Greg Eno

Lions’ Caldwell Doesn’t Seem to Have the Knucklehead Gene

In football on September 14, 2014 at 1:12 am

It was yet another funereal post-game press conference for a Lions coach. The scene took place in Anaheim, with another sound defeat in the books.

The Lions had been manhandled by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, dropping their record to 1-4.

The coach, Monte Clark, stepped up to the podium, ready to answer the usual “What happened?” questions.

Clark gave his version of what happened, trying to explain away the bloodletting on the gridiron. But just before stepping down and heading back to the locker room, Clark added one more comment.

“See you at the cemetery,” Clark told the media.

The inference was clear. Clark wouldn’t have been surprised if his firing was impending.

Clark wasn’t alone in that feeling.

The Lions were 9-7 in 1980 but missed the playoffs, despite a 4-0 start, which prompted some players to record a bastardized version of Queen’s hit song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The Lions went 8-8 in 1981, missing the playoffs on the final Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed Detroit its only home loss of the season to swipe the Central Division crown.

The Lions made the playoffs in 1982’s strike-shortened year, despite a 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins, eventual Super Bowl champs, demolished Clark’s team, showing what they thought of a team with a losing record making the postseason.

Then came 1983’s 1-4 start, which prompted Clark, in his sixth season as Lions coach, to make his ominous remark.

Clark survived the season, and in fact, the Lions won the division with a 9-7 record. They went 8-3 after the coach’s words of resignation.

Monte Clark’s “See you at the cemetery” line is just one of many defining moments of Lions coaches that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons.

Darryl Rogers, Clark’s successor, had his moment when he gazed up at the pigeons that had landed on the Silverdome’s roof during practice, circa 1988, with the Lions foundering as usual. Some writers were nearby, within earshot.

“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” was Rogers’ iconic moment.

Wayne Fontes said “I’m the big buck” as he talked about the criticism levied his way in the early-1990s.

Bobby Ross, Fontes’ successor,  in a fit of frustration and anger after a loss on the road, railed “I don’t coach that stuff!” as he agonized over yet another mistake-filled loss.

Marty Mornhinweg, the overmatched coach tabbed by rookie GM Matt Millen in 2001, said at his introductory press conference, “The bar is high.”

Twenty-seven losses in 32 games followed. Maybe Marty meant that the bar of embarrassment was high.

Steve Mariucci followed, and his introduction was over the top at Ford Field. There was a long walk to the stage and the whole thing was awash in pomp and circumstance.

“Wow,” Mooch said as he gazed at the press in 2003 as Millen and the Lions presented him as the savior.

A little more than two years later, Mariucci was fired after a cringe-inducing loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Atlanta Falcons.

Rod Marinelli, Mariucci’s successor, talked of “pounding the rock.” The Lions pounded it to the tune of a winless season in 2008.

Jim Schwartz came after Marinelli, and Schwartz was a hothead that couldn’t execute a post-game handshake without drama. His players got into trouble off the field a lot. Schwartz also gave it to the fans last year with a less-than-respectful gesture. The players, under Schwartz, took on his personality, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Before all of the above, Harry Gilmer was pelted with snowballs as he jogged off the Tiger Stadium field after what would turn out to be his final game as Lions coach, in 1966.

All iconic moments and quotes from Lions coaches, and none of them good.

Jim Caldwell, the new head coach for 2014 and beyond, doesn’t seem to have that gene.

It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.

The Lions coach seems to have his act together.

There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.

Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.

Joe Schmidt (1967-72) remains the last Lions coach to leave the franchise with a winning record in Detroit. But Schmidt had his moments of frustration, which culminated in him resigning in January 1973, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.

Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced  coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.

That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.

There doesn’t appear to be drama in the Lions’ future with Caldwell as coach. Even in this day of the NFL’s players on a string of bad behavior off the field, Caldwell exudes calm and control. You get the feeling that the ship is under a firm, experienced hand.

Again, whether that translates into wins and success remains to be seen.

The Lions are 1-0 at this writing, having summarily dismissed the considerably inferior New York Giants last Monday night.

But the Lions’ lack of discipline, a thorn in the team’s side for years, appeared to have reared its head against the Giants, with eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half.

It’s not clear what Caldwell said or did at halftime, but his team played a clean second half—zero penalties.

He even had a clean handshake after the game with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

The coach can’t make his players write, “I will not commit a holding penalty” 100 times on the chalkboard. He can’t make them stand in the corner, facing the wall. It’s not even as simple as benching a guy in favor of his backup.

But I do know that football players often take on the personality and behavior of their coach, for good or for bad.

I won’t make any predictions about the Lions’ won/loss record this year.

I will, though, say that it doesn’t seem like Jim Caldwell is destined to say or do anything goofy that will become his defining moment as Lions coach.

That, in of itself, would seem to be an upgrade over coaches of the past.

Is Johnson, Next Lions Hall of Famer, Lined Up For Team Success As Well?

