Rob Gronkowski retired to avoid a trade to the Detroit Lions

We’re trying our best to bring you positive news from the sports world during these times that also are trying, but it’s tough to find the energy to put a positive spin on this one. As penance, the group’s laughter at the end should be the Lions’ new fight song for at least as long as it takes them to win a playoff game.

(HT: Fredi The PizzaMan)

The week in “sports”: 4/17/20

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From the Got To Admit It’s Getting Better Department:

  • Baseball is back: Not everything is getting better, of course, and circumstances are continuing to worsen for many people in many places. For sports fans this week, though, a bright spot was the return of professional, regular-season baseball. The Chinese Professional Baseball League opened Wednesday with the Rakuten Monkeys hosting the Unilions (more formally, it seems, the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions) in Taiwan. The game went into extra innings and ended with a walk-off solo homer (sound on) in the bottom of the twelfth to claim the Monkeys’ first win under their current ownership. The game was played without fans in attendance, though you may recall the Monkeys as the team that promised to fill its stands during this period with robot supporters (one of whom I think can be seen in the game-winning clip linked above). All that considered, the game atmosphere didn’t feel too sterile, though, thanks to the home team’s decision to pump in plenty of crowd noise, including chants and songs. There also were a half-dozen Monkeys cheerleaders– surely real humans and not Westworld hosts, even if we recently learned (minor spoiler alert) that the Delos park property likely is located on an island in the South China Sea– on hand to celebrate their team’s on-field achievements. It remains to be seen whether the CBPL season will continue as planned (the Monkeys beat the Lions again on Thursday, 15-3 in regulation) and eventually phase fans back into the seats, and it of course is unknown how they will respond if a player tests positive for COVID-19. For now, though, we can enjoy this moment of quasi-normalcy and hope that it proves to be a model adaptable to sports in North America in the near future.
  • iNoLongerRacing: After shouting a racial slur at one of his teammates during a live stream of a virtual race, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson quickly lost most of his sponsors, and then his team dumped him.
  • Golf’s precolonial study: We’re not talking literary criticism, although I tend to be critical of placing any weight on announcements that postponed events will occur at a future date given how little we understand about this disease and instead prefer to wait until the events, like the above-referenced CPBL opening day, actually happen. Even so, I am linking to this story about the PGA’s current plan to resume its season– sans fans– at Colonial Country Club on June 8 for three reasons: 1) of all sports, golf seems the easiest to play while abiding social-distancing requirements; 2) I needed another bullet point for this post; and 3) we’re still pretty desperate for good news in the sports world.
  • Eat your betting ticket: Major League Eating (a thing!) is taking wagers on a special eating contest featuring Joey Chestnut and seven other top competitive eaters to raise money for charity, and that’s all I feel like writing about that.
  • Coming up/Odd Odds: Speaking of large men and gambling, I’d wager it’s more likely than not that Marshawn Lynch is back on Westworld this Sunday, though I’ll leave it to the professional bookmakers to set the line on the number of different emotions that will be illuminated on his sweatshirt during the episode.

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NFL Draft Jam

Yesterday, the NFL held round one of its 2019 draft on Lower Broadway in Nashville, which, predictably, meant the night’s biggest news involved a bachelorette party and a Taylor Swift song premiere.

Realistically, though, when you look back on this night a few years from now, all you’re going to remember is whether the leadership of your favorite pro football team found its generational franchise player of the future or continued to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, only this time the Lions are unduly obsessed with tight ends instead of wide receivers. If you’re at the point where the thought of NFL roster construction makes you sick to your stomach, or maybe you’re seeing visions of Lombardi trophies, or maybe you’re somewhere in between and just thankful you were smart enough to plan your pre-wedding bar crawl for literally any time and place other than last night (a Thursday, I’ll just pause to note here) in Nashville and therefore did not appear on a now-viral piece of local news footage that may or may not send a tremble through the foundations of your anticipated marriage, this week’s Jam is for you:

And, if you just want T-Swift’s new video, I get that. Find it here.

Lions do another trade

Last week, Detroit Lions General Manager Bob Quinn sent waves of excitement through the team’s fan base when he completed a trade with the collapsing New York Giants for Damon Harrison, a strong run blocker who seemed like a perfect fit to bolster the Lions’ struggling defense at a moment when the team seemed poised to make moves in the competitive NFC North after early season wins over New England and Green Bay.

