Archive 2018

 

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December 19th, 2018

Dismissing a coach is rarely

a fix for a struggling team

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

In the imperfect, often bizarre world of sports fanaticism, as expectations tend to exceed even soaring payrolls, the difference between “give the coach a chance” and “fire his sorry ass” is ever-narrowing.

 

As teams falter because the star running back is holding out, the DH suddenly can’t hit his weight, the quarterback turns his nose up at the game plan or the 50-goal scorer grew fat and lazy after signing his big contract, executives become trigger happy and the only guy in the firing line is the coach.

 

To be sure, a GM whose team is flailing for an obvious reason would rather find a new goaltender, but that’s impossible because he signed his goalie to a ridiculous deal that calls for him to be paid d $10.5 million for the next seven years. And suddenly he can’t stop a beachball. This is happening right now in the NHL, which is experiencing an epidemic of coaching changes after going an entire season in 2017-18 without a single coach being fired.

 

Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol was shown the door on Monday, just three weeks after the GM who hired him, Ron Hextall, was fired. He joins Joel Stevens of the Los Angeles Kings, Todd McLellan of Edmonton, Mike Yeo of St. Louis and three-time Stanley Cup champ Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

 

It’s too early to tell if changing the suit behind the bench in Philly – tonight’s opponent for the traveling Red Wings – which promoted the coach from its top minor-league affiliate as an interim fix, will make a difference. But the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that a new guy with a whistle at practice doesn’t always make a lot of difference.

 

In fact, the bottom four teams in the league are those that have fired their coaches. From the bottom up: Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Only the Edmonton Oilers experienced a resurgence after hiring Ken Hitchcock to replace McLellan, going 8-2-1 in the first 11 games to rise from the depths of the overall standings into a wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference.

 

Meantime, for better or for worse – and you could get either on any given night with these Red Wings – Jeff Blashill is still on the job in Detroit, nearing the middle of his fourth season. That’s only remarkable because he was perceived for most of last season and the first 10 games of this season as the coach most likely to be fired.

 

Which brings us back to that line between embracing a struggling coach and giving him more time to succeed or making a change. And that brings us to the Detroit Lions and the dilemma facing GM Bob Quinn.

 

The Lions were coming off back-to-back 9-7 seasons under Jim Caldwell, but that wasn’t good enough. Quinn said the franchise has set the bar higher. He fired Caldwell and brought in a compatriot from the New England Patriots, Matt Patricia. The Lions need to win out – they won’t – to get to 7-9.

 

Now nobody expects Patricia to be fired after his first season as head coach, despite how his team has regressed in just about every area of the game. But how long can he continue into next season if his team doesn’t show dramatic improvement? For that matter, how long will Quinn’s bosses wait before they decide this regime isn’t working and a change is necessary merely to keep fans showing up at Ford Field?

 

And therein lies the real bottom line in sports today. It’s not the wins and losses in the standings so much as how those standings affect the turnstiles. When fans stop cheering with their wallets, something must be done. Right or wrong, it’s usually the coach who gets it in the neck.

 

 

Need a nifty gift for that sports nut in your life? Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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December 17th, 2018

Penny-pinching Tigers do little

in offseason to create enthusiasm

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Mike Ilitch has to be rolling over in his grave. No way the guy who frequently described himself as “a fan with an owner’s wallet” would stand for what’s happened to his baseball team since his passing early last year.

 

No way the Tigers wouldn’t have made some headlines at the recent MLB winger meetings in Las Vegas, given the quality of talent on the market.

 

Hell, there’s no way this franchise would be in the early stages (Still!) of what looks to be a many years-long process. Meantime, they’re duct-taping a roster together by shopping the bargain bin at the free-agent market, signing the dregs to short contracts in hopes that they might have a decent enough season ahead to turn over for suture prospects. All the while hoping that so many trades – big and small – made in recent years will result in at least a few actual everyday major-league players.

 

And they can at least get back to being mediocre. Competitive.

 

Mike Ilitch hated the term “rebuild.” How much did he hate it? In the span of a few days in late July 2015, the Tigers went from buyers to sellers at the looming trade deadline. On July 29, after one of the most successful decades in Tigers history that included two trips to the World Series, Dombrowski told reporters the franchise planned “a reboot.”

 

The next day, Dombrowski traded away pitchers David Price and Joakin Soria. The following day, he unloaded Yoenis Cespedes.

 

And the day after that, Ilitch dialed up Al Avila and offered him the GM’s job. Dombrowski was out.

 

That’s how much the old man hated the notion of a rebuild. So glad you asked.

 

But as his health deteriorated, and with wife Marian and son Chris looking after the bottom line, Avila continued to unload one big contract after another (Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler). And the result has been excruciating.

 

Ilitch died about the time pitchers and catchers were reporting for spring training in Florida. Seven months later, they finished 30th among MLB’s 30-team organization. In the past season, with the same 64-98 record as the year before, a dramatic improvement – to 26th overall.

 

Based on what Avila accomplished so far this off-season – a couple of questionable arms for the starting rotation, a journeyman shortstop and a Rule 5 reliever, after showing shortstop Jose Iglesias, catcher James McCann and reliever Alex Wilson the door – there is little reason to expect anything but regression this season.

 

These Tigers have become so cheap they make the penny-pinching “moneyball” Oakland A’s look like spendthrifts. They remind me of the A’s in a previous incarnation in Kansas City, when they traded away all their best players – usually to the damned New York Yankees – in a shameful era of major-league baseball from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.

 

Little wonder attendance at Comerica Park has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 3,083,033 in 2013, to 1,856,970. That’s an average of about 15,000 per game.

