Monday, September 14, 2009

Quarterbacks, Leprechauns, and the Worst Franchise in the History of Western Civilization

The Detroit Lions wrapped up their infamous 0-16 campaign last season with a 10-point loss at Lambeau Field on December 28th. The franchise underwent a number of changes following that abomination. A newer, more hostile, logo was adopted. Rod Marinelli was fired and Jim Schwartz was hired. The first overall pick was spent on a future franchise signal-caller in Matthew Stafford. Various castoff pieces were added to the roster, giving the team several new names to adorn the backs of their jerseys. Unfortunately, the name seared onto the front has remained exactly the same, and tragically, so has their unmistakable ineptitude in every single facet of the game.

Let's get one thing straight. Nobody expected anything out of the Lions yesterday. No grand illusions of an opening week miracle. No wild dreams of Stafford throwing for three bills or the secondary actually resembling a real NFL unit. Everybody and their brother was well aware the Lions had virtually no chance of coming out on top in their trip to the Big Easy, but mannnn, did it have to look so much like last year? When a team goes zero and sixteen, you figure there is nowhere to go but up. As in, this is rock bottom, so the only direction from here is to start that climb back to the top. Not exactly true. What if you stay exactly the same?

That is what it looked like for our Leos during another forgettable Sunday afternoon. Drew Brees carved up Gunther Cunningham's defense all day with a sniper-like precision. The revamped secondary looked, dare I say, worse than last year's version that intercepted passes about as often as Grady Jackson passes up dessert. The defensive line was especially horrendous. I mean, what exactly was Landon Cohen trying to accomplish when he delivered a senseless forearm shiver to the head of Drew Brees (which he got flagged for), and then followed it up with a hands-in-the-air, "I didn't do anything!" motion to the officials? Was he sending some type of message? It left me utterly confused. Kind of like when rookie fireball safety Louis Delmas thought it was a good idea to rip the ball away from the celebrating Jeremy Shockey a good five seconds after the play had been completed. Brilliant. But it really doesn't get any worse than the Stafford pick late in the 2nd quarter deep in Saints territory, followed by a "Non-Player" for the Lions (the referee's words) committing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the return by interfering with the official's ability to oversee the action. You could watch every football game, college and pro, for the rest of the year, and you wouldn't see that same sequence of events repeat itself even one time. But the Lions do it without ever really breaking a sweat.

Oh and sixteen was a once in a lifetime thing. But after Sunday's debacle, with the silly penalties, the dismal running game, and the unimaginative coaching, suddenly 0 and 32 doesn't seem like an impossibility. If you can't root for perfection, you might as well root for the exact opposite. There's 15 more of these public executions to go. Let's see if we can make history...again.

Is there anyone out there that doesn't absolutely hate the Leprechaun character from Notre Dame? Homeboy takes the word "annoying" to a whole new stratosphere. He's always wearing some horrible kilt/blazer get-up that looks to be about three or four sizes too small. He is constantly bouncing around the sidelines stirring up trouble with no real purpose in mind. And no matter how many times they might graduate an old leprechaun and usher in a new one, somehow they always wind up with that same red-haired, freckle-faced lush that looks like he belongs on a box of Lucky Charms. Seeing Michigan beat Notre Dame was sweet, but seeing that Matt Bonner clone moping along the sidelines put the cherry on top.

On the second college football Saturday of the season, we were treated to a pair of last-second thrillers here in the state of Michigan. And if these two games reminded us of anything about the game itself, it is this. Never underestimate the importance of the quarterback position. Football is a unique game with 11 players on each side all responsible for their own unique task on each individual play. The linemen block, the receivers catch, and the tailbacks run. But the quarterback truly controls the game. They are in charge of the most precious commodity, the ball, for the duration of the contest, and Saturday showed us just how critical this spot on the field can be.

