Friday, October 24, 2014

I Dread this Saturday


There is a game going on this Saturday that normally I look forward to, but this year I am completely dreading it. The M & M Game was long dominated by Michigan, with Michigan State sometimes overcoming with better effort, a standout star going unstoppable, or maybe it was a tight game that a bad call made the difference.

For the record, the "Clock-gate" game was NOT gift-wrapped by the refs. Michigan lost that game because they got ran over by TJ Duckett (211 yards rushing). Similarly in the 1999 game, Plaxico Burress was uncoverable (10 catches for 255 yards, plus a large number of pass interference penalties drawn), and State was able to drive down at the end and get a TD. The main "bad call" game that comes to mind is the 1990 game when Desmond Howard was knocked down on what would have been the game-winning 2pt conversion and no pass interference was called. These days that gets called 11 times out of 10, and twice that on Sunday.

This year I dread the game because Michigan is severely out-classed. Their new offense looks abysmal (excluding the Miami of Ohio & App State games, they average 272 yards per game and 13.2 points per game). Michigan State's defense isn't nearly the force it was last year, but believe me it is more than capable of keeping Michigan off the scoreboard. Michigan's defense is acceptable, but they don't have the stones to stop MSU if Connor Cook is at least average. Plus, they probably will be on the field a lot because Michigan's offense turns the ball over A LOT. I'll watch the game, but I'm preparing myself for a painful afternoon. To quote Clubber Lang, "Prediction? Pain."

***

The Pistons won their final preseason game last night against a Philly team that is probably still tanking, since the NBA somehow failed to pass some anti-tanking legislation. Anyway, check all the DNPs on that box score:


Backup C Aaron Gray is out indefinitely after having some kind of heart murmur, Meeks is out for several weeks due to a broken tailbone, and now Jennings is being rested with a sore achilles. KCP is probably ok to go after spraining his knee but they're taking it slow, and Greg Monroe has to serve a 2-game suspension for an off-season DUI. This resulted in a really weird starting lineup of a center, 3 forwards and a PG.

The way things are going, it looks like the starting SF will likely be Cartier Martin (who for some stupid reason is listed as a PF on ESPN), although it's tough to say for certain yet with out. Van Gundy says he doesn't know who his starters are yet, and because of the injuries I almost believe that. As it stands, I see 2 different possibilities for the starting 5:
  1. PG - Jennings, SG - KCP, SF - Cartier Martin, PF - Josh Smith, C Drummond
  2. PG -  Jennings, SG - KCP, SF - Cartier Martin, PF - Greg Monroe, C - Drummond
  3. PG - Jennings, SG - Jodie Meeks, SF - KCP, PF - Josh Smith, C Drummond
The first two lineups are the same, just with J-Smoove and Monroe swapped. The third is a small-ball lineup I think SVG would really like to run. It'll be interesting. This isn't a world-beating roster by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer a lot of possibilities. Check that 3PM-A and % in the box score: 15-28 for .536% (an average of 28 attempts would have led the league last year). Last year they averaged 6.2-19.3 for .321% and I doubt they ever attempted 28 threes in a game once. This preseason they've never attempted less than 20, with a high of 32. This is a good thing, and the offense should flow much better this year.

One guy who shouldn't be shooting a ton of threes is J-Smoove. He managed to convert 1 out of 2 this game, but he also shot a lot of mid-range shots and long 2s. He finished 6-14 shooting, which isn't good, and that was mainly due to his shot selection (as per usual):
 

He was 2-7 on shots taken outside of 8 feet, and this is not an anomaly. Now Smith did nearly log a triple-double, with a 17-10-7 line. This is his value - he's a really good defender. who rebounds and passes well, and he can score it if he's in the paint. As long as he takes over half of his shots from inside, I don't have a problem with it. He also does things like this a couple of times a game (Noel has my sympathy. He was totally out of depth here, coming back from an injury season off, facing a vicious lefty dunker like Smith).

Spencer Dinwiddie made his Pistons debut. He's their lone rookie this year, a big combo-PG with a nice shot. His minutes were limited because he's coming back from a torn ACL that cut his junior season short. He bears watching. KCP should be back for the season opener next week, Monroe and Meeks will miss it for reasons previously mentioned. This looks to be an interesting season.

