Greg Eno

Archive for November, 2007|Monthly archive page

Replay OK, But Strike Zones Are Getting Out Of Hand

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2007 at 8:06 pm

There was a time that, had you asked me if we should instill video replay into Major League Baseball, I would have knocked your hot dog out of your hand and dumped your beer on you.

That time is in the past.

MLB, as you might know, is seriously considering using video replay to resolve certain plays, notably home runs (to determine fair or foul or fan interference or over the wall or not) and fan interference in balls still in play. Other situations may become replay-ready going forward, such as whether balls are caught or trapped in the outfield.

What replay will NOT be used for (at least not now) is to determine balls and strikes, out or safe, or if a batter was hit by a pitch or not.

I would have been resistant back in the day because I felt like part of baseball’s charm was the human element in umpiring. Plus, the boys in blue pretty much got everything right — and replay usually vindicated them anyway. But the plays for which replay is being considered are ones that are genuinely tough to call with the naked eye, and I suppose I feel the time is right to let technology in a little bit.

Of course, if rulings on the field are overturned by the cameras, then baseball will have to incorporate contingency plans, i.e. where to place batters, baserunners, etc. A ball called a home run by the umpire, and then overturned, would of course be turned into a ground rule double, with baserunners (if applicable) being placed accordingly. Obviously, balls originally called doubles or triples that end up turning into home runs thanks to replay would have cut-and-dried ramifications.

I must admit, though, that balls-and-strikes, while certainly not replayable, are getting on my nerves — because umpires’ strike zones are seemingly getting more and more varied. Again, I realize this is that human element of which I speak. But there’s human element, and there’s “WTF?” The strike zone is edging toward the latter.

So MLB has my permission to use video replay in the situations earmarked. Nothing wrong with gettin’ a li’l help.

Despite Hordes Of Losses In Minnesota, Three Wins Stand Out

In Lions NFL, Minnesota Vikings on November 30, 2007 at 3:21 pm

The Lions haven’t celebrated too many glorious Sundays in the great white north of Minnesota in the past several decades, but there’ve been a few that stick out in my memory.

Perhaps the most memorable was a win in 1974.

The Lions, when they invaded the old Metropolitan Stadium in October ’74, hadn’t beaten the Vikings since December, 1967. That was 13 straight losses to the Purple People Eaters, who will always be my most hated team in all of sports. And, the Lions were 1-4, which didn’t inspire much confidence. Part of the early-season strife could be blamed on the death of head coach Don McCafferty, who died of a heart attack during training camp, while cutting his lawn at home. McCafferty’s death thrust assistant Rick Forzano into the top spot. Forzano was a former college coach who’d never been a head coach at the pro level. The latter distinction had never stopped the Lions, of course, from hiring such folks, but McCafferty’s untimely passing was an excusable reason for giving the untested Forzano the job.

The Lions managed to nudge ahead of the powerful 5-0 Vikings, 20-16, as the fourth quarter clock wound down. But Minnesota was on the move. It looked like they would, once again, steal a win from the Lions, who during the 0-13 streak had the Vikes on the ropes many times, only to have something weird happen to them.

The Vikings drove down the field, led by Fran Tarkenton. But being down by four, they needed a touchdown. They neared the Lions’ 20-yard line.

Tarkenton scrambled and fired a pass in the end zone. There was a collision, and the ball popped gently into the air. But instead of being snagged by a Vikings receiver (which wouldn’t have been surprising), the football was cradled by DB Lem Barney. His secondary mates crowded around Barney and forced him to down the ball in the end zone, ensuring the Lions victory. The 0-13 streak was over — and with the 1-4 Lions beating the 5-0 Vikings!

Barney, who hadn’t beaten the Vikings since his rookie season in 1967, before sealing 1974’s win in Minnesota with a pick in the end zone

It was so ironic, because many much better Lions teams had outplayed the Vikings in the past yet lost.

Another win in Minnesota that sticks out was in 1991, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This was the 12-4, Mike Utley year. It wasn’t so much the win that stands out as the move that Barry Sanders made on safety Joey Browner that I swore could have blown out both of Browner’s knees.

