plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

>> 12.31.2013 black and white.

Five years and one day ago, I had to go to work.

The temperature was bone-chilling, the snow and ice encrusted everything. Ten soul-searing minutes of bitter cold and grunty sweat, chipping and chipping away at the entombed, lifeless husk of my car. In the frozen darkness, I cranked and cranked the engine of my brand-new Pontiac Vibe; the cold refused to let its little Toyota heart beat.

Finally, the engine turned over, and the radio blurted sports talk Lions angry.

When I got to work I signed up at, sliced open a vein, and bled onto the keyboard:

On this morning, the morning, the morning where the Lions are now officially the worst team in the history of professional football, I have never been more ashamed, despressed, dejected, and disgusted to be a Lions fan. And yet—I am suprised and pleased to discover that I am still a Lions fan. Despite the snow and wind and bitter, bitter cold, a little blue flame still dances and flickers on the ashes of what was once a roaring fire. So . . . now what?

"What" turned out to be the five most incredible years of my life. I saw my children grow from toddlers and infants to 'tweens and elementary-schoolers. My soul-searching became an unpaid part-time job, a hobby that consumed my lunch breaks and post-bedtime hours. My wife became my editor, counselor and career coach. My friends became my sounding boards, and tech consultants. Anyone who shared cider with all of us around the little blue flame became a comrade-in-arms.

The Lions in Winter became everything I'd wanted it to be, more quickly and more grandly than I'd ever dreamed possible. From the coaching search, to the draft, to The Watchtower and Three Cups Deep, to—of course—the Fireside Chats, the crowd that gathered around the blue bonfire swelled and cheered and roared and drank and high-fived and basked in the glory as the Lions went from 0-16 to 10-6 and the playoffs in just three seasons.

When Jim Schwartz assembled his Fellowship, there was cause for excitement and cause for concern. I was particularly revolted by the Linehan hire. When he actually started coaching his team, though, I immediately knew he was the perfect coach for the Lions at the perfect time.

Jim Schwartz embraced the City of Detroit in a way I didn't think possible. "We plan on being in Detroit for a while," Schwartz told Terry Foster. "When my kids grow up, I want them to tell people they are from Detroit." Whoever the Lions hire next won't say that.

Schwartz took his three top rookies—Matthew Stafford,  Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas—to the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant for a two-hour meet-and-greet with workers.

"The other day, Dominic Raiola talked about how he fell in love with the city," Schwartz told Foster. "He said how much he loves the people and I thought it was important for these guys to experience the same feel and things like that. We did not want cameras there because we thought it would have ruined the whole dynamic of it." Whoever the Lions hire next won't do that.

Schwartz snuck into bars during the hockey playoffs to get a feel for the Detroit sports fans. I can't find the story now, but I remember that while celebrating a particularly big Red Wings victory, a fan turned to Schwartz and said "When the Lions win, it'll be better than this." Whoever the Lions hire next won't understand this.

Here is a thing Schwartz said during his first training camp:

"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.”

Whoever the Lions hire next sure as hell won't say that. Is it any wonder that I ordered up a double of Lions Kool-Aid just before the 2011 season?

The Lions' next coach is also not likely to give a game ball to the fans, which Schwartz did after the greatest night of Lions fandom in living memory. He led the Lions to respectability, he led them to the playoffs, and he led Lions fans everywhere to rekindle their love of the team. At the season-ticket holder town hall meeting prior to the 2012 season, I walked out convinced that the Lions had one of the best decision-making groups in the NFL. I knew Jim Schwartz was the right coach for the Detroit Lions.

Then, of course, came 4-12, and a well-deserved reputation for on- and off-field misbehavior. Schwartz, like the rest of us, utterly lacked solutions to the sudden problems. In one offseason, the Lions went from lovable winners to unlovable losers; even the strongest among us had our faith tested.

Though there were perfectly good explanations for everything and nothing was ever quite anyone's fault, nothing quite got fixed either.

From Titus Young's mental health issues to Jahvid Best's medically forced hiatus, everything that had been coming together quickly fell apart. There was little beauty or joy in anything, and the ironclad assurance we had that Schwartz knew what he was doing and Stafford was en route to being the greatest Lions quarterback of all time.

...okay, that's a low enough bar for Stafford to jump over that he's nearly already there at the age of 25, but Schwartz's brilliance became know-it-all-ness, and then insufferable arrogance as he not only refused to fix the problems on the field, but acknowledge they even existed.

