Thursday, March 13, 2014

Back at it (kind of)

Pt 1
I’ve been out of commission for a while now, just getting back into blogging on a limited basis. What’s happened since my last post?
  • Personally, I completed a marathon (despite still recovering from a leg injury) with a respectable time of 4:16:39, my first child was born (a lovely girl), and got recalled to a (supposedly) permanent position. Sadly, the Detroit sports teams have not fared as well as I have…
  • The Lions solidified their place in the history of pathetic sports franchises by spectacularly choking away the playoffs after the NFC North was practically gift-wrapped for them
  • The Pistons parlayed a couple questionable off-season pickups, a questionable draft pick, and a questionable coaching hire into yet another losing season, almost certainly missing the playoffs and likely losing their 1st round pick as well
  • The Wings have been banged up all year and Jimmy Howard has underperformed, leading to the possible end to the longest active playoff streak in sports
  • Jim Leyland retired (like) to be replaced by Brad Ausmus (like). Jim Schwartz was fired (like) to be replaced by Jim Caldwell (dislike). Mo Cheeks was fired (like, with qualifications) to be replaced by John Loyer (hopefully not permanently)
I’d like to touch on that last point, briefly. It’s strange to me that the Tigers appear to be the best run franchise out of the four (I put them over the Wings based on recent history). During my formative years the Tigers were a laughingstock, the Wings seemed like they could win the Cup every year, the Lions at least made the playoffs every other year (always losing in the 1st round), and the Pistons at least had Grant Hill and made the playoffs from time to time.

I think to discern the quality of each franchise, all you have to do is look at the coaching situation. The Pistons are the most poorly managed team of the four. They’re on their 6th coach since 2006, look no further than that (if you WANT to look further than that - which I wouldn’t advise - you could look at 6 straight losing seasons, blown draft picks, bad trades, bad free agent signings, and the fact that they gave up a pick in the most loaded draft in recent memory). The Lions closely follow the Pistons, being a bit more stable but bad nonetheless. The Wings are in a similar boat to the Tigers, but Babcock has probably been there 4 years too long. Not a bad coach, but he’s just getting old for this team and will likely miss the playoffs this year. Leyland left at the right time and the right replacement was hired, putting the Tigs on top. I’m most optimistic about them making the playoffs, and they have an outside shot at winning it all.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Little clearer picture of the Lions

Before the preseason kicked off, I predicted (admitting over-optimism) an 11-win season for the Lions in 2013 AND a playoff win. I stand by my prediction (and the over-optimism qualifier) because THIS IS FOOTBALL, and no one ever succeeded in football by being a wuss. Right? Right. However, after the 3rd preseason game I think there are a few tenuous conclusions we can make. 

1. Matthew Stafford is a 3rd-tier QB.
I thought Stafford might be a 2nd tier guy, maybe even high-2nd tier. Well he isn’t. Not yet anyway. The presence of Calvin Johnson pushes Stafford’s production into 2nd tier. Without CJ in the passing game, Stafford was unable to move the offense with mediocre receivers. I’m not exactly BLAMING Stafford for the offense’s ineffectiveness, but he certainly hasn’t wowed me. The 2nd tier of QB’s would include guys like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and possibly Matt Schaub. I just can’t put Stafford with that group.

2. Secondary aside, this defense should be solid. I don’t think the secondary will be as good as it was when Eric Wright manned the CB spot opposite Chris Houston, but it should be ok if Slay cleans it up a little in coverage. Right now Slay and Bentley are still figuring things out and it’s, well, BAD. The S and DE spots are upgraded (Avril/KVB/Young/Lo-Jack < Jones/Ansah/Young/Idoneje and it’s not close), and I think whoever ends up with the other LB spot will be an upgrade over Durant last year. Possibly the biggest change/improvement is Suh taking on the leadership mantle. The D line is younger, faster, and has an edge that wasn’t there last year. They’ll score some points.

3. Special Teams will go from being a minus last year to a plus. This is a bigger deal than most people think. Sam Martin will be a top 5 punter, if he can remain consistent. Akers will adequately replace Jason Hanson (it’s sacrilege to say it, but the last couple of years Hanson lost distance and reliability on his FG’s), Martin is VERY good on kick offs, kick coverage is MUCH better, and kick returns are also improved. The Lions can chalk up a couple of losses (maybe even several) last year to poor special teams play. I don’t think they’ll WIN any games because their special teams, but they should have an edge over the majority of their opponents.

