Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This is what I call irony

From the February 17th edition of the Detroit News:
Millen spoke briefly as he was leaving town to prepare for business related to next week's annual combine testing and workouts for draft prospects in Indianapolis.

Millen is a member of the NFL's Competition Committee and will attend meetings in advance of the combine, which begins Wednesday

Matt Millen on the competition committee? If it didn't hurt so bad it would be funny.

I hate the fact that the Lions have this guy in charge. It ruins any love I can have. He is a completely unloveable loser.

Seriously, 24-72 in six wretched years and he is on the NFL competition committee. If the guy had any sort of principles or integrity he would resign his position. He has to know what a joke this is. Hubris is one strong intoxicant.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dre Bly sez 'Let Me Go'

This is classic Detroit Lions news. Dre Bly has informed the Lions that he wants to be traded.

Matt Millen must think that players trade themselves. This Bly situation appears to be oddly similar to the Joey Harrington fiasco, where the Lions decide they didn’t want a player after any other option had been exhausted and then lose all leverage in any potential deal. You would think that they could anticipate these things. That maybe a cornerback like Bly does not fit with their Tampa Two system and then trade him right away, before the other 31 teams are aware he is available. And also not wait for his value to go way down, like over the course of last season, where after two pro bowl seasons Bly was made captain (perhaps to reward calling out Harrington in the press for getting Mooch fired) and then proceeded to have his worst season as a Lion. On the other hand, he did play in all 16 games, and he is a decent enough player. And he is the best corner back on our roster. He may not be the right player for the new defensive system, but it will be tough to find somebody better.

It seems to me the best NFL front offices are ruthless in the way they operate. Is it asking too much for a little foresight to see things before they actually happen?

As we all know, its obvious Matt Millen should be fired. The 24-72 record speaks for itself. But to get to that dismal and unprecedented record of failure required the singular ability to do absolutely nothing right. This is professional football Mr. Ford. I know the whole world must seem like a fantasy to you, with all that wealth and absolutely no consequences or punishment for failure. But it’s time to wake the fuck up and get with your son Bill to find a “way forward” for the Lions too.

Lions fans have been asking for a trade for a while now: Matt Millen for somebody competent. If the Lions can do the same thing for Dre Bly, they can surely do it for their long suffering fans.

UPDATE: This actually turned out well for the Lions. We got a running back and offensive lineman for the disgruntled and over-rated Bly. Hey, even a broken clock is right two times a day. Matt Millens still can suk it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Fab Five Update

Since I am a Spartan, I’m pretty agnostic on the fallout of whatever it was that Chris Weber did to the U of M basketball program. Even though I was a fan of the Fab Five while it was happening and liked the fact that the team always came to play come tournament time, the scorched earth they left behind for the Michigan basketball program was a plus for Michigan State (about the time Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves make their stage entrances.)

I know some bad shit went down and Weber was busted for lying to a grand jury but these are things I pay little attention too. I just want to see some ball out on the court. Plus, it wasn’t like he was a thug. And, really, if somebody is going to give you thousands of dollars, chances are you are going to take it. It’s easy for the ink stained wretches to get bent out of shape about that, but the truth is, U of M and the NCAA was doing a lot of action with Weber and the boys, and that whole subject is probably a much longer post that probably is best read somewhere else, but it’s all a bit hypocritical. With my mind firmly concentrated on the here and this season, I’ve got no problems with Weber being back home again.

Also, and this goes for any sport, but mostly hockey and basketball, I am a big fan of the pass (or throw). This is what team sports are all about, making the plays that help your team and teammates succeed. It also displays creativity and intelligence when a player opens up a game like that. And Weber is a player like that.

The Pistons are evolving into a more interesting team with Weber and getting stronger as we move into the second half of the season. Last year was such a bizarre sequence of events, as the Pistons kicked ass in the regular season but by the playoffs we were like a lead race car that missed a pit stop, and just ran out of gas and momentum at the end. It went from talk of a dynasty to the Pistons being over in a matter of a few games.

It seems that Weber has re-energized the Pistons. He adds new facets to the offense and even helps on defense, not so much with his own defense, but getting the other Pistons to play. He’s raised the stakes, kicked things up a notch. I think a lot of the reason we lost to Miami last year is we become so demoralized by our complete inability to make shots and score. With Weber and the effect he is having on the other Pistons, I’m not so worried that we will lose in the same way in the playoffs.