Now, though, following a disappointing and uninspired defeat at home against the Seahawks that dropped Detroit below .500, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Quinn & co. are punting on 2018. That’s because they just traded Golden Tate to Philadelphia for a third-round draft pick.

Sure, Tate’s contract is up at the end of this season and he’s (barely) in his thirties, but he consistently has been one of the Lions’ top players since coming to Detroit in 2014, regularly performing as top a yards-after-catch receiver who, after Matthew Stafford, probably has been the most essential part of the Lions offense.

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This is especially disappointing because of the apparent opportunity this season offered to Detroit. The Seattle game on Sunday was bad, but they still sit only a game out of first place, with the divisional competition appearing far less invincible than they appeared at the season’s start. Green Bay looks bad and already lost to Detroit. Chicago is a much weaker team without new acquisition Khalil Mack, who’s battling a leg injury, and the Vikings haven’t yet lived up to the hype they earned coming off last season’s appearance in the NFC Championship game.

In assessing the trade value of a draft pick, it’s important to account for how well the team receiving the pick does in drafting. Here, I think it’s too early to tell.

In the immediate aftermath, it’s difficult to reconcile the Harrison and Tate moves, but at least there’s some comfort in the familiarity of this team giving up on a season, and the transparency should help lower fans’ stress levels as they can turn their attention to other, less-frustrating diversions this fall.

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Previously
Lions do a trade

Lions do a trade

The New York Giants (1-6) have seen the writing on the wall and are unloading whatever assets they have in an apparent attempt to reload next year around rookie standout Saquon Barkley.

This morning, New York sent defensive lineman Damon Harrison to Detroit in exchange for a fifth-round pick in next year’s draft. Harrison, who’s nickname is “Snacks,” sounds like a pretty good run-stopper and should have an immediate positive impact on a defense that really has struggled against the run.

The cost for Harrison seems pretty low, especially considering the Lions still will have one fifth-round pick, having previously acquired an extra one in a trade with San Francisco.

The NFC North is the NFL’s most interesting and competitive division, and every team’s still in the mix for a playoff spot. Adding Harrison should go a long way toward helping Detroit to keep pace as they prepare to enter a critical stretch of their schedule in which they’ll face three divisional opponents in four weeks, including two games against the Chicago Bears in an eleven-day span.

What happened the last time the Lions played the Browns in Detroit

In a few ways, it’s irritatingly cumbersome to write about the history of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Long synonymous with deep NFL failure, these two teams were very competitive and successful in that period of professional football that doesn’t count anymore (i.e., the pre-Super Bowl era), meeting in multiple NFL Championship Games in the 1950s. That lengthy historical leap isn’t quite a smooth one, though, since there’s a corporate continuity problem on Cleveland’s side due to team owner Art Modell’s controversial move and (sort of) transformation of the team into the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, with the “Browns” not returning to existence until 1999.

Additionally, for teams as old and geographically proximate as these two, the Browns and Lions meet only infrequently in the regular season. In the forty-seven NFL seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, Cleveland and Detroit have played each other just eleven times. Though they faced off only twice in the 1990s, there nevertheless was an effort during that period to drum up a rivalry of sorts in the form of “The Great Lakes Classic,” which was centered around preseason meetings– there even was a trophy, which, suitably, was modeled after the region’s most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Classic” fizzled, though, during a particularly unmemorable stretch for both teams:

Over the GLC’s 13-year run, the Lions and Browns were two of the three losingest teams in football, per Pro Football Reference. Over those regular seasons they ran out 29 different quarterbacks, gave 13 different skippers the whistle and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

It obviously is tough to get excited about either of these teams on their own, much less when they’re playing each other. But a recent game in this series, the last one played in Detroit and the only one played in Ford Field, offered some real drama. Thankfully, the NFL Films crew captured it.

