Greg Eno

Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

Monday Morning Manager — Season’s (Almost) Over Edition

In Monday Morning Manager on September 29, 2008 at 3:34 pm

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-4
This Week: 9/29: at CWS

It’s funny how fast coaches get dumb.

Two years ago, Chuck Hernandez was hailed as being a major reason why the Tigers had a league-leading ERA of 3.84. He was instrumental, they said, in the development of rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, and for the emergence of another rookie, Zach Miner.

Now Hernandez is a dummy. And he’s also out of a job.

Hernandez and bullpen coach Jeff Jones were the first two lambs sacrificed in the wake of this most disappointing Tigers season.

Several things contributed to Hernandez’s loss of pitching coach intelligence.

Injuries to: Jeremy Bonderman; Zumaya; Fernando Rodney; Todd Jones. Disappearing acts by: Nate Robertson; Dontrelle Willis; Verlander.

All those things, plus Kenny Rogers’ age catching up to him, and the regression against lefties by Bobby Seay, made Hernandez stupid. So throw him out and find someone smarter, I suppose.

I laugh when the name Leo Mazzone gets brought up.

Mazzone was the Atlanta Braves’ pitching coach for the glory years of the 1990s and into the 2000s. A veritable genius, that hackneyed sports word.


Hernandez: injuries, down years, and other implosions lowered his baseball IQ considerably

Mazzone was smart because he had the good fortune of having pitchers on his staff named Avery and Maddux and Smoltz and Glavine. And a reliever like Mike Stanton. And other competent pitchers — way more than most teams could ever dream of having. Yes sir, Leo Mazzone was smart — and lucky.

Then Mazzone was lured away from Atlanta to the Baltimore Orioles in time for the 2006 season. And by the time Leo got into Crabtown and looked around and didn’t see any future Hall of Famers on his staff, it was too late: Leo Mazzone got stupid in a hurry.

The pitching genius coached the O’s staff to an ERA of 5.35 in 2006. The next year he got a little smarter: 5.17.

Funny how talent will make a coach more brilliant.

So is Leo Mazzone a good pitching coach? Probably. To be fair, those big name guys gave him a lot of credit. But then again, what else are they going to say? “We did it despite Leo?” But is he great? Is he a genius? Can he make chicken salad out of chicken feathers? Can he bring results when his staff isn’t filled with superstars?

I’m not out to get Mazzone here. I’m just saying, that so many things are out of a coach’s hands.

Yet, this is a results-based business, professional sports is. And no one really cares, truthfully, what you were up against, if things go sideways.

The Tigers’ bullpen, amazingly, turned 13 seventh-inning or beyond leads into losses this season. Someone’s got to pay for such foolishness.

Funny, but I never heard how smart Hernandez was in regards to the surprising season turned in by Armando Galarraga. But one diamond in the rough wasn’t nearly enough to save the Tigers’ staff this year.

And it’s true that a coach can prove how smart he is best when the odds are against him.

It’s totally up to conjecture as to just how much influence a pitching coach or a hitting coach has on his charges’ performance. I’m sure they get way more credit than deserved, and the same with the blame. It’s the nature of the beast. And Chuck Hernandez and Jeff Jones know that.

You simply can’t have the pitching meltdowns that the Tigers had this season and expect that everyone is going to get off the hook. It doesn’t work that way, especially after a season in which many people thought the Tigers were going to be world’s champions.

In 1968, the Tigers’ pitching genius was Johnny Sain. Denny McLain won 31 games. The starters led the AL in complete games, and the staff was third in the league in ERA. Sain was hailed, and hailed loudly. Then, less than two years later, after a dispute with manager Mayo Smith, Sain got dumb and was fired.

One of the smarter ones being mentioned as a replacement for 2009 is Mark Wiley, who was the pitching coach for the great Indians teams of the mid-to-late 1990s. He was also Willis’s coach with the Marlins in 2005, when Dontrelle won 22 games and had an ERA of 2.63.

Wiley, or whomever is hired, will have the luxury of being smarter than his predecessor, for the time being. Until he gets dumb, sooner or later. Then it’s out with the dumb and in with the smart, once again.

***************************************

I have mixed emotions about today’s makeup game with the White Sox. I always want the Tigers to win, but in this case, a Tigers victory means the Minnesota Twins make the playoffs. And I absolutely HATE the Twins. So, best case scenario: Gary Sheffield hits his 500th home run — in a losing effort. And the Twins lose the playoff with the Chisox Tuesday, and all will be OK in my world.

Helm Can Be Red Wings’ X-Factor

In Darren Helm, Red Wings on September 29, 2008 at 1:56 pm

You know you’ve reached at least some sort of cult status as a pro athlete, when people start dubbing young, up-and-coming players as a “little” you.

Kris Draper has, believe it or not, achieved that status.

Don’t look now, but Draper is a grizzled, 15-year veteran now. He’s one of those four-time Stanley Cup winners that dot the Red Wings’ roster.

The Draper story is near legend in these parts.

Purchased for $1 from the Winnipeg Jets. Speedy Gonzalez on the ice. Founding member of the Grind Line. Face smashed like an egg shell into the boards by Claude Lemieux. Eventually, one of the premier face-off men in the league, and maybe one of the best penalty killers in history. Scores a goal every other full moon.

Today, Draper is one of the faces of the Wings who kind of functions as an unofficial team spokesman. He’s no longer an afterthought with reporters; he’s one of the first Red Wings whose opinion is sought out.

Now here comes a player that has been called, by some, a “little Kris Draper.” I’m one of the some.

Darren Helm is 21 years old, skates like he was shot out of a cannon, and seems to make the other team nervous out there because of his speed and forechecking ability.

