Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Resistible Force against a Moveable Object: The Sportsball Chic watches the Lions Preseason Win over Cleveland

Can the Lions faithful party like it's 1953? Don't bet on it just yet.
I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but I think it's only fair to warn you all now that the Detroit Lions are definitely going to win the Superbowl this season. That's right folks, the Chic is fresh off watching her beloved Lions work their bottom of the roster comeback mojo on the mighty Cleveland Browns and it's safe to say I'm pretty fired up about what I saw.  Wow, that game was exciting wasn't it? We saw a little bit of everything from both teams, including fumbles, nondescript field goals and players you've never heard of generally failing to make plays! Of course, we didn't get to see Calvin Johnson, Ziggy Anseh or anything except the tiniest glimpse of Matt Stafford, but by the glory of Pete Rozelle it was honest to goodness, actual NFL football! More importantly, the Lions pulled out the big win when beloved 3rd string Quarterback Kellen Moore tossed a beautiful 21 yard fade into the corner of the endzone and it was miraculously caught by a guy who'll be bagging groceries in a month! With just over a minute left, "Komeback Kellen" trotted to the sidelines and Detroit's collection of future delivery drivers, real estate agents and fitness instructors managed to keep the Browns out of the end zone to close out the game. Final score 13-12 Lions; restore the roar indeed folks.

Jokes aside, the Lions preseason began on a positive note tonight as one of the longest offseasons in franchise history finally drew to a close. New coaches, big draw rookies and some sloppy play on both sides lead to a wild and entertaining contest that provided more drama than you'd typically expect out of a 13-12 match featuring six field goals. Of course, in the grand scheme of things this win means precisely bupkis to the Lions because preseason games don't count and in fact what you see on the screen barely qualifies as football. Experienced NFL coaches tend to treat preseason games like a form of live practice that their team is begrudgingly obliged to perform by NFL mandate. Locked in starters will rarely play for more than a series or two before they are pulled to avoid injury, and most of the players who actually decide the contest won't even make their respective teams when the preseason is over. So if the best players don't play, the coaches don't take it seriously and the results don't matter - the question then becomes "Sportsball Chic, why do you even watch preseason football?"     

What are we talking about? Preseason? How silly is that?
The answer is at least partially that I'm so addicted to the NFL that I simply cannot resist the allure of the football-like substance these glorified scrimmages provide. After seven long months without the sport, my resolve has been sorely tested - I won't lie, I might have even watched a CFL game or two in its entirety just to make it through the barren season. The other reason I watch preaseason games however is that I'm a part-time sportswriter and while these games don't mean anything in terms of standings, they do provide some useful insights into how a team will perform when the lights go on and the games really count. The key is to understand what to look for - the score may not count but most of the players are out there fighting for their NFL lives and the right to be next man up in the inevitable case of failure or injury. While the games themselves are disjointed and lack a larger narrative, there are no shortage of young athletes desperately attempting to rise beyond the mire of camp bodies and practice squad players. When I watch a preseason game, I'm looking for players who stand out; guys who make (or fail to make) the big play when pressure is on and demonstrate at least one NFL-level skill to build on for the future. These are the types of players who not only make the final roster but find their way into actual NFL football games over the course of a sixteen week season. Presumably they also sometimes play in the playoffs but as a lifelong Lions fan, I can't really say I know much about that. With an eye towards the players, coaches and trends that stood out on television tonight, here are my observations from the Lions 13-12 win over the Browns:

"I'm all heart muthafucka!"
Coaching:  To be completely honest with you, I do not have a particularly high opinion of new Lions coach Jim Caldwell and I was fully prepared to write several Weekend at Bernie's jokes in this space. Surprisingly however, Caldwell was just about as effective as a head coach can be in a meaningless preseason football game. The Lions play calling was fairly balanced, the team played solid situational football and the coach's expert clock management at the end of the 4th quarter gave Kellen Moore enough time to lead the comeback charge to victory.  Additionally, while the cameras were hardly focused on capturing his reactions, Caldwell appeared both animated and engaged on the sidelines whenever we did see him. He frequently consulted his assistants and remained largely out of the way, but never so far out of the way that you'd be tempted to check him for a pulse. For a coach who's known as a blank slate in the most unflattering way possible, the evening could only be described as wildly successful. After five years of watching Jim Schwartz lose his cool on a daily basis, Lions fans are fine with a man who exhibits self control, but when the going gets rough Jim Caldwell is going to have to prove to us that he cares at least as much as we do. If tonight is any indication, that won't be a problem going forward - I even swear I saw him crack a brief smile during the halftime runoff interview.

Offensively, we got a taste of what new coordinator Joe Lombardi brings to the table and the results were acceptable; albeit with what was likely a rather vanilla game plan. As I alluded to the photo above, Calvin Johnson didn't play at all and Mathew Stafford only stuck around for one series, but for the rest of the night the Lions backups ran plays that you will no doubt see on Sunday this fall. From a play calling standpoint, Lombardi may well end up being a breath of fresh air. While it's hard to get a read on an offense based on one preaseason game, I'd say overall you can probably expect slightly less shotgun formations and more, or at least more consistent running. This isn't to suggest that the Lions are going to stop being a passing team, but you could definitely tell that Lombardi was more dedicated to mix in runs throughout the game than his predecessor Scott Linehan had been. It is fair to suggest that this might have been a product of trying to find evaluation time for as many as eight backs and a lack of production at QB (more on this later). Regardless, the run pass mix in the Lions offense felt more natural and organic than it has in years, with Lombardi calling runs on all three downs and continuing to mix in runs even when someone got stuffed early in a drive. As someone who's always felt that the Lions tend to abandon the run as soon as the going gets even slightly difficult, this was a welcome change.

2nd times the charm? Miller hopes so.
The other star coaching performance on the evening comes shockingly from holdover special teams coordinator John Bonamego. At this point, I suspect most Lions fans are used to the special teams unit serving up play that at its best is almost league average and at its worst can be described as a hot flaming mess. Last year was no different and therefore it was pretty surprising to watch the Lions excel in virtually every special teams situation during this game. Our kick and punt returns were solid on both sides of the ball and aside from generating more pressure on Cleveland's four field goals, it would be hard to ask Bonamego's unit to improve on tonight's performance. Detroit did give up one long kickoff return in the 3rd quarter but the defense managed to keep Johnny Manziel and company out of the endzone and hold them to a 41 yard field goal. Finally, depth halfback Steven Miller left a ball on the turf after foolishly diving for extra yards on a second quarter kickoff return. It was a dumb play but for reasons that were never entirely clear, the refs let Miller off the hook by awarding the ball to the Lions despite a Browns player clearly having the ball at the end of the play. Whether they were lucky or good, the Lions weren't plagued by systemic errors as they have been in years past. Overall, the Lions special teams seemed vastly improved and they frequently outplayed what will likely be a poor unit in Cleveland this season.

Defensively however, things weren't quite as awesome. With all of the upheaval this past season in the Lions secondary, I watched this game with two major questions in mind:
  • What type of coverage would the Lions secondary play with corners who specialize in man or zone but nobody who excels at both?
  • Would new strong safety James Ihedigbo and incumbent corner Rashean Mathis be fast enough to hold up in coverage or would the Lions have to protect them with other players to avoid big plays in the passing game?

