Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

by Mike Tanier

I just love learning new things in my pajamas!

Sorry to sear that image into your synapses. Daytime television rots your brain after a while. You have probably seen the commercial for the online university portal with the pretty model lounging in her PJs with her laptop. A few more weeks of lockout negotiations and that ad will make sense. Go to an online university to meet pretty girls! Tell the admissions officers that you found their institution of higher learning through a website that advertises on the G4 Network on Tuesday mornings. It will impress them.

I shouldn't mock Pajama University too hard. In a few years it could have the naming rights to a stadium. I just have a habit of noticing the little things. A few months ago, the ads featured a different model -- smaller, perkier, less adult film-ish -- but she wore the same pajamas. It must be like a uniform, designed by the folks at marketing to appeal to marginally-employed males. It doesn't work. I am too creeped out by the pajama sharing to be aroused into pursuing a paralegal degree.

I'm not against online learning. Online learning is what I do when there is no football, but I wear jeans and sweaters and sit fully upright, not lounged coquettishly, another image that could cause blindness/seizures/insanity. I found myself hypnotized by DeMaurice Smith's hat last week, staring absently at it as he walked to and fro from negotiations on the NFL Network, and realized I had to do more with my time than read endless re-Tweets of labor non-news while marveling at how some men look suave and slightly dangerous in fedoras while others look like rejects from a little theater casting call of Guys and Dolls. So I loaded up NFL Game Rewind footage of last season's Lions games. Eventually, hopefully, I will be writing chapters for Football Outsiders Almanac, and when that happens, I plan to be the expert on all things Lions. Packers and Bears, too, but I saw plenty of them in January. (The Vikings will just be 1,700 words of jokes).

Drew and Nate

Drew Stanton exceeded my expectations, which were not very high, in the Bears and Buccaneers games. He times his three-step drop-plant-throw very well when receivers are running short stick routes, and he can put zip on those underneath passes to Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson. He runs pretty well. He fired a couple of slants into tight windows to Calvin Johnson.

Stanton executed a safe game plan in both games, and I don't have much sense of his deep accuracy, but he can play a little. Sometimes a backup quarterback is just a starter minus 10 percent in every category: he has 10 percent less accuracy, 10 percent less mobility, 10 percent less decision-making ability than you want from a starting quarterback. That kind of backup can get you through a few starts, because while he is little lacking in many respects, he doesn't have any catastrophic weakness. Stanton has grown into that kind of quarterback. Matthew Stafford, who I haven't reevaluated yet, seemed more like a 100 percent starter who will only be able to play 20 percent of his games when I watched him in the fall.

The mind wanders when watching Lions tape. I watch Burleson catch one of many short passes, much of them bubble screens. According to our database, Burleson caught 29 of 38 passes thrown at him within five yards of the line of scrimmage, gaining 219 yards and scoring three touchdowns but fumbling twice. That's so-so production, and Burleson appeared to be overused, even though the Lions had few options and many of those screens were Stanton security blankets.

I realized while watching all of those hitches and screens that my mental database on Burleson is fragmented. When Burleson left the Vikings for the Seahawks as part of the "poison pill" series of signings, then had an 18-catch season, I stopped paying serious attention to him. This is what online learning is all about: I had to retrace the fact that he had 54 and 63-catch seasons for the Seahawks, became a very good punt returner, and ultimately justified about one-third of the money the team paid him. Burleson got tangled in my mind with Troy Williamson and Koren Robinson, receivers whose names ended in "son" who toggled between the Seahawks and Vikings, flashing a few great seasons among many ordinary ones. Burleson is an adequate second receiver for a team with Megatron on one side and some good tight ends. He still has some quickness and has grown into a veteran who knows where to sit in zones, especially from the slot. Tim Ruskell somehow saw something else, but we have more experienced Ruskell psychoanalysts on staff.

Rhymes with Voice Box

Calvin Johnson did something amazing in one of those games, and the announcers said that he passed Cloyce Box on some Lions all-time list. Cloyce Box! Another hole in my football knowledge. I knew Box's name but little else, and I wasn't even sure what he was famous for. A brief Internet search showed that all Box did was catch 32 touchdown passes in six seasons and play in three straight NFL championship games, helping the Lions win two. That merited a deeper dig through the stacks.

