After a huge, prime-time victory over Notre Dame, the Michigan Wolverines were flying high. They appeared to be clear favorites to win the Legends division and strong contenders to reach a BCS bowl. Quarterback Devin Gardner was gaining steam as a Heisman trophy candidate.
Then Akron came to the Big House.
Favored by 37 points, the Wolverines needed the Zips to fail to score on two plays from inside the 5-yard line in the game’s final seconds to escape with a victory. Though no Wolverine will remember the game proudly, none should be as anxious to forget it as Gardner, whose decision-making was nothing short of disastrous.
What to make of this team, and especially its starting quarterback? Was the near-catastrophe of Sept. 14 an anomaly or an omen?
And how many times does this program need to learn the lesson that it cannot just show up at Michigan Stadium on Saturday and roll over its opposition?
True, the regime has changed since the unfathomable loss to Appalachian State in 2007 and what would have otherwise been an unfathomable loss to Toledo in 2008. Coach Brady Hoke and Co. should still have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes.
“This isn’t high school,” All-America tackle and team captain Taylor Lewan said at a news conference a few days after the game. “Everyone is good.”
This, it would seem, is a message the team could have used before the Akron contest.
“We let (the expectations) get to our head,” tackle Michael Schofield said. “Every team that we face, they’re playing Michigan. They’re going to bring their best.”
It was clear that the team has taken the near-loss to heart. Hoke put his players through a padded and helmeted practice on the Sunday following the game.
“We want to improve every time we take the field,” Hoke said. “Since we missed that day (the day of the Akron game), we made up for it (on Sunday).”
“We were all upset,” linebacker James Ross III said. “We didn’t give our best effort throughout the week. We want to go back out there and show what we’re really made of.”
These are the types of things Hoke and his players have to say, and they represent the types of things they’ll need to do. There is no ambiguity about the expectations at Michigan; winners are glorified, losers are cast aside.
But improving its preparation and effort will not guarantee the team success if the man under center plays as he did against Akron. It is easy to believe that the team will do better in most aspects of the game than it did against the Zips; the opposite is barely possible.
Assuming that Gardner will make similar strides requires a bit more faith. His mistakes against Akron stemmed from trying to do too much. Will he be more patient and trusting as the schedule gets harder? For the winningest program in the history of college football, this is a key question; the fate of its season hinges on the answer.
Contact Sports Writer Eric Garant at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @garanteric.
By ERIC GARANT
By the thinnest layer of the skin on their teeth, Michigan survived a wild second half in this afternoon’s game against the Akron Zips, winning 28-24. Entering as 37-point favorites, the Wolverines needed a last-second goal-line stand to avoid defeat.
“This was embarrassing for the University of Michigan football team,” All-America tackle Taylor Lewan said. “We’ve worked too hard to have games like this.”
An improvement across the board will be necessary for the Wolverines to be competitive in the conference and national races. But all other concerns are secondary now, to the play of quarterback Devin Gardner. No matter how well everyone else plays, Michigan will ultimately go only as far as Gardner can take it.
“I made a lot of bad decisions. I probably played my worst game ever,” Gardner said.
“I’ll be thinking all night why he made a couple of the decisions he made,” coach Brady Hoke said.
After an opening drive that saw the team go straight down the field for a touchdown with two long passes to tight end Devin Funchess, the Wolverines sputtered in every way for the rest of the contest.
The first of two shanks by punter Matt Wile set Akron up with good field position for the Zips’ third drive, which resulted in a field goal to make the score 7-3, Michigan.
And then began a series of poor decisions by quarterback Gardner in the second quarter. Gardner, whom Hoke has said thinks that he is Superman sometimes, played like a deity against Notre Dame last week. But today, the Michigan quarterback was thoroughly human.
Deep in Akron territory as the period began, Gardner lost a fumble after he hesitatingly kept the ball on the option.
After a Blake Countess interception gave the Wolverines the ball in the red zone, Gardner handed it right back with an interception of his own.
Starting on his own 28 yard-line with 43 seconds left in the half, Gardner inexplicably tried to jam a throw into Funchess through heavy traffic. The pass was tipped and intercepted by Zip linebacker Justin March, again setting Akron up with an opportunity to score. It was a hyper-aggressive decision in a situation that called for more caution.
The Zips failed to move the ball, however, and missed a 55-yard field goal to end an ugly half in which neither team consistently showed any rhythm offensively.