What's man coverage coach? That sounds like a lot of running
Unfortunately, this game really didn't answer either of those questions definitively. Early on, when both Mathis and Ihedigbo were playing, the Lions were running zone and combination (man/zone but not Cover 2) coverages. Frankly, this wasn't hugely effective and Brian Hoyer shredded them on a couple of passes in the first quarter as a result. One play that stands out in particular involved Darrius Slay laying in a shallow zone 8-10 yards off a Browns receiver on 3rd and five. Predictably Slay was not able to cover enough ground when Hoyer hit the receiver on a 5 yard quick slant and the Browns picked up an easy first down. You have to wonder if Mathis would have adjusted his lineup to account for down and distance, but this is one of the problems I expect the Lions to run into so long as their personnel remains a mixture of strictly man or zone corners.  At this point in his career Mathis is simply way too slow to be trusted in man coverage and like most zone specialists he needs a pass rush to be effective at all. That was a problem tonight for the Lions starters as the Browns used a variety of traps, draws and QB roll outs designed to fluster Detroit's pass rush. The end result was lots of time for Brian Hoyer to find receivers underneath and make our corners in particular look suspect. Fortunately for the Lions however, failure also lives inside Cleveland's genes and the Browns squandered these chances in a haze of penalties, checkdown throws and field goals. As the game drifted towards a battle of backups and hopefuls, the Lions appeared to shift into more and more man coverage and while Cleveland broke off a few decent runs against Detroit's defense, their passing game grew less effective as the game wore on. Individually, Mathis was beat for a couple of short gains and frankly I didn't notice Ihedigbo at all unless Cleveland was running - which is probably what you're hoping for from your run stopping strong safety.

As noted above, the Lions (mostly) starting front seven was not particularly effective at generating pressure on Cleveland's Qbs tonight. While last year's epic defensive collapse makes this a worrying sign, it's important to note that the Browns scheme had a lot to do with stalling the Lions pass rush and its certainly fair to suggest that the Lions weren't trying all that hard to get to Hoyer early. Detroit didn't blitz much with it's starters, but once the Lions did start sending extra backups after the QB they easily disrupted the timing of a Cleveland offense still littered with first string players. Unsurprisngly the increase in blitzing coincided almost exactly with the shift towards man to man coverage - which probably doesn't spell good news for the Lions corners on the bubble who specialize in zone.

Wide Nine? Oh hell no son, we care about stopping the run
Formation wise, new Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin threw a lot of different looks at Cleveland, including some five man defensive lines, some nickle formations with extra safeties and even a few 4-4 fronts on short yardage downs. One of their more interesting formations involved coming out in a nickle package with a safety and the extra defensive back lined up shallow and tight to the defensive line. This formation strongly suggested a blitz or press coverage, but as far as I could tell the Lions dropped off into normal man as often or more often than not. For the most part, Detroit ignored Hoyer as a runner but they appeared to spy rookie Johnny Manziel with a linebacker a few times in the third quarter out of a variety of formations. When Detroit did play zone, they didn't bother with the spy and Manziel was able to rip off one fairly impressive 16 yard run against that coverage. Thankfully, I did not observe a single "Wide Nine" formation the entire night; as a result Cleveland runners were actually required to earn their yardage and my monitor does not require immediate replacement this evening.

Overall, Detroit was surprisngly the more disciplined team, although it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that wasn't hard against a Cleveland squad that took 11 penalties for 60 yards. The Lions had five penalties of their own, but many of them seemed related to a lack of familiarity more than anything else. For once, the other team took the stupid penalties late and lo and behold - the Lions won! Detroit's coaches remained calm throughout the game, methodically rotating through the roster at all the times you'd expect them to, while Cleveland kept high profile players in longer, trying to jump-start their performance. While it's only a preaseason game, the bottom line is that the Lions looked disciplined, well-coached, even smart on a couple of occasions and that alone suggests that Caldwell and his staff have made significant progress with this team.

The Battle at Corner: As previously mentioned, neither Mathis or Slay played particularly well in limited time tonight but the simple truth is they are definitely making the roster at this point and barring a complete collapse, likely to start. Furthermore, it looks like incumbent Bill Bentley will open the season as the slot nickle corner as he stayed in just long enough to register 2 tackles and left with the rest of the starters. The battle that Lions fans have been focusing on this summer is at the bottom of the roster where the Lions will keep at most three additional corners and may keep only two. Without access to coaches film, it's hard to evaluate the play of individual corners throughout the game and sometimes not being noticed by the camera means that a corner is doing a great job because his man is never open. With that having been noted, here are my thoughts on the Lions hopefuls I saw play tonight:
Jonte Green? Are you serious?
  • I don't know how terrible Chris Greenwood is at practice but he must be pretty awful because the Lions rarely seem to have anything good to say about him. During training camp the word out of Detroit has been that Greenwood looked lost again and he very much appeared to be on his way out of the Lions organization for the second time. Those stories are pretty hard to reconcile with tonight's contest however because Greenwood was by and large the best corner Detroit had in this game. Although the official stats sheet only credits him with one tackle and one pass breakup, he actually disrupted two Cleveland passes and consistently found ways to influence runs to his side. It wasn't exactly a Primetime performance, but Greenwood certainly looked like a guy with great instincts and quickness. This is an ongoing theme in Greenwood's career and he's often amongst Lions fan favorites when he's on the field - he just rarely gets any playing time because the coaches don't like his game.
  • On the other side of the coin, camp favorite Jonte Green didn't have a particularly good game; failing to register a positive statistic, collecting a dumb pass interference penalty and giving up a couple of stoppable passes in the second half. In complete contrast to Greenwood, Green didn't look instinctual at all and always seemed a half second late in man coverage. In retrospect, it's fair to point out that Greenwood was running with the Lions second stringers and Green was playing mostly with third stringers and hopefuls. Perhaps all of the bluster out of Lions camp has been designed to motivate both players and Lions brass sees what the rest of us see after all. 
  • Cassius Vaughn didn't play as much as I'd hoped for and when he did, things were mostly pretty quiet. Unlike Green however, this was a good thing as Vaughn wasn't getting burnt while failing to compile many stats. With 1 tackle and 1 pass defended, I felt Vaughn's performance was competent which is pretty much all you can hope for out of your 5th or 6th corner frankly.
  • Tonight was hopefully something of a learning experience for Nevin Lawson because after a single preseason game he's probably already gained himself a reputation for clutching opposing jerseys. While this only lead to a single defensive holding penalty tonight, the simple truth is that he was clutching and grabbing virtually every time the camera found him. People are going to watch tape of this game and before long refs will be warned that the rookie corner from Detroit is probably holding and that is the kind of rumor that can end a career before it starts. Whether it's simply a bad habit from college or because he's not quite fast enough is largely irrelevant, Lawson will not last in the NFL if he doesn't learn to be more subtle with his hands. I'd love to offer you a review on his play aside from the holding, but since he was holding on every play I saw that is impossible. If the Lions truly are going to forge their roster based on merit alone, Nevin Lawson may have seriously damaged his chances of making the team between tonight and training camp - already.
  • While Mo Seisay probably has very little chance of actually making Detroit's final roster, nothing he did tonight is going to hurt his chances. Seisay was one of the game's late stars, breaking up two passes in crunch time as the Browns attempted to drive for what would have been clinching points. Aside from the two pass breakups, you barely saw him - which as mentioned already is probably a good thing.
  • If Aaron Hester or Drayton Florence played tonight, I didn't notice them at all
What? I only missed by *this* much coach
Dan Orlovsky: Neither words nor statistics can accurately describe how poorly Orlovsky's second stint with the Lions began tonight. Playing early and staying into the game until near the end of the 3rd quarter, Orlovsky managed to drop back 23 times and produce a mere 12 completions. Even this doesn't really tell the story because he only managed 89 yards in passing, producing a staggeringly bad 3.9 yards per pass attempt. Most frighteningly off all however, Orlovsky spent most of the evening looking confused and terrified, which is basically never something you want to see out of a guy who's one Stafford blindside hit away from being handed the keys to the Lions entire offense. In roughly the first twenty minutes he was out there, Dan manged to:
  • Go down to avoid a pass rush with a lane directly in front of him. Literally right in front of Orlovsky is the open space he needs to make the play on a wide open reciever about 12 yards up field, but instead he falls and takes an easy sack. 
  • Throw the single worst screen pass/lob ball I have ever seen in my life. It was not only too slow for an NFL level pass but somehow the ball actually grew wings and flew well over 10 yards in the air, ensuring the target was completely surrounded by the time it arrived. 
  • Throw directly into coverage 3 times. In not one instance was the intended receiver open at all, Dan just threw it anyways.
  • Somehow manage to throw behind a halfback on a 5 yard dump off. While we all know Orlovsky's arm strength isn't impressive, it's hard to understand what value he has if dump off plays to a runner can't be performed accurately.
Unfortunately, everything about last night's game suggests that the Lions are intending to go into the season with Orlovsky as their backup and perhaps not even keep a 3rd quarterback on the main roster. Despite his obvious struggles, Dan played until the very end of the 3rd quarter and 3rd QB hopeful James Franklin didn't even get into the game. Furthermore, Detroit gradully shifted to quicker, shorter passes clearly designed to help Orlovsky find his rhythm. For the most part it didn't work, but during the two minute drill at the end of the second quarter Dan did manage to put together a 12 play, 71 yard scoring drive that ate up 5 minutes and ended in a game tying field goal. Aside from that drive however, it was exceptionally hard to see what Lions coaches see in Orlovsky at all. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in praying very, very hard tonight that nothing bad happens to Matt Stafford this season or Dan Orlovsky improves mightly. If the quarterback I saw tonight starts any games for the Lions this year, that won't be good news at all. At one point in the third quarter, Orlovsky threw a WR bubble screen under minimal pressure that was so awful the refs felt the need to clarify that it was indeed a pass and not a fumbled lateral - pray hard folks.

