Greg Eno

Archive for December, 2016|Monthly archive page

Another Auld Lang Syne: the best/worst of Greg Eno for 2016

In All Sports on December 31, 2016 at 11:28 pm

Published December 31, 2016

It’s that time again.

Another year has flown by.

As I do whenever a new year dawns, I look back at the all-too voluminous amount of words that yours truly has splashed over the Internet, and pick out those pieces where I was on the money, and many more where I was less than prescient.

Here we go!

January 2016

On Ben Wallace’s jersey retirement (Jan 18)

Rodman of the “Bad Boys” and Wallace of the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons teams—who damn near matched Rodman and company with two straight championships of their own—perfectly represented the city for which they played.

Forget that the Palace is in Auburn Hills. Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace played their basketball for Detroit, and when I say Detroit I mean the entire region, filled with natives and suburbanites who closely identify with the city’s hard scrabble resilience.

They couldn’t throw the basketball into the ocean but they made sure the other team couldn’t, either.

The Pistons, a franchise that needed about 25 years to start doing things the right way after moving here from Fort Wayne, should get some recognition for richly acknowledging the contributions of two players from small colleges who played a glamorous game without any glamour whatsoever.

Rodman and Wallace were two bulls in the NBA’s china shop. Good for them—and for the Pistons.

Saturday was the franchise’s night, too.

The Pistons would later retire Chauncey Billups’ no. 1 and have recently announced plans to retire Rip Hamilton’s no. 32 this season.

On new Lions GM Bob Quinn’s intro presser (Jan 12)

Quinn didn’t elaborate much. If someone would have asked him what he ate for breakfast, he would have said, “Food.”

When the 20-minute sparring was over, we didn’t know much more about Bob Quinn’s plans for the Lions than we knew before he was introduced by president Rod Wood.

But we do know this.

Quinn is clearly more about substance than style. And that by itself ought to encourage Lions fans.

He did have some kind words for owner Martha Ford and for his family—and for the Patriots organization. He thanked so many Krafts, he made the family sound like the Brady Bunch.

So it’s obviously not about winning the press conference. It’s about winning football games.

The Lions have won nine of them—so far—in Quinn’s maiden voyage. Whether they get the 10th and most important one on New Year’s Day remains to be seen for a few hours yet.

On Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill (Jan 13)

The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.

But that’s nitpicking.

Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.

There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.

First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.

There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.

Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?

Just asking.

Umm…just joking, maybe? Less than a year later I called for Blashill’s head.

February 2016

On Calvin Johnson retiring (Feb 1)

Johnson can afford to retire at age 30 because he doesn’t need the dough like so many of his brethren do. The money he’s made—and it’s a lot—still might not last him for his entire life, but if he wants to earn some after his playing days, it’s always easier to do that when you have a sound mind.

I don’t think Calvin Johnson is retiring from the NFL because the Lions have had such little success in his nine years in Detroit. Granted, the team has mostly stunk, but that’s not why he’s thinking of getting out.

Another Lions superstar appears to be on the verge of retiring from the NFL at a relatively young age, but this time the team isn’t to blame.

It’s the game itself.

Not so many people agreed with me. They wanted to blame the Lions. 

March 2o16

On Adam LaRoche retiring from White Sox (Mar 24)

I don’t want to hear sad stories about how professional athletes don’t ever get to see their kids.

Yes, there’s a lot of travel involved, and a baseball season essentially starts in February and could last into early-November. I get it.

But what about home stands? And a bulk of the season takes place in the summer, when the kids aren’t even in school. And you still get almost all of November, all of December and all of January to spend time with the offspring.

Oh, and Drake LaRoche is home-schooled, which is another column altogether.

It’s not standing on principle if you don’t engage in dialogue to find common ground and a compromise.

It’s selfishness and entitlement, plain and simple.

And those are two terrible things to teach a child.

The White Sox came roaring out of the gate in 2016, indicating that the LaRoche thing may have galvanized them. But their 23-10 start was long forgotten by the end of another lousy season.

On Red Wings GM Ken Holland (Mar 14)

At the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, I beseeched Holland to do something bold.

Literally a trade for trade’s sake.

I argued that it was time to take the Red Wings’ snow globe and give it a good shake and see what happens.

I didn’t argue for the dealing of 19 year-old Dylan Larkin, or of goalie Petr Mrazek.

I may be stupid but I’m not a fool.

But in order to get off this treadmill that has become Red Wings hockey in recent years, I suggested a top-six forward be traded for another top-six forward.

But that’s not Ken Holland’s style.

The problem with the Red Wings—and it’s not just Holland—is that they tend to be loyal to a fault.

Holland and company can easily fall in love with players and they become Red Wings for life. Then they all get front office jobs when they retire. Even the fourth line guys.

Remember the odd bromance Holland had with Dan Cleary?