Even as this season, the Lions' rivals all but sent them an engraved invitation to a  twenty-years-in-the-making NFC North championship, Schwartz refused to address anything that was going wrong. Possession after possession, game after game, the Lions kept blowing chances and missing opportunities. Schwartz's bizarre, delusional insistence that 20 teams would switch positions with them after they blew their last chance at clinching a playoff berth was hard to swallow.

I still thought that Schwartz should be given one more chance, right up until halftime of the game against the Giants. When the Lions had one, last, final, last chance to salvage the playoffs, facing a subpar team with nothing to play for, and sleepwalked their way to a 13-3 halftime deficit, that tore it.

The players would no longer listen to Schwartz, or play for Schwartz. He was no longer the right coach.
Now the search for a coach begins again, and many have asked me for my thoughts on who the Lions should hire. The short answer, "the right coach," isn't satisfying, so here's the long version.

Head coaches come in all different sizes, shapes, colors and kinds. Everyone wants the "hot" candidate, the brilliant schematic innovator making guacamole out of guano as a coordinator or college coach. But that guy—a Kevin Sumlin—is in short supply after a run on them last season, and that "hot" candidate isn't always the right guy.

There's a lot more to being a coach than being a rockstar at the whiteboard; just ask Charlie Weis and Mike Leach about how a "decided schematic advantage" trumps everything else. Just as in any other profession, coaching talent is not the same as coaching ability; some of the best head coaches in the NFL excel at things other than Xs and Os.

Head coaches are part of a franchise's senior management; they're executives who set the tone and direction of a franchise, guide the lower-level managers in tactics and strategy, interface with public and community relations staff and run a lot of meetings. Not to mention work dieticians, strength and conditioning coaches, facilities and maintenance folks...
Sometimes, being good at those things is more important to the success of a football team than wowing a packed coaching conference with your brilliant new playbook wrinkles.

Jim Schwartz was the right coach; the right coach at the right time. He was smart and firey, innovative and inspirational, built a base of talent around philosophies designed to dominate the next ten years of football and reconnected the soul of the franchise to the soul of its fans. He just couldn't handle all the other stuff.

Now, the Lions need a coach who can lead a championship-ready roster to a championship... ideally, one who's done it before.
I've said multiple times that the Lions should pursue Brian Billick. He's not "hot," he's not "sexy" and he's not a brilliant schematic innovator. He is a brilliant, well-spoken football mind with championship credibility and tons of experience. He's broadcast a lot of Lions games, and you can almost hear him salivating over the chance to work with that kind of talent.

Yes, he's a "retread," but if you take a look around at today's NFL, you'll see many of the most successful coaches are on their second or third stop. Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, John Fox... sometimes, it seems, you can't be a great NFL coach without having failed at it.

Sure, there's a lightning-in-a-bottle college guy like Chip Kelly, and "hot" coordinators like Sean Payton, that have been just as successful. But those guys went to places with perfect talent for their system (and not accidentally). The Lions have offensive talent that should be able to execute darn near any system... what they need help with is the preparation, focus and discipline required to execute.

I'll always be sad that Schwartz wasn't the coach to take the Lions to the Super Bowl, just as I'll always be sad that Steve Mariucci couldn't bring the Lions back to respectability. Ironically, Schwartz succeeded where Mariucci failed, and Mariucci's skill set might be perfect for leading these Lions to the Promised Land.

Now, I have to go to work. My job, thanks in part to the success of this blog, which was due in part to the success of Jim Schwartz, is to write about football for a living. I do my job in the warmth of my house, in my padded leather chair, even in toasty flannel pants if I feel like it. The real ice outside has never fallen more thickly or harshly, though, and Winter in the Lions-y sense hasn't been this cold in a long, long time. I may have to bust out the To Whom it May Concern series, and the "the coaching search" tag again.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fortunately, thanks to the the work Jim Schwartz has done, and the work of everyone who reads this blog, the blue flame of Lions fandom still burns brightly. People still proudly wear Lions gear, still happily sell out games, and still tweet support and kind words to all of their favorite players.

Lions fans answered Schwartz's challenge, and the Lions organization met our expectations in return. Now, though, expectations of the fans, front office and owners are much higher, and Schwartz is a victim of his own success. Maybe when it's his turn to be a "retread," he'll finally finish what he started.


