Rob Davies's Winning TLiW Writing Contest Entry

>> 4.02.2010

Here is the winning entry of the AXE Hair/The Lions in Winter writing contest, penned by Rob Davies of Niles, MI.

There I was, in the body of a Lions fan at 18,000 feet. Oil covered my windscreen -- my lifeless Merlin engine on fire. My canopy could not be budged - I was locked inside an aerial coffin. I watched, transfixed, as my altitude evaporated like rubbing alcohol in the noon-day sun. Paralyzed by fear and anxiety, suffocating under the weight of knowing I would be obliterated in a matter of moments when my stricken Spitfire met the hard, dusty surface of the Libyan desert below. The trim, sand-colored little Messerschmitt, my destroyer, spiraled away to celebrate his kill. A life snuffed out in a flash. A momentary blip on a radar screen only the gods will ever see. Oh, the humanity!

Okay, okay, I made that up. A statistics professor from my college days once insisted that cheesy dramatics and over-done visual imagery is the only way to begin a "Lionsinwinter writing contest," and his words carried a lot of weight while I struggled to maintain a B average. Here's the real story:

My moment of pronounced Detroit Lions pride, rare though it may have been, came and went without notice in the clatter of an America West Airlines gate in Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport. Held hostage by circumstance on my way home to Portland from a business trip to Dallas, we sat out the delay of our plane's arrival from Houston, victims of torrential rain and flooding in Texas that had conspired to hold all departing flights by two hours.

Trying to get comfortable with my keester planted on those wretched, plasticine gate chairs, I was busy pretending to read a newspaper (Arizona State University's women's softball team had arrived, and a compelling distraction they were). After a while, the noisy, animated coeds finally boarded their flight at the neighboring gate, and a relative quietude was restored to our little corner of Sky Harbor. I went back to my paper, disgusted with an insolent sports hack's human interest story about NHL enforcers, in which Joe Kocur was merely a footnote. Joe Kocur! Without warning, a fleet of high-tech consultants arrived, with metrology gear, carry-ons and laptops in tow. I know they were high-tech consultants because garish embroidery on the fashionably black Cutter & Buck corporate polos they all wore told me so.

There must've been fifteen of them, mostly in their 40s and 50s (the Ajax Consulting Firm's hand-picked shock troops, one presumes, dispatched to troubleshoot and look cool in front of a customer), and they took up defensive positions in the row of seats farthest from the windows, facing me, with backs to the concourse. They were obviously a Los Angeles-based crew, judging from the snivelry and outrage over some bad deal made by the Dodgers that didn't pan out, plus a snotty comment or three about the general rudeness of Giants fans up in San Francisco.

As they settled in, two of the brethren continued what had evidently been an on-going dispute over football greatness. One of the boys (we'll call him Dirk) argued in favor of the "obvious" superiority of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the other (we'll call him Lance) denounced the idea as heresy, saying instead there was 'only one true NFL pantheon,' the Dallas Cowboys.

As neither of them sported the requisite accent, it was clear the Steelers and Cowboys were acquired tastes, rather than born-and-raised, state or city-centric allegiances like mine. Dirk had no aggravating Western Pennsylvania dialect, wherein "L" sounds are mysteriously replaced with "W" sounds (listen to Jim Kelly or Myron Cope for ten seconds, and you'll know what I mean).

Lance, a seemingly arrogant and self-centered pretty boy, was void of anything like a "Metroplex" drawl, filled with "pert nears" and "dangs" and "Aw shoot -- ah ripped mah britches agin!" In my ear, his words had an arguably Toronto-esque quality. No, Dirk and Lance adopted their teams, having sprung from a much different part of the Earth, and one in which NFL teams are probably absent.

They cited examples to support their competing positions. Dirk led off with Franco Harris' miracle catch, Lynn Swann's flying leap, Mean Joe Greene's...well, meanness. The Terrible Towel. The Steel Curtain D. Jack friggin' Lambert! Dirk was in a state of gridiron rapture. But Lance countered with his own list. Staubach and Garrison. Landry's tiny fedora against the backdrop of a full-up Texas Stadium and cheerleaders who set the standard. Too-Tall Jones. Emmitt and Irvin and Aikman, oh my. Tony friggin' Dorsett!