The Red Wings are not going to hell in a hand basket, but they’re in a rut.

And they still are. 

On Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe’s candor (Mar 4)

If Greg Kampe’s words were food, they’d be Thai stir-fry: spicy, eclectic and bursting with flavor. And all natural ingredients.

If you like your interviews to be antiseptic and predictable—where you can pretty much fill in the answer even before you ask the question—then don’t bother talking to Greg Kampe.

Kampe, Oakland University’s brutally honest men’s basketball coach, speaks without a filter. His words don’t come pre-processed. He takes being candid to the next level. With Kampe, the bare minimum you’ll get is candor. Often, you’ll get a little more.

Kampe is like the lyric from that song, “Oh Well.”

“Don’t ask me what I think of you; I might not give the answer that you want me to.”

Still the best interview we’ve done in seven years of The Knee Jerks.

April 2016

On comparisons between Isiah Thomas’ early Pistons teams and Reggie Jackson’s 2015-16 version (Apr 26)

Playoff heartbreak that began on a hot April night inside Joe Louis Arena in 1984.

You can dare to draw some comparisons between the Reggie Jackson Pistons of 2016 and the Isiah Thomas Pistons of the mid-1980s because both teams wandered back into the playoffs after an extended absence.

Both rosters contained a young core that figure to be together for several years to come.

And both teams had their heart ripped out in the final game of the year.

With any luck, we’ll look back at last Sunday as the baptism of Jackson’s Pistons and the April where the foundation of a championship-caliber team was built, albeit on the slab of discontent.

Maybe Jackson should give Isiah a call this summer. It can’t hurt.

Clearly Jackson’s ascent to an Isiah-like leader for the Pistons has taken a massive detour.

May 2016

On Dylan Larkin’s ranking among today’s Red Wings (May 4)

It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.

It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.

Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.

Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.

It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.

Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).

Larkin, like the Red Wings as a whole, has regressed from last season. 

On Cameron Maybin giving Tigers a much-needed boost (May 26)

So what Maybin is bringing the Tigers now—a constant presence on the base paths, some sneaky power and an infectious, bubbling personality—is the team’s comeuppance, some 11 years after the 2005 draft. The Tigers went 5-1 last week, and Maybin was a huge part of that.

You can’t talk to a Tigers player right now without hearing Maybin’s name coming from that player’s lips.

They speak of his energy. They rave about his outgoing personality. And mostly, they love what he’s doing on the field.

Maybin is providing sorely needed offense from the lower third of the order (manager Brad Ausmus is batting him seventh), which too often has been a graveyard for Tigers rallies in recent years.

“Maybin has added length to our lineup, no question,” Ausmus said over the weekend. “That’s the thing — if you can get the bottom of your lineup hot and swinging that bat well and getting on base, now you are flipping your lineup over and you’re getting your best hitters coming up. That’s how you score runs.

“When teams go on offensive streaks is when the bottom of the lineup is hitting,” Ausmus added.

Apparently the Tigers’ desire to trim payroll trumped whatever spark Maybin provided last season. Maybin was traded shortly after the World Series ended, to the Angels.

June 2016

On my father (June 19)

One of the reasons why I never felt awkward on the field with my dad functioning as a virtual coach was because he never called me out in front of the other kids. If he had advice to give me, he did it privately, with dignity. Which is more than I can say about too many LL parents.

He only got angry with me once on the field, and I deserved it.

Our team had gotten into a little tiff with the other guys. I can’t even remember what it was about, but our reaction to it, as a team, was immature, even for youngsters.

My dad was livid at how our team had behaved. He got even more so when, walking back to the car, I said something that was in support of our behavior.

He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t have to. He just gave me a glare that I can still see to this day. It was the only time I’d been dressed down as a child, in silence.

That one, brief glare told me everything I needed to know, more than any speech could have.

We were wrong. And I was even more wrong for supporting us in our wrongness.

Dad will be gone 21 years in February. Time flies even when you’re not having fun, too.

On Detroit sportscaster Al Ackerman, who passed away (June 9)

Al Ackerman not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.

Al would give you the scores at 11:20 every night—first on channel 4 then on channel 7, then on channel 4 again—but he’d also give you a piece of his mind. And that wasn’t enough; he’d give those he was covering a piece of his mind, too.

Fellow sportscaster Bob Page, who started working with Ackerman at channel 7 in 1977, said yesterday in an email to me that Ackerman’s on-air persona wasn’t an act.

“He was crazy. Insecure as the day was long,” Page, who would eventually leave Detroit for New York, wrote. “He was a yeller and immediately disliked me because of my background. He’d actually scream at me, ‘You Grosse Pointe mother——!’ But I guess I won him over eventually because I was his reporter and I hustled and dug up stories constantly for him. We wound up getting along very well.”

