To All my Sad Captains: My 2014 Detroit Lions Preview

Getty Images North America

Getty Images North America

If, like me, you’ve spent the better part of your life, rooting for a sports team, you realize just how fleeting success can be; especially if you’re a Lions fan. For as long as I can remember, Sunday afternoons in the fall have been riddled with disappointment, mixed with shame and a little angst. At this point, the very sight of the Honolulu Blue and Silver on my TV elicits a certain Pavlovian emotion of anxiety. Of course this begs the question why anyone would choose to root for a team that brings about such grief. My answer is simple, I love football, I love the NFL, and I can’t bring myself to quit the Lions. Besides, misery loves company, and in that regard I have plenty of both as a Lions fan. To put it another way, I look at Sunday NFL football this way:

“Another sunrise with my sad captains, with who I choose to lose my mind . . . and if it’s all we only pass this way but once, what a perfect waste of time . . .”

I’m not sure if any lyric could better epitomize just how soul-crushing it is to be a Lions fan.* Most years, spending 3-4 hours watching the Lions is a waste of time. Not just because they lose, but because of how they lose. To make things worse, they seem to be one of those teams that certain members of the sports-industrial complex have designated as a sleeper team this year. Such notions will only make this season’s inevitable descent into mediocrity that much more unbearable. A little salty you say? Sure, but my pessimism is borne out of a lifetime of disappointment as a Lions fan. A little hyperbolic you say? No, not really. Last season the Lions famously controlled their own destiny in the NFC North compiling a 6-3 record. With Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler missing significant time due to injury at the same time, a playoff berth seemed inevitable. Wrong. The Lions went on to lose 6 of their last 7; ultimately costing head coach Jim Schwartz his job.

Very little that I’ve seen or heard since then leads me to think this season will be different. To be sure, the Lions have brought in some offensive brainpower with the trio of head coach Jim Caldwell, quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Additionally, the Lions have added more offensive weapons by drafting tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall in this year’s draft, and signing free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate. However, they’ve done very little to address the defense, particularly in the back end, which is both thin and short on talent. Indeed, Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell points out the following:

Detroit benched each of its top four corners at different points last season, and it has brought three of them back. The Lions are actually going to start Rashean Mathis this year. Rashean Mathis! In 2014! On purpose!

Leading up to, and after May’s draft, Lions GM Martin Mayhew seemed to suggest that the defense wasn’t in as much trouble as some thought. Yet, as of this writing, the Lions are trying out 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback/Methuselah Impersonator Champ Bailey. Given that fact, it’s hard to imagine the Lions are honestly feeling secure with second year corner Darius Slay on one side and the 34-year old Rashean Mathis on the other.

Look, it’s not all bad. The front seven is in excellent hands with Ndamukong Suh up front and second year guy Ziggy Ansah coming off the edge. On offense, there are some obvious bright spots with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. But looking at the schedule, no matter how many ways I try, I just can’t see more than 8 wins. So there it is, a prediction; the Lions will go 8-8.

Wins: Giants, Jets, Bills, Vikings (twice), Dolphins, Bears, Bucs

Losses: Panthers, Packers (twice), Saints, Falcons, Cardinals, Pats, and the Bears (away)

Best Case Scenario: We steal one game each from the Pack and the Saints, and then find the Bears without Cutler at the end of the season to go 11-5.

*Originally I had the lyrics from this wonderful Elbow song dedicated to my 2014 Michigan Football preview, but I couldn’t get that done before last Saturday. Needless to say, I had some long weekends last fall.

