Monday, December 22, 2008

The last thing these Detroit Lions need is hope


If you're a Lions fan — and, believe me, there are still thousands out there (somehow) — you should be ecstatic right now. You should be more excited now than you were at this time in 2001, 2002, '03, '04, '05, '06, and '07.

And you should ask for a Cheese Head for Christmas or Hanukkah.

Why? Well, it's obvious. The Detroit Lions have finally stunk so bad, have finally proved so incapable — from ownership, to the front office, to the coaches, to the players, to the vendors — that they're on the brink of history.

A loss in frigid Green Bay Sunday, where they haven't won since '91, and the Lions will be the NFL's first 0-16 team.

And when it comes to the Lions, 0-16 seems like the only result that will get people in the organization to take a long look in the mirror and exclaim, "Nothing is working!"

Since Detroit last had a winning season, going 9-7 in 2000, it has been consistently bad. There was the 2-14 campaign in 2001 and the one-win improvement to 3-13 the following year. Then came 5-11 seasons, with a 6-10 march to nothing sandwiched in-between. Under current coach Rod Marinelli, Detroit started bad (3-13), gained a quartet of wins to 7-9, and now, well, you know...

But not until now, and perfectly coinciding with all the other depressing news choking the Motor City, has a sense of despair overtook this morbid, one-playoff-win-since-1957 franchise.

I would always laugh after previous 5-11 seasons, when people predicted the Lions to make the playoffs; when a radio host actually picked them to advance to the NFC championship game; when, after drafting yet another "big-play" wide receiver, everyone gushed over how unstoppable Detroit's offense was going to be.

I'm not making this stuff up. I lived a 40-minute drive from Ford Field up until the 2007 season, and every August overly priced tickets were sold, prognosticators forecast division championships...and then, sometimes after a couple wins, everything went downhill.

I don't consider myself the smartest person, but I must admit I'm proud of never getting caught up in Lions Fever. Even last year, when Detroit got out to a 6-2 start and everyone from Monroe to Pontiac was asking about playoff tickets. Around 2003 I told myself that I'd never predict the Lions to make the playoffs—that is, until they actually made the playoffs (if that makes sense).

So the fans continued flocking to Ford Field, filling the already-heavy pockets of owner William Clay Ford, and the Lions continued to lose. And, sure, coaches were fired. But Matt Millen stayed on board as general manager, many ineffective players were retained, and there was never talk of an "overhaul."

(On a side note, how sad is it that after the Detroit Pistons made the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth straight season last May and lost to the Boston Celtics, fans called for Joe Dumars to blow up the team. Yet after the Lions put together a seventh consecutive losing season, there was no such talk?)

Now, at long last, the memo has been sent: The Lions suck, they're terrible, they're awful. The offense. The defense. Special teams. The coaching staff. All of it.

"The Detroit Lions are the worst franchise in major American professional sports."

If I had said that even a year ago, I'm sure there would have been plenty of dissenters. But now? Outside of some baseball fans in Pittsburgh, I think a good portion of American sports fans would agree.

"Over the past eight years, no franchise has been worse than the Detroit Lions."

But it's taken an 0-15 season — hopefully soon to be the first 0-16 campaign — to dampen the spirit of the team's faithful and sometimes, sadly, extremely docile supporters. Finally, Ford Field has experienced empty seats; five of the last six games failed to sell out, with Tennessee's butt-whoopin' of the Lions on Thanksgiving the lone exception.

Only 49,309 people attended Sunday's home finale against the Saints, a tidy 42-7 New Orleans victory. It was the second-smallest crowd since the stadium opened in 2002.

The Lions intentionally made the capacity of the stadium (65,000) about 15,000 less than that of the team's former home, the Pontiac Silverdome (80,311), in an attempt to avoid TV cameras panning oceans of empty seats during games. The move worked for six and a half seasons.

But a team that can't win — at all — changes things. Even in Detroit.

Now, of course, the positive thing (I guess) is that as long as things go according to plan at Lambeau Field Sunday, this franchise will have nowhere to go but up (I think). And it is my hope that wholesale changes will be made in an effort to do just that.