Ackerman was the Bill Bonds of sports reporting. Viewers tuned in to see what Ackerman would say and who he would take to task. His on-air relationship with Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, for example, was good television.

Ackerman wouldn’t say anything on the air about you that he wouldn’t say to your face. That was a cold, hard fact.

Oh, do I miss Al Ackerman!

On Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer (June 7)

If Fulmer keeps wiping out big league hitters the rest of the summer, a once-tenuous, shaky rotation suddenly looks downright nasty in spots 1-3, which is pretty much all you need in the American League, where competent starting pitching is at a premium.

It may not be the most desirable path, to put so much on a rookie’s shoulders, but that’s where the Tigers are right now.

“All of a sudden, now you feel like with Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer pitching like they’re pitching, it’s a good top three,” manager Brad Ausmus said after Fulmer’s silencing of the Toronto Blue Jays bats on Monday night.

And Fulmer already sounds like the typical “aw, shucks” phenom.

“Just see the sign, grip it and throw it and try to locate it as best as I can,” he said after his latest masterpiece. “At the end of the day, it’s trying to put zeroes on the board.”

Those zeroes have gone up on the board 22 times in a row, and a third.

Meet your 2016 AL ROY, Mr. Fulmer.

On Chris Osgood’s HOF credentials (June 27)

The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.

That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.

I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.

There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.

Hogwash.

There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.

Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.

I’d vote yes.

Ozzie didn’t get in. Maybe next year!

On the death of Gordie Howe (June 11)

Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.

“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”

Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.

He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.

Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.

This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.

It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.

He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.

Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.

Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.

He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.

RIP, Mr. Hockey.

July 2016

On Ziggy Ansah’s potential (July 30)

Ansah still has much to learn. The finer points of his position can only be absorbed with experience. The art of footwork, learning the strengths and weaknesses of opposing blockers and knowing the best routes to take to get to the passer—and which not to take—should take firmer hold with every snap he plays.

You don’t start playing football in high school and have the game mastered in four years.

But that’s OK, because conventional wisdom says that Ziggy Ansah is only going to get better the longer he plays. And he’s two years way from possibly playing for a team other than the Lions, who ought not to let that happen.

Ansah’s five-year rookie contract expires after the 2017 season. The Lions don’t want another Ndamukong Suh situation—although in retrospect, letting Suh go to Miami via free agency probably wasn’t all that bad.

Suh, a force in the middle, nonetheless could never be as valuable as a guy who plays Ansah’s position with brilliance, which Ziggy does already.

Give me a powerful edge pass rusher over a dominating defensive tackle any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Lions GM Bob Quinn knows of which he does. It’s only been six months, but Quinn already strikes me as the most competent front office guy to work for the Lions…ever. Certainly in my 46 years of following the team.

Quinn might be OK, but Ansah, thanks to injury and who knows what, has had an awful 2016.

On Stan Van Gundy’s third year upcoming (July 19)

If the Pistons get off to a mediocre start—or worse—in 2016-17, it will be interesting to see whether SVG has the patience to leave his core alone, or if he will be tempted to try more trades, contracts willing.

The Core Five needs time to jell. It’s an intriguing quintet and it could become a power in the Eastern Conference.

Van Gundy just needs to let it breathe.

Just because you can make major changes, doesn’t mean that you have to, or that you should.

The first stage of the Pistons makeover is pretty much complete. Van Gundy took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and in less than two years, turned it into a winning organization.

The 2015-16 Pistons, it could be argued, played the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers as tough as anyone did in the playoffs, despite the four-game sweep.

The first stage of the makeover is done, and the next stage is the toughest for a man with Van Gundy’s front office girth.

The Pistons are onto something here, but it ought not be broken up too soon.

They’re onto something, alright. A colossal failure, perhaps.

August 2016

On Jim Harbaugh’s nomadic ways (Aug 20)

Harbaugh is what Michigan needs—now.

And when he leaves—and I give him five years, tops (and probably less)—that will be what Michigan needs, as well.

Now, this isn’t to say that while he’s at Michigan, the Harbaugh-led Wolverines won’t have any big time success. In fact, they might even win a national championship.

But make no mistake—sooner or later, Harbaugh will rub folks the wrong way in Ann Arbor and/or the NFL will come calling again with some big bucks and another perfect storm will have been created that sends Harbaugh into the sunset.

Have chalk, will travel.

Or in Harbaugh’s case, have a hot motor, will travel.

This isn’t Harbaugh’s fault. It’s who he is. He can’t help that.

Coaches like he don’t plant roots, they plant stakes.

Harbaugh is 52 and he’s already been the head football coach at four different stops, the first three of which lasted an average of 3.7 years.

Even if you want to toss out the University of San Diego (2004-06) as a stepping stone program, Harbaugh still hasn’t shown the proclivity to stay anywhere for any significant amount of time.