The Best Albums of the 90s: The Complete List

1. Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
2. Pearl Jam, Ten (1991)
3. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
4. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
5. Radiohead, The Bends (1995)
6. Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (1994)
7. Afghan Whigs, Black Love (1996)
8. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
9. U2, Achtung Baby (1991)
10. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)
11. Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle (1993)
12. Fugees, The Score (1996)
13. Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994)
14. Sonic Youth, Goo (1990)
15. Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)
16. Pearl Jam, Vs. (1993)
17. Beastie Boys, Check Your Head (1992)
18. Outkast, Aquemini, (1998)
19. Living Colour, Times Up, 1990
20. The Sundays, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic (1990)
21. Fiona Apple, Tidal (1996)
22. Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Sister Sweetly (1993)
23. Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion (Parts I & II) (1991)
24. Oasis, What’s the Story Morning Glory (1995)
25. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (1992)

 

“Millenesque” you say?

matt-millen-apI was none too pleased with my beloved Detroit Lions’ haul from this past weekend’s draft. But I’m not here to tell you whether any of the players that the Lions drafted will be solid contributors. After all, the draft is more art than science, as two well thought out articles released this past week made clear (see Vox.com and 538.com). Instead, I’m here to lay bare the ways in which the Lions continue to outthink themselves during the draft. Generally speaking, General Manager Martin Mayhew’s approach to player acquisition is deeply flawed. Indeed, Mayhew’s draft strategy is cognitively dissonant, incoherent, but worst of all brash. Strong words you say? Well let’s get started with Mayhew’s own words, as they illuminate the Lions’ player acquisition issues.

“I would say this. Our defense, we were right in the middle of the pack last year in points allowed; we were 15th. Our offense was 13th in points scored . . . there’s this perception that there’s this huge gap between our offense and our defense . . .”

A quote like this should give, even the most casual observer some pause. These few words uttered by Mayhew lead me to one astonishing conclusion: Mayhew can’t turn the Lions into a championship team because he doesn’t understand the team’s problems. At first I just dismissed Mayhew’s comments out of hand. Having watched the Lions religiously for as long as I can remember, this sentiment by Mayhew seemed to betray what I had observed watching Lions games these last few years. But the lawyer in me wanted to be fair, so I delved into the numbers, and as expected my hunch was spot on.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

Mayhew’s view on how the two main units of the team compare is divorced from reality. Don’t get me wrong, the defense is not horrible. Defensive tackle and franchise cornerstone Ndamukong Suh is one of the best at his position. The Lions also have a few nice pieces in place like safety Glover Quinn and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Upfront the other defensive tackle Nick Fairley has shown flashes of brilliance, and first round pick from 2013, Ziggy Ansah led all NFL rookies in sacks. So there’s a lot here to like. Statically the numbers back that up to some degree:

The Good (league-wide rankings):

  • Rush Defense: 5th
  • Red Zone Defense: 3rd
  • Opposing 3rd Down Conversion: 1st

The not-so-good:

  • Sacks: 31st
  • Pass Yards Allowed: 23rd
  • Points Allowed: 16th
  • Pass Efficiency D (per footballoutsiders.com): 20th

Not alarming, but hardly championship level defense. But of course Mayhew isn’t making the point that the defense is great. Rather he’s making the point that the offense and defense are on equal footing; clearly that’s nonsensical.

My examination of how the Lions drafted this past weekend began with the stated reasons behind selecting tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. The selection was made to address some glaring need in the passing game and the offense overall. The logic goes that by adding Ebron, the Lions improve their offense. But does the offense need improvement, or is it just their quarterback, Matthew Stafford that needs to improve? Again, I would argue the latter.

Notable Offensive Rankings (league-wide):

  • Yards Per Drive: 8th
  • Total Offense: 6th
  • Passing Offense: 3rd

How these statistics demonstrate a need for more offensive “weapons” in the passing game is beyond me. Especially when you consider these figures (league-wide):

  • Turnovers Per Drive: 31st
  • Rushing Yards: 17th
  • Pass Efficiency : 16th
  • Rush Efficiency: 27th
  • Scoring: 13th

So the Lions were 6th in total yards but 13th in scoring. This disparity is likely a result of turnovers, penalties, and a running game that was effective but not capable of getting tough yards when needed. How an analysis of these figures translates to a need to draft another passing target is unclear. If anything, it shows a need for improvement in Stafford’s decision making. But equally troubling, is this belief that the Lions don’t have enough weapons on offense. The last time I watched a football game, I’m pretty sure I only saw one football on the field at one time. If that’s the case, then will Ebron be merely taking away targets from someone else – especially with Golden Tate and his $13 million in guaranteed money in the fold – or is he really going to improve on a passing offense that is already 3rd in the league? It sounds more like a shuffling of chairs on the proverbial deck.

