Sharing Sparks of Lions fandom

>> 1.17.2009

I love coffee.  In the midst of one of the most bitter cold snaps I can remember, with sustained air temps below zero, there is absolutely nothing like a hot cup of joe.  The smell of freshly ground beans, the steam rolling off the cup, the heat radiating into my hands through the porcelain (or, you know, wax coated 100% post-consumer fiber content paper).  This morning, on the way back from ballet class, my daughter and I stopped at my favorite coffee joint to get drinks for both us, and the rest of the crew at home.

Today I'd worn a Lions fleece-- partly to rep the Lions in the wake of the hire, and partly because it's warm and comfy.  One of the baristas there is a Lions fan, and he and I often talk Leos when I come in.  I'm surprised at how often we disagree, but that just makes me more interested to hear his take.  Over the past couple of seasons, I've definitely noticed him wearing less and less gear.  He does a lot more eye-rolling and sighing when the topic of Detroit football is brought up--and he doesn't bring it up much, either.  Today he even chastised me for wearing the fleece!  "Real smart move by the front office, hire another guy with no experience", he said.  Well, I'd hardly call seven years at the right hand of Jeff Fisher 'no experience'--but then, I was predicting playoffs at the beginning of an 0-16 season, so what do I know? 

After taking my order, he said something to the other barista on duty, and that guy said, "Oh hey, you're a Lions fan?  I'm a season-ticket holder!"  Thrilled to find a fan like that around here (south end of Lansing), I began chatting him up . . . only to find he's probably not renewing his seats.  A guy who's been coming to Lions games since he was a little tyke (and Barry Sanders was a rookie), even he might finally have been driven away by this godawful season. 

Well, I gave him this link.  It's not much--just one fan's fight to fan the little blue flame.  Just one guy at a keyboard, fingers cracked and bleeding from the cold, eyes squinted against the blown and drifting snow.  Just one guy striking the keys like flints, hoping that the sparks can catch.   Maybe it's futile.  Maybe it's stupid.  But in the depths of the winter chill, when PFT is saying that they think "'The Los Angeles Lions' has a nice ring to it", I think every little bit of heat counts.

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I'm gonna go make some coffee.


Detroit Lions Hire Jim Schwartz: The Afterglow

>> 1.16.2009

It's bizarre; after all the ridiculousness of the Mayhew/Lewand introduction, the boo birds, the jeers, the wait-and-seers, the media silence, the furtive hunt for scraps of info . . . after all this, we wake up today with a new head coach.  His name is Jim Schwartz, I call him the Grandmaster, and he brings an extensive and nigh-on-bulletproof resume to the table.  He's worked for Bill Belicheck as a scout and film analyst, and he's worked for Jeff Fisher as his right-hand man.  In an industry full of, frankly, glorified gym teachers, Jim Schwartz is a man who could have been a professor, an economist, a politician, or an investor--but instead he followed his passion, and he's built and overseen one of the premier NFL defenses of the past decade.

Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand can be ridiculed for being part of the Millen fiasco.  They can be questioned for having little demonstrable experience.  But--without knowing what the future will hold--they can't be mocked for how they handled this hire.  As they said they would, they kept a tight lock on information--yet wordlessly presented each finalist to the media to see how they handled themselves.   They interviewed many possible candidates, yet never tipped their hand.  It became clear after a while that even tapped-in reporters like Adam Schefter were just guessing as to what their next move would be.  And when the iron was hot, they struck.

It's impossible to say right now how this hire will turn out.  There are many 'fans' who are saying "Great, the Lions hired somebody.  If he was willing to come here, he MUST suck!"  I saw the two-inch-letter headline on the Free Press today: "LIONS ROLL DICE WITH ANOTHER UNTESTED COACH".  But Schwartz is a legit candidate who's interviewed for several other jobs in the past couple of years.  Now if the hire had been Jerry Gray, or, to an extent, Todd Bowles, then we as fans would have a real beef.  I can tell you that if Mayhew had quickly hired a former teammate who'd never been a coordinator, or even given serious consideration as a head coach by any other team, I'd be fuming right now.  For another, if Mayhew had pulled the trigger on the Grandmaster the instant he interviewed, I'd be wondering if we really got the right guy.  The fact that they did a second interview with another candidate--and a first interview with another--after Schwartz's big day on Monday, tells me they didn't just settle for the first guy who didn't show up for the interview drunk or naked.