4. This is way late, but Mikel LeShoure was a wasted draft pick.
So were Titus Young, Jahvid Best, and a dozen others I could name in the Martin Mayhew era. Not exactly news. This just struck me last night though – they traded up to get LeShoure in the 2nd round 2 years ago, and a few months later they picked up Joique Bell off of Houston’s practice squad. Who’s the better RB right now? I say Bell. 

The Jury is still out on...
- The offensive line. This unit will get fewer penalties than the previous group, but Reiff is not ideal at LT, and I’m not sure what I think of Fox or Warford just yet. We just haven’t seen enough of them to get a good assessment.

- The new-look offense with Reggie Bush. Evaluating this offense without CJ is like scouting an outfielder by watching him shag flies in batting practice. Plus, I think Linehan kept the playbook REALLY thin for the preseason. At least I hope he did. Anyway, there are a lot of options on how to use Bush and Linehan didn’t show us much. Basically I’m saying don’t rush to judge the offense based on what we’ve seen so far.

- Ziggy Ansah. He’s made some BIG plays, and he’s also disappeared at times. He’s probably ahead of the curve from where I thought he was on draft night, but is he a starter yet? I don’t know. Willie Young might be a shade better right now. I feel like Ansah will either take 3-4 games to really get going, or it might not happen this year.

The Lions need a few things to go right for my 11 win prediction to look good. The offense needs to get better at finding the end zone. The secondary needs to get tighter at the other CB spot. They can’t afford an injury to CJ, Bush or Suh. I feel like that isn’t asking a TON, and Chicago and Minnesota are overdue to come down. They would probably need 4 wins in the division (sweep CHI, split with MIN & GB), which is asking a lot but is believable.

Breaking down preseason is kind of silly, so I’m going to try & analyze Thursday night’s game in a regular season light. Let’s put on our hypothetical goggles and take another look at the game.

Stafford struggled to move the offense in the red zone, or to ever get on a roll offensively. This was largely a result of his receivers’ inability to get open. IN A REAL GAME Calvin Johnson would’ve put a Band-Aid on his bruised knee & suited up. CJ can get open anytime, and also opens things up for everyone else. Not saying the offense would’ve blown the doors off, but they probably would’ve gotten another 1st half TD.

With 2 sacks and a fumble recovery, you could argue that the player of the game for Detroit was DE Jason Jones (in fact, his buddies DID make that argument on the sidelines). IN A REAL GAME Belichek would’ve schemed to chip the ends more, or made some other adjustment in the 2nd half to quell the edge rush, like shorter drop-backs & quicker passes. The 2nd half would likely have been a different story, with the DE’s needing to get their hands up to knock down passes.

Tom Brady & the Pats limped into the half down by several scores. IN A REAL GAME I don’t think the halftime score would’ve been much different, maybe even skewed more toward the Lions’ favor. However, in real games the starters play the 2nd half as well. Belichek is VERY good at adjustments & would’ve come up with a few more ways to exploit the Lions’ weak secondary. The Lions are a better 2nd half team as well, mainly because Stafford is just a slow starter. I think both teams would probably have traded scores with New England playing a little better than Detroit, and the game’s outcome would not have been decided until the final minute (I believe I just lapsed into preterit-future-imaginary-subjunctive tense).

In conclusion, the preseason is WAY too long. Can we start this up already?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tigers and Umps Oh My!

I had a post ready to publish about how great it was that the Tigers were winning all these games, running the table on the Indians and coming up with the clutch hits. I went into examining what changed over the winning streak that accounted for the change and how great it was to be a Tigers fan. Before I had a chance to make the final tweaks – insert highlights, links, etc – they lost a series to NY. Ok. Then they lost another series to Chicago. Meh. Then they lost a series to KFC (Kansas Freaking City). Officially concerned here.