HUBRIS 

I told a friend of mine on Sunday that his draft was “Millenesque” in nature. Of course this was a reference to former Lions’ GM/President Matt Millen who somehow took a perennially mediocre franchise and made it worse. At the heart of Millen’s ineptitude was a belief that he was somehow the smartest guy in the room. While Millen was a member of MENSA, he really didn’t know squat about drafting. Mayhew’s performance this past weekend seemed to reflect the same belief. While Mayhew was salivating at the prospect of drafting his 4th offensive player in 6 drafts in the 1st round, the rest of the league was taking note of the Seahawks dominant performance in the Super Bowl against the league’s best offense – the Denver Broncos. Indeed, 9 of the 11 playoff teams from last year (Seattle traded out) drafted defensive players. What’s more, every other NFC North team drafted defensive players while Mayhew was busy chasing bright, shiny objects in the dark. But wait, you’re arguing that since everyone else is doing it, that must make it right? Well, yeah, in a way. But this isn’t just some misguided belief, it’s backed by data.

GOOD TEAMS FIND VALUE IN SKILL POSITION PLAYERS

It’s often been said that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Some have argued that this is not always the case. They point to Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay as recent teams that did it with offense. I’ll set aside the obvious point that Stafford is not Manning, Rodgers, nor Brees. I’ll also set aside the other obvious fact that Jim Caldwell is 28-77 as a head coach without Peyton Manning. Neither point will make you shake your head as much as you do when you take a look at the drafting habits of the best teams in the league since 2000.

Indeed, since 2000, of the 10 winningest teams in the NFL (the only ones to win the Super Bowl besides Tampa Bay in 2002):

  • Only 2 teams took a WR or a TE in the top 10: Pittsburgh drafted Plaxico Burress 8th overall & Seattle selected Koren Robinson with the 9th pick
  • New England, the winningest team in the NFL since 2000 by 22 games, has never taken a WR or a TE in the 1st round
  • In fact, New England has only drafted 4 offensive players in that span (as much as Mayhew has in 6 years!)
  • Of the top 10 teams in the league since 2000, Pittsburgh has drafted the most offensive players in the first round (8); but only 2 played either WR or TE
  • By contrast, the Lions have drafted 16 offensive players in the first round!!! And 6 played either WR or TE…….6!!!!

But is it fair to include Millen’s draft in your comparison of the Lions to other teams? Well, no it’s not, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. Look, even if you ignored the Millen years, Mayhew has already equaled Belichick’s total of offensive players in almost a third of the time.

You’re not including other rounds, how is that fair? Because statistically, and intuitively, 1st round picks are indicative of where your priorities lie as a team, due to the fact that 1st round picks have the highest correlation of success in the NFL. 1st round picks are expected to contribute immediately, where as players in the later rounds are not. Regardless, Mayhew’s picks in the later rounds have been much worse, so I’m not sure if that would make his case any better. What these numbers reveal is the lunacy of focusing on offensive players. It hasn’t worked for the Lions in the past, and it is not a path that has been taken by any of the successful teams in the league. You would think that Mayhew would want to mirror the best practices of these teams; especially since he didn’t exactly learn from the master. Instead, he seems determined to repeat history rather learn from it.

INCOHERENCE

This draft was also marked by incoherence. For one, Mayhew’s actions are in conflict with his goals. And they don’t follow a clear “best player available strategy” as he suggests.