Fireside Chat: Post-Fiasco Meltdown/Breakdown

>> 12.23.2013

Video streaming by Ustream


Would-be Kings, Under the Mountain

>> 12.16.2013

On the third morning Caradhras rose before them, a mighty peak, tipped with snow like silver, but with sheer naked sides, dull red as if stained with blood.

 There was a black look in the sky, and the sun was wan. The wind had gone now round to the north-east. Gandalf snuffed the air and looked back.

 `Winter deepens behind us,' he said quietly to Aragorn. 'The heights away north are whiter than they were; snow is lying far down their shoulders. Tonight we shall be on our way high up towards the Redhorn Gate. We may well be seen by watchers on that narrow path, and waylaid by some evil; but the weather may prove a more deadly enemy than any. What do you think of your course now, Aragorn?'

In the 2001 movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship attempt to pass beyond Caradhras and are foiled when Saruman, the corrupted wizard, conjures a brutal snowstorm.

In the book it is the mountain itself that turns back the Nine with heavy snow and falling rocks, possibly possessed by a shadowy evil of "the Enemy," Sauron. With the sun-lit way closed to them, the Fellowship are forced to proceed under the mountain—through the dark, deep, deadly mines of Moria.

In last Sunday's all-consuming blizzard, the Lions were turned back by the inclement weather, the Philadelphia Eagles, and their own mistakes. Another afternoon of head-slapping fumbles, blooper-reel mistakes and missed opportunities was punctuated by a complete and total defensive collapse.

It's tempting to write off the loss as a freak occurrence of nature, and yet both teams had to play in that snow.

The Eagles fumbled just once that day; the Lions seven times. Matthew Stafford physically could not throw deep enough to find an often-open Calvin Johnson; Nick Foles had no trouble throwing to (even overthrowing) DeSean Jackson.

These are freak occurrences, except they happen every week. They lead to unfortunate losses that have nothing to do with fortune. The Lions have thrown away possession after possession, drive after drive, opportunity after opportunity, game after game—and now the easy road is closed to them.

I've invoked the imagery of Gandalf facing the Balrog once before on this blog, and now it seems applicable again: There is evil in this football world against which Stafford and these young Lions have not yet been tested, and they are going to have to defeat it, toe-to-toe, from here on out.

In the dark of night, the Lions will face the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.

It's fitting that they'll play a team named after an ill omen. It's fitting that they'll be playing until midnight, or nearly so. They will have to take the deepest, darkest road of all to and through the playoffs: From tonight at midnight, through two more must-win games, then three playoff rounds—each more difficult than the last, likely against three foes against whom the Lions will be massive underdogs.

In order to scale to the top of the NFL mountain and claim the Lombardi trophy for their own, the Lions will have to play six consecutive games all but flawlessly. Given how they've played to date, that's asking the impossible.

Yet, that's what is asked of them. That is the task that lays before them. Anything less is failure, and failure of the quest at this point would likely mean the dissolution of the Fellowship—or at least, the coaching staff that has led the Lions to this point.

All of this blog, all of my personal and professional journey from fan tormented by unending disappointment to member of the Pro Football Writers of America, all of my time as keeper of the little blue flame of Lions fandom, all of it has come with this coach, this quarterback, this band of Lions united by a common quest: The top of the mountain, the Super Bowl championship, and the precious Ring that comes with it.

It's hard to say how much the success of this quest means to me, to you, and to all Lions fans everywhere, and now it stands on the edge of a knife. Waver but a little, and it will fall.

What is the true character of this coach, this quarterback, this team? They have the talent to fulfill their destiny, but have they the will? Have they the tenacity?

We find out tonight.


Three Cups Deep: Sailing the Gravy Boat

>> 12.02.2013

It is December 2nd, and the Detroit Lions are in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

They have a one-and-a-half-game lead over the Green Bay Packers, and a one-game lead (with head-to-head tiebreaker) over the Bears. The Lions face only one team with a winning record over their last four games, and basically have no good reason not to finish at least 10-6 (and 5-1 in division).

The Lions have just four short weeks and an ocean of gravy separating them from their first division title since 1993.

If you're reading, you know all this.