Sanders got into the open field and juked Browner — who was a pretty darn good player — so badly that he, at once, both froze Browner and rattled the safety’s knees. He reduced a Pro Bowl player to nothing more than an orange construction zone cone. Of course, Sanders also made other great players look silly in similar scenarios, such as Rod Woodson (who really did blow out a knee against Sanders) and John Lynch.

Then there was a 1993 win, in which the Lions trailed 27-23 in the waning seconds on Sunday Night Football. But Rodney Peete drove the Lions downfield and, facing a fourth-and-goal, threw in the direction of Brett Perriman in the end zone. There was contact, but it would have been unsurprising if the officials called nothing, especially on such a crucial play. Yet here comes the flag, to the howls of the Metrodome crowd. Now with first-and-goal at the one, the Lions scored, and stole a 30-27 win just before the final gun.

“Couldn’t have happened to a better team,” I said of the Vikings.

Sunday, the Lions return to another of their houses of horrors. They need a win in the worst way, and they could have picked a better place to seek it than the awful Metrodome. Strange things happen to them in the state of Minnesota. Always have.

Red Wings’ Downey Shamelessly Uses His Fists To Help His Team

In Aaron Downey, NHL, Red Wings on November 29, 2007 at 12:47 am

If there was such a thing as The Red Wing You’d Most Like To Buy A Beer, then I’d reserve that cold one for Aaron Downey.

This would be after a hearty handshake and hug, and a slap on the back for good measure.

Downey, no. 20 in your program but no. 1 in brawn, is the Red Wings’ first legitimate tough guy since a couple of dudes named Probert and Kocur terrorized the NHL. He’s providing what’s been long absent in the team’s lineup: someone who’ll keep opposing bruisers off the backs of the Red Wings’ skill players.

“My role is to keep people from hitting guys like (Henrik) Zetterberg,” Downey said the other day.

Earlier in the season, Downey told reporters that as long as he’s in the lineup, the other team is on notice.

“Nobody’s going to be taking any liberties,” he said.

That’s another reason I want to purchase a brewski for Downey. He doesn’t make any bones about it; no sugarcoating the matter. He’s a fighter, enjoys being a fighter, and will continue to be a fighter, shamelessly. Downey’s had three bouts so far, and after each, his teammates have praised him. He’s a 33-year-old NHL veteran of six clubs who has no delusions about his place in hockey society. Google him in the “images” filter, and several photos pop up of him in various NHL uniforms, mixing it up with his fists. One year in the AHL, Downey amassed over 400 penalty minutes.

Downey (left) in typical repose

This isn’t another hockey oldtimer espousing senseless violence. But there’s nothing wrong with protecting your talented studs from the ne’er-do-wells on other teams who would try to get them off their game by knocking them around a little bit. Downey embraces his policeman’s role and would appear to not want to have it any other way.

It’s refreshing, frankly, in this day and age of an NHL that looks at fighting as just another bad “F” word, to find a guy like Downey still patrolling the ice. He’s a throwback, Aaron Downey is, to a time when every team carried a couple of sluggers on their roster. There was a time for crisp passes and breathtaking plays, but also a time for fisticuffs.

Downey, last night in the Red Wings’ 5-3 win over Calgary, started in on the Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf early. He seemed to challenge Phaneuf to a dance before a face-off, but Phaneuf wisely declined the offer. Then Downey got into Phaneuf’s face, anyway, during the ensuing play. Later, Downey started barking at other Flames players.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, with the home team’s advantage in line changes, seemed to delight in putting Downey on the ice with the abrasive Phaneuf. There can be method to the madness when you have a pot-stirrer like Downey in the lineup.

The Red Wings have tried tough-guy-by-committee in the past several years, sometimes asking players like Brendan Shanahan to pull double-duty as scoring power forward and enforcer. Darren McCarty filled the enforcer’s shoes ably, but his charge was to check and muck first, and fight second. Aaron Downey is a fighter first, and rarely plays more than 8-10 minutes per game. He might spend more time in the penalty box than on the ice most nights, when all is said and done. But he’s not hurting the team by doing so; he’s very much helping it.