***



Lastly, the Wings added to their points total by topping the Penguins in OT last night. Kronwall netted 2 goals & an assist (including this game tying goal, playing with the extra skater & goalie Howard on the bench), but the hero was Justin Abdelkader with the OT winner:



Zetterberg is the Wings' points leader with 10 (tied for 2nd in the NHL), Nyquist still has the goals lead with 4, but Pavel Datsyuk is making his presence felt, despite only just getting back from a separated shoulder injury. Through 7 games (just 75 more to go) the Wings are tied with the Islanders for 2nd in the East, behind Montreal. It's a long grind, but with the contributions the younger players made last year, this team is better equipped to go for the long haul than they have in a while.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pistons Preview

DEEE-troit BAAAS-ketball is around the corner, believe it or not. The last preseason game is tomorrow, the regular season kicks off in 1 week at Denver. So what have we got to look forward to?


 
I love this series, the Bill & Jalen's NBA Preview series. They're funny, Jalen knows the league as a former player, Simmons has interesting theories, and Jalen (being a native Detroiter) is a Pistons fan! It's a good breakdown of what is or may be in store for the Pistons this season, so if you have the time (it runs about 13 min long) you should check it out. Instead of doing a broad overview, I'm going to focus on a couple different areas and then give a prediction for the season. Here we go:


 
Andre Drummond's development. Offensively, Drummond was basically the same guy in his 2nd year as he was his rookie year. He just got more minutes & took more shots. 81% of his shots came from inside 3 ft and he made 69% of them, and he made less that 40% of his shots in the 3-10 ft range. I'd like him to expand out as far as 12 ft, take more shots from 3-10 ft (say 25-30%), and up his shooting % at that distance to about 40-44%. He's got a hook shot that's a work in progress, he'll also need to add a turn around jumper and an up & under move to get there. Defensively, Drummond needs to improve his on-the-ball defense. He's a capable help defender (not on that Ben Wallace level though), but his man defense needs some work. If his defense improves and his offense stays the same, Drummond makes an All Star team.




Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's emergence as a scorer. I didn't like the KCP draft pick last year. The Pistons needed a PG, Trey Burke was available, and they took a 2 guard. I still don't like the pick because Burke looks GOOD for Utah, and Detroit swung a trade & a big extension to bring the mercurial Brandon Jennings over from Milwaukee. Plus, KCP's rookie season was underwhelming... UNTIL he lit up the Thunder for 30 pts, 6 boards, 2 steals & a block. Yes, it was the last game of the season, but Durant, Westbrook & Ibaka all played over 30 min, so it wasn't like KCP was torching some scrubs. He carried that success into Summer League, then into the preseason before spraining his knee. With KCP jumping from a come & go bench player into a starting role, all his numbers should increase. I think he could be a Paul George-type player, only with fewer rebounds and much higher 3P%. Expect 12-16 ppg this season, shooting something like .450/.400/.800 and playing pretty good D.


3 men, 2 positions. These 3 guys CANNOT all share the court at the same time. Drummond is a C and is basically tied to the paint on offense. Monroe is a C/PF, meaning he's really a C but can play PF if you need him to. Josh Smith is a PF and only a PF. Playing him on the wing is a mistake (his shooting outside of 3 ft gets bad QUICK, and I mean BAD). This frontcourt needs to get figured out. Ultimately, either Monroe or Smith have to go. They can't pay Smith $14M/yr (this is a TERRIBLE contract, by the way), re-sign Monroe for the max deal that he wants next year, AND lock up Drummond the following year. That is a LOT of money to spend on 3 players that play 2 positions. Too much. New coach/GM Stan Van Gundy is nobody's fool, so he's got to do 1 of 3 things: 1) trade Josh Smith, 2) trade Monroe before the trade deadline, or 3) ride the season out with both players and either sign & trade Monroe or let him go for nothing as an UFA. You never want to let a good player go for nothing, so look for SVG to make a move before the deadline. The Pistons are either trotting out Singler or Caron Butler at SF (neither of whom averaged better than 10 ppg last year and both played iffy D), so look for SVG to pop for a 3 & D wing.
 