You also know the Lions destroyed the Packers, 40-10, for their first Thanksgiving win in a decade. You also know Matthew Stafford is rewriting the Lions record book, and Peter King just called Reggie Bush and Joique Bell "absolutely unequivocably" the best one-two tailback combo in the NFL.

I know that these Lions are still not good enough—not yet, anyway.

King also said this:

Detroit’s reward for earning the third seed in the NFC playoffs—if that’s where the Lions end up, and it’s no lock—would be one of the most rugged roads to the Super Bowl ever. Consider this possible slate: a Wild Card home game against San Francisco, a divisional game at New Orleans, a championship game at Seattle. Who survives that?
Not a team who's turned it over 25 times in 12 games, that's for sure. The Lions are ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring differential, racking up 27.2 points per game. Opposing teams are scoring an average of 23.9 points per game, ranked 18th. That gives them the ninth-best scoring differential in the NFL (3.2 points per game).

Now, imagine how many more points they'd be scoring, and how many fewer points they'd be allowing, if they weren't ending 16.9 percent of their offensive drives with a turnover.

Despite that mindblowing, field-flipping, win-preventing error rate, the Lions have still ended 35.8 percent of their drives with a score, 11th-best in the NFL. Only the New York Giants and New York Jets are coughing it up more frequently, yet the Lions statistically have a top-five offense and middle-of-the-pack defense.

As I've said several times here and at Bleacher Report, this team is not going to reach its limitless potential until Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush cut down on the mistakes.

For some reason, this has made my fellow Flamekeepers really, really mad at me.

"You can't put it on Matt," they say, before proferring excuses for why his habitually high, behind, late and too-hard passes keep getting getting intercepted off of deflections. "It's the coaches' fault for not preparing him correctly," they say. I do believe coaching factors into it, but I think it's more to do with their hesitance to throttle Stafford down than an Xs-and-Os problem.

Then we get deeper into the blame game: receivers, protection, playcalling, the defense. Look: Matthew Stafford has the best wide receiver in the world, a solid running game, the fifth-best pass protection in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus) and a defense that—more often than not—is keeping him in the game while he and the offense spend the first quarter in neutral.

Yet, he's ranked 27th in the NFL in completion rate, at a miserable 59.2 percent. He's throwing picks on 2.8 percent of his dropbacks, his worst rate since his rookie year. His 5.4 percent touchdown rate can't touch his 2011 or 2010 numbers, 6.2 and 6.3 percent respectively.

What, then, is the more rational statement:

A) Matthew Stafford needs to more consistently play up to the talent level that made him a No. 1 overall pick, earned him a big-money extension, and showed through in 2011 when he threw 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.


B) Brandon Pettigrew needs to play like Rob Gronkowski, Kris Durham needs to play like Calvin Johnson, and the Lions defense needs to play like the 2000 Ravens'.

If we could wave a magic wand and make either A or B come true, they'd have equal effect on the Lions' bottom line. Yet, if you're staring at these numbers and concluding B is the more reasonable non-Fairy-Godmother request, I don't know what to tell you.

"Well then, what do we do?" Lions fans ask me. "Fire the coach?"

Let's re-read that first sentence:
It is December 2nd, and the Detroit Lions are in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
 No, we do not fire the coach. In fact, we—the fans—don't do anything at all. Nor, honestly, do I think the Lions need to consider making any major moves. If any shakeup needs to occur, it's in the QB coach/Offensive Coordinator department (As a fifth-year veteran, I'm no longer worried that any change there will stunt Stafford's development, especially since it seems to be stunting anyway).

No, what needs to happen is Matthew Stafford taking preparation, execution, and all the little things that make the difference between a good quarterback and great quarterback seriously. This team is built to win because of him, not in spite of him; until he fixes the fixable mistakes they won't do enough of the latter—especially not come the bitter cold of January.


Boys of Summer, Men of Autumn

>> 11.13.2013

The purest expression of sports fandom can be found on elementary school playgrounds.

Still learning (and arguing over) the rules of the game as they play, kids merge their identity with the players they know and love from TV. Just as fights broke out over who got to be Barry Sanders or Cecil Fielder when I was a tyke, kids today call out "I'm Calvin Johnson!" or "I'm Miguel Cabrera!" when they take the ball field at recess.

They learn the game by mimicking the moves and styles of their favorite players. On the rare occasions they shake a defender with a jump-stop, or hit one over the playground fence into the scary old lady's yard, for an instant sports superstardom is their reality.

