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October 11th, 2017

Those lovable Lions give us hope

in a sporting depressing in ‘The D’

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Enough handwringing about the latest Detroit Lions’ loss.

 

Yes, there is reasonable cause for concern after losing the second of the home games to start a season that began with playoff aspirations.

 

But think about it: This team is one mucked up officiating call and a dropped end zone pass from being 5-0. So they’re 3-2 and haven’t been as efficient with the ball against two of the stingiest, most physical defenses in the league. The prevailing thinking that if the Lions could get through the first half of the season 4-4 – and not many of us thought that was possible – they’d be just fine.

 

Well, heading to New Orleans this weekend with a 3-2 record, they’re better than fine. In fact, considering the state of Detroit’s other three professional franchises, the Lions are the least of our worries. And how long has it been since we’ve been able to say that? Since the middle 1950s, perhaps, before quarterback Bobby Layne was inexplicably traded away?

 

Merely consider:

 

The Red Wings

 

They’re coming off the first playoff-less season in 26 years. Absolutely no one outside their dressing room is giving them a chance to get back anytime soon, though two gritty victories in as many games was a pleasant way to start their inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena – the “Pizz-Arena.”

 

As senior VP Jimmy Devellano said on the eve of training camp last month, “there will be the pain for a few years.” For starters, he said, the club needs to get its finances in order. Too many overpaid players for too many years have hamstrung the Wings to the point that they can’t afford to sign one of their most important players, Andreas Athanasiou, whose off to Europe in a contract dispute.

 

Meantime, this team remains one without a dominant top scoring line or a top defensive pair. Captain Henrik Zetterberg, who just turned 37 on Monday, centers the No. 1 line at a time when he, like others of his rank in the game, should be expected to take a step back and give way to younger talent. That won’t happen until Dylan Larkin can prove he can anchor a top line, and the jury remains out on that.

So with goal-scoring at a premium and the overall backline a liability, the Wings will need elite-level goaltending every night. And if Jimmy Howard can’t provide, the team is SOL until Petr Mrazek proves he can stop a beach ball from the blue line.

 

The next couple of seasons, as Devellano suggests, will be agonizing to a generation of fans who have become complacent to the point of being spoiled. In time, the team will rid itself of some bad contracts and develop some young talent that is likely to include a few more top-10 draft picks.

 

By the time the Wings are knocking on the door to the playoffs again, they’ll have the money to recruit the top free-agents in the game – and that’s where this gleaming new arena will play a big part. Detroit will once again become a destination place for the best in the game.

 

Until then, temper the expectations.

 

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The Pistons

 

One step forward. . . A year after they give us serious pause for hope by giving Cleveland all it could handle in the Cavs’ pursuit of the NBA title, the Piston took about seven strides backward. That’s how many games their record declined last season, when center Andre Drummond underperformed, guard Reggie Jackson never fully recovered from left knee surgery and Stanley Johnson disappeared in an awful sophomore season.

 

Together, they hold the key to the ignition that will power this team to the playoffs in an even weaker Eastern Conference. Or not.

 

On the floor as well as the locker room, point guard Jackson must reassert himself, and early indications in training camp are that he is both willing and able to do that. Johnson needs to look in the mirror and find the guy who drove LeBron James a little batty in that playoff battle in 2016. Drummond needs to round out his game, starting with converting a few free throws that will change how teams defend the Pistons. Making four of six in a preseason game the other night was heartening.

 

If the Pistons get that, if first-round pick Luke Kennard and come off the bench and provide the kind of outside scoring he did in college, then they should give fans their money’s worth in their new home downtown. In the process, they should get back to .500 basketball, which should be good enough to make the playoffs.

 

If they can’t, the Stan Van Gundy should fire himself as the coach and find someone who can motivate a better-than-decent NBA rotation. But SVG still has a lot of work ahead of him to build a roster capable of a long playoff run.

 

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The Tigers

 

I raised the question in a previous column, and it remains a point of reasonable debate: Which of the Ilitch family’s two sports franchises will advance to the post-season first? It’s going to be a struggle, and maybe a number of years, for both.

 

The Tigers were best with a similar set of circumstances: An aging team that tried to remain relevant by handing out too many ill-conceived contracts that put them on the hook for too much money for too long. The result, as with the Wings, was disastrous.

 

After a fire sale at the trade deadlines, general manager Al Avila unloaded some big contracts along with some players facing unrestricted free agency this winter, and in return, they got a handful of B-rated infielders and maybe a couple of B+ pitching prospects. In the process, they drastically reduced a burdensome, embarrassingly unproductive payroll.

 

Instead of having one of the highest payrolls in the game (with the lowest return on investment), the club should settle in next season around $130 million – after investing $20 million or so to re-sign arbitration-eligible players like shortstop Jose Iglesias, closer Shane Greene and a handful of others. That’s comparable to the payroll of the Cleveland Indians, who look poised for another run to the World Series this fall.

 

But unlike the Indians, the Tigers are likely to struggle mightily for the next couple of seasons unless Miguel Cabrera (owed $184 million over the next seasons) and starter Jordan Zimmermann (owed $74 million over the next three seasons) contribute a hell of a lot more than they did this season. And if Avila trades away his middle infield, Iglesias and former Gold Glove-winner Ian Kinsler, it’ll be even worse.

 

It’ll be a moral victory of sorts if the Tigers can avoid losing 100 games for the next couple of seasons until they can develop enough talent around an emerging starting rotation anchored by Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris.

 

To borrow a phrase: There will be a pain.

 

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So we’re content to ride the bandwagon of a team that has given us more misery over the past 60 years or so that each of our other three franchises combined.

 

But based on what we’ve seen so far, these Detroit Lions are for real. GM Bob Quinn has assembled one of the deepest rosters we’ve seen in a generation, largely by ridding it of players acquired by general mis-manager Martin Mahew. Quinn can improve his club even more by off-loading tight end Eric Ebron, Mahew’s first-round selection in 2010 who specializes in dropping balls that hit him in the numbers.

 

Sunday’s loss to the visiting Carolina Panthers didn’t come down to one play; the defense was shredded by a former MVP who played like one in Cam Newton, and the offense didn’t find any momentum until the Lions were down by 17 points in the fourth quarter. But after Ebron dropped that pass that hit him in the chest in the end zone, Detroit settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown.

 

The difference was four points. The Lions lost by three. Do the math.

 

No, the Lions will be just fine, if the offensive line can keep Stafford off his back long enough to get left tackle Taylor Decker back. Stafford needs to get back to playing like an MVP candidate himself, but that’s doing to be tougher to do on a bum leg.

 

And the defense must regroup and play like it did in the first four games. If they can keep it close, the best kicker in the game, Matt Prater, will make enough difference in the win column that we’ll see more playoff football again this season.

 

Maybe a lot more.

 

Meantime, Michigan football appears to be over-rated, and perhaps Michigan State a bit under-rated. Gee, when have we heard that story before? But that’s a story for another day. . .

 

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