This man has never run out of the endzone for a safety
On the other hand, last season's third string QB Kellen Moore simply went out and did what Lions fans have become used to seeing him do in the preseason: play like a guy who belongs on an NFL roster despite his lack of size and arm strength. Moore was calm, composed, accurate and most off all fearless in the quarter of play Lions coaches gave him to work with. Typically, when someone says that Kellen Moore looks like Matt Stafford, they're referring to his prominent jowls and schoolboy haircut. Tonight however, Moore's quick release and decisive play was eerily reminiscent of the Lions starter. While he's still about as tall as the average lawn gnome, it appeared as though he was throwing the ball with more velocity and it was Moore's pinpoint accuracy that got him an opportunity in the NFL originally. Frankly, the 21 yard fade pass to Corey Fuller that won the game for Detroit is a throw that Moore probably didn't have the arm strength to make even a season ago. Late in the 4th quarter, he was involved in a fumbled shotgun snap, but as far as I could tell, the center simply put the ball off his knee and Moore wasn't prepared to adjust before it bounced towards the Browns. Otherwise, Kellen was sharp, effective and showed notable improvement since the last time Lions supporters saw him. I have no doubt that if you survey fans who watched the game, they'd tell you Kellen Moore should be the Lions backup quarterback based on that performance. Unfortunately, the fans won't get to make that decision and for now you can expect Orlovsky to continue to get every opportunity to lock down the backup quarterback position. If the Lions are serious about keeping the best player for the team  regardless of draft position or contract however, then Kellen Moore is already up 1-0 after tonight's game.

"They look like big, strong hands...don't they?"
Eric Ebron: What I'm about to say will probably not be a popular opinion and I can almost hear the cries about how it's only "one preseason game" already. With that having been noted, I am beginning to think the Lions may live to regret drafting Eric Ebron so highly in the very near future. All summer there have been reports that Ebron was dropping catchable balls in practice due to a lack of concentration, but what I saw tonight was even more terrifying than a pass catching Tight End with a case of the dropsies. Tonight I saw a player who I know is tremendously athletically gifted get completely taken out of a football game by a pretty mediocre defense and a severe lack of confidence. Just reading the statline will tell you that Ebron only caught 1 pass for 2 yards on 4 targets, but that doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Ebron stayed in the game for quite a while and the Lions repeatedly schemed to get him involved in the offense but he simply could not get open, even against single man coverage from a linebacker. He wasn't open on any one of the 4 plays where he was targeted and nothing about his play suggested he was going to get open anytime soon. He didn't look fast and it seemed like literally any defender who tried to bump him could easily put him off his route. You can chalk the drops in practice up to a lack of experience but there is simply no excuse for a player as gifted as Ebron failing to pressure second string defenders on any play whatsoever in more than a quarter's worth of work. It's easy to say that Ebron simply got lost in the moment but it wasn't as though he were loafing out there so much as he seemed to lack the strength and leverage to get open inside. When Cleveland defenders stayed above and outside on him, he simply couldn't create any space and the Browns had effectively removed him from the game. Without putting too fine a point on it, there will be bigger, stronger and more aggressive defenses than Cleveland's second string unit on the schedule this year. If Ebron doesn't figure something out quick, you might see a whole lot more of Joseph Faruia this season than anyone had previously imagined. Speaking of Faruia, he looked pretty good tonight - catching all 3 passes thrown his way and laying down a couple of surprisingly nasty blocks in the run game. As for Ebron, he still has time to adjust of course, but an outsider watching tonight's game would have a real hard time guessing the Eric was a top-10 draft pick a few months ago.

Trench Warfare:  Evaluating individual line play in real time with the aid of only a television broadcast is in my mind one of the most difficult tasks known to mankind. Not only are the plays moving too fast, but the cameraman is actively working to help casual fans avoid looking at chubby, sweaty linemen at all. With that in mind, I thought Detroit's line play as a whole was excellent with the possible exception of our (mostly) starters on defense failing to generate an effective pass rush. Offensively, Detroit QBs were only sacked once the entire game and as previously mentioned even that play is suspect. Protection had broken down a little bit, but in my opinion the QB ate the ball in a moment of panic when there was a play still to be made. Frankly, even Detroit's deep backups had their way with the Brown's front seven and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the guys the Lions end up cutting at the end of this process land on other NFL rosters or practice squads. The backup defensive line was even more impressive, consistently beating blocks in the running game and helping to generate pressure on Brown's quarterbacks. George Johnson impressed but the Lions most active defender at any position tonight was defensive tackle Jimmy Saddler-McQueen. Although he only registered 1 tackle, the 300 pound wrecking ball was a constant force of disruption against both the pass and rush. If the Lions can't find room for him, Saddler-McQueen certainly used tonight to create some impressive game film to show other teams. Overall, Detroit won the battle of the lines going away and that's something they probably need to do on defense just to protect their potentially horrible secondary.

