A Tale of Two Cities- Boston, Detroit, Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium

I spent Thursday evening at historic Fenway Park in Boston.  On Friday I returned to Michigan to read that Detroit has made plans to tear down historic Tiger Stadium.  Both stadiums opened in 1912 but Fenway Park has a bright future while Tiger Stadium is destined for the wrecking ball.

And it’s sad.

As a season ticketholder the new Tiger stadium I love my nice padded seats, spacious aisles, and variety of modern concesssions.  But sitting in Fenway Park I felt nostalgic for old Tiger Stadium.  I noticed that Fenway has the same type of pillar construction that results in some obstructed views and tiny seats with little leg room.  I recalled all the great players who had played there and history that the place represents.  It along with Yankee Stadium (slated to be replaced in the next decade) and Wrigley Field are truly cathedrals of the game.

The Tigers did a great job of convincing the public of the need for a new stadium.  They stopped doing basic maintenance the last few seasons and let people convince themselves that cracked paint somehow proved that the old stadium was unable to be saved.  Make no mistake- the decision to replace Tiger Stadium was a choice and different ownership could have made a decision to renovate rather then build new.

Sitting in Fenway and seeing an old ball park meticously preserved reminded me that the decision to leave Tiger Stadium for the gleaming new park says more about us as sports fans than anything else.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said today that tearing down old Tiger Stadium gives the surrounding neighborhood the best chance to rebound.  No Mr. Mayor, the best chance for the surrounding neighborhood was to not desert Tiger Stadium in the first place.

You can’t hit what you’re not aiming at

For years Michigan football coaches have chanted same mantra:

Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl…

Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl…

But things have changed.  The Rose Bowl is no longer the exclusive domain of the Big Ten and Pac Ten conferences.  Now Included in the BCS rotation, the Rose Bowl periodically becomes the home of the National Championship game.

And it’s time for Michigan to change with the times.  And it doesn’t mean that the Big Ten Title is any less desirable but there’s now a higher goal.

Other Michigan teams regularly aim for a National Championhship and manage to win their conference title along the way. 

No softball team east of the Mississippi river had evert won a National Championship.  It didn’t stop the Michigan softball team from aiming year in and year out for a National Championship.  Did they treasure their Big Ten Championships?  Sure, but there was a larger goal, one that they were able to achieve despite participating in a sport dominated by warm weather schools. 

Does the Michigan football team lack the same gumption to shoot for the highest goal available?

True, football does regularly lose players early to the NFL which hampers the Wolverine cause.  But no sport have been ravaged by early departures worse than Michigan hockey.  But every season coach Red Berenson leads his team in an attempt to capture a National Championship.  It doesn’t matter how many freshman need to play critical roles during the upcoming season. 

The goal is the same…National Championship or bust.  And it doesn’t dim their desire for a conference championship.

Does the Michigan football team lack the resources available to the hockey team?

Of course not.  The only thing lacking is an acknolwdgement that a National Champinship shoould now be the goal every season.

Two Titles,  National & Big Ten…

Two Titles,  National & Big Ten…

It’s time to re-examine and the lore of Michigan football history.  The Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl were the goal because that was the ultimate goal available for most of Michigan football history.  The goal has been moved, it’s time for Michigan football to expand its vision. 

This isn’t a betrayal of Michigan tradition.  The “Leaders and Best” should aim for the highest goal available.

After all you can’t hit what you’re not aiming at.

Michigan Football- Cupid Interferes

The University of Michigan Football team has to return to its winning ways to prove to itself, its fans, its enemies, and the college football world in general that it is a program on the upswing again, and capable of recruiting, competing, and winning against the likes of the Irish and the loudmouthed, and always only so slightly soiled Buckeyes of the world.

That the Wolverines have several new Assistant Coaches this year is well known.  It is hoped they will instill a new enthusiasm (Coach English has referred to it as increased defensive violence within the rules) in the Wolverine program..

The offense seems to be the major work.  The dismal offensive production last year led to the appointment of long time Assistant and onetime Offensive Coordinator, Mike DeBord as Offensive Coordinator again, replacing the well liked Terry Malone, who had replaced Mike as OC earlier.

Many have cited Mike’s record as Head Coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas as one reason he should not have assumed that post, that he is the beneficial recipient of cronyism since he and Carr are friends, and others decry his style, which in the past has stressed the run, and has favored play action, the TEs, and sometimes the waggle.  His first half calls in the 2000 Orange Bowl are also cited.  The Wolverines persisted with a non productive running attack during the entire first half against a great Alabama defense, but after the break they let Tom Brady light it up, and they squeaked by with a victory.

