Greg Eno

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

In Hockey on August 17, 2014 at 4:45 pm

It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.

A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.

As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.

Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.

You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.

Ilitch seemed unaware.

It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.

His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.

Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.

In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.

The announcement made little fanfare.

Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.

Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.

As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Devellano made good on his promise.

So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.

Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.

It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.

Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.

In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.

Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.

Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.

But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.

The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.

The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.

Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.

Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.

Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.

It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.

Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.

Fair enough.

But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.

The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.

Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.

It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.

Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.

Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

Mitchell, Once a Big Loser with Lions, Needs to Lose Again

In football on August 10, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Twenty years ago, Scott Mitchell was the NFL’s biggest winner. Two decades later, he’s trying to be the Biggest Loser.

Lions fans no doubt snickered upon the news this week that former quarterback Mitchell was going to be among the contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” which is a competition show—in this case, to see who can lose the most weight.

And Mitchell has a lot to lose.

Mitchell, it was announced, checks in these days at 366 pounds. He is now as big as the behemoths assigned to protect him on the offensive line back in the day.

It’s fitting that Mitchell has a lot to lose, because never did an NFL quarterback gain as much as Mitchell did from someone else’s Achilles heel injury.

I have often wondered if Mitchell sends Dan Marino a Christmas card every year. Or maybe a check would be more appropriate.

In 1994, Mitchell was a free agent. He parlayed an injury to Marino’s Achilles in 1993 into big bucks with the Lions.

I remember watching the game where Miami’s Marino went down. It was in Cleveland. The play was innocuous. Marino, who was never much of a scrambler, got some happy feet in the pocket during a pass rush and in a freak way, landed funny on his Achilles.

He heard that dreadful “pop” sound and went down like a sack of doorknobs.

The date was October 10, 1993.

Mitchell was 25 years old at the time, a fourth round draft pick in 1990 out of Utah. In his first three seasons as a Dolphin, Mitchell threw eight NFL passes, completing two.

Now he was called upon to replace the greatest QB in Dolphins history and one of the best to ever play the position in NFL history.

The Dolphins had a bye week after Marino’s injury, which put him out for the rest of the season. In a panic, the Dolphins signed 39 year-old Steve DeBerg as insurance.

But DeBerg didn’t know the Dolphins’ offense. Mitchell did. Three seasons plus five games holding a clipboard teaches you something, I suppose.

Mitchell won his first start, a 41-27 win over the dreadful (at the time) Indianapolis Colts. Mitchell completed 12 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.

The next week, Mitchell was much better, against a much better opponent.

Going up against the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Montana, Mitchell went 22-for-33 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. The Dolphins won, 30-10 to improve to 6-1 on the season.

Then, a loss to the New York Jets. Mitchell was 23/44 for 297 yards with a TD and an interception. A dose of reality struck.

The following week, Mitchell was bad before an injury put him out of the game. Miami coach Don Shula turned to DeBerg as the Dolphins season was teetering.

DeBerg went 2-2 as the starter before he relinquished the job back to Mitchell, who was now healed.

The Dolphins’ 7-2 start spiraled into a 9-7 finish, which put them out of the playoffs.

But it was Mitchell’s personal performance in relief of Marino that made him a hot commodity as the 1994 free agent season beckoned, despite the team’s decline toward the end of the season.

His numbers as Marino’s replacement weren’t gaudy but they weren’t bad, either: 133/233 (57.1); 1,773 yards; 12 TD; 8 interceptions. His record was 3-4.

It wasn’t Johnny Unitas stuff, but the Lions, as usual, were desperate for a quarterback.

They had tried a triumvirate of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware in 1993, and even though the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, that three-headed monster wasn’t going to be the answer at the game’s most important position.

So the Lions gave Mitchell’s agent a ring in early 1994.

If Mitchell was good enough for Shula to make do with, then who were the Lions to question?

Mitchell signed a fat contract with Detroit. The Lions finally found their quarterback!

