big willie style struts his stuff

>> 6.26.2009

Recently, I wrote a speculative column about the role of Bill Ford Jr. in the day-to-day operations of the team.  Given the usual reclusiveness of his father, William Clay Ford, the Lions’ owner, and the recent sweeping changes in both staff and attitude, I theorized that maybe the baton had already passed.  Perhaps, the heir apparent had already ascended to the throne; the king abdicating in favor of the crown prince.

Apparently, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Big Willie Style rolled up on minicamp in dramatic fashion:

rashaun rucker – detroit free press

He proceeded to pimp slap his media bitches, making pronouncement after eyebrow-raising pronouncement, claim after jaw-dropping claim.  Fans who have followed this team obsessively for years, fans who have postulated and speculated as to this man’s behind-the-scenes actions, fans who have presumed and assumed they knew this man’s motivations , were told point-blank that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The many, many quotes he dropped were spread throughout several stories on each of the major newspaper’s sites—but here are a few doozies:

  • I feel so sorry for the fans in Detroit. I mean, I give them full marks for showing up. We didn't perform the way we should've performed or the way we could've. I felt worse for them than I did for myself. I thought it was horrible every time we'd lose. But the guys who stuck through it, I can't tell you how great that makes you feel. And for the ones that walked away, I couldn't blame them. It wasn't much fun to watch. It was pretty boring because you could about guess the outcome.”
  • People were getting fed up. And I don't blame them a bit. We didn't put up much of a show for them. And God knows what's gonna happen this year, more than anyone else does. But I think we'll give an honest day's effort and I think that's all they want. Of course they want us to win, and so do I, more than anything, but I think if they realize we're going down with our guns blazing, I think that'll be a very positive thing to have happen.
  • [did he take fans’ protests personally] “I mean, not that the yelling at the stadium does much for you. You get a couple of drunks and they can say anything. But you pay attention. If there's a noticeable decline in attendance and the comments are not favorable, you pay attention to it. The fans are really the people you want to please here. God, especially now in Detroit, the shape it's in, we gotta try twice as hard to give them their money's worth. The money is tough to come by for all of them, I understand that. But the least we can do is put on a good performance for them. I think we will. I certainly hope we will.”
  • “No, I don't not, contrary to public opinion, interfere with the football side of it. I mean, if so-and-so plays lousy on Sunday, I think he's a bum (laughs). But no, I've never said, "Don't say play this guy or play that guy," uh-uh. These guys know more about the game than I do by 10 miles. So I'm not going to try and second-guess them. If something goes wrong, we'll talk about it.”
  • [on the hirings of Lewand, Mayhew, and—incredibly—Jim Schwartz] "Well, this is going to sound a little egotistical, and maybe it is, but because this was solely my decision. Rather than being influenced by a lot of other thoughts and people who -- I respected their opinions -- but they were not exactly the same as mine, which is fine. But they influenced the decisions that were finally made. If Jim Schwartz doesn't work out, you can blame me 100 percent. I just have confidence in him."

There’s a lot here to take in.  I can’t possibly do a review of everything he’s done for the past thirty years, and marvel at the sharp relief cast by those actions in light of these statements.  It’s easy to say, “well, this is all a bunch of mularkey from the mind of a senile old man with delusions of grandeur who happens to have more money than God and owns my favorite football team.”  However, let’s ignore Blore’s Razor for a moment (Blore’s Razor being the maxim: “when presented with two possible theories, take the one that is funnier”), and work on the premise that absolutely every single word he said is true.

First of all, this is validation for both the “optimists” such as myself—the fans who espouse, you know, rooting for the team you say you root for—and the most virulent pessimists—the kind of worthless jerks who say stuff like “DIE FORD DIE” on message boards, or espouse boycotting the games.  It’s validation for everyone who ever said that the Millen Man March, orange-out, walkouts, etc. don’t matter and won’t work--they didn’t, and they didn’t.  Now, all the protests and chants didn’t fall on deaf ears, per se—they were willfully ignored by a man who pointed to his sold-out stadium and said “the real fans still care”.  It wasn’t until those fans, too started turning their backs on the team that he knew he had a problem—and, in that sense, he was right.  When the hardworking families of Michigan no longer find it worthwhile to spend a couple hundred bucks going to your team . . . you’ve hit the wall.  Ford was asked, did he stick with Millen for too long?