Draper is 37, and with most teams that means he’s nearing his swan song, but with the Red Wings, that really doesn’t mean jack. How can it, when last year the team employed a 43-year-old goalie and still keeps a 46-year-old defenseman on its roster? And, correct me if I’m wrong (but I’m not), but isn’t Nicklas Lidstrom 38? And isn’t Lidstrom simply the best defenseman in the NHL, and in Europe, and in the Milky Way?

So it’s not like Draper is being booted out the door by the emergence of Helm, who made quite an impression in last spring’s playoffs. But there certainly is room for two jitterbugs like Draper and Helm on the payroll.

Helm sat out the first four games of the first round, and was inserted in time for Game 5 against Nashville, when the Red Wings found themselves in a shaky 2-2 series tie. He didn’t come out of the lineup the rest of the way.

I was stunned at how much influence Helm, a rookie who had just seven NHL games under his belt come playoff time, had on the tempo of the game whenever he was on the ice. It wasn’t just his speed, which is blurring, but it was his puck sense and his knack for being around it. In short, you can usually tell who the veterans are during the playoffs. There’s an intangible there. They play with a certain calmness and are able to harness their amped up energy. So here Darren Helm was, flying around the ice, but in control and making things happen. Maybe this is the highest praise: I felt absolutely no uneasiness whenever Helm was on the ice. To the contrary: I WANTED Helm on the ice, and as much as possible.

Helm chipped in four points (2 G, 2 A) in his 18 playoff games.

Yet Helm’s place on the 2008-09 Red Wings is hardly sealed. Competition is fierce, and there’s no guarantee, none at all, that Helm will be among the Red Wings when they prepare for their season opener a week from Thursday against Toronto. Helm’s biggest hurdle, it appears, is Finnish forward Ville Leino.

Coach Mike Babcock had nice things to say about Leino after last night’s exhibition against Atlanta, but said this about Helm: “I think Helm’s an NHL player. Every time he’s on the ice, something happens. He’s an elite skater; he’s got good hockey sense.”

You know, just like a little Kris Draper.

The Roller Coaster Grinds To A Halt

In Tigers, Todd Jones on September 28, 2008 at 1:02 pm

A sports era ended in Detroit this week. Perhaps you heard of it. It was a time that had people wringing their hands and double-checking the supply of antacid in their medicine cabinets. Sports talk radio just got a little quieter.

One of the city’s perceived athletic villains is no more.

No, this isn’t about Matt Millen, the ex-Lions president who was “relieved of his duties” on Wednesday. I only have about 900 words left, after all.

Todd Jones isn’t a roller coaster, but he played one on the baseball diamond.

They say Ernie Harwell gave Jones the nickname.

“Here comes Roller Coaster Jones,” Ernie supposedly said into his microphone, back in the earlier days of Jones’s Tigers career. Because with Jones, the closer and the Tigers’ all-time leader in saves who retired on Thursday, it was hardly ever three up and three down in the ninth. It was up and down and around and down and up and across and down – and then the Tigers were on the field, shaking hands after Jones put everyone through the ringer.

Just like a roller coaster. It was yet another of Ernie’s apt nicknames.

But there’s great irony in the moniker, because if ever there is someone who’s so NOT a roller coaster, as a person, it’s Todd Jones.

Why in the world someone would want to be a closer for a baseball team, I’ll never know. You sit in the bullpen for eight innings, sometimes freezing your fanny off, and then, after some two-and-a-half hours of your team clawing and fighting, you’re asked to warm up and, basically, you’ll have one of two outcomes by the time the game is over: hero or goat. Nothing in between. Sometimes a minion will hand the closer a warm up jacket as he departs the bullpen for the pitching mound; he might as well hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.

You save the game for your team, or you blow it. No gray areas. And no one cares if a couple of the base hits were of the bloop variety, or that the umpire squeezed the strike zone, or your shortstop couldn’t come up with the ground ball that had “game-ending double play” written all over it. If you need to get four outs instead of three thanks to your team’s leaky defense, then so be it. Just do it.

It’s a job that has destroyed lesser men than Jones. Literally.

Donnie Moore was the California Angels’ closer in 1986. His team was on the brink of going to the World Series, about ready to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Red Sox. Moore was one out away from saving the clinching game in the ALCS that year. He entered Game 5 in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead and a man on first base. But then Boston’s Dave Henderson drilled a home run off Moore deep into the left field seats, and the Red Sox moved in front, 6-5. The Angels tied the game in their half of the ninth, but the Red Sox won it in extra innings. And they would rally to win the ALCS in seven games.

Games 6 and 7 wouldn’t have been necessary, if only Donnie Moore hadn’t given up that home run. Or so it was written, and talked about, and screamed and cried about, in the days that ensued. Boston’s Bill Buckner and his horrific gaffe a couple weeks later in the World Series took Moore off the front pages. Or so we thought.

Moore let the Henderson home run haunt him. Terrorize him, really. The fans and the media were no help, of course – but then, they never are in situations like that. Moore pitched the 1987 and ’88 seasons, but with not nearly the effectiveness as his pre-Henderson home run days. The Angels released their one-time closer in August, ’88.

Then one July morning in 1989, another baseball season in full swing, the news came in: Donnie Moore was dead. Of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 35. Think about that for a moment. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So don’t tell me that pitchers who close baseball games aren’t a little goofy, to want to do something as thankless as that.

Todd Jones heard it all in Detroit, especially during his second stint here, which began in 2006 and ended with Thursday’s announcement.

He stinks! He’s costing us! He couldn’t close a door!

Get rid of him!