But this is Michigan! It’s where he went to school and played quarterback for Bo Schembechler! This is what he’s always wanted to do!

Maybe it’s Harbaugh’s dream job—for now—but the thing about dreams is that you wake up from them, often rudely.

Again, most disagreed with me. They think that Jimmy is a Michigan lifer. We’ll see.

On Justin Verlander’s Cy Young Award possibilities (Aug 8)

The fastball regularly touches the mid-90s, even late in games. The pitch speeds are changed and mixed with virtuoso-like skill. The breaking ball is back to buckling hitters’ knees.

So yeah, why not Justin Verlander for Cy Young?

The fact that this is even a discussion in early-August after a lousy first month of the season should be enough to give Verlander some sort of an award right now.

The fact that this is even a discussion at all in 2016 is one of baseball’s best stories that no one is talking about—yet.

But as the season dwindles and the games grow in importance—which they will for the Tigers if they hope to be in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years—“Justin Verlander” and “Cy Young Award” will find themselves in an awful lot of sentences together.

And so it was true. Verlander actually garnered the most first-place votes, but finished second.

September 2016

On John Long’s induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (Sep 9)

Long was a one-dimensional player but that was OK. He had a specialty and when Thomas shared the backcourt with him, many a time Isiah would find Long in the corner or at the elbow for that patented set jumper. From 1979-86, Long hit those shots to the tune of no less than 45 percent to as high as 51 percent of the time.

That’s some serious shootin’.

Long just celebrated his 60th birthday on August 28. His nephews, fellow Romulus natives and former Pistons Terry Mills and Grant Long, are 48 and 50, respectively.

It’s enough to make an old-timer like me groan.

John Long will be inducted into the MSHOF tonight, nearly two decades removed from hoisting his last NBA jumper.

But to hear him say it, Long is a “young” 60.

“I’m still in the same shape I was when I was playing, but I can’t run anymore,” Long told Perry Farrell of the Free Press. 

“I had a left knee replacement. If the Champions league (a new league made up of former NBA players) could find a way for me to run I could do everything else. I could play, but not like I used to. I can walk, and that’s the most important thing.”

Tonight Long will walk up to the podium on his replaced left knee and take his rightful place at the MSHOF induction ceremony, to be held at the Max Fisher Music Center.

He wasn’t an official NBA territorial draft pick, but John Long will always be a Michigander.

And a Hall of Famer, at that.

Good on ya, John!

October 2016

On Red Wings’ expectations for 2016-17 (Oct 12)

Ken Holland isn’t wired to transition a veteran, elite team into a young, mediocre squad trying to find its way.

The Red Wings, if things aren’t planned well, could become the NHL’s version of the Oakland Raiders—a proud team with iconic uniforms and logo whose mystique wore off long ago.

If things really go to pot, the Red Wings could also become the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been bumping into themselves for over 20 years.

Fans are growing weary of Holland, and I wonder if Holland is growing weary of the Red Wings.

He’ll always be a Red Wing at heart but maybe he’d be better served somewhere else.

Somewhere like Ottawa, where the Senators are on their seventh opening night coach in 10 years—an NHL record.

Coaches aren’t the only people who know when their time has come to move on.

The fans’ discontent with Holland seems to grow exponentially by the week. Whether that means anything, remains to be seen. 

On Pistons’ chances in 2016-17 (Oct 26)

The Pistons can’t sneak up on folks this season. They’re not a ragamuffin, little engine that could unit any longer.

They’re coming off 44-38 and a playoff berth. Yes, they were swept by the eventual world champs in the first round but as far as sweeps go, it wasn’t a joke of a series. The Cleveland Cavaliers had to break out a sweat.

This is SVG’s third year and it says here that it’s likely to be his most important, even after history closes the books on his time in Detroit.

If things break the way they should and the way that the Pistons want, we’ll likely look back at this season as the one where the young ballers from Detroit came of age.

I don’t want to hear about taking one step back to take two steps forward. The Pistons should be done with taking any steps back for quite some time.

Sadly, the Pistons haven’t taken one step back. They’ve taken several.

On Lions coach Jim Caldwell’s job security (Oct 5, after a 1-3 start)

But after this season, all bets are off as to Jim Caldwell’s future with the Lions.

Going further, I’d be shocked if Caldwell returned in 2017. Unless the team somehow picked itself up after a gory 1-3 start and made the playoffs.

What are the odds of that?

On the flip, I doubt that Quinn would fire Caldwell mid-season, unless the 1-3 start spiraled totally out of control. Then a firing might be a mercy killing to put the coach out of his misery.

The new guy would be interim and would have zero chance of being retained beyond the end of this season.

For all we know, Quinn has someone in mind to take over as Lions coach in 2017 and beyond. Even if he doesn’t, Caldwell is probably gone. You never know who might be available after the season.