The second half was much more entertaining.
An ugly three-and-out from Michigan kicked things off, leading to a possession in which Akron receiver Zach D’Orazio repeatedly found the holes in the Wolverine zone. After a defensive pass interference penalty on defensive back Raymon Taylor moved the ball to Michigan’s 23 yard-line, quarterback Kyle Pohl hit D’Orazio for a touchdown to cap a 75-yard drive to give the Zips the lead.
The Wolverines immediately struck back with two consecutive touchdown drives while forcing quick Akron punts. Gardner seemed to be back on track, and the offensive line was producing a good push. On top 21-10 with the ball as the third quarter ended, it looked like Michigan’s difficulties were in the rear-view window.
But then Gardner tried again to force a ball in where he shouldn’t have. The Wolverines tried to set up a screen, but the Zips had it covered. With the rush bearing down on him, Gardner threw a side-arm pass that March easily intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
After a quick Michigan punt, Pohl laid a beautiful pass down the sideline to receiver L.T. Smith for 43 yards, setting the Zips up with a first-and-goal. Pohl then made a mistake of his own, forcing a throw that was intercepted by safety Jarrod Wilson.
Another awful punt set the Zips up with great field position after Michigan failed to move the ball. Pohl picked up a first down with a nifty scramble, and then hit another bomb to Smith, this time 40 yards to the Michigan one yard-line. After two interior runs were stuffed, Pohl easily found receiver Tyrell Goodman to give the Zips a 24-21 lead with just over four minutes to play.
A 35-yard run by Gardner was followed by a pass interference penalty on Zip safety Johnny Robinson, setting up first-and-goal on the one-yard line, where running back Fitzgerald Touissant immediately regained the lead for the Wolverines, 28-24.
Akron quickly advanced the ball to the Michigan 27 before a holding penalty gave them first-and-twenty with 59 seconds to play. Smith came uncovered as Pohl scrambled away from pressure on second down to move the chains. Smith then made an incredible catch while being drilled by linebacker Desmond Morgan, putting the ball at the 2-yard-line with 15 seconds remaining.
A toss to running back Jawon Chisholm never had a chance, and Morgan hit him for a loss, leaving five seconds for the Zips’ last gasp. Linebacker Brennan Beyer broke through the line and clobbered Pohl, forcing him to overthrow D’Orazio as time expired.
Whatever the result, the team knows that its performance today was not winning football.
“From coaches first, and me first, we’ve got to do a better job,” coach Hoke said.
By ERIC GARANT
What a strange year.
On Oct. 24, 2012, Detroit entered the World Series as significant favorites, its status as such owing heavily to the presence of starting pitcher Justin Verlander, and the idea that he could pitch as many as three games in the series. Winning both the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in 2011 before finishing a very close second for the latter in 2012, Verlander was considered not only baseball’s best pitcher, but maybe its best player.
Four days later, the Giants would be crowned World Series champions. Some fluky weather had limited Verlander to one start, and he had given up five runs in losing it.
He has yet to regain the form that terrified Giants fans and Vegas odds-makers. But it’s looking more and more likely that he won’t need to.
Down to 2.9 wins above replacement (WAR) from highs of 8.4 and 7.9 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Verlander has been allowed to become the third fiddle in Detroit’s rotation, thanks to the emergence of Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.
His 19-1 record oversells him a bit, but Scherzer has been outstanding by any metric. His ERA is below three; his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is below one. He has struck out 201 batters while walking just 43. His WAR of 5.8 is the fourth-best among all major league pitchers. A solid player for the rest of his career, Scherzer has, in 2013, become a star.
Sanchez’s record stands at a much more pedestrian 11-7, yet the Venezuelan hurler has been nearly as good, posting an ERA of 2.61 and a WHIP of 1.147.
Add in giant finesse pitcher Doug Fister, and the Tigers pretty easily boast the strongest starting rotation in the league.
And then there’s third baseman Miguel Cabrera. What can even be said at this point? His numbers speak for themselves: he leads the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, runs batted in, total bases, and slugging percentage. He is second in home runs and fifth in walks. It’s basically impossible to overstate his prowess at the plate.
And the Tigers have surrounded their offensive savant with plenty of help. Though having down years, centerfielder Austin Jackson and first baseman Prince Fielder remain solid offensive players. And second baseman Omar Infante, designated hitter Victor Martinez, right fielder Torii Hunter and shortstop Jhonny Peralta are all having strong offensive years; Martinez has been the worst of the bunch, with a still-excellent batting average of .299 heading into September.