 The man, the myth... Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons ushered in a new era by ushering out Joe Dumars & his revolving door of coaches. They ushered in a new GM, Stan Van Gundy, and a more stable coaching situation of... Stan Van Gundy. This is doubly good, because Van Gundy seems to understand building a roster better than Joe D did the last 6 years, and he's a better coach than Joe D was able to hire since Larry Brown. This is all to the good. Unfortunately, Dumars didn't leave SVG with much to work with. A mis-matched roster with some crappy contracts (Smith & Jennings), and no 1st round draft pick in a supposedly DEEP draft.

What did Van Gundy do? Used the 2nd round pick to get a a high risk/high reward guy and signed several pieces that actually make sense. The Pistons were one of the bottom 3PT shooting teams last year in both attempts and percent. Defenses could pack the paint on Detroit and very few Pistons could make them pay. More KCP (expect his 3P% to be about 50-100 points higher this season) and new acquisitions Jodie Meeks (.401%), Caron Butler (.394%), DJ Augustin (.401%), and Cartier Martin (.391%) will help in that area BIG TIME. The Pistons' 2nd round pick, Spencer Dinwiddie (great name), looks like a big combo guard who can score (shooting .515/.413/.857 thru 17 games his junior season). I'm not crazy about combo guards as starters, but Dinwiddie might turn into a legit PG (Van Gundy has a history of making that work) or else a scorer off the bench.

I wrote a breakdown on SVG & some other potential Pistons coaches back before Dumars eventually hired Cheeks. I think some of SVG's weaknesses go away because he's also the GM. Part of why things disintegrated in Miami & Orlando was because he didn't have enough clout. Now he does. He can draw up a pretty good defense and he's not bad on offense either.

If Van Gundy can pull off a trade for a legit SF and ship out either Smith or Monroe, this team could be a 4 seed in the East. If the Pistons go through the season with the personnel they have right now, they'll struggle to make the playoffs (7-8 seed or just out). This is the first year in a while where I don't feel like I'm talking myself into this. Sweet.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hot Starts, Slow Finishes


We've been here before. Kind of. Last year the Lions started 6-3, finished 7-9. The Lions started 4-4 in 2012, then they lost their final 8 games. Historically the Lions have had problems with that hot-start/cold-finish issue (2004, 2007), but almost no players or coaches remain from those teams. So, the Lions made the playoffs in 2011. In the next 3 seasons the Lions have had decent starts and really poor finishes in the last 2. Will this 3rd straight good-start end the same way?

I hesitate to make predictions about this team because I've been burned SO many times. Last year I predicted them for 11 wins. With 7 games left I thought I'd guessed low (they would have needed to go 5-2 but their remaining schedule was weak), but they fell apart. So why should 2014 be different? Well for starters, each of those last couple of late-season meltdowns featured the bad version of Stafford showing up bigtime. I don't know which Matt Stafford has been showing up the last 6 weeks, but it isn't the good one. Calvin Johnson coming back next Sunday or after the bye week will help a lot. Also, remember that Stafford is learning a new offense and I expect him to IMPROVE over the course of the season.

Their remaining games are ATLANTA (a BAD 2-5) in London, MIAMI (an average 3-3) at home, ARIZONA (a GOOD 5-1) away, NEW ENGLAND (an iffy 5-2) at home, a crappy CHICAGO team twice, a crappy TAMPA team once, and MINNESOTA and GREEN BAY. The Cardinals and New England are probably the only tough teams left, and Green Bay looks better now than they did vs. Detroit in week 3. I expect at least 2 wins out of the ATL/MIA/AZ/NE run of games. I expect 4 wins out of that CHI/TB/CHI/MIN run. That GB game... who knows. The last game is hard to predict, since possibly GB and Detroit could be resting up for the playoffs. Looking ahead is always dangerous, especially since we still don't know how good NE, MIA and GB are (throw the Lions in that category too), but 11 wins is not out of the question this year.