It was abundently clear that the fervent commentary was not aimed as much at football greatness as it was an implied superiority (by association, of course) each claimed for having had lots and lots of 'wisdom' in choosing their respective NFL teams to root for. This wasn't 'my team is better than yours,' it was 'I'm better than you.' It didn't take long for this truth to emerge fully, as the inevitable ad-hominem attacks took the argument to a higher level. Dirk thought Lance was a moron, and Lance regarded Dirk as a witless Philistine.

Suddenly, as I grinned behind the pages of my newspaper, a voice from above, booming and sopping with authority, said, "I can't believe I'm hearing this -- you're idiots, and you make me sick!"

Laughter followed, and the contingent joined in to ridicule Dirk and Lance as the voice, belonging to a rather portly and senior member of the group (we'll call him Walter), smiled and shook his head the way parents do when a fireplace warning to children, unheeded, results in burned fingers and lessons learned.

Dirk and Lance, stopped dead in their tracks, presented a face of bewilderment and astonished embarrassment that makes me long for cameras in my eyes, just so I could show you now. "Every time you start yapping about the Steelers and the Cowboys," (emphasis added to show Walter's sarcasm in action) you just sound stupid!" Before Lance and Dirk could mount anything resembling a defense, Walter was on them like a cheetah on a blind Thompson's gazelle with a broken leg.

"So what, you're so smart and 'somebody,' just because you piggy-backed in on teams who were winning? That's what half of the world's Yankees fans do!" Blank stares from Dirk and Lance. "I'm supposed to be impressed? How come you didn't start rooting for Tampa Bay or the Cleveland Browns? You're not from Pittsburgh, (Dirk)! You've never been there a day in your life! And you're (Lance) not even American, for ****'s sake -- you're a damned Canuck!" (more laughs from the other boys on the team, as my suspicion of Lance's Ontario heritage was confirmed).

Dirk and Lance, in full retreat, offered up the lame argument that they chose their teams out of conviction, instead of having them handed over as a matter of course and an accident of birth. Walter wasn't buying it.

"You're not football fans, you're just a couple of hangers-on who try to look cool," Walter continued. "Neither of you clowns (I love it when salty old hands call young, stupid guys 'clowns') have any idea how it feels to be a real fan! You picked those teams because they were going to the Superbowl when you were a couple of brats in school, that's all. You picked them for all the wrong reasons. If Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett played for the Oilers, or Bradshaw and Harris played for Miami, you'd hate the Cowboys and Dolphins."

I noticed how quiet it had become -- this was getting good.

Walter went on. "You want to see a real fan? Go find a Green Bay Packer fan. They jam that place in a blizzard, and they do it every year whether Green Bay is winning or not. Better yet, go find a Detroit Lions fan! They ain't never been to a Superbowl (love those folksy double-negatives, too), and they probably never will. They haven't won a damn thing since the Fifties, but they're always hardcore for their Lions. I went there back in the 'eighties with my wife's family and watched them kick the hell out of the STEELERS on Thanksgiving, and you would've thought it was the Superbowl from the size of that crowd - you couldn't hear yourself think inside that place. That's what real fans look like."

At this point, I had emerged from behind my paper, fully engrossed in this splendid tirade -- my silver and blue heart swelling with pride.

"Those fans are loyal, and they stick with their team no matter what. Both of you clowns just went out and rented one. Don't tell me about football teams and football fans -- you don't know what you're talking about."

With that, Dirk and Lance gave in to harsh reality and did themselves a favor by clamming up. The other boys returned to their tech talk, Walter returned to a bag of neglected pretzels, and I went back to my paper.

I have recounted this event to other Lions fans, and the odd occasional infidel from places like Chicago and Minneapolis. Each time, after enduring the ridicule that comes with winless seasons and a decade of misery under the blind, thoughtless leadership of Penn State's favorite linebacker, I imagine (wistfully) what it must've been like for long-suffering Saints fans this year, or Red Sox fans when they broke their curse. Then I remember why I suffer the Lions.