The 2009 season was Matthew Stafford’s rookie year, and he started ten games at quarterback for Detroit that season. On November 22, the Browns came to Ford Field, where, with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, they found themselves with a six-point lead thanks to this blast-from-the-past play:

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Stafford now is the highest-paid player in NFL history, but, in 2009, Lions fans still were in the process of figuring out what the team had in its top overall draft pick out of Georgia. He’d soon let them know:

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The Lions will look to make it four in a row over Cleveland on Sunday. A win coupled with a Packers loss to the Bears (who knows) would give Detroit clear possession of second place in the division, which, in my opinion, remains winnable even if I refuse to buy into the hype train the national media runs out after Lions wins in nationally televised games. I’m thankful for the exposure, to be sure, but people are making way too much out of Monday Night Football wins over the Packers and New York Giants, two teams going firmly in reverse this year. The Sunday Night Football loss to the Steelers should serve as a strong reminder that the Lions have done nothing to demonstrate week-to-week continuity, and that red zone offense, in particular, remains a significant weakness. They’re only in the mix because of the poor quality of their divisional opponents. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on a weak nonconference opponent this week. In case you missed it, the Browns, at 0-8, are deep on the Road to XVI.

Staffords of the future

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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and his wife Kelly recently became parents of twin girls, an event that presents an opportunity to consider an interesting question, or, at least, a very typical question made interesting by attendant circumstances. When an athlete has a child, many assume– for plenty of good reasons– that the child will follow in his or her parent’s athletic footsteps. That speculation is all the more present when both parents are athletes, of course, as anyone who remembers the Steffi Graf-Andre Agassi wedding (or the Curry family) can attest.

Stafford’s sport, football, has begun a fall from grace in the public eye, and, we’re told, youth football will dry up as parents decline to permit their children to participate in a sport that now almost seems designed to induce lasting brain trauma.

On the other hand, there has been a push for increased inclusiveness in sports, from openly gay or transgender athletes to women pushing their way into male-dominated leagues. Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis sparked a new drama series on network television, and eloquent and mortally conscious baseball observer Sam Miller wrote after the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series win that the chance to see a female player in the major leagues was the only likely historical baseball event worth living for.

These two arguably diverging trends return us to the subject of the Stafford twins and the speculative question at the heart of this post: Is it more likely that one or both of the Stafford girls grows up to play football, or that football essentially doesn’t exist by the time they grow up?

Detroit Lions 2016 Wild Card preview

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Head coach Jim Caldwell has the Detroit Lions back in the playoffs for the second time in his three-year tenure. After ending the season with three consecutive losses, the Lions (9-7) will play the Seahawks tonight in Seattle in the first NFC wild card game, which kicks off at 8:15 Eastern on NBC.

Detroit’s playoff history in the Super Bowl era isn’t pretty. In the fifty seasons since the 1966 merger, the Lions have appeared in the postseason in just twelve of those seasons, winning just one game.

That one win, a 38-6 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992, also was the last NFL playoff game hosted in Detroit, and one of only two ever in the Super Bowl era (not counting games, like Super Bowl XL, in which the Lions, obviously, did not participate).

The national press picked up on an interesting narrative following that win, which featured Barry Sanders, of course, and also Erik Kramer, whom they highlighted as “a strikebreaker,” or, in the words of Cowboys defenders Jack Del Rio (now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who have an AFC wildcard meeting with the Houston Texans this afternoon) and Tony Casillas, “a scab.” Kramer had played for Atlanta as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike, something that upset apparent union tough guys Del Rio and Casillas and, the New York Times postulated, Kramer’s ostensible supporters in the center of the UAW universe (“this grizzled, battered town, this blue-collar, lunch-bucket town”). The on-field performances by Kramer, who had claimed the starting job after starting the season as the team’s third quarterback, and Sanders that day erased any internal concerns that might have troubled the Honolulu blue and silver faithful, however. They also silenced Del Rio:

Del Rio kept up the verbal barrage during the game, or part of it, anyway.

“I didn’t hear him make any more remarks after the first quarter, said Kramer.”

Detroit only led 7-3 at the end of that first quarter, but Dallas already had amassed half of the points it would score all day. Kramer threw three touchdown passes, Sanders finished the day with a forty-seven-yard TD run, and the Lions defense even got in on the scoring action, when Mel Jenkins intercepted starting Dallas QB Steve Beuerlein and ran it back for six. By at least this one measure– Super-Bowl era playoff wins– then, Kramer might be considered the Lions best-ever playcaller.