 

In other words, Tigers fans have proven to be more discerning than the new generation of family ownership prophesied. They’ll show up and pay the big bucks to see a quality product. But when the roster is filled with overpaid has-beens and journeymen minor-leaguers, they prefer to stay home and watch it on TV. With a couple of guys in the broadcast booth couldn’t stand one another.

 

It’s disgraceful. And there appears to be no end in sight as the Ilitches continue to squeeze blood from a rock, like Mike Ilitch did when he rescued the team from that leech of an owner, Tom Monaghan.

 

Come to think of it, probably the best we can hope for is that somebody with a similar checkbook comes along and buys the team from the Ilitch family. We’re looking at you, Dan Gilbert.

 

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Matchup: Detroit Lions (5-8) at Buffalo Bills (4-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, New Era Field, Orchard Park, N.Y.

TV/radio: FOX/WQON 100.3-FM

Line: Buffalo by 2

 

Prediction: With two struggling offenses going against two really stout defenses, this is shaping up to be a game that could end 5-3. Bills rookie Josh Allen is one of the best running quarterbacks in the league, but he’s completing a pedestrian 54 percent of his passes. On the other side, the Lions have been surprising good at running the ball in the absence of injured back Kerryon Johnson. But Matthew Stafford has run out of receiving targets. Unless you really enjoy defensive football, this game will be pretty ugly. Bills 13, Lions 9

 

 

Need a nifty gift for that sports nut in your life? Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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December 10th, 2018

Will frustrating Lions

lose again, by winning?

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Can somebody please explain how the 4-8 Lions are favored by three points when they’re playing three time zones away – where they rarely win? Seriously, please?

Asking for a friend.

What’s that you say? It’s because the Arizona Cardinals are even worse. Because they’re statistically – and according to the standings – one of the NFL’s most inept teams. Because they have the worst offense in the NFL with a rookie quarterback struggling behind an offensive line without a single starter remaining from training camp.

Is that all you’ve got? Come on, these are the Detroit Lions, after all. They’ve already lost to San Francisco and the New York Jets. Dropping a deuce in the dessert would give them a rather unique hat trick, of sorts. The Cardinals, Niners and Jets rank, with Oakland, among the bottom four teams in the league.

Winning a meaningless game on Sunday will do nothing but hurt the Lions. They rank 27th overall, which means they’d get the sixth overall pick in next spring’s NFL draft. Which further means they’ll get an awfully good player – if they don’t screw it up.

They need a loss to keep up with No. 28 Jacksonville, which is already 4-9 after losing Thursday night’s game at Tennessee.

When it stops being a race to make the playoffs in the NFL, it becomes a race to the bottom, with teams jockeying for draft position. The Lions need a top-5 pick, where the playmakers are.

Except for draft position, this season has been a giant step backward for the franchise. The Lions would have to win out just to get to .500. With games at Buffalo, Minnesota and Green Bay on the schedule to close it out, can we get an LOL? Last season, Detroit wound up 9-7 – the worst possible scenario. Not only did the Lions not make the playoffs, they finished so high they didn’t draft until 20th overall.

Gees, no wonder they fired a perfectly good coach in Jim Caldwell. Actually, he looks awfully good today, doesn’t he?

With two meager offenses going up against a couple of fairly decent defenses – Arizona has some playmakers on the other side of the ball – this has the potential to be a real snooze fest, if you’re among the legions who prefer high-scoring football.

 

Matchup: Detroit Lions (4-8) at Arizona Cardinals (3-9)

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m., State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

TV/Radio: FOX, WQON (100.3-FM)

Line: Detroit minus-3

Prediction: Barely a few percentage points are keeping the Lions from being mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase, but true believers knew it was over for this team several weeks ago. The best thing Lions can hope for is that the Cardinals can swing another minor miracle like they did last week in a 20-17 upset of Green Bay, throwing one of the NFL’s most stable franchises into the kind of chaos all too familiar to Detroit football fans. But Arizona is really bad, so the Lions’ distant playoff chances remain on life support. Lions 17, Cardinals 13.

 

 

Need a nifty gift for that sports nut in your life? Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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December 5th, 2018

Six burning questions

on the sports of our time

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

With so much happening in sports in our corner of the world these days, it doesn’t seem possible to concentrate on a single issue. And so we pose a few pertinent questions – and offer some lukewarm answers – or at least a point of view worth debating.

 

1. The first three – undefeated Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame – were easy. But did the College Football Playoff selection committee make the right call in taking Oklahoma over Georgie and Ohio State to complete the national semifinals pairings?

 

A. Absolutely, on every count. While a small but hard-core minority insist that Georgia is the only team capable of actually beating Alabama – the Bulldogs led most of the way in both games, but lost both – they couldn’t have been a serious contender for the fourth seed, requiring Alabama to beat them for a third time to get to the national title game. But they deserved to finish fifth in the final poll, ahead of Ohio State. Like and Oklahoma, the Buckeyes are conference champs. And while their easy win over Michigan was impressive, their lopsided loss to a six-loss Purdue team and narrow wins over Maryland and Penn State were impossible to overlook. Oklahoma, meantime, avenged its only loss of the season, a slender defeat to Texas, by beating the Longhorns impressively in the Big 12 championships game. By pitting Oklahoma and Alabama against one another, we’ll be treated to a dual of two great quarterbacks – and the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy. Nicely done.

 

 

2. Heading into Monday night’s game with visiting Oklahoma City, the Pistons had won five straight home games, including an impressive victory over Golden State on the second of back-to-back games at the Pizz-Arena. That put them in fourth place in the NBA’s feeble Eastern Conference. Just how good are these Pistons?

 

A. We’re about to find out, as they run through a gauntlet of several of the better teams in the NBA. Two nights after the win over Golden State, in their third game in four nights, the Pistons laid an egg against Oklahoma City, losing by 27 points. So far, at 13-8, the Pistons are playing above expectations. But now comes a trip to Milwaukee on Wednesday, followed by visits from Philadelphia on Friday and New Orleans on Sunday. Then it’s on the road again for a rematch with the 76ers followed by Charlotte two nights later. Let’s re-visit this question when these games are in the rear-view mirror.