Quinn had a ton of housekeeping to do when he took the Lions GM job. He knew it, his bosses knew it.

Caldwell, truth be told, likely knew it.

Caldwell is already fielding job security questions, and we’re barely into October. He said the usual “I don’t worry about my job” thing, which always amazes me.

How come coaches never worry about their job security?

The calls for Caldwell’s head are back as the Lions are on the verge of a three-game winning streak and missing the playoffs after a 9-4 start.

November 2016

On Pistons’ move back downtown for 2017-18 (Nov 23)

This version of the Pistons are moving back into Detroit at a much better time in terms of the health of the franchise, than when they headed north in 1978. Despite the early stumbling this season, boss Stan Van Gundy has the team on a good track, considering what he took over in May 2014.

But they’d better keep it up.

The move back into Detroit will be a boon, initially. And it should be. The Pistons ought to be congratulated for contributing to the rebirth of the city—as long as we’re not talking about neighborhoods here.

But if they don’t win, the shiniest arena in the world won’t help them.

Fans in Detroit won’t walk across the street to see a losing NBA team. That’s been proven. But they’ll fill Ford Field to see a team that has one playoff win in 59 years. Go figure.

The Pistons are back in Detroit, starting next season. Good for them. Good for the city. Not sure what this means for Palace employees, but there always needs to be collateral damage, I guess, in the name of big bucks.

But the Pistons better win. And keep winning.

Why does it feel like the Pistons will again (and soon) be relegated to no. 4 in a four-team town?

So there you have it. Another year, another ham-handed attempt by me to pontificate about Detroit sports. As usual, I won some and lost some.

Have a great and healthy 2017!

Mentally weak Pistons reverting back to unlikeable ways

In Basketball on December 26, 2016 at 6:11 pm

Published December 26, 2016

This is what I was afraid of.

Heading into the 2016-17 NBA season, I had my reservations about the Pistons.

My muted optimism was based on the adage that it’s one thing to go from being mediocre to OK, and quite another to go from OK to good.

The Pistons made the playoffs last spring by finally ending the morass of losing seasons—seven in a row—with a 44-38 mark. That was a 12-game improvement from 2014-15. Between 2008-15, the Pistons’ average win total was around 30.

So they won 44 games last year in boss Stan Van Gundy’s second season and gave the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers a battle, despite being swept in the first round. Good for them.

But the Pistons went into this season without that usual label of being a ragtag, cute team from which nobody expected anything of note.

The ascent from 44 wins to 50 and to a top four seed in the Eastern Conference—with the accompanying home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs—is a much greater task than going from 30 wins to 44.

You see that now.

The Pistons are 14-18 and have again been relegated to a team that sees moral victories in giving squads like Golden State a tussle before eventually capitulating.

After last season’s modicum of success, a late-December visit from the Warriors would have been circled on the schedule as a barometer of the Pistons’ continued improvement from Van Gundy’s first team in Detroit. And the Pistons would have been expected to win the game—not just come close in a gallant effort.

The Pistons beat the Warriors at the Palace last season. It was one of only nine losses by Golden State.

But last season was, well, last season.

The current version of the Pistons is again unlikeable. After one season’s respite from the bitching and underachieving, the Pistons are fracturing yet again.

Instead of building on the foundation that was laid in 2015-16, there appears to be some in-fighting and mystified players. The coach, who’s also the president, is the law but we all know that in the NBA, the phrase “I fought the law and the law won,” doesn’t always apply.

But at least the players can’t take their grievances upstairs, because there is no upstairs, per se. Van Gundy rules on the sidelines and in the front office.

These delicate times with the Pistons are why having an experienced coach who wields the power that SVG wields, should come in handy.

This isn’t John Kuester. This isn’t Larry Frank.

SVG minces no words when talking about his team to the media. I’m sure that doesn’t go over particularly well in the locker room at times, but this is why owner Tom Gores gave Van Gundy the dual roles.

You have a beef with the coach? Talk to the coach’s boss.

Ha!

But even a man who rules with an iron fist, like Van Gundy does with the Pistons, isn’t necessarily ticketed to the NBA Finals.

What’s happening now with the Pistons is troubling. The mojo and karma from last season is a distant memory. If the players expected to throw their jerseys on the court 82 times this season and grab 50 wins, they’re sorely mistaken.

To the rest of the league, the Pistons are a playoff team that has a target on their back, though not as big as the ones in Cleveland, Oakland or San Antonio. The Pistons can’t sneak up on anyone this season.

You can blame the loss to injury of point guard Reggie Jackson and subsequently his return, during which the Pistons are 3-7. You can say that the team is having trouble adjusting to Jackson’s style versus that of his fill-in, Ish Smith.

Baloney.

