Thursday, January 03, 2008

A three-for-one special

First and foremost, I hope everyone out there is off to a great start to the New Year. I don’t mind sounding cliché by saying, “Operation: lose gut” starts today. I’m sending out an open invitation to Shaun Rogers. If he wants in on my New Year’s resolution, he’s more than welcome. There are a number of things on my mind related to the Detroit sports scene. I can’t decide what I want to focus on right now so I’ll give you a three-for-one…

Carr Finally Opens up the Offense in Game 162

Michigan’s win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl Citrus Bowl was unexpected for a million reasons that have nothing to do with the talent of either team. In ESPN’s Bowl Mania, 91% of the 300,000 participants picked Florida to win with an insane amount of confidence. In some ways, Michigan’s win only reaffirms what many have felt for quite a long time: Michigan has underachieved too often because of poor coaching. I’m happy for Lloyd Carr and the seniors. This game will go down in Michigan history as one of the most meaningful. But, I can’t help but to ask where that game-plan has been before now. I also can’t help but to think that Carr only had the courage to install such a game-plan because it was his last game. It was almost as if he finally said, “What do we have to lose? Let’s go for it.”

Well, what did Michigan ever have to lose? Carr has always had the athletes to open things up. The option to pass-first and run-second has always been there. Instead, Carr tortured fans for a number of years with a stale game-plan that minimized Michigan’s talent advantage. For years, I’ve pined for Michigan to start off games in the two-minute type offense that has yielded so many scores during second-half comeback attempts. Michigan fans have begged for Carr to abandon the ineffective run-first mentality for a pass-first mentality that opens up the running game. Michigan fans have pleaded for Carr to take advantage of his annual wide receiver bounty by using the middle of the field and throwing vertical instead of the annoyingly ineffective horizontal patterns that have plagued his offensive game-plans. For all of those things to finally be implemented during his last game—just before the program was about to undergo a major facelift—is akin to Carr saying, “F U!” to every Michigan-fan.

Michigan showed everyone in the Citrus Bowl that the lofty expectations that have been placed on the program by fans and media have not been unreasonable. They were simply unattainable without the proper game-plan. Carr never could’ve opened up the offense for the long-term. It was only a one-time deal. That is why it was time for him to retire. Rich Rodriguez is going to do a lot of good things at Michigan. I don’t know what the extent of his success will be but I can assure you that he won’t wait until the last game of his career to give his team the best chance to win. I enjoyed the game for a multitude of reasons but it was bitter-sweet for just as many.

This Pistons-team Looks Familiar

The Pistons are playing at an unbelievable level right now. The weird thing is that despite the team being considerably better than it was last season, there hasn’t been a single ounce of improvement in the starting five. Those guys have been their consistently-good selves. The change in the team’s potency has been entirely due to the bench. I don’t have a problem admitting that I like watching the bench more than the starters. Joe Dumars deserves all of the credit in the world for making the Pistons championship contenders again without the aid of a significant trade. It was evident after last season that the Pistons weren’t good enough to win a championship in their current form. In fact, the future looked downright gloomy as the Pistons were bounced from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion for the second consecutive year. Joe D explored trade opportunities but didn’t find anything to his liking. He didn’t take .50 on the dollar for one of his stars when nothing was available which is certainly commendable.

Instead, he focused on improving the bench and he has done a miraculous job at doing so. Dumars started by drafting Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo in the first round. Both players are playing big roles. Stuckey is a Dwyane Wade-type player in his ability to get by his defender. He has tremendous athleticism which allows him to get to the hole and finish or draw a foul. He can run the point despite spending his college career as a shooting guard. Stuckey will play a crucial role in the playoffs but he’ll be a bona fide starting combo guard (i.e. Wade) in the NBA within a few years. Afflalo came out of UCLA as a ready-made NBA player; it’s just that nobody knew it at the time. He is as fundamentally solid as a rookie can get. He knows exactly what he can and can’t do. He is an above-average defender who can shoot. Stuckey and Afflalo were godsends for the Pistons and provide hope for the future beyond Chauncey and Rip.