As Downey himself says, “guys like Zetterberg” — and Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Hudler and the rest — need to know that someone’s on the bench who can keep the other team honest. The Red Wings really haven’t had that person in recent years. Until now.

That certainly is deserving of a cold one, don’t you think?

With Tabletop Baseball, It’s Never The Offseason

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2007 at 4:36 pm

Some of you may know that I’m a tabletop sports game player. You can have your fancy-shmancy X Boxes, Game Cubes, and PS IIs. I’ll take cards and dice, thank you very much, to simulate my pro and college sports.

It might be cold outside, and nowhere near baseball season, but that doesn’t stop the tabletop player from enjoying nostalgic baseball action.

I got the hankering late last week to break out my APBA baseball game. I only have one season — 1974 — and even though I had replayed the World Series a couple years ago (Dodgers swept the A’s, even though the A’s won in five games in real life), it dawned on me that I had skipped the LCS in each league.

So guess who’s rolling the bones to pit the A’s against the Baltimore Orioles?

Thanks to, I’m able to use the same starting pitchers and exact batting lineups that were actually used in these games.

APBA baseball cards

The A’s won Game 1 in a pitcher’s duel that they broke open late. Catfish Hunter and Mike Cuellar battled for six scoreless innings before Baltimore’s Boog Powell clubbed a solo HR in the top of the 7th. Then the A’s, who’d been leaving runners on base all game long, finally strung together some hits and hung a four-spot on the O’s in the bottom of the inning. The crucial point of the game was in the 8th, when Hunter got into some trouble: bases loaded with one out. But he coaxed Paul Blair to hit into an inning-ending double play. A’s win, 4-1.

In Game 2, the pitchers again were the story: Ken Holtzman for Oakland, and Dave McNally for Baltimore. The A’s used an error by O’s left fielder Don Baylor to score the go-ahead run in the fourth inning. Holtzman was brilliant, and thanks to a scoreless ninth by Rollie Fingers, the A’s won, 2-1.

So the A’s lead the best-of-five series, 2-0, with Game 3 in Baltimore — which I’ll probably play tonight.

After the ALCS, I’ll get rolling — no pun intended — on the NLCS, pitting Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

I’ll only replay the World Series again if one of the two teams is different.

I have too many tabletop games, in all sports, for one person to own, to be honest with you. Baseball games account for seven of these (APBA, Strat-o-Matic, Pursue the Pennant, Dynasty League, Statis-Pro, Replay, Clubhouse). I know — I’m sick.

They all offer some great features, but I think Dynasty League probably tops them all in terms of realism and encapsulating EVERYTHING that can happen in a real MLB game.

I got a kick out of my interview with actor Jeff Daniels last year, when he revealed to me that he’s a closet APBA player. He told me that, to this day, his wife cringes at the sound of dice rolling.

So it may be the onset of winter outside, but it’s a brisk afternoon in October for me in Baltimore tonight!

NFL’s Overtime System Needs Serious Overhauling

In NFL, overtime on November 26, 2007 at 3:44 pm

No Lions game yesterday, so I’m going to use its normal place to rail about the NFL’s overtime system.

It grates on me that a team can lose an overtime game in the regular season — or in the postseason, for that matter — without touching the ball.

The coin flip, then, becomes the most important part of a tie game, and that just shouldn’t be. After 60 minutes of play with no resolution, it seems we can come up with a better system.

Currently, all overtimes are sudden death. Now, just the words “sudden death” evoke a chill up the spine of most sports fans. You kind of have it in baseball, with the “walk off win”, and you definitely have it in hockey. The NFL has it, too — but in a very flawed manner.

Team A wins the coin flip. And, if they’re not coached by Marty Mornhinweg, they take the ball first. Team B kicks off, and according to the raw data, have a significantly reduced chance of winning, right off the bat. In fact, the chances aren’t bad that they won’t get the football at all.