Searching the newspaper archives for football news of the 1940s and 1950s is both fascinating and frustrating. Some cities covered football as thoroughly as they covered bowling. Associated Press articles covered football at a level of remediation that would shock a modern fan. Local papers still felt the need to explain who the most important players on the other team were and what they did. "Cloyce Box of the Detroit Lions will have to be closely watched by the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight in Archbold Stadium because of his ability to catch aerials," read the caption under one picture of Box. He's helmetless in the photo, running under an over-the-shoulder pass, arms outstretched, a tree-line in the background. An hour of archive searches yielded this promotional photo and some accounts of games: a two-touchdown effort to silence a booing crowd against the Rams, a short catch to set up a touchdown in the NFL Championship Game against the Browns, and a historic game that merited a measly 1,200 words in the AP story.

Once I shifted my search to the 1990s (in search of obituaries, a sadly effective way to flesh out a player's history), I found the real Cloyce Box. "It's taking legions of lawyers to untangle the old man's legacy," wrote David Pasztor in the Dallas Morning News back in 1995. Cloyce, who had a twin brother named Boyce, left football after a leg injury in 1954 and went into the shifty Texas tycoon business.

His oil company allegedly swindled investors in a pipeline deal. His heirs sued one another for their stake of the Box Fortune. It sounded like an old episode of Dallas; in fact, Box's ranch was originally used as a set for the 1970s soap opera. There was even a J.R. Box somehow ran afoul of J.R. Simplot, the Potato King of Idaho, a title which sounds appropriate for a level boss in a Kirby video game or a Boise State fraternity pledge who conquers the Tub of Fries, but actually belonged to an agri-tycoon who lived to be 99 years old and died the 89th richest man in America, despite Box's alleged capers.

Tackles, Safeties, and Guppies

Darn. I had retreated into the archives to get away from legions of lawyers and millionaire-on-millionaire violence. I returned to the Lions game tape.

I started focusing on Gosder Cherilus, a bad sign. Actually, Cherilus looked good in the Bears game. The Lions ran a lot of quick screens, sending Cherilus downfield, and he could reach and maul defenders in space. Julius Peppers and another lineman beat him off the line once or twice, but that will happen. Cherilus looks like a capable starter at right tackle, but I don't see him ever moving to the left side to replace Jeff Backus. A journeyman named Corey Hilliard replaced the injured Cherlius in the Bucs game and held his own. The Lions have two great players and lots of "not bad" players, which is real progress for them. Two years ago, they had Megatron, a handful of "not bad" players, and about a dozen Kalvin Pearson-types who played special teams for the Buccaneers but somehow became starters in Detroit.

Lions tape study can only be taken so far, especially on chilly March mornings when real football is either six months away or never going to happen, never ever again. Mikey was home sick one day, so I traded the Lions for Bubble Guppies. They are six little preschooler mermaids and mermen with names like Gil, Molly, and Gosder Cherilus. They have a teacher named Mr. Grouper who looks just like a giant Pepperidge Farm goldfish. Not to break out the tired "beloved children's character is really a pervert/predator" gag, but "grouper" sounds too much like "groper," and that big orange predator sometimes looks down on those morsel-sized aqua-toddlers with the kind of affection I show a plate of wings.

The Bubble Guppies swim through an undersea preschool singing songs and confusing me by doing things like drinking juice under water. The songs are all cloying kiddie fare, but they all have a beat. Children's television, in general, now rocks to a gentle hip-hop beat. My subwoofer gets more of a workout from Yo! Gabba! Gabba and Electric Company than from anything I watch.

A decade ago, all of the music on PBS and Nick Jr. was either cheap Casio keyboard "backpack, backpack" fare (composed by educationists who wanted to appeal to children as cheaply and non-threateningly as possible) or sub-Lilith Fair kid-folk that clearly appealed to suburban moms as "good for you" music. Oh, listen sweetie: Laurie Berkner is strumming her guitar and singing about how not recycling your plastic bottles as herb planters can cause planet earth to get a grumpy face! Let's record this memory in our feelings journal! Starting with Backyardigans and moving through shows like the Fresh Beats Band, producers began revving up beats and adding elements of contemporary pop music to the programs, even allowing some characters to (shudder) rap. Many of the songs are infectious, and I found myself singing "bub-bub-bubble, gup-gup-guppies" while watching the Lions secondary cover no one.

Ah, the Lions secondary. There was Louis Delmas, flying around and throwing his body at things, always in the thick of the action but trying to do it all on his own and not having a fully realized comprehension of his assignment. Nathan Vasher provided a little Cover-2 professionalism. But there was too much C.C. Brown and, when Delmas was hurt, Amari Spievey, and Chris Houston maxes out as a little guy who should cover slot receivers, not Mike Williams. There's no hold-the-line run defender at cornerback, so opponents ran a lot of sweeps and stretches and watched their running backs turn the corner easily. The Lions ranked ninth and 11th in Adjusted Line Yards on left and right end runs for the season, but they didn't do a good job in the late season games I watched, which means I have to watch more tape.