 

 

3. After one victory in their first 10 games and languishing at or near the bottom of the NHL’s 31 teams for more than a month, the Red Wings stand even at 12-12-3, tied for 21st and just two

games back of Montreal for the second wildcard spot in the East. Can they sustain a serious shot at the playoffs over the remaining three quarters of the season?

 

A. At the risk of repeating ourselves, let’s hold off on this one, too. Like the Pistons, the Wings are running their own gauntlet. The won at Boston on Saturday, a signature win for the way they refused to back down and took the battle to the Bruins in their own building. A night later at home, against a very good Colorado team that sits fourth overall in the NHL standings, the Wings trailed 1-0 and were threatening to tie it in the closing seconds before an empty-net goal iced the game for the Avs. But again, the Wings defended their home ice admirably, dropping the gloves twice in a chippy contest reminiscent of every game these teams played from the mid-1990s to the turn of the century. Now comes NHL-leading Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and a visit to third overall Toronto on Thursday. These four games should be a good gauge for the young Wings, who probably aren’t good enough to seriously compete for a playoff spot – yet they’re much better than the bottom-feeding team they’ve been for the past two seasons.

 

4. Where do the hapless Detroit Lions – I know, I know, that’s redundant – go from here?

 

A. Silly question. South, of course. After more than six decades of futility, we’re pretty familiar with this act. How frustrating is it to see teams like Chicago rise from the bottom of the division standings for a few years and suddenly see them rise to the top in rather dominating fashion, like the Bears are doing this season? Seems to happen everywhere around the league. Except in Detroit. Disgraceful isn’t a strong-enough word.

 

5. What does Urban Meyer’s resignation at Ohio State mean for college football.

 

A. It’s doubtful that, as earlier speculated, if Meyer had made the announcement before Sunday it would have had any impact on the CFP selection committee. Would have been a nice parting gift, but not warranted – just like the College Football Coaches Poll giving retiring Nebraska coach Tom Osborne half of the national championship that Michigan deserved after an unbeaten 1997 season. But for one man, Meyer’s departure should be huge. I couldn’t say it any better than today’s headline in the Detroit Free Press: “Merry Christmas, Jim Harbaugh!”

 

 

6. Which team – Michigan or Michigan State – has the potential to go farther in the NCAA tournament next spring?

 

A. Talk about burying the lead. This might be the best question of the bunch. With close losses to then top-ranked Kansas and unranked Louisville, the Spartans are 7-2 and ranked 10th in the land. But they’ve have watched unbeaten Michigan (8-0) pass them in the rankings. Michigan, last season’s national runner-up, is ranked No. 5. Wolverines coach John Beilein is finally getting credit long overdue for being one of the great recruiters and coaches in America. And his “underdog” teams have made some impressive runs in the NCAA tournament in recent years. Spartans coach Tom Izzo’s reputation as “Mr. March” has taken some hits over the same period. Both

these teams are really good, and their head-to-head matchups should be must-see events. But if you put a gun to my head, I like Michigan’s chances for a long run in the tournament a bit better than I like the Michigan State’s.

 

 

Need a nifty gift for that sports nut in your life? Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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December 4th, 2018

Lions slide picks up the pace

against revved-up Rams

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

The Detroit Lions are, face it, going the wrong way fast. From mediocrity or slightly better at 9-7 the past two seasons, they’ve taken a giant step backward – from bad to worse in a hurry – under first-year coach Matt Patricia.

 

He might be a rocket scientist – and frankly, all those stories about his lofty engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute feel now to be a bit embellished, eh? – but he’s proven very quickly that he has a long, long way to go to establish his credentials as a head coach in the NFL.

 

(To be perfectly fair, even his mentor in New England, Bill Belichick was a bust in his first NFL head coaching gig in Cleveland, and he was 5-11 his first season in New England. So maybe Patricia is on track after all.)

 

So this mess of a season is on General Manager Bob Quinn just as much or more. Quinn couldn’t show coach Jim Caldwell the door quick enough. Nope, 9-7 just doesn’t meet the standards of this new Lions management team hired by Martha Ford – who, to be fair again, seems to have a better handle on how to run an NFL franchise than her late husband ever did.

 

According to Quinn, when he fired Caldwell, the expectation for this team is to transcend mediocrity, qualify for the playoffs and compete for a Super Bowl. Which begs the question: So how’s that coaching change working out so far?

 

They’re 1-4 in their last five, thanks only to a gift from mistake-prone Carolina two Sunday’s ago. And now comes the team with the best record in the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams – off a bye week. Oddsmakers have the Lions a 10½-point underdog – at home!

 

If – and that is huge if – they can eke three wins out of their final four games, they would finish 7-9. Not likely, three of those games are on the road, and their lone home game is against Minnesota. They are destined to finish last in the NFC North and a long, long way from qualifying for the playoffs.

 

It’s disheartening. Demoralizing. And to hard-core Lions fans, this season should be infuriating. They deserve better than this. Then again, we’ve been saying that for more than 60 years. It’s pathetic.

 

Matchup: LA Rams (10-1) at Detroit Lions (4-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m., Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/Radio: FOX, WQON (100.3-FM)

Line: Rams minus-10½

 

Prediction: Rams are coming east to play a 1 p.m. game. Bettors typically like the home teams in these games, and the line keeps growing in Detroit’s favor (up from opening at minus 8.5). Who knows how much LA will be favored by at kickoff. Doesn’t matter. This is a sucker bet. No way, no how can the Lions’ defense contain LA’s offense. And the way quarterback Matthew Stafford has been playing these days, it’s doubtful Detroit can score enough to even keep the game interesting beyond halftime. Prediction: Rams 28, Lions 10

 

. . .