Can Mike D. elevate the dismal offensive performance of last year to something approaching an elite Big Ten level?  I think he can, but before we injure ourselves leaping to conclusions, we await the proof.

Occasionally, a sports team can leap from the nether regions to the top offensively, statistically and otherwise.  Penn State was a stunning example of that last year.  In other sports, those long time bottom feeding Detroit Tigers are floating to the top.  Even I am regaining interest in them.  It can’t be predicted that Michigan has the ability to do that this year.  I won’t believe it until I see it.

Obviously, Coach DeBord and the other coaching additions  have  to prove themselves. As importantly, it is time for Chad Henne to step up.  It is time for him to lead his team to victory against the Irish and Ohio State. It is time for him to lead his team to a major bowl victory. He has a ton of experience, with plenty of highs (overtime wins against Michigan State, that laser to Manningham with a second left to skewer  PSU etc)., and plenty of lows (interception at Notre Dame, poor ball security, batted balls and so on). It is time for Chad Henne to take  his long anticipated place among the elite QBs in the Big Ten.  Hopefully he can challenge the Green and White’s Drew Stanton who is as of now annointed the Big Ten’s best by most.  Do you think Drew remembers that Woodley hit that put him out of the game a couple of years ago?  Their fans, poor babies, are still upset by that little extra Woodley twist.  Not me. Clean play. No flag.

If there is to be an offensive resurgence, Chad will have to lead it by producing in the red zone and moving the ball at crunch time.  He will have to prove he is an improved QB.  It appears he has the talent to achieve the level of play that he wants, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last year I seriously over rated the quality of the offensive line when healthy, and worse they were dinged most of the year. Senior offensive Linemen Matt Lentz, Adam Stenevich,  and Leo Henige didn’t get drafted by the pros.  That fact speaks for itself.  Big Leo was running around on “wheels” too often repaired, which of course reduced his mobility, so his effectiveness did not match his courage.  You have to credit him with the guts just to play. I appreciate that line’s contributions and they were and are good Michigan men.  We expected too much of them because we credited it with more talent than it proved to have. Certainly we expected more production than we got.

It is hoped improved mobility is the key to OL improvement. It has been indicated that certain linemen such as Jake Long are slimmed up (or should I say slimmed down) this year, maybe quicker if not faster.  For Michigan to suceed this year, Jake has to have an all Big Ten year. Mark Bihl has to finally break through and establish himself as THE offensive center, BEYOND ALL DOUBT, so the rising Adam Kraus can play elsewhere. Will they suddenly become a good run blocking line after last year’s discouragement?  I think DeBord will make them play tougher, but again we shall have to wait until they prove it before we anticipate great success.  Some newer blood, like Alex Mitchell, has to develop, and it would be nice if Reuben Riley could work at guard instead of tackle as it seems to be his position of choice.  Fortunately, he is good enough to play where the team needs him.

It is easy to anticipate Mike Hart having an outstanding year.  You have to respect this kid’s attitude, toughness, vision, desire, strength, competitiveness, and ability to avoid contact, and to gain yards after contact.  He is the complete package, especially when healthy, even if some question his top end.  It is easy to predict lots of carries and lots of yards, and a great season if he remains healthy, but I am not ready to anticipate him gaining 1,400 yards at this point in time as some would have it.

It seems the better situation would be sharing some of the wear and tear with Kevin Grady.  Grady had an outstanding spring and is leaner this year.  There is plenty of talent at the running back position.  Mister Simson proved a hard runner in the spring, Alijah Bradley can move it, Jerome Jackson may be back, and hyper talented newcomer Carlos Brown, an unusual combination of speed, power and agility may help us endure the loss of Antonio Bass to injury.  He has the break-away speed that some say Mike Hart lacks. Brown’s highly regarded classmate, Brandon Minor could contribute. At about 210 he has some size. Obi Oluigbo, had a fine spring at full back.

Michigan’s receivers aren’t getting a lot of love from the preseason magazines, but I am very confident Mario Manningham is the real McCoy.  Steve Breaston has to have a better season as a pass receiver than he has enjoyed previously.  Don’t hesitate in predicting an outstanding special teams season for him as a punt and kick return specialist.  The quality of his effort in those endeavors is already proven and without question, and is extraordinary. We do not have to wait and see on this one.  What is in question is his ability as a down field pass receiver. He will have to demonstrate that he can do that in order for the Wolverines to shine and for us to believe in him as a receiver.