Throwing errors, starting pitching falling down, relief pitching exposed (Coke & Alburquerque shouldn’t see the light of day), big hitters coming up with big outs in big spots…

This isn’t supposed to happen to this team. The Tigers have the best starting rotation in baseball. They have the best hitter in baseball. They have REALLY good middle defense – C, SS, 2B, CF (although the catchers can’t throw out the garbage) – and they’ve had solid hitting in the top ¾ of the lineup. But often in baseball, the unexplainable happens.

Saturday, for example. Fister threw a pitch in the dirt that the batter waved at for some reason & fouled off. Pena, the catcher, asked the ump for another ball except the ump wouldn’t give it. Pena was confused. Chris Getz was on first and decided to go for it, making it to 3rd before Fister picked up the ball that the ump inexplicably had ruled a wild pitch. Leyland came out to argue, the umps conferenced (next year this will become a reviewable play, but for now we have to put up with this BS) and ruled it a wild pitch, runner stays. Leyland argued, went back to the dugout (under protest, I presume), and then got thrown out by the ump on the opposite end of the field (I’ll never comprehend how that guy understood what Leyland said at that distance when I can hardly understand him when he’s got a microphone in his face). The runner on 3rd ended up scoring of course, Pena apparently made some comment while looking away from the home plate ump & got also tossed. I feel I should mention that this was John Hirschbeck’s crew that was umping this particular game, which probably explains the quick trigger.

What’s amazing about this? Well, a) calling a foul tip is relatively easy because you just listen for the sound AND the ball changes direction, b) none of the other umps heard or spotted anything despite BOTH the pitcher & catcher knowing it was tipped, and c) the umps gave the Tigers NO rope to argue once the call was made despite suspecting their ultimate call was incorrect. I’ve heard a lot of excuses for umps over the years – it’s a hard job, it’s a thankless job, the rules are often ambiguous, the speed of the ball is sometimes too fast for the eye to pick up – and these are all true… But on the other hand, there’s a LOT more at stake for the Tigers than there is for the umps (Fortunately the Tigers would go on to win this one with a walkoff in the 9th). 

There is no metric for how good an ump should be, little to no consequences for screwing up call after call (Angel Hernandez has been one of the worst umps in the league for a while & he still has a job). If a player displayed the incompetence of some of these umps, he’d get sent down or cut. If a manager, he’d be fired. If a GM, he’d be fired. There are consequences for failure (THAT sounded like Dr. Evil) at every job in baseball except umpire (and commissioner I guess). Expanding replay will help them get a few more calls right, but the underlying problem remains until the league figures out how to expand accountability.

It's very possible, given the state of umpiring today, that few of them would ever overturn a call based on replay.

Friday, August 16, 2013

I'm afraid the Lions are the mistake by the milake...

The Lions absolutely crapped the bed in their last preseason game vs. Cleveland
. Really, I could care less if they win or lose in the preseason (always remember, 4-0 in 2008 led to 0-16), but I certainly want to see the starters play well. They didn't. They continued their penchant for getting whistled for rough play and the more annoying tendency not to score points or cover anyone. After all the moves they made (drafting Slay this year, Bentley last year, getting Quin in FA), the secondary still sucks. At the moment it seems they're willing to patch in cheap vets until one of the younger kids rises to the top.

Another problem is TE play. Pettigrew still can't catch. This is a problem. Stafford isn't good enough to overcome mediocre talent at every receiver position unoccupied by Calvin Johnson. He REALLY needs help at the TE spot, and he's not getting it. I know it's only preseason, but this offense is what will win Detroit games. It stalled too often last year, and I'm not sure how that gets fixed with the current personnel. Pettigrew looks more & more like a giant waste of a draft pick (drafted after him were Percy Harvin, Michael Oher, Clay Matthews, and Hakeem Nicks). Nobody besides CJ seems willing to step up.