So Team A drives into field goal range (typically anything inside the opponents’ 35-yard line is sufficient), and kicks their way to victory. Very few overtime games are won via touchdown.

I HATE this system!

Yet I’m not all that enamored with the high school and college methods, which eschew kickoffs and places the ball at a pre-determined yard line and asks the offense to score somehow. Though at least here, each team gets a shot with the ball.

Here’s my proposal, and tell me if it doesn’t make sense.

Each team gets the ball once. You flip a coin, as normal. If Team A receives, and scores on the ensuing possession, they must kickoff to Team B. If Team B fails to match or beat the score of Team A (obviously every set of downs then becomes “four-down territory”), then the game is over, and Team A wins.

If Team A fails to score (lost on downs, turnover, missed FG), then Team B wins if it scores on its possession. If Team B fails to score, then the game becomes “sudden death,” with the first to score winning.

Now, some FAQ:

1. What if Team A loses the ball on the overtime’s opening possession via turnover, and Team B returns it for a touchdown?

Then Team B wins, even if it happens on Team A’s first play from scrimmage. It counts as a possession.

2. What if Team A returns the overtime kickoff for a touchdown?

Then Team B still gets a chance with the ball.

3. What if Team B holds Team A to a punt, and returns it for a touchdown?

Haven’t you been following along? Team B wins.

4. What if Team A suffers a safety on the first possession of overtime?

Team B wins.

5. What if Team B holds Team A, but then fumbles or throws an interception, and Team A takes it all the way?

Team A wins.

The other thing I like about this system is that decision-making becomes crucial. Does Team A settle for a FG on a 4th-and-1 in the red zone, for example, or go for it, trying to score a touchdown and make it more difficult for Team B?

Critics (and I’m sure there will be plenty) are sure to say that, in some respects, Team B has the advantage in this system because it will always know what it needs on its possession (TD or FG). Well, not every system is perfect, and just because they KNOW what they need, doesn’t mean that they’ll get it. In fact, Team A can counter that knowledge by defending appropriately.

I just think that under this system, games wouldn’t be extended all that much, in order to give each team the football. Whether a team wins or loses shouldn’t ride so much on a coin flip.


Today’s Red Wings A Team Without Anyone To Hate

In NHL, Red Wings on November 25, 2007 at 5:27 pm

Dino Ciccarelli was one of those NHL players with a Napoleonic Complex. He was a shrimp, so he decided that he’d be the most annoying, disturbing, pugnacious little shrimp that he could be. That, and scoring goals against the opposition, would keep him in the league for some 18 seasons. Ciccarelli scored over 600 goals, many of them while being mugged and abused within several feet of the opposing net.

But my memories of Dino boil down to this one: 1996 Western Conference Finals, moments after Game 6 – the Red Wings having just been eliminated by their new rivals, the Colorado Avalanche. Somewhere in a hospital, teammate Kris Draper lay, his face broken thanks to a nasty, illegal check from behind by Claude Lemieux in Game 4. Lemieux would quickly elevate to Public Enemy #1 in Detroit, for several years to come.

The series was now over, and one of the grandest traditions in sport – the post-series handshake at center ice – had just been completed when Ciccarelli sat at his stall in the locker room, still disgusted and sneering at the cowardice of Lemieux, who was suspended for Game 6 but nonetheless had the, ahem, gumption, to take the ice for the handshake. For a nanosecond, Lemieux and Ciccarelli grasped hands, as tradition dictates.

Kris Draper, moments after being crushed into the boards from behind by Claude Lemieux in the ’96 Western Finals

“I can’t believe,” Dino said, half-dressed, in a sound bite repeated over and over in the next few days, “that I shook hands with that bleep. I can’t bleeping believe it.”

A rivalry was born – somewhere from the ruins of Kris Draper’s face. And from the smug, smart-ass words of Avs goalie Patrick Roy.

What did Roy think, he was asked, of the Red Wings’ win in Game 5 in Detroit, which brought them to within 3 games to 2? Keep in mind that Colorado swept Games 1 and 2 in Detroit.