I'm from Michigan. I'm proud of that. I was born a Lions fan, and it's part of my identity. I have the right to grouse and complain when they hire idiots who preached "good pad-level," and the benefits of the "Tampa-2." I have the authority to delight or despair when a draft pick is called out by the Commish. I like Honolulu blue, thank you very much. Most of all, I will be unassailable in my joy when the Lions stun the football world in a future Superbowl, even if I have to do it from beyond the grave. I will be clean when I exorcise my life-long demons and celebrate that day. I am a Lions fan 'til the end. I was proud that day, and I make no apologies for it.


AXE Hair/TLiW Writing Contest Winner!

I was pleased to get some really cool entries for this contest. Some of them were from folks I've seen commenting, some were from people who've never de-lurked. Some were serious, some were funny, some were touching, most had me nodding my head and smiling.
I had three strong entries, and I was loathe to choose between them. I've decided that the two runners-up will still get their entries enshrined here on TLIW. But, to the victor go the spoils--and that winner is . . .

Rob Davies of Niles, Michigan!

Rob's entry is not really a "The Lions in Winter" post in my own style; it's more like a cross between William Gibson and Neil from Armchair Linebacker. But when this thing hit my inbox, it grabbed me by the lapels (um, of my T-shirt) and refused to let go until I gave it a Flip DV camera. I had no choice but to capitulate.
First runner-up, with a tale of the win that broke the streak, was commenter LionsFanRoc! With a strong intro, and a twist at the end that had me literally laughing out loud, the greater Lions world deserves to read this.
Second runner-up, also with a tale of the win that broke the streak, Weston Corbitt of Coloma, Michigan! You might know Weston from his sports blog, Season Tickets with Weston Corbitt. I loved the closing, it reminded me so much of my own experience of that day.
I'm going to stagger the publishing of these three, in order, over the next three Fridays. Tomorrow morning, Rob's goes up. Congrats again to the three winners, and thanks to everyone for their submissions!


AXE Hair/TLiW Writing Contest Reminder

>> 4.01.2010

Just a friendly reminder: you have slightly less than 24 hours from the time of this post to submit your entry in the AXE Hair/The Lions in Winter Writing Contest. The winner will receive a Flip digital video camera, an AXE Hair grooming kit bag, and their entry permanently enshrined as a post on this here blog.

I've gotten some really cool submissions so far; I can't wait to read yours!


Lions to Trade for Seahawks LG Rob Sims?

>> 3.31.2010’s Jason LaCanfora is reporting that the Lions may trade for Seattle LG Rob Sims.  Sims, who’s tendered at the fourth-round level, could presumably had for that much, or even less, in a trade.  According to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Bears have offered now-surplus DE Alex Brown, but the Seahawks weren’t interested in taking on Brown’s salary.

Of course, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Why are they letting him go so cheaply?  Sims is a 6’-3”, 312-pound, 26-year-old three-year starter, just four years removed from being drafted in the fourth round.  A torn pectoral muscle did end Sims’ 2007 season, but it obviously hasn’t affected his performance; his 2009 season was graded out as one of the ten best in the NFL by

Sean Jensen gives us a clue:

According to one source, Sims is deemed expendable because new offensive line coach Alex Gibbs is more inclined to work with players with whom he's more familiar.

Ahhhh, that old chestnut again: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  In the NFL, everything is insanely competitive, every edge honed down to the finest degree. From college scouting, to college all-star games, to the Combine, to the draft, teams relentlessly sift through mountains of game film and scouting reports trying to find just a few nuggets of gold.  That’s just the beginning, though, as teams also scout their own players, and every other team’s players, as well.

Any advantage one team can get over another, so matter how small, is precious.  Any trade they can consummate, any free agent signing they can make, any waiver priority they can leverage, any possible upgrade in talent must be ceaselessly pursued.  We saw it when the Lions and Steelers stared each other down over Larry Foote: the Steelers were asking for more than the seventh-round pick the Lions had offered, and the Lions refused to play ball.  Why?  Because renting a veteran starter at a position of need wasn’t worth sacrificing a chance at drafting an Aaron Brown or a Sammie Hill.

The only exception to this dog-eat-dog environment, where teams fight and scrap over every ounce of perceived value, comes when a team changes schemes—at which point, excellent young veterans are put to the curb with a “$5” sign propped up against them.