Jackson was the starting point guard all of last season. Smith was the starting point guard for 21 games this fall. The coach and the supporting players haven’t changed all that much from 2015-16.

There shouldn’t be any adjustment from the sub to the starter. If anything, it should be the other way around.

Excuses, excuses.

There were reports that players were grumbling about touches. Some players’ body language has been distressing. There was a much ballyhooed players-only meeting that accomplished absolutely nothing. All the meeting did was become a source of derision for the coach after the Pistons defecated the bed in Chicago the next night.

“Team meeting my ass! Talk is cheap” SVG said with disdain to the press after the debacle in Chicago.

He’s right.

The Pistons are a soft team, mentally. They tasted a little success last season and they can’t handle it.

Van Gundy probably thought his team was ready to take that next step, but he was wrong. Certainly, some of that falls on him.

The Pistons of the 1980s were a portrait of continuous improvement despite some gut-wrenching playoff losses.

Isiah Thomas was drafted in 1981 and the Pistons went from 21 wins to 39 in Zeke’s first season. They stumbled a tad to 37 wins the next season, but then the win totals went like this: 49, 46, 46, 52, 54, 63.

But the thing about Thomas’ Pistons was the ascension in terms of playoff success virtually every spring.

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Thomas was Daly’s general, on and off the court.

Example: even though the 1985 team won 46 games versus 49 the year before, the ’85 team won a playoff round and gave the vaunted Boston Celtics a spirited six-game series, whereas the 1984 squad lost in the first round to Bernard King and the Knicks.

And even though the 1986 team fell back to losing in the first round, the 1987 Pistons went to the Conference Finals and probably should have gotten past the Celtics, were it not for an errant pass by Thomas to Larry Bird.

The 1988 Pistons lost a heartbreaking seven-game Finals series to the Lakers, so the 1989 Pistons went 15-2 and swept the Lakers for the championship.

The Pistons’ tic-tac-toe move through the 1980s was a marvel to see.

The common denominator throughout the decade was Isiah, arguably the most mentally—and physically—tough professional athlete in Detroit sports history. Isiah often willed his team to victory—whether it was a regular season game in December in Indiana or on the big stage of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles or Portland.

Today’s Pistons point guard, Jackson, is no Isiah Thomas.

That by itself is no crime, and the point guard doesn’t have to be the heart and soul of the team in the NBA, but what does it say about the mental state of the Pistons when the starting point guard’s return from injury is blamed on the team’s malaise?

Shouldn’t Jackson’s return have been a welcome thing? Shouldn’t that have spurred the Pistons, with all due respect to Ish Smith?

There are mental midgets all over the floor at the Palace.

Chuck Daly, a Hall of Fame coach, had as part of his genius, the knack for knowing when his team needed to police itself. When the 1989 team acquired Mark Aguirre from Dallas for Adrian Dantley, Aguirre’s new teammates took him to dinner out west, where the Pistons were playing during a long road trip in February.

It was around Valentines Day but the dinner wasn’t warm and fuzzy.

The Pistons, led by Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, told Aguirre in no uncertain terms that if his reputation in Dallas for being a team cancer was true, then it was ending, right here and now.

Aguirre fell in line. The Pistons won the NBA championship four months later.

Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are good basketball players. Hell, even the worst NBA team has good players.

But this thing going on with the Pistons now isn’t about talent. It’s about the stuff that goes on between the ears, which in the NBA can make or break you more than talent level will.

Stan Van Gundy can’t wave a magic wand and make his players mentally tough. He can’t expect Reggie Jackson to morph into Isiah Thomas.

But what SVG can do is call upon his years of experience coaching in the NBA and go into mad scientist mode, coming up with different schemes, lineups and rotations. He might try trades again, but he’s made an awful lot of those already.

It’s a chicken and egg thing here.

The Pistons should become bigger mentally the more they win and build upon last season. But to do that, they need to get bigger mentally.

See the dilemma?

Thomas was mentally tough coming out of Indiana, playing for Bobby Knight. If you can play for Knight, you can play for anyone.

You can also say that Stan Van Gundy is no Chuck Daly. That’s fair.

But you can’t tell me that Daly would have had the career he did without tough stalwarts like Thomas, Laimbeer and Ricky Mahorn.

Daly’s brilliance was in knowing when to push and pull back with his players.

Van Gundy has been doing a lot of pushing, because he doesn’t yet have the blend of players who can be trusted if SVG were to pull back.

It isn’t easy to coach in today’s NBA, even if your power extends to the executive washroom.

Packers mystique is perhaps Lions’ biggest 2016 hurdle

In football on December 12, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Published December 12, 2016

Isiah Thomas once spoke of the mystique of the Boston Celtics.

“To beat the Celtics, you’re not just beating a team,” Thomas said of the Pistons’ primary obstruction to greatness, starting in the mid-1980s and continuing throughout the rest of the decade. “You have to beat a mystique. You have to beat tradition. You have to beat leprechauns.