Peralta was suspended for 50 games in early August for his involvement with Biogenesis of America, a Florida-based company that allegedly provided players with performance-enhancing drugs. He is eligible to return for the final three games of the regular season and the postseason, but Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski has made no indication that Peralta will be welcomed back.
The club acquired defensive ace Jose Iglesias from the Boston Red Sox because it suspected Peralta would be suspended, and Iglesias will be the team’s shortstop of the future. But Peralta is the better player today, and the Tigers should be in win-now mode. Whatever the team wants to do in the future should be secondary to competing for the championship this year.
Catchers and relief pitchers are the team’s only weak spots. Alex Avila has declined steadily since his All Star campaign in 2011, but is still the team’s best option behind the plate because of his defense.
Incumbent closer, Jose Valverde, fell out of favor during last year’s playoffs, and nobody has really taken his place. They should never have to carry a heavy burden, but the Tigers’ relief pitchers may still represent the biggest threat to the team returning to the World Series.
Every team has its warts, though. The Tigers’ warts are pretty small, and they aren’t in the worst places. With or without Peralta, this team looks to be the best in the majors.
And with two more excellent pitchers to support Verlander, who was a deserving All Star this year despite the flagging, it has a great chance of returning to the World Series – and reversing the results.
Contact Staff Writer Eric Garant at email@example.com, and follow him at @garanteric.
|Fall Club Sports Opportunities|
|Women’s volleyball:||Tryouts Sept. 10 and Sept. 12, 9:30-11 p.m. |
|at WCC Health and Fitness Center|
|Men’s volleyball:||Tryouts Sept.10 and Sept. 12, 9:30-11 p.m. |
|at WCC Health and Fitness Center|
|Ice hockey:||Tryouts Sept. 11, 10-11:30 p.m. at Arctic Coliseum |
|in Chelsea, 501 Coliseum Drive|
|Note: Bring WCC ID to tryouts/practices|
|Intramural Sports Calendar|
|3-on-3 Basketball||Through Sept. 13||Monday Sept. 16, 6 p.m.|
|3-on-3 Soccer||Through Sept. 16||Tuesday, Sept. 17 6 p.m.|
|Softball/HR Derby 1||Through Sept. 17||Wednesday, Sept. 18 4 p.m.|
|Sand volleyball||Through Sept. 18||Thursday, Sept. 19 5 p.m.|
|Quidditch||Through Sept. 20||Monday, Sept. 23 6 p.m.|
|Kickball ||Through Sept. 23||Tuesday, Sept. 24 5 p.m.|
|Ultimate Frisbee||Through Sept. 24||Wednesday Sept. 25 6 p.m.|
|Platform Tennis||Through Sept. 25||Thursday Sept. 26 5 p.m.|
|Flag Football||Through Sept. 27||Monday Sept. 30 6 p.m.|
|Badminton||Through Sept. 30||Tuesday Oct. 1 5 p.m.|
|3-on-3 Soccer||Through Oct. 1||Wednesday Oct. 2 5 p.m.|
|Golf Scramble 2||Sept. 9-Sept. 27||Saturday Oct. 5 10 a.m.|
|1 All events coed except Home Run Derby|
|2 All events free except Golf Scramble|
|Fall Club Sports Opportunities|
|Men’s baseball: ||Tryouts Aug. 26-29, 4:30-7 p.m. at the |
|WCC baseball diamond|
|Women’s softball:||First practices Aug. 26-29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. |
|at WCC softball diamond|
|Women’s soccer:||First practices Aug. 26-29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. |
|at WCC soccer fields|
|Men’s soccer:||Tryouts Aug. 26-29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at WCC soccer fields|
|Women’s volleyball:||Tryouts Sept. 3, Sept. 10 and Sept. 12, 9:30-11 p.m. |
|at WCC Health and Fitness Center|
|Men’s volleyball:||Tryouts Sept 5, Sept.10 and Sept. 12, 9:30-11 p.m. |
|at WCC Health and Fitness Center|
|Ice hockey:||Tryouts Sept. 11, 10-11:30 p.m. at Arctic Coliseum |
|in Chelsea, 501 Coliseum Drive|
|Note: Bring WCC ID to tryouts/practices|
|Intramural Sports Calendar|