Every year since 2011, an article (usually several dozen) is published to the effect of "the Same Old Lions are gone" and this year is no exception. We keep looking for signs that this team is ready to shed the stigma of a perpetually disappointing team. As long as I can remember, the best the Lions have done is hint that they might be ready to turn the corner, make the leap. Then they fall apart. I repeat my question from earlier - why is this season different? Well...
  • As we mentioned, the offense isn't exactly playing over its head. Stafford has been... meh. CJ has barely played. The run game is just not there. Pass blocking isn't there. This offense can only go up.
  • This defense is GOOD. I can't remember a Lions defense that looked this stout (the aptly named Jerry Ball notwithstanding). Opponents are averaging 15 points per game, and less than 300 yards. The Saints, the #2 offense after Indianapolis, racked up 408 yards on Detroit. This sounds like a lot, but against everyone else New Orleans has averaged 442.8 yards. On top of that, the defense stood tall when they needed a stop, they got a pick that led to a TD and then stuffed the Saints offense on 4th and short. A far cry from that 2011 playoff team that couldn't stop Drew Brees to save its season.
  • Another aspect of this defense is the ability to generate big defensive plays. The Lions are tied for 3rd in sacks, 3rd in INTs, and middle of the pack in forced fumbles. They've scored 2 TDs (Rashean Mathis returned a pick and Don Carey returned a fumble) and had a safety as well. They are 2nd in 3rd down conversions NOT allowed, meaning they get off the field.
Ok, that paints a pretty picture. An offense that really should be producing more, and will as soon as CJ gets healthy. A defense that stops the other team, scores points and makes big plays. So what's the other side?
  • The. Kicking. Game. The Lions are on their 3rd kicker, after Freese and Henery lost the job due to EXTREME incompetence. Prater hasn't looked stellar either, however. He's missed 2 out of his 4 attempts, and his make from only 21 yds (basically an extra point) dinked in off the upright...
    I think he's rusty from a long layoff. Other than a couple of down years, he's converted between 80-95% of his FGs prior to this year & 78% of FGs at 50+ yds. He'll even out.
  • There is a reason the Lions have a history of bad finishes to a season - they get figured out. Gunther Cunningham, gotta love him, but that wide-9, rush 4 thing he did for the last several years got figured out pretty quick. About mid-way through the 2011 season, opponents figured out that they could send a RB to chip the DEs, the interior line could double Suh every play, and Cunningham would never make them pay by sending a blitz. If opposing offenses solve Teryl Austin's D, will he be able to adjust?
    They never figure Austin out. Cunningham's problem wasn't just his lack of blitzing, he also ran his basic defense every week. Austin actually varies up his game plans and has better personnel to work with. Austin has basically out-coached or coached a draw against every team the Lions have faced so far.
The Lions are 5-2 despite having one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Their defense is #1, so it balances out. They would be 6-1 or possibly even 7-0 if they had a decent kicking game. The offense should get better as Stafford learns Lombardi's system and Calvin Johnson gets back, and don't expect the defense to regress much because a) the talent is better, and b) so is the coaching.

Per Gregg Easterbrook, teams that start 5-2 make the playoffs 67% of the time and win the Super Bowl 6% of the time. This is not to say that these are Detroit's odds, just that historically this is what has happened. Recent team history is against them. Which history wins?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tigers Hopes & Dreams... Realistically Speaking

Kind of a slow week this week. The Red Wings are in mid-season form (meaning they're losing shootouts & getting out-hustled), the Pistons are still in pre-season, and a wide variety of articles breaking down the Tigers' season and hopes for the future, displaying varied degrees of insanity on the part of the writer.


My favorites of this last came courtesy of Lynn Henning and Tom Gage of The Detroit News. Henning, never reliable for objective, fact-based reporting, conjectured that a healthy Bruce Rondon would've gotten the Tigers a World Series title. Bruce. Rondon. This guy. Other than a REALLY hot fastball, this guy was the definition of average as a reliever in 2013. A mediocre WHIP and ERA, some outings where he dominated and some where he was wildly disappointing. Ok, I'd have taken him over Joba and Coke (sounds like a cocktail in the Mos Eisley cantina), no doubt... But Henning is saying a setup guy with less than 30 innings of MLB experience would have been the difference between 0 playoff wins and 11 playoff wins is CRAZY.

Tom Gage exhibited a different version of crazy, namely saying that "all is well" and Dombrowski should basically bring the same group of players back, minus Soria and Chamberlain and Ezeqiel Carrera, adding Austin Jackson back to the mix, and paying Scherzer, Victor Martinez, and Donny Kelly Baby raises to stick around. He actually suggests offering Scherzer $27 million per year over 6 years, which is INSANE. Scherzer made $15M in 2014 and they offered $144M over 6 years (a $24M/yr average), which he declined. The way Detroit's payroll is set up, Miguel is roughly getting $22M, Verlander is getting $20M, and in 2014 they had 6 other players making $10M or more. They would need to pay Victor at least $16-$18M to get him to stick, which is a $4-$6M raise. They can't afford to pay Scherzer $10M more than he's making right now, and there's no need to do it! They've got 3 VERY good pitchers under contract, Porcello is decent, and they can get a solid 4th or 5th starter for something like $6-$10M without hurting the World Series odds too much.