Since I was tiny, in sports—heck, in life—I've always been drawn to spectacular talent. I watch sports for many reasons, but there's nothing I love more about it than when a surpassing athlete deploys screw-you ability at a critical moment, defying physics and reality to win at will.

That's why I've always loved players like Dominik Hasek, Clint Dempsey and Barry Sanders--local allegiances aside. 

When I watch sports, I want my jaw dropped. I want to throw up my hands, shake my head and laugh out loud at the absurdity of the skill required to pull off what I just saw.

When I played youth sports, I wanted to drop jaws.

As a baseball playing tyke, I was very short, very thin, but pretty quick. For someone of my limited gifts, the only path to jaw-dropping baseball I saw was "infield glove wizard" in the mold of Ozzie Smith. 

I played wall ball for hours, honing my glove chops. I watched Johnny Bench's wierd baseball technique show for kids. I demanded my tee-ball coaching father play me at short, or MAYBE I'd deign to play second base. As soon as we were allowed to lead off and steal, I'd park my skinny white butt halfway between first and second and DARE pitchers to pick me off.  I decided to be a switch-hitter, because of course great utility infielders switch-hit, right?

Here's the thing: I was terrible.

I had no glove, and a horribly inconsistent  arm. I could throw to the first base region-ish, or I could throw ten feet short of the first baseman's waiting glove, and I was never sure which it was going to be. I had no instincts to where to go with the ball, turning every fielder's choice into Sophie's Choice.

My father, who typically coached the team, was remarkably patient with all this. I HAD talent, but I wasn't using it right. I had a good natural right-handed swing with relatively strong pop in the bat (though my small size usually meant I hit towering outs rather than towering home runs). 

One game, after several fruitless left-handed at-bats, I came up in the order with two runners on. Dad insisted I bat righty. On the first coach-pitched lob, I drilled it deep into the right-center gap--which, in fourth grade, might as well be the Atlantic Ocean.

I skipped around the bases, sticking a two-footed landing on home plate while my teammates cheered. Dad was waiting for me, and immediately grabbed me by the shoulders. He growled, "Look: Do you want to be DIFFERENT, or do you want to EXCEL?"

This is how I feel watching Matthew Stafford.

Watching this dude play football in my team's colors is a joy, a blessing and an honor. He has the talent to be as good as anyone is; to be his generation's John Elway. By the end of this season, he'll hold nearly every Lions passing record that matters; by the end of his current contract he'll hold all of them, period.

That's why it's so infuriating to watch him play.

As a grownup, as a father, as a bill-having taxpayer with a mortgage and insurance and all those stupid things, it drives me absolutely crazy to watch Stafford incompletely apply his incredible talent.

I've written, tweeted and spoken at lengths about his tendency to get cute with arm angles, get sloppy with his feet and miss critical passes. It was there in force on Sunday, as Stafford threw what seemed like 16 sidearm passes into the arms of the Bears defensive line. Game after game, week after week, we've seen Stafford miss wide-open receivers, tying one hand behind his back by going all Elway instead of just executing like he's clearly capable of doing.

We've also seen him win those games, coming back from the brink with one hand tied behind his back and a blindfold over his eyes, threading needles through double- and triple-coverage, making plays with his legs, and beating the Dallas Cowboys--his hometown team--with a jaw-dropping mix of natural quarterbacking talent and balls the size of his oversized brain.

When he and Calvin Johnson--together, the most talented QB/WR pair in the NFL--went to Solider Field and won for the first time in forever, it felt like the tipping point. It felt like the mountain had been climbed. It felt like Stafford and the Lions had finally realized the potential we've spent five years daydreaming about.

When Nick Fairley followed up a game-losing personal-foul penalty with a game-winning TFL, it hit me: these are the Lions.

Like Barry Sanders and negative yardage, like Dominik Hasek and the occasional four-goal brain fart, the Lions are always going to be a mix of pleasure and pain. They're going to beat themselves with sanity-testing mistakes and beat other teams with searing, unstoppable talent. They're going to turn blowouts into close shaves and close shaves into heart attacks.

You can't separate Stafford from sidearm, Johnson from bumps and bruises, Suh and Fairley from penalty flags or Schwartz from spending all week in the film room with a MacBook only to break it over his knee and throw the pieces at a ref on gameday.

