacon, fried egg, cheddar, and a side of fries.  As I waited in line, I kept hoping the table by the window that looks out over Division and Packard Streets would be open for me to sit down.  Because it was so cramped in there, I didn't want to sit in the middle of the restaurants surrounded by people on both sides of me staring at my food.

Lucky me, I got to sit exactly where I wanted.  I didn't mind the long wait and I knew going there another day or two later, I'd have had to stand in line for hours.  The burger was as delicious as it was unhealthy, something the restaurant prides itself on.  Their fries were always average and I wished I had a smaller order. 

By the time I had left, it was an hour later from when I first arrived.  I parked my car far away enough to at least burn a few calories.

I'm going to miss the place, even though I have only been there a few times.  The owner is looking for another place to resume business.  I hope he finds it, but no matter how much the same the food is, it won't be like the original, even though I think this current stop is/was the third location (they've been in business since 1953). has written extensively about the move in the past few months after it was announced in the spring that they'd have to move.  Most of the comments section were favorable towards the restaurant and some had some acrimony towards the University of Michigan for buying up the land. 

If there's one thing I've learned from all of this, it's the parallels you can draw between Blimpy and when the Tigers left their stadium on Michigan and Trumbull for Comerica Park.  Neither location was the original, but it's the place we've identified with.  Same product, but it doesn't feel the same.


ps - The Cheesecake Factory opened officially yesterday in Novi, a day before Blimpy closes its doors.  People waited as much as four hours by the end of the day to be seated.  Usually, I'd say no food is worth that much wait time, but at least if you're going to Blimpy, you're going to there for the last time.  Cheesecake will still be there.  I promise.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Game Not Worth Watching

Hey NFL, I have an idea about how you can improve the Pro Bowl: END IT.

I just read that the NFL is dropping its current format of having the best players from each conference square off in to a draft format.  The way players will be selected to the Pro Bowl will remain the same, but each team will instead field a team by the junior high school method of taking turns and picking which side Peyton Manning and Tom Brady play for.

Yeah, that's great and all, but it's another gimmicky move by the NFL to draw up interest for a game that shouldn't even be played.  There's nothing at stake and players shouldn't risk an unnecessary injury that could end their careers prematurely.  Besides, you can't even play real football: offenses can't audible and defenses can't blitz.  So what are you watching?  It's basically Pop Warner on steroids.  Perhaps literally.

The NFL can't get people to watch its All Star game.  The idea isn't totally bad, except as the paragraph before explains it, there's nothing at stake.  It's like the NFL Preseason with the best of the best playing instead of watching the worst of the best try and make a squad.  The last thing the league tried was moving the game to the week prior to the Super Bowl in order to serve as an appetizer.  It didn't help much.

All Star games aren't what they once were.  Football and hockey games are exhibition matches that don't generate interest but do scare general managers and fans who can't stand the thought of losing a franchise player on a meaningless game.  When played properly, they're both extremely physical.  Thus, the risk of injury is greater.  It's not like you can tell the players to not play at full speed.  That's what happens a lot of times in the preseason, and there's always someone else trying to make a team that is going full speed and the next thing you know: injury.

Baseball and basketball are a little better, but both have seen better days as well.  The NBA All Star Game looks more like a pickup game with no real organization.  It's just lots of athleticism on display.  That's okay, but considering the quality of NBA talent has fallen off since the 1990s, it's not like you're watching Bird and Jordan take on Magic and (Karl) Malone.  Instead, you're stuck with Kobe and LeBron.

However, in baseball, the players still have something to play for.  Not the stupid rule that gives home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league's representative.  No, I mean the motivation for a batter to not be humiliated by striking out or a pitcher to not give up six runs or more in an inning.

The NFL should just nix the game altogether.  I get that it's Roger Goodell's job to squeeze every last dime out of fans, but there is an old but true cliche that less is more.  Keep the NFL Draft where it's at.  Keep the regular season at sixteen games.  Knock a game off the NFL Preseason schedule.  If nothing else, lose the Pro Bowl.