 

The envelope please:

 

College Football Championship Games

 

SEC: Alabama 27, Georgia 21

Big 12: Oklahoma 48, Texas 35

Big 10: Ohio State 49, Northwestern 21

 

College Football Playoffs: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma

 

As impressive as the Buckeyes were in their win over Michigan, putting up 62 points (and it could have been much more) against the nation’s top defense, their lopsided loss at Purdue will be hard for the committee to overlook. Meantime, Oklahoma has a chance to avenge its only loss, narrowly, to the team that beat them, Texas, early in the season at the Red River Shootout in Dallas. The only thing that might change the committee’s thinking a bit is if Ohio State coach Urban Meyer announces his retirement, for health reasons. A No. 4 ranking – and final shot at Alabama nemesis Nick Saban – would be a nice parting gift. Ohio State to the Rose Bowl, Michigan to a New Year’s Day bowl game.

 

 

Need a nifty gift for that sports nut in your life? Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery, and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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November 27th , 2018

It’s a lot quieter out there after

Wolverines fans go into hiding

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Social media tends to bring out the best – and far too often the worst – in sports fans. Various platforms and chatrooms give them a place to meet and exchanges ideas and opinions. Sometimes the opinions are strong or snooty, sometimes simply moronic. And that’s where it tends to unravel and resemble a third-grade hissing contest.

 

And sometimes, when the team you’ve been bragging about all season long lays an embarrassing egg before a national TV audience, those voices go silent – the loudest and most inane among the being the first to disappear.

 

So it was Saturday evening after the University of Michigan, favored by four points heading into Columbus to play Ohio State University, lost, 62-39. The best defense in the land, at least statistically, gave up the most points the Buckeyes have ever scored in this beleaguered rivalry.

 

“The Game,” they call it – those out-of-touch fans and wishful TV commercials hyping No. 4 Michigan at No. 10 Ohio State a full week before kickoff. One of college football’s greatest rivalries? Uh, last century maybe. Not anymore.

 

Not when one side has dominated the series like Ohio State has, winning the last seven straight and 13 of the last 14. Since Michigan’s national championship season in 1997, the Wolverines are 2-16 against the Buckeyes. Where the hell is John Cooper when you need him?

 

This year was supposed to be different, and oh didn’t we hear enough of that across social media all week long? In his fourth season, coach Jim Harbaugh had his best team by far with a gunslinger quarterback, a thousand-yard rusher who guaranteed a Michigan victory, and a lockdown defense whose top players were talking – and Tweeting – nonstop about their “revenge tour.”

 

Then they flipped a coin, kicked the football and played a game. Not The Game. Just a regular, old-fashioned ass-whipping of a game neither side will soon forget.

 

And then? Only the sound of silence. A few hours after the game, this meme started making the rounds:

 

 

So fast and so far did they run for cover that I didn’t even see any snarky comments from Michigan fans about Michigan State’s come-from-behind win over a horrific awful 1-11 Rutgers team that nearly earned its first Big Ten win of the season. The Spartans’ win was nearly as embarrassing at Michigan’s loss.

 

Saturday’s loss prevented Michigan (10-2, 8-1 in the Big Ten) from playing in its first-ever conference championship game against Western Conference winner Northwestern. (Ahem, Michigan State has been there three times since the game debuted in 2011; this will be Ohio State’s fourth appearance.)

 

Wishful thinkers among Michigan fans – and they are legion, if quiet these days – are hoping that the Wolverines can come out of Saturday’s pile of dung smelling like roses. But their shot at the Rose Bowl is remote, at best.

 

For starters, they have to fight a gag reflex and actually cheer for Ohio State (11-1, 8-1) to beat Northwestern – and hope the No. 6 Buckeyes have shown enough College Football Playoff committee to jump to the into the playoff picture at No. 4, where Michigan was before Saturday’s kickoff.

 

Not likely. Behind undefeated Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, all 12-0 and likely to stay that way, the Buckeyes aren’t even the best 11-1 team out there. No. 4 Georgia is likely to fall back after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. And if they happen to win a close game, ‘Bama may not even fall out of the playoffs. And Oklahoma is widely believed to be the better candidate for that fourth spot either way.

 

We’ll know soon enough. The playoff pairings and all bowl games will be revealed on Dec. 2.

 

Meantime, it’s awfully quiet out there on that inter-web thing lately – at least in these parts.

 

 

Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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November 23rd, 2018

Intriguing Michigan-OSU game on

tap after Lions left for dead again

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Now that the Lions are back on track for a top-10 draft pick after that little hiccup of a victory against a generous Carolina team, we can turn our attention to more serious matters – like can Jim Harbaugh finally get his first win against Ohio State on Saturday.

 

The Lions, led (and we use this term here loosely) by quarterback Matthew Stafford, paid forward the generosity against the Chicago Bears. With the nation watching while the turkey was browning in the oven, Stafford continued his horrendous season by tossing two interceptions in the closing minutes of a 23-16 loss to the Chicago Bears.

 

Led by backup quarterback Chase Daniel, the Bears scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to come from behind and pad their lead in the NFC North. The Lions fell to 4-7 and were all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase.

 

Another sorry-ass season down the tubes with an overpaid quarterback on the wrong side of 30. He’s amid his second season of a five-year, $135 million deal. That’s an average of $27 million a season. For this.

 

It’s beyond demoralizing

 

Think about it: The Lions have to win out – fat chance – just to get to 9-7, where they finished the past two seasons under the coach they fired. Sorry, but Jim Caldwell looks pretty good right now.

 

So does any quarterback the Lions would draft with that top-10 pick next spring.