Whether the Lions may get him for less than the advertised fourth-round price, or simply sign him to an offer sheet the Seahawks won’t match, Sims would immediately step in as a all-too-rare foundational player, a young veteran just entering his prime.  He’d bring the stability to the left guard position that hasn’t been there since . . . well, since I can remember.  Does Dave Lutz count?

Technorati Tags: detroit lions,nfl,seattle seahawks,nfl free agency,rob sims


Suh at Number Two! But, Why Not ________?

>> 3.30.2010

Yesterday, I argued that Lions should take Ndamukong Suh with the #2 overall pick.  The reasons the Lions should take Suh are numerous: he’s a remarkable, once-every-five-drafts talent at the Lions’ greatest position of need, he’s by all accounts a great person, he’ll make everyone around him better, and he could be the catalyst that transforms the Lions’ defense from “terrible but trying hard” to “hardnosed and effective”.
Suh’s physical presence will command double teams, make Sammie Hill’s job easier, allow Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch to beat tackles man-to-man, and make Gunther’s beloved B-gap blitzes much more effective.  Rotating with Hill, Corey Williams, and Landon Cohen, the Lions should be able to keep all four fresh, and present a variety of effective defensive fronts.

All Images: Icon SMI

* But, why not Russell Okung?

There’s been a clamoring, again, for the Lions to take the best available left tackle—this time, it’s Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung.  Like Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Joe Thomas, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Alex Barron, and Bryant McKinnie before him, he’s currently getting all the Lions fan love as Any Left Tackle Who Is Not Jeff Backus.
I've said it like sixty-two times, and I’ll say it yet again because it's apt. Russell Okung is everything that Jeff Backus is not: a massively-sized, incredibly agile athlete with the potential to be an elite pass protector.  However, he’s nothing that Jeff Backus is: a tough-as-nails competitor, a savvy veteran, polished in his use of positioning and technique, or an effective run-blocker.

"Yeah," thinks the Lions fan, "but all that stuff is boring and not awesome.  Having a guy who looks, runs and jumps like Shaq at left tackle is awesome!”  Unfortunately for all of the Okung fans, the Lions don’t want to run four-wideout sets fifty snaps a game—they want to run a balanced, traditional offense that can run and pass equally well.  Okung solves a problem, Jeff Backus’ pass protection, that is far from the Lions’ biggest—and he introduces a whole set of weaknesses Jeff Backus doesn’t possess.

Look at this this way: when the Lions were looking at drafting Matthew Stafford, everyone was ranting, raving, crying, and wailing about how the Lions would be making a huge mistake: Stafford was just a big arm and a head of endorsement-worthy hair!  He played too much from the shotgun, didn’t have great TD-to-INT ratios, didn’t “win the big one” like he was supposed to, and he played with first- and second-round talents at RB and WR . . . the objections went on and on and on, with the same underlying theme: he’s a flashy talent who might not excel in the NFL.

Yet somehow, when it comes to left tackles, all Lions fans want is the biggest, flashiest talent in the room.  Shredded upper body, huge vertical leap, blazing 40 time, OMG THE LIONS MUST DRAFT HIM!  Nobody cares if he played almost exclusively in a two-point stance, as Okung did.  Nobody cares if he can run block at all, as Okung rarely had to.  Nobody cares about his technique base, his game film, his consistency, or his work ethic—if he looks like Hercules in an Under Armour singlet, give him forty million dollars!

Unfortunately, all that flashy talent will not translate into "protecting Matthew Stafford", at least not right away.  A guy who’s almost never come out of a three-point stance is going to get beat like a drum as a rookie starter.  He’ll need some time, some coaching, and some seasoning before the Lions will be able to trust him with Matthew Stafford’s health.

Unfortunately, Okung is so trim, agile, and athletic that he wouldn’t be well-suited for playing guard or right tackle—the natural way to season a rookie LT.  Drafting Okung would mean hoping that either Backus or 2008 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus can slide inside and play well, which may or may not be.  Finally, the Lions would then be paying on Backus’ monster 2006 extension, Cherilus’ 2008 first-round contract, and Okung’s sure-to-be-massive #2 overall deal—and at least one of them will be playing out of position.