Will Zoltan Mesko take over the punting duties?  It would be better than a kick in the pants if he could.  A better punt game would benefit both the offense and defense.

It seems that Michigan should be able to play some offense in the red zone this year, with a  QB of better than average talent.with a ton of experience.  While the effectiveness of the OL is still an unproven concern, there are enough good backs with a variety of skills, and a corps of talented receivers, including tight ends, to move up in the Big Ten offensive standing in total offense.  Mike D. should be able to spread our offense out some, but how can we be assured Michigan’s red zone woes are over until we see the TD proof?

Then there is the schedule.  Notre Dame is the home of homer calls.  Penn State is in Happy Valley at night.  The game against THE Ohio State University, in the land of security checks for opposing players and in the house shaped like a toilet seat, is always a challenge.

To say that Michigan has not prospered away from the friendly confines of the Big House lately is not a stretch especially when you add in their bowl losses each of the last three years (USC, Texas, Nebraska).  Of the three losses, the one that festers most is the loss to the Huskers, the worst of those three bowl adversaries. Michigan simply did not rise to the occasion and unfortunately Nebraska did.

We do get those pesky Spartans at home. Each year Michigan has better recruiting classes and ranking than the Spartans.  And most years the Spartans give them trouble.  Football is after all a game of emotions.  This year, offensively the Spartans will put up points, but will the Sparty defense show up, especially  the secondary.  Overall the Wolverines look superior again as they have looked on paper the past two years, during which time they have played a total of four overtime periods with the Green Meanies.  Fortunately, the Wolverines won both, but it has been razor close, and Smith needs a win over Michigan.  Badly.  Many of the Spartys that I talk to (there is no avoiding it)  think his hire was a mistake.  That negative opinion would change instantly with a win over Michigan.

All of these games have a propensity to be hotly contested and close.  All could be losses.  All could be wins. Based on recent past history, it is only rational to fear several losses. On the hopeful side of the ledger, both Penn State and Ohio State lose a significant number of their talented defensive players.

Michigan could field a better team this year and improve their record only slightly.

An oddity in the schedule is that in November we get a visit from Brady Hoke and his Ball State minions.  It is a strange time of year  to play what is essentially an exhibition game.  We will be going to A squared in the cold, perhaps to see guys we haven’t seen play much.  I hope this isn’t one in which we only run, run, run, to hold the score down on a friend. This is the extra money game the NCAA has instituted beginning this year, thus bringing the total to 12 games instead of 11.

By now you have probably noticed that we have only talked offense, and not defense. We’ll catch the defense later.  Statistically the defense had a much better year as a unit than did the offense so it is reasonable to be less skeptical regarding defensive improvement than offensive improvement.

Michigan’s outstanding and annual football camp for high schoolers is over now and we got as couple of commitments, including Troy Woolfolk, whose Dad Butch was an outstanding back at Michigan .  I mention Troy because it is nice to recall his father’s accomplishments in Maize and Blue.  Butch and the Wolverines opened the 1981 season at Wisconsin, with the Wolverines ranked number one in the country, if I recall correctly.  That honor did not last long as they fell to the Badgers, but I have always fondly remembered the way Butch played football.  He had TD runs of 92 and 89 yards, longest and third longest TD runs in Michigan football history at the time..  Not too highly touted, DB Troy has blazing speed.  A team can’t have too much of that, and I wish him luck.

My grandson attended the Michigan camp for a couple of years and  both enjoyed and learned from it .Among other things, they learn how hot South and West Quads can be in the summer.  Some great High School Coaches staff the camp, players get to measure themselves against players they have heard about but have not seen, and so on.  Lloyd Carr does not get enough credit for this outstanding, well run, and very sizable operation.

“Okay, Grandpa, you’ve strung us along far enough.  What’s your prediction for the upcoming season, now that you have decided to write this kind of article.  Cut to the chase.  I thought you were going to write about Bill Martin’s visit to the Lansing Alumni Club where he was scheduled to talk proposed stadium improvements.  What happened?”

“You are quite right, Josh.  I thought that would be a most interesting article; but it was skewered by Cupid’s arrows.”