“The Celtics aren’t supposed to lose.”

The Celtics knocked the Pistons out of the playoffs in the conference semi-finals in 1985, and in the conference finals in 1987—the year of The Pass that Isiah himself made to Larry Bird in Game 5.

Isiah waxed about the Celtics in the above quote during the 1988 conference finals, in which the Pistons finally slayed their dragon in six games. The celebration that June evening at the Silverdome, when the Celtics were finally eliminated, rivaled that of winning the NBA Championship.

Center Bill Laimbeer brought a duffel bag into the Dome that night before the game. The reporters quizzed him about the bag’s contents.

“You’ll see,” Laimbeer said with that half-sneer, half-smirk of his.

As the Pistons went crazy in the locker room following the dispatching of the Celtics, Laimbeer revealed the contents of the duffel bag.

It was a sickle.

Laimbeer explained.

“You need to cut the head off the snake when it’s twitching,” Laimbeer said, expounding on Isiah’s ruminations about the Celtics.

The sickle was brought out to symbolize what the Pistons had finally done after years of torment by the guys in green and white.

Cut the head off the snake.

The Lions have been tormented by a team in green as well over the years.

The image is still too vivid of the Packers’ Sterling Sharpe left alone in the end zone at the Dome, and Brett Favre finding him for a late touchdown that knocked the Lions out of the playoffs after the 1993 season.

The next year, it was the Packers again, as they held the great Barry Sanders to minus-one yard rushing in the 1994 playoffs.

In 2011, the Lions went into Green Bay with a 10-5 record and a chance to secure a home playoff game. But the Packers, 14-1 and with nothing to play for, beat them—with a backup quarterback named Matt Flynn.

In 2013, the Packers were seemingly left for dead by the Lions after being destroyed in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions appeared too far ahead in the division race to be caught.

But the Pack picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went on one of their famous December charges while the Lions folded like a card table. The Packers won the division.

In 2014, the Lions again ended their regular season in Green Bay, marching into Lambeau Field with an 11-4 record that was matched by the Packers. The winner of the game would win the division and get a first round bye. The Packer, naturally, won.

In 2015 the Lions, making a late season charge of their own, had the Packers dead to rights on a Thursday night at Ford Field. But Aaron Rodgers beat them with a Hail Mary, thanks to a second chance at victory due to a silly personal foul on the previous play.

The Packers beat the Lions at home every year from 1992-2014.

Sheer torment.

It’s taken the Lions a lot longer to beat the Packers’ mystique than it took the Pistons to conquer the hated Celtics.

In fact, the Lions haven’t figured it out yet.

The football gods seem to have the Lions and Packers on yet another collision course with fate.

The Lions seem to have the division in control, as they did in 2013.

Their record is 9-4 while the Packers are lying in the weeds at 7-6.

But the Packers are making another one of their Mike McCarthy/Rodgers-led late-season charges. They’ve won three straight after a 4-6 start.

The Lions finish the regular season against—drum roll please—the Packers, at Ford Field.

It’s absolutely possible that the Lions, despite their five-game winning streak, will be 9-6 going into the Packers game. Road games at the Giants and Cowboys loom. And it’s just as possible that the Packers will also be 9-6.

The division could once again be squarely on the line in Week 17.

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Sterling Sharpe left alone in the 1993 playoffs, breaking every Lions fan’s heart.

This time, the game will be in Detroit, but as noted above, the Packers’ mystique works in the Motor City as well as in the frozen tundra.

The Packers, based on their current winning streak, are twitching. The Lions may need to be the ones to lop off their heads, because Green Bay’s next two games are against the 3-10 Bears and the wobbly 7-6 Vikings.

Every Lions fan can certainly envision a division title being on the line at Ford Field on New Year’s Day.

And every Lions fan is conditioned to think that the Packers will be popping champagne bottles in their locker room afterward.

Why wouldn’t they think that?

The Lions have been tormented by the Packers, in one shape or another, since 1992. Actually, you could even go back 30 more years—to when the Lions coughed up a sure win in Green Bay in 1962, when a Lions win could have made them Western Division champs instead of the Pack.

Not once have the Lions beaten the Packers in any game that’s meant a hill of beans to the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

And now QB Matthew Stafford has a bum finger on his throwing hand.

The snake from Green Bay is twitching.

Where’s Bill Laimbeer’s sickle when you need it?

Cooter’s magic key with Stafford significantly beefs up his resume

In football on December 6, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Published December 6, 2016

Believe it or not, there was a time when the offensive coordinator of any professional football team was the quarterback.

Oh, he got his guidance from the head coach, for sure, and they worked on game plans during the week, but the playcalling was pretty much done by the man under center.