Now . . . the coordinator watch is on.  This will tell us a lot more about the eventual X-and-O philosophies the Lions will utilize in 2009 then looking at Schwartz's past and extrapolating forward.  PFT is reporting that Broncos QB coach Jeremy Bates (who called the plays for the Broncos last year) is one serious candidate for OC, and Jets OC Brian Schottenheimer is the other.  I know Schottenheimer is a very well-respected young coach; in fact he's a finalist to be hired as the new head coach in New York--but something tells me the Jets won't fire the Mangenius just to then hire his top lieutenant.  Either way, we see offenses that feature one-cut power run games mixed with agressive downfield passing--exactly the kind of combination that suits both our talent, and what we as fans of NFC North football want to see from our team.

There is no word yet on potential defensive coordinators; most of the bright lights of Schwartz's old staff are also candidates to replace him in Tennessee.  Keep an eye on Titans DB coach Chuck Cecil--yes, THAT Chuck Cecil.  He would bring the fire and emotion that I said I'd like to see at DC if Schwartz was hired.  If Schwartz is the mastermind and Cecil is the fiery leader, I think this unit will respond like crazy.

The wait for news is over.  Long live the wait . . .


Detroit Lions Hire Grandmaster Jim Scwhartz

>> 1.15.2009

PFT is reporting that ESPN is reporting that it's Schwartz.  Props to's Tom Kowalski for predicting the hire would be today based on the complete and total radio silence from Allen Park.

Interestingly, Killer also claims that the Lions cut their full process short to bring in Schwartz partly because of Schwartz's ties to Scott Pioli (the newly-hired general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs).  Killer disputes the PFT report that Pioli and Schwartz despise each other, saying that the Lions 'knew better', and wanted to get Schwartz signed before Pioli could lure him away.  If this is true, it speaks volumes about the way this hire has been handled; in my opinion, the Lions played their cards perfectly from the get-go.  Keeping totally silent about their preferences, interviewing many different candidates--regardless of what they thought of previous candidates--even waiting patiently to interview Ron Rivera, two days after Schwartz likely gave the interview that sealed the job.  They had a very well-thought-out process and stuck to it--until they thought they might lose out, at which point they jumped and got their man.

If Killer's characterization of all this is accurate, then I would have to say that Lewand and Mayhew get A+ marks from me.  I think the Grandmaster is an excellent coach, a brilliant hire, and this fills me with optimism for the next couple of years.  What will be absolutely cruicial, however, is the staff Schwartz hires from here on out.  Marinelli's greatest downfall was his inability to hire a competent staff . . . will the Grandmaster's opening establish a more robust pawn structure?

. . . I apologize.  You're going to have to deal with some chess jokes.


Todd Bowles Coaching Resumé: To Whom it May Concern

>> 1.14.2009


Todd Bowles has snuck under the radar for quite some time.  While I've attempted to profile all serious candidates, I found myself finding reasons to put Bowles's piece off.  It's strange, because there ISN'T a good reason to.  He's a position coach with 'assistant head coach' appended to his title, which seems to mostly be a device for to keep other teams from hiring good coaches away.  He's known as an excellent motivator and teacher.  He comes from a great coaching pedigree, one that has spawned many excellent coordinators and skippers.

Oh wait, I know why I've mentally marginalized him: he's got Rod Marinelli's resume.  He seems to be cut from almost exactly the same cloth, a 'star' position coach with a great track record of making players and units he coaches better--but no coordinator experience at the NFL level, and not much at the college level either.  Like first interviewee Jerry Gray, Bowles played with Martin Mayhew in Washington, so it's been tempting to think the Lions interest in Bowles is on a similarly superficial level.

So what was Todd Bowles doing in Allen Park, addressing the media from the Lions' podium?  Yes, just like Jim Schwartz--the only other candidate to be invited back to meet with Big Willie Style--Bowles did a pre-interview presser to introduce himself to the media, as well as lift up a corner on the sheet covering his plan for turning the Lions around.  Bowles spoke energetically, explaining why he'd have it all under control:

"I've done this before. I know the blueprint of turning a team around," Bowles said. "The blueprint we have is to change the culture. The first thing you have to do is condition. You have to condition the players mentally. They have to buy into the system.