More tape. That's the answer. The negotiators agreed to a one-week extension, which amounts to prolonged torture for those of us who don't follow the labor beat and count on free-agent news and enthusiastic pre-draft gossip to stay busy. My choices are Lions film, children's television, DeMaurice's Hypno-Hat, or daytime soaps and Ninja Warrior reruns with coeds-in-pajamas commercials. Finally, a division the Lions can win! I plan to keep studying until I know all about their cornerbacks and reach the point that I will never confuse Nate Burleson with anyone else's son.

And if the negotiations don't end soon, I may become the Potato King of New Jersey.

Conversation with a Batty Waitress in Indianapolis

Her name was Amanda, and she worked the closing shift at a downtown brewpub. It was not yet midnight, but Indianapolis is not an all-nighter city, and the busboys were already stacking chairs and closing stations when she arrived at our table with beers and snacks. Amanda was bored, bored enough to tell her life story to a table of Internet sportswriters too weary of Cam Newton and labor negotiation speculation to interrupt.

Amanda was pretty in that brewpub waitress way: tall, wholesome and sleepy-eyed, just attractive enough to nourish our attention through her soliloquy. We did not so much converse with her as occasionally interrupt her. She spoke quickly, but with ironic disaffection, cutting jokes and intimate details rushed together in a sardonic prattle that shifted directions without prompting. Amanda was a twenty-something Midwestern everygal, a college girl too hip for the Indianapolis nightlife but not quite ready for everything else; too liberal for her small-town parents but too levelheaded to truly rebel; a desperate exasperation about everything seething just beneath the surface. She was a David Lynch character in search of a movie. She vented at considerable length.

She talked about using Wikipedia for college research papers ("I just change it on the works cited page to www.ThisSoundsMoreLegit.com.") She told stories of keg parties by the lake and all-night Call of Duty marathons with a default-choice boyfriend. She complained about her coworkers and her parents, shared dreams of traveling Europe and changing her major to philosophy. Indianapolis is a city of sportswriters in February, and some in our profession aren't above hitting on a young waitress, but Amanda preferred the Combine crowd to other conventioneers. The guys from the motorcycle expo, for example, comb the bars in "smedium" muscle shirts and pepper everyone in a skirt with Los Angeles Big Timer come-ons. Nobody at our table had any pickup delusions, and we could not have gotten a swinging line in edgewise if we wanted to. The conversation really went like this:

Me: "Hey, can I have another IPA?"

Amanda: "My best friend threw my car keys in the reservoir a few weeks ago. He was supposed to be the designated driver, but then he started drinking, and he got mad and shouted, 'I'm mad at the world,' grabbed my keys, and threw them in the reservoir. I guess that will show the world. I made one of my coworkers cry the other day. I don't know what I am going to do after college. Boys hate it when I kill them on a video game, then my profile pops up and it's all pink hearts and girl stuff. They call me a b---- and stuff. Does anybody else want anything?"

Amanda was bonkers in a thoroughly modern way, able to share intimate details with strangers but still protect herself with sarcasm, a child of the Breakup-on-Facebook generation that retains privacy by publicizing everything so aggressively that you don't know where to focus, what to listen to, what to believe.

She was also scared. Football Sundays pay a lot of bills for her. Lucas Oil Stadium is close enough to downtown to generate lots of pre-and-post game brewpub traffic. Unlike the Pacers, who also play a few blocks away, the Colts draw real crowds. (A Pacers game let out before we arrived, but there was barely a ripple of traffic on the downtown scene.) The Colts were a great team for all of Amanda's young adult life, and throughout her auspicious waitressing career, she could count on eight sold-out home games, plus a home playoff game or two. The difference between a Colts win and a loss in the playoffs can seriously affect Amanda's budget. "When they lost in the regionals this year, I wanted to call Peyton Manning and yell at him for costing me about a thousand dollars," she said.

Amanda knew almost nothing about the labor situation. She was worried about Manning's contract. Colts fans appear to be the only people in the world who think he might end up on some other team. I think most know he's the Colts quarterback for life, but they fret about it the way we worry about a meteor crashing through the roof. Amanda imagined a world where Manning signs with the Cardinals, the Colts crash to 6-10, the Sunday afternoon (and Saturday night traveler) crowds dwindle, and she doesn't have enough tip money to do the things young people like to do, like attend college and eat.