|3-on-3 Basketball||Aug. 26-Sept. 13||Monday Sept. 16, 6 p.m.|
|3-on-3 Soccer||Aug. 26-Sept. 16||Tuesday, Sept. 17 6 p.m.|
|Softball/HRD*||Aug. 26-Sept. 17||Wednesday, Sept. 18 4 p.m.|
|Sand volleyball||Aug. 26-Sept. 18||Thursday, Sept. 19 5 p.m.|
|Quidditch||Aug. 26-Sept. 20||Monday, Sept. 23 6 p.m.|
|Kickball ||Aug. 26-Sept. 23||Tuesday, Sept. 24 5 p.m.|
|Ultimate Frisbee||Aug. 26-Sept. 24||Wednesday Sept. 25 6 p.m.|
|Platform Tennis||Aug. 26-Sept. 25||Thursday Sept. 26 5 p.m.|
|Flag Football||Aug. 26-Sept. 27||Monday Sept. 30 6 p.m.|
|Badminton||Aug. 26-Sept. 30||Tuesday Oct. 1 5 p.m.|
|3-on-3 Soccer||Aug. 26-Oct. 1||Wednesday Oct. 2 5 p.m.|
|Golf Scramble||Sept. 9-Sept. 27^||Saturday Oct. 5 10 a.m.|
|* All events coed except Home Run Derby|
|^ All events free except Golf Scramble|
By ERIC GARANT
There’s something undeniably magical about fall in the Midwest. The lushly forested landscape, statically and universally green for six months a year, shifts into a kaleidoscope of oranges and browns, yellows and reds.
The foliage that we keep in our periphery the rest of the year becomes almost unbearably beautiful. It makes the heart yearn. . . for Big 10 football.
Here’s our preview of the coming season:
Michigan, 8-5 (6-2 Conference)
I may be denounced as a heretic for saying this, but Denard Robinson’s departure could be a blessing in disguise. Though an electric runner, Robinson’s shortcomings as a passer often had the Wolverines struggling to move the ball against strong defenses. Devin Gardner, a good but mortal runner, is a better-rounded quarterback. An early meeting with Notre Dame will be a big test for the team, but then the schedule gets easier until mid-October. If the young offensive line can gel behind All-American tackle Taylor Lewan and the defense, excellent against the run but soft to the pass in 2012, can hold its own, Michigan should be in the thick of the conference race. There is also a ton of buzz within the program for true freshman running back Derrick Green. Keep an eye out for this kid.
Predicted record: 10-2 (7-1), Legends division champion
Michigan State, 7-6 (3-5)
The Spartans are an old-school team that relies on good defense and power running, and they’ll enter the year as the favorites to bring home the division crown. QB Andrew Maxwell will look to bounce back from a down year in 2012, and the Spartans have a host of running backs who will attempt to fill in for the durable Le’Veon Bell. On the other side of the ball, a more consistent pass rush would help the team’s cause, but the secondary is excellent. They lost five conference games last year by a total of 13 points. The schedule this year is softer, as Sparty avoids both Ohio State and Wisconsin. Early season games against Notre Dame and Iowa should tell us how good this team is before back-to-back contests against Michigan and Nebraska during the height of the conference season
Predicted record: 10-2 (7-1)
Nebraska, 10-4 (7-2), lost Big 10 Championship game
Nebraska has been a solid team in each of its Big 10 years, but the 63 and 70 points it surrendered last year to Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively, surely remain in the minds of the team, staff, and citizens of the Cornhusker State. Fortunately, the 2013 schedule includes neither of those teams, and is extremely soft overall. Nebraska should be 8-0 heading into its Nov. 9 meeting in Ann Arbor, a game that could decide the Legends Division title. Its success in that game, and in the season overall, will hinge largely upon QB Taylor Martinez’s ability to make plays as a passer. Martinez put up solid passing numbers in 2012, but found difficulty against the better teams. For Nebraska to take the next step forward in this conference, he’ll need to get better when he’s needed most.