There was a lot to like about Scott Mitchell in 1994. He was 6-foot-6. He was agile. He had learned the position at the feet of Marino and Shula, two Hall of Famers. And he had been pressed into action in 1993 and while the results weren’t overwhelming, nor were they atrocious.

Mitchell struggled to start the 1994 season before he went down with an injury about halfway through the season. The injury was well-timed, because the fans were well on their way to dismembering Mitchell on sports talk radio and around the water cooler—and at the Silverdome.

He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, which in the era of rules designed to punish defensive backs, was shockingly bad.

Veteran Dave Krieg took over for Mitchell and led the Lions to the playoffs. But Krieg split as a free agent after the season.

Mitchell, healed, set records for the Lions in 1995 in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. The Lions made the playoffs for the third year in a row, with three different starting quarterbacks, which is just like them.

But under the postseason spotlight in Philadelphia, Mitchell laid one of the biggest eggs of any quarterback in league playoff history.

Mitchell was 13/29 with a TD and four interceptions—all in the first half, after which the Eagles led the Lions, 38-7. One of the four picks was returned for a touchdown.

Two years later, the Lions made the playoffs again and Mitchell pulled another infamous postseason stunt.

In Tampa, running a sneak play, the players all got up from the turf accept for one: Scott Mitchell.

Mitchell was down and he stayed down for several minutes. It was a stinking sneak play but Mitchell acted like he had been shot.

He was carted off the field on a stretcher.  The Lions lost.

Whatever doubts Lions fans—and teammates—had about Mitchell’s durability and, frankly, courage, were confirmed on the field at Tampa in that playoff game.

Two games into the 1998 season, after throwing a pick-six in overtime at home against Cincinnati, Mitchell was demoted to being rookie Charlie Batch’s backup.

Three years later, Mitchell was out of the league.

He coached some high school football at his alma mater (2008-2012) before resigning to spend more time at his software business.

Now he’s 366 pounds and wants to be the Biggest Loser.

Mitchell turned his good fortune due to Marino’s injury into two bad (for the Lions) contracts—his original one signed in 1994 and an extension a couple years later. Marino’s popped Achilles made Scott Mitchell millions.

According to Mitchell’s bio on “The Biggest Loser” website, the former QB suffers from sleep apnea and high blood pressure. He blames poor diet choices and a busy lifestyle for the startling weight gain.

Mitchell’s era at quarterback is one of many dark spots in Lions history. But his father died earlier this year from obesity-related issues and if there’s anytime to root for Scott Mitchell to lose, it’s now.

The irony is that, 20 years ago, when he came to Detroit, Mitchell had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

When it Comes to Punters, He’s Their Guy

In football on August 3, 2014 at 4:38 pm

If they wanted to put a punter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame long before now, I have one for you.

Of course, they didn’t call Sammy Baugh “Slingin’ Sammy” because of his foot.

Baugh isn’t famously known as “Bootin’ Sammy.” I get it.

But Baugh, the Washington Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback/defensive back (he intercepted 31 passes) from 1937-51, did triple duty from 1939-47, functioning as the team’s punter as well. And his numbers booting the ball for the Skins are eye-popping.

Baugh’s career punting average was 45.1 yards per kick, and Sammy wasn’t kicking the harder, lighter, more tightly-sewn pigskin that is used in the more modern era. The footballs Baugh punted were sort of like kicking sacks of flour.

In 1940, Baugh punted 35 times to the tune of a 51.4 yard average.

In Baugh’s day, “hang time” referred to public executions. But the grainy film footage that still exists shows Baugh’s kicks weren’t just long, they were high and majestic.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its 2014 class over the weekend, and one of the new members is Ray Guy.

You could hear the snickers from Maine to California when the Oakland Raiders made Guy, from Southern Mississippi, their first round pick (23rd overall) in the 1973 draft.

To that point, no NFL team had selected a pure punter in the first round. In fact, punters weren’t picked in the second, third, or fourth rounds all that much, either.

There were a few reasons for this.