Jason Maxiell’s development continues to improve exponentially. He is one of the best rebounders in the league. He can shoot from 15’. He is as explosive around the rim as any player in the league. He is unquestionably my favorite player to watch. His dunk-backs are thunderous and demoralizing for the defense. He is already better and more effective than Ben Wallace ever was and that’s not meant to be a dis on Ben. I don’t think most people feel comfortable admitting that because Ben was such an icon in Detroit but Ben was also a “system” player who was one of the worst offensive players in the history of the league. Max does everything well. The Pistons don’t need him to start but if he did, I think it would be evident to everyone that he is a better all-around player. Amir Johnson is finally getting some minutes because the Pistons have handed out so many beat-downs over the last month. I think he will continue to improve. I’m not sure where his ceiling is but he should be a solid contributor off the bench as the season moves along.

The best bench player might just be Jarvis Hayes who Dumars quietly added for the bottom dollar price of $1.2 million just before the season started. Hayes is extremely versatile. He struggled with his shot after a good start to the season but he has bounced back big-time. At 6'8, he is extremely effective posting up smaller players. He can hit the “three” at an impressive rate (42%). Most people would be surprised to know that Hayes was a top ten pick just four years ago. He is probably what Dumars was hoping for when he signed Maurice Evans two years ago. Lindsey Hunter is still a defensive hound. Come playoff time, he’ll combine with Stuckey and Afflalo to give teams fits. When that second unit gets in there, it is like a pack of wild dogs. That sort of tenacity is what Hunter and Mike James provided the Pistons in 2004 on their way to the NBA title.

The bench was dynamite even before Dumars flipped Nazr Mohammed for Walter Herrmann and Primo Brezec. Neither player puts the Pistons over the top but both have ability. Herrmann is a dynamic player who mysteriously lost out on playing-time in Charlotte after averaging 18 points per game over the last 17 games of the 2006 season. Brezec is a big-body who seems to love diving for loose balls that have already gone out-of-bounds. Most importantly, Dumars was able to dump the remaining four years of Mohammed’s unfriendly salary. I didn’t think there was any way the Pistons could improve this season without moving one—if not more—of the starters for a superstar. Dumars proved me wrong by overhauling the bench. Now, the Pistons are playing the best basketball in the NBA while simultaneously playing their starters an average of three minutes less per game than last season.

An amazing side-note: the Pistons don’t have a single player making enough money to crack the top 30 salaries in the league. The Pistons also boast and underwhelming payroll of $65 million which is good for 17th in the league. One point that needs to be underscored is that while the moves Dumars has made have greatly enhanced the bench and freed up payroll obligations, they also give the Pistons a bevy of commodities if/when he wants to pull the trigger on a major trade. That won’t need to happen this season but Maxiell, Stuckey, Johnson, and Afflalo could be put together in some sort of combination to net a supreme player. Hopefully, the Pistons will never need to do that but it’s better to have the option just in case. Having highly sought after commodities is something new for the Pistons. I’m not sure how this season is going to end but I can say—with certainty—that the Pistons actually have a chance at the championship which is more than I can say for last year’s team. And as usual, we owe it all to Joe Dumars.

The “Genius” has Mercifully Left the Building

For every 50 things the Lions do wrong, they do one thing right. That one thing came in the form of firing Mike Martz. There has never existed a more un-genius genius in the history of geniuses. Martz single-handedly destroyed the Lions offense in 2007 by making it a no-trick pony. I’m not going to try to convince anyone that Jon Kitna is a great quarterback or that the Lions had anything short of a terrible offensive line. However, never running the football is idiotic regardless of personnel. Martz followed up his brilliant 2006 campaign in which he produced a 32:68 run/pass ratio with an almost equally inept 34:66 ratio in ’07. The Lions had the fewest rushing attempts in NFL history in 2006 and the 6th fewest in 2007. No team in history has run the ball less over a two-year stretch. As you might have guessed, that sort of ridiculous ratio combined with a brutal offensive line meant Lions quarterbacks were sacked 54 times which was one off the league-lead. To be fair, that was quite an improvement from the 63 sacks given up in 2006. So, yay for that! Despite the miraculous nine-sack improvement orchestrated by Martz, Kitna was battered all year. The offense was ambushed every game as if because the defense knew what was coming. Martz’s ineptness was never more evident than it was at Arizona in a must-win game for the Lions. The Cardinals defense dominated the Lions from the first snap to the last because Martz allowed the Cardinals to rush the quarterback every play without consequence.