Predicted record: 10-2 (6-2)
Northwestern, 10-3 (5-3)
The Wildcats came to play in 2012, winning ten games and being competitive in all three of their losses. Most of last year’s major players return, including quarterback Trevor Seiman, running back Venric Mark, and jack-of-all-trades Kain Colter (threw for 872 yards, ran for 958, and caught passes for 169). The defense will likely need to be stingier to match last year’s pace, as the schedule gets tougher this year: Northwestern faces all five of the Ohio State/Michigan/Michigan State/Wisconsin/Nebraska group that figures to run this conference year-in, year-out. If it can manage two wins out of those games, the team will have to feel pretty good about its season.
Predicted record: 8-4 (4-4)
Minnesota, 6-7 (2-6)
The question for the Gophers is if they’re ready to join the big boys. Last season, Minnesota beat all of the teams it was supposed to beat, but lost to all of the teams it was supposed to lose to. Though significant pieces of the defense have moved on, an experienced line should help keep the offense afloat. Quarterback Phillip Nelson will need to make strides in his junior season for Minnesota to challenge the better teams. His sub-50 percent completion percentage of last year simply will not get it done. Another year of experience for his skill position players should help; top target A.J. Barker has departed, but the Gophers will return five receivers who caught at least 10 balls in 2012, as well as three backs who had at least 25 carries.
Predicted record: 4-8 (1-7)
Iowa, 4-8 (2-6)
Tripped up early last year by Iowa State and Central Michigan, Iowa seemed to regain its footing with a big win over Michigan State before losing its last six games. A solid but not great team defensively, Iowa will need to make significant strides from its 94th-ranked offense of a year ago. The good news is that the schedule is relatively soft until a home date with Sparty on Oct. 5. The bad news is that it gets brutal afterward, with Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska all left on the slate. Even if this year’s team is dramatically better than last’s, it will be hard to rack up many more wins.
Predicted record: 4-8 (1-7)
Ohio State, 12-0 (8-0)
The hated Buckeyes enter the season the presumptive favorite, coming off a perfect 12-0 year. Second-year coach Urban Meyer has an earned reputation for being an offensive genius, and quarterback Braxton Miller is a good fit for his scheme. The defense lost a lot of pieces but should remain fairly stout. If the offense continues to progress under Meyer’s tutelage, Ohio State should again be a hard team to beat. And this year, the team actually has an incentive to do well, as it is bowl-eligible again, the sanctions ending from the disgraceful, despicable, filthy, filthy cheating of the Jim Tressel years.
Predicted record: 11-1 (7-1), Leaders division champion
Wisconsin, 8-6 (5-4), won Big 10 Championship game
New coach Gary Anderson has some huge shoes to fill. Former coach Bret Bielema led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in each of the last three seasons (losing all three, but still). Anderson hung his hat on defense at Utah State, and figures to follow a similar formula in Madison. Replacing touchdown machine Montee Ball won’t be easy, but the entire receiving squad returns for the Badgers to give QB Joel Stave some stability. After a Sept. 28 clash in Columbus, the schedule gets favorable. If the Buckeyes stumble down the stretch, Wisconsin could find the back door to the Big 10 title game.
Predicted record: 8-4 (6-2)
Penn State, 8-4 (6-2) [Ineligible for postseason play]
Surely still reeling from the loss of legendary coach Joe Paterno and the unprecedented NCAA sanctions that attended his ouster, Penn State was a very respectable 8-4 in 2012. With the drastic cuts to scholarships, it is hard to imagine the Nittany Lions sustaining that success this year. They’ll also be depending on an inexperienced quarterback and facing a slightly more difficult schedule. But for Penn State right now, football is about more than football. No one expects this team to be what it was for so long under Joe Pa. What is important for the program and for its students is to try to find a sense of normalcy.
Predicted record: 7-5 (4-4)
Indiana, 4-8 (2-6)
The Hoosiers enter the season with both promise and uncertainty. The team fielded a strong and diverse offense in 2012 even after starting QB Tre Roberson went down for the year with a leg injury. He’ll be back for this season, as will replacements Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, both of whom performed reasonably well. The big question will be who starts, and how long he can hold his job. Indiana sports starless depth at the other skill positions; the team will return three running backs who rushed for 200 or more yards a year ago, and four receivers who caught at least 40 passes. If a strong recruiting class can help bolster an abysmal defense even a little bit, the Hoosiers have a decent chance of becoming bowl eligible.