Well, maybe. I think circumstances and timing were important. You don't want to jump ship after two games or one game. When the fans were really getting fed up, it's like, 'OK, it's time to make a move.' I thought about it obviously. The timing just worked out the way it did.” mocked this quote by jesting that instead of jumping ship after one or two games, Ford stuck with Millen for three games . . . and seven seasons, har har.  To me, however, that quote is quite telling.  It means that he was going to keep Millen on until either he turned it around, or the fans found the performance of the team completely unacceptable.  It apparently wasn’t even an option until the fans stopped coming.  The obvious reaction to this is that it “hit him in the pocketbook”—but what does Ford care about money?  The Lions could play to an empty stadium 16 weeks a year for the rest of his life, and he still wouldn’t lack for anything.  I’m going to take the high road here and say that Ford really didn’t think he’d lost the fans until the fans stopped coming.  I mean, they were losing 10+ games per season, raising prices, and still selling out!  That doesn’t happen if fans are really fed up, right?  I mean, from Ford’s box, what changed during that time?  The writers were ripping him?  They’d been doing that for forty years.  There were boos and chants?  Sure, from 50,000 paying customers.  How could he know that throughout the city, state, nation—and yes, judging from my traffic, the world—Lions fans were giving up and tuning out?

To an extent, I am playing Devil’s advocate here; giving Ford the benefit of the doubt.  In a world where Mark Cuban blogs and Tweets, an owner being so austere, aloof, even cloistered, seems antiquated.  Yet, from Mr. Ford’s perspective, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t realize the extent to which his team’s fans had walked away.  And yet . . . given how long it took for the fans to actually stop coming, and given how desperate everyone is to jump back on the bandwagon at the first sign of success--was he really wrong?  How many of us really did walk away in ‘04, or ‘05, or ‘06 . . . Really, for all of the griping, whining, pissing, and moaning that Lions fans did, it took 0-16 for us to actually walk away.  I can’t count how many times I have heard a fan say or read a fan type, “THAT’S IT!  I am DONE with this team!!”, only to have them chat me up about the latest Lions stuff the next day, or log back on to that Lions message board. 

It really does speak to the depth and breadth and passion of this Lions fanbase.  The Jaguars are perennial contenders--and can’t sell out their stadium even if they cover up half the seats!  Yet we kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, no matter how bad it got, for nearly a decade.  We kept buying jerseys and shirts and footballs and concessions.  We held on until the Lions hit absolute rock bottom.  Now, maybe Ford really is a crazy old coot who walks around completely clueless of everything that happens in the world around him—or maybe, just maybe, Big Willie Style had us all in check.


in the june heat, the fire roars

>> 6.24.2009

The Grandmaster, speaking to the media yesterday.  Here’s the quote I’m both thrilled and fascinated by (a response to being asked if the fans are angry):

"It's hard to be angry at me, so I generally don't get that that. I don't know the best way to put it ... they're guardedly optimistic. I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much. and not become as, you know, I don’t know a good way to put it, but not become as  . . . fanatical a fan.  Is that redundant?  “Fanatical a fan”?  But the one thing is, they keep stepping up.  They’re true football fans in this city; they’re excited about it.  Everywhere I go, I get positive, positive feelings from the fans here.”

When I saw this video for the first time, late last night, my eyes grew wide and my mouth slowly went open.  I played it again:

I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much.

I’ve been following sports pretty closely for my entire life.  When I was in kindergarten, I took the sports section of the Free Press to bed with me.  When I was in first grade, I begged my mother to subscribe to Sports Illustrated for me—and she relented.  I’ve been consuming all the sports analysis I could get my hands on since before I had any adult teeth.  I don’t believe I’ve ever read, seen, heard, or heard of a coach or athlete “getting it” like this. 

Usually, professional athletes and coaches have a love/hate relationship with the fans.  They love the cheering and the adoration, but hate the irrationality, lack of understanding, and impatience.  At worst, they have a dismissive attitude—like Mike Golic’s recently-reprised rants against fans and superstition.  But what Jim Schwartz said in that little throwaway interview was absolutely spot on: he understands.  He understands what it’s like to be a fan!  He understands how hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of complete strangers are now looking to him to validate the countless hours and dollars spent weaving the success or failure of the Lions into the fabric of their daily lives.  He understands how we are constantly living and dying with this franchise: scouring the internet for news, watching all the TV and listening to all the radio, piping all the Twitter feeds to our cell phone, going to the forums and rehashing the same arguments over and over and over and over . . .  He knows we’re desperate for all of the suffering to pay off; we’re desperate to see returns on the massive emotional investment we’ve made in this franchise.

I’ve always thought that coaches and players, walking amongst the trees, can’t see the forest that they live in.  To the players, this is their job—a grinding, grueling, annualized slaughterhouse that demands incredible hours, body-breaking effort, mind-numbing amounts of memorization and regurgitation, and—oh yeah--all the politics and frustrations that come with any intensely competitive career field.  Imagine a law firm where promotions are based on the outcomes of inter-practice cage fights, and you’re close.  To coaches, this is a 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-hour-per-week obsession that haunts every waking and sleeping hour of their lives for about 46 weeks a year.  The amount of film study, gameplanning, whiteboarding, meetings, and player film sessions these coaches take on—on top of all the actual exercises, drills, and scrimmages they run—is incomprehensible to most fans.

