Detroit Lions: 2011 Preseason Champions

>> 9.02.2011


I have one of these shirts. On the back, it says “Winning when it counts?” and has the Lions’ magic run to 4-0 in the 2008 preseason. It’s clever. It’s funny. It’s a quick laugh that helped ease the sting of the subsequent run to 0-16. But 2008 is not 2011, and this season’s meaningless 4-0 is not 2008’s meaningless 4-0.

Look, I’ve quaffed so much Lions Kool-Aid at this point, I’m splayed out unconscious on the couch, with blue lips drooling blue drool, a limp hand barely holding a rocks glass dripping blue onto the carpet. So, I’m going to leave it to the words of the late Tom Kowalski:

"You can start and end with No. 9"

25-of-33 for 75.8%. 395 yards. 11.97 yards per attempt. 5 TDs. 0 INTs. There a reason his coordinator at Georgia called him "The Truth." That’s exactly what Matthew Stafford is, people: he’s the truth. He’s the real deal. There is no limit to his upside. He has the physical tools to make any throw, and his field vision is impeccable. He is playing the quarterback position as well as it can physically be played. His performance against the Patriots can only be described as Yodaesque.

I know the skill position guys are great, and the defensive line is truly special. I believe this team is at least average without him—see last season’s performances with Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton at the helm—but Matthew Stafford is on another level entirely.

As casual football fans, the first thing we learn to see is quarterback play. He’s the guy the cameras are pointed on, he’s the guy the announcers are talking about, and he touches the ball every single snap. His successes and his failures are unmistakable, and win or lose he’s the first guy the put the microphones in front of.

We see great plays made by backs and receivers; our eyes are drawn to speed and height. We see the electricity imparted by the great playmakers and how they change the momentum of the game.

As we advance in our knowledge and understanding of the game, we come to appreciate good defense. Big hits. Interceptions. We see quarterbacks hurried by the pass rush and think that’s pretty cool.

That leads us to what we think is the last step: line play. We’re told “it all starts on the offensive line,” and we come to see how great lines make the quarterbacks and running backs look good. We come to see how getting pass rush with the defensive line alone allows coverage to keep suffocating the offense.

But this is the uncomfortable truth: it’s still a quarterback’s league. If you’ve got a great one, as the Packers did last year, you can lose half your roster and win the Super Bowl. If you’ve got a great one, as the Steelers have had, you can start Detroit Lions fourth-round rejects at left tackle and still get to the Super Bowl. If you’ve got a great one, as the Saints did, you can send play defense by sending seven men at the quarterback every down and know you’ll just outscore the other guys on your way to the Super Bowl. If you’ve got a great one, as the Cardinals did, you can completely forego playing defense at all and go 8-8 and still manage to get to the freaking Super Bowl.

Get the picture? The Lions’ 53-man roster, top-to-bottom, is light-years ahead of where it was in 2008. Jerry Jones didn’t sent private jet to DTW for anyone Rod Marinelli cut that year. But the real difference between 2008 and 2011, the real difference between 2010 and 2011, the real difference between another losing season and the playoffs? That difference has to be made by Matthew Stafford.

I say the Lions are going to the playoffs.


Tinderbox: First Week of Bleacher Report Stuff

>> 9.01.2011

I didn’t do a gameday post for tonight’s game because, well . . . fourth preseason games are rarely worth dissecting. I also am watching it on digital delay, so I don’t have any pertinent analysis just yet. So, I thought I’d recap my first week on the job at Bleacher Report:


Tom Kowalski is Gone.

>> 8.31.2011

It was raining a little bit. The old shovel’s point skidded on the wet grass of my backyard; I’d barely made a dent. I stood up again, re-gripping the worn wooden handle. I stared at the little patch of lawn I’d chosen. There was no easy way to do this, no fast-forward button, no graceful glossing over it. My wife and tiny children were waiting to come outside and say farewell to our cat, dead almost before we knew he was sick.

“Nobody told me,” I muttered, as I lodged the spade in the dirt. Nobody prepared me for the inescapable reality. Our cat—my cat, whom I’d adopted as a kitten from a shelter—had to be buried. Someone had to grab a shovel and dig and dig and dig and feel their muscles burn and the skin of their hands rubbed raw and their tears mix with the rain on their face, and that somebody had to be me; no amount of shock or grief or heartache could change it.

As a child, I’d lived alone with my mother. We had an old cat which passed away when I was very young, perhaps four. Mom wanted to protect me from the grief, so . . . she simply didn’t tell me. That cat was a bit of a recluse anyway, so I’d go days or even weeks without seeing it. as my mom went on filling (then surreptitiously emptying) the food bowl, I didn’t suspect a thing. It was literally years before I forced her to admit the cat was gone.