It's astounding; he really does seem to be channeling Marinelli with this quote.  It would be hilarious--if he hadn't just done it on the field.  He is a vital part of the Tuna-picked staff that came over from the Cowboys, and turned the Miami Dolphins from a team that needed an overtime miracle to avoid pulling an 0-fer themselves, to an 11-5 squad that wrested the AFC East crown from the preseason darling Patriots, Jets, and Bills.  Lions fans have already marveled at how perennial disappointment Andre Goodman has metamorphosized into a solid starting cornerback--well Bowles presumably played a big part in that.  In fact, the Fins started Goodman and Will Allen at corner this year--two players that were written off and released by the teams that drafted them.  Goodman and Allen each got every opportunity to start in Detroit and New York, both were high draft picks at positions of need, yet both were sent packing after their original team just couldn't get starter production out of them.  Under Bowles, however the secondary was decent even with those two guys starting.  The obligatory rundown:

* The Dolphins were the NFL's 9th-ranked scoring defense, and 15th-ranked yardage defense.

* The Dolphins picked off opposing quarterbacks 18 times, 8th best in the NFL.

* Despite losing Jason Taylor, the Fins still managed 40 sacks, also 8th best in the NFL.

* QBs facing the Dolphins posted a passer efficiency rating of just 77.0--to put this into perspective, opposing QBs facing the Fins played like Jamarcus Russell this year (77.1), whereas QBs facing the Lions played like Steve Young in his prime (average of 110.9).

* Despite that, the Fins were ranked only 25th in passing yardage defense, allowing 3,644 yards through the air.  I was curious how opposing QBs could be rated so poorly, and yet move the ball well against the defense.  Part of the answer is that the Fins were susceptible to the deep pass, allowing 49 20+ yard pass plays--tied for fifth worst in the NFL. 

It sounds like the Fins' DBs managed to hold down the fort very well from within 20 yards, forcing bad throws, picking them off, getting coverage sacks, and defending passes.  However, I don't know if it's corners getting beat or bad safety play, but the Dolphins secondary DID give up a lot of big plays.

To be perfectly frank, there's not a lot of information on Bowles.  He's obviously well respected around the League: he also interviewed for the Broncos gig.  He has the Parcells stamp of approval--witness this quote from his presser:

“From the time I got to the Jets, he told me I’d be a head coach in this league, and he taught me accordingly. I mean, he kept me by his side. He taught me step-by-step the structure of how to put a team in place and keep a team in place and not be a one-hit wonder. … Parcells has taught me more about, from the first guy on the roster to the last guy on the roster, how he fits in the system, why he fits in the system, why we want him on this team, why we do not want him on this team, and he taught me how to learn players.”

Taught him how to learn players, he did.  Like Candidate 1A and the Grandmaster, Bowles spent a year as a scout before getting into coaching.  In his case, he worked under Ron Wolf and the Packers for the '95-'96 season.  Out of curiosity, I looked up how the Pack drafted in 1996.  In the first round, they selected OT John Michels--he made the all All-Rookie team, but his career was devastated by injury.  Mike Flanagan, the stalwart center, came in the third, and they picked up Marco Rivera, the future-HoF guard, in the sixth.  If the Lions could duplicate that kind of success for this draft, a worst-to-first turnaround wouldn't be so farfetched.

“My philosophy on offense is to first run the ball, especially in the NFC North, when it gets cold in the wintertime. Although two of you have domes, you have to run the ball because that keeps the defense off the field, that gets time of possession correct, that makes us wear the other team down, and that wins ballgames. Passing game looks nice. Calvin’s a great receiver. You have to get him the ball. You have to have a great complementary passing game, but at the same time, you must be able to run the ball in this league to get by.”

This philosophy is exactly the kind of team that Lions fans would love to root for: punish them with a grinder like Kevin Smith, then kill them with Calvin Johnson over the top.  And what about the defense?