 

--

The envelope, please:

 

Matchup: No. 4 Michigan (10-1, 8-0 Big Ten) at No. 10 Ohio State (10-1, 7-1).

Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio.

TV/radio: Fox; WQON (100.3-FM).

Line: Wolverines by 4½.

 

Prediction: Time for this to become a real rivalry again. Hard to call it that when one team has won 13 of the last 14 meetings. (Talk about “little brother”) This is Harbaugh’s best chance to get his first win, as a coach, against the Buckeyes. He quarterbacked the Wolverines under coach Bo Schembechler when this truly was the best rivalry in college football. It’s been miles from that for nearly two decades. This is the weakest OSU team in coach Urban Meyer’s tenure there. A loss at Purdue? Giving up more than 500 yards in total offense in an OT win at Maryland last week? Yep. Now comes Shea Patterson and a revved-up Michigan offense, while the Buckeyes

and their pass-happy offense must contend with Michigan’s defense – the best in the land. But let’s not get carried away. The last time the Buckeyes were underdogs at home, vs. Wisconsin in 2011, they won. And they last time they were underdogs to Michigan at home, in 2004, they also won, handily, 37-21. Not this time. The Wolverines finally make their first appearance in the Big Ten’s championship game. Michigan 34, Ohio State 17.

 

--

 

Matchup: Michigan State (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) vs. Rutgers (1-10, 0-8)

Kickoff: 4 p.m., Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing.

TV/radio: Fox

Line: MSU by 27.

 

Prediction: This should be interesting – a team without an offense against a team that can’t play defense. Incapable of passing with any effectiveness behind either Rocky Lombardi or Brian Lewerke, the Spartans still should be able to dominate the game by pounding the ball on the ground. And seriously, the way the Spartans play defense all they’ll need is a field goal to win this one. Michigan State 27, Rutgers 0

 

 

Keith Gave’s book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

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November 14th, 2018

Fire Blashill? Lose for Hughes?

Discerning Wings fans know better

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Two minutes in the penalty box for anyone who has suggested the Red Wings ought to fire coach Jeff Blashill.

 

And game misconduct and match penalties to all those who took their misguided campaigns to social media.

 

Here’s why: When the Red Wings awoke this morning after their remarkably impressive 6-1 victory Tuesday night over visiting Arizona, they were just three points away from a playoff berth. After a 1-7-2 start – easily explained by the fact that they were deploying four rookies on the blue line and two more up front, they have reeled off seven wins in an eight-game stretch, including three straight in which they overcame two-goal deficits to win in overtime. Twice by shootout.

 

Arizona, for the record, skated into Little Caesars Arena with the third best defense in the NHL, allowing just 2.44 goals per game. And the Wings toyed with them in a way that suggests their offense isn’t as beleaguered as we thought. After scoring just 21 goals in their first 10 games, they’ve posted 32 in their past eight.

 

Rays of light. Signs of life and hope and perhaps even promise from a franchise in the early stages of a rebuild.

 

Blashill deserves credit here. Not only should he keep his job, if his team even stays in contention for a playoff spot through the regular-season’s end in April he should be a leading candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year. And then rewarded with a new contract.

 

Yeah, Joel Quenneville is out there. One of the best coaches in the game’s history is a free agent after being fired by Chicago, where he led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles. But like other coaches with his credentials, he’d more than likely thumb his nose at an opportunity in Detroit, preferring a club with enough talent to make a serious playoff run.

 

The Wings aren’t there yet. But they’re coming. In large part that is due to what Blashill has done with this team and how he is developing his young players – Dylan Larkin foremost among them. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.

 

The captain-in-waiting, Larkin has emerged as a bona-fide franchise player, the difference-maker they thought Wings management thought they didn’t have. While he’d prefer to defer to the veterans, Blashill has learned when and how to apply the sometimes not-so-subtle pressure, as in anchoring Justin Abdelkader to the bench until he decides he wants to play like he’s capable.

 

He’s gone to the whip with Anthony Mantha and Andres Athanasiou, two guys whose talent matches their immense capacity to frustrate coaches and teammates with their inconsistent work ethic. Both have responded. It doesn’t always work that way.

 

Change the coach? Sorry, but neither Scotty Bowman nor Toe Blake could have done much better in the first 10 games of the season. And neither could do much better than Blashill now that he has his veteran defensemen back and relatively healthy.

 

And most of those rookies who got their NHL baptisms under fire are gone, too. Down to Grand Rapids for more development.

 

Only two rookies remain. Two. Really. Good. Ones.

 

Defenseman Dennis Cholowski and forward Mike Rasmussen each scored impressive goals in Tuesday night’s rout of the Coyotes. Cholowski rifled the puck into the far upper corner through traffic from about 35 feet, and Rasmussen scored on a power play from his knees in front of the goal crease after he was cross-checked from behind. He redirected a Dylan Larkin pass from the corner, they kind of goal Wings fans could celebrate frequently over the next decade or so.

 

None of the all-hands-on-deck firepower the Wings have showcased over these last eight games would be possible without sound goaltending, and both Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier have provided it.

 

Bernier’s career-best 49-save performance in the come-from-behind shootout victory at Carolina on Saturday (thanks to two third-period goals from Mantha) was followed by a near-miss shutout by Howard.

 

In other words, the Wings are playing some of their best hockey in Blashill’s four seasons in Detroit, and now is the time for patience as this young nucleus develops and GM Ken Holland and his scouts continue to find pieces to build around it.

 

Meantime, all those “Lose for Hughes” campaigners actually hoping for a Wings season so dismal that Detroit finishes last in the NHL for a 20 percent chance to draft center Jack Hughes next June? To the showers with all of you. You’re suspended for the remainder of the season.