I think a lot of this is on Stafford though. Yes, he has - outside of Calvin Johnson and probably Bush - ineffective tools to work with. He's able to do some basic QB things, but he hasn't shown much of that next level stuff like throwing a receiver open, or extending a play & making something good happen. His stats got a LOT of help from CJ last year, so I think they should be taken with a smallish grain of salt. If the Lions are going to make the playoffs like I hope (and predicted), Stafford will need to step it up.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lions Preview & Preseason Breakdown

The Lions had a lot of moves to make in the offseason. To recap - they lost (to retirement or through free agency) DE Cliff Avril, RT Gosder Cherilus, LT Jeff Backus, RG Stephen Peterman, LB Justin Durant, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jason Hanson. They bolstered their offense by adding Reggie Bush in FA, the defense by adding S Glover Quinn & DE/DT Jason Jones, and looked to replace Hanson with David Akers. The draft added DE Ziggy Ansah, CB Darius Slay, G Larry Warford and a couple other guys who could all contribute in a meaningful way this year. That’s a LOT of turnover.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a team that needed some turnover, but there are a lot of question marks. Riley Reiff MIGHT be ready to replace Backus, but Reiff couldn’t even hold a starting job last year so that certainly isn’t a given. I don’t know who’s playing RG or RT yet. I don’t know who’s taking the LB spot vacated by Durant. Presumably Ansah will be one of the starting DE’s, the other could be either Willie Young or Jason Jones. The other CB (opposite Chris Houston) will either be the rookie Slay (if healthy), or more probably Bill Bentley.

What I Like:

The Lions have been built the past few years as an offensive team with an edge on defense. They had problems scoring TD’s last year though, and due to injury and selfishness/insanity, Calvin Johnson was Stafford’s only weapon. Adding Bush changes the dynamic of the offense & should force opposing defenses to respect the Lions’ line of scrimmage. If Burleson and Broyles are healthy, this offense should score a LOT of points.

This is the best I’ve felt about the defense in a LONG time. There’s a lot of inexperience at the DE spot, but at LOT of talent. Ansah could be a game changer. Fairley reportedly is in better shape & firing off more quickly, which means opposing offensive lines will have their hands full. I don’t think Slay will be healthy enough to start, but Bentley looked capable in spots last year and the safety position looks as solid as I can ever remember.

What I Don’t Like:
Injury has hampered this team. Losing Jahvid Best was probably the biggest blow, but they drafted Broyles after he had surgery to repair his ACL and lo & behold, he hurt his knee. They did a similar thing this year in drafting Slay. He’ll probably miss the first couple of games or start slow, and the risk of reinjuring or hurting his other knee is high. Burleson is coming off a serious injury last season, Louis Delmas is ALWAYS injured or at less than 100%... I don’t even want to mention Stafford, who’s been healthy the last 2 years. A team as thin as the Lions are can’t afford a serious injury, but they seem to get them all the time.

Special teams was a REAL weak point last year and cost the Lions at least 2 games. They cut Stefan Logan, but the problem was bigger than the return game. The Lions can’t afford to ignore this problem anymore. It seems like such a minor thing, special teams, but I recall a year in which San Diego had the #1 offense AND the #1 defense, yet failed to make the playoffs because their special teams were a disaster.

Lastly, there is a lot of unknown with this team. Ansah could be a defensive POY, or he could be 2 years away from holding a starting job. Reiff could be an improvement over Backus & help the run game, or he could whiff on a block in week 1 and get Stafford knocked out for the season. What will the kicking game be like without Hanson?

The Verdict:
I was going to do a best case/worst case like I did with the Pistons, but that’s kind of weak and this is football. I think the offense finds the best version of itself with Bush providing SOME balance, and Reiff does a better job than Backus (who looked like he was on skates at times) in the run game. Stafford doesn’t throw for 5,000 yards but improves his TD/INT ratio. CJ gets fewer yards than last year but leads the league in TD receptions. Ansah wins Defensive ROY, and the defense finishes in the top 10. With a top 10 defense and a top 5 offense, that’s good for 11 wins and a trip to the 2nd round of the playoffs.

Yes, I’m bold.


So I watched the first quarter of the Lions first preseason game against the Jets (really, why watch more than that?). My impressions:
 Sorry for the lack of visual flair in this post, I'll try & make up for that next time.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Catching up with NBA FA, Trades, and My Running

It’s been a while since I checked in, so let me get up to speed.