Jones, you see, wasn’t the prototypical closer by the time he returned to Detroit in his late-thirties. He was, as they say, a pitcher who “pitches to contact”, which is a nice way of saying, “he couldn’t strike out Stevie Wonder even if you spotted Jonesey an 0-2 count.” Jones’s style was to let the batter hit the ball, and hope for the best. That’s not as ill-conceived as it reads. His control was usually pretty good, so you didn’t have to worry about walks. And, he was usually ahead in the count, which meant he held the upper hand in numerous at-bats. But he wasn’t the brute who storms into the game, treating the affair with disdain and acting as if the opposing hitters are making him late for a date with a Playboy bunny after the game. Jones didn’t have that closer’s scowl or the temperament of a hibernating bear being nudged awake. In fact, the way he chewed his gum so fervently on the mound, you got the impression that he was just as nervous as we were. He wasn’t Don Quixote. He was Don Knotts.

Jones closed games as if he was waiting for everyone who had been in line at the concessions, or in the little boys room, to return to their seats, so as not to miss the final out. He didn’t know the meaning of one-two-three, unless it was in terms of how many base runners he was going to surrender before finally ending the matter.

Now, about that irony of which I spoke earlier.

If Jones was a roller coaster on the field, he was a Ferris Wheel in the clubhouse: slow, comfortable, and reliable.

Part of the closer’s job is to field questions from the media, especially when things don’t turn out so well. Then you’re staring at a bunch of bottom feeders in the face who want to know, “Hey, what happened out there?”

I’ve been one of those bottom feeders, and I can tell you that Jones never ran and hid from any of us. If he stunk, he said he stunk. No excuses. No sugar-coating. And no flashes of anger, even after some obnoxiously stupid questions. He manned up.

Oh, and I should tell you that, a few years ago, Todd Jones helped set up a trust fund for a paralyzed high school football player in Jones’s native Georgia. Paid for a new wheelchair ramp and everything for the kid’s home. Jones said that watching the young man battle his horrible misfortune gave him pause.

But you probably didn’t read about that, did you?

Well, now you have.

Three Straight Bad Second Halves An Indictment Of Leyland

In Uncategorized on September 26, 2008 at 4:15 pm

The Tigers are bringing Jim Leyland back for the 2009 season. Understood. He is contracted thru then, after all — not that that’s ever stopped a team from giving a manager or coach the ziggy before. But I can see the logic.

The Tigers have been under Leyland’s charge for three seasons now, and they’ve pretty much laid out like this: 1. World Series; 2. Playoff contention till early September; 3. Biggest disappointment in Detroit sports history.

Some would say that no. 3 trumps nos. 1 and 2, combined. Also understood, though maybe a tad harsh.

But here’s what’s not harsh.

It’s not harsh of me to simply direct your attention to a troubling statistic that I have railed about in this space in the not-so-distant past. Today’s edition of the Detroit Free Press had the temerity to print it.

The Tigers’ winning percentage, under Leyland’s watch, in games played before and after the All-Star break, lays out like this:

2006: (before) .670; (after) .486
2007: (before) .582; (after) .493
2008: (before) .500; (after) .387

Those “afters” don’t look too good, do they?

You can play around with numbers in baseball to your heart’s content. Figures and stats are often like Silly Putty; you can make them look pretty much like anything you want.

But these aren’t Silly Putty numbers. These are of the cold, hard variety. You can’t make those “after” percentages look good, no matter how much you try.

In ’06, the cool second half cost the Tigers their supposedly in-the-bag divisional title. In ’07, it cost them a playoff berth, period. This year, it cost them some dignity, if nothing else.

Would I bring Leyland back for a fourth go at it? Probably. It’s kind of hard to justify canning him, with 2-of-3 seasons being pretty decent, overall.

But those second half winning percentages make me a little uneasy. Once can be a fluke. Twice can be some bad luck. Thrice is an indictment of the manager.

Here’s what I think when I look at those cold, hard numbers.

In 2006, it tells me that the Tigers were destined to cool off, because they weren’t going to play .670 ball all year. Fine.

In 2007, it tells me that they wilted in the dog days of August, when teams like the Yankees, conversely, were kicking it up a gear or two.

This season, it tells me that the Tigers — and I hate to use this word — kind of quit.

So who’s to blame for all this?

What does it say for a manager when his teams have played the worst baseball of their season, collectively, in the second half, when the games mean more?

I’m not quite sure myself, but I don’t think it’s very good, whatever it says.

You can cry me a river about injuries and guys having down years. Don’t want to hear it. If a manager is truly worth his salt, he finds a way to overcome all that. Billy Martin was great at that. And that’s why he was one of the best managers in baseball. Ever.

Sparky Anderson had his issues, but he did his best work in 1987. That year, the Tigers started 11-19 and were considered by many to be middle-of-the-pack, talent-wise, in the AL East. They had just lost catcher Lance Parrish to free agency, and their pitching looked sketchy. The 1984 heroes were three years older.

But Sparky rallied them to an 87-45 finish, including swiping the divisional title from the Toronto Blue Jays in the season’s final, frantic week. Forget the meltdown in the ALCS; the Tigers were spent by that time.

All I know is, it’s been three years and for three years I’ve seen Jim Leyland’s Tigers nosedive during the crucial months of August and September.

The rest I leave to you.

Like The Red Wings Proved, Hiring A "No Name" Might Be A Good Thing For Lions

In Detroit Lions, Jimmy Devellano, Red Wings on September 26, 2008 at 2:55 pm

It was a semi-ritual I performed that one Red Wings season. Maybe I did it four, five times.

The Wings would be at home that evening, and I’d knock off work from my TV production job Downriver around 5:30, 6:00. Then I’d make an off-the-cuff, spontaneous decision.

Why not stop by Joe Louis Arena for some laughs?

I lived in Ypsilanti at the time, so a sojourn up I-75 into downtown wasn’t exactly on my way home from Taylor. But these were the bachelor days, so there wasn’t anyone to hurry home to. And after a grind at work it was nice sometimes to stretch out, relax, and be entertained by some ice follies.

It was the 1985-86 season. Perhaps the most vaudevillian of all Red Wings seasons.