 

 

Keith Gave’s new book, “The Russian Five, A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage,” is available on Amazon.com or wherever books are sold.

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

November 5th, 2018

Tate trade signals refreshing new

forward-looking strategy by Lions

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

While it’s difficult enough to imagine the Detroit Lions visiting Minnesota on Sunday and coming away with a victory, it feels next to impossible that they could succeed without their most dangerous playmaker over the last four seasons.

 

Golden Tate, we hardly knew ye.

 

Actually, we knew him well enough to know where the ball was likely to go in critical third-down situations. Especially late in games when quarterback Matthew Stafford was engineering a comeback drive.

 

But Tate is gone now. He will be in a Philadelphia jersey on Sunday, fielding passes from Carson Wentz as the struggling Eagles try to defend their NFC title. Tate, Detroit’s leading receiver with 416 receptions over the last four-plus seasons – 411 of them thrown by Stafford for a total of 4695 yards and 29 touchdowns, was traded just before Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline for a third-round pick.

 

In the short term, it’s hard to embrace this deal. But I’d hate it even more if the Lions hadn’t messed the bed against Seattle last Sunday and headed to Minnesota with a 4-3 record, instead of the reverse.

 

The move was widely viewed as the Lions throwing in the towel on a season in which they have played awfully well against some good teams they’ve beaten and horrible, especially at home, in games they were comfortably favored. But I don’t see it that way.

 

This was the kind of strategic move that good clubs make, clubs that are confident enough about their future that they don’t hang on to productive players until it’s too late. Clubs like the New England Patriots, where Lions General Manager Bob Quinn apprenticed before coming to Detroit.

 

The Pats are in his DNA, and he was wise enough to see that Tate – however productive he has been to date this season – is on the wrong side of 30. And as a free agent after this season he will be looking to be paid market value at a time when his production will begin to drift south.

 

In other words, while it’s likely to hurt in the short term, the trade makes sense for the long term. Which must be a refreshing way of doing business for a club that has operated under a triage system for what seems like decades.

 

--

 

The envelope please:

Michigan State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) at Maryland (5-3, 3-2)

Noon, Saturday, Maryland Stadium, College Park, Maryland

ESPN2

Spartans minus-2½.

 

Prediction: The injury depleted Spartans are on the road against a team divided after an emotional week in which their suspended coach was reinstated one day and fired the next following the preseason death of one of his players from heat exhaustion. How will Maryland react? Who will quarterback Michigan State? It’s fairly easy to defend any kind of prediction you dare to make in this game. But what the heck: Michigan State 20, Maryland 17.

--

No. 5 Michigan (7-1, 5-0) vs. No. 14 Penn State (6-2, 3-2)

3:45 p.m., Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

ESPN; WQON 100.3-FM

Wolverines minus-10 1/2

 

Prediction: The best college defense in the land enjoyed a bye week after thoroughly dismantling archrival Michigan State the week before, and it’ll be loaded for bear against a team that embarrassed – and disrespected them last season. Following Michigan’s 49-10 win two years ago at the Big House, the Nittany Lions built a 42-13 lead in Happy Valley last season – and dared to try to add to it in the closing seconds rather than take a knee. This game could get chippy, but it will end one-sided again. Michigan 34, Penn State 10

 

--

 

Detroit Lions (3-4) at Minnesota

1 p.m. Sunday, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

FOX; WQON (100.3-FM)

Vikings minus 4.5

 

Prediction: Much of the pregame buzz is how the Lions will fare without Tate, but Stafford still should have enough weapons to win with in the air Marvin Jones, Jr. and Kenny Golladay, along with TJ Jones and Brandon Powell, and on the ground with Kerryon Johnson and LaGarrette Blount and. The greater question is how the Lions can contain the Vikings air force with former Michigan State star Kirk Cousins and his favorite target, Adam Thielen. Detroit’s secondary –

allegedly its most effective unit – will have to play much better than it did last week against Seattle for the Lions to have a prayer in this game. Minnesota 20, Detroit 19

 

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

 

-30

 

November 1st, 2018

 

Fire the coach? Careful what

you wish for, Red Wings fans

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Writer

 

As bad as the start of this Red Wings season has been – and we’re talking historically bad – it is delusional to the point of absurdity to think that a change behind the bench would make the slightest difference.

 

An encore performance featuring Scotty Bowman wouldn’t transform this roster from what it is: a bottom-five club in a 31-team league. One that may be improving but still has far too many missing pieces to make a serious run at returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

This is a team lacking a transformational player – a difference-maker in the mold of a Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov or Nicklas Lidstrom. It’s missing a top-line center, though Dylan Larkin is doing yeoman’s work playing above his pay grade. It doesn’t have a true top-pair on defense; most of its defensemen are threes or fours, at best, though rookie Dennis Cholowski looks like he could develop into top-pair guy.

 

And Detroit’s goaltending, even with starter Jimmy Howard playing at the top of his game and giving his team at least a fighting chance to win most nights, is average at best compared to the rest of the NHL.

 

Absolutely none of this is the fault of coach Jeff Blashill – yet he’s the guy likely to take the fall if the losing continues. A good coach in the wrong place at the wrong time with a franchise that has been, and this is hard to say, borderline mismanaged since the early 2000s

 

Hiring the wrong coach after Bowman retired in 2002, probably cost the Wings at least one more Stanley Cup. Virtually the same team of Hall of Famers that won it that year were swept in the first round by Anaheim a year later.

 

Then came more than a decade of resoundingly poor drafting by a team that was once a poster child of the “build-through-the-draft” mantra. There followed the compulsion to reward too many average players with lengthy, no-trade contracts from an over-generous owner who thought he could spend his way to the top of the pyramid even an era of a salary cap designed to undermine that blueprint.