“Well, I suppose it’s about time that they won a home game, eh?” Roy said with a little smirk on his long, unattractive face. Red Wings fans heard it, and couldn’t bleeping believe it.

Dino Ciccarelli wouldn’t play another game for the Red Wings, but his words of disdain for Claude Lemieux got things revved up for a sports rivalry that, to this day, remains among the most dramatic that I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll repeat – sports rivalry, not just hockey.

The Avs bumped the Red Wings out of the playoffs in ’96 and won the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings returned the favor in ’97, and won the Stanley Cup. The Avs eliminated the Wings in 1999 and 2000. The Red Wings eliminated the Avs in 2002, on their way to another Cup. All the while, the teams beat up on each other during the regular season, which were truly games that you didn’t want to miss. ESPN loved to put the Avs-Red Wings on their cable waves. The rivalry was teeming with storylines. Even the goalies fought with some regularity. One night, Avs coach Marc Crawford lunged at Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman over the glass separating the two teams. Bowman knew the much younger Crawford’s dad.

“Marc,” Bowman reportedly said as the enraged Crawford was being restrained, “your father wouldn’t be so proud of you right now.”

Goalies Vernon and Roy duking it out in ’97

And Lemieux, the gutless winger, got his come-uppance, several times over. Darren McCarty took care of him one evening at Joe Louis Arena. Brendan Shanahan had his way with Lemieux on another occasion.

But like many things in today’s NHL, the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry didn’t have long shelf life. After the salad days of 1995-2002, it was like someone pulled a plug. Many key players retired or were traded, or left via free agency. The Avs lost Roy and Lemieux shortly after the ’02 series, and that was pretty much the end of things.

I seriously doubt whether the average Red Wings fan could name more than three players off today’s Avalanche roster, when that same fan could have rattled off 12, easily, during the height of the two teams’ struggle for supremacy in the West.

And it’s not as if the teams sunk in terms of success. The Avs are still a solid playoff contender, and this morning are in first place in their division. Just like the Red Wings.

Yet things are nowhere near the same.

Looking around the NHL the other day, I couldn’t come up with a single team that elicits anything close to the hostility that the Red Wings mustered up against the Colorado Avalanche a decade ago. Thanks to the league’s ridiculous unbalanced schedule, you can forget about getting anything going with any of the teams from the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings hardly play those teams anymore. It should be noted that residing in the East are such Original Six teams as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, once fierce rivals with the team from Detroit. No longer, thanks to enforced separation.

There’s talk of the Chicago Blackhawks being a thorn in the Red Wings’ side, and thus becoming a rival once again. The Blackhawks have won all four games against Detroit this season. But this is after years of Red Wings’ dominance. We’ll see how it plays out. But the Blackhawks aren’t serious rivals, not yet.

The Red Wings had a good thing going with Chicago in the mid-1960s, when an offensively-challenged forward named Bryan Watson was assigned to harass Bobby Hull relentlessly. He did his job so well that Hull nicknamed Watson “Bugsy.”

The Maple Leafs provided some entertainment in the late-1980s, when the Red Wings were reborn under Jacques Demers. Then the Avs came along – and have gone.

Who do the Red Wings hate now? Who riles their fans up? Which team could go to hockey hell, for all we care? Where is the next Claude Lemieux?

Nowhere on the horizon – and that’s almost harder to stomach than Patrick Roy’s smug smirk.


Bleeding Continues As Lions Can’t Catch Pack

In Lions, NFL on November 23, 2007 at 8:29 am

So let’s end this fallacy, once and for all, that says the Lions ALWAYS play well on Thanksgiving Day, and that they mostly win. At least fewer and fewer people are believing this misconception every year.

The Lions made it four losses in a row, and six of the last seven, on Turkey Day in yesterday’s 37-26 loss to the Packers.

They’re 6-5 now, off to a three-game losing streak, and getting more and more Lions-ish with every loss.