Predicted record: 6-6 (3-5)
Purdue, 6-7 (3-5)
A team in flux, Purdue has a first-year head coach in Darrell Hazell who will manage a first-year starting QB in Rob Henry, who will be working with a receiving corps that lost its two leading pass-catchers from 2012. The bright side on offense is that the Boilermakers should have a relatively strong running attack with the combination of lightning-quick Akeem Hunt and bruising Brandon Cottom. The defense will be without defensive tackle Kawaan Short and cornerback Josh Johnson, probably its two best players from last year. But most of the rest of the group is back, so the Boilermakers should at least be more stable defensively. Ultimately, none of this probably matters, as Purdue’s schedule is absolutely brutal, especially early in the year. A Sept. 7 meeting with Indiana State could easily be the team’s only win when Iowa comes to town on Nov. 9.
Predicted record: 4-8 (2-6)
Illinois, 2-10 (0-8)
The Illini beat the two creampuffs on their schedule in 2012 before losing their final nine games, all but one of them by at least two touchdowns. QB Nathan Scheelhasse, and the whole Illini offense, had a disastrous year. The defense was solid, but most of the defensive line and secondary will not return, setting coach Tim Beckman up for a second year that could be even more challenging than his first. Illinois is clearly in a rebuilding state, and it’s hard to find much optimism for the 2013 team. Exceeding even last year’s paltry win total would seem difficult.
Predicted record: 1-11 (0-8)
By ERIC GARANT
“We’re used to apathy,” Student Activities Event Coordinator Rachel Barsch said.
There were around 24 pre-registrations for the student vs. employee softball game scheduled for noon last Thursday, Barsch said. But only six students and four employees showed up to play.
“It’s typical for students not to show,” Barsch said, who acknowledged that organizers of the event felt that in-service week would help to bolster attendance – but it might have actually turned out to be a disadvantage.
On May 3, the faculty development committee started working on the schedule for the in-service period, which began Tuesday, Aug. 20
“I think (the game) sounded like a great idea to them,” Barsch said.
The game could have been a good opportunity to meet people before the school year begins, Barsch said, adding that further attempts to schedule a game are likely later in the year.
“I want more of a community feel,” Barsch said. “We feel like we don’t get to interact as a whole college often.”
By ERIC GARANT
Playoffs or pack your bags.
This, I suspect, is the message head coach Jim Schwartz received this offseason.
After making the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 1999, the Lions started 4-4 in 2012 before failing to win a single game in the second half of the year.
The upcoming season will be particularly important as the team considers its options moving forward, and not only for Schwartz.
He and Lions faithful have reasons to be optimistic, though. For one, last year’s team was not nearly as bad as its 4-12 record would indicate; 2012 was a year of simply terrible luck.
Detroit was involved in 12 games that were decided by one score, losing nine of them. Other than a fluky 38-10 drubbing in Arizona that included two interceptions of quarterback Matthew Stafford returned for touchdowns, their biggest loss of the year was by 13 to the NFC’s top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. Put simply: the Lions played everybody tough, and lost a historically improbable amount of close games. That won’t happen two years in a row.
Another thing that is unlikely to go as much against them this year is turnovers, and particularly fumbles. The Lions had 16 more giveaways than takeaways last year, owing largely to a complete (and largely random) inability to recover their own or the opposition’s fumbles.
Leaving the nightmarish 2012 season behind, there are other reasons to believe. The Reggie Bush/Mikel Leshoure pairing will likely be the best and healthiest backfield the Lions have wielded in the post-Barry Sanders era, and Bush’s talent as a receiver adds a new element to the offense.
Second-year receiver Ryan Broyles showed flashes during his rookie year of being the type of slot weapon that ideally compliments the field-stretching Calvin Johnson. If Broyles can remain healthy, he should ease the burden on Nate Burleson, who is over-extended as a number-two receiver.
And the presence of Calvin Johnson is reason enough for optimism. He set the all-time record for receiving yards in a season in 2012 and still probably felt like he had an off year (because he scored only five touchdowns). There isn’t a better receiver in football, and there are very few better players.
It’s not all roses, though.
There are a number of intra-team issues, starting with the offensive line, which will feature three new starters. The skill positions get the buzz, but their success depends upon the line holding up. Playing together as a unit for the first time, it’s impossible to predict how this group will fare. For the first time since he was drafted in 2001, the Lions will be without mediocre but supremely dependable left tackle Jeff Backus.
Only slightly less concerning is the team’s lack of depth. This is an extremely top-heavy unit, and it cannot afford many injuries.