First off, as you’re all aware, the Pistons signed F Josh Smith for a reasonably largish contract that pays him about $12M/yr for 4 years. That wasn’t a bad deal, and not really an overpay since he actually made more last year. Smith was the biggest name FA the Pistons had a shot of signing this summer, so in that sense you could call it a success. However, he’s more of a PF (Greg Monroe’s position) than a SF (Detroit’s biggest area of need), so he creates an awkward situation with the frontcourt. Additionally, Smith’s offense is most effective close to the rim and he’s one of the LEAST effective scorers from longer range (long 2’s and 3’s).

On the plus side, Smith is a superior defender who can cover 3’s and 4’s. He’s AMAZINGLY effective on offense when he doesn’t settle for a long 2, and he’s a great passing forward. Still, unless Monroe magically develops a 16 footer that he can convert at least 40% of the time, this offense will go through some serious dry spells. Good defenses will be able to slow or stop them.

So what happened next? They brought Chauncey Billups back, re-upped with Will Bynum, and snagged Italian league MVP Luigi Datome to perhaps pad the bench scoring. Then the BIG move – a sign & trade that sent Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravsov to Milwaukee for PG Brandon Jennings. Jennings is getting $8M/yr for 3 years, which is a decent price for him.

I was hoping the Pistons would upgrade the PG spot, and it was looking like they weren’t going to until this deal. I like it. I think Knight has a chance to be a player, but not at PG and I don’t think he’ll be a starter. Not for several more years anyway. While Jennings’ decision making needs improvement (specifically shot selection), he’s got the tools to become a pretty good PG (which Knight just doesn’t have).

As it stands, the depth chart looks like this:
Jennings         Bynum           Siva
Billups/KCP    KCP/Billups    Stuckey
J. Smith         Singler           Datome
Monroe          Jerebko          Mitchell

Chauncey probably starts at the 2 guard until he gets injured. I can see KCP becoming a sort of 6th man, playing the 2 & the 3 with Smith sliding to the 4 from time to time. I like this team offensively, at least more than last year’s. There are 2 scorers (Jennings & Smith), Monroe can handle a secondary scoring role better than primary, there are plenty of 3PT shooters (Jennings, Billups, KCP, Singler and possibly Datome), and a Jennings-Billups backcourt will move & protect the ball MUCH better than Knight & Stuckey did.

On the defensive side, the Pistons are finally starting 2 plus defenders, with KCP being a possible third off the bench. Last year they started ZERO plus defenders, with Tayshaun being only a moderate defender (and traded away in February), Maxiell being too undersized to be a “plus defender”, and Drummond not getting the starting job until the season was basically over. Monroe sounds like he has improved his defense significantly, year 2 for Drummond ought to be good, and Smith is the best defender to wear a Pistons jersey since Ben Wallace left for Chicago.

Presuming the Pistons are done wheeling & dealing (at least until the trade deadline), here’s my verdict for the season:

Best Case Scenario
– Drummond draws Defensive POY buzz, KCP does a decent Danny Granger impression, Jennings picks his spots & focuses more on involving others in the offense, Cheeks figures out a decent mix & match forward rotation, and the Pistons make the 2nd round of the playoffs as a 5 seed. 47 wins.

Worst Case Scenario – Drummond takes a step back, Smith & Monroe can’t coexist, Jennings goes rogue, KCP lives in the D league, and Cheeks never figures it out. 32 wins.

The Tigers hedged their bets (wisely) with Jhonny Peralta and dealt Avasail Garcia for Boston’s SS of the future, Jose Iglesias. Well, Peralta got his 50 game suspension and Iglesias has played in 3 different infield spots for the Tigers, acquitting himself well on the field and at the plate. Iglesias has drawn comparisons to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel as a defensive wizard, and so far he’s looked the part.

While the Iglesias deal has gotten more press, the Tigers also acquired Jose Veras from Houston. Veras is a former closer and adds a solid arm to a bullpen in need of solid arms. At the moment I like the Tigers to represent the AL in the World Series. They appear to be hitting their late-season stride, similar to what they’ve done the past 2 years. Cleveland and KC are tougher Central Division opponents this year and it remains to be seen how the new playoff structure affects the Tigers, but so far it’s looking pretty good.

As far as my personal sports go, I’ve been improving by leaps & bounds. A couple of weeks ago I had a 15 mile long run. Two weeks prior I managed to get my 14 mile run in at just over 9:00 pace, so I was hoping for something similar. I decided to take 2 gel packs on my 15 mile run instead of 1, and we were in Midland that weekend, so I was running a different course. Well, I killed it.