Detroit Lions' writer Tim Twentyman has more on the new rule changes here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ann Arbor Is the Place To Be

I'm in Ann Arbor right, at my old Starbucks hangout on the corner of State and E. Liberty.  I'm sitting right by where I used to plop down and read a book or write papers in college.  Ann Arbor is and always will be where it's at to me.

I lived here for two years, and a total of seven years in the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor region as I attended Eastern Michigan.  Naturally I preferred the A-squared because it's a hip college town home to the greatest football program in all of college history. 

Actually, I don't care as much about college football as I do the NFL.  I have no idea what to expect of Michigan football heading in to each fall as I don't read the papers' articles about them too often.  That, and the fact that I like Michigan State as well as Michigan because I'm a "State of Michigan" fan rubs people the wrong way.

But I feel at home here.  I can walk the streets and feel like I blend right in.  There's no shortage of things to do either.  On the off chance I do get bored, Detroit isn't too far away.

The Oakland County suburbs just aren't the same.  Sure, I like them.  Novi is nice, Northville is pretty (the downtown part), and Birmingham is on the other side of the county.  Royal Oak comes the closest to being something like Ann Arbor, minus the big school.  If I had to pick a second favorite city in Michigan, Birmingham would be it, though.

If I could live closer to, but not quite in town, it'd be South Lyon.  It's an inviting town, quiet, great bikepaths, and all that.  South Lyon could be the setting of another Dawson's Creek, but I think one Detroit suburb already had its moment.  Plus, it's a straight shot to A2 from SL on Pontiac Trail.

I've made it my goal to one day get accepted to U-M, either to earn another Master's, or be accepted into a PhD program.  I'd like to go to the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and become a Political Science professor one day.  But I need to get my student loans down to a manageable level or completely paid off and need to re-learn some advance math courses in order to do statistics and calculus. (One of the many reasons why I wanted to join the USN so badly)

It would also be nice to work for the City of Ann Arbor, too, if I can't get into U-M.  Now, if only they'd offer me at least one interview for all the jobs I've applied for.

Why would I want to be anywhere else?

Until then, I'm stuck in Novi.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

I Guess I Didn't Want To Be a Millionaire After All

Friday morning I planned to audition for the gameshow Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? after coming across an article in the Detroit Free Press about two weeks ago.  I had always given it a passing thought; I've done pretty well when I watched the show when it was on ABC.

My aim wasn't to win $1 million, but to win about $125,000 - $250,000, enough to cover student loans + taxes and anything left over would be set aside for an IRA or 401k.  Had I won any more, that would have fast tracked me to earning a JD or PhD.  But I was being realistic.  $125,000 would have been plenty.

I forgot about it for about a week until I was reminded of it again on Monday.  It was only then that I began to serious contemplate auditioning for the show.  The night before I glanced the website over one more time and read the entire rules.  A snag was found.

The snag was that I would have to pay my way to New York City if I was cast as a contestant.  Everything before that: taking a quiz, interviewing, and just showing up were all things I could do.  Hell, the audition site was a 10-minute drive from where I lived which made it all the more tempting.

That morning I drove down to Walsh College in Novi.  I saw a guy waiting outside the doors who was with the show.  As I walked up, he said I just missed the cutoff and I'd have to wait there for 45 minutes.  It only took me a second to realize this wasn't for me.  

It wasn't for me because I don't want to be on TV.  I just don't care to be recognized.  Plus, I also had to realize that even if I got every answer right on the quiz I took, I could still be turned away in a couple of weeks.  Yet if I do get accepted, I'd have to drop $1,000 just to be on the show because I'd have to book a flight, get time off of work, and put myself up in a hotel.  God knows how expensive even a rundown hotel in New York goes for.  

I guess I'll stick to playing the MegaMillions.  Oh wait, I don't play that, either.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Finally, Two More Things...and It's Training Camp, Bitches!

I'm done.  I think.  Training Camp opens today for the Lions.  Let me throw down two more areas of concern, with No. 7 being probably the most psychologically satisfying were it to happen.