As Jack Nicholson once shouted at a room full of mentally ill folks in the movie of the same name, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

There's snow on the ground in Michigan, and the Lions are effectively two games clear of the rest of the NFC North. They have one of the league's easiest schedules from here on out, and they fully control their path to their first division title since 1993, when my middle-school baseball coach told me I was a natural centerfielder and everything made sense.

There's no use denying it: I love this team, because of the rough edges as much of in spite of them. Nothing thrills me like seeing the impossible made possible; if the Lions have to do that every week just to overcome their own mistakes, so be it: my favorite team in sports is delivering heaping helpings of my favorite thing about sports, week after week.

What more could I ask for? What more could any of us ask for?

The other day, I walked into the living room to see my seven-year-old son playing Madden. "Dad," he excitedly said, "I built my Madden Ultimate Team!" Oh yeah, I asked, who's on it?

"Pretty much all the Lions, but with Aaron Rodgers," he said.

With this season just halfway over, I guess we can't hang a banner just yet. Stafford and the Lions haven't answered all the questions yet--and until they win a Super Bowl, they never will.

But right now, the Lions are different, AND they excel. Let's appreciate that.


"Tactical Advantage" on Bleacher Report

>> 10.06.2013

I know, I know. It's been a while.

Once again, the Lions travel to the (perfectly balmy) tundra of Lambeau field, in an attempt to slay the green and gold dragon.

Over at Bleacher Report, I did a film breakdown of the Lions defense, and how it effectively slowed Aaron Rodgers last season, and how it could improve on those methods this season:

Something that surprised me was just how vanilla both units played, especially at Lambeau. Part of that, no doubt, was the weather, but both teams seemed more nervous to make a mistake than revved up to make a play.

Once the Packers got out of their (seemingly) scripted opening drive, which was ludicrously effective until Lawrence Jackson short-circuited it with a sack-fumble.

Speaking of which, Jackson--who had one of his best games as a Lion in this fixture last season--will be watching from home. In his place is (The Great) Willie Young, who got manhandled by Bryan Bulaga in the run game when rotating in for Jackson last year.

Young and Ansah, who'll have to contain Eddie Lacy instead of DuJuan Harris, probably hold the keys to this game. I have no doubt that Ansah is a pass-rushing upgrade from KVB, but if Lacy can control the ground game that shifts the dynamic considerably.

The one thing the Lions must, absolutely must do is hold on to the football. Stafford cannot throw an oopsie pick, or lose a snap. The margins on this game are slim, but--as I wrote at B/R, the upside for a Lions victory is enormous.

Presuming the Bears don't upset the Saints, the Lions taking one from the Pack would grant the Lions dominion over the NFC North; first place outright, a one-game lead on the Bears, two-and-a-half game lead on the Pack, all tiebreakers in hand and a sweep of the division half-completed.

Don't underestimate the power of a sword buried in the heart of that writhing dragon of a losing streak, either.


Cross Road Blues

>> 8.10.2013

As the legend goes, Robert Johnson met the Devil himself at a crossroads, and sold his soul for the ability to play guitar like no one ever had. Though Johnson didn’t achieve worldwide fame and success until after his mysterious poisoning death, Johnson will reign as King of the Delta Blues for eternity.

A Faustian bargain made in a swirling mist of hoodoo, it’s an intoxicating tale that Johnson never shied away from—after all, it didn’t hurt from a marketing perspective. According to blues historian Robert McCormick (via Wikipedia, yeah what of it), Johnson’s friends and family believed Johnson’s death was divine retribution for making secular music instead of glorifying God with his talent.

Johnson, McCormick believes, accepted the idea of “selling his soul” as a metaphor for abandoning honest work and playing the blues full-time.

Last November, I made the same choice.

I accepted a full-time position with Bleacher Report as a National NFL Lead Writer. I continued working my day job full-time for weeks afterwards to handle the transition. Between that workload and my family life, I struggled to keep up TLiW.

For four years, I’d kept the blue flame burning while burning the midnight oil. The words written here were penned during lunch hours, stolen moments, and brain-melting early-morning sessions that often had me waking up to a darkened computer, both hands still on the keyboard.

Switching careers at 31—with a wife, three kids, two cats, a dog, a mortgage and two cars hanging in the balance—was not something I could afford to do halfway. TLiW is a labor of love, but owed my loved ones every ounce of my labor.