The Tigers needs are bullpen, CF, bench depth, bullpen, defense, bullpen, and bullpen. Walkoff Woodward put it pretty well: FIX THE BULLPEN! Assuming Scherzer walks, the Tigers could make a run at drawing James Shields away from KC, but that would take $18-$20M. Or they could try to get someone slightly cheaper like Jason Hammel, Edinson Volquez or Kyle Kendrick, or they could take a flyer on a guy recovering from an injury like Josh Johnson or Wandy Rodriguez. This would save something like $10-$15M over reupping with Scherzer, money which would be better spent on the bullpen and their CF situation. The big name CFs going into free agency are Rasmus, Young and Aoki, all of whom are better defensive CFs than anyone Detroit had in 2014. Cheaper options out there are Nyjer Morgan or Franklin Gutierrez. I like Morgan. He's a speed demon, pretty good defensively, and he handled the bat well with limited opportunities in 2014.

The big problem is the bullpen. Joe Nathan is most likely coming back, for better or worse. Joba is gone, Soria is probably gone, and Phil Coke is 50/50. The best relievers under contract are probably Albuquerque, Rondon, and Hardy in some order. Rondon would be the setup guy if healthy. The Tigers could do what they did last year, swing for the fences with a couple of big name, high priced closers, or they could go after 2 or 3 solid arms. Luke Gregerson is available, with an ok strikeout rate, a pretty good walk rate, and 4 straight years of sub-3.00 ERAs. Scott Downs is getting old but still gets lefties out and would be a good replacement for Phil Coke (who doesn't). Former Tiger Andrew Miller (a lefty who gets out everybody), should be Dombrowski's #1 target for the 'pen. He had a fabulous season (great WHIP & ERA, crazy K-rate, etc.), and followed it up with a great post-season as well:


That's 7 and 1/3 innings, 1 hit allowed, 1 walk yielded, and 8 strikeouts. I know, small sample size, but Miller was that guy all season and last year and, to some extent, the year before. Ausmus did a pretty bad job of managing his bullpen, so some of the mess that resulted in the Divisional Series sweep, but he didn't really have a shut down guy like Miller in his 'pen either (not that Ausmus would've used Miller anyway - Al Albuquerque was probably the Tigers' 2nd or 3rd best arm in the 'pen, didn't pitch at all in October).

If the Tigers are going to make some noise in October next year, they need a couple solid relievers after the closer (I didn't like Nathan closing games last year & would have rather had Soria, but Dombrowski is probably keeping Nathan on & ditching Soria), Ausmus needs to manage his 'pen better (probably the hardest thing for a new manager to figure out), the defense needs to improve (getting Iglesias back at SS and signing a quality CF will help a lot, although Castellanos is still a butcher at 3B), and the bench needs to get deeper.

I thought Aumus's rookie season as a manager was a mixed bag. He did some interesting things on offense, which was a little more varied than when Leyland was in charge, but he was way too committed to a shaky back end of the bullpen. It was almost like he was obstinately ignoring Joba's performance at the end of the season (ERA climbed from 2.40 on 7/23 to 3.57 on 9/28), and the fact that Nathan was the worst closer in baseball who still held that role. Hopefully he's learned a lot, but he may give us another Alan Trammell performance from the dugout.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Adventures in Announcing

I got carried away with breaking down the Lions' defense yesterday, so I didn't talk much about the game. One point about the viewing experience that I wanted to bring up but never got around to was the incredibly bad play-by-play on the Fox broadcast. It was like going to see a play and for some reason King Lear is wearing white Nikes under his otherwise impreccable period garb. It was a nagging flaw throughout the game that kept on cropping up and distracting me from the action.

My initial impression of Fox's play-by-play guy for the Lions game was not favorable. Mike Goldberg decided to show up to the game with his thin hair slicked back and wearing a short, grizzly goatee. The overall look was more like the guy taking bets on the game, not a man who planned on showing up on television.