6. Offensive Line.  Once the season begins, the O-Line will have had the biggest makeover, with only two of five starters from 2012 returning.  Left tackle Jeff Backus retired, right guard Stephen Peterman was cut, and the other tackle, Gosder Cherilus left for greener pastures because he wasn't worth the money he was asking for.  Center Dominic Raiola had to take a pay cut in order to come back this season, otherwise he may not have had a job at all this year.

Last year's first round pick, Riley Reiff barely saw much of the field.  Taking Reiff in the first round hurt the Lions (not his fault), mostly because he was used as an extra blocking tight end.  That is until Backus went down with an injury, and Reiff filled in for two games.  Despite some struggles, Reiff showed he could replace him and I expect he will improve and be sufficient enough in protecting Matthew Stafford's blind side. 

The Lions took right guard Larry Warford in the third round to replace Peterman.  Warford is massive; he's a 6'5 guard who weighs 345 pounds.  Although he's facing competition for the spot with veteran Dylan Gandy, it's highly likely Warford will win out since they used such a high pick on him.

The right tackle position is by far, the most intriguing.  Veterans Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard are vying to replace Cherilus.  Hilliard has played in spurts for an injured Cherilus, while Fox is a former fourth round pick taken in 2010.  Fox has had to overcome injuries, but a lot of local beat writers give him a slight edge in the competition.

With Raiola's age and short contract, it's reasonable to expect that the Lions aren't done with remodeling that offensive line.  That leaves only left guard Rob Sims as the mainstay.  Sims has been the best offensive lineman on the team for the last three seasons and he provides solid leadership for the younger guys.  I'd say of all the free agent signings Mayhew has made during his tenure, the Sims signing is probably the most underrated.  Sims is only 29, so his age means he should remain the left guard for awhile.

7. Get the monkey(s) off your backs.  Win at Washington.  You've never done that.  Win at Green Bay.  You haven't done that since 1991.  Win the NFC North.  You haven't won a title in 20 years.  Yes, two decades!  Don't just "make" the playoffs, win a game!  You haven't done that since the same year you last won at Lambeau.

Part III: More Things To Watch

Apparently, I had a lot more to say than I thought I would.  Since training camp opens today, I felt compelled to post another couple of blogs and wrap this thing up.  I won't have a prediction for another month because I'd rather wait until before Opening Kickoff to post my prediction.  I predicted a 10-6 record; the Lions went 4-12.  Shows how much I know.

5. Coaching.  In 2011, the Lions were 10-6.  A year later, they fell to 4-12.  What happened?  Was Jim Schwartz to blame?

No matter which way you look at it, an ax should have dropped somewhere and it didn't.  Jim Schwartz, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, and Gunther Cunningham all kept their jobs at the end of the season.  The biggest name to leave the coaching staff was Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman, who took another job in Buffalo.

Crossman should have been fired after the 4th game against Minnesota where the Lions gave up a punt and kickoff return for the second straight week, an NFL first.  Where there's ignominy, it's a safe bet the Lions are on the wrong side of the moment: longest field goal kick in history, first team to go 0-16, longest road losing streak - owned twice, TWICE, by the Lions breaking their OWN RECORD (2001 - 2003 and then 2007-2010), and now this.  Giving up a punt and touchdown return two weeks in a row kind of set the tone for the rest of the season, even though they won three of their next four games (they lost the final eight).

Crossman was replaced by veteran Special Teams coach Jon Bonamego.  Bonamego will have an all new kicker, punter, and return man (or men) in 2013. Jason Hanson retired after twenty years with the team and the Lions signed aging veteran David Akers and Havard Rugland, aka "Kickalicous" to replace him. 

Akers was one of the NFL's premier kickers before falling off with the San Francisco 49ers last year, where he made only 69% of his field goal attempts.  Akers is 36, so even if he wins the job in camp, it's unlikely he'll be around for a long time.  Rugland has never played football, but achieved notoriety for a YouTube video he posted where he demonstrated his football kicking abilities.  After getting tryouts for the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, the Lions offered him a contract in the hopes he could succeed Hanson.