With Ford in charge, however, who knows what will be done. There's a good chance the Lions will never make the playoffs under his ownership. That's simply one of those sad facts of life.

But here's what will happen over the next eight months as a result of this historic season:

1. There will be no positive predictions for the 2009 team.

2. No returning players — if there are any — will allow themselves to get fat thinking about improvements that were made during the season and late-season victories that created meaningless momentum.

3. Whoever is coaching the team will ride his staff and players harder than a jockey rides his horse coming down the stretch run of the Derby.

4. And Lions fans will finally expect the worse, regardless of whom their team drafts, knowing that their team is terrible until it proves otherwise.

I, for one, can't wait until the 2009 season. Let's call it the "Season of Realistic Expectations for the Lions."

Then, maybe, we'll be pleasantly surprised when something good happens on the field.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wouldn't you like to be Stephon Marbury?

Question: If you could live the life of any athlete right now, whose would you choose?

Obviously, there's Tiger Woods. Dude makes yacht-loads of money, has a gorgeous wife and, oh yeah, is well on his way to becoming the best golfer of all time. But we're talking about today, and at this moment Woods can't even hit the Big Dog.

No, being Tiger right now isn't the ideal situation.

OK, how about LeBron James? Dude's one of the best two players in the NBA, is so loved by fans that the folks in Morose Minnesota gave him a standing ovation Wednesday, and he's quickly becoming a global icon. As an added bonus, you get to be boys with Stephen Curry.

Not bad, but LeBron continues to carry a heavy load for the Cavs. At this time of year, I'd prefer a little R & R.

Well, it is the baseball offseason, correct? Players don't have to report for two months. So being C.C. Sabathia would be tight, right?

Except that it wouldn't. C.C.'s going to be under such intense scrutiny next season, he's probably already hitting the treadmill two hours a day to try to trim that stout frame for the New York media hounds. Don't want them blaming your girth when you lose a game in April.

So forget about CC. Mo money, mo problems.

Except, however, when you're talking about Stephon Marbury. Yep, out of all the great players in the sports universe today — the Woodses, the Federers, the Kobes, the Peytons, the A-Rods and the Phelpses — none of them have a better life than Marbury.

Technically, Marbury is still a member of the New York Knicks. In fact, he was at their game Tuesday night against the Lakers. Only thing was, his bottom was plastered to a court-side seat at Staples Center alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson and the rest of Los Angeles' finest.

Marbury, sporting a hot-looking black leather coat, watched a tad of the game, did some texting and talking on his mobile device, and even conducted an interview with reporters during halftime. When he said, memorably, "I'm still earning my check by doing nothing. I'm staying in shape. My mindset is to enjoy my life."

In truth, Marbury is doing nothing. For all intents and purposes, he's unemployed — only his unemployed compensation for this NBA season is $21 million. And while I'm happy that he's staying in shape and enjoying life, he must be corrected on this: he is not earning that rather hefty paycheck. Not in any way.

But please don't blame Marbury. Seriously — the man's doing nothing wrong. It's obvious that New York coach Mike D'Antoni wants nothing to do with the point guard, and after a couple failed attempts at getting him to enter a game from the bench, their relationship was over.

After a fractured meeting with team president Donnie Walsh, Marbury was banned from all Knicks games and practices. In fact, he had to make sure that it was OK for him to attend Tuesday's contest in L.A. since it involved his, eh, team. (And it was fine; no violation.)

Such is the life of the 31-year-old from Brooklyn. I mean, just consider this for a moment. A kid like Marbury, who grew up dirt poor with nothing but a dream. Now he's getting paid a fortune, a life's salary, to do absolutely nothing. Life couldn't be grander, right?

Well, Marbury is actually handling this correctly. While he said he can't wait to be freed from his contract, which expires after the season, he has no plans of bailing out the Knicks for their woeful financial decisions (on a side note, Walsh must be loving Isiah Thomas right now).

And why should he? They agreed to pay him a certain sum of money. Now they want nothing to do with him. He owes them nothing, and I doubt he thinks very highly of the franchise.

Marbury said another NBA team has expressed interest in him. If so, and if he gets a new contract after the season, good for him — and maybe good for that team, as long as they are very careful not to pull an Isiah and do some deadly overspending.