Jason Hanson is again their most prolific scorer. They are again being outclassed by quality teams. Receivers (Calvin Johnson) are again dropping passes. Opponents are again jumping out to big leads, turning the Lions into a one-dimensional offense. Kick coverage is again soft.

And ghoulish thoughts of 7-9 or 8-8, at best, are again taking over the Lions fan’s psyche.

OK, so the Lions aren’t yet in the class of the Packers (who are now 16-1 in their last 17 regular season games), or the Giants, or the Eagles, or the Cowboys. That much is clear. But they won all of three games last year — the third on the last Sunday of the season. So 7-9 or 8-8 would mean a four or five game improvement in one year. Not all that awful. Now, whether they could, in 2008, make the leap from that level to 10 or 11 wins is completely circumspect. They could just as well regress.

But that’s next year. The Lions are mathematically a playoff contender this morning, but not spiritually, or emotionally. Yet if they finish 8-8, while disappointing after starting 6-2, it nonetheless must be considered a good season. Anytime you make a five-game win improvement in the NFL, that’s cause to celebrate, even a little.

It could very well be, folks, that we haven’t seen the worst of the 2007 Lions yet. 8-8 isn’t a given. They’re getting worse, and while they showed some life in the fourth quarter yesterday, the result was the same as Sunday, when they perked up in the final minutes against the Giants. Next up is Minnesota on the road, a traditional house of horrors. 6-6 looks quite doable.

I’m mad at myself. I thought the 6-2 start meant the shedding of the loser’s label, if only for one year. One-hundred and eighty minutes of football later, I’m realizing that I should have taken my own advice. The NFL season is 16 games long for a reason. It’s the miniature, yet just as effective version of MLB’s tool for separating pretenders from contenders. Anyone can lead the division at the All-Star break. But it’s how August and September goes that will determine whether you make the playoffs. Right, Tigers?

So anyhow, I should have remembered that the NFL plays 16 games per team, not eight. It’s bad enough that I should forget. Did the Lions have to, also?

Knicks On Another Bumpy Ride, Led By Isiah

In NBA, New York Knicks on November 21, 2007 at 3:20 pm

You know your NBA team is in trouble when you wish for its coach to sexually harrass someone again to divert attention from the product on the court.

The New York Knicks could use another Isiah Thomas-driven distraction right about now — since they seem unwilling to fire him.

The words “Knicks” and “turmoil” are starting to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or, more appropriately, like flies and sh*t.

They’re in town tonight, those dysfunctional, lovable Knicks. They flew into Metro Airport with a 2-8 record, after being dismantled at home by the Golden State Warriors, 108-82.

Training camp began with a cloud already formed over the team, in the form of the fallout from coach Thomas’s legal troubles stemming from accusations of a fired employee who said Thomas groped her and called her “bitch.”

Then starting point guard Stephon Marbury left the team briefly last week, and was fined nearly $200,000. With little to no explanation of his behavior, Marbury was nonetheless re-installed into the starting lineup, as if nothing happened.

Now the Knicks are working hard on a seven-game losing streak.

Last year, Thomas was given an ultimatum by boss James Dolan to significantly improve the Knicks or be fired. The team again finished below .500, but showed just enough, apparently, for Dolan to give Isiah another chance. And that chance would come with newly-acquired Zach Randolph, the big man Isiah craved.

Yet the record is worse after 10 games this season than it was last campaign.

And there’s absolutely no sign of the turbulence that continually surrounds the Knicks letting up any time soon.

Pro basketball is a game born out of the cigar smoke-filled arenas in Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse, and Boston. In places like Madison Square Garden, for example.

Once, that arena was considered a sort of hoops Mecca. Championships were won there, and the Knicks were one of the few teams that could even hope to interrupt the latest string of Celtics domination with dominance of their own.

Now, the New York Knicks are a joke. Their arena, even, is besmirched, because the young lady who brought charges against Thomas was an employee of the Knicks’ parent company, which uses the MSG name as its foundation.

I don’t know about cigar smoke, but they sure are toking on something in the Knicks offices, as long as they continue to let Isiah Thomas coach their ballclub.