Old Mother Hubbard, Meet the Cubs, eulogies for the careers of Jeff Backus and Jason Hanson: these are all projects I sincerely meant to undertake and just… never… did.

This season, the Lions are at a crossroads of their own.

The 2013 iteration of the Detroit Lions made their preseason debut last night. Despite massive turnover on both the offensive and defensive lines, and shiny new toys on both sides of the ball, the 2013 model looked largely similar to the 2012 edition.

The Lions’ greatest flaw from last season—a total inability to cross the opponent’s 30-yard line in the first half—was there for all to see. The dominance of Stafford-to-Calvin, the not-dominance of just about every other Stafford-to-whomever combination, and the boom-or-bust running game looked spookily familiar (remember, Joique Bell hurdled fools last year).

The defensive line looked overwhelming, with Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones combining with Suh and Fairley to form a front line shocking in its size, strength and athleticism. I mean, look at this:


The obvious size and strength of the line up front allows the Lions to be ridiculously aggressive with the back seven, as you can see. The much-maligned Wide 9 alignment maximizes this up-front advantage. At first, this made a hash of everything the Jets tried to do offensively. Then, the back seven fell apart, with multiple blown coverages making Sanchez look good.

The Ziggy thing? Yeah, that was awesome. Snagging a pick-six on his first series in Lions uniform? Awesome. Don’t make too much of it, though. As Jim Schwartz said at halftime, per the Detroit Free Press:

“We said from the beginning that he plays screens well, he plays draws well and all those kinds of things. We’ve seen that stuff on tape so wasn’t a surprise when he made that play.”

As I said all along (on Twitter, mostly), the Lions having coached Ansah at the Senior Bowl means the whole staff knew exactly what they were getting. Those speculating assumed Ansah would be raw and lack instincts because Ansah’s only been playing football for a few years. The reality is, Ansah’s grasp of the game is exactly that: instinctive. He’s still not the Pro Bowler they need him to be.

Don’t make too little of it, either. The strength, hands, athleticism and playmaking skills the Lions knew they were getting in Ansah were on full display against the Jets. That’s awesome. He definitely has the talent to be the Pro Bowler they need him to be.

There weren’t a ton of valuable takeaways from this game. Shaun Hill is still way too good to be a backup. The kickers and punters look good, and the special teams overall are improved. Riley Reiff is not going to put Stafford’s life in danger. Other than that drive, the Jets couldn’t do much against the defense—then again, the Jets have almost no offensive firepower.

There were still too many two-yard runs, incomplete passes, stalled drives and punts for a theoretically high-flying offense.

Throughout the offseason, I’ve fought the impression that this is going to be a tantalizing but unsatisfying “sim year,” one we’d simulate though if we were playing on Madden. There are too many young and inexperienced players in key roles, too many question marks yet unanswered, and too little proof that Matthew Stafford has enough rapport with anyone besides Calvin Johnson to take his game (or the Lions) to the next level.

Though this team has more than enough talent to make the playoffs, and my faith in the coaching staff is still strong, nothing I saw on Friday looks significantly better than in 2012—or 2011, for that matter.

This was the maddening thing (not the Madden-ing thing) about the 2012 season: the team looked so much like the 2011 squad, but the offensive touchdowns just evaporated. The margins were so thin and the outcomes so unlucky, it not only defied belief at the time but threw into doubt just how “real” the magical 2011 season was.

Even if the 2013 Lions perform at exactly the same level as 2012, they could still be a seven- or eight-win team, if they’re as lucky this year as they were unlucky last year.  If Reggie Bush can terrify defenses with more explosive plays like that hurdle, and Stafford takes advantage of the space, they could win the division. If not, they could struggle to reach .500.

Did I make a deal with the Devil himself to express myself for a living? No, but I did make a deal with you folks. I swore I'd never let the little the blue flame die out, and I won't this site go dark. I can't promise anything too regular or too specific, but I'll be writing throughout the season (and, Lord willing, Fireside Chatting again on game nights).

If TLiW's not already bookmarked or RSS feed'd, you can always keep track of new posts at my Twitter feed, and the VERIFIED (!!!) Lions in Winter G+ page.

If you're reading this (and surely, if you've read this far), you're part of the reason I was able to follow my dream and do what I love for a living. Even more than I was up all night writing for me, I was up all night writing for you.