Mayhew’s stated goal was to get 3 starters out of the draft. Ebron will essentially be a 3rd WR, so I presume he will start. BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy (whom I like) should supplant Ashlee Palmer. That leaves several projects and a kicker. The center that they signed, in lieu of drafting a corner, won’t start. Neither will Caraun Reid (another guy I like) the defensive tackle from Princeton, or Nevin Lawson, the 5-9 corner they signed. Defensive end Larry Webster played one year of Division-II football, so he’s out, which leaves kicker Nate Freese. I suppose you would have to consider Freese a starter, but I highly doubt that that is what Mayhew had in mind when he made that statement.

The facts also belie Mayhew’s claim of drafting the “best player available.” For one, he traded away a valuable 4th round pick to take Van Noy. While I liked the move, he clearly wasn’t content standing pat where they were supposed to pick in the 2nd round. If Mayhew was willing to do so with Van Noy, why wasn’t he ready to do the same in the 3rd when they took a backup Center Travis Swanson? You would think he would have been eager to put that same aggressiveness to use to fill a hole in the defensive backfield.

CONCLUSION

This probably seems like the constant whininess you hear from fans after a process that takes years to distill. But at the outset, I stated that my issue was philosophy. All of these players may end up being solid players in the league. Mayhew has had some success in the past with players like Willie Young and Sammie Lee Hill. I’m just not convinced that the Lions have done enough in the draft to take forward steps in what will be a tougher division. And I don’t understand the wisdom of drafting a complimentary player – and that’s what Ebron is as the 3rd receiver – at the 10th overall pick. More importantly, Mayhew’s words and actions demonstrate a lack of understanding of his own team’s issues. And his decisions run counter to the manner in which the most successful teams in the league operate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Albums of the 90s: 15-19

Living_Colour_Time's_Up#19 Living Colour: Times Up

Released: August 20, 1990

Label: Epic

Fresh off of their multi-platinum debut album Vivid, New York-based heavy metal/hard rock/funk outfit Living Colour returned with Times Up. Like its predecessor, Times Up featured a sound that borrowed from a variety of genres. Sonically, its sound was defined by lead singer Corey Glover’s pop-meets-soul melodies and guitarist Vernon Reid’s artful but heavy guitar riffs. What truly made them a first-rate band though was the power and precision of the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun.
The palette of music was varied with songs that were light (“Love Rears its Ugly Head”), politically conscious (“Pride” “Under Cover of Darkness”), and of course heavy (“Information Overload”). Yet the two albums differed in that the latter was far more dynamic in sound and tone. Always a central figure in the band, guitarist Vernon Reid dialed back the blistering guitar solos, in favor of heavily delayed riffs (“Fight the Fight”) even playing clean on the Caribbean-influenced “Solace of You.” On “Love Rears” Reid takes the opportunity to show off his jazz chops with an off-kilter solo that would have made his former collaborator Bill Frisell proud. Unfortunately, Times Up would be the last full-length album featuring the incredible rhythm section of Skillings and Calhoun, as Skillings would leave the band shortly thereafter.

Select Cuts: Type, Pride, Undercover of Darkness

AqueminiOutKast#18 Outkast: Aquemini

Released: September 29, 1998

Label: LaFace/Arista

Aquemini, Outkast’s third studio album signified a turning point for this Atlanta-based rap duo. It was the album that made them a household name, largely on the strength of the single “Rosa Parks.” But the album was also important because it gave some indication of where the duo was headed. Like their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic, Aquemini featured their signature smooth, drippy, southern-rap/funk sound, featuring live musicians (and not sampled). Yet the themes played out in their songs were rooted mostly in the lore of street pimps and gangster life on previous outings. On Aquemini, rappers Andre 3000 and Big Boi seemed to opt for a more conscious tone lyrically; the result was a rousing success.