Part of the allure of throwing first is the idea that it will make it easier to run by keeping defenses honest. Martz didn’t care whether they were honest and evidently didn’t care how terribly predictable and inept he had made his offense. When word started to come down that Martz was going to be axed, I read more than a few complaints defending him by suggesting that he turned Kitna into a 4,000 yard-passer as if only a genius could do such a thing. What good is 4,000 yards anyways if it’s accompanied by an 80.7 QB rating? It would be incredibly difficult for Kitna not to throw 4,000 yards with a 32:68 run/pass ratio. Martz also effectively sidelined Calvin Johnson for the entire season which accomplished absolutely nothing. Martz was a plague. He certainly wasn’t the only thing that was wrong with the Lions. But, aside from William Clay Ford, Matt Millen (Here is a good one: Jeff Backus was the 5th highest paid player in the NFL in 2006; please don’t wait for the punch-line because that wasn’t a joke), and Shaun Rogers’ strict no-cardio workout regiment, he was the most obvious thing that was wrong. With Martz out of the picture, the Lions can now shed the whole “it takes a quarterback three years to learn the system” angle. That means a new starting quarterback in ’08 is a possibility.

The worst thing the Lions could do is trade a first and third-round pick for Derek Anderson (signing him as an RFA would also mean the Lions would have to give up a first and a third so that’s pretty much the price if the Lions want him this season) as suggested by Tom Kowalski who calls that a low-asking price. Huh? Randy Moss was traded for a 4th round pick. He is one of the greatest players in NFL history. Anderson has played one full-season. He had an 82.5 rating this year. Scott Mitchell had an 84.5 rating the year before the Lions were sold on him. I’m not bashing Anderson. He may have a bright future. However, a first and third has never been a “low asking price.” The Lions would be lucky to get more than a third-round pick for Shaun Rogers who is one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league. Dre' Bly—one of the top corners in the league—netted the Lions two hot dogs and a fifth-round pick. Nobody gets a first and a third for anyone.

Plus, it’s time for everyone to stop acting as if the Browns have any leverage. They face the exact same situation that San Diego faced two years ago. The Chargers drafted Phillip Rivers when they already had Drew Brees. They couldn’t keep both and they eventually had to let Brees go for nothing. The Browns are in the same situation. Brady Quinn can’t sit on the bench forever making the kind of money that he makes. Anderson—having actually played—has more value of the two so the Browns will try to move him. If they can’t, they’ll lose him for nothing next season just like the Chargers lost Brees. There isn’t much leverage there. When teams don’t have leverage, they don’t get a first and third round pick for a first-year starting quarterback who was drafted in the 6th round just two years ago. Even the great Tom Brady—a 6th round pick—might not have netted that after his first year as a starter.

The Lions need a new signal-caller. This upcoming draft class is incredibly deep at quarterback. The Lions could have an opportunity to take Andre Woodson from Kentucky. He destroyed the SEC this season with 40 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Since the Lions are drafting at 15, they might have a shot at Woodson. They’ll also have the opportunity to trade up by dangling Rogers in front of teams in the top ten. Regardless of who is available, the Lions are much better off drafting a quarterback with their first round pick and keeping their third than they are in trading both picks for Derek Anderson. Then again, who cares?


Anonymous said...

While I love Maxiell, you just can't say he is already more effective than Ben Wallace was. That's just stupid. Ben Wallace, in his prime with Detroit was the best defensive player in the entire NBA. He was a beast! Max has great potential to be a force. When he wins defensive player of the year, or averages 15 boards and 3 blocks, and shuts down great players night after night, then we'll talk.

Anonymous said...

I felt the same way while watching the UM game. I thought "where was all of this for the last 5 years?" I wish Debord and Carr would have created a gameplan like this for the whole season. I agree that injuries did play a part, but Carr has been way too conservative throughout most of his career. I think NC seasons take more than just good coaching and talent - it also takes a lot of luck too. Look at OSU this year and in 2002. I would say they have had some luck. Anyway, I agree with your post and am ready for thr Rodriguez era to commence. It was exciting watching WVU and projecting UM athletes in a similar system. I will say I will miss the classic drop back QB schemes UM has typically ran though. I find that style of football to be much more dramataic to watch and that is why the NFL is always popular IMO.