 

Much of the blame lies at the doorstep of General Manager Ken Holland. He built and oversaw a scouting staff that, aside from its European wing, grew fat and lazy, resting on its laurels. The few assets the draft produced were traded away at the deadline in deals not so much to win another Stanley Cup but simply to make the playoffs and keep alive a streak that stretched to 25 memorable years.

 

Holland made some horrific free-agent acquisitions. We’re talking about you, Stephen Weiss (signed after please by then-coach Mike Babcock and ultimately bought out of his awful contract).

 

The draft in recent years – after a major overhaul of the scouting staff – has produced a few more NHL regulars, but none of them has been the kind of difference-maker this team so desperately needs. Filip Zadina, the sixth overall pick in the June draft who is now playing in Grand Rapids, may prove to be that guy, but it’s far too early to know.

 

It’s certainly not Anthony (Poke and Hope) Mantha, the 20th overall pick in 2013. Larkin the 15th overall pick in 2014, the 20th overall pick in 2016, look like important pieces of the nucleus for years to come, but neither are transformational players. And it’s far too early to tell if Evgeniy Svechnikov, the 19th overall selection in 2015, can even be an NHL regular; he’s missing what looks like a full season of important development after recent knee surgery.

 

Bottom line: Blashill was dealt a very bad hand after succeeding Babcock, who saw the ugly writing on the wall and got out of Detroit while the getting was good. Yet when the fan base begins to howl as it is these days – and more important when people stop buying tickets and showing up for games at Little Caesars Arena – changing the coach is less dictated by strategy than it is by public relations.

 

Never mind that a new coach will make no more difference than swapping red seats out for black so the place doesn’t look so barren on TV. It’s all about the optics. And the optics are not good.

 

In this respect, this season continues to be alarmingly similar to the 1985-86 season, which started out 1-8-1 – after the Wings spent millions of dollars on eight free agents (three from NHL teams and five out of college) and orchestrated Petr Klima’s defection out of Czechoslovakia. It was enough to earn the club a cover story on Sports Illustrated, which predicted a Stanley Cup title for Detroit.

 

By Christmas, the Wings ranked last among the NHL’s 21 teams by a large margin, and the team was the laughingstock of the league. That didn’t sit well with owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, who demanded a change. First-year coach Harry Neale was fired, mercifully, after compiling an 8-23-4 record over 35 games.

 

The Wings brought in retired defenseman Brad Park to replace Neale – and it got even worse.

 

My point: Careful what you wish for. Jeff Blashill got more wins out of this team last year than anyone he works for expected, which is why he wasn’t fired then and why the Wings are reluctant to part ways with him now. Aside from a couple of stinkers on a two-game swing through Boston and Montreal, and sleepwalking through two periods last week at home against Carolina, the Wings have been far more competitive than anyone might have predicted for a team relying on 5-6 rookies, including four on the blue line in several games.

 

I’m not touting Blashill as Coach of the Year. I’m just suggesting a bit more patience for a guy with a proven reputation of developing young players – which is precisely what this team needs more than anything.

 

In that way, the coach is making a profound difference.

 

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

-30-

October 29th, 2018:

 

Hockey mourns passing John Ziegler, former

Wings exec who rose to president of the NHL

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

In September 1985, from a pay phone at McMorran Arena in Port Huron where the Red Wings were holding their training camp, I dialed NHL headquarters in New York, hoping to get a comment from the league about its investigation into tampering charges filed against Detroit by three rival clubs.

 

Trying something like that today would require negotiating with several levels in the league’s public relations department, then scheduling an appointment for a five-minute telephone call – maybe 10 days or two weeks along in the calendar.

 

But the NHL then was different.

 

I dialed league headquarters at 12:50 p.m. – in retrospect a bad time since it was over the lunch hour.

 

The phone on the other end rang twice, and a man answered with a certain authority. “National Hockey League,” he said.

 

I was a rookie covering the league, and maybe I didn’t know any better. So I went for broke. I was hoping to speak with the president of the league.

 

“Hello,” I said, identifying myself by name as a representative of the Detroit Free Press. “May I speak with John Ziegler?”

 

And with a second’s hesitation, the voice at the other end answered, “speaking.”

 

With everyone gone to lunch, apparently, the president of the NHL was manning the phones.

 

That’s what kind of a mom-and-pop operation the NHL was, even in the mid-1980s, a 21-team league that would, under Ziegler’s gentle maneuvering, become 24.

 

I recall and share this anecdote on the passing of Ziegler today. He was 84.

 

A Grosse Pointe native who earned his law degree at the University of Michigan, Ziegler served as a Wings executive before he was named league president in in 1977. He served until 1992.

 

Though a lightning rod for criticism, especially from Canadian corners (even for his fashion choices, always favoring yellow neckties), I always found Ziegler to be honest, cooperative and, most importantly, always accessible.

 

--

 

The envelope, please

 

Matchup: Michigan State (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) vs. Purdue (4-3, 3-1).

Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing.

TV/radio: ESPN

Line: Spartans by 1½.

 

Prediction: The injury-riddled Spartans are worse off than they were against a superior Michigan club after losing their lone playmaker, receiver Felton Davis III, for the season with a torn Achilles heel. Meantime, the Boilermakers are coming off a thorough thrashing of then second-ranked Ohio State. This game feels like a mismatch the wrong way, though MSU somehow is the favored team. Don’t buy it. The Spartans are just too banged up to reverse their fortunes from a week ago. And the Boilermakers are too talented for such a letdown after their upset of the Buckeyes. Purdue 24, MSU 13

 

--

 

Matchup: Detroit Lions (3-3) vs. Seattle Seahawks (3-3)

Kickoff: 1 p.m., Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/Radio: Fox/WQON (100.3-FM)

Line: Lions by 3½

Prediction: The Lions are coming off perhaps their best all-around game in many years in a won on the road at Miami that followed a victory over division rival Green Bay the week before at home. The Seahawks are coming off a bye week, healthy and revved up after a 27-3 win over Oakland the previous week. This game likely will come down to which team can run the ball best. And after the Lions acquired elite nose tackle Damon (Snacks) from the New York Giants for, incredibly, a fifth-round draft pick, I like Detroit’s chances of slowing down the Seahawks’ run game just enough. . . to cover. Detroit 24, Seattle 20

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

 

-30-

October 22nd, 2018:

 

Wolverines won a big game,

but lost a ton of respect

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Heading into the Michigan-Michigan State game Saturday, I suggested that the mentally toughest team would win, as it happens in most rivalry games.