One of these things is not like the others
The Running Back Puzzle: In tonight's game, the Lions got a look at a total of 8 different running backs over the course of the game and it's hard to say that any of them played particularly poorly. Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick each played long enough to pick up a touch or two and were immediately removed. Based on how the Lions treated their other starters, it's fairly safe to say all three of these guys will be significant parts of the offense. After that however the picture becomes murkier because we don't know how many additional halfbacks or fullbacks the Lions intend to keep. If I had to guess, I would say there's only one fullback slot open and Detroit will probably keep an additional halfback. This of course assumes the Lions don't just keep hybrid halfback/fullback Montell Owens and cut everyone else for roster space. Although it sounds radical, Theo Riddick looked at least 5 lbs heavier tonight than at any point last season and it's entirely possible the Lions see him as more than just a gadget player at this new weight. If the Lions do keep a 4th halfback the common assumption is that they'll keep Mikel Leshoure, who had a decent if largely unspectacular night. Early in the game he was dancing behind the line too much for a guy his size, but once he settled down and starting hitting the hole with authority he was effective. Effective however might not be enough to earn Leshoure a roster spot this year as the Lions try to shift towards a staggering number of offensive formations. Remember folks, extra tight ends and fullbacks take up roster spots too. Speaking of the fullback position, both Jed Collins and Montell Owens were strong in the backfield but Owens was by far the more dynamic player overall. Between surprisingly effective blocking and at least one headhunter hit on special teams, I think Owens did as much as he possibly could tonight to convince the Lions to keep him. The award for most impressive Lions back on the night however has to go to halfback George Winn who absolutely exploded off the screen every time he touched the ball. Running like a bowling ball on amphetamines; Winn gashed the Browns for 39 yards rushing on only 6 carries and caught all 3 passes that were thrown at him for another 23 yards. Unfortunately, in the middle of announcing his presence to the Lions brass he also gave up a very sloppy fumble but otherwise Winn was a revelation in the latter stages of the game. Fellow halfback hopeful Steven Miller was less inspiring however, adding -6 yards rushing on 2 carries to his fumble on the earlier kick return. Miller did show some promise as a 3rd down back by catching 2 passes out of the backfield for 39 yards; although he also dropped another pass he probably should have had while doing so. Despite the miscues, Miller is an explosive player with decent hands who actually looked pretty good on kick returns when he wasn't causing himself to fumble in mid-air. He's talented enough to be on an NFL roster or practice squad, I'm just not sure Detroit has the room for him this year however.

"Oh man, I hope my mom was taping tonight's game"
The "Who are You" Crew: Let's face it, by the time any given NFL team takes the field for a preseason game the coaches already have a pretty good idea of who they want to keep and who's probably just holding down a roster spot until cut down day. Undrafted free agents, aging vets and holdovers from the previous regime know that there's only so many roster spots available - they may well be playing these games simply to accrue film and get noticed by another team. Here are some brief notes on the Lions who gave themselves the best chance to be noticed by NFL general managers in my opinion:
  • Ryan Broyles - caught all 3 passes thrown at him, looked extremely sharp. His routes were very crisp and he certainly didn't go in and out of cuts like a guy who's had multiple knee surgeries. It's been a long year for Broyles but tonight he outplayed Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree and Patrick Edwards by a significant margin
  • Jerome Couplin - laid the lumber out of the strong safety spot for the Lions in the latter half of the game. While he only registered two tackles officially, Couplin was in on several stops in the second half and played safety like a throwback linebacker. This guy is not afraid to throw his body weight around and he seemed reasonably fast to my untrained eye.
  • George Winn - as previously mentioned he carved Cleveland up on the ground and in the air tonight. Winn looked too strong and fast to be a fringe roster guy but he's already been cut by 5 NFL teams and the Lions might not even need a 4th halfback if Owens makes the team.
  • Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Kristopher Redding and George Johnson - playing on a line that gave the Browns 2nd and 3rd stringers fits all night, these three guys seemed to cause the most havoc as the game wore on. It isn't really reflected in the stats of course, but there's no stat for blowing up your opposite man and forced the offense to go in a less desirable direction either.
  • Andrew Peacock - started off poorly with a drop and some sloppy routes but came on strong as the game ground forward. Peacock is listed at 5'10" and 190lbs but after watching him tonight I don't believe that for a second. The guy is tiny looking in that number one jersey and early on I found myself wondering why the Lions were letting the third string punter play WR. Once he settled down however Peacock displayed impressive agility and enough quickness to simply beat pressing Browns corners off the line of scrimmage. With 4 catches for 43 yards on 6 targets, Peacock finished as the Lions leading receiver tonight - even if he probably won't make Sportscenter like our next guy.
  • Corey Fuller - when you catch the game winning touchdown in the corner of the endzone during the final minute of a comeback victory, you deserve at least a small mention. Unfortunately that was the only pass Fuller caught all game and prior to catching it, I don't actually remember seeing him accomplish anything special on the field. With roster spots getting tight, it's hard to say if that catch is enough to keep the 2013 6th rounder on the squad.

How does a guy this big vanish on game night?
Kyle Van Noy: I saved the Lions rookie linebacker for last because after tonight's game I'm still struggling to get a read on how he fits into the team overall. For a guy as big and quick as he is, Van Noy really only stood out on three plays in this game; but he displayed explosive athleticism on all three of them. He broke up a pass, forced a runner going wide back inside and came tantalizingly close to pasting Johnny Football on a blitz in front of a national audience. Unfortunately on that same blitz he lost contain on Manziel and the end result was actually the Cleveland QB's longest run of the night. Overall, it wasn't hard to see why the Lions thought Kyle could be an impact player on the NFL level but shouldn't a guy that dynamic and aggressive register at least one tackle in the time allotted? Van Noy's performance tonight was less concerning than Eric Ebron's play but also a clear indicator that he still has a long way to go before he can harness all of his athletic abilities in an NFL game. I'm still pretty sure Kyle will do just that, but it would have been nice to see him affect the game more tonight as he works towards a starting spot on opening day. 

The Browns: Oh yeah, there was another team playing tonight! For the most part the Cleveland Browns were pretty terrible. Hoyer looked very much like a backup QB promoted into a starting spot; he wasn't awful by any stretch but most of his completions were pretty short and he struggled to sustain drives or challenge the Lions defense. Manziel seemed like a credible pro quarterback for most of the time he played and even managed to look better taking snaps under center than he did from the pistol. His command of the huddle could use some work however as Cleveland took at least one delay of game penalty while constantly snapping the ball with a mere second left on the play clock. Brian Hoyer got more playing time, but it was also impossible not to notice how many roll out plays, traps and draws the Browns were running. The offense was clearly designed to take advantage of a QB with some mobility (like Johnny Football) and not an average athlete like Hoyer. The Browns may say it's Hoyer's job to lose, but the plays they were calling last night make it clear they're hoping Manziel can take the controls away from him sometime this season. Aside from the Browns quarterbacks; halfback Terrance West, tight end MarQueis Gray and receiver Charles Johnson stood out the most amongst the guys fighting for a roster spot - although each of them made at least one glaring mistake as the game wound down. Finally Josh Gordon played an awful long time for a starter who's probably going to be suspended for the season and Miles Austin started at the other wide receiver slot but looked terrible.

And now, if you'll excuse me; I think I have just enough time to get a Lions 2014-15 Superbowl tattoo before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

- Sportsball Chic

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Longest Season...

Hey, you there reading this blog right now - remember me?