It's the unique spirit of the Lions fan that compelled me to providing a warm, comfortable place for us frozen and weary souls. You came, in shocking and humbling humbling numbers, to join me by the fire. You encouraged me, supported me, let me know when I did well and let me know when I'd strayed from my Flamekeeping duties.

The Lions in Winter—its words, posts, community, comments, podcasts, UStreams, all of it as a whole—has changed my life. Thank you, all, for letting it be a small part of yours. I hope it still will be, for as long as the blue flame burns.


On Taking the Wind

>> 6.17.2013

Marty Mornhinweg is not the worst head coach in NFL history.

Deadspin's Drew Magary and Dom Cosentino asserted the opposite late last week, based partly on Mornhinweg's 5-27 record as head coach, but mostly on the HILARIOUS STUPIDITY of taking the wind in overtime.

The article makes a lot of cogent points about the NFL having moved beyond coaches getting "hired to be fired," straight into a swirling vortex of hiring blatantly unqualified candidates to turn around talentless rosters, and poleaxing them if they don't immediately succeed.

As I've written before, trying to catch "lightning in a bottle" is the wrong way to hire a coach. As often as not, the young coach who pretends to have the NFL figured out is found out. (see: McDaniels, Josh).

Mornhinweg, in a way, was the model for this particular way to fail. Not only was he not an experienced NFL head coach, the 38-year-old had never been a head coach at any level. He'd been calling plays under Steve Mariucci in San Francisco for only two years, and the 49ers were 10-22 over that span.

Mornhinweg was hired to be fired, quite literally. As rumor had it, Matt Millen's relationship with Mooch was part of the reason the Ford family entrusted the franchise to Millen. Mornhinweg was basically there to install Mariucci's flavor of the Bill Walsh offense and keep Mooch's seat warm.

On December 31st, 2002, Millen announced that the Lions would be retaining Mornhinweg for a third season. Then Mariucci was unexpectedly let go by the 49ers. Three weeks after the public vote of confidence Mornhinweg was awkwardly terminated; a week after that the prodigal Yooper returned.

Marty Mornhinweg was then, and is now, a gifted offensive coach with a bright future. Mornhinweg did a lot of learning on the job, which included a contrived move-for-move reenactment of a Mike Holmgren training camp tirade-and-motorcycle-peel-out. Lions veterans profoundly did not buy it.

One thing Mornhinweg got right, though—or at least, did not get as wrong as everyone thinks—was taking the wind on that fateful day.

Now-defunct site Football Commentary did a beautiful win-probability analysis of the decision back in 2004. I can't find anything today that backs this assertion up, but my memory is that all 34 points scored in regulation that day had been scored with the wind.

I've talked and written many times about football's hilariously risk-averse culture, wherein even the game's greatest coach is pilloried for maximizing win probability instead of "playing the percentages" when he doesn't get a result.

In reality, Mornhinweg's mistake was accepting a holding call on a 3rd-and-8 incompletion that would have forced the Bears to send Paul Edinger out for a 42-yard kick into the hellacious wind—or even wave the white flag and send out Brad Maynard to punt it away. Had the Lions gotten the victory with that decision, Mornhinweg's outside-the-box decision would have been lauded as crazy-like-a-fox, instead of idiotic.

[Ed.- Per request, I used the Advanced NFL Stats WP calculator to judge this decision. The Bears had a 0.68 WP at 4th-and-8 from the 35, and an 0.62 WP at 3rd-and-18 from the 45. However, this is based on modeled leaguewide historical expectations, and wind into the teeth of which none could score is certainly unexpected.]

Continuing to shame Mornhinweg over that call is stupid and destructive and misses the point: Marty Mornhinweg was a great position coach, hired as a Plan D, and put into an impossible situation. 

Mornhinweg took over a not-talented-enough roster filled with veterans not much younger than he was, a brand-new front office with no idea what they were doing, got saddled with a No. 3 overall rookie quarterback he wanted nothing to do with, then was forced to lie through gritted teeth that he was completely on board hitching his career to Joey Harrington.

Mornhinweg made a lot of mistakes, but taking the wind wasn't one of them. Unlike Rich Kotite or Dennis Erickson or many of the others on the list, Mornhinweg has proven he's a quality NFL coach—and before long, will get another head-coaching gig.

Let's just hope he stays away from motorcycles.


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