“Defensively, I come from a 3-4 scheme. I’ve been in a 4-3 scheme. You want to have the personnel to kind of fit what you do. If you don’t, you can have a hybrid version of a 4-3 until you can get a 3-4 scheme in place. … If Ernie (Sims) or (Cliff) Avril or those guys don’t fit a 3-4, we’ll play a 4-3. . . . I would be working towards [a 3-4] as long as I have the personnel. … Without having the defense in place here, you have to see what the personnel looks like on the other side of the ball, and you have to draft and do free agency accordingly.”

I've said before that the transition to the 3-4 is going to take a pretty huge roster overhaul.  We have the bodies for the 3-4 defensive ends, and a perfect 3-4 pass-rushing OLB in Cliff Avril.  However, the other linebackers are all all about 25 to 30 pounds too light to play in the 3-4, and we lack the centerpiece of the 3-4, the lynchpin, the key at the point of attack: the nose tackle.  A 3-4 NEEDS a physically dominating two-gap nose tackle--and not only are they really hard to come by in general, there's only one to be had in this draft: Boston College's B.J. Raji.  He might be available with the 20th pick . . . but even with him, you are looking at a two- or three-year reclamation project before this defense is even 'good', let alone 'great'.  Would Bowles have that long?

It all remains to be seen.  Bowles has been brushed under the rug by those talking Lions football, but as of right now he is one of two candidates to have met with Big Willie Style himself, and as of right now there are no others scheduled.  There are a lot of positive indicators around Bowles, but I'm not convinced that he's ready, or that now is the right time.  If Bowles is the hire, I will definitely be biting my nails until I see his Lions take the field in September.


Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers, 1993 Playoffs

>> 1.13.2009

Last night, I was flipping through my channel guide, and I saw on ESPN2: "NFL's Greatest Games: 1993 Divisional Playoff, Green Bay at Detroit".  I gasped and switched channels immediately.

Of course, I remembered this game.  Despite being only twelve years old at the time, I didn't forget.  I didn't forget the wierd twist of fate, where the Lions had to beat the Packers at home in Week 17 to make the playoffs at all--but then victory made them division champs, and so somehow they had the right to host the Packers in the playoffs a week later.  I didn't forget how Barry played a great game in the playoffs (which he "never did", according to his detractors); indeed, he had167 yards on 27 carries.  I didn't forget the gutsy quarterback play by Brett Favre and Erik Kramer, both overcoming pick-sixes to rally their team late.

What I forgot was William White, the silent leader of the defense.  What I forgot was just how good Sterling Sharpe was.  What I forgot was those little silver football patches on the uniforms that read "JRT".  What I forgot was how infurating it was to watch Barry cheering from the bench while Derrick Moore punched it in from one yard out--how many scores were stricken from Barry's totals like that?  What I forgot was that Brett Favre has always been a double-edged sword, and that we used to appreciate his incredible effort, and the great things he did, more than we hounded him for the mistakes he made while giving that effort.

What I never knew was Marc Spindler's grit and smarts (and mullet!) overcoming his lack of size.  What I never knew was how solid the upfront protection was, especially when compared to today's sadsack bunch.  What I thought I knew, but didn't really realize?  Just how important to the offense Brett Perriman was: being able to bail out the team on third and long was absoluely critical to keeping the ball in Barry's hands, and the wolves away from the door.  What I didn't know--but thrills me--is that Brett Favre is Chris Spielman's favorite football player of all time (and Chris Spielman is a student of the game for reals).

There's something magical about watching these Lions: the Big Buck himself roaming the sidelines--and looking young and vibrant!  A Lions defense that could collapse the pocket, flush the QB, and NOT be burned for thirty yards!  An exuberant Silverdome crowd . . . every time they cut to a kid in Lions gear, holding up a "We're #1" finger, I stopped in my tracks.  When was the last time you saw that on TV?  A little kid in the stands, swathed in Honolulu Blue, boasting of his Detroit Lions.  Sometimes, it's hard to remember that was ever me.

Barry, of course.  ESPN did a lot of editing on this film: zooming in, spot shadowing, slowing down, etc.; I don't know if they slowed down Barry's runs or what, but Barry looked slower than I remembered.  The thing is, he was even more elusive.  MUCH more elusive.  I forgot how much of Barry's effectiveness was based on his sheer ability to not be tackled.  More than once, I saw Packer defenders pull up and stand still because they figured that two teammates wrapped around Barry would bring him down . . . and it wasn't the case.  Barry had a way of shimmying his shoulders, twisting his hips, or .  . . or, I don't know, looking at defenders that would make them freeze, miss, whiff, grab air, even grab Barry but he would turn to smoke in their hands.