Take Michigan, for example. This team looks to be a completely different squad from the 3-9 outfit of 2008. But when you look closer, a lot of the faces are still the same. You have Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown in the backfield. You have Greg Mathews and Kevin Koger catching passes. You have Obi Ezeh and Donovan Warren roaming the field on D. Even Rich Rodriguez has remained the same, refusing to ditch that irritating little red wristband that he seemingly wears 24 hours a day. But there is a new kid under center, and it has made all the difference in the world. Tate Forcier did it all on Saturday, cementing himself in Michigan lore with his gutsy 4th-quarter comeback against the hated Fighting Irish from South Bend. He's got a big arm. He's able to make smart decisions, despite playing in just his second college game. And most important, in what is often the telltale sign of whether a QB will 'make it,' he is composed and confident in the pocket when the Earth starts to collapse around him. Never was this more evident than on that final series when the O-line started to get pushed back on every play, and Forcier showed the poise and athletic ability to get out of Dodge, while still looking for available receivers down the field during the scramble.

If this same scenario presented itself last season (down 3, time ticking down, needing a clutch drive to win or tie), it would have went something like this. Incompletion, incompletion, sack, incompletion + sack +intentional grounding + lots of groaning from the 100,000 plus in attendance. Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan had essentially none of the improvisational skills that Forcier does (I'm not sure that Threet even had a soul), and we see now that one simple change at the quarterback position might mean the difference between 3-9 and 9-3.

In East Lansing, the heavily favored Spartans dropped a heartbreaker to the Chippewas of Central Michigan in one of the more bizarre finishes to a football game you will ever see. But to me, the story of the game still comes down to two simple letters: Q and B. The Chips have a Senior, Dan LeFevour, capable of dominating a game and leading his offense when it matters most. He threw for 328 yards on the afternoon, many of them coming during the climactic 16-7 barrage they laid on Sparty in the 4th quarter. On the other side of the field, Mark Dantonio is stuck in that timeless football conundrum of trying to balance the playing time of two talented quarterbacks in the span of one game.

In the first week of the season, while hosting Montana State, it was never an issue. Everybody was laughing, the scoreboard was exploding, and it was smiles all around. But when a talented CMU team came calling on Saturday, the old axiom saying that "Two -quarterback systems never work" reared its ugly head. Kirk Cousins opened things up and came out firing. He hit Blair White on a couple of long balls, avoided big mistakes, and seemed to be finding his flow on the field. But as protocol would have it, Keith Nichol was summoned for the 2nd stanza and the Spartan offense seemed to become stagnant. Cousins wound up finishing the day 13 of 18 for 164 yards, but what if he played the whole game and instead had a stat line something like '20-28, 225.' Things very well might have turned out differently. It's not to say that Cousins and Nichol are not both highly talented guys. They clearly have their own special set of skills, and both have proven themselves worthy of legitimate playing time. But it just doesn't work that way.

Much like a starting pitcher in baseball, a quarterback has to work himself into the game, find the right pace, and make the appropriate adjustments. Being yanked for a series or an entire quarter can be a major hindrance to those things being accomplished. There was similar talk heading into Michigan's season of multiple quarterbacks all splitting time under center. But once Tate Forcier introduced himself to the world and proved to be the man in charge, that idea was all but erased. The same needs to be done at Michigan State. It is a difficult decision, and one that might ruffle more than a few feathers for the guy left on the outside looking in, but it is a necessary evil. You show me a team that tried to rotate two quarterbacks for an entire season, and I'll show you a team that struggled to find a real offensive identity throughout the course of that year.

Dan LeFevour was undoubtedly the best quarterback on the field Saturday, all but forcing his team down the field during those critical 4th-quarter drives. But one has to wonder if he would have had the chance for such heroics if Mark Dantonio had simply handed the keys to Kirk Cousins at kickoff and then asked for them back after the final horn. Two is better than one in a lot of situations. A trip to the free throw line...a tailor-made double play ball up the middle...heck, some even prefer Back to the Future II over the first one, and I can't really disagree. But in the case of the coveted quarterback position, one is really all you need.

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