Heck, maybe after a year of free millions, Magnanimous Marbury will make an appearance and agree to pay for a small salary.

Or maybe not.

But back to the question...

Come June, I'd like to be Tiger; he'll be hitting the Big Dog with regularity.

But at this moment, no athlete's life is better than Stephon Marbury's.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Graham Harrell's lack of invite a flaw of Heisman Trophy system


For those of you disgusted with the 925 members of the media, and maybe even the past Heisman Trophy winners, for not allowing Graham Harrell a free trip to New York, I'm with you.

But understand this — it's not the voters' fault that Texas Tech's super-sensational quarterback won't be on stage alongside fellow brilliant QBs Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow Saturday night.

Rather, it's the system's fault. (A college-football theme, right?)

As it stands now, the number of Heisman Trophy candidates invited to the Big Apple is determined by the number of points players get from voting. Unfortunately for Harrell, voters only choose their top three candidates.

And according to Heisman coordinator Tim Henning (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal): "We have had as little as three finalists and as many as six finalists in the past. The finalists are determined by the natural breaking point in the voting."

In other words, Harrell may easily be the fourth-best player in the country. But unless a good portion of voters thought he was better than at least one of the aforementioned invited players, he wasn't going to receive the plane ticket, hotel room and chance to meet past winners.

If I had a vote, I'd take Tebow, Bradford, then McCoy. So I don't blame the voters one bit for Harrell not getting the opportunity in the spotlight. They had to pick their top three, and most college-football analysts are in agreement when it comes to the sport's trio of most-deserving players.

Harrell had a great season, but he wasn't quite on the level — just barely — of the trio of finalists. And his team's loss, unlike theirs, was an embarrassing blowout at the hands of the Sooners. So if only three of the nation's four premier signal-callers could go to New York, the correct players are packing their bags.

Of course, it shouldn't have to be this way.

There needs to be a rule stipulating that there should be four finalists each season. Not three, not five — four. That's been the case most of the years I've watched the presentation.

And it's the right number. Big enough that no player as notable as Harrell is left off. Small enough to avoid turning the ceremony into a three-hour affair when you know three of the candidates are simply there for the handshakes with former winners and free food.

In truth, a trip for Harrell would have been just that. Even before being voted off the island, no one believed the senior had a chance. In fact, the Red Raiders became an afterthought following the No-Show in Norman. They had a phenomenal season, won the greatest game of the year, surprised a whole bunch of people who couldn't locate Lubbock on a map and were always fun to watch.

But, unfortunately, schools like Texas Tech have a very slim margin for error and can't afford a loss, especially a 65-21 beatdown on primetime TV. Once that happened, the Red Raiders' national-title hopes were dashed along with Harrell's Heisman campaign. Fair or not, it's reality.

His numbers, however, can't be ignored (and, no, he wasn't just a "product" of Mike Leach's system). Normal quarterbacks, regardless of where they play, don't throw for 4,747 yards and 41 touchdowns. Yes, the Big 12 defenses weren't exactly SEC-tough. But they were still challenging to play against, particularly on the road, and Harrell passed every test but that one in Norman.

And, it should be mentioned, he threw for the second-most yards (15,429) of any major-college player. And that player, Hawaii's Timmy Chang, faced far worse defenses.

So just because he won't dress up in a fancy suit and shake hands with Archie Griffin, let's not forget Graham Harrell. Let's not forget the memorable last-second drive he engineered in Texas Tech's thrilling win over Texas, which culminated with Harrell throwing a perfect timing patter on the sideline to the nation's best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree.

Let's remember the great season, and career, Harrell had while we watch the three finalists smile for the cameras at the presentation.

And let's hope that the BCS isn't the only college-football system that is modified in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

With two big upsets, expectations skyrocket for Michigan


It's amusing what two games — 80 minutes of court time — can do for a basketball program and those who follow it, or now follow it thanks to the wins.

A month ago, there was mild optimism surrounding the Michigan basketball team as it got set to kick off its second season under the watch of coach John Beilein. Coming off a 10-22 season, no one doubted that the Wolverines — with almost all their key players back — would be improved. Most, like myself, predicted a winning record and NIT berth for the team.