For the Pistons, yes, it is great seeing them play so well. We have seen this before and we will see what the playoffs hold. I think if they do not reach the Finals this year, Dumars may make a change. I don't think he wants to, but he cannot waste this chance he has to win now. The bench is developing nicely. I do not know why they keep choking in the playoffs. Its weird.

The Lions are a joke. That is why I have started to root for Brady and the Pats. Matt Millen is the luckiest man on Earth.

Jake said...


Good stuff. I agree about missing the “classic dropback” offense. However, I won’t miss it as much as most might since it was rarely used correctly. I certainly will not miss the frustration that came with an overly conservative coach holding back a potentially potent offense. The spread will take some getting used to. But, as you mention, Michigan should be every bit as good as WVU was in the Fiesta Bowl and that’s exciting to think about. Plus, that 3-3-5 defense looked pretty intimidating against Oklahoma.

I understand your slight skepticism with regards to the Pistons. However, I think this team is different. The bench is dominating. Leads aren’t just protected when the bench is in there; they are extended. Plus, the presence of McDyess in the starting lineup allows the Pistons to get on the break more. I know what you’re worried about but I am confident that things are different. That doesn’t mean a championship; it just means a realistic shot at one unlike the last two years. Boston and San Antonio are elite teams so even if the Pistons were as good as they were in ’04, there are no guarantees. If the Pistons lose, it’s going to be to a better team and I can live with that.

I would like the Pats a lot more—and I like them somewhat already—if Belichick wasn’t such a jerk.


I’m going to attempt to have respect for your opinion without bringing the word “stupid” into the equation. I think the majority of fans would agree with you in the same way that the majority of sports fans think the Big Ten can’t compete with the SEC in college football. Just because people don’t realize something doesn’t make it less true. Maxiell would destroy Ben Wallace in a game of one-on-one. Normally, that wouldn’t matter in a discussion like this but since they are pretty much the same build and height and play the same position (both are undersized, athletic power forwards), I think it speaks volumes. Ben was a total liability on offense. On a scale from 1-10, he was a 1. He forced the Pistons to play four on five offensively which is one of the primary reasons why they didn’t win another title after ’04 despite being favorites. His defense was good but he was not a great one-on-one defender. The Pistons “team” defense allowed Ben to freelance and make great “help” plays. Ben is the type of player who can only thrive on a good team. Only a good team could withstand zero offensive production from the power forward position; and even then, he is still a liability which is why a). the Pistons gladly said, “goodbye” and b). the Bulls are struggling now and struggled in the playoffs last season. Maxiell is still developing but he already brings more to the table than Ben ever did. He is an above average defender and he is virtually un-guardable offensively.

I should have omitted that comment from my post because I really have/had no interest in defending the point. Statistics can make a player look much better than he actually is. There is a reason why the Pistons are looking better offensively than they ever have and still playing great defense and that has a lot to do with Ben Wallace being gone and Jason Maxiell and Antonio McDyess getting more playing time. If Wallace was as effective as you suggest, then how is it that his departure had virtually no impact on the team? Ben is incredibly fortunate that the Pistons were willing to deal with his limitations. Much of Ben’s allure comes from his style and persona. He was someone the fans could relate to. He worked hard and didn’t seek attention. Strip all of that stuff away and you get a basketball player who brings less to the table than Max.

b said...

Ha! I had this very same argument with a friend of mine recently. I loved Ben, but there was no better time for him to leave town than when he did. The result is what you see now - a Pistons team with a better offense that is more forgivable with five good offensive players instead of four on the court. With Ben, the Pistons had to play a defense-first style, because they would never be able to outscore teams. Now, they have more flexibility on both ends of the court without losing their defensive tenacity. In most cases, one good player is better than two average - Joe D determined in this case, two good players (Dice and Maxiell) were better than one very average, almost below-average one, and the team has benefited greatly. Good stuff Jake - the bench is extending leads, and has become one of many reasons .


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