Monday, June 21, 2010

Enter The Lions, Exit Reason

I was in Chicago last weekend after a good long time of not having been in Chicago, and I have to admit I don’t know what all the fuss is about. While there is an eternally long knot of people trying to get into the city there is a knot equally as large of people trying to get out, which makes you wonder, “If it’s so good, why are people fleeing at 11 in the morning?” This is in spite of the CTA trains which seem to be running 80 percent empty down the middle of every highway from Rockford east.

Chicago, then, fills up every day with people who have not yet recognized the futility of driving into any large city, and who once they arrive and have a good look around, climb into their Chevy Cavaliers and rush right back out again.

This is because whoever hung on Chicago the tag “Second City” knew of whence they spoke. Everything about Chicago is inferior to New York at least and often places as pedestrian as Cincinnati – and don’t even get me started on Toronto and Vancouver.

Chicago has a lake, and it’s pretty, but L.A., Miami, and New York have the ocean. I love the Great Lakes but the ocean is better, except up around the Porcupine Mountains, which is about as far as the Great Lakes can get from Chicago. The skyline is nondescript, even with the building that used to be called the Sears Tower but which now has been infested by British insurance types and is called the Willis Tower. To take the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower you pass a mural of Chicago’s most prominent historical figures: Abraham Lincoln, John Belushi, and Oprah. Once you get to the top and look about you say, “Huh. What a lot of building blocks posing as buildings.” I asked my niece about the one building I saw with architectural merit. “That’s a jail,” she said. Of course it was.

Chicago is lined with decrepit buildings on the way to Wrigley Field, which is also decrepit, and then there are more decrepit buildings until you get to the nicer suburbs, which are 10 miles south of Green Bay. Going south takes you past U.S. Cellular Field, which is nicer than Shea Stadium because Shea has been torn down, and then more decrepit buildings and more decrepit buildings and then you wake up in Indianapolis.

Chicago is a great place to eat hot dogs and pizza, therefore you see few skinny Chicagoans. The most entertaining sight in Wrigley Field is not the Cubs, who play a brand of baseball that rivals hoeing cotton for entertainment, but watching Cubs fans trying to squeeze into box seats.

In sum, then, Chicago is a great city minus the exhilaration, which is the sole defining characteristic of a great city. It’s merely a large vessel for holding people and spilling them out again.

I mention Chicago when writing about the Detroit Lions because the city and the Lions have so much in common. They have both seemingly always been around without ever having really been the one. No one has ever said, “Man, Chicago is really top of the heap,” unless they are a cow. Similarly, there have been few times in NFL history when the one thing a team had to do to prove it was really top-shelf was to beat the Lions. Only once in team history – and the history goes back to 1930 – have the Lions had the sole best record in the league. Even in the mid-‘50s, when the team was at its peak, there were other teams with records as good or better. The fact that the Lions won three championships in those years speaks to the Kwikrete character of guys like Bobby Layne and Joe Schmidt while obscuring the fact that the Lions were one of three or four teams that could have won.

Those were curious teams, the Lions of the ‘50s, in large part because they were built around a strong offensive line and a defensive backfield. The Lions were good up front offensively and from the linebackers back defensively, and few other teams have been built that way to start with, much less able to sustain that construction more than a season or two. The only other team that comes close is the Don Coryell Cardinals, and once Larry Stallings fell off they were done.

The interesting thing about the Cardinals and Lions as bedfellows is what strange bedfellows they make. The Cardinals threw the ball (mostly) and had the reputation of being porous defensively. The Lions ran the ball (mostly) and had the reputation of being impregnable. The offense part is the difference between Don Coryell and Buddy Parker. The defense part is the difference between Mark Arneson and Joe Schmidt.

The problems with sustaining this construction is that it’s physically and intellectually off-kilter, like bicycling on a tightrope with all the weight on one end of the pole. It’s easy for a GM to get caught up in a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon and yell “Duck season!”, and no sooner does he get his bill straight than he discovers he’s drafted Mel Farr. A D-backfield is also notoriously hard to draft into. Night Train Lane matriculated at the University of Nowhere and was one of the greatest ever, but draft pedigree – which everyone does -- and you wind up staring at a heaping helping of Luther Bradley.

There is a sort of symbiosis in the fact that the two most passive positions on a football field are O-line and D-backfield. A great deal of your prowess at those positions is predicated on your ability to run backwards. The fact that Detroit has often tried to build a team around these positions suggests that ultimately the Lions are a ferocious-looking mastiff that rolls onto his back and begs you to scratch his tummy, as opposed to biting your finger off at the neck.

There might be something to that. Even Barry Sanders, the greatest Lion runner, was a poke-and-prod kind of guy as opposed to a ram-it-in-there type. While it’s hard to say what the Lions are currently or even what they should be, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not aspiring to be Bears East. O-line and D-backs would be okay with them.

And that, of course, brings us around to Detroit’s own football Armageddon, the tenure of Matt Millen as general manager. I hate to be the one to thwart a vicious frontal attack, but Millen wasn’t quite Detroit’s own little Chernobyl to the extent he’s been portrayed. He was bad, sure enough, but he was more like the Exxon Valdez than the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs: not spectacularly horrible but extremely well-documented.

His vision for the Lions may have been straight out of Steven Speilberg’s 1941 (much destruction, much shouting, no point, John Belushi), but Millen also wasn’t fortunate. With a little more patience and coaching Joey Harrington could have hit. He certainly wasn’t as much of a bona-fide pileup as Andre Ware, who had a Heisman but needed a stepladder to see above Barry Sanders. Charles Rogers likewise could have stopped hitting and hit. He was the best WR available, a consensus top-five pick; we’re not talking Darius Heyward-Bey here. Maybe if Rogers had been separated from his homies he wouldn’t have smoked like a tire dump; maybe if he had wound up in Green Bay. Or Saskatoon.

At any rate, if Harrington-to-Rogers clicks the ensuing tailwhacks never occur. Millen doesn’t need a WR and doesn’t draft Mike Williams (of the University of Scandalous Collegians), who was the consensus best available but was actually Aaron Gibson in a compression suit. (Boy, check out the WRs who went first-round in 2005: Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mark Clayton, Matt Jones, Williams, and then, at long last, Roddy White. Ooof.) Then that obviates the need for Roy Williams, yet another Big 12 receiver whose mouth runs faster than his legs, and makes Calvin Johnson, the one truly great pass-catcher in the bunch, a luxury they can afford. It all looks so easy from here.

Millen never pulled a my-kingdom-for-John-Hadl trade like Bart Starr, which sent the Packers to jail for a decade. He never dealt an entire draft for Myron Pottios, like George Allen did when he assembled the Over the Hill Gang. He was never as willfully balmy as the Bidwills. He was merely quite bad, and as the Lions’ continued struggles show, being bad is more than enough.

So what about the Lions then? Is there any hope for them being very good for a very long time? Of course there’s hope. The NFL is built on the fundamental principle that all teams are created equal until Roger Goodell decides it needs another Dallas-Pittsburgh Super Bowl. The internal dynamics of the thing aside, it wouldn’t hurt for the Lions to try the D-backfield/O-line thing again, though to make it really work they’d need to find another Joe Schmidt -- and they just traded Schmidt’s emotional half, Ernie Sims. There’s a lot to be said at any time for shutting down the pass and controlling the line. However, getting there will require more sense of purpose than we’ve seen from the Lions for some time. Anyone know what Joe Schmidt is up to?

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