We assured her that Manning wasn't going anywhere. We didn't tell her about the bleaker scenario. Without football, those brewpub Sunday crowds become nonexistent. Forget Manning: There's not even an out-of-town satellite game to attract a few patrons. How many thousands of dollars would that cost a young waitress? We didn't tell her about the labor situation, because we were tired of talking about it, there were few available pauses anyway, and there was no reason for her to be as scared of a world without football as we were.

I never had any problem putting a human face on the NFL labor situation. It was never the face of DeMaurice Smith or Jerry Richardson or Drew Brees. It was usually the face of one or another of my friends in this business, someone who counts on bylines and paychecks to start rolling in August. But most of us are grown men who knew the risks of becoming freelancers. Now, it's the face of Amanda, and of the thousands of barmaids and busboys and service industry types who make four times as much on an NFL Sunday as on an offseason Sunday, people for whom a hundred dollars in tips can reshape a weekly budget, people with tuition to pay or tiny mouths to feed. They need football more than I do, more than we do.

I hope that brewpub is full of Colts fans by mid-September. I hope that Amanda is too busy every Sunday to share her autobiography with thirsty strangers. I hope football helps her earn enough money that she isn't dependent on it in a year or two, that I won't go back to the Combine in a few years and still see her serving drinks. And I hope the negotiators on both sides remember how many people care about what they are doing, not just because they want to watch football, but because they need it.

And I hope my next Walkthrough is about football, not the absence of football.


41 comments, Last at 02 Apr 2011, 12:25am

1 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

I wonder if the Potato King of Idaho was supposed to have a business lunch with the Sausage King of Chicago when their reservation was stolen by those teenagers. It makes me sad to think of the history which might have been had those two magnates joined their businesses.

9 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Simplot is the guy that figured out you could pre-cut potatos into french fries if you also precooked them and froze them. This meant a big potato grower (like Simplot) could sell fries directly to fast food franchises, not just potatos...(potatoes?)

2 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Content! Euge!

A good point well made at the end. It's about the little people (No, not midgets or Leprechauns)

3 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

The last section is why I recently referred to the greedy owners as sociopaths.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

6 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Dear English teacher:

Can a word rhyme with itself, e.g. "voice box" and "cloyce box"?

Wouldn't that make poetry a lot easier, put rhyming dictionaries out of business, and have other unfortunate consequences?

19 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

I think he was going for Cloyce and voice. Which is technically assonance. Or, if it's not, I'm sure the corrections will come fast and furious.

I think "Cloyce and voice" is a straight-up rhyme. It is also assonant, because assonance---the repetition of vowel sounds---is sort of a superset of rhyme; put another way, assonance + consonance = rhyme.

[btw, my only contribution here was the reaction "I think that's a straight-up rhyme, I should look that up"; all the definitions & such are courtesy of wikipedia.]

11 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

As an eye- (and ear-) witness, I can verify that Mike did not exaggerate the Amanda Experience in any way. Hoo boy, that was something else.

12 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

That last bit about Amanda is mindblowingly well-written.

The face of the labordispute for me? The 7th round draft pick, the practice squad hopeful or the backupguard/special teamer. Those are the guys that can't afford this staring contest.

14 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

An article on the Lions and Indianapolis ... I think, just this once, that this might be something on FO where I may be the resident expert. lol.

It's hard to say, because it's been so long since I've watched Stafford play, but I think Stanton is actually more mobile. The zone read plays were kind of funny to watch (and highly effective in small doses: you can imagine how many NFL DEs/LBs actually believe a QB is going to keep the ball on that play), but then they worked well enough that Linehan kept them in his arsenal even though it meant his #3 QB was running downfield without pocket-QB rules to protect him.

I agree that Burleson is a good fit for this Lions receiving corps. They don't need a spectacular #2, not with Megatron and Pettigrew and Scheffler and a healthy Best (and possibly Smith) in the backfield. It would be nice to get Derrick Williams more playing time to see if he can grow into a potential #2 or #3 - the fact that Bryant Johnson and Stefan Logan got most of the snaps behind Burleson is a little disappointing, but maybe that's where Williams belongs.

The Lions' winning streak is pretty impressive when you consider that they were playing their #3 RT at the end of the season: both Cherilus and Hilliard were out with injuries. As you imply, in the past, the #3 RT would be Gumby or something like that. Mayhew and Schwartz have done a very good job of cleaning out the sub-replacement-level players from most spots on the roster; the next step will be replacing some of the replacement-level players who are starting, perhaps along with upgrading a couple of positions with adequate starters (OL, for example).