Free-agent acquisition Glover Quin was a solid pickup for the secondary, but the group is still comprised mostly of journeymen and hangers-on. Their survival will hinge on the Lions’ ability to generate a solid pass-rush, itself an uncertainty.
Ndamukong Suh remains one of the best interior linemen in football, and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley looked to be coming along well last year. But in the modern NFL, the pass rush comes mostly from the edges, and the Lions’ ends are unproven. Free-agent acquisition Jason Jones and first-round draft pick Ezekiel Ansah will be counted on from the get-go.
There are also worries outside of the team, beginning with what should be a strong division.
The Packers, Bears, and Vikings all won 10-plus games last year, and arguably sport among them the league’s two best players in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson.
The Lions went 0-6 in the division last year, but many of the losses were extremely close: Green Bay won the two meetings by a combined 11 points, Chicago by just eight.
An improvement in the division is both doable and necessary. If the Lions are able, the playoffs should be within their grasp. If they aren’t, there will probably be a fresh face at head coach next year, and a lot of other places.
On July 10, the Detroit Pistons signed former Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith to a four-year contract worth $54 million. Experts have generally been critical of the deal, some even evoking the Pistons’ disastrous free agent ventures of 2009, when the team gave a combined $90 million to Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
Though signing Smith was probably not an optimal use of the team’s resources, it is nowhere near catastrophic. It certainly does not merit comparisons to the 2009 deals.
Villanueva has been overpaid for the duration of his contract, but he was a somewhat valuable player for its first two seasons. Since injuring his ankle during the 2011-12 season, he has fallen off a cliff, averaging less than 16 minutes a game last year and shooting a career-low 37.7 percent. A drop-off offensively is not something the defensively inept Villanueva can afford.
Signing Gordon was even worse. The Pistons already had an overpaid shooting guard in Richard Hamilton. Overspending on another player at the same position made no sense whatsoever. Even after Hamilton’s departure, Gordon failed to play up to his contract. Last season, the Pistons gave Charlotte a first-round draft pick to take Gordon off their hands.
It was because of that deal that Detroit had money to spend this offseason. And while the Pistons probably won’t be hoisting any banners during Josh Smith’s tenure, they also will not be the laughingstock that they were for the Gordon/Villanueva years.
There were two superstar-free agents this summer in Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. The Pistons had no realistic chance of signing either. After them, Smith was simply the best player available. While similar logic perhaps informed the Gordon/Villanueva signings, it’s important to note that Smith is dramatically better than both of them, a borderline All-Star who is in the middle of his prime.
Smith has some holes in his game, and he is not an ideal fit on this team. His jump shot is unreliable (and yet he’s a bit too keen on taking it), and he fares best in an open-floor game, which does not figure to be the Pistons style.
However, he does a lot of things well. He’s an excellent and versatile defender, capable of guarding both perimeter players and big men. He’s extremely athletic and provides shot-blocking at the rim. He handles the ball well and passes exceptionally for a big man. He’s a player who could contribute on literally any team.
The early scuttle is that Detroit plans to start him at small forward. This, I think, will prove unwise, and I hope that the Pistons abandon it quickly. A starting frontcourt of Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond just doesn’t have enough shooting to keep the floor spaced, limiting the value of each player.
What’s intriguing about Smith is how he potentially gives Detroit the ability to form a three-man rotation with their bigs, like the Los Angeles Lakers in recent years with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Monroe lacks Gasol’s size and length, but Smith should be able to cover up these shortcomings to some degree with his talent as a weak-side shot-blocker.
The upside to this is that it would allow Detroit to reduce the minutes of their other big men, all of whom are well below average.
The Eastern Conference figures to be very top-heavy this season. Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn and Chicago are extremely potent teams, and the Knicks should be a near-lock for the playoffs. But after that, it’s pretty wide open. The Pistons should be in the scrum with Atlanta, Washington, Milwaukee, Cleveland and maybe Toronto for the final three playoff spots.
And that’s a fine place for this team to be right now. Their best players, Monroe and Drummond, aren’t yet ready for primetime. By the time they are, Smith will likely be gone. So while he may be a bit overpaid and a bit out of place, I don’t think we’ll remember Josh Smith’s time in Detroit as being all that bad.
Pinning down success: A wrestler from Pioneer High School competing in a recent tournament at Canton High School.