So much for that.

With wins over a pair of No. 4 teams, UCLA and Duke — now ranked 16th and seventh, respectively, in the latest AP poll — Michigan fans are thinking of one goal for this team. It's something that the program, astoundingly, hasn't reached since a year when Bill Clinton still had two-plus years left in his presidency and Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were loved like cute puppies.

The year was 1998, and it was the last time the Wolverines smelled the NCAA Tournament.

Now, with Michigan sitting 6-2 and just outside of the Top 25, people in and around Ann Arbor expect big things out of this team. Just visit the Ann Arbor News' message board, where one frequent poster wrote the following:

"I am looking for a final four appearance within five years, maybe sooner."

Final Four? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. An opportunity to go Dancing would be a big, big start.

But don't bet your iPod on it. This team is much, much better than a year ago; this team has the coach and players to consistently perform like it did in Saturday's 81-73 shocker over the Blue Devils, to prove it wasn't a fluke; the two wins will undoubtedly help if Michigan is on the "bubble" come early March...

Let's just see how the Wolverines handle the newfound attention. We should get a good idea of it during the next three weeks. And I, for one, think it's a good thing the team was left out of both top-25 polls; getting at all complacent could be disastrous.

Michigan finishes the bulk of its non-conference schedule with home games against Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf-Coast and North Carolina Central, and a neutral-court game versus Oakland. The Wolverines will be heavily favored in every game. How will they handle it?

It shouldn't be forgotten that the Wolverines needed overtime to beat Savannah State — in front of a measly crowd — a week before knocking off the Devils, which caused the sellout crowd to storm the court. Will Michigan, playing to similarly small crowds, bring the same energy against lesser opponents?

They better, because a letdown in the upcoming quartet of games would count as a "bad loss" come March.

It's not an easy stretch for 19-year-olds to concentrate during, what with final exams, the holidays and a good portion of the student body home with their families for about two weeks. At the same time, with only the four games during a 23-day period, I'm sure Beilein and his staff view it as a time to really get all the players on the same wavelength and try to set the rotation for the Big Ten schedule.

These are very happy times in and around the confines of Crisler Arena. The memory of a year ago is fading — and with it any doubts that Beilein is the right coach for the Wolverines. The man knows what he's doing. How else can you explain bringing in freshman Zack Novak, who wouldn't get a scholarship from many Division I teams?

And, yep, Novak drilled four 3-pointers, including the two biggest shots of the game, against Duke.

Beilein might not rake in top-10 national recruits, but he'll definitely continue to reel in players who fit his system. And anyone who has followed his career path knows that his system works against the best competition.

So is the program going to continue to get better?

Undoubtedly, as long as Beilein sticks around.

But is this team headed to the NCAA Tournament?

My mind tells me "yes" at the moment, but there remain many more games — some of them very difficult, some of them looking like even matchups, some with the appearance of games this team should win.

If the young Wolverines take care of those "should-win" games and win a few of the even matchups, they'll find themselves back, finally, in the only college-basketball tournament that matters. If they have more lapses, like the five-minute one that lost the game for them at Maryland Wednesday, they may have to settle for that prognosticated NIT berth.

Either way, things are looking up — way up — for Beilein and his kids. The win over Duke was the grandest since an upset of then-No. 1 Duke in 1997.

Just don't think, all of a sudden, that anything is guaranteed for this team. The survival against Savannah State should make that very clear.

The Wolverines earned their wins over UCLA and Duke by playing hard and composed for most of 40 minutes.

They'll have to continue to do the same to continue winning and not put a damper on these highly increased expectations.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Now is the time for Curry to tinker


Relax, Pistons fans. Yes, your team isn't exactly putting together winning streaks. Yes, the 11-6 record isn't up to the standard of the past six seasons. And yes, those stinking Cleveland Cavaliers and their New York-loving superstar are up three and a half games on your team in the Central Division...

Relax. Because every fact from the above paragraph has almost no meaning.

Here's what does matter: The Pistons will be back in the playoffs come springtime. I'd bet this nice laptop plus my car on that.