Looking back, I was incredibly blessed to go through my childhood and young adulthood without suffering a close or unexpected loss. As a grownup with a job and a wife and kids, losing my cat was the first time I had to experience grief without being able to grind my life to a halt and deal with it.

Last night, Phil Zaroo posted a beautiful tribute to Tom Kowalski. While I can’t begin to imagine the magnified degree of his emotions, writing it next to Killer’s empty chair, I felt I recognized the feeling in kind:

The media room at Detroit Lions headquarters is empty.

Everyone is covering head coach Jim Schwartz's daily post-practice presser, then heading straight to the locker room to speak with individual players.

Here I am, sitting in Tom Kowalski's cubicle without him next to me. Everything around me goes on while I'm wondering what's real and what isn't.

I say "Tom Kowalski's cubicle" because that's whose it is. It always will be. It certainly isn't mine.

I never met Tom Kowalski in person, or even communicated with him directly. I read his work for years strictly as a fan. When I started this blog, though,  I became a regular commenter on MLive, to fight the good fight and help raise my visibility. Like most regulars, I have a personal favorite “Killer gave me props” moment: I helped substantiate his pet Derek-Anderson-to-the-Lions theory by noting in the comments that DA’s college coordinator was the Lions’ new Tight Ends coach:

fellas ... --- lionsinwintr ... now THAT'S why i love having you guys around ... nice catch about lappano ...

I beamed with pride all afternoon. If I recall correctly, Killer even mentioned on his WDFN gig that “someone” pointed that fact out on MLive. I can’t explain how thrilled I was that Tom Kowalski would take time out to give me props like that. Of course, we all know that’s what Tom Kowalski did; nearly every one of what must be hundreds of tribute and memorial posts talked about how he worked for the fans, got it right for the fans, looked to serve the fans at all times without ever crossing the line of decorum himself.

Back then, most of this blog’s traffic came from people clicking on the link I’d append to every MLive comment. Eventually, Phil started linking my blog in the daily Lions Links posts. This summer, Phil invited me to help write the daily Lions Links posts. I can’t tell you what a thrill and a privilege it’s been to see my little posts queuing up right next to Killer’s stories on the Lions page.

On Monday, though, shortly after publishing the links post, I noticed a typo and went back into the system to edit it. An unfamiliar username, that of Grand Rapids Press editor Meegan Holland, was writing a story in the Lions stream. I watched as the story went live with the title, “Tom Kowalski, longtime Detroit Lions reporter, dies.”

I simply couldn’t believe it. I refreshed the page. I logged out and refreshed the page. I Googled for news; nothing. I switched browsers, still there. I Tweeted, “I hope someone is pulling an awful prank.” Phil Zaroo RT’d me and prepended, “I wish it was, man. I wish it was.” Of course you know the rest: an incredible outpouring of shock and grief and memories and goodwill from around the entire football world, which will culminate this Friday at his Celebration of Life at Cheli’s Chili.

But of course, time doesn’t stop. Life doesn’t stop. As we fondly remember Tom Kowalski, we must begin keenly missing his life’s work. Lions news keeps happening, even as his fiancĂ© and family and co-workers at MLive and every Lions player, coach, staff member, executive and owner grieve for the loss of the man who chronicled it for all of us.

I am certainly the least of these. I never so much as exchanged an email with Tom Kowalski. I never interacted with him beyond my primary role as admirer of, and commenter upon, his work. But today, I have my small task that must be done, despite the loss. Somebody has to write today’s Detroit Lions Links post, and that somebody has to be me.


Tom Kowalski, RIP.

>> 8.29.2011

Just days before I was born, the Lions opened their 1981 campaign with a win over the San Francisco 49ers. That January, Kowalski covered the Niners' Super Bowl victory at the Pontiac Silverdome. Now, less than two weeks before my 30th birthday, I sit stunned: for the first time in my life, Killer won't be working the Lions beat.

Detroit Lions Team President Tom Lewand:

"“The entire Lions organization, the Ford family, and me, personally, were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Tom Kowalski this morning. Tom was a true professional, the consummate beat writer, somebody who brought a lot of tremendous information to our fans — even in times of disagreement; we always had the utmost respect for his professionalism."

Kowalski did what very few beat writers could: he made a seamless transition from old-school deadline writing to new-school “hyperconnectedness.” Not only did he engage commenters on his articles, he frequently hosted live chats, solicited input and feedback, wrote entire articles in direct response to commenters, chopped it up with over 12,000 followers on Twitter—even video blogged from training camp, owner's meetings, and the NFL Combine. That kind of two-way reporting simply didn’t exist when he broke into the industry, yet he does it as well as any twentysomething.