Local wrestlers react to news that ancient sport may lose its standing
Photos and Words By ERIC WADE | Staff Writer
Middle school girls wearing singlets beneath their warm-ups shared the same emotions of shock and anguish as boys sweating it out on the mats: The International Olympic Committee’s decision to eliminate wrestling as a competitive sport in the 2020 Olympics is outrageous – and wrong.
“I think it’s stupid,” said Kaitlin Petit, 14. “Wrestling is a tough sport and it should be in the Olympics.”
“And it’s one of the oldest sports,” said her friend, Anna Jewel, 13, finishing Petit’s thought.
Both girls are students at Goodrich Middle School and competitors in Michigan Women’s Wrestling.
With the exception of the 1900 Olympic Games, wrestling has been a core sport in the Games since the inaugural event in 1896. Now, its future is in doubt, and local wrestlers and their coaches are speaking out.
At a recent high school wrestling tournament, Keegan Powers, 17, who competes for Pioneer High School, and Alex Cornelius, 17, who represents Saline High School, had similar reactions as the girls.
“I think it’s a terrible choice,” Cornelius said.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Powers added.
Joe McFarland, head coach for the University of Michigan’s wrestling team, said he felt that FILA (the acronym for wrestling’s Olympic governing body) wasn’t doing enough to assure the sport’s prominence.
“I think (FILA) got caught sleeping to be honest with you,” McFarland said.
He may have an argument. At the same meeting wrestling was dropped in a secret ballot, the same voters supported continuation of the much less prominent modern pentathlon, which combines shooting, horseback-riding, running, swimming and fencing.
Let’s Get Physical: Young women warming up before a recent Michigan Women’s Wrestling tournament at Goodrich High School.
Raphaël Martinetti, the acting president of FILA, resigned after the IOC made the decision to remove wrestling from its list of core sports. FILA issued a statement saying it takes its responsibly very seriously, and as a sport it is willing to undertake all the necessary steps for their sport to remain on the core program of the Olympic Games.
The IOC hasn’t made any comments on why wrestling was removed, but McFarland feels that as a community there wasn’t enough lobbying for the sport.
“We weren’t doing things that other sports and other governing bodies were doing to keep their programs included in the games or to get them as part of the games,” McFarland said.
Despite all of the confusion and anguish about the IOC’s decision, Taylor Massa, 19, a wrestler for the University of Michigan and an Olympic hopeful, remains confident that wrestling has a future in the Olympics.
“I almost think they did that on purpose because wrestling will be able to push back in, versus if they put one of the other sports they might not be able to pull back in,” Massa said.
Wrestling still has a chance to be in the 2020 Olympics. It now joins the seven shortlisted sports including baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu, a form of Chinese martial arts, competing for inclusion as an additional sport, according to the IOC.
Chris Ebrom, 26, an assistant coach for Saline High School, feels that wrestling can fight its way back in.
“I think turning this decision around will need showing what impact it has on youth and what impact it has on kids turning into adults and the development for more than just wrestling,” Ebrom said, “but the development of how a kid matures from a sport like wrestling.”
The transformation of youth into dedicated and responsible adults is a part of what the wrestling community considers a great aspect of the sport. Jahi HIllard, 18, a wrestler for Pioneer High School, credits wrestling for much of his success.
“Wrestling was a big part of my life, and it still is,” Hillard said. “It’s helped me develop as a young man, and I believe that I wouldn’t have prospered the way I have without wrestling.”
If wrestling doesn’t make it past the short list of events into the games, Massa would feel disappointment, but would still compete.
“I would still train,” said Massa. “I would just be training for the championships and that would be the next biggest thing.”
Wrestling doesn’t have a professional outlet, but some consider that taking wrestling out of the Olympics could impact youth.
“I think it’s a big hit for the youth. Even though it’s not directly impacting them now, it will in the future,” Ebrom said. “In other sports like football and basketball, you have the NFL and the NBA, but for wrestling there is not a real professional wrestling league and the top echelon of the sport is the Olympics.”
For McFarland, the greatest thing about the Olympic wrestling team is that competitors do it from their hearts and not for the money.
“The fact that these guys aren’t professionals, that they’re doing it for the sport, that’s one thing that I thought was neat about our Olympic team,” McFarland said. “These guys aren’t getting paid multimillion dollar contracts.
“These guys in wrestling that are representing the United States have put their lives and families on hold while they’re continuing to chase that dream, so to see that possibly come to an end is disappointing.”