When a receiver breaks off a route and the pass intended for him gets picked, fifty thousand fans boo the quarterback for throwing “another stupid interception”.  How can that man not recall the small forest that died to print the 800-page playbook he’s got memorized cold, and want to strangle all the yahoos in the stands calling for his backup?  Likewise, I don’t think are any jobs in our society where more brilliant, hardworking, well-qualified, and well-compensated individuals are called “idiots” and “morons” more often than NFL head coaches.  To them, the pissing and moaning of the laborers and lawyers, the griping and sniping of Joe the Plumber and John Q. Public, they couldn’t possibly matter less.

. . . and yet, here, in the sweltering June heat, is Jim Schwartz, head coach of the Lions.  With the bone-chilling cold of this past winter an impossibly distant memory, he's talking earnestly about how hard it is for fans to “expose their soul” to a team, only to get hurt again and again.  Could there be a better fit?  Is there a team that needs a man like him more?  Is there a group of fans more desperate for someone to understand the depth of their devotion, and the depth of their suffering?  Is there a coach more perfectly suited to stoke the blue flames, and melt the ice around Lions' fans hearts?  Has there ever been a coach brilliant and bold enough to rock the Frank Zappa moustache/soul patch combination?

I submit to you that the answer is no.


my name in lights

>> 6.23.2009

Okay folks, I beg your forgiveness for yet another meta post; I swear I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.  Today, a piece I originally for the Blue Blog, the Lions blog, got syndicated as a feature article on the Roar Report, the official Lions site.  Now, the article in question isn’t anything super amazing; in fact it’s largely similar to my Key Performance Indicators post from yesterday.  However, this one was completely re-written from scratch, without the colorful analogies, and in my Very Professional Newspaperman Voice—as opposed to the expansive, jarringly inconsistent, straight-from-my-id Blogger Voice you’ve all grown to put up with.

Still, it’s pretty golly-gosh-darn cool to have a byline to my credit.  I am a “contributor’!  Whoo!  And, all partisanship aside, everyone reading this really ought to make the Blue Blog part of their daily trawl--most of the best stuff from around the Web gets not only linked there, but analyzed and put in greater context as well.  Thanks again, everyone, for your patience with my small-potatoes cap-feathering; there’s a bunch of great minicamp info coming down the pike, and I’ll be sure to have real stuff up tomorrow.


key performance indicators

>> 6.22.2009

In business, the traditional ways of measuring success are with the broad overall goals: sales, revenue, profit-and-loss.  Are sales up or down?  Are costs up or down?  Is the profit margin higher this quarter compared to last?  Compared to the same quarter last year?  These are all different ways of asking the same question--the BIG question: whether the company is making money.  That’s the bottom line, after all; success for a business is defined by making money, and the traditional metrics of success all focus on that.

However, a business is more complicated than that (and forgive, businessmen out there, if I’m serenading you with the business equivalent of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).  A simple evaluation based on whether the company is currently making money doesn’t provide any insight into whether the company is healthy and growing, whether that growth, if it exists, is sustainable, or if the company will still be profitable a year from now.  For that deeper insight, businesses look at more difficult-to-quantify, but possibly more valuable, ‘Key Performance Indicators’.  KPIs might be things like new customer retention, talent retention, customer willingness to recommend, etc.  If the business has had a tough quarter, that might be the result of broader economic trends or factors—but if new customers are increasingly loving the product and telling all their friends, the core business might be in a great position for growth.

Tomorrow, the Lions open a three-day minicamp.  This minicamp will be the first practice with pads, helmets, veterans, rookies, blocking, tackling, lifting, film, and everything else that comes with real, actual football.  This will be the first time that the Lions’ staff will get a chance to really evaluate most of the positions—you can’t evaluate the O-line, tight ends, or anyone on the defense when full-speed blocking and tackling aren’t allowed.  It will also be the first time that the rookies and veterans will practice and compete for jobs together—not rookies versus rookies, or vets versus vets, but the entire roster starting with a level playing field—in a drastic departure from the prior regime, there will be no depth chart until deep into training camp.