A little over a year ago I started blogging about sports right here on this very website. To be honest, I really didn't have a clue what I was doing at the time or how long I'd be able to keep doing it. What I did know is that I had a passion for writing, a non-miniscule amount of talent for the task and a desire to tell the stories that it seemed to me nobody was telling anymore. Log on to any sporting news website and you can find reams of digital paper about stats breakdowns and the business of professional sports. What you can't seem to find increasingly are stories and articles about the people who create these fantastic moments we as sports fans collectively enjoy. The long form sports essay that gives real, meaningful insight into the lives, careers and achievements of the athletes we pay good money to watch appears to be dying folks. To me, that's a sad thing and I created this blog in some small way to help fight off the inevitable extinction of well written, long form sports journalism. For two solid months, I wrote as often and as honestly as I could and I think that anyone who reads this blog will have trouble arguing that I didn't succeed. I'm proud of the writing I shared on The Sportsball Chic and I'm genuinely sorry I had to stop.

So what happened? Real life basically. After years of living alone with my boyfriend, my mother contacted me out of the blue to tell me that my father had died. We had not spoken in over 12 years, so as you can imagine this announcement threw my life into total chaos. At the same time, I started to experience numerous problems at work. Because I'm not a professional sportswriter (yet), I still manage a small retail store to pay the bills and while it's not the most difficult job in the world when things are running smoothly - it can be sheer hell when they aren't. Work got complicated, with subordinates under me clearly needing to be fired but management above me refusing to pull the trigger. Eventually it exploded into a rainstorm of bad noise and hurt feelings, which in turn forced me into spending more time and energy cleaning up the mess once the undesirable employees had proven to my boss that they simply had to go. Between arguing with my boss, trying to stop my subordinates from running amok and trying to rebuild a relationship with my grieving mother - there just wasn't a lot of time to write about sports. Heck, in some cases there wasn't a lot of time to watch sports! I thank God almighty that Youtube exists because without it I honestly wouldn't have a clue how the last 8 weeks of the NFL season and the entire NBA season went. I was simply too busy to watch - though curiously I always found time for hockey.

To be honest with you, during that time I didn't think about The Sportsball Chic much - my life was moving pretty fast and despite the blog having gone over 1000 regular viewers before I left, it was still a pretty minor concern compared to still having a place to work and trying to have a relationship with my mother. Sometimes, late at night however - I'd log on to read my old articles and the few, but cherished comments to remind myself that there was something to go back to when the struggle was over. I missed this blog, and I missed writing about the Detroit Sports scene for the few regular viewers who cared to visit. In my darkest moments, this space represented a very real reminder that there were still things worth getting out of bed for in the morning - even if I simply couldn't do those things right now.

In one regard, this experience has improved me as a writer - I now understand that time is a precious commodity so I'll get straight to the point. I want to write again and more specifically I want to write about sports. Most of the problems that kept me away from this blog have resolved themselves and as I've found more free time, my Twitter feed and Facebook page have become a sort of "mini sports update" newscast. I love doing this but I also think it's time to move beyond my circle of friends and get back to putting out work for other people to read on a regular basis. Unfortunately I can't promise that I'll publish as often or that my work will be as polished as it was last year. Time, sadly is money and so long as I'm not getting paid to write about sports - there's only so much time I can afford to devote to it. I think part of what drove me away from the blog last time is the sheer amount of time I spent editing and re-editing each article until they were perfect. Even if I were working for a big sports Magazine like SI or ESPN, that would be two jobs and trying to perform both at a professional level, while still working at the game store was just not a reasonable proposition for more than a month or two. As the bad news and awkward situations piled on, I simply lost the ability to invest ten or twelve hours into an individual article and that made me sad enough that I simply didn't want to write anymore.

Things are better now, but they aren't perfect. Frankly, I'm still looking for a job in the sportswriting world and if anyone reading this wants to hire me - I'm available, but no start ups and no pay for clicks scams please. I've talked to a few friends about putting up a Paypal donation button on this blog but I have no idea if those things actually work - I can't lie, I've never donated to one of those myself for example. Right now, all I want to do is write and since they didn't delete this blog I guess I still have a place to do that. I have so many things to share with you guys, including my thoughts on the four major Detroit teams, the NFL/NHL in general and my burgeoning love of English Premier League Soccer. With any luck, we'll even get around to talking about those things before my life falls apart and I have to stop writing again. I'm not saying I'm begging for a job doing this full time... okay that's exactly what I'm saying.

Welcome back folks, I missed you more than I can ever say...

- The Sportsball Chic

PS - for those of you wondering I can be found on social media as follows:

@NinaDontPlayMtG is my Twitter Account is my Facebook Page

I'm reasonably friendly, but I will snap block trolls on either service - you have been warned.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Long Time Coming

With all due respect to Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades and Kyle Vanden Bosch; it has been a very, very long time since the Detroit Lions have fielded a statistically elite defense. So long in fact, that you would have to travel all the way back to the 1983 season to find a unit that finished better than 10th overall in points against. That year, Detroit was witness to the last, great season of the team's famed "Silver Rush" defensive line and it's intimidating leader; defensive tackle Doug English. The defense would total 44 sacks, 16 fumble recoveries and 22 interceptions on it's way to surrendering the 2nd fewest total points in the NFL that season. They were big, they were mean and most importantly, they were talented enough to dominate NFL offenses where it matters most; on the scoreboard. Oddly enough my first season as a Lions fan came in 1984; at the ripe old age of 7 and just in time to see legendary tailback Billy Sims shred his knee in the first of what would be many, disappointing seasons. In each of the 29 years that I have followed the team, the defense has varied from average, to notably poor, with just enough absolutely putrid thrown in to make a grown fan cry. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with an almost 3 decade long period where Lions management treated the defense as an afterthought, while building prolific, pinball-machine, offensive units. Over that time period, the blueprint I've known involves combining a couple of elite pass rushers with a relentless tackling machine, and a ball hawking defensive back who may or may not gamble recklessly to inflate is own stats. Otherwise, the Lions defense has been populated by unwanted, unremarkable and at times completely unacceptable players who lacked the size, strength or talent to create impact plays at the NFL level. As the old saying goes, "you get what you put in" and Detroit has spent a very long time plugging holes in it's defense with late round draft picks, aging journeymen and the occasional "street" Free Agent.

More disturbingly, even when the Lions have spent early draft picks to acquire defensive talent, they've trended towards undersized and over-hyped prospects who rarely improve with age. As ridiculous as it may appear to outsiders; the Lions seem to fancy themselves as "reckless innovators" who are capable of "outsmarting" the rest of the league. While much of this ineptitude has been blamed on he who shall not be named; the simple truth is that owner Bill Ford Sr likes to meddle with his football team and is committed to hiring the kind of men who'll allow him to do so. To this very day, the Lions still seem to value sexy over smart and flashy over functional; whether this is due to poor management or incompetent ownership is frankly, largely irrelevant. In light of this abhorrent historical track record, no sane individual could blame Lions fans for regarding any given draft class with apprehension and fear. At best we take a cautiously optimistic, "wait and see" approach to our newly drafted rookies; at our worst, we seem to delight in vilifying the franchise no matter who they pick. This is after all a fan base that coined the term "Lion-ized" and practically has a patent on the phrase "drinking the kool aid." It's a hard road, rooting for the objectively worst team in NFL history; years of losing have instinctively conditioned fans in Detroit to avoid ideas like hope and anticipation.

