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The 2014 Detroit Lions story: A referendum on Matt Stafford and his matrix

Wonder Boy

Wonder Boy

He was the Wonder Boy. No. He is the Wonder Boy. He’s the kid groomed to be a quarterback from sixth grade, the kid that as a seventh grader had Highland Park High School thinking about a state championship, the kid that as a freshman had Georgia thinking about a national championship. He’s the man supposed to break the curse of Bobby Layne.

Matthew Stafford is 6-foot-3, 232 pounds. He possesses a rifle arm, a firebolt football mind, a cool demeanor and an innate ability to have people want to follow him. He hasn’t so much lived a life as had one preordained for him. For the past 14 years he’s been molded into the closest thing to a robot quarterback outside of Peyton Manning.

I think his mind is a loop of matrix code. “Spider Z, Y Banana” and “Gun Flex Right 70 Z Option” falls continuously. When presented with a situation the code tells him what the perfect quarterback would do.

He wears his hat backwards and tugs on his shoulder pads. He gives credit to the offensive line and tells the media that it’s receivers making the plays. He dates a cheerleader, and when they get old enough he proposes and gives her a giant ring. He spends hours in a dank film room, picking apart every detail. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. He delivers on that state championship hope in his senior year and dadgummit he probably would’ve delivered the national championship in college too if not for so many injuries. He separates his shoulder as a rookie but bowls past trainers to rush onto the field and throw the game-winning touchdown pass in a meaningless game.

For a few plays every game, the code breaks down. Sometimes Stafford the person — the one with the thoughts and feelings and motivations — appears. You’ll see it on a simple swing pass. Wide open, with plenty of time, Stafford will drop his arm and fire a ball sidearm not to avoid a cluster of hands, but just to do it, to show he’s not the same. You’ll see it on deep passes.  He’ll be rolling out, buying time. The matrix will tell him to play it safe, throw it out of bounds or scramble for what you can before sliding. But midway through the play Stafford will have a glint of recognition. I’m Wonder Boy. He’s Megatron. I’m throwing it up. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s probably a lot more successful than it should be.

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Your update on the baseball winners of the JMMA thinks about the end

Bootcheck after pulling a piece of rail of its track with his bare hands.

Bootcheck after pulling a piece of rail of its track with his bare hands.

This is supposed to be an update on all three baseball winners. It should probably focus on Blaine Hardy, whose ERA has stabilized around 2.00.

Or maybe it should focus on Jose Alvarez. Injured since May, Alvarez went on a rehab assignment and pitched one scoreless inning for the Arizona League Angels on August 26. Alvarez remains on Los Angeles’ 40-man roster. If he shows he’s healthy there’s an outside shot Alvarez is called up to finish the regular season.

But those will be the only mentions of the other two.

It’s time to answer what’s become a yearly question: Will Chris Bootcheck come back?

This year hasn’t been like the last two. Those years Bootcheck ended the season with solid numbers. An organization could look at his previous season and see he could provide “organizational depth.” This year he posted a 4.85 ERA in Triple-A, was demoted to Double-A, posted a 5.55 ERA there, and missed most of the last month of the season due to cracked rib he sustained while swinging a bat.

Bootcheck will attempt a comeback, of course. That’s what he does. That’s how you find a 35-year-old guy scratching out a spot in Double-A. But it’s going to be a long haul. He’ll have to recover from the injury, find a spot on a winter ball team in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic or some other Latin American country, pitch well, and then have his agent try to talk a squad into someone who will be 36 another chance.

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What cut day meant for current and former JMMA winners

george

George Johnson sliding onto to your favorite team like…

Final cut day might be the most important day of the year for winners of the James Mungro Memorial Award presented by (sponsor pending). The first cut gets rid of the stragglers. This one validates everything. It’s the completion of the long-shot story or the climax of the breakthrough from practice squad or the day of a dream deferred.

All three football winners of the JMMA had stories to tell after cut day. Here’s a recap of what they’ll be takling about.

We knew George Johnson a.k.a Georgie Boy a.k.a the current champ was clean by Game 3. The one benefit to giving the JMMA award to the media darling is that we hear a lot about him. So when the Lions make their cuts, writers use the defensive line section of their breakdown to write about him. He not only made the team, but he’ll play as a rotational end.

We thought Rodney Austin was clean from the beginning. The Lions refused to let him go to Tennessee last year, opting instead to put him on their active NFL roster for two games. I figured they’d want him to return so he could keep developing under their. I didn’t count on two things: the new coaching staff and Austin regressing.

The staff that loved Austin so much is gone. The one in its place runs a different offense. The skills that made Austin dominant last year might not translate to the new system. That, combined with Austin performing average in the preseasons game and reportedly poor at camp (ESPN’s Mike Rothstein reported the latter, but the link is broken now), changed the entire situation.

Detroit cut Austin on Saturday.

Apparently the Titans and every other team didn’t want him. He cleared waivers. The Lions signed him to the practice squad.