We won’t get to see this First Real Football in detail.  There won’t be any TV broadcast we can TiVO and replay.  There won’t be any live streaming play-by-play.  There probably won’t be any live Tweeting, either (since the Twitter-savviest Detroit sports journalist, Greg Eno, has informed me he won’t be there).  And of course, we won't have any of the typical measures of football success to go by--yards, points, wins, or losses.  So, we’ll have to wade knee-deep into the stream of quotes, blurbs, blogs, and articles that will flow through our favored information channels in the nights and days following these practices, and hope to catch some fish of truth*.

I’ve identified a few KPIs that Lions observers should watch with interest:

  • The WRs vs. the DBs:  Calvin “Megatron” Johnson is awesome.  He’s completely sweet.  This is essentially the only known quantity on the Lions’ roster; we know that Megatron can and will match up against the very best the NFL has to offer—and will produce no matter how awful whoever’s throwing him the ball is.  This will allow us to measure what might be this team’s greatest on-paper weakness: the cornerback position.  Buchanon and Henry—and, if Henry slides back to safety . . . *gulp* . . . Eric King—lining up across from Megatron will give us a concrete idea of just how bad things will be for us at corner.  Will he dominate?  Most likely.  But the difference between him dominating, and him being completely unstoppable, could also be the difference between shutting down a Bernard Berrien—or not. 
  • The interior OL vs. the interior DL:  Cliff Avril, in a recent interview on  Sirius NFL Radio, revealed that with DT Grady Jackson working out lightly at home, fourth-round rookie Sammie Hill has been running with the ones.  Hill, a very raw athletic talent, will get invaluable reps against smart, tough veteran center Dominic Raiola, and . . . a couple of other guys.  Raiola, of course, will be giving up somewhere between 20 and 40 pounds to the big youngster, but we’ll get a good sense of exactly how raw Hill is by how much of that size advantage Raiola will be able to neutralize with leverage, footwork, and technique.  Also, we’ll get a sense of which of the many mountain-sized men the Lions have acquired this offseason will be playing on either side of Raiola.  Young veterans Daniel Loper and Stephen Peterman are thought to have the inside track on the left and right guard spots, respectively--but Loper’s 6’-6” frame is probably better suited to tackle, and Peterman has been inconsistent at best throughout his career.  The Lions’ leadership is thought to believe that with the shift from a pass-heavy zone blocking scheme to a traditional, run-first, drive blocking scheme, will emphasize Peterman’s strengths and conceal his weaknesses.  Also, new OL coach George Yarno was Peterman’s OL coach at LSU, so he may be able to draw out the best in the former third-rounder.  Seeing how these two—or others—fare versus the Lions’ iffy, depleted, and very young DT corps will go a long way toward revealing just how much all these OL acquisitions have bolstered the line.
  • The voice of the defense:  Lions fans everywhere jumped for joy when veteran MLB—and Detroit native, and U-M alum—Larry Foote forced his release from the Super-Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers, and signed with the 0-16 Detroit Lions.  It was presumed that he’d be the “thumper” in the middle of the defense that the Lions seemed to have failed to acquire, and was also presumed to be the new veteran leader of the defense.  However, rookie S Louis Delmas took that role upon himself in the rookie-only minicamp, rallying his unitmates, and bantering constantly with QB Matt Stafford.  It will be interesting to see how these two interact with each other, and the rest of the defense.  Will their big-time personalities mesh—like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in Baltimore, and like Foote and Troy Polamalu did in Pittsburgh?  Or, will they clash?  This weekend will be the first indication we’ll get which of the new prized cattle is wearing the bell.
  • The impact of the linebackers: On a team rated a putrid, horrible, awful, wretched, nasty, rotten, worthless 65 overall in Madden 2010, the Lions still have the 5th-highest-rated linebacking corps.  The veteran additions—Foote, and former Spartan Julian Peterson—will join Ernie Sims to form the most athletic and aggressive Lions linebacking corps since the late 80’s /early 90s groups that featured Chris Spielman, Mike Cofer, and others.  Moreover, they’ll have the confining, one-gap, stay-at-home, short-zone leashes attached to them by the Tampa 2 defense taken off, and their jobs will be honed down to two things: running upfield, and killing people.  Ernie Sims, I suspect, will have a dramatic renaissance in this scheme, living up to his impressive potential.  Even though Peterson and Foote have limitations in coverage, their games are both beautifully suited to this new Guntherball scheme as well.  Also, look out for Jordon Dizon; Cunningham seems to like him as well, and he should see a lot of time in the nickel packages.  Since we know that tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus—and new acquisitions like Jon Jansen and Ephraim Salaam—struggle against speed off the edge, hope for the outside linebackers to be very disruptive.  They will not be allowed to actually punish the quarterbacks at this stage of the offseason, but if the news comes back that the linebackers are overwhelming the offensive line, then that is good news indeed.

*”Fish of Truth” is a good name for a band.


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