Select Cuts: Return of the G,  Rosa Parks, Aquemini, West Savannah

Beastieboys_checkyourhead#17 Beastie Boys: Check Your Head

Released: April 21, 1992

Label: Capitol

The career trajectory of the Beatie Boys – from boisterous, obnoxious, white hardcore rappers to 3-dimensional, politically/socially conscious musicians – is the stuff of legend. Indeed, by 1992 most average joes (including me) thought these guys were washed up. In fact, when someone told me they had a new album out (Check Your Head) I thought they were kidding. I guess the joke was on me, as Check Your Head would serve notice to the rest of the world that the Beastie Boys had no intention of being a flash in the pan. Drawing from all manner of influences, including two in particular (The Meters and Bad Brains), Check Your Head would serve as a template for later albums to come with songs ranging from straight-ahead rap (“Pass the Mic”), to rap/rock (“Gratitude”), to chilled out funk instrumentals (“Lighten Up”). Also, MCs Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D served as instrumentalists on Check Your Head proving that there was far more to this group than most folks originally thought.

Select Cuts: Pass the Mic, So What’Cha Want, The Maestro, Professor Booty

PearlJam-Vs#16 Pearl Jam: Vs.

Released: October 19, 1993

Label: Epic

If you’ve been paying attention, there’s a trend forming here: follow-up albums. Like several other albums on this list, Vs. was the follow-up to Pearl Jam’s multi-platinum debut album Ten. As one of the progenitors of the Seattle Grunge sound that defined 90s rock music, Pearl Jam would eventually forge a name for themselves; not only for the quality of their music, but as well for their longevity. Vs. is also the album that set the cast on a bond that would be forged between millions of devoted fans and the band as it proved decisively that Pearl Jam was here to stay. While the single “Daughter” stands out, arena-rock standards like “Go” and “Animal” made Vs. the behemoth that it was. Tonally, the album takes the group to new places with the PJ staple “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” To put it frankly, Vs. may be the group’s most concise album, and definitely one of the decade’s best.

Select Cuts: Go, Animal, Dissident, Elderly Woman, Indifference

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream#15 The Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream

Released: July 27, 1993

Label: Virgin

20 years later I can still say, without hesitation, that I’ve never heard an album quite like Siamese Dream. Written almost entirely by the mad scientist himself – lead singer/guitarist Billy Corgan – Siamese Dream incorporated a variety of different influences to make an album that was refreshingly well-balanced. There’s energy (“Cherub Rock” and “Quiet”), beauty (“Sweet Sweet” and “Luna”) and of course plenty of emo (“Disarm”). While singles like “Disarm” and “Today” garnered most of the attention, Siamese Dream was more than a few token singles. Accompanied by skilled drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, bassist D’Arcy, and rhythm guitarist James Iha, the Pumpkins were on top of the world after this release. Of course, this begs the question: was 93′ a better year for music than 91’? 

Select Cuts: Cherub Rock, Hummer, Rocket, Soma, Mayonaise

The Best Albums of the 90s: 20-25

RageAgainsttheMachineRageAgainsttheMachine#25 Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine

Released: November 3, 1992

Label: Epic

You’ll be hard-pressed to find an album that can channel the anger, resentment, and disillusionment of the social and political currents of the day with more clarity. Better than anyone before or since, these guys combined the best elements of hard rock and rap music to make a distinctive style of music defined by the bombastic vocals of lead singer Zack de la Rocha and the frenetic wizardry of guitarist Tom Morello. From the album’s opening song “Bombtrack” all the way to the closing track “Freedom”, Rage Against the Machine is a tour de force that still holds up well after 21 years of existence.

Select Cuts: Bombtrack, Killing in the Name Of, Take the Power Back

Oasis_-_(What's_The_Story)_Morning_Glory_album_cover#24 Oasis: What’s the Story Morning Glory?

Released: October 2, 1995

Label: Creation

I don’t know that any band of the last 25 years comes close to being more hated than Oasis. Whether it was the rather public disputes between brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, or the constant comparisons by the media and band alike to the Beatles, these were the guys you just loved to hate. Still, off the heals of their much lauded debut album Definitely, Maybe, the Brothers Gallagher found lightning in a bottle when they released this multi-platinum blockbuster album. While many will recall hits like “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova,” other gems like “Roll With It” and “Some Might Say” made this one of the decade’s best.