 

I was wrong. Michigan won the game in impressive fashion on the field, deploying the nation’s best offense against an injury-riddled Spartans’ offense in a 21-7 victory in stormy East Lansing.

 

Turns out, by their actions before the game and their words after it ended, that this Michigan Wolverines program is mentally challenged – from the coach on down.

 

It was, in a word, disgraceful.

 

For as well as Michigan played in this game en route to its first victory on the road against a ranked opponent in 12 years – 12 bleeping years – the lasting highlight of the game, the one played across America, was that of Devin Bush scuffing the Spartan logo at mid-field like a 2-year-old at Walmart (chief outfitter for the all those passionate Michigan fans who didn’t graduate high school) whose mother wouldn’t buy him a lollipop.

 

Naturally, he was celebrated on social media like a guy who will never have to buy a drink in Ann Arbor ever again.

 

Then, as widely expected, the Wolverines went out and won the game handily, rising to No. 5 in both national polls – a deserving ranking.

 

Of course, going into the game, Michigan State’s chances of winning were between slim and none – and slim hit the showers when receiver Felton Davis III’s Spartans career ended with a torn Achilles heel before halftime.

 

Davis was the lone big-play threat for Michigan State. Quarterback Brian Lewerke played injured. Most of his other receivers were in street clothes because of injuries.

 

Michigan didn’t need the nation’s best defense in this game, but it showed why it is, limiting the then 24th-ranked Spartans to 94 total yards offense, just 15 on the ground. It was as sound an ass-whipping as we’ve seen in this rivalry for many years.

 

And for as much as they captivated us with their on-field performance, the Wolverines shamed themselves with their commentary following the game.

 

It began with Chase (Goldilocks) Winovich’s sideline interview, when he regurgitated the weary “little brother” remark that first surfaced 11 years ago, when Michigan was actually dominating this series. In the 10 years following, the Wolverines won twice.

 

Their actions and comments before and after Saturday’s game were those of a team not used to winning so much.

 

Act like you’ve been there before, as the saying goes. But that’s easier said than done – when you haven been there before. That’s what losing eight of 10 to an archrival does to a program.

 

Afterward, sadly, instead of praising his team heading into a bye week and just moving on, coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t resist fanning the flames by accusing Spartans coach Mark Dantonio of instigating the pregame scuffle at mid-field.

 

In their longstanding tradition, Michigan State players, arms locked and stretched the width of the field, walked from one goal line to another.

 

Michigan State came out late. The Wolverines shouldn’t have been on the field. Nobody told us to leave, they said. A Michigan State trainer tried to get them off the field. He said, he said. . .

 

At midfield, the Spartans encountered Bush and a couple of teammates. Words were exchanged and, allegedly, one Wolverine was clothes-lined and another had his ear buds pulled out. After the Spartans passed, Bush went to work with his cleats in the turn, defacing the Spartans.

 

Character.

 

For the record, I was just as critical of Michigan State when the Spartans planted their flag at midfield of the Big House after a win, and Dantonio winked at it.

 

This rivalry is too good – both of these programs are too good – for this kind of petty, shameful behavior that distracts from the kind of football we most enjoy. What it desperately needs now is a huge dose of sportsmanship, the kind where two great teams in the land meet, play their guts out and, when it’s over, meet at midfield and shake hands like honorable men.

 

That will never happen, of course. Certainly not with then guys coaching these young men.

 

Frankly, they deserve better. And so do we.

 

 

Follow on twitter @KeithGave

 

 

-30-

 

October 16th, 2018:

Bombs away? Seriously? Pistons need

Drummond inside where he belongs

(And Red Wings need to keep losing?)

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

With the Red Wings off to a historically poor start with no indication that things will improve any time soon, our longing for playoff action next spring rest with the Pistons. And that’s not so far-fetched.

 

With what appears to be a healthy lineup for the first time in forever, new coach Dwayne Casey running the bench and a wide-open field in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, we should expect nothing less than at least one round in the post-season.

 

Who cares that virtually no one outside Detroit is giving the Pistons the remotest shot at the playoffs? These are new and different times.

 

They begin, of course, with Casey, the first-year coach, and his unique knack for getting the most from his players. And his order of business, it seemed, was finding which of Andre Drummond’s buttons to push.

 

Drummond had a monster preseason, but too much was made of Casey giving one of the best inside players in the game the green light to fire at will from long range.

 

Some history: The 25-year-old, 7-foot power forward has never made more than two – count ’em, two – 3-pointers in a season. He has never tried multiple 3s in a single game. Last season, he threw up 11 shots from beyond the arc. He missed every one of them.

 

Yet he began this season with a tacit endorsement from Casey to fire away if he gets a good look – doubtless Casey’s way of embracing Drummond’s immense talent and convincing him how important he is to the success of the team. It also might have had something to do with Drummond telling reporters he was working hard in the off-season on that part of his game. He said he was making 200 3s a day during the summer.

 

So Casey said go for it. And Drummond did.

 

In five preseason games, he took 11 3s. He missed every one of them.

 

One of these games, of course, he’ll make a big one. Maybe it&

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