Look at the transition Jason Smith had to make in 2009: Smith, an athletic two-point LT like Okung, played mostly RT for the Rams in his concussion-shortened rookie season. graded Smith out as a mediocre-to-decent RT in what time he saw. Impressive for a rookie, yes—but if the Lions got 7 games’ worth of “mediocre rotational RT” out of Rusell Okung in 2010, fans would be despondent!

That all having been said, if the Lions truly believe that Okung, or Trent Williams, is a clear-cut, no-doubt, franchise left tackle, and they also truly believe that either Backus or Cherilus can play guard at a high level, or that both of them will be gone in two years, then they have a very difficult choice to make . . . but they should still take SUH AT NUMBER TWO.

* But, why not Gerald McCoy?

McCoy, like Suh, is an explosive, pass-rushing defensive tackle.  He looks a little faster and more agile than Suh, shows much better leg drive off the snap, and many Mouse-and-Keyboard Scouts say McCoy is a more polished, NFL-ready prospect.  Unfortunately, McCoy simply doesn’t fit what the Lions want to do on defense.

You all remember Cory Redding?  McCoy is what the Lions thought they were getting when they made Redding the highest-paid DT in football.  While the 8-sack season Redding had certainly made an impact, Redding was playing in the attacking, one-gap Tampa 2 system, where stopping the run is the linebackers’ job.  In Schwartz’s system, the DTs have to stop the run—and at 295 pounds, McCoy won’t be able to hold the line.

In fact, McCoy would probably play outside on running downs, filling the Kevin-Carter/rumored-Anthony-Hargrove inside-outside role.  I can’t see spending a #2 overall pick on a rotational ‘tweener like that; I’d rather see the Lions draft Okung, or trade back for Haden/Spiller/Morgan, and then pull the trigger on Hargrove, surrendering the third-round pick.

It's true that McCoy *looks* like a more explosive player.  I watched a little bit of Suh, and agreed with the Keyboard-and-Mouse Scouts: he seemed to play slow and high, standing up off the snap instead of bursting forward.  He’d then use his upper-body strength to throw guards around, shedding blocks after the play develops to make tackles.  That won’t translate well to the NFL; even the Lions’ iffy left guards each go 6’-4”+ and 330+.

However, Suh played a lot of read-and-react at Nebraska.  Often, he wasn’t bursting off the line because his role in the defense was to stand and wait.  Schwartz compared Suh and McCoy's differences, and thinks they're partly due to their college defensive schemes, and not their talents.  Talent, scheme, or otherwise, though, there’s no denying the difference in production: Suh, in his senior season, had 82 tackles and 12 sacks.  McCoy, in his junior and senior year combined, had 58 tackles and 12 sacks.

The Lions have been slowly shedding all of these 290-to-300-pound Tampa 2 pass-rushing ‘tweeners since Schwartz took over; I can’t imagine they blow the #2 pick on a really good one, especially if Suh is available.  And, since either Suh will be available, or teams will be calling about Sam Bradford, they won’t.  Tampa Bay will be loitering at #3, waiting for either DT, so essentially, there’s no scenario where McCoy will be a Lion.  SUH AT NUMBER TWO.

* But, why not Eric Berry?

Because that would be super dumb.

I mean, like, duh.


Technorati Tags: nfl,nfl draft,ndamukong suh,russell okung,gerald mccoy,eric berry,detroit lions


2010 NFL Draft: Suh At Number Two

>> 3.29.2010

Icon SMI

The NFL Draft is something I’ve always paid a lot of attention to.  Back before it became prime-time entertainment event, the NFL Draft was a weekend’s worth of football geek Nirvana.  Throughout my formative football geek years, I’d spend the weekend glued to the TV, with notebook, newspaper, Sports Illustrated Draft Preview issue, and pencils at hand. 

As the NFL has exploded in popularity, and as more teams have used the draft to bounce from the cellar to the penthouse—like the 2009 Falcons—interest in the Annual Player Selection Meeting has grown exponentially.  Speculation and anticipation start building well before the NFL and NCAA regular seasons end, reach fever pitch during bowl season, and somehow keep climbing all the way up until late April.