One extraordinary instance of Kowalski's reportage comes to mind: when the Lions drafted Joey Harrington, Killer got a tip that Marty Mornhinweg was "furious" with the pick. Kowalski confirmed the tip, and went live on the radio with the story. Minutes afterward, the Lions PR staff brought Kowalski in for a face-to-face meeting with Mornhinweg, who spent 30 minutes trying to convince Killer his sources were wrong—while other teams were on the clock in the first round! Mornhinweg later admitted it was all bluster.

This is something many fail to see about the blogging game; I’ve had many well-meaning but wrong-headed people tell me things like, “I love your stuff! It’s so much better than the crap on [fill in the blank mainstream media site]!” But that’s so, so wrong. Bloggers like me stand on the shoulders of giants like Tom. His relentless reporting, constant availability, and impeccable connections provide armchair journalists like me with the grist for my mill. Without the 24-hour grind of Tom Kowalski and his colleagues, I’d just be telling you folks every week whether watching the game made me happy or sad.

It’s only fitting that as news of his passing spread, "Tom Kowalski" became a Trending Topic on Twitter. Not just in Detroit, or in the United States, but Worldwide. Said Gregg Rosenthal of Pro Football Talk:

"We always considered Kowalski one of the very best beat writers in the country."

It must be said: throughout his long tenure, Kowalski had one of the bleakest assignments in the NFL. He covered only 8 winning seasons and 8 playoff games from 1978 to today, including the NFL's only 0-16 season. Yet, his coverage remained objective and fair throughout; he strove to put both losses and wins in perspective for beleaguered, yet desperately passionate Lions fan base.  NFC North blogger Kevin Siefert said on Twitter:

"What's amazing is that he enjoyed it EVERY year. Even '08."

His love of what he did always shone through; his work will be deeply missed by fans and colleagues in what promises to be a banner year for Kowalski's subject. The timing of his passing from this world seems unjust; Killer won't be around to cover his hapless subject finally turning the corner.

I choose to believe he'll watch this season from an even better seat: one from which cheering is perfectly allowed.


Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Patriots

I went down to Detroit to see the Lions play the Patriots, everyone’s pick to win the Super Bowl, Saturday night. The offensive line was a sieve, and the quarterback got physically abused. The QB looked rattled from the opening gun, and in short order he was hearing footsteps and turfing screen passes. The defense was victimized, surrendering yards in chunks and points in bunches. Once the game was in hand, the other team put in their backups—but even that didn’t slow the bleeding. One big play made the final score look closer than it really was, but in the end there was no question who the better team was.

The Lions.

What the Lions did to a franchise that’s spent a decade as the class of the NFL—and, lest you forget, returned every significant piece of a team that went 14-2 last season—was astonishing. It wasn’t quite the thrashing that the Bengals game was, but the Lions simply outclassed the Patriots in every phase of the game, coaching not the least of it.

After all the caterwauling about the Lions’ run game, they simply didn’t run. The Lions took the field in a hurry-up shotgun spread, and confused and abused the Patriots’ back seven. There were a few token draws to Aaron Brown, but Matthew Stafford’s perfect quarterback play was simply unstoppable.

Matthew Stafford is playing as well as a quarterback can play. He has a Yoda-like understanding off the offense, and a an arm that can make any throw. His confidence is incredible; it’s neither false bravado nor stoic “lead-by-example,” it’s lining up in four-wide on 3rd and 2 and lasering it 40 yards down the field to where only a toe-dragging Nate Burleson can catch it.

As I said on the Fireside Chat, it’s not just that Stafford made that throw. He had to decide to make that throw. Moreover, that route had to be an option for Nate Burleson to run, and that play (out of that formation) had to be called. The Lions coaches had to have supreme confidence in Stafford to send even that play into the huddle.

That Linehan and Schwartz and Stafford all looked at 3rd-and-2 from their own end of the field as a great place to take a shot deep speaks volumes about their confidence in their ability to execute—and that they were right?  Incredible. The Lions are dictating the game to the opponent. They’re telling the other team what they’re going to do and then doing it. The last time we saw anything like this was Scott Mitchell’s glory year, 1995.

On the defensive side, it’s the same story. The front four—minus Kyle Vanden Bosch—wreaked havoc. Corey Williams and Cliff Avril played flat-out incredible games, and Suh and Lo-Jack and Sammie Hill and Willie Young all made noise too. Brady might be the coolest cucumber in the pocket we’ve seen in recent history, and he looked no less shaken than Andy Dalton.

Don’t get hung up on labels. Don’t get starstruck by names on the back of jerseys or logos on the sides of helmets. Don’t get caught up in reputations. Don’t sit down to work out who you think the Lions can beat and who you think they can’t. If there’s one thing we can all learn from Saturday night, it’s this: if these Lions are firing on all cylinders, there’s nobody they can’t beat.


Fireside Chat: preseason Week 3, Lions vs. Patriots

>> 8.28.2011

Here's this week's Fireside Chat. SPOILER ALERT: I am happy.


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