Here's what else is important: First-year coach Michael Curry knows what he's doing. He's performing admirably at focusing on the regular season, but simultaneously keeping his eyes on the only objective that really matters for this recently underachieving franchise: making it back to the NBA Finals and winning a championship.

Curry knew what he was getting into when he accepted Joe Dumars' blessing. A 60-22 regular season might be nice for a day, but coupled with another exit from the Eastern Conference finals, it would mean nothing and impress no one. The same can be said of winning another division title or even finishing with the conference's and/or league's best record.

Who cares?

Curry knows all this, and that's why — even here in early December, when the playoffs seem decades away — he is thinking ahead with each game. He won't admit that, but he's simply doing his job.

And that entails establishing a rotation of players he can trust come mid-April. Not just five starters and maybe a sixth man, but a larger group of players who have all played substantially and will have the ability to play big minutes — if needed — when the games count most.

The plebe coach showed off his willingness to play anyone in a loss the other night to the Portland Trail Blazers. When a lineup that included reserves Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo made a run to give the Pistons a brief fourth-quarter lead, Curry stuck with his backups and left starting small forward Tayshaun Prince on the bench the entire final quarter.

Detroit went on to lose, and Prince didn't understand why he hadn't been reinserted, but Curry backed up his decision by saying Prince hadn't played well. And the numbers verify his impact on the game: Detroit was outscored by 23 points while he was on the floor.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Prince is less talented than Johnson or couldn't have helped lead Detroit to victory. But Curry went with the players who had gotten their team back in the game. And despite the loss, the trio had to gain confidence from knowing that their coach believed in them to make plays during crunch time. (And, again, the outcomes at this point don't matter so much.)

The move to go with his reserves wasn't isolated, either — although I wouldn't expect starters to sit out too many more entire fourth quarters of close games. Curry said earlier in the week that he expects to continue to cut his starters' playing time at least a little bit. This is a smart move in two respects.

One, it keeps the older starting lineup more fresh. Allen Iverson said recently that he can't find his rhythm playing fewer minutes than he's averaged during his career. Well, the 33-year-old has 65 games to figure out how to find it. That's the benefit of the Pistons' trade for the superstar happening so early in the season.

Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton need to be ready to play their best basketball, not to mention be healthy as can be, come playoff time. It's no secret that the Pistons go as Wallace goes. If he's playing well and finds the range from behind the 3-point arc, Detroit is a very dangerous team.

The Pistons are even more potent when they're getting consistent production from their bench. As we saw in last year's playoffs, Stuckey can play with and against the top dogs and isn't afraid of big-time situations. With the benefit of more minutes under his belt, he'll only become better. Afflalo has shown he can not only lock down on defense, but he can shoot the ball too. He just needs the minutes in real-game situations to become more confident in that part of his game.

Detroit will surely benefit from the return of Antonio McDyess — and his mid-range shooting ability — when he returns off waivers probably next week, but it would be smart to bring him off the bench. By inserting him into the lineup instead of current starter Kwame Brown, Curry would effectively have his five best offensive players beginning the game on the court.

I don't like it. At least one forward and one guard who can score need to be stashed on the bench so that when games start out poorly for the starting five, they can be inserted to provide a "spark," an offensive shot to the arm. When McDyess returns, he'll be Detroit's lone reliable scorer at the forward position off the pine (if, indeed, that's where he begins games).

Of course, there remain 65 games for Johnson, Brown and Jason Maxiell to get valuable experience and gain confidence for the postseason. And with the way Curry's coaching this team, I expect to see some positive gains from them. If nothing else, he'll determine who he can trust in tight spots.

So, relax, Pistons fans. A loss in December means close to nothing.

Unless, of course, it puts the Lions closer to 0-16.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Barkley's right: LeBron should be quiet


The Summer of 2010 remains a long way off. For instance, here are a few sports events that should happen before then:

The Detroit Lions will win a game. Maybe not multiple games, but a game. Hey, that's a start.

Roger Federer will break Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand-slam titles.

Tiger Woods will inch closer to breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

The Michigan basketball team will make its first NCAA Tournament since the long-ago year of 1998.