The Knicks will be the fourth basketball entity that Thomas will leave in worse shape than when he found it, joining the CBA, the Toronto Raptors, and the Indiana Pacers. Only the Detroit Pistons, as a player, did Isiah improve by his mere presence. And that team was 21-61 before he joined it.

The New York Knicks are in town tonight, coached by their Thanksgiving turkey. The Pistons should feast this evening.

Lions, As Usual, Come Up Empty In Crunch Time

In Lions, NFL on November 19, 2007 at 2:38 pm

Randy Moss would have caught it. Terrell Owens would have caught it — and told everyone how he did it for as long as you cared to listen. Marvin Harrison would have caught it. Donald Driver would have caught it.

Those receivers play on teams who’ve lost but four games between them, and it’s nearly Thanksgiving. And they are key cogs of those clubs, largely because they can be counted on to make plays when needed.

The Lions, still, don’t have such players on their team. They have players who can make plays in the second and third quarters of games — and in the first half of a football season — but they do not have players such as the ones listed in the opening paragraph.

Calvin Johnson, someday, may be that kind of player. We’ll see. Or not, based on how the Lions choose to use him — which is as if he’s behind glass, like an axe in case of fire.

But Shaun McDonald is not the kind of player, sadly, who can make the big play at the big time. He demonstrated, in one play, why the Lions cannot and should not be taken seriously as a playoff team, when he let Jon Kitna’s pass in the closing minute slip thru his hands. The ball was intercepted, and the Lions had let the New York Giants off the hook, 16-10, in a battle of two different 6-3 teams: one that has substance (the Giants) and one that has far less of that than style (the Lions).

A couple minutes earlier, Kitna rocketed a bomb from midfield, impatiently going for the go-ahead score when there was plenty of time and all three timeouts remaining. But Kitna threw the ball to McDonald, a shrimp, who was easily outmuscled for it by the defender for another interception. Somewhere on the field, the 6-3 Roy Williams and the 6-5 Johnson roamed. They are not shrimps.

When was the last time you saw the Lions drive down the field for a winning score? There was that ridiculous ending in New Orleans a couple of years ago. But what about before that? And when in a game that actually meant something?

The Lions spoke all week of how this Giants game and the one behind it, against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, were playoff games, in their minds. Williams hoped publicly that the fans would show up (as if that’s ever been a problem). But as usual, the fans showed up, but their team did not. The Lions came out — as is their wont in quote-unquote big games — flat as a crepe. They, once again, were dreadfully dominated in time of possession and statistically in the first half. They didn’t show any real life until midway thru the fourth quarter, when Johnson made a brilliant catch for a TD — showing what can happen when you throw the ball to a 6-5 dude who is a freak of nature, talent-wise.

But Kitna became infatuated with the shrimp McDonald in the closing minutes, and it cost his team the game.

It’s not unfair to say that the Lions won’t be taken seriously until they can perform in the season’s second half. Anyone can go 6-2; plenty of teams who don’t make the playoffs have done so. The second half is what separates the men from the boys. And the Lions are now 0-2 in 2007, Part II.

Shaun McDonald couldn’t come up with Kitna’s pass in crunch time. He made some plays earlier in the game. He’s made some plays earlier in the season. He didn’t make the crucial play yesterday. And anyone who was truly surprised by that hasn’t been paying attention for the past several decades.

Miami Dolphins: Toast IN The Town

In Miami Dolphins, NFL on November 18, 2007 at 4:25 pm

What a difference 35 years makes.

Will Bob Keuchenberg, Manny Fernandez, Larry Little and the rest toast a Miami Dolphins victory, in the same manner in which they toast the loss that eliminates the last remaining undefeated NFL team every fall?

You’ve probably heard of this annual ritual. Some members of the 1972 Dolphins – the first and only team to go undefeated and untied in the modern NFL era – gather for a champagne toast and party whenever the league is cleared of unbeaten teams. Sometimes the party occurs as early as October. Sometimes, not until December. But it’s a party that’s been a staple every year, ever since the bulk of the team retired in the late-1970s.