The Lions also spent a fifth round draft pick on Punter Sam Martin.  Normally, teams don't use a draft pick on a punter unless he's available in the seventh round.  Okay, the L.A. Raiders did in the 1980s with Ray Guy, and even if he was the best punter to have ever played in the NFL, you still don't use a first round pick on them!  But given the Lions' needs and the fact another punter was taken before him, Martin may end up being well worth the pick.

(Ahem, it behooves me to point out Hanson was a second round pick in 1992.  But at least kickers score points.)

If Crossman should have been the first to be fired, then OC Linehan was a close second.  Linehan, who is entirely in charge of the offense, seemed to be outcoached by the opposing teams' defensive coordinators.  His play calling was stale.  68% of Stafford's pass attempts in 2012 were out of the shotgun formation.  Whether it was Stafford's poor performance or there was poor execution by the rest of the offense, that should have fallen on him.

I have to give Gunther Cunningham a pass.  Linehan has been given a lot of help from Martin Mayhew with draft picks, trades, and free agent pickups.  Linehan was given Stafford (who has taken it upon himself to develop the franchise QB), Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler, Mikel Leshoure, Titus Young, and Ryan Broyles.  On top of the fact they already had Calvin Johnson.

Cunningham's defense hasn't been given the same amount of attention as the offense.  He has a defensive line with a couple of linebackers.  Not bad, considering they have Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Stephen Tulloch.  But Cliff Avril left for greener pastures, and who knows how well he'll play when he's not next to Suh.  Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams were both a little long in the tooth, and neither are with the team anymore.  Mayhew drafted Ziggy Ansah with the number 5 overall pick and signed veteran defensive end Jason Jones.  Ansah is a project who will take a year or two to development while Jones may only be a stop gap at this point.

With the exception of Stephen Tulloch, Cunningham's linebackers have been somewhat disappointing.  Tulloch played under Schwartz's system in Tennessee, so he was already familiar with the scheme.  DeAndre Levy hasn't taken the next step many thought he would. By the end of his rookie year, a lot of NFL analysts thought he should've gone in the first round instead of the third that year.  Yet as of late, he seems to have missed lots of tackles and hasn't distinguished himself as a premier linebacker. 

Justin Durant is now gone, due to cap restraints, so it's up to veteran backups Ashlee Palmer and second year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis to win his spot.  Cunningham should be under a lot of pressure to push Levy and develop the other linebacker starting opposite him.

Finally, there's Coach Schwartz himself.  This is a make-or-break year for him.  If Schwartz is under the gun, Mayhew should be as well.  We're in Year 5 of the rebuilding process, but the Lions right now look to be competing for third place in the NFC North with Minnesota when they should be contending with Green Bay for the title.

Schwartz is an emotional guy and it rubs off on his players.  The past couple of years, the Lions have (unfairly) developed a reputation as an undisciplined team.  Whether it's Ndamukong Suh's personal fouls on the field, or the offseason arrests of four players in 2012 and two this past offseason, much of the sports media has put the blame on Schwartz for not reigning his players.  Whether it's fair or not, Schwartz has taken steps to address the problem in order to avoid further off field distractions.

He too will have to assert some self-control.  He's been known to pump his fist after winning games, talk trash at the other coaches, and last Thanksgiving, he allowed his team to give up a touchdown because he threw a flag to challenge play that would have been under review anyway.  Schwartz admitted the mistake after the Houston Texans' Justin Forsett scored a touchdown, despite replay showing Forsett's knee being down.  The Texans kept the touchdown and went on to win the game. 

If the team matches Schwartz's optimism (which is pretty high going into camp), the Lions should be about 10-6.  It's within the bell curve of realistic expectations.  It's more likely this team will be somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8. 

If the Lions don't make the playoffs, Schwartz should be fired, but Mayhew should be fired as well.  Schwartz is playing with Mayhew's players and both managed to take a team that went 0-16 five years ago and turn them into a playoff team in three years.  The question is now, is Schwartz the coach that took the 0-16 team to the playoffs, or is he the guy who coached the team to 4-12? (The very same question Pat Caputo and Dennis Fithian asked on last night's show on 97.1 The Ticket)

Monday, July 22, 2013

More Thoughts About the Upcoming NFL Season

I wrote in yesterday's blog entry about some of my questions about the Lions going forward into the 2013 NFL Season.  The two biggest concerns for me are the tight salary cap and QB Matthew Stafford.  Today, I look at the secondary and the tight ends.