There are however, objectively measurable signs that the Lions are at long last starting to think like an NFL franchise; even on defense. It started with using 1st round picks in back to back drafts on massive, pocket destroying defensive tackles who are still quick enough to get to the quarterback. While everyone knows about the unstoppable force of nature that is Ndamukong Suh; fewer fans are aware of just how ridiculously talented his linemate Nick Fairley is as well. With two years in the league and his injury woes seemingly behind him; Fairley should be hitting his stride this season, which in turn will make it harder to neutralize Suh with the now customary double and triple team blocks opponents assign in his direction. Frankly it doesn't really matter who draws the extra blocker; both men excel at creating inside pressure and running down enemy quarterbacks as they try to escape. The Lions have also been fortunate to find a couple of key defensive cornerstones amongst the endless waves of jobless free agents Martin Mayhew has signed over the past few seasons. The team has clearly found it's obligatory, hard-tackling "Mike" linebacker in the undersized but utterly fearless Stephen Tulloch. The Lions have also latched on to cornerback Chris Houston, who is rapidly becoming one of the better coverage men in the league. Unfortunately at only 5'11" and 178lbs he's probably too small to ever become an elite, shutdown corner in the modern NFL. Despite size concerns with either man, there's no question that they are both extremely athletic. Finally, the Lions have again dipped into free agency and come up with two more, athletically gifted defenders; defensive end Jason Jones has the kind of length that makes defensive coordinators weak in the knees, while new free safety Glover Quinn is a converted cornerback with excellent field vision.

Of course, no matter how you slice it, the Lions were a 4-12 team last year with the 27th ranked scoring defense in the NFL; it's going to take a lot more than an improved Fairley and a couple of nice FA pickups to turn things around in Detroit. Modern NFL offenses are predicated on identifying weaknesses in the defensive front and attacking them at every opportunity. The goal is get the ball into open areas and allow some hyper-athletic, basketball player in pads to "make plays in space" for big yardage and backbreaking touchdowns. If the Lions field a unit with 9 players who can match the offense athletically, the Quarterback will simply focus everything on the 2 defenders who aren't quite up to snuff. This is the harsh new reality facing defensive coordinators like Gunther Cunningham; so far, he's found few solutions amongst aging stars and talentless try-hards he's been asked to work with. For a man who once fashioned defensive juggernauts with dominant athletes like Derrick ThomasNeil Smith and Dale Carter (in his prime), building with the league's scraps in Detroit must be almost unbearable. Frankly, Cunningham gets a bad rap in Lions land; he's still one of the greatest defensive minds in football, but nobody can paint the Mona Lisa with a box of broken crayons.

Fortunately for both Gunther and fans, it appears as though general manager Martin Mayhew is finally starting to realize what any moron with functioning eyes knew three seasons ago: that the Lions desperately need more size and talent on the defensive side of the ball. After years of zigging while the rest of the NFL zagged, the Lions have finally jumped on the "bigger, longer, faster" train of thought that has dominated the modern NFL draft. This year, Detroit used 3 of it's first 4 draft picks on defenders with lean, muscular bodies, long arms and blazing speed. More importantly however, all 3 players have the one quality the Lions have always seemed to lack on defense; the potential to grow into dominant athletes with proper weight training and NFL coaching. In fact, in each and every case the Lions passed on a more polished defender who had less impressive "measurables"; an approach that suggest there has been a drastic shift in Detroit's draft policy this season. Amongst the "Lions can do no right" crowd, this strategy has caused much hand-wringing and repeated declarations of the phrase "boom or bust"; a surprisingly worthless prediction since it essentially applies to every rookie who's ever been selected in the NFL draft. The simple truth is that projecting the future development of college kids remains an inexact science and "low risk" players can fail at this level for any number of reasons. In the NFL, safety is an illusion and athletic talent is king; especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Lions most promising rookie and, most recent first round draft pick is 6'5", 271lb rush end, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah. Frankly, the story of Ansah's rise from Ghanaian basketball hopeful to the number 5 overall pick in the NFL draft, is the stuff of legends. Of more importance to Lions fans however, will be whether or not Ansah's lack of football experience will outweigh his considerable athletic gifts; incredibly, Ziggy only began playing football in 2010 after failing to make BYU's basketball team for a second time. He played special teams at BYU as a junior before finding his way into all 13 games during his senior season; 9 as a starter. On the plus side, Ziggy flashed impressive versatility during his final year at BYU. He lined up at defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker at various points in the season; registering 63 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and breaking up an eye-opening 9 passes. On the downside, Ansah only had 4.5 sacks last season and due to his late start in football; has no real track record of success in the pass rushing role the Lions clearly envision him performing. One thing that is certain is that Ziggy is a bona fied  athletic freak; it's a rare 270lb man who can run the 40 yard dash in 4.63 seconds. That's the kind of speed that kills plays 5 yards into the backfield and while Ziggy is still rawer than a plate full of sushi; by all accounts he's already one of the hardest working athletes in America. At this point, the Lions are doing their best to temper expectations but it's no secret that they expect Ziggy to be an impact defender immediately this fall.

Although Ansah may be Detroit's most talented rookie, when all is said and done it's entirely possible that Darius Slay will be the team's most important freshman in 2013-14. That is because Slay plays cornerback; a position the Lions have struggled to properly address for nigh on an eternity. With all due respect to Dwight Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green; Slay's combination of size, speed and his SEC pedigree, already make him the frontrunner to start opposite Chris Houston this fall. Darius checks in at 6'0", 192lbs and as the picture to the right clearly illustrates, he was practically born to play corner at the NFL level. He has long arms, big hands and narrow hips; pretty much the ideal build for harassing wide receivers and pulling down jump balls in a crowd. Additionally, Slay is an astute cover man who excels at using his length to attack the hands and arms of opposing receivers; forcing them to drop otherwise catchable balls. As if that weren't enough, Darius is also a genuine speed merchant. At the NFL's pre-draft combine he ran the 40 yard dash in an astounding 4.36 seconds; despite suffering from at least one torn meniscus in his knees! He's a capable and willing tackler, had strong enough hands to pull down 5 interceptions as a senior and can even work on special teams as a defensive gunner or return man. The catch with Slay is that he lacks elite footwork, may have benefited from playing opposite a better corner and of course, came to Detroit with the aforementioned knee problems that likely caused him to slip into the second round. Fortunately for the Lions however; these injury concerns appear to be greatly exaggerated and thus far Slay has shown the kind of mental attributes that suggest he's exactly the type of player his highlight reels say he might be. The keys for Slay this offseason will be adding a few pounds of muscle to his frame and absorbing enough of the Lions defensive scheme to give coach Schwartz the confidence to start him on the outside. That would allow Detroit to slide Bentley in at nickback and hold veteran Ron Bartell in reserve at all 3 spots; a situation that makes the most sense for the Lions from a pure talent perspective at a minimum. Although nothing is written in stone yet, my guess would be that if Darius Slay is healthy and motivated; he will easily win the starting job at some point during the preseason.