I am not sure what has made winning that elusive for the Lions.  My wife, who was raised a Spartan fan but didn't pay attention to the Lions (or the NFL at all) until we'd been dating for several years, has never known anything but these Millen-era Lions.  Sometimes I tell stories of 1991, of the Thumbs Up! motto, of the Lions winning seven straight games to squeak into the playoffs, of a decade of the Lions being almost awesome but never quite, and I get the feeling that she doesn't believe me.   My children are growing up fast.  My four-year-old daughter appreciates my love of the Lions, but for some reason she just thinks the Bucaneers are so cool.  I can bury them under a mound of silver and blue Lions gear all I want--but I worry that until this team can WIN GAMES, I won't be able to share my love of this franchise with them.  Who could blame them?  Even my own memories are starting to betray me.  I've clung so tightly to the 'good old days' of 9-7 (and they were so long ago!) that they're starting to fade, turning to smoke in my hands.

Last night I drunk deeply of the old spirit.  The stupid old Silverdome turf, riding on a cushion of air and sporting two sets of hash marks.  Brett Perriman snagging a TD pass one-handed when he could have gotten both paws on it.  Erik Kramer and Barry Sanders leading the team down the field for an almost-but-not-quite good enough lead.  The Lions defense pulling up when Brett Favre rolled left, and Sterling Sharpe all alone in the end zone 40 yards downfield.  At this point, I'd love to feel the pain of an excruciating home playoff loss, just to feel anything at all.


Jim Schwartz Meets With Detroit Lions Media: Rumors and Lies

>> 1.12.2009

  • Last night, the interwebs fairly well exploded with reports that Titans DC Jim Schwartz (codename: 'Grandmaster') was flying in to Detroit to interview—and Pro Football Talk's sources claimed (click the 'exploded') that the Titans were convinced Schwartz's flight to the 'D' was on a one-way ticket.  In the red-eyed dawn of another frozen Monday, though, things still look to be fairly unsettled.  Many outlets are reporting that Leslie Frazier and Miami DB coach/assistant HC Todd Bowles (to whom it may concern piece still coming) are still due to be brought in for second interviews.
  • Interestingly enough, the Grandmaster was allowed to hold a presser for the Detroit media today.  Given the total radio silence from Lions officials since the Lions' officials officially became Lions officials, letting a candidate get up on the dais and address the media--albeit briefly--seems incongrous.  I'm reminded of the presser Rod Marinelli held to announce that the Lions had not yet hired Mike Martz to be the new offensive coordinator, and spent the entire time trying to remind himself to throw in an "IF we hire him" when responding to questions.  Sayeth Schwartz: "I think it's time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne".
  •'s Adam Schefter has since reported that the Lions also contacted Chargers DC Ron Rivera again--as a reminder, last week Rivera rebuffed the Lions (and any other team that came calling) so he could focus 100% on preparing his defense to get pistol whipped by Big Ben and the Steelers.  I haven't heard anything on an interview being scheduled, merely the Lions brass courteously following up.
  • According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Candidate 1A is now far behind Ravens DC Rex Ryan for the Jets' head coaching position.  He was at least superficially courted by everyone with an opening, but the Jets seemed to be the franchise with the most serious interest--and the most mutual interest.
  • One fewer musical chair: while Leslie Frazier had been heavily rumored to be in the final two for the Broncos gig, today the Broncos hired Patriots OC Josh McDaniels.  Mangini, McDaniels--all the offensive guys with "M" names are getting snapped up by other teams; that is fine with me.  If the Ravens do hire Rex Ryan, that leaves the Rams, the Raiders (who haven't yet lined up all the high school coaches they want to interview), and us as the final teams looking for a skipper.  This means that even if Mayhew and Lewand take their time, we'll probably still have our pick of Candidate 1A, The Grandmaster, Frazier, and Bowles--probably the top four candidates on the Lions' board.  Not too shabby for the worst team ever--just hope the Rams hire Mike Mularkey.

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