3. The secondary.  The one area that the Lions have not done a very good job at addressed is finally getting some attention.  While the Lions were busy building up their defensive line, the hope was that the front seven would help with the deficiencies in the back end of the defense.  The addition of Suh, Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Stephen Tulloch in 2010 and 2011 meant the team had to rely on signing free agent cast offs like Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith and address the secondary later down the road.  Over the course of the 2011, when the Lions made the playoffs, the need to address the back end became crystallized as the secondary didn't have sufficient players to stop the opposing teams' passing attack.

The little help the secondary has gotten has come in the form of drafting safety Louis Delmas, converted safety Amari Spievey, and cornerback Chris Houston.  Delmas, who despite the energy he brings, seems to find himself injured when they need him most.  Spievey was drafted as a cornerback to be converted into a safety hasn't panned out due to lingering concussion issues and off the field distractions.  Houston is a former second round pick out of Atlanta who was cast off and the Lions were lucky to have signed.  He is however, at best a No. 2 corner when the Lions really need a sold No. 1

The 2012 draft had a lot of us shaking our heads as the Lions waited until the third round to draft another corner in Bill Bentley.  I think a lot of this had to do with the fact they were hoping to get Patrick Peterson out of LSU, but couldn't make a deal with Arizona, who ended up taking him before the Lions could.  They did manage, however, to pick up two more in the fifth round (Chris Greenwood) and sixth round (Jonte Green).

In April, the Lions drafted Darius Slay in the second round and expect him to compete for a starting spot opposite Houston with Bentley, Greenwood, and Green all in the mix.  As of now, the hope is that Slay can fill an immediate hole.  Bentley has shown flashes but needs to remain healthy.  Greenwood may have the most upside as he has the size and the athleticism, but the downside is that he played at Albion, which is why he went in the fifth round instead of earlier.  Green is also in the running, as he has the most experience of all them due to Bentley and Greenwood's injuries last year, but he will require another year or two of development before he can be a full time starter.

Before I close out my thoughts on the secondary, I think one of the reasons why Martin Mayhew hasn't addressed the need for new defensive backs has been because of the learning curve that most CBs and Safeties go through in order to be effective.  That, and it's one of the positions with the most injuries over the course of a season.  Perhaps Mayhew doesn't take corners in the first round is because he knows it's too high a risk to take one that early.  Mayhew himself played CB for the Atlanta Falcons, so if anyone would know something about the position, it's him.

4.  Tight Ends.  If you ask me, the most overlooked and underrated reason the Lions fell off so dramatically in 2012 was because of the disappearance of their tight ends, because they're suppose to be the safety net when the receivers aren't open.  The Lions have invested heavily on receivers, led by Calvin Johnson.  They signed Nate Burleson, and drafted Titus Young and Ryan Broyles in the second round two years in a row.  All were meant to take more defenders off of Johnson, and all three ended up on injured reserve, making him the only viable weapon.

Yet the tight ends, who were a big part of the team's success in 2011 were nowhere to be found in 2012.  Brandon Pettigrew, the team's other first round pick in 2009, dropped critical passes at the worst moment, and his total number of receptions dropped from 83 to 59.  Tony Scheffler, despite having sixteen more receptions, had only one touchdown after scoring six the year before (and I missed the dances in the endzone).

The Lions shouldn't have fallen to 4-12.  With the exception of Pettigrew, the other tight ends have escaped criticism for their disappearance in 2012.  While Scheffler is back, Will Heller, the third tight end is primarily a blocker and no so much a pass catcher.  Expect both to be challenged this summer in training camp by rookies Justin Fioria and Mike Williams.  I think Scheffler will remain, but Heller's spot is definitely in question.  The Lions need to get younger and healthier.

Bottom line, tight ends will be the difference makers in the receiving game.