Fortunately you mainly hear the play-by-play guy, you don't have to see him. This is where he really shone. A couple examples: He mistook a Vikings receiver Greg Jennings for Golden Tate, the Vikings' punter for the Lions' punter, he called Minnesota's coach Mike Zimmer "Dom", presumably thinking of retired & long-time Yankee's bench coach Dom Zimmer (hilariously getting the incorrect sport, city, and vitality of the coach in question). He also mistakenly referred to Minnesota's coach as "Jim Caldwell" who is actually the Lions' coach, and that Norv Turner (Minnesota's OC) was calling plays for Detroit.

My favorite slip ups were how inaccurate he was in calling out yardage. Joique Bell had a first down run he called as a "7-yard run" when Bell had clearly gotten past the first down marker. There was another run that ended easily a yard shy of the yellow line that Goldberg excitedly declared "powers for a first down!" I get screwing up names your first day on the job (although presumably he would have prepared ahead of time by going over the rosters several times), but anybody should be able to tell the difference between an 11 yard run that crossed the yellow line from a 7 yard run that didn't.

Apparently Goldberg's biggest sin wasn't being the worst announcer ever but the way he responded to his critics, after which Fox sent him packing. His twitter response cost him his job, not his incompetence. This article makes an excellent point, that Fox would be better served by moving someone actually familiar with football, like Pam Oliver, to the announcer's booth. Is football so testosterone driven that Fox would rather have a guy with zero NFL experience calling games over a woman with 20 years on the sidelines? Am I asking a stupid question?

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lions have the #1 Defense???

That last post was written mainly over the course of 2 days, with some finishing touches put in today. Well, a number of things are going on right now that I'd like to touch on, namely:
  • The Lions have the #1 defense in the NFL, and won on Sunday to pull to 4-2
  • The Red Wings opened their season with a nice win over Boston
  • The Pistons have opened their pre-season strongly, with KCP and Drummond looking pretty good (until KCP went down with a knee injury that'll probably have him out for some weeks)
Ok, first things first - WHAT? The Lions have the #1 defense in the NFL? Setting aside the fact that the last time they had a good defense, it featured Chris Spielman and Jerry Ball, this team has lost it's starting MLB and half a dozen DBs (a position of weakness to begin with). How is this defense this good?

Well, scheduling helps. 5 of the 6 of the offenses they've faced - the Giants, the Jets, the Packers, the Bills, and the Vikings - are among the league's worst (Detroit also falls in the bottom 10, fyi), and the Panthers' offense is only fair to middlin'. The next 2 weeks feature a couple of the top 5 offenses (the Saints at #2 and the Falcons at #3), which should prove to be sterner tests than Detroit has faced so far. Still, Detroit's defense is part of the reason those offenses are so bad. Even when adjusting for strength of opponent, Detroit's D is still #1.

How did they get so good? Looking at this season in comparison with the previous 10, the differences are pretty stark:
 
 

There's definitely been some trending up since they were the bottom defense for 3 years in a row, but the last 2 years they were only average. What happened? Well, in 2009 the Lions drafted DeAndre Levy in the 3rd round, in 2010 they picked Suh (and Willie Young although he's getting it done for the Bears now), in 2011 they picked Nick Fairley (and no one else, apparently), in 2012 they got Tahir Whitehead, and in 2013 they got Ansah & Slay.

Whitehead has stepped up capably for the injured Tulloch (2 picks yesterday!). Suh, Ansah, FA pickup George Johnson and Nick Fairley are all playing solidly on the defensive line. Slay has come out of nowhere as a solid cover corner, and then there's Levy...


Levy is currently 4th in tackles, he's got half a sack, a crazy INT, and a tackle for a safety. He's putting together a solid Pro Bowl season after getting ripped off last year (tied for 2nd in the league in INTs as a linebacker and he doesn't get in???). It's only 6 games into the season, but right now Levy is in the Defensive POY conversation and the Lions have the top defense. We've come a long way.

As surprisingly good as the defense has been, the offense has been equally surprisingly bad. The kicking game bears part of the blame, adding 2 more misses yesterday and 1 make. Following this season as closely as I have, I've become a connoisseur of botched FG attempts and I can say that yesterday's 2 misses were quality misses (I'm at least 75% serious when I say that). Seriously, while the two missed FGs didn't make me happy, I think Prater was a little rusty and will be better down the road.