They were the slip-on-a-banana peel team, those ’85-86 Red Wings. Stepping on a rake and getting whacked in the face. The squirting daisy in the lapel. The joy buzzer during a handshake. There were nights when you looked for Soupy Sales behind the bench, about to get a pie in the face.

So I’d park my car, always close the arena, and traipse up to the box office. This was about 30 minutes before game time.

“One, please.” And pretty much wherever I wanted, by the way.

I’d find the seat — always in the lower bowl — and spread out, for there was rarely anyone seated next to me. Or next to next to me. Maybe 12,000 or so other curious folks looking for some yuks were with me.

The three acts shuffled, but the final scene was always the same. Sometimes the Red Wings would engage the Canadiens or the Sabres in a real, almost competitive tussle. Or sometimes they’d really have us rolling in the aisles to the tune of 8-1, or worse.

Eddie Mio was the goalie back then. The Swiss cheese of goalies. I used to have a nickname for him: Eddie Mio-My.

So I’d watch the slapstick play out before me, satisfied that I got my $10 worth because I’d pick nights when the NHL’s brightest stars were in town. And I’d watch while first Harry Neale, then Brad Park, gamely tried to match wits with their counterpart, knowing darned well that it was futile because no x’s and o’s in the world could compensate for the disparity of talent on the ice.

The ’85-86 Red Wings won 17 games. All season. In 80 contests, they surrendered over 400 goals. You heard me. Over five per game. And, since the team’s offense was usually incapable of scoring six goals in two games, let alone one, you pretty much get the idea of their chances at victory.

Sometimes, when the action stopped and the teams changed lines before the next face-off, I’d look around the Joe and ponder.

“Will the Red Wings EVER win a Stanley Cup in my lifetime?”

And, if they did…

“What would happen to this place? Would it come down for all the euphoria?”

It was a difficult thing to imagine, believe me, while you were watching NHL hockey in an atmosphere more suited for a chess match. Or an SAT test.

The Red Wings were into their fourth season of Mike Ilitch ownership, and they were regressing.

Or so I thought.

Silly me. I neglected to remember that the GM in those days was Jimmy Devellano, whose background included several years with the New York Islanders, starting with their inception in 1972-73. Jimmy D. was a scout by trade, and it was his keen eye, and those of others that he hired, that brought the Isles from expansion to a Stanley Cup in seven years. And then another Cup. And another. And one more, before being hired away by the Red Wings in 1982.

Little did I know, as I watched the Red Wings stumble through that season, that Devellano was laying the building blocks for the championship organization that the Red Wings are today.

He hired scouts, for starters. Good scouts. And he instructed some to fly overseas, to places like Sweden and Russia and Finland, to look for players who could, one day, play in the NHL. For the Red Wings, of course.

And he put some scouts on the draft, and put some more on the NHL itself, to hunt for players with other organizations who might be attractive trade targets.

All this was going on as the Red Wings were losing, and losing big, in 1985-86.

Now we don’t ask if the Red Wings will win a Stanley Cup in our lifetime, but how many more they’ll win.

The point of all this is to say that the Lions today, I’m sure, are in that same category, in people’s minds, as those ’85-86 Red Wings were in mine.

“Will they ever win a Super Bowl in my lifetime?”

Why, yes. The Red Wings hadn’t won a championship since the 1950s, either. And they did it.

Hire some scouts, for starters.

The sad state of the Lions is really rooted in just one thing, folks. They don’t have enough good players. Haven’t had them in quite some time, in fact. Sorry to state the obvious, but sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle.

I was taking inventory of the Lions roster the other day, and it occurred to me that of the 22 starters on the offensive and defensive platoons, not more than five or six, tops, would be of any interest to another NFL team, should trades be discussed.

Roy Williams. Calvin Johnson. Ernie Sims. Paris Lenon. Maybe Jeff Backus and/or Dominic Raiola. A few others might be attractive as depth or as backups. And that’s about it.

Five or six out of 22?

When 70-75% of your starters are considered trash by all the rest, then you have a serious talent issue.

That’s why I hope the Lions, when they do their internal self-evaluation, place a high priority on hiring someone with expertise in finding young football talent. Forget the high-profile name for the sake of the high-profile name. I made the reference to Jack McCloskey already, and I’ll add Jimmy Devellano today. All I knew of Devellano was he was this short, stocky guy with the squeaky Canadian voice who had been some sort of cog with the Islanders. Turns out, that was good enough.

Don’t be surprised, or better yet, disappointed, if the Lions’ new football man is someone you’ve barely heard of — or at the very least, someone you wouldn’t have heard of it wasn’t for the speculation in the papers. Don’t look at the name, look at the pedigree.

If he comes from the Colts, or the Patriots, or the Packers, or the Cowboys, you should be happy. From anywhere else, you should be wary.

The unknown shouldn’t always be feared.

Coming Next Week: "The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al"

In Uncategorized on September 25, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Since everyone is already in a good mood in the wake of the Matt Millen ziggy, I thought this would be a good time to promote a new feature at OOB that will appear beginning next Thursday.

Teaming up with my friend Big Al over at The Wayne Fontes Experience, he and I will engage in a weekly sports chat, which we’ll post on each of our sites.

The chat, called The Knee Jerks: WTF? With Eno and Al, will be the two of us bantering about the week’s news in sports, both around Detroit and nationally. It’ll combine Al’s legendary and hilarious reactionary, volatile approach and my, as he puts it, “more sane” take. Whatever. But it’s sure to be fun — for us, at least!

Maybe down the line, The Knee Jerks will find its way into the world of podcasting. Stay tuned. But for now, you’ll have to subsist on the transcripts, which will be posted every Thursday here at OOB. Check out TWFE to find out when Al will put it on his site.

Millen Gone — But That Should Only Be The Start

In Detroit Lions, Matt Millen on September 24, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Matt Millen is gone. Done. Fired. Ziggied. Finished.