Finally, in the 4th round the Lions actually did add a player I consider a true "boom or bust" prospect in 6'7", 266lb defensive end Devin Taylor. This is because despite being possessed of a body that many defensive linemen would kill for; Taylor hasn't actually accomplished anything of note as a football player. His career high of 7.5 sacks in 2010 isn't much to write home about and the fact that he only registered 3 QB take downs in his senior season is downright disturbing. It isn't like Devin was attracting a lot of double teams during this time either; opposing offenses have had to contend with the likes of Melvin Ingram and Jadaveon Clowney during Taylor's time at South Carolina. Frankly, looking at Taylor's stat sheet the impression you get is that he's simply a big stiff that never learned how to actually play football. Then you notice his 4.72 second 40 yard dash, watch his highlight reels and wonder if they somehow got his stats mixed up with a former walk on. Ultimately, the key to solving the riddle that is Devin Taylor likely lies in exposing him to an NFL level strength and development program; while simultaneously addressing his terrible mechanics through proper coaching. When you watch Taylor on film, the first thing you notice is that he often stands straight up immediately upon the snap of the ball. As any highschool defensive line coach will tell you; this is basically a terrible idea because it not only costs you precious moments of reaction time, but it also makes it much easier for smaller players to block or contain you. Additionally, despite his fantastic measurements; a casual examination of Devin in football pads makes it clear that he's still far too skinny to dominate the way his height should allow him to. While I would certainly advise against getting your hopes up, if Taylor gains 25-30lbs, and if coaches can do something about his atrocious pad level issue; he might look a little bit like a certain "freak of nature" who has become intimately familiar to Lions fans. Or, he could spend 4 years getting knocked flat on his backside by players with better mechanics; while constantly frustrating Lions fans who're aware of his raw talent. To his credit Devin has been described as a hard worker with a tireless motor, so he's got at least some chance of realizing his vast potential. When your future outlook varies between a "less athletic Julius Peppers" and a "human blocking sled" however; you're going down in my book as a boom or bust prospect.

In the final analysis, it's still far too early to tell if the Lions have strengthened their defense enough to make the team serious playoff contenders in 2013-14. If I had to guess, I'd say that Detroit's roster has too many depth issues to field a top 10 defensive unit this upcoming season. Injuries are simply a fact of life in the NFL and while the Lions have certainly upgraded their starting talent; the jury is still very much out on the quality of Detroit's backups. Despite this, it is certainly heartening to see Martin Mayhew go out and get the team multiple athletes with the potential to physically dominate opposing offenses. Both Detroit's draft and the team's actions in free agency imply that the Lions are finally trying to build a defense the right way; with talent, athleticism and size. Perhaps, after years of attempting to outsmart the rest of the NFL, the Lions are finally learning to copy the ideas and strategies that have made other franchises so sucessful. That would be a welcome change for a Lions fanbase that has waited long enough for signs that "next year", finally will be different.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go "pour out a forty" for Jim "the Hatchet" David and all of the other smurf-sized, try-hards the Lions won't be employing anymore.

- Sportsball Chic


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fortunate Sons

For more than twenty years now, the legacy of the Detroit Red Wings has been one of highly skilled play. When you ask opposing fans what they remember about the teams Detroit iced during this era, they will wax poetically about the sublime versatility of a Steve Yzerman or the effortless dominance of a Nicklas Lidstrom. Perhaps they will recall Sergei Fedorov and the Russian 5; or the year Detroit built a team so powerful that it often deployed 600+ goal scorers "Lucky" Luc Robataille and Brett Hull, on the 3rd and 4th lines. If they're feeling snarky, they might bring up Paul Coffey and the 1995 Cup Finals team that was bullied off the ice in 4 games by New Jersey. Younger fans might harken to Monty Babcock's Flying Circus; Datsyuk's dangles and Zetterberg's wicked wrist shot fueling a whole new generation of awed onlookers. Even this upcoming season, I suspect the story will be something about "Pavel Datsyuk and the Swedish National team" now that we've added Daniel Alfredsson. This is the image forever burned in the minds of those who watch the club from afar, and while I'm certain the Wings are proud of this image; it simply isn't the truth, or a least the whole truth. The road to Stanley Cup glory in Hockeytown is paved the same as any other; by blood, sweat, tears and the relentless desire of downright nasty men who excel at playing "ugly" hockey. Those who live and die with this organization know that the Red Wings are at their finest when they combine skill, determination and a barely concealed threat of violent reprisal, into one, brutally efficient symphony of destruction.

In this regard; as a Red Wings fan I will always hold a special place in my heart for the most belligerent warriors who don the winged wheel. This goes beyond simple "goonery"; not since the Bruise Brothers of the late 1980's have the Red Wings attempted to thug their way to victory on the ice. No, here in Detroit we admire players who play on the edge but reserve our love for those who excel while doing so. You can't turn a mule into a Clydesdale; winning ugly requires the kind of players who can hurt you on the scoreboard and on the way to the penalty box. I mention this now because, this week the hallowed Hockey Hall of Fame has opened it's doors for Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan; two former Wings who's games contained almost equal parts skill and sandpaper. The call to immortality is complicated for both men; Chelios because of his longstanding feud with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Shanahan due to his current role with the league front office. Despite the potentially awkward speeches, both players are indisputably deserving selections in a 2013 HHoF class that also includes legendary defenders Scott Neidermeyer and Geraldine Heaney (women's/international hockey), plus builder Fred Shero. For Chelios, the elevation comes during his first year of eligibility; an absolutely stacked 2012 class forced Shanahan to wait until his 2nd crack to reach the Hall.

At this point, entire fields of digital trees have been slaughtered explaining what this means for hockey as a whole, so I won't repeat those efforts here. I'm sure fans from Montreal, Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford and New York have many fond memories of both players and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to celebrate this occasion with all hockey fans. For Wings Nation however, this moment offers an opportunity to reflect on the effects both men had on the organization; both in bringing championships to Hockeytown and in helping to establish the very DNA of what has become the Wings culture of winning these past two decades. 

In many ways, Chelios and Shanahan will be defined in Red Wings history by their time together as teammates and similarities as players. Both men arrived in Motown with multiple teams behind them; both men would go on to battle for other franchises before hanging up their skates. One of the more interesting connections between the two in my mind, is that they may have helped established Detroit's current trend of pillaging team leaders from other franchises. Chelios was as co-captain of the Canadians during his final season in Montreal before serving as the captain of the Blackhawks from 1995, until he was traded to Detroit in 1999. By comparison, Shanahan's record as a leader before coming to Detroit was less impressive, but by no means inconsequential; he was an alternate-captain in Saint Louis before donning the full C during his one, ill-fated season in Hartford. Before arriving in Detroit, both men had displayed the necessary skills to blend seamlessly with the generational talents already on the team. Despite this, both players were acquired at least in part to sharpen the team's edge and make the Wings more difficult to play against. Both Chelios and Shanahan were also highly coveted trade targets, who cost the Red Wings first round draft picks and established players, who had perhaps worn out their welcome in Hockeytown already. Despite these costs; both players provided excellent returns on the organization's investment. Shanahan played for 9 seasons in Detroit, winning 3 Stanley Cups and representing the Wings in 5 All-Star games. Chelios suited up in Motown for parts of an astonishing 10 seasons, earning himself 2 Stanley Cup rings, appearing in 4 All-Star games and ultimately landing with Detroit's front office as the Executive Advisor to Ken Holland; a position that previously served as a springboard for Steve Yzerman to land the General Manager's job in Tampa.