The offense has lacked that downfield element since Calvin Johnson sprained his ankle in week 2 or 3. The running game has gotten gradually better the past 2 weeks, despite missing Reggie Bush. Matt Stafford wasn't particularly effective, but he took care of the ball this week.

The main problem has been the pass blocking, which was a strength last year. The Lions have allowed the 3rd most sacks in the NFL, and Stafford has little time to get set before he has to get rid of the ball or move out of the pocket. The main culprit yesterday was Dominic Raiola, who twice allowed a rusher to blow right up the middle. One play he got beat, the other he completely missed his assignment. He may have had a hand in one of the other sacks, but I can't remember. The point is, Raiola seems to be falling off rather steeply. He's at the point of retirement and may have stayed on a year too long. Travis Swanson is the rookie waiting in the wings, but I don't expect him to step in for Raiola unless the vet gets injured.

I do know this - the offense will have to step up to keep up with New Orleans. That Saints defense is pretty bad, but the Lions just don't have an offensive playmaker without CJ in the lineup.

***

Not much to say about the Wings yet. They won their first game, getting the game winner on the power play (an area of weakness last season). Then they lost game #2 against the Ducks 3-2. The Ducks' first goal was Howard's fault when he misplayed the puck behind his own net. The game winner was thanks to the refs swallowing their whistles when Getzlaf hooked Kronwall to steal the puck in Detroit's end. Stuff happens, what are you gonna do?

Nyquist is the goals leader with 2 thru 2 games (on pace for 80!) and Franzen is the points leader with 3 assists. Datsyuk is still out with a shoulder.

***

The Pistons are in the preseason, so I'll keep this short as well. Drummond looks good, shooting 9 for 9 in his last game and hitting shots as far out as 12 feet (now if he can just get that to translate to the free throw line). KCP continued his hot streak from the end of last year by scoring 18, then 20, then 12 in the last game before going down with a knee injury of some type. Hope it isn't bad.

They don't make revisionist history like they used to

I had a dental appointment Wednesday afternoon, so I was driving around when the Rich Rod bomb hit Detroit sports radio. An article posted on ESPN featured the former Michigan HC, during which he reflected on his time in the maize and blue.

(On a personal side note, that was the least agonizing dental check up I've had in a while. The dentist commented on my pristine teeth, asking if I'd significantly changed my diet or something. The first time I'd gone to see him I had several cavities. At that point I had gone about 4 years in between check ups, so I thought that might be the reason. But then I got to thinking, and the most significant change in my life between then & now was when I got married. My marriage has had a ripple effect on every aspect of my life, changing it for the better in all sorts of ways. I don't always think of them as they occur, but it's nice to see these little reminders. Anyway, back to guy-stuff...)

Rodriguez basically said that he never got a chance to succeed at Michigan because there were people behind the scenes sabotaging him. This statement is bolstered by the fact that he started successful programs at West Virginia and now at Arizona, schools not traditionally known as football powers. So, is there something there? Was Rich Rod merely a victim of some old guard backlash?

Well, kinda. Maybe. A little. Ok, probably more than a little.