In football on September 8, 2014 at 2:50 am

The game was played the day after Christmas, a Saturday in 1970. The match still haunts the Lions franchise.

The National Football League, expanded in one season from 16 to 26 teams thanks to the merger with the American Football League, changed its playoff format for the 1970 campaign.

The league had split, like an amoeba, into two conferences with three divisions in each of the NFC and AFC. So Commissioner Pete Rozelle added a Wild Card in each conference. The Wild Cards would combine with the three divisional winners to form a Final Four in each conference.

The Lions, for all their ignominy, nonetheless have the distinction of being the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card team.

The Lions won the last five games of their 1970 schedule and finished the season 10-4, which was the best record of all the second place teams in the NFC. Hence the Wild Card berth.

A trip to Dallas awaited the Lions to play the franchise’s first post-season game in 13 years. The playoff game against the Cowboys would be contested in the old Cotton Bowl. It was December 26, 1970.

It turned out to be a bizarre, frustrating, horribly iconic afternoon in Texas. One that the franchise still hasn’t truly gotten over.

It would be the only playoff game for a host of great Lions players: Alex Karras (his final game played); Wayne Walker; Lem Barney; Charlie Sanders; and Dick LeBeau to name a few.

The Lions lost in Dallas in that playoff game of 1970 by the maddening score of 5-0, despite the Lions possessing one of the NFL’s most potent offenses that year.

Barney and Sanders are Hall of Fame Lions, and only Barry Sanders has joined them in Canton as representing Detroit since the aforementioned Lions careers’ ended in the late-1970s.

Barry Sanders, for his part, played in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957—a busting up of Dallas in 1991-92. But Barry never saw any real team success as a Lion, despite a few other playoff appearances.

Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders—three Hall of Famers whose Lions careers all lacked any semblance of team success.

It would be a total shame if Calvin Johnson followed in that trio’s misfortune.

Johnson is the next Lions Hall of Fame player. With seven seasons under his belt and his eighth about to begin on Monday against the New York Football Giants, Johnson practically already possesses the individual stats needed to be inducted into the Hall.

In seven seasons, Johnson has played in one playoff game. In that respect, his career seems to be trending just like those of Barney and the two Sanders—heavy on personal greatness and light on the team’s.

But if you ask Johnson, that trend is about to turn the other way.

“I believe this is our best chance to win a championship.”

The speaker was Johnson earlier in the week and presumably he said it to the media with a straight face.

“I honestly believe that,” Johnson added about his heady prediction regarding the 2014 Lions.

Fair enough.

There’s nothing wrong with optimism on the eve of a new football season. After all, if you can’t look at things through rose-colored glasses when your record is 0-0, then when can you?

It’s difficult to tell, when simply reading Johnson’s remarks, whether he was trying to convince the press or himself of the Lions’ championship chances. But he did expound, apparently with conviction. And the man reverently called Megatron was heaping praise on his new head coach, Jim Caldwell.

“You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coaches’ philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coaches want us to do, and if we’re not, if something is not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us and we’re going to get better at it and he only has to tell us one time.”

That doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of success of everyone from Rick Forzano to Jim Schwartz, but there you have it.

Johnson is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above his league brethren at wide receiver. He is bound for Canton, wearing the mustard yellow blazer and giving an acceptance speech. Someday.

But it would be awfully nice if, in addition to all the personal accolades, Calvin Johnson turns out to be a Hall of Fame Detroit Lion who has more than just an impressive set of individual numbers on his resume.

Or, to put it more bluntly, it would be criminal if the Lions wasted yet another superstar career with zero team success.

It took Barney and Charlie Sanders several appearances on the ballot before they were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the Lions’ mostly losing ways contributed greatly to Lem and Charlie’s delayed inductions, given that they were each among the best of their respective positions for most of their careers.

Barry Sanders was a first-ballot inductee, but that was a no-brainer, no matter what team he played for. Think Gale Sayers and those awful Bears teams.

Now here we have Johnson, who is the Lions’ best player since Barry Sanders, and Calvin is eight years into a professional career that has seen as many winless seasons as playoff games.

But the rub is that Johnson, I believe, today plays on as good of a Lions team as Barry Sanders ever did, and there ought to be some multiple playoff appearances in the near future.

Johnson’s remarks certainly agree with my very non-expert opinion.

It all has to be proven on the field, of course. And the Lions traditionally don’t do that.

The Lions wasted the genius of Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders. They’d better not do so with Calvin Johnson, their next Hall of Famer.

 

Silver and Black and Blue

In football on September 3, 2014 at 2:30 am

With the pro football fan base ushering in new and younger members every autumn, it’s time to write this column, because we’re getting dangerously close to the point where the newest and the youngest may not know of what I am about to impart.

Gather ’round the keyboard and let me tell you of a time when the NFL was terrorized by the Silver and Black.

For those who remember it, the dominance of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders occurred in a time that only exists in grainy NFL Films footage. It’s something you recall only with John Facenda’s voice narrating.