The Lions, apparently, have taken the first steps in the Eno Plan, seen here on Monday. They fired president Matt Millen late last night.

That’s just the beginning, though. Or at least, it should be just the beginning.

There’s lots more work to do, but none of it — NONE of it — could take place unless Millen was removed. Well, he’s gone now, so let’s get to work.

Do You Believe In Now?

NOW the Lions need to start a search, and an earnest search, for a new football czar. NOW they need to start their scavenger hunt, sending corporate raiders into the offices of the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, and the like. NOW they have to place phone calls for potential new head coaches, assuring them that the Wicked Witch Is Dead, and it’s safe to come to Oz, er, Detroit. NOW they must totally re-evaluate the rest of the organization, from the scouting department on down.

The Lions must Believe In Now.

A pro football team, more than any other team sport franchise, can operate during the regular season without a GM, per se. Unlike baseball, basketball, and hockey, an NFL team’s roster is pretty much set once the bell rings in September. Few moves are made, beyond signing a free agent or two due to injury. So the Lions must think NOW, but not in the sense that they need to fill Millen’s seat immediately. The NOW part refers to the search and the change in philosophy.

So what of Rod Marinelli?

Well, he’s a lame duck, lamer than lame. Lamer than Gary Moeller was, lamer than Dick Jauron was. Marinelli might as well follow right behind Millen, packing boxes in hand, because there is no scenario at all in which Marinelli keeps his job under a new administration. None. Bet the farm, the kids, the family dog. Marinelli is going to be the ex-coach of the Lions. It’s only a matter of when, not if.

But no sense, really, in changing head coaches now. Not until you get the new czar in place. As I said Monday, now is the time to think rationally. I called for Marinelli’s firing as part of the Eno Plan, and I did indeed suggest that it happen before the next Lions game, on October 5 against the Bears in Detroit. But that was under the assumption that the Lions wouldn’t fire Millen; I thought that canning the coach would be the first step taken, with the Millen axing coming soon after the season ended.

The Lions, frankly, surprised me with this move — and why didn’t I insert the word “pleasantly” in there?

But allow me one more word of cynicism.

The good news, of course, is that the Lions removed Millen, whose 31-84 record during his tenure was beyond bad. It was beyond even embarrassing. It was, truthfully, disgraceful. But I must ask: what was the final straw?

Was it simply the public words of frustration uttered by vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. on Monday?

Well, geez — if THAT’S all it took, then why didn’t Junior say something before? WAY before? There’s been plenty of evidence that suggests Junior has been mystified by Millen for quite some time. So I’m a little ticked that it took a public calling out of his father by Junior to get this done — especially when it should have been said years ago. But that’s all water under the bridge, I suppose.

So the Eno Plan is off to a good start. Millen is gone, Marinelli is soon to be, one would think, and now the franchise’s enema can begin.

Those who have made the honorable mistake of being a regular visitor to OOB know that I was one of the last holdouts when it came to Millen. I jumped off the wagon seconds before the last wheel came off. When the Lions signed Millen to a fat contract extension in 2005, I defended the move. My reasoning was: well, who are you going to get at this point? The Lions were four years into the Millen Era in the summer of ’05, and it just seemed, to me, the wrong time to change direction. I thought that the time lost on a rebuild would be greater than the time it was going to take to correct the problem from within the organization. I still stand by that opinion, by the way.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2006 when I, too, became too mystified to continue defending the man. Millen had no idea, but I was probably one of his last remaining supporters when I saw the light. Hey — I never said I was a fast learner.

So where do the Lions go from here? Well, you already know what I think they should do. As for what they WILL do, here’s my guess.

Tom Lewand, the team’s executive V.P., COO, and salary cap guru, is likely to be in charge on an interim basis, with any personnel decisions being made by assistant GM Martin Mayhew. But it’s all temporary. Such an arrangement will only last until the end of the season. After that, we might be in for one of the most fun and eventful off-seasons in Lions history.

I suppose it’s possible that the Lions will find their Jack McCloskey anytime between now and January, especially if it’s someone who’s currently not affiliated with any other NFL team. You never know how these searches will turn out, once they begin. Someone could fall into their laps rather quickly.

We’re only a third of the way there, folks. The GM is gone, but so must be the coach and the scouting department. But I have a feeling that the first domino has just been knocked over, and for that all Lions fans should be thankful. May as well break out the turkey and the dressing and the cranberry sauce — we just had Thanksgiving in September.

Monday Morning Manager

In Monday Morning Manager on September 22, 2008 at 4:42 pm

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 1-5
This Week: (9/22-24: KC; 25-28: TB)

Well, it’s almost over. Finally.

The Tigers are sputtering to the finish line, wheezing. The end can’t come soon enough, it appears, for this bunch. What else do you call it when a 1-9 record in the last ten games is seen next to their name in the standings?

By the way, I seem to remember the “Last 10” designation first appearing in newspaper standings sometime around 1984. Not sure how it started, nor why there was deemed a great interest in a team’s previous 10 games. But I must admit that the standings would look “naked” without a “Last 10” column. And it truly is a neat way to see how the teams have been doing lately, at a glance. I notice that NHL and NBA standings are showing it now as a matter of procedure.

Now, let’s play over-and-under, hindsight version.

What do you suppose was the over/under on the Tigers’ win total for 2008? You could have made a mint if you had picked anything less than 95. Less than 80, and they would have had you committed. But the Tigers may not even win 75 games, which would have been off the books in March. You couldn’t have gotten any self-respecting bookie to even take you seriously with such a prediction.

How about this one? If you would have shown someone the Tigers’ schedule, and pointed to the four season-ending games with the Tampa Bay Rays, and said, “One of these teams will have sewn up a playoff spot by this time — and it won’t be the Tigers”, how long before the white coats would have arrived? And none of this backing in, Wild Card nonsense for the Rays. They are in as all baseball teams should be in — by winning their dadgum division.

Forget the stock market, pre-collapse. Your best bet at making money would have been in the bars and casinos and sports books across this country, wagering against the Tigers and their rosey outlook. You would have cleaned up.

It’s a shame, of course. These final seven home games could have really been something: teeming with playoff implications, or a nice warm-up to the post-season. Even a Battle of the Titans-like series with the Rays this weekend would have been a nice playoff preview. Instead, they’re like so many other September home games around here over the past 15 years, save the 2006 and 2007 seasons: meaningless and just something that needs to be done, like mowing the lawn or cleaning out the attic.

But there’s always next year, right?

Manager Jim Leyland promises, among other things, “no hanky-panky” in spring training ’09 when it comes to who’s playing which positions. Maybe someone should school the manager as to what “hanky panky” means, but whatever. Basically, he says that some disorder over positions — he mentioned Brandon Inge by name — last March contributed to the slow start this season.

I really don’t care what Jim Leyland thinks is the matter with his baseball team, as long as he fixes it. He says the Tigers aren’t far away from being “back in the thick of things” in 2009. He’s probably right. It’s hard to imagine so many bad things happening to the Tigers again next year. Correction: it’s nauseating to imagine that.

Well, at least next year we won’t have to hear about 110 wins and 1,000 runs and such. Let that be someone else’s albatross.

No Time For Anger Or Frustration: Just Time To Fix The Lions, Once And For All

In Detroit Lions on September 22, 2008 at 2:12 pm

OK, this isn’t going to be filled with wise cracks and sarcasm and zingers. Not today. We’ve gone beyond that point now.

It’s no longer cute, in my mind anyway, to make fun of the Lions. No longer cathartic to vent. There are different stages of grief, they say, and I believe there are also different stages of anger and disappointment. And, sooner or later, those emotions have to give way to a more “fix it” mentality.

That’s where we are today, folks.

I’m usually not one of those Chicken Littles who say a football season is over after three games, but I’m willing to make an exception this morning. But it’s not just that another football season has bitten the dust before we’ve made our way out of September; it’s that an entire organization has perished.

It’s not with any attempt to go for laughs or for me to pander just so you might agree with me, when I say that the Lions MUST start over. Completely over.

We’ve just lost another three years, for this should have been done way back after the 2005 season, when Steve Mariucci was canned and Dick Jauron finished out the year. That’s when the Lions should have done what they absolutely MUST do now. And by now I mean, preferrably before the team plays another football game.

There’s more time than you think, because the Lions are on a bye this Sunday. So there’s 13 days until the next game, when the Bears visit for what should be another slaughter at Ford Field.

In those thirteen days, the Lions should:

1. Fire Rod Marinelli
2. Fire Matt Millen
3. Fire the scouting department
4. Fire the pro personnel people
5. Fire them all, really, except for the nice ladies in the front office, like the receptionists, secretaries, and the like. No sense punishing them, after all.

Again, I’m not going for laughs here. I’m not trying to just be another pissed off guy who’s stirring the pot. I’m past that. I’m talking about rolling up the sleeves and getting this thing fixed.

The Lions turned in another soft serve performance at San Francisco yesterday. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. And Marinelli still wants to look at the film. He may as well check out the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination, and watch that every Monday — you know, to make sure that Kennedy is really dead.

I was thinking about this yesterday — actually, I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time — and this is what I came up with.

First, let me say that I don’t really see more than two winnable games on the Lions’ schedule. Again, not going for laughs. I figure they might put it together enough to beat someone (like the Bears or Vikings, or Washington) at home — but no more than twice. I don’t see them winning any of their remaining road games. The tilt in Indianapolis later this season might be the most ugly thing you’ll ever see on a football field. I’d say that no one under 18 be allowed to witness that, and only with one eye open at any given time. So far the Lions have let Matt Ryan (a rookie), Aaron Rodgers (practically a rookie), and J.T. O’Sullivan (another practical rookie — and a journeyman to boot) shred them. The thought of what Peyton Manning will do to them is chilling.

So we’re looking at another 2-14 debacle — and I truly hope it ends up that way, for my little plan to have a chance of working, or even being implemented.

A 2-14 disaster would HAVE to, you’d think, mean the end of Marinelli, if he lasts that long. But that’s just the tip of my iceberg.

I’m dying to see if 2-14 would finally prompt Bill Ford Sr. to give Millen the ziggy. It would be the ultimate litmus test, since Matt has been in Detroit, of Sr.’s sanity. I mean, even Darryl Rogers eventually got fired, you know.

So….

This has to be treated like an expansion team. When I interviewed Jack McCloskey for the first time, eons ago (actually, in 1989), he told me that when he came to the Pistons in 1979, he treated the team exactly as he would an expansion team: with precious little talent, and with the mindset that this was a bottom-to-top rebuild. He even went so far as to offer his entire roster to the Lakers for Magic Johnson, but was rebuffed. But you got to give him props for trying.

The Lions are in the same situation as the 1979-80 Pistons, who went 16-66.

They have precious little talent. And it must be a bottom-to-top rebuild. Check that: in this case, it’s a top-to-bottom rebuild. And here’s how you do it.

1. Hire a senior member of the league to be an advisor. This person would be responsible for helping you find the Lions’ Jack McCloskey. This advisor is probably someone retired, but who is still close enough to the league to be worth confiding in. Someone like a Don Shula or a Ron Wolf. Bring this person on board and let him help you find the person needed in Step 2.

2. Scour the NFL for the best and brightest minds in the offices of teams like the Patriots, Cowboys, and Colts. There must be someone who’s apprenticed and is ready to run his own team. Think the Red Wings, and someone like Jimmy Nill. You don’t think he’s ready to be a GM in the NHL? And if you were a fan of a team like, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets, wouldn’t you be excited if the Jackets hired Nill as your new GM, knowing his pedigree?

So, find that person, steal him away as he waits for someone to retire, and make him the football czar in Detroit. It’s cool if he’s never been a GM before, as long as he comes from a winning organization and is ready to be weaned. How many people had ever heard of Jack McCloskey when the Pistons plucked him from the bench of the Indiana Pacers? But he was steeped in NBA and college hoops experience. It served him well here, if you recall.

Get this person in place no later than the second week of January.

3. The new czar must then hire a coach, and here’s where it’s different than with the search for the new GM: the new head coach MUST have been a head coach before, and preferrably with some degree of success. But beyond that, (because we don’t want another Mariucci) the due diligence must be done to ensure that the new coach has the patience and track record of working with rebuilds.

This new head coach will be the most important hire the new GM will make, so let’s get it right. Let’s make sure he’s not someone who inherited a winning situation (like Mooch) and who had a dubious degree of influence over keeping the winning going (like Mooch). This person must be special, for you’re looking for someone with experience AND the personality to work with, essentially, an expansion team. Names will come later; I haven’t gotten that far yet. Actually, I do have one: Tom Coughlin. It’s worth a phone call. (Coughlin was the first coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars).

4. The new GM and new coach will then need to blow up the scouting and personnel departments. Totally. If you need someone to push the plunger down after you’ve planted the dynamite, you’ll have 20,000 people in Allen Park within an hour.

Poor drafting has cost the Lions dearly, for how can you constantly finish so low in the standings, and consequently so high in the draft order, for nearly a decade and come away with so little in terms of football talent? Millen rightly has taken a lot of heat for this, but the scouts have been awful, too. No diamonds in the rough have been found by this group. They all must go. Every single one of them.

5. So now we have a new GM, a new coach, and a new scouting department. It’s a start.

Of course, you can’t do any of this without the cashiering of Marinelli AND Millen. I realize that. But that’s where 2-14 comes in. It just might be our ticket out of hell. I’m telling you, it might be the best 2-14 season you’ll ever go through, if we can put the Eno Plan into place.

But getting rid of Millen is essential, and I don’t mean for the obvious reason, which is his record since he’s been in Detroit.

There was a time, back in early 2001, when Matt Millen’s football world was his oyster. Shortly after his leap from the broadcast booth to the Lions’ front office, he could have had the pick of the litter. There would have been no shortage of smart, seasoned, respected football people who would have said, “Sure, Matt, I’ll come to Detroit. I’ll work with you for Mr. Ford and we’ll get this once-proud franchise back on the NFL map.” No shortage at all. And that’s not just my opinion — it also happens to be fact. Millen, at that time, was unblemished as an executive. He was a fresh face who had tons of NFL contacts from his years as a broadcaster and as a player. With Ford’s blessing, which I’m sure he would have had (not to mention the old man’s dough), Millen could have attracted some top drawer NFL people here. I’m talking major, MAJOR, high profile dudes. Easily.

Yet Millen, incredibly, didn’t seek out all that much help. He wanted to do it all on his own. So he picked his own coach, by himself, and he blew it, horribly. But he still could have minimized damage by surrounding himself with a sound draft team — again, grizzled NFL minds who were drafting players when Millen himself was still at Penn State. But he didn’t do it. Wanted to handle the draft himself.

Sigh.

Millen isn’t unblemished anymore. He’s not pristine, not a fresh face. He’s damaged goods now — poison to the Lions. You couldn’t pay any self-respecting, qualified individual to come here anymore, at any price. Not as long as Millen is here. No one wants to associate himself, and his distinguished career, with an eight-year loser like Matt Millen. Not for all the tea in China.

Again, not trying to be cute here — but you simply will not be able to attract the kinds of football minds that you need to Detroit unless Millen is gone. Not my opinion. Fact.

So with the Eno Plan, you’re back to where you were in 2001: a new, fresh face in the front office who has his fingers on the pulse of the NFL world — and with no baggage. No poison. Then you can attract a top notch coach, but only then.

OK, so we’ve done all that, but what about the players?

Well, certainly, you can’t get rid of an entire 53-man roster in one fell swoop, no matter how much you’d like to do just that. Once again, not trying to be funny here, but I don’t know that there are more than five or six players on the Lions’ current roster who could land jobs anywhere else in the NFL. The Lions are so devoid of playmakers on both sides of the ball, it’s almost mind boggling. Even the kick return game, which used to be a rare bright spot, is in the toilet. I could run kickoffs back better than Brandon Middleton. He’s awful. Again, not trying to be funny. But he’s awful.

So it would be up to the new GM and coach to re-tool the roster, obviously. And it wouldn’t happen overnight. I won’t mislead you: the Eno Plan promises two or three more years of painful rebuilding. No question about that. But I promise you it would be two or three years that would be well worth the pain.

If you think this is hogwash, just look around the league, at all the winning teams. All of them have risen from the ashes (yes, the Pats and the Cowboys and the Colts, for starters, were all bad at one point or another within the past ten years) because they’ve drafted well, shrewdly signed free agents, and even more shrewdly let some players walk. All those teams have established stability in their front office and have outstanding scouting people. Again, I implore you to look at the Red Wings and see how they do it. The Wings have been Stanley Cup contenders for about 13 years now. That’s amazing. But they haven’t done it with luck and smoke and mirrors. Far from it.

You’re going to hear a lot this week, and next, about “blowing it up” and the like. Sports talk radio won’t be pretty.

But now’s not the time for anger or frustration. It’s all wasted on this team. Rather, now’s the time for some clear-headed thinking and a search for a way out of this mess. Not the time for zingers or profanity-laced tirades. Save it. Trust me, you’ll be happier if you do. This season is shot. This administration, we can only hope, is on its last legs. I think that maybe the wheels are finally going to come completely off this time. Ford Senior will have to act this time. Believe it or not, the man does have his limits. It’s just that his tolerance for pain is greater than ours. And shame on you if you haven’t figured that one out by now.

I’m not kidding around here. I’m not going for cheap laughs or “amens” from the choir. This is simply what I think needs to be done. But to do it, the Lions need to find their Jack McCloskey. I believe he’s out there, somewhere.

Harkness’s Furniture Moving Was An Ominous Sign

In Gary Bergman, Ned Harkness, Red Wings on September 21, 2008 at 6:16 am

Ned Harkness is dead. Now maybe he’ll join Gary Bergman up above, and they can do some more interior re-decorating. If Gary will speak to him, that is.

Harkness died Friday, at age 89 – on his birthday in fact. A stroke had been suffered recently, they say, and that was the final straw.

So mathematics says that Harkness was 50 when he was tabbed to coach the Red Wings, way back in 1970. It was less than a year after the Wings fired Bill Gadsby just two games into the 1969-70 season – two games that Gadsby, apparently, made the mistake of winning. When I spoke to Gadsby about it a couple of years ago, Bill still didn’t know why he got the ziggy.

So here came Harkness, fresh from college. Ned had done some serious winning at the college level, first at RPI and later at Cornell. These were the days before college players found their way onto NHL rosters with any regularity. Perhaps Harkness’s most famous pupil in college was goalie Ken Dryden, who helped Ned and the Big Red win the NCAA championship in 1970.

It was a perplexing move, hiring Harkness – one of many that Wings owner Bruce Norris engaged in as he started to lose it. NHL teams simply weren’t hiring coaches from college in 1970. It would have been a trailblazing hire – had it worked.

Bergman, the Wings’ craggy defenseman who was never shy about taking on management, was minding his own business one day in the summer of ’70. Then came a knock on the door.

“It was Ned,” Bergman, who died in 2000, said in a published interview. “He sticks out his hand and introduces himself as my new coach.”

Which was fine and dandy. Until Bergman let the new coach into his house.

“He’s a bundle of energy, and he wants to talk about his theories of hockey,” Bergman continued. “So he starts moving the furniture around in my living room, to symbolize hockey players.”

You know, that chair is a defenseman; that sofa is a left wing. Or something like that.

Bergman said he looked at the spectacle taking place in his living room, his home being turned into Olympia Stadium II, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Then Gary’s wife poked her head in, to say hello to the visitor.

“She comes in, sees her living room turned upside down, and gives me this look,” Bergman said. “I just smiled and said, ‘Honey, this is Ned Harkness, the new coach of the Red Wings.’

“Then she offers Ned some coffee, as if nothing was the matter.”

Bergman went on to say, though, that he heard plenty about the matter after Harkness had left.

“Right there,” Bergman confessed about the furniture rearranging, “I knew that we were in trouble.”

Gary Bergman (top) and Ned Harkness

Somehow, owner Norris – and some would say the alcohol might have played a part (“When he fired me, there was a glass of Scotch in front of him,” Gadsby told me) – allowed Ned Harkness to infiltrate the organization and hold it hostage, as simply its coach. Bergman and several other Red Wings players rebelled. They wanted no more part of Harkness as their coach – and this was before Christmas.

A petition was circulated. The list of players who signed it included, purportedly, even Gordie Howe. The petition said, basically, this: Get rid of Harkness, or else there’ll be trouble.

The petition was submitted to GM Sid Abel, who was beginning to tire of Harkness’s college act, too.

On a Saturday night in early January, the Red Wings went into Toronto for Hockey Night In Canada. Then, as if to underline their feelings about playing for Ned Harkness, they lost to the Maple Leafs. The score was 13-0 – one of the most infamous results in team history.

Abel went into Norris’s office, armed with that poor effort and the petition in his pocket.

“We need to fire Ned,” was what Sid pretty much told his owner. No word whether the Scotch was out and visible.

Norris answered with some choice words about where Abel and the players could put that petition. Maybe the Scotch had been there, after all.

Flabbergasted, Abel quit. Then Norris had his own remedy: promote Harkness into the GM chair. At least he wouldn’t be the coach anymore. And Norris could get back to his Scotch.

There have been villains in Detroit, as in any major sports city. Many of them here, though, haven’t necessarily been those in uniform. Unless by uniform you mean suit and tie.

There was Russ Thomas, the stubborn, cheap GM of the Lions. Thomas was not only hated by the fans; he wore the black hat and twirled his handlebar mustache with the media and players, too. There was Bo Schembechler – Tigers president version. Bo became Public Enemy No. 1 when he fired Ernie Harwell from the broadcast booth. Of course, there is Matt Millen – today’s Bad Guy. Stories of the protests against Millen will go down as legend in these parts.

Ned Harkness was a big time enemy here – and maybe that’s not the greatest thing for me to be writing in the wake of the man’s death, as part of this twisted obituary. But it’s true. They even have a name for Ned’s time here: Darkness with Harkness. Because after Ned became the GM, and after he had traded away most of the Red Wings’ best players, never getting face value in return, hockey fans in Detroit got cranky. So did the players themselves. Players like Bergman, who was forever at odds with Ned and the front office, it seemed.

One of Ned’s most dastardly deeds, in my mind, was when he fired coach Johnny Wilson in 1973. The Red Wings had barely missed the playoffs, and Wilson had been credited with taking Ned’s chicken feathers and turning it into chicken salad. Wilson was a bright, young NHL coach who could have really been something in Detroit. But Ned fired him anyway.

I saw Wilson about two years ago as I prepared to monitor a roundtable discussion about hockey with Johnny, Ted Lindsay, and Shawn Burr. I told Johnny what I thought of Harkness’s decision to fire him.

“I always thought you got shafted,” I told Wilson, though I don’t think I used the word “shafted.”

Wilson smirked and shrugged.

“Darkness with Harkness,” was all he said.

It was all that needed to be said.