I've fended off a lot of emails and Tweets over the past few months, declining to engage in the banter.  Why?  I don’t feel like it’s productive.  Until the Combine is complete—and, to an extent, Pro Days are complete—it’s nearly impossible to place these guys in the very narrow value slot ranges they’ll occupy.  “Top Three”, “Top Ten”, and “Mid-First-Round” are three very different value classes; the all-star games, Combine, Pro Days, and shifting team needs can swing one player through all of them between December and April. 

Now, though, we have a pretty firm grip on who the Lions will have a crack at with that #2 overall pick, presuming they stay there.  People have asked me who “my guy” is, and I’m proud to say I have an answer, if an obvious one:

Ndamukong Suh.

There has been some talk about Oklahoma LT Russell Okung, or another, anonymous, left tackle—possibly Oklahoma LT Trent Williams.  There were questions about whether the Lions would prefer Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy, and even insinuations they’re looking at Clemson RB C.J. Spiller.  But at the Combine, Suh proved himself exactly the man the Lions need to rebuild their defense.

Earlier on in this process, I wondered if Suh could play defensive end in the Lions’ system, shifting inside on passing downs, much as Kevin Carter did for Schwartz in Tennessee.  Now that Suh dominated the combine drills at a lean 307 pounds, I don’t see that as his role.  I consider Suh every bit the stud DT the Lions need to shore up their run defense, disrupt the pass, and—finally!—be able to force opposing offenses to adjust to the Lions’ defense.

That's the real value of Suh: more than just his sky-high ceiling, or likely production once he develops his technique, he’ll make every other player on the Lions’ defensive line more effective.  You can bet that with Suh drawing double teams, Sammie Hill is going to be much harder to move around—and the Lions’ outside rushers should see a lot more one-on-one blocking as well.

Think about what the Lions love to do with their outside ‘backers on a blitz: Sims slicing in between Suh and Avril, Peterson coming up between Hill and Vanden Bosch, Levy and Foote both blitzing the B gap that Suh has blown open . . . the possibilities are intoxicating.

Theoretically, St. Louis could take Suh, but I find that a colossally unlikely proposition.  Not only have the Rams burned first-round picks on 290-to-300-plus-pound defensive linemen in two of the last three years, but their quarterback situation is beyond alarming.  With Sam Bradford killing it at his Pro Day, and Matthew Stafford’s jawdropping contract just the starting point for what St. Louis will have to pay the #1 overall pick, it makes zero sense to pass on a franchise quarterback and take Ndamukong Suh.

I get the sense that if the Lions had their druthers, they’d move back a few slots and take one of the other top ten draft prospects that fit a need—and sign him to a much smaller contract.  But in terms of the impact he’d have, and the quality of person that he is, I absolutely believe the right decision is to stand pat, and take Suh at #2:

I feel as though I should get those T-shirts made.  Apologies to Michael Conroy and the AP for desecrating this photo.

Technorati Tags: nfl,nfl draft,ndamukong suh,detroit lions


The Lions in Winter: New Look, Same Great Taste

>> 3.28.2010

For those checking out the site on Lynx, I've just updated the look and feel of the site. Over the past year or so, I'd been wrestling with the layout. It looked like what I pictured in my head, but did so at the expense of load time, readability, and usability.

The new layout fixes a lot of these issues. It also gives the important part--the text--a lot more elbow room, puts the most useful site tools in more prominent positions, and more organically integrates the ads into the page. Perhaps most importantly, the new layout looks approximately 14.7 quadrillion times better on mobile browsers.

Please note: the new layout isn't done, or perfect. I'm still tweaking some of the color/layout graphic stuff, especially as regards the sidebars and widgets. I've been checking things in Opera, Chrome, Safari, and IE8, on both Windows and Mac where possible. If things are broken for you, please let me know right away via email or Twitter (or, of course, just comment on this post).

In the meantime, I hope the new look makes the site load much more quickly, read much more cleanly, and be a generally more awesome place to hang out and talk Lions football.

EDITED TO ADD: the new template was sourced from Our Blog Templates, and though I've customized it quite a bit, I started with the Simple N’ Sweet template. 

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