One, Guy came along at a time when NFL rosters began to expand, giving teams the luxury of having foot specialists of sorts on board. In the days of the 40-man roster, anyone who could rear a leg back and boot a ball doubled as punter. Quarterbacks punted. Linebackers punted. Defensive backs punted (as Lem Barney did for the Lions in his first two years in the league, and as Yale Lary did before Barney). Placekickers punted.

Two, the strategy of playing for field position was a foreign concept before Ray Guy started booming footballs into the sky.

Three, the concept of hang time was also mostly disregarded until teams saw that when Guy punted, the Raiders coverage team arrived at the same time as the ball did into the return man’s hands.

Guy’s leg, when fully extended after a boot, turned his body into the letter “E” with the top and bottom missing.

Guy punted, and the football would stay in the air forever. You could watch Guy catch the snap, and you could then go to the bathroom, and come out in time to see the return.

Around the time Guy entered the league, another term started cropping up. It was called the “coffin corner,” and it referred to punts that would be buried deep in the opponents’ zone, out of bounds, usually inside the ten yard line.

Guy was a master of the coffin corner kick as well.

But it was the hang time, those often five-plus seconds that the football was in the air, that made Guy a consistent Pro Bowl and All-Pro punter.

Guy punted. That’s all he did. He didn’t place kick. He didn’t hold. He wasn’t the Raiders’ backup quarterback.

But Guy was a weapon for the Raiders, and leave it to maverick owner Al Davis to envision how valuable a leg like Guy’s could be to his team’s well-being.

Guy changed field position to the Raiders’ advantage on a consistent basis. His punting wasn’t just long and high, it was precise and strategic. Guy was like the champion golfer who could back spin an approach shot onto the green from 175 yards out of the rough, over trees and in front of the bunkers, and have it land six feet from the pin.

With Guy as their punter, the Raiders weren’t playing football on a gridiron like the other teams; they were playing on a battlefield and Guy’s kicks were like grenades landing in the opponents’ soft underbelly.

But despite Guy’s success, no other NFL team could pull the trigger on drafting a punter in the first round.

But again, here’s where Guy’s influence comes into play.

Thanks to Guy, the Godfather of Punting, the game of football from head to, um, toe, began grooming punting specialists, starting at the high school level. The result was that the lot of pure punters increased exponentially, so there wasn’t as much urgency to grab a punter in the early rounds of the draft.

At the 1973 draft, Raiders owner Davis had a decision to make.

Guy was available, but so was a brute of a guard out of Michigan State named Joe DeLamielleure. And though the Raiders prided themselves on many things, a stellar offensive line was high on the list.

DeLamielleure would go on to a Hall of Fame career, but even he acknowledged that Davis made the right choice in selecting Guy over the guard from MSU.

“Mr. Davis, you are a smart man,” DeLamielleure said he told Davis in 1976 at the Pro Bowl in New Orleans. “I’ve never seen a right guard win a game, but I’ve seen Ray Guy win them. You made the right choice.”

When news broke early this year that Guy would be part of the Hall’s Class of 2014, a couple members of his football fraternity got an idea.

Former NFL punters Greg Coleman and Bryan Barker burned up the phone lines, inviting as many fellow punters as they could to induction weekend at Canton, Ohio.

The result was a gathering of 18 punters whose careers spanned nearly five decades.

“He put us on the map,” Coleman said of Guy. “There weren’t too many punters who had a five-second hang time in the league.”

Because of Guy, the TV networks started superimposing hang times on the screen on Sundays. Punters started being graded on how many seconds the football was in the air and where the ball landed, in addition to sheer length of kick.

It’s not bluster to say that Ray Guy, in his way, changed the game of football.

Fittingly, he has three Super Bowl rings for his work, to boot (sorry).

It was Guy’s first pro coach, John Madden, who perhaps summed it up best, from the Raiders perspective. He spoke of Guy before the enshrinement on Saturday.

“When we got Ray Guy, fourth down wasn’t as bad as it used to be.”

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