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Sunday Red Wings rumor roundup: Brian Lashoff’s days numbered?; A more definitive date set for Daniel Alfredsson decision

Every Sunday I’ll bring you a recap of all the legitimate Red Wings-related transaction and signing rumors from the previous week. I see all this stuff anyway. I figured I might as well share it with you.

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Why the meritocracy of football is failing Kellen Moore is his quest to be the No. 2 quarterback with the Lions

Gregory Shamus (Getty Images)

Kellen Moore is better than Dan Orlovsky. That’s what the game tape tells us, and after years of listening to coaches and analysts bloviate I’ve learned the tape doesn’t lie.

Football is the closest thing we have to a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter what round a player is drafted in, where he’s from, what color he is or what he looks like. If he’s better than that the guy sitting next to him in the meeting room, he’ll play ahead of him. Yet, after playing well for most the preseason and capping the month by going 17-for-28 for 172 yards and two touchdowns, Moore finds himself on the roster bubble.

He hasn’t taken one second-team rep in practice. All training camp.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t the meritocracy flowing?

I have a theory: The Lions don’t want the best quarterback to be the backup. They want the one who can help Matt Stafford the most.

The coaches are worrying about the transition right now. Kellen Moore doesn’t make the transition easier. He and Matt Stafford are in the same situation: transitioning away from the only offense they’ve ever known as professionals. Orlovsky isn’t.

In 2011, Orlovsky signed a free-agent contract with the Colts. This also happened to be Caldwell’s last year as Colts head coach. Orlovsky was one of the team’s final cuts. Then, of course, Peyton Manning didn’t play and Curtis Painter showed why he was Curtis Painter. The Colts re-signed Orlovsky. He started five games.

Orlovsky knows Jim Caldwell’s system. He knows it as a backup and a starter. Why not keep him around as another support system for Stafford as he goes through this first year in the new offense?

If something happens to Stafford, the team is headed for bungie jump off of Mediocre Mountain anyway. A Tom Brady/Kurt Warne situation happens a couple of times a decade, and Moore might be in that mold, but it’s apparent the coaching staff doesn’t think he’s that kind of guy.

So with a team theat isn’t good enough to lose their most important player and still be competitive, why even have a backup plan? Count on Stafford staying healthy and surround him with the people who will give him the greatest opportunity to succeed. After he has a year or two in the system, Moore might be better suited to help Stafford with the system. All people ever talk about is how smart he is. But Orlovsky had the fortune of being just bad enough to be cut by the Lions and just good enough to be picked up by another team. That other team had a coach who would eventually become the Lions head coach, and Orlovsky did just enough to be brought back to help install the new offense.

The question now is whether Moore makes the team. The Lions would probably like to keep him, but they probably won’t, opting for another special teams body instead. If Stafford were to go down this season,the Lions would probably try to reacquire Moore if he was on the street. But after the preseason he had, he probably won’t be.

If he wants to return to the Lions, his best hope would be to find the team with the coach that who will eventually replace Caldwell and sign with them.

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What to watch for in this final Lions preseason game: The champ, position battles and Kellen Moore

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The champ has already been crowned. The Lions’ team is already set. Legitimate college football is being played. I get it.

You don’t have a valid reason to watch the Lions play the Bills other than to scream at your TV like the overemotional chick in one of those terrible girl movies whenever there is a cutaway to Jim Schwartz.

But there is some intrigue.

The first, of course, is the winner of the James Mungro Memorial Award presented by (sponsor pending). George Johnson will play. Probably a lot. And when you have an opportunity to witness the glory of George Johnson on a pass rush you don’t miss that.

With the starters playing a series or two, if at all, Johnson should be in a rotation with Darryl Tapp and Larry Webster for most of the game. Do you realize what we have here? Johnson has been dominating backups. Now all of the sudden he’s going against Buffalo’s third stringers. Jeff Tuel better get his diapers ready. Ol’ Georgie boy is coming.

Outside of Johnson, the two remaining JMMA finalists are fighting for jobs.

The Lions will likely take five backs: Either three running backs and two fullbacks or four running backs and one fullback. That leaves George Winn and even Jed Collins in precarious positions.

Let’s address Collins first. Jed appeared to have the starting fullback job locked up. Then the Lions signed tight end Emil Igwenagu and told him he’d be a fullback. This could be a sign that the Lions aren’t happy with Collins and are seeking a replacement, or that Collins’ job is so secure and he’s so valuable to the team that they wanted to sign another fullback to play in this game while they preserve mighty Jed from a needless injury.

With Winn there is no gray area. He’s fighting for his Lions life. He has probably surpassed Mikel Leshoure but he still has to leapfrog one more name on the depth chart to make the team. The name is Montell Owens. Owens is a solid special teamer with the added bonus of being able to play both running back and fullback.

Winn can’t just turn into a special teams wizard. He’s got to go all Merlin on kick coverage.