And any recollection surely must involve images of managing general partner Al Davis prowling the field before a game, donning sunglasses, wearing lots of jewelry and with his hands shoved into his polyester pants pockets. He looked like a disco owner.

The Raiders—or, more accurately, Da Raiduhs—were a collection of misfits and rough customers whose slogan was “Just Win, Baby” and whose theme was A Commitment to Excellence.

The Raiders didn’t just win football games, they beat the opponents into submission. Teams went into the Coliseum in Oakland and the first things they were offered were a blindfold and a cigarette. Before playing, the opposition asked that the game be commuted.

The Raiders glory days began in February, 1969 in the American Football League, when Davis—who once coached the team himself earlier in the decade—hired a little-known assistant named John Madden to take over the team from predecessor John Rauch. Madden, at age 32, became pro football’s youngest head coach.

In Madden’s ten years coaching the Raiders before switching headsets from the coaching ones to the broadcasting variety (1969-78), the team’s winning percentage was .763. The Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings in January, 1977 to win Super Bowl XI.

The recipe for success was odd but effective.

Davis, an old AFL guy from the league’s gunslinging days, never met a forward pass he didn’t like. So in 1967 he traded for Daryle Lamonica, a quarterback from Notre Dame who’d been Jack Kemp’s backup in Buffalo, and Davis told Lamonica to let it fly.

The Raiders treated 3rd-and-four like it was 3rd-and-40. They stretched the field like a rubber band.

Eventually Lamonica would be tagged with the nickname “The Mad Bomber” for his propensity to try to move down the field in two or three plays, max.

The other oddly successful part of Davis’ recipe was his fascination with the ne’er-do-well.

Starting in earnest in the 1970s, the Raiders became a home for players who had been cast-offs by other teams in the NFL.

Some of the players were released or traded because their former teams didn’t think they were good enough to play in the league. Others rubbed their former bosses the wrong way. In both instances, the Raiders welcomed those ostracized players into the Silver and Black fold with open arms.

The eclectic blend of homegrown Raiders and guys plucked off the waiver wire, under Madden, ran roughshod over the NFL in the ’70s. Except in the playoffs.

To be a member of the Raiders was to have an annual sour taste in your mouth when the final gun sounded in the postseason.

Finally, in 1976, Madden’s guys went all the way, blasting the Minnesota Vikings out of the Rose Bowl in Super Bowl XI, 32-14.

Two more Super Bowl wins followed after the 1980 and 1983 seasons, both under coach Tom Flores (a former AFL quarterback) and quarterback Jim Plunkett, who was the epitome of the Rescued Raider.

Plunkett was a two-time loser with the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers, the no. 1 overall draft pick out of Stanford in 1971. The words “draft bust” began to follow him around when Davis came calling in 1979.

Plunkett wasn’t even in the league when the Raiders signed him, having missed the 1978 season. And he was 33 years old when he led the Raiders over the Philadelphia Eagles in SB XV. Three years later, at 36, Plunkett did it again—beating the heavily favored Washington Redskins.

By this time the franchise had begun its 13-year stay (1982-94) in Los Angeles.

Those days of Silver and Black dominance are long gone. Today’s Raiders are dressed just like their brethren did in the salad days—the uniforms haven’t changed in almost 50 years—but they play like a bad Double-A affiliate. The colors are the same, but today they are silver and black, sans the capitalization.

Since playing (and losing) in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, the Raiders are 53-123. A typical season is 4-12 or 5-11. The closest they came to a winning record was a pair of 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011.

Just Win One, Baby.

Al Davis is dead and so is the Raiders mystique.

Never have the Raiders, in their 54 year history (dating back to their AFL debut in 1960), gone through a dry spell anywhere near as long as this current 11-year sojourn in the desert.

Since the Super Bowl appearance in 2003, the Raiders have burned through six coaches. Their current, and seventh one is someone named Dennis Allen, who’s also the first of the bunch to start so much as a third season.

The Raiders used to intimidate. Their black jerseys with the silver numerals and their silver helmets with the dude with the eye patch used to define winning in an iconic way.

Not anymore.

The Raiders, with their nine seasons of double-digit losses in the past 11, are a laughing stock.

ESPN, to which I loathe to give too much credit, nonetheless released their Week 1 power rankings today.

The Worldwide Leader lists the Raiders 32nd—dead last—in the NFL.

Part of the reason why ESPN doesn’t like the Raiders all that much is that they don’t have a quarterback, among other things.

Coach Allen named Derek Carr as the starter last week. You’re excused if you don’t know who he is. Carr is the Raiders’ second round pick this past May, out of Fresno State. He beat out veteran Matt Schaub for the starting job.

Truth is, the Raiders haven’t had a quarterback for years. Or a running game. Or much of a defense.

That’s why they go 4-12 every year.

So the Derek Carr Era begins.

Just try not to embarrass yourself, baby.

 

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