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This time around, the Lions quarterback again is the lead story. Matthew Stafford has struggled somewhat since injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand (pictured above, both pre- and post-injury). He claims he doesn’t rely much on that finger for gripping the ball, but the injury can’t help. Nor do recent injuries to other key contributors like DeAndre Levy, Marvin Jones, Ezekiel Ansah, Travis Swanson, and Riley Reiff, all of whom are likely to be game-time decisions. It also is not clear whether the team has a running back, although the emergence of Zach Zenner has caught the eye of at least one Seahawk defensive lineman.

While Detroit’s nine wins came on the back of a weak schedule, the Seahawks (10-5-1) also had some bad losses this year, dropping games to the Rams and Saints and going 0-1-1 against the disappointing Cardinals. They are coming off a win in Week 17, but they barely scraped by two-win San Francisco. This has not quite been the dominant Seahawks squad of recent seasons. Still, they best the Lions in all of the usual statistical categories and are 7-1 at home, where the game will be played tonight. (The Lions were 3-5 on the road this season.)

Any pieces of good news at this point are going to be small, but a notable one is the absence of Earl Thomas, one of Seattle’s best defenders, who will not play due to a leg injury. Seattle’s aggressive defensive tendencies also may help twist this piece of seemingly bad news into good news:

Lions fans are upset because Brad Allen, who calls a lot of penalties and officiated two Detroit losses and no wins, will be refereeing this game. Caldwell isn’t worried about the NFL assigning Allen to this game, though, and neither am I, because I think, in general, playoff games are officiated differently; Allen will have a completely different crew under his supervision; and, despite Seattle’s 2-1 record in Allen games, Seattle’s defensive strategy shouldn’t mesh well with a referee who throws a lot of flags. Their “efficient-breach” approach allows them to be aggressive, because they know that, even if their defenders commit pass interference or defensive holding on most every play, the officials won’t flag it every time. It therefore might not be a bad thing if Allen and his crew called more penalties in this game, so long as they do so fairly.

Another matchup to watch will be the Detroit defensive line against the Seattle offensive line, the latter being the only real Seahawk weakness. In a disappointing year from Ansah, the Lions haven’t made waves in the pass-rush department, but a breakout day from the fourth-year defensive end could be a difference-maker today.

It’s going to be a long and loud afternoon in Seattle, where a wintry mix has been in and out of the forecast. It will be tough sledding for these battered Lions. Here’s hoping they find a new gear and, once again, give their fans a reason to celebrate in January.

Stafford at the century mark, in context

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The 2016 Detroit Lions are doing kind of okay! Week Seven is in the books, and they’re 4-3, including a win over the probably good Eagles. In a week of very bad professional football, the Lions’ game-winning drive provided a rare highlight on Sunday. I insist you enjoy it again:

Because the NFL media corps is an insatiable monster, Sunday and Monday found everyone except Skip Bayless launching the Matthew Stafford MVP campaign:

Sunday was Stafford’s 100th NFL game, leading one writer to tabulate a long thread of historical statistical notes, the catchiest of which is the list of quarterbacks’ passing yards through their first one-hundred career games:

  1. Stafford: 27,890
  2. Dan Marino: 27,064
  3. Kurt Warner: 26,097
  4. Peyton Manning: 26,008
  5. Aaron Rodgers: 25,616

Not unimpressive company. As with Carson Palmer’s headline-grabbing passing milestone last month, though, this accumulative distinction requires some context, Continue reading

2016 NFL Preview: Tempering expectations for the Detroit Lions

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The notion that anyone would have an expectation regarding the anticipated performance of the Detroit Lions so high it required public tempering is facially preposterous, especially considering that this is a team that made major coaching and administrative changes in the middle of last season and, going forward, will be without its generational talent, who opted for an early retirement over even one more game with this team.

Yet this is the time of every calendar year when Lions fans’ memories wane to their very shortest. Who’s Calvin Johnson? What’s coaching and management stability? We’ve got Jim Bob Cooter and Zombie Anquan Boldin!

I want the Lions to win every game, and I know that, each Sunday (/Monday/Thursday/Saturday sometimes/Tuesday maybe?), no team will look better on the gridiron than the Silver and Honolulu Blue Crew.

As recklessly optimistic as Lions fans may be at this time of year– which may be the happiest, relatively speaking, since they haven’t yet lost a regular season game– however, there are a few Coors Light Cold Hard Facts with which they need to reckon.   Continue reading