Those Dolphins have made it abundantly clear that they take their unbeaten status very seriously, and are open in their disdain for any team that dares challenge it. Hence the corks popping whenever the final unbeaten team has its record blemished with a loss.

The Dolphins have now come full circle. They were an expansion team in 1966, in the old American Football League. Their first coach was George Wilson, who had led the Lions to their last world’s championship in 1957. Wilson’s son, also named George, was a quarterback. And befitting expansion teams, the ’66 Dolphins engaged in the usual stumbling, bumbling, self-inflictingly damaging nonsense every week. They managed to win three games in their first season, out of 14 contests.

Today’s Dolphins, if they win three games, will be considered a miracle team.

They’re 0-9 this year, and I had said it kiddingly a month or so ago, but now I’m not as full of levity: the 2007 Dolphins, in their 42nd year of professional football, could very well be a worse team than the 1966 version that was in its first.

A couple of weeks ago, the NFL staged a regular season game outside the continental United States for the first time in history. The game was played in London. The UK is becoming more and more smitten with American football, it appears. One of the teams dispatched to play in Wembley Stadium was the New York Giants. A sensible choice – representing the most famous city in the country, and not a bad team, either.

The other team was the Miami Dolphins.

Maybe it didn’t matter to the Brits that we sent one-half of a football match to their country. Maybe they couldn’t have cared less that the NFL fed them a football version of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The joint was packed, and the enthusiasm unbridled, according to those who were there.

The Giants handled the Dolphins, of course, and Miami’s team reminded me of an old line from beleaguered coach John McKay of the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs.

After losing at home – which followed a road loss – McKay said, “We’ve now proven we can’t win on the road OR in front of our home crowd. So we’d like to have a neutral site.”

The Dolphins are now 0-8 in the United States and 0-1 in Europe.

There are seven games remaining, and chatter is gaining momentum that says the Miami Dolphins will be the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

It’s a lot easier, I think, to put the kibosh on thoughts of an unbeaten team than to suggest that a winless bunch after nine games has a chance to be victorious. How can you make such a claim – that the Dolphins can win a football game – when they haven’t been able to do so by the time Thanksgiving Day beckons?

Parity? Luck? I suppose those could be used in defense of the notion that Miami can beat someone in 2007. But unlike the unbeaten teams, who are sometimes riding the crest of good luck destined to turn, the winless squads’ challenge gets harder and harder the longer their drought continues. It must be impossible for Dolphins players to not think that sooner or later, something bad will happen and that they’ll lose once again. Certainly that feeling must be
stronger as November wanes.

Last Sunday, the Dolphins hosted Buffalo – a middle-of-the-road, so-so team that the NFL is so fond of. The Bills struggled with their 0-8 hosts. The score was 10-10, the final minutes ticking away. Naturally, the Bills maneuvered into field goal range in the closing seconds. And naturally, the kick was good.

Jason Taylor, a defensive end and one of the few Miami players worth watching, sat on the bench for several minutes after Buffalo’s winning kick, trying to process things. I saw video of Taylor, and you needed words to describe his thoughts the same way you need a parka in Hades.

The ’72 Dolphins alumni are no doubt too busy worrying about the New England Patriots and their “16-0 or bust” mentality (the Pats are 9-0 and about as invincible as a team has ever been in the NFL) to concern themselves with their professional alma mater. But I wouldn’t bet against this scenario: a final regular weekend featuring a 15-0 Patriots team and an 0-15 Dolphins platoon.

So what will Keuchenberg, et al be rooting for more – a Patriots loss or a Dolphins win?
Clearly, a Patriots loss. They enjoy too much their status as the lone wolves. The ’72 Dolphins accomplished something that no other team has in the NFL’s 80+ years of existence, so why wouldn’t they think that they’re pretty cool?

And what of the 2007 Dolphins? What will their alumni toast, in the future, should they go winless?

Surviving it, I suppose, would be on top of the list.