Fully on the Bandwagon

The quick turnaround of the Tigers in their 2006 season continues to boggle the mind. Last year at this time we were hoping for a respectable winning record and today we are 5-1 to win the 2007 World Series (second only to the NY Yankees.)

It felt like we were playing with house money in last season’s playoffs. When the Tigers went up against the Yankees I fully expected them to lose. I remember watching game one with some Yankee friends and after Nate Robertson was hammered and the Tigers blown out, it looked like it was going to be a short and bitter series.

Thankfully, my Yankee friend talked some sense to me, “If there was one game you were going to lose, that was it.” How true his statement would become. Three games later the Tigers beat the Yankees on a beautiful Fall Saturday night in Michigan, setting off a raucous celebration in Detroit, something not seen for the Tigers in 22 years.

This year the expectations are higher but there is still a whole lot of serendipity. I remember when the Wings were coming out of their losing funk in late 80s/early 90s, how many times they would lose early in the playoffs. The expectations built to such a state that at times I think the Red Wings fans made the team play tight and doubt themselves: that oh-no, here-we-again feeling that would spread like a contagion around Joe Louis when the Wings would fall behind.

The Tigers came up so fast and so complete that they have spontaneously developed a swagger and confidence about their abilities to compete and win. Maybe they get a lot of this from their manager and I think the addition of Gary Sheffield can only help. A few people wrote about this last year, but they may have executed the biggest turnaround in the history of professional sports. They now have a potent mixture of experience and youth, a deep pitching staff and a promising farm system of prospects. It’s like a dream, how they turned it around. I still can’t believe it.

This is the first time since I was a kid I looked forward to a new Tigers season. As Ernie Banks would say, "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame... Let's play two!"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wings in the Times

On Sundays, the New York Times sports section is pretty good about devoting one or two pages to the NHL and ice hockey stories in general. This week was no different as they had a couple of interesting articles that made mention of the Red Wings.

In the NHL, Third Period Leads Usually Hold Up, they point out that NHL teams with the lead going into the third period win 84 percent of the time. The obvious reasons cited are that teams with the lead buckle down and play defense while the teams playing catch up often take chances on the offensive end that leave them susceptible to being scored on. The story mentions that the Wings are tied with the Montreal Canadians for the most come from behind victories in third periods this season with seven (the article was illustrated with a photograph of Henrik Zetterberg.) The Red Wings recently came from behind to beat the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden and the New York Islanders on Long Island with third period goals, perhaps inciting curiosity about how often this takes place in the NHL with the NYT assigning editor.

The Times also ran a statistic called adjusted plus/minus factor that measures a player’s plus/minus figure against his team average. Unsurprisingly, Niklas Lidstrom leads the league with a +27.6. He is the only Wing in the top ten in this category. This is further proof that a good offense is good defense, and with Lidstrom playing nearly 30 minutes a game, that is a huge amount of each game where the Wings net out positive in scoring.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Gotta Love Them Swedes

I’m not sure if Sweden was with us back when we started this war in Iraq, but it has recently come to be my favorite country (besides the US and A, of course) because of their outsized contributions to the Detroit Red Wings hockey club. Sweden has become the country to beat in international hockey competitions (winning the Olympic Gold Medal and the World Championships in 2006) and some key players on the Red Wings have played important roles in those victories.

The prototype Swede for the Red Wings is Nicklas Lidstrom, who has been their steadiest performer for more than a decade. He was the top defenseman on all three of their Stanley Cup Champion teams and is the captain (now that “The Captain” has retired) and the only max contract on the Wings. In the past, he had threatened to return to Sweden so his children could grow up in a colder but perhaps more civilized country but the lure of the winged wheel and the dollars that comes with it appears to have been too great to resist.

The Swedes are the core group of players on the Red Wings, and we drafted them ourselves, with some of them being late round steals. Henrik “Hank” Zetterberg is a prime example of a player poised to be a superstar who the Wings drafted in the 7th round, after 209 other players had been taken.

The Wings have a total of seven Swedish players although two (Andreas Lilja and Mikael Samuelsson) were acquired via trade and/or free agency so they have the taint of other teams and are not pure Red Wings.