Select Cuts: Roll With It, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Wonderwall, Some Might Say

GNR_Use_Your_Illusion#23 Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion (Parts I & II)

Released: September 17, 1991

Label: Geffen

It would not be hyperbole to say that Use Your Illusion was one of the most highly anticipated follow-up albums in rock history. Guns N’ Roses stormed the music world with their debut album Appetite for Destruction, which would eventually sell 35 million copies worldwide. Fortunately, they avoided the sophomore slump with Use Your Illusion, by building on the hard, heavy, bluesy rock sound that defined Appetite. Not only was Use Your Illusion ambitious in sound, but it was also ambitious in other respects. As a double album, it spanned 30 tracks and nearly 3 hours of music. It spawned several high-profile music videos, and a world tour (one of the longest in rock history) and featured a song on the Terminator II soundtrack. Ultimately it would signal the beginning of the end for the band, as it would be the last album of original music released by the core of the original members (most notably Duff McKagan and Slash), but it was a thing to marvel.

Select Cuts: Live and Let Die, Don’t Cry, You Could Be Mine, November Rain, The Garden, Double Talkin’ Jive

Sister_Sweetly#22 Big Head Todd & The Monsters: Sister Sweetly

Released: February 23, 1993

Label: Giant

Few albums evoke memories of college more so than Sister Sweetly. I’ll never forget the day my freshman year roommate Rob Sharp brought this CD (yes that’s what we used in the old days) home. He played the hell out of it, and it drove me nuts. 20 years later, I’m the one that still listens to it, while I doubt he’s listened to it much. So why is it on the list? Great American rock and roll, with a touch of blues. Lead singer Todd Park Mohr is a pro on the axe and the album is rife with blistering blues leads which have kept me coming back for 20 years.

Select Cuts: Broken Hearted Savior, Circle, Bittersweet, It’s Alright

Fiona_Apple_-_Tidal#21 Fiona Apple: Tidal

Released: July 23, 1996

Label: Clean Slate, Work, Columbia

Only 21, but singing with a maturity and charisma far beyond her years, singer/pianist Fiona Apple set the music world ablaze with Tidal, her debut album. The single “Sleep to Dream” set the stage with a sultry haunting sound, and the video to match. But what followed was a string of follow-up singles that made Apple a household name. While the album featured a few clear misses like the Caribbean influenced “The First Taste,” others like “Shadowboxer” proved that Apple was a formidable songwriter with the vocal chops to match.

Select Cuts: Shadowboxer, Sleep to Dream, Criminal, The Child is Gone

Sundays-readingwritingarithmetic#20 The Sundays: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Released: January 15, 1990

Label: Rough Trade

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic may be the best album you’ve never heard of. The album jangles (“I Won”), it shimmers, it’s haunting (“Joy”) and it evokes bands like R.E.M. and The Smiths, but in ways that bring out the best in both. Centered around guitarist Dave Gavurin and singer Harriet Wheeler (husband and wife), The Sundays would go on to release 3 full-length studio albums. While all good, none encapsulated the beautiful vocal stylings of Wheeler with the shimmery craftsmanship of Gavurin on the guitar.

Select Cuts: Here’s Where the Story Ends, Hideous Towns, Joy, My Finest Hour, Can’t Be Sure

The Best Albums of the 90’s

Greetings all! As some of you may know, my good friend and co-host of the “Bring Tha Noize” podcast Scott Hoyer and I recently had a discussion on the best albums of the 90s. Both of us put together a list of what we each considered the 25 best albums of that decade; I’ll be sharing this list with you all in the next few days. Looking back on that decade some 20 or so years later, I was surprised with how many rap albums made my list. I suspect that when most of us think of the 90s we think of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the grunge scene that ushered out the age of the “hair band.” Yet the 90s were a period of time in which hip-hop/rap music truly established itself as a genre of music that would appeal to the masses. With that, let’s get started shall we?