No, Indianapolis is not an all-nighter town. This isn't technically part of the Bible Belt, but the bars will tell you otherwise: bars have to close up by 3 AM, and most places shut down well before that. A handful of restaurants stay open, but other than that, we're all expected to be home by then.

But hey, at least there are a variety of decent places to go downtown. It hasn't always been that way ...

In theory, the Palace Brawl was the beginning of the end for the Pacers; in practice, yes, the lack of veteran leadership meant that Crazy Artest overcame Workmanlike Artest, but it was more that Bird had assembled a team of players who were fine as long as things were going well on the court. Once that started to change, they started to screw around off the court, and that didn't go over very well here. Indiana basketball is about team play and togetherness, and that's what the Pacers are expected to do. The rebuilding project is underway, I guess (I don't follow the National Pickup League much any more), but attendance hasn't recovered yet, and with IU still struggling (ha ha), people aren't getting out to watch college basketball as much either. (Indianapolis is very much an IU city, we Purdue fans don't get out as often, and there simply aren't that many non-bandwagon Butler fans.)

This is the sad thing about labor disputes and pro sports in general ... it's almost like the lottery. It seems like a good deal at first, having a pro team in your city, because they talk about all the money you're going to get, but in reality, that money is already there (mostly), it's just going to different places right now. And once you start getting that money, you start planning around it, and then you become dependent on it, even though there isn't that much of it. (Despite what people hired by the NFL would like you to believe, there isn't a lot of money that finds its way into local pockets.)

When money going into the NFL increases, money to cities doesn't increase, necessarily. Owners are not asking for that extra billion off the top to give to their employees or to the host cities. They're asking for it because they want more money for themselves. In the meantime, we're slashing services all over the state (you may have read something about bills currently in the House and Senate here) and also paying for two football stadiums, one of which isn't even standing any more.

Sorry for the rant, but I find some of Irsay's remarks particularly odious given everything that's going on here. I have worse things to say about him, but that wouldn't change anything.

15 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

I visited FO today to see what was out there on the upcoming NFL Draft and I found this article instead. I'm glad I did. I learned some things not entirely related to footall and I like that. Amanda also sounds like a real catch and someone realy worth bringing home to Mom. Nothing is happening in football, why write some boring piece about nothing or re-hash labor crap.

As a side note... Simplot, if I'm not mistaken, was also the only guy who agreed to grow a certain type of potato that Ray Croc wanted at McDonald's as well.

16 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Loved the Amanda section. She sounds like a manic lixie dream girl (maybe played by Zoey Deschanel) in a small budget indie film.

18 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

"She was a David Lynch character in search of a movie" may be my new favorite Tanier-ism ever.

20 Cloyce Box fatcs

Novmeber 23,1950- 4 cathches, 123 yards, 3 tocuhdowns
Dece,mner 3, 1950- 12 catches, 302 yards, 4 touchdowns

only recievers woith more yardgage in consectuivegames
Chad Johnson, cicniannti bengals week 10 and 11 2006- 450 yards
john Taylor, SF 49ers Week 13 and 14 1989- 448 yards
Jerry Rice, sf 49ers week 16 and 17 1995- 442 yards
Jim Benton, cleveland Ramms, week 9a dn 10 1945- 431 yards

On december 7 , 1952C. Box gett 172 yardrs recieiving but opnyl 4ht most receiving yardrs that dya. Bud grant get 203, billy hotwon 200, bones taylor 196

24 Re: Cloyce Box faCTs (fixed it for you, RJ)

Classic RJ--come for the humorous spelling errors, stay for the exploits of long-forgotten NFL players that you won't find mentioned in any other article or message board. Thanks, RJ.

23 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

I am trying to give the young lady some degree of anonymity. Not sure why, since I now know more about her than any other woman on earth besides my wife.

She was not quite a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she was tall for a pixie and she didn't have that bubbly "let me invite you into my world of vivacious living" thing that soulful screenwriters fantasize about. It was more like "let me bludgeon you with my mundane world of drunken shiftless adventures, any one of which might end with Cletus getting drunk and falling asleep in front of the tractor."

25 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

In the mid-1980s, the BBC bought a large lot of men's pyjamas. They were white with blue and brown stripes and they reappeared relentlessly, mostly in sitcoms, but sometimes in nice comforting murder series like Morse, but not Morse, because that was