“Cupid’s arrows?”

“Yes, Mr. Martin canceled because of a relative’s wedding plans.  I was going to hear what was happening directly from the horse’s mouth, but Cupid intervened.”

“Grandpa, there are rumors that you get your information from the other end of the horse. But that’s another matter.  Michigan’s record for the 2006 season will be?”

“Well, right now I would predict a nine and three regular season.  I think they will win one of their three key away games and they may lose an additional game by upset.  That makes three losses. With a bowl victory, they could end up ten and three, but lately they have not won bowl games.  We ought to wait until after the Notre Dame game for these predictions. Michigan will play no bigger game this year as it could start some momentum, or kill momentum.  It will be a measure of what we can expect looking forward.  There is a lot at stake for the Michigan program this year, and Lloyd Carr’s legacy is now being formed.  Is this program going up or down?  You know what I hope…..”

In any case, let us hear your email opinion and thanks for reading this far and most of all…

Go Blue!

The Redzone is Not The Hotzone… And Other Keys to 2006

It may be hard to believe but it is indeed JULY! Thankfully for usMichigan fans that means the offseason is winding down, and we can begin to focus on what lies ahead rather than all of those events that we’d like to forget from last year.  That being said, it is extremely important that this football team learn from what happened last year.  There have been a lot of discussions about what went wrong last season and what must change and improve going into this fall.  Clearly, there is not one singular issue that resulted in five losses, and we could spend enormous amounts of time breaking down every possible factor.  However, I think there are two key issues that Wolverine fans should focus on early in the year to see if the much talked about changes and improvements over the spring have really occurred.  It is in these two areas that I really think we have cost ourselves football games.  To me, the two phases of the game that have hampered our Michigan Wolverines dearly are:

1.) Losing battles at the line of scrimmage on BOTH sides of the football

2.) Red Zone or otherwise “crunch time” offense

Without simply glossing over several other issues, let’s just say that the offense last year was horrific.  It didn’t control the football, it didn’t put points on the board when it had the opportunity, and it never gave our defense a break when it needed it.  Why might this have been the case?  Again, I think there were several factors that contributed to our offensive struggles this past season.  First and foremost was the myriad of injuries that hit KEY players on this offensive unit. The injuries to the offensive line were bad enough before Mike Hart went down in the first series against the Irish, a team he’s only played 8 snaps against in his entire career so far, but once that occurred this offense was going to be running on fumes for the rest of the year.

Our offensive line struggled to gel as a unit with lineups constantly changing due to the injuries and starters having to rotate to different positions just to fill in the gaps.  Without an experienced running back to find the few holes that were created, our offense was dead in the water from a running point of view; you can only run so many draws into the teeth of a defense after all. This put an immense amount of pressure on former offensive coordinator Terry Malone to come up with ways to move the football… and he failed in every possible way.  Teams were able to load the box with impunity because we NEVER ran play action fakes, and NEVER incorporated the middle of the field with the passing game.  The tight end disappeared as a factor in the Michigan offense, and Steve Breaston was reduced to a player who would catch screens behind the line of scrimmage. Our complete and utter lack of an ability to control the ball hung our defense out to dry time and again.  Malone’s play calling was not only lacking inspiration, but it never seemed to set up any other plays or schemes to take advantage of what the defense was giving us.  Two words will hammer this point home: Diamond Formation.  That deserves a whole separate column unto itself to be honest.

A symptom of these problems was that when the Michigan offense found itself in scoring position, it routinely failed to take advantage of those opportunities.  Note to the Michigan offense, the red zone does not contain a deadly virus, in fact it is the land of opportunity!  We settled for far too many field goals from inside the red zone, and came up empty an inexcusable number of times. This inability to make teams pay absolutely came back to bite us last year.  We don’t have to relive the whole season to realize how badly we squandered games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin,Minnesota, and Ohio State when we had control of the football.  Suffice to say, a more effective approach is sorely needed.