The five Swedish players the Red Wings have drafted below, who all average around 20 minutes per game, have helped to keep the Red Wings recent winning tradition alive.

Nicklas Lidstrom (Drafted 1989, 3rd Round 53rd overall): Not sure what happened to their first and second round picks this year, but they picked up Nicklas Lidstrom in the 3rd round (74th overall) and Sergei Federov in the 4th round (95th overall). Add in Vladimir Konstantinov and you have one of the best drafts in Red Wings history. Unfortunately, we lost Konstantinov in that tragic limo crash after the 97 Stanley Cup victory and Federov left the team as a free agent to re-start his career out in Southern California before his unfortunate trade to Columbus last season.

Thomas Holmstrom (Drafted 1994, 10th round 257th overall): Thomas was lucky enough to be a rookie for the first of three Red Wings Stanley Cup champion teams. So he is our good luck charm because his timing was awesome. This guy is a nuisance in front of the net and always scores some big goals.

Henrik Zetterberg (Drafted 1999, 7th round 210th overall): The story about how we got this budding superstar is that they were at a tournament scouting Kronwall and they saw something in Zetterberg. This was before he lifted his former Swedish team, the Timra Red Eagles, into the higher leagues with his outstanding play. It’s awesome that he is signed through 2009 because he is about to become one of the elite stars in the league (according to Wayne Gretzky!)

Niklas Kronwall (Drafted 2000, 1st round, 29th overall): I guess they were actually scouting Niklas when they ran across Hank, so he gets extra credit for that. This guy is going to be an anchor on the blue line for a long time to come (knock on wood) as the Wings have been incredibly unlucky in losing solid defensive players in Konstantinov and Jiri Fisher in the past.

Johan Frenzen (Drafted 2004, 3rd round, 97th overall): I like this Johan player, sounds like a character from Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Solid third line center, the kind of kid that maybe would have come from the Ontario Hockey Leagues a generation ago.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Pistons Sad Sack Former Arch Rivals

While some hacks may be nostalgic for the days when the Pistons and the Celtics were arch rivals, I personally enjoy the fact that the Pistons kick Boston ass every time we play this mockery of a basketball franchise.

Every year the Celtics became a larger shadow of their former selves, and the Pistons continue to prove the rightness of their cause. The Pistons have won seven straight games and are 12-1 against their former archrivals in the last four seasons.

Of course, no amount of humiliation will ever ease the pain of "the play" – when Larry Bird intercepted the inbound pass of Isiah Thomas that stole a sure Pistons victory and ultimately led to the Celtics taking that series and going to the NBA finals. But it sure makes me feel better that we are on top now and the Celtics appear to be a hopeless cause.

Even in the 80s, when the Celtics played the classic NBA final series against the Showtime L.A. Lakers, this was the team you loved to hate. Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and most of all Larry Bird. I’m a Spartan and was always biased with Magic running the floor for the Lakers, but Larry Bird was never a hero of mine.

There was that famous Isiah Thomas line about Larry Bird.

"If he were black, he’d be just another good player."

Okay, wrong about that one, but our cause is right, especially since Isiah is no longer here to be a part of the Pistons cause. (Nor is Dennis Rodman who Isiah was agreeing with when he made that statement.)

The truth is, we have new rivals. His name is Shaq and we are up 2-1 on the big man, and we need to make it a trifecta this playoff season. And how about if the Pistons play the Bulls in the playoffs? The Pistons taking on their own monster of a creation. That sounds like a rivalry to me.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Original Six Showdown

See. What are they thinking? Play once a year, visit every other year. The Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers have played more than 570 times since the 1930s. Do not disrespect history. Let the teams play!

And what a game it was tonight between the two original six teams. By the time we made our brazen grab for some lower bowl seats right behind the Rangers goalie, the Wings were well on their way to a come from behind victory. They scored three unanswered goals in the third period that erased a two goal deficit.

And for me at least, there is a new hero for the winged wheels - the torch bearer for a new generation of Stanley Cup Champions - and his name is Henrik Zetterberg. Or as the old school Red Wings refer to him: Hank. The guy was everywhere and when the game ended he had scored the game winning goal and was named the first star of the game.