The so-called "bomb" hit during 97.1 The Ticket's Valenti & Foster show. Mike Valenti bleeds for no team like he bleeds for the Spartans, and he relishes the opportunity to educate Michigan fans on how far their (our) program has fallen, from time to time. Rich Rod was a bad fit (even Valenti doesn't try to deny that), there were signs that Rich Rod's tenure was being undermined (the book Three and Out describes this whole saga in better detail):
  • Rich Rod wanted his DC from West Virginia, Jeff Casteel, to come with him to Ann Arbor, only Michigan refused to pony up the $600k it was going to take to get Casteel. Since Casteel followed Rich Rod to Arizona (and is coaching a pretty good defense there) and Brady Hoke's DC is making $750k, the hand of a saboteur may be at work here (btw, The Hand of A Saboteur sounds like the name of a 1930's spy movie)
  • There was significant player exodus following Rodriguez's hire, which indicates a lack of support within the program. Reportedly Lloyd Carr advised QB Ryan Mallett to transfer to another school, and also had a meeting with the players stating he would sign their transfer papers if they wanted out. More on Rich Rod's side of this later, but the main thing is that when Brady Hoke needed his incumbent QB to stay, Denard Robinson stuck with the maize & blue because everyone was pulling for Hoke
  • The practice violations thing... I didn't like Rich Rod at the time and even I thought it was ridiculous. When a player narcs on a coach about violations, it's usually a personal vendetta between the player and that coach. When multiple players do it, there's got to be someone organizing them. Word was, it was Lloyd Carr. Again, contrast with all the former players getting behind Hoke, despite The Morris Incident and his crappy coaching
I need to read this book Three and Out but based on this excerpt, Michigan is reaping what is sowed. Now Rodriguez isn't entirely faultless here, a topic I covered a week ago but I'll rehash here with the benefit of a little more knowledge (oh what a fool I was, if I only knew then what I know now, blah blah blah):
  • Rodriguez didn't really try very hard to keep players from the previous regime. Yeah, Lloyd was undermining him from the start, but he didn't exactly hold up a boom box playing Peter Gabriel outside their dorms, pleading them to stay... It was more of a "sorry you're going, don't let the door hit you on the way out"
  • A lot of the players who transferred from Michigan gave reasons like "it's not the same here as it used to be" and "Michigan lost its family culture", things like that. Apparently Rodriguez's coaching staff could teach sailors a few phrases
  • He was woefully ignorant of the history, traditions, etc. of Michigan football, which was probably the biggest sin in the eyes of the average fan. You know, things like this happened...
  • Not exactly a great recruiter, despite his ratings, and ostracized the in-state HS coaches
All told, Rodriguez probably walked in the door in Ann Arbor with a knife in his back. It still doesn't mean he was the right fit. Revisionists will take his record at WZ and AZ, compare with UM & say "it's not your fault", but that isn't entirely the case.

Suppose that Rodriguez came into Michigan with the rails greased. He gets his ideal DC, Carr tells Mallett to stick it out instead of telling him to look for greener pastures... Rodriguez still did everything wrong his first year. He tried to implement a drastically different offense AND defense without the personnel to do so, he alienated the fan base by not embracing the Tradition of Michigan (and it is possible to radically change things without ignoring tradition, Rich Rod just never figured out how to do that), and he failed to continue Michigan's good relationships with local HS coaches. He always seemed to have good recruiting classes, but the best in-state recruits went elsewhere.

If we were comparing strictly coaching acumen, Rich Rod laps Hokemania in the first mile. It's hard to say what might have happened had the old guard at Michigan welcomed Rodriguez with open arms, they way they did with Hoke. His first year would've been better, certainly. The defense wouldn't have been the worst in football with Casteel running the show. But Rodriguez still would have been wrong. Not because he wasn't a "Michigan man", but simply because he's not a "big program" coach.

The blog Good Bull Hunting speculates that Rich Rod would've failed at Alabama as well, had he accepted that job in 2006 instead of taking the Michigan job in 2007 (I know you're all salivating at the idea of a Nick Saban tenure at Michigan... sorry). Players still would have left, even if the old guard was still on Rich Rod's side. He was too different too soon. He was kind of a slime ball. He and his coaching staff swore a ton, even for football coaches. There are two different schools of thought football coaches take with language - 1) the drill sargeant from Full Metal Jacket who is abusive and curses a blue streak, and 2) the disciplinarian who makes you do down-ups for every eff bomb (my middle school coaches largely fell into the 1st category while my HS coaches were mainly in the 2nd). Carr didn't swear too much, Rodriguez did/does (doesn't seem like a big difference but it speaks to a whole mindset). And that wasn't the only difference. I got the feeling that even if Rodriguez had the full support of Carr & Co, there would have still been a high attrition rate. Look at the number of Rich Rod's own recruits that jumped ship... 8 of his 4-star recruits transferred out of the program (counting Forcier, who was really kicked off the team by Rodriguez first).

So, wistfully look at Rich Rod at Arizona, but remember that he's at least 50% responsible for his own demise at Michigan. This doesn't absolve the Establishment at Michigan from the current state of affairs. The hiring of Brady Hoke was a farce, and David Brandon should bear a large portion of the blame for that. If Michigan has a prayer at nabbing a top coaching candidate this winter, Brandon has to be out the door and the hiring process has be much better. The people calling the shots at Michigan have to hold themselves to their own standards and stop with the political maneuvering. The program is going down the toilet and they're fighting over who gets to be king of the midden heap.