So what has to change on offense?  Well thankfully, one major factor has already been taken care of: the offensive coordinator.  It’s all too easy to point fingers at the coaches when the team is struggling, but I don’t think I’d have to look too hard to find a large number of people who’d agree that Malone simply wasn’t the man for this position.  Mike DeBord may not have been the most exciting offensive mind when he was here previously, but his offenses were fundamentally sound and could RUN THE FOOTBALL, something that we have missed dearly in the last three years against the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame, and our bowl opponents.  Oh by the way, he was a key part of that National Title we all look back fondly upon, many people forget that that offense was actually a very effective unit.  DeBord has always struck me as someone who “gets” game-planning and adapting that gameplan throughout the course of the game, his plays actually set up other plays later on in the game.  I guarantee we see the return of the tight end as an integral part of the Michigan offense, and that we rediscover the middle of the field with our skill players.  He will also bring a level of complexity to the running game that we simply lacked under Terry Malone. Furthermore, he should return some semblance of play calling back to our red zone offense.  Of all of the things that annoyed me about Terry Malone, this may have been the worst.  Every defense knew what we were going to run inside the 20, and more often than not they stopped it.  There was never a sense that we would run a waggle or play action down near the goal line.  A more aggressive and variable approach is sorely needed here, hopefully DeBord can bring that to the table.

The second issue that must be addressed on the offensive end is the play of the offensive line.  It is all too easy for us to claim that the injuries were the main culprit last year and that otherwise we would’ve been in a much better position…  HOWEVER, I would argue that our offensive line play has been lacking for some time now.  You just have to look back at our performances in the big games to see that our rushing totals are embarrassingly low, and our record is even worse, and I think a large factor has been the play of the O-line.  I think there are a number of problems that the line has been having that hopefully were addressed this offseason.  First and foremost has to be conditioning, we simply haven’t been overpowering teams despite large advantages in size on the line.  Very rarely over the past few seasons has a Michigan offense blown the opposing defense off the line of scrimmage.  Reports are this issue has been met head on, with a vast number of guys dropping weight and increasing speed; hopefully this translates into more on the field success and fewer injuries.  Lighter and faster is great, but if it doesn’t have solid technique to go with it, we won’t get too far.  Considering the number of younger guys we’re going to be using on the line this year, it’s especially important that they are fundamentally sound.

So great, we’ve solved the issues with the offense (wink wink, nod nod), so we’re set right?  To the contrary, DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!  Repeat this ad nauseum, put on your bathroom mirror, in fact, make that our motto for the 2006 season.   I think the major concern on the defensive end has to be the complete lack of productivity from an experienced defensive line last year.  Like it or not we did not bring pressure on the opposing quarterback until the bowl game despite having a number of very talented guys in the front four.  Again, I think part of the problem here was conditioning, the D-line seemed to wear down at the end of games (although it didn’t help that the offense kept going 3 and out…) and was pushed back off the line of scrimmage.  The other issue resides in X’s and O’s I think.  I have to preface this by saying that I have no idea how many times blitzes were called, etc, but it seems to me that there was far to little emphasis on bringing pressure in last year’s defensive schemes.  Instead of creating an advantage for the defense by bringing pressure from different areas of the field, we often allowed the defensive line to be taken on by more than one blocker because no one else was rushing the line.  I’ve watched enough football to know that when the defense plays a reactionary “wait and see” type of style, the offense will burn them time and again, and at the important junctures last season, that was the style of football you saw from our defense.  The synonym for “wait and see” is of course the thorn in every  Michiganfans’ side: the dreaded zone.  Here’s hoping we see our corners up on the receivers on 3rd downs this year, and linebackers up at that line of scrimmage…

With all of that being said, the defense was not woeful last year.  In fact it was greatly improved over the 2004 unit, but a change in philosophy and attitude was sorely needed.  I don’t think it will take a lot of work to turn this defensive group into a very solid unit, the talent is definitely there.  I hope against hope that Ron English will bring an aggressive and attacking style back to the forefront in Ann Arbor, he certainly has advertised that he will.  The players are there now for the production to increase immediately, so with a few alterations to the schemes I think we’re going to see noticeable changes in this area, and noticeable changes in how the defense performs on the field.  The players really seem to like English and his approach, and the more he turns them lose to use their natural ability, the better off we are in my opinion.

So as we head into the season, I think we’ll know a lot from the first few games by looking at how successful we are controlling the line of scrimmage (look for rushing yards, sacks allowed, time for Henne to throw, etc), and by how efficient we are when we have the opportunities to score (another motto should be touchdowns instead of field goals).  If these areas can improve, then I think we’re going to be in store for a MUCH better season of Michigan Football, and much improved performances against the likes of our rivals, and that would certainly make the pain and agony of this last twelve months or so fade away a lot quicker.  So here’s to new beginnings and to a new season!  I can’t wait!