Perhaps the most telling similarity however is that both Shanahan and Chelios were chosen multiple times to represent their countries at the highest levels of international hockey. This serves as a lasting rebuke to those who would suggest either player underachieved in Hockeytown; his luster dimmed when surrounded by a galaxy of other, greater stars. The truth as always is that success in Detroit has never been about statistics; like Steve Yzerman before them, both men committed to playing a strong team game, at the expense of individual numbers. For a Detroit squad that could score with any one of four rotating lines, that meant doing the team's dirty work in the corners; often at both ends of the ice.This made the Red Wings better, earned both men some impressive jewelery, and helped establish a tradition of responsible, defensive play carried on by current stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Make no mistake however; you don't make the team for powerhouse nations like Canada and the United States because you can hustle on the back-check. When called upon; both Chelios and Shanahan could flash the kind of elite talent that makes hockey men who're desperate for a medal, stand up and take notice. Between the two of them; Shanahan and Chelios have made 6 trips to the Olympics, 5 tournaments for the Canada Cup or World Cup of Hockey and 2 appearances at the IIHF World Championships. Chelios won gold at the 1996 World Cup and Silver at the 2002 Olympic Games. Shanahan managed 3 gold medals; at the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1994 World Hockey Championships and at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also settled for silver in the 1996 World Cup; the same event that provided Chelios with his only gold medal.

Of course, despite the inevitable entwinement of their legacies; both men enter the Hall as heroes of Red Wings lore on their own merits and with their own stories to tell. For Chelios, the journey to Detroit would take 15 long years and span the full heights and depths a life in pro hockey has to offer. His first season in the NHL was way back in 1983 with Montreal; where he would go on to win a Stanley Cup, 2 Norris trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and play until his reported affinity for the city's nightlife inspired the Canadians to trade him to Chicago in the summer of 1990. Chelios would then toil in the Windy City for 9 more seasons while, ironically becoming a hated rival of those same "soft" Red Wings teams that could never get over the hump in the early 90's. Although Chelios was a proud warrior who'd enjoyed another Norris trophy and some playoff success with the Blackhawks, eventually the systemic demolition of the team under owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz took it's toll. In a somewhat shocking turn of events, Chelios agreed to waive his partial no-trade clause to facilitate a move to his sworn enemies in Hockeytown. The Red Wings were coming off back to back Cup victories in 1999, and despite arriving in Detroit at the ripe old age of 37; it was hoped that Chelios could help replace some of the defensive acumen and grit the team had lost when tragedy befell Vladimir Konstantinov in the summer of 1997. The rest is, as they say; history. Although Chelios and the Wings would fail to "3-peat" in 1999, Chris would finally taste champagne from Lord Stanley's mug again in 2002; along with Brendan Shanahan and the rest of his Red Wing teammates, of course. Perhaps more stunningly however; Chelios would continue to play with Detroit long enough to win another championship in 2008 at the record breaking age of 45. Despite the ravages of time, Chelios always managed to represent his franchise, and his country with passion, skill and a surprisingly charming personality, fueled by his tremendous sense of humor. Although Chelios is a Chicago native, played only 10 of his 26 NHL seasons in Hockeytown and isn't required to choose a team to represent when entering the Hall; it says right here that Chris Chelios will die a Detroit Red Wing and there isn't anything, anyone in la belle province or the state of Illinois can do about that.

Whereas Chelios arrived in Detroit as a 37 year old champion trying to revitalize his career with a winning organization; Shanahan came to Motown in the prime of his life and carrying the hopes of a beleaguered franchise that hadn't won a Stanley Cup since 1955. Despite being only 27 years of age at the time, Shanahan had already developed something of a reputation as a talented malcontent who never seemed to be happy where he was. To be fair, much of this criticism was undeserved; it wasn't Brendan's fault that he was the most famous example of the NHL's archaic, ineffective free agency model in the 1980's. By that same measure, despite Mike Keenan's insistence that Shanahan "wasn't half the player he thinks he is" during his time in St Louis; it has since been revealed that the trade to Hartford was the result of ownership's insistence that Keenan drastically cut the payroll of an expensive "also ran" squad that featured Brett Hull and Al McInnis. Naturally, it would also be absurd to hold Shanahan responsible for the fact that in both situations, he was effectively traded for a future Hall of Fame defenseman with generational talent. Of course, the one thing Shanahan was guilty of in his career, was having no desire to play for the moribund Hartford Whalers franchise. Unfortunately for Brendan, this occurred at a time when hockey's labor situation was changing rapidly; many die hard fans saw Shanahan's position as yet another symptom of a greedy millionaires club that had lost connection to classic, Canadian values. It certainly didn't help that Brendan was an active voice for the players during the 94-95 lockout. In light of his situation in Hartford, it wasn't difficult for the "old-time hockey" crowd to paint Shanahan as the villain behind all 3 transactions.

As if the cloud following Shanahan's career moves weren't enough, he also stepped into a highly charged situation the moment he got off the plane in Detroit. In 1995, the heavily-favored Wings suffered an embarrassing "upset" at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, when they were physically destroyed in a 4 game Finals sweep. The very next season, the Wings would again lose to a more physical team; this time it was Colorado in the Western Conference finals however. While the series was hotly contested, it will be forever remembered in Red Wings lore as the night Claude Lemieux tried to murder Chris Draper and in doing so, helped to create the Red Wing empire. In essence, Shanahan was Ken Holland's answer to the charge that the Red Wings weren't physical enough to win the ultimate prize; and what an answer he turned out to be. Detroit would immediately win back to back titles upon Shanahan's arrival and he would remain an elite scoring option in crunch time during the team's magical, 2002 Cup run. For nigh on a decade, Shanahan played primarily on the 1st line with superstars Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman; serving the roles of protectorgarbage man and rocket shot sniper with equal aplomb. Over the course of his 9 seasons in Detroit, Shanahan would register 40 or more goals 3 times, 30 or more goals another 4 times and never finish below 25 goals. Brendan would also register 8 seasons with 100 or more penalty minutes and help establish a tradition of gritty, two-way dominance that the Red Wings still struggle to replicate to this very day. Of course, towards the end of his career, even the man himself was no longer "Brendan fucking Shanahan" either; his last few seasons in Detroit were marked primarily by butt checks in the crease, shots from impossible angles and play that at times seemed to be attempting to remove the word "power" from the term "power forward". In the end however; Shanahan always seemed to find a way to cheat one more 30 goal season out of his aging body and his commitment to the franchise was never in question.
And so, today, Wings fans stand with the rest of the hockey world in awe and admiration at the impressive careers of two of the most talented players in NHL history. Although they were known for other reasons in other locales; they remain heroes in Detroit because they sacrificed everything they had for the goal of bringing championships to Hockeytown. On this proud day, many will choose to remember the highlight reels, the pretty passes and the goals each man created over the course of two remarkable careers. As for myself however, I choose to remember a bleeding Shanahan yapping at the Colorado bench during the height of the Wings/Avs rivalry. I choose to remember an exhausted Chelios absolutely destroying Travis Moen in the playoffs. I choose to remember when two men helped teach Detroit that Stanley Cup winners "ain't pretty, they just look that way." This is the true legacy of both Chelios and Shanahan in Detroit; this lesson is why the Wings hired a coach like Mike Babcock and why the team continues to surround it's talented core with gritty agitators who can also put the puck in the net. Oh, and there's just one more thing I'll remember; I choose to remember the ugliest Red Wing of all. In a fair world, we'd be sending 3 plow horses to the Hall of Fame right now; we miss you Vladdy and it just hasn't quite been the same without you.

- Sportsball Chic