If watching kick coverage and special teams isn’t your idea of a good time, first of all you’re weird. Second, then watch Kellen Moore. He might’ve won the third-string QB job, but that doesn’t mean he’s on the team. Jim Caldwell had held three quarterbacks in just one of the four years he’s been a head coach or the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. Moore might need this game more than anybody outside of George Winn.

So, yes, I’m asking to watch a fullback and kick coverage instead of a Texas A&M-South Carolina college game between two ranked teams that actually means something. But you’ll also get to see Georgie boy destroy Carson Palmer’s brother.

Don’t do it for me. Do it for George. He’s the champ after all.

Plus, they’ll be plenty of time to keep up on the collegiate games during commercial breaks.

Whatever you do, congratulations. You made it. The NFL is a week away.

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It can’t wait: The Lions have a new James Mungro Memorial Award winner in their midst

johnson

That man, wrestling for the ball? That’s the winner of the JMMA.

As men played for their jobs and coaches watched, deciding who to keep, I issued a challenge to four men: Go out and win the James Mungro Memorial Award presented by (sponsor pending).

None paid any attention, of course — they had careers and livelihoods to worry about — but  it certainly seemed like one did.

It wasn’t Greg Hickman. The fourth-string defensive tackle had a couple brief moments to engage the imagination. What if he did this all the time? How good would he be?. But that’s not how fourth-string defensive tackles are made. The Jaguars’ second- and third-string interior lineman bottled him up for most of the night. By the end, Hickman’s fate had been determined. He was one of six players the Lions cut Saturday afternoon.

It wasn’t Jed Collins. The fullback spent the preseason fulfilling his position’s stereotype. He was an unheralded blocking back, the only starter on the team nobody talked about, and never touched the ball. Friday, he delivered two crushing blocks. The Lions announcers talked about him being an ordained minister. There was hope for something more.

Early in the first quarter, Matt Stafford looked deep and found no one open. Collins jogged wide open in the flat. Stafford checked down, spotted Collins, pump faked and threw the ball away.

Later it happened again. This time: gold.

Jed1

Jed did everything I asked and maintained his identity doing it. But after three preseason games, Collins didn’t inspire the devotion required to follow his career. When Blaine Hardy, Jose Alvarez, Chris Bootcheck, Rodney Austin and Jacques McClendon do something they become life events. I never felt the same way about Collins. He deserved a better fate.

It wasn’t George Winn. On his first touch he got a first down. On his second, he hit a guy so hard a buckle on his chin strap fell off. Two carries later: Fumble. He recovered, scoring a one-yard touchdown, but finished the day with seven rushes for 13 yards. Those number don’t signify somebody who wins anything. In a different compeition, Winn get another chance. He would be one of two finalists and head into Week 4. But I can’t hold off George Johnson any longer.

In the Friday preview, I mentioned I didn’t have the same irrational love I did for Johnson in Week 2 that I had in Week 1. The fuzzy feelings came back in the second quarter. Johnson took one hard step outside, then swam inside for an virtually unmolested shot at the quarterback. I involuntarily yelled, “OH GEORGE! OH GEORGIE BOY!”

I never understood the love until then. It’s his speed. I like fast people. George Johnson is fast. His first step, his hands, his long strides — it all combines to make him play a step quicker than most. And when you’re a step quicker than most, it gives the appearance of hustle even if it’s uncelar whether you’re actually trying harder than the guy next to or not.

While I fell in love with George Johnson’s game all over again the difference Friday was his leap in post-whistle antics. In the first quarter he wrestled the ball out of a clearly down Jaguar three seconds after the whistle had gone, and earned some extra camera time because of it. In the second he got involved in a scuffle between the two teams after a Toby Gerhart run. That’s not all that spectacular — until you realize Johnson was on the sideline for the play:

Johnson1

The man ran onto the field — right in front of the camera — to get involved. Great hustle. Great awareness.

Johnson has a story similar to other JMMA winners. An undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, he signed with the Tampa Buccaneers in 2010 and spent three off and on years with them, playing in a total of seven games. When Tampa Bay cut him for the final time, he moved to the Vikings. He spent the past two years in Minnesota, playing in just two games.But here’s where Johnson’s story diverges from McClendon and Austin: He’s gotten publicity. He had a training camp feature written about him and a number of stories have trickled out, in the past week or two. Johnson isn’t just our champ. His play made him the bloggers’ champ and his story made the beat writers’ champ.

Johnson will make the team. He’ll be a part of the defensive end rotation as  a pass rush specialist.  But soon the bloggers and beat writers will look elsewhere. Their focus will revolve around Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford and “Boy, the Lions are good,” or “Boy, the Lions are bad.”

And then on some snowy day in Green Bay or Chicago or New England, Johnson is going to make a play.

Everyone else will have to think for a moment. “Who’s that guy? His number looks familiar.”

They’ll realize it after a couple seconds, but we’ll know all along.

He is George Johnson.

He’ is the winner of the James Mungro Memorial Award.

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