The poor Rangers fans could only boo their team in the final minutes of the game, while the small but vocal minority of Wings fans poured salt into those wounds ("Sorry, guys, no playoffs this year, again!")

I understand how it is to follow a cursed franchise. And despite some (okay, maybe a lot) of early playoff defeats, the Wings are a franchise that rarely lets you down. They could have been forgiven for giving up this game after falling behind by two goals on the road, but no, they kept on scrapping and fighting and now find themselves, once again, one of the top teams in the league.

Free the Red Wings!

Tonight is a beautiful night in New York City (despite the cold weather). For the first time since October 25, 2003, the Detroit Red Wings will be playing the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

You would think that since they are both professional hockey teams in the same league that they would play each other a little more often. But since the NHL has returned from its lockout, they have implemented a schedule that basically Balkanizes the league east and west.

Now the Red Wings only play original six teams like the Montreal Canadians, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers once a year, at most. Some teams they don’t play at all in a season.

Especially when it comes to the Maple Leafs, this is particularly egregious. Having a rivalry with the Maple Leafs would be healthy for the NHL. These two teams represent the two biggest, most hockey mad markets in the NHL. They are also four hours away by car and train and all the way to London, Ontario you have Wings fan. At least one home and home series between these teams in a season is a must.

The problem is the Wings are in the Western Conference, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Even more curious are division rivals Nashville and Columbus. Time will tell whether expansion to warm weather cities and small television markets was the right move for the league, but so far it has watered down the product and the moves by the league to generate interest have been puzzling.

They want to create rivalries, but playing the same team 8 times in a season can only breed familiarity of contempt. It means 40 percent of the games the Red Wings play are against their divisions rivals. (The Chicago Black Hawks make sense, though. I’ll give the NHL that one.)

There was a recent vote to amend the schedule so there would be more intra-conference play, but the owners voted it down, reportedly because some of them did not want to pay the increased travel costs. That seems to be typical NHL owner thinking, save a few dollars while overall interest in the sport continues to wane. They should be doing everything they can to get back on ESPN (now that they have four of them) and to make sure the Wings play in New York and Toronto at least once a year.

Friday, February 2, 2007

To Spend is Not to Win

Two books from Michael Lewis I’ve read in the past year have changed my perception of how professional sports teams should go about their business. The first was Moneyball about the inner workings of the Oakland Athletics front office told through their general manager Billy Beane. The other was The Blind Side, which explained (among other things) how the evolution of the passing game in the NFL has made the left tackle, the offensive lineman who protects a right handed quarterback’s blind side, one of the highest paid players on professional football teams.

After reading these books, I no longer think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money on players and coaches, because most of the time you are wasting money anyway. The premise of Moneyball was that the Oakland A’s front office built a winning team while maintaining a low payroll by finding players that had high on-base percentages. This was not a valued skill for most of the other front offices in baseball at the time, so the A’s could get players with high on-base percentages cheap. The advantage of having a player like that spilled over to the rest of the team, because the players with the high OBP often times wear out the pitchers in the process of getting their free passes to first base.

In football, and I got into this in my last post, if you are a losing team who needs to turn it around, it doesn’t make sense to hire an experienced winning coach, because you have to pay them so much more money. In the NFL, it is the rare coach who doesn't ultimately fail. I think if your team has been winning ands need to take it to that next step, it makes sense. Like the Colts hiring Tony Dungy (although he never did win the Super Bowl in Tampa, he built the team that eventually won the Super Bowl.) In the majority of cases, finding a good assistant is as good a route to winning as finding one who previously coached with success. (Latest case in point, the Raiders Al Davis hiring a 31 year old coach, who had been the offensive coordinator at USC.)

In other sports, the coach is less important. For the Oakland A’s, the manager doesn’t factor at all and he is paid an almost insultingly low salary by Billy Beane. In the interview I link to above, Michael Lewis mentions that anybody could manage a baseball team and nothing too bad would happen. You put a guy with no knowledge of football in charge of a NFL team and you would have a disaster.

Remember Larry Brown and his 30 million dollar contract with the Knicks, this after the Pistons bought out his $5 million per year salary. He didn’t last long in New York and they would have been better off making Herb Brown the coach, at a fifth of the price.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s good when an owner spends to win. But in almost all circumstances where this happens, they spend badly. So it’s best to be smart with your money and the winning will follow.