And on we go...

The point is that November 2008 is no time to be talking about that far-away summer. Not even the almighty LeBron James has that right — yes, even if he's asked that question by the oppressive New York media.

This is what James had to say when asked about the possibility of playing in a New York Knicks uniform after he becomes a free agent:

"I don't know if it's going to happen. But you have to stay open-minded if you're a Knicks fan."

Charles Barkley might have been a controversial player, but you could never doubt his loyalty to the team he was on. After James' visit to the Big Apple, the outspoken former All-Star gave James some sage advice (though he could have worded it more politically correct).

"If I was LeBron James, I would shut the hell up," Barkley said on Dan Patrick's radio show. "I'm a big LeBron fan. He's a stud. You gotta give him his props. I'm getting so annoyed he's talking about what he's going to do in two years. I think it's disrespectful to the game. I think it's disrespectful to the Cavaliers."

Barkley couldn't be more correct. And thankfully he spoke out, because we'll never hear a member of the Cleveland organization speak out against James — unless he kidnaps a cute kid or shoots himself in the leg, or something — because they don't want to do anything that will lower the probability of James re-signing with Cleveland in that much-talked-about summer.

To summarize, James has the Cavaliers hog-tied. He can do whatever he likes, within the law, and say whatever he wants. And hardly anyone in Cleveland will talk bad about him.

So how did James so eloquently respond to Barkley's comment?

"He's stupid. That's all I've got to say about that."

Nice and succinct. Hey, kind of like the answer James should have given when asked about the Summer of 2010.

Seriously. James is a smart man. He understands how the world works. He reads the news, knows what's being said, knows how certain comments are reacted to. So obviously he was aware of how his comments would be interpreted.

All he had to say was this (which, of course, is boring and typical, but also the right thing to say given the situation): "My focus right now is on the Cleveland Cavaliers. I'll deal with that decision when the time comes."

We hear smart athletes make similar statements all the time. Do we enjoy the non-answers to questions? Of course not — they're boring and don't tell us anything. But from the athletes' perspectives, they're doing what's right for their situations.

Now, the immediate impact of James' flirtation with the New York media hasn't seemed to affect his team. The Cavs are on a roll, having won all three games since their rout of the Knicks last Tuesday. While the players had to deal with questions about 2010 instead of their current dominant team, they haven't let the distraction affect their play.

Cleveland rested Monday night 14-3, three and a half games ahead of sagging Detroit in the Eastern Conference's Central Division. Its next game is a home rematch with the Knicks Wednesday night.

The Cavaliers are clearly the second-best team in the East behind the defending-champion Celtics. And last season's playoff series between the teams went to an epic seventh game, which Boston barely survived. So the difference between the squads isn't as big as some might make it out to be.

The point is that James is in a pretty good situation. It's not like he's part of a dysfunctional franchise run by idiots. This Cleveland team, with its current makeup, is capable of winning an NBA title. Sure, it'd help for James to have an All-Star sidekick such as Michael Redd.

But it's not like Cleveland did nothing during the offseason to help James' cause. The Cavs signed point guard Mo Williams, who is only the team's second-leading scorer and is dishing out 4.6 assists per game (also second on the team behind you-know-who).

James has nothing to complain about — except Cleveland's crappy weather — and to his credit, he has been very upbeat about the 2008-09 Cavaliers.

So why even think about 2010? Why look ahead at all. The opportunity that sits in front of James this season has to be as tantalizing as the thought of moving to New York in 2010:

James has a chance to lead the city arguably the most hungry for a major-sports title to a championship. By giving Cleveland a title, or sticking around and winning multiple trophies, James could be remembered as the single greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland.

If he goes to New York, he'll be fighting Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, and company, and the handfuls of championships the various sports teams have captured. If he made the move and didn't win a title there, he'd be termed a failure. That wouldn't happen in Cleveland.

But that's James' decision to make ... in a year and a half.

Until then, he'd be smart to devote all his basketball attention to the great opportunity he has in Cleveland playing on one of the NBA's best teams in front of adoring sold-out crowds every night.

Live in the present, LeBron; the Summer of 2010 will be here soon enough.