It was cool and cloudy/foggy that morning. I hit the Rail Trail around 7am (I think) and ran a steady 9:00 pace for the first 7.5 miles. I still felt pretty energetic, so I kicked up my pace to about 8:30 for the rest of the way, finishing the whole 15 in 2:12:06. I was pretty stoked. I started pushing my pace in my shorter mid-week runs, and last Saturday I ran just over 6 miles in 44:56 (under 7:30 pace). I’ve got a 16 mile run this Saturday which I’m going to try to run at 8:30 pace the whole way.

At the moment my running gear includes brand new Stabilicore New Balance running shoes, an Amphipod water bottle & belt with a pocket, and Cliff Mocha Gel packets. The last thing I need is a timing watch (I’m currently still using the stopwatch on my cell, which works but isn’t ideal).

I’ve lost about 30 pounds, which is very noticeable to people who haven’t seen me in a couple months. Last weekend I played some basketball and tested my vertical (I’d noticed some improvement after blocking some guys I couldn’t block before). I was able to touch rim about 3 or 4 inches below my wrist. The rim is bent so it’s not a standard 10ft, but it’s still pretty high & I think I could probably dunk on it. I’m going to try it out next time we play.

It feels pretty good. In high school I was a decent athlete. Maybe 15% - 20% of the guys
that played sports were faster, stronger and could jump higher (I certainly wasn’t a “star athlete”), but playing in pickup games I was used to being better than average – soccer, football, basketball… That started going away after I got into my mid 20’s. I didn’t work out, I didn’t play sports on a regular basis, and I ate like crap. Well, I always ate like crap but I started paying for it then. I hated to lose that active/athletic part of my life, but there seemed to be little I could do about it.

My wife & I started working out on a regular basis when we got engaged. I dropped about 25 lbs. After we got married, we stopped & I gained about 10 lbs back. My wife encouraged me to pursue my bucket list goal to run a marathon, so I got on a diet & exercise program. I started losing weight again. I started & stopped a couple times, and then got going for good this January. Since THEN I’ve lost about 27 MORE pounds, bringing my total weight loss to 46 lbs since January 2010. I can jump at least 6 inches higher, I can run MUCH faster (my mile pace for a 10k has gone from about 9min to 7:30), and my belt tightens 3 notches higher. I’m in as good a shape as I was when I was 17 years old. Anyone can do it, you just have to want to (and having someone who loves you be so encouraging definitely helps BIGTIME). Motivation for the day.

Next time: Lions preview

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Good 10K, Tigers Strike back, Pistons reboot BK7 at PG?

Good news! I ran my 10K last week Thursday up in Gaylord, and I ran REALLY well. The course ran through a nature preserve (that was donated to the county by the guy that invented the McD's fish fillet sandwich). The surface was mostly soft dirt (almost like sand), it mainly ran through woods, and it was cool and cloudy for most of the run. There were a couple of hills though. The course was a 5K loop, and one particular section toward the end of the course (in miles 3 & 6) that was about 1/4 mile of uphill running. My goal was to run it in 50:00, but with the hill I was VERY happy with my final time of 51:37 (about an 8:20 mile pace).

This weekend my long run is 14 miles. This marathon training is starting to get real. Every 2 weeks the long run increases by about 2 miles, so in another month I'll be doing a 20 mile long run. Anybody know a legal way to make your joints & ligaments 10 years younger?

Due to the long weekend, I got to catch up on some Tigers baseball. They had fallen behind Cleveland for the division lead, but that changed quickly. Detroit celebrated the announcing of 6 Tiger All Stars (and possibly a 7th!) by beating Cleveland 3 out of four in their series & taking a 3.5 game lead.

Not crazy about what the Pistons are doing. Reportedly they're signing the Italian League MVP Luigi Datome as a backup SF, which is fine, except I think it means they can't pursue Jeff Teague unless they amnesty Charlie V. This means Brandon Knight is probably the Pistons' starting PG for the 2013-'14 season. Unless he's figured out how to throw an entry pass, this is NOT good.