An exception was the great Otto Graham, the Browns’ Hall of Fame quarterback. In fact, a slight knock on Graham has been that he didn’t call his own plays. Paul Brown, one of football’s great control freaks and innovators, handled that.

Chuck Noll, a Hall of Fame coach, was one of Brown’s messenger guards in the halcyon days of the 1950s. Maybe that’s where Chuck learned his stuff. It was Noll who jogged back and forth from Brown to Graham, delivering the next play.

Graham excluded, the pro quarterback carried with him into the huddle a mind filled with Xs and Os, schemes and formations, and it was he and he alone who told his 10 teammates in the huddle what play was to be run.

This trend went the way of the dinosaur by the late-1970s, when coaching staffs expanded and technology allowed for quicker relay of plays from the press box into the quarterback’s ear. The position of offensive coordinator became a staple on every team’s org chart.

None of this means that Matthew Stafford, or any modern day NFL quarterback, couldn’t be charged with calling his own plays if the need arose. After all, the QB does indeed “check out” of the original play call if he sees something at or around the line of scrimmage and changes things as the play clock winds down.

But the days of quarterbacks being so entrusted are long gone.

Jim Bob Cooter has a name that was at first mocked for its good ole boy sound, but is now being bandied about as a possible head coaching candidate elsewhere in the NFL.

Cooter is the quarterbacks coach who became the accidental o-coordinator when the Lions gave Joe Lombardi the ziggy a year ago October.

Cooter is also the man who seems to have unlocked the mystery of Stafford.

Some things in pro sports can be chalked up to mere coincidence.

But others are clear cases of cause and effect.

There’s a distinct delineation in the status of Stafford pre-Cooter and what he is now, over a year later.

Stafford was always a big numbers quarterback. He could throw for 4,000-plus yards every year without breaking a sweat.

But those big numbers also included the ugly ones too.

Interceptions. Fumbles. Badly thrown balls. Poor decisions.

Those numbers were big as well.

Stafford did his initial maturation under Scotty Linehan, Jim Schwartz’s offensive coordinator from 2009-13. And Linehan deserves credit for turning Stafford from the league’s number one overall draft pick in 2009 with vast potential into a serviceable NFL signal caller.

But the feeling nagged that there was so much more that Stafford could give. He put up big numbers but was he truly an elite quarterback?

The answer had to be no, he wasn’t.

Jim Caldwell was hired as head coach in January 2014 and he brought with him Lombardi, formerly the QB coach of the New Orleans Saints. Lombardi was supposed to be one of the NFL’s younger, up-and-coming offensive minds. And his task was to unlock the mystery of Matthew Stafford—to elevate him to a top shelf pro quarterback.

Stafford played terribly down the stretch in 2013, when the Lions blew an almost sure playoff spot. Frankly, Stafford played Schwartz out of a job.

So Lombardi’s job was to reverse Stafford’s awful trend of ill-timed turnovers and suspect decision making. It was getting to be time for Stafford to make that next step.

But Stafford and Lombardi weren’t quite simpatico.

Stafford was polite in his comments to the press, but it was obvious that he and Lombardi never really jelled, and the Lions’ won-lost record suffered because of it. The Lions, under Lombardi, engaged in a pattycake offense. The rhythm was lacking. Stafford appeared to be suppressed in his abilities.

Enter the good ole boy, Jim Bob Cooter.

Image result for jim bob cooter matthew stafford

Cooter is the only coach who’s been able to get this much out of Stafford—sans the mistakes.

Under Cooter, Stafford is flourishing. The QB doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s thrown just five interceptions this season. He doesn’t fumble. He’s making smart decisions on the field.

Stafford is playing with confidence, control and efficiency never seen before in Detroit by a quarterback.

This isn’t a coincidence that it’s happening under Cooter.

Cooter has unlocked the mystery of Matthew Stafford. He alone can put that on his coaching resume. It’s something that ought to bring forth job offers in the future—whether as head coach or coordinator elsewhere.

No coach has been able to get out of Stafford what Cooter has been able to, in the quarterback’s eight years in the league.

Cooter and Stafford lost Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement, but it hasn’t mattered. In fact, I submit that Johnson’s retirement has benefited Stafford. No longer do Stafford or Cooter feel that they need to involve Johnson at all costs.

No receiver should be the franchise player, anyway—even one as gifted as Johnson.

Without Johnson, Stafford can be allowed to freely spread the football around. And Cooter doesn’t have to answer questions like “Why don’t you target Calvin more?”

Cooter has managed to succeed where coaches before him have failed. He’s managed to get the most out of Matthew Stafford, while at the same time cutting down severely on the silly mistakes and ill-timed turnovers that have torpedoed the Lions’ chances in the past.

Cooter is the only man who’s been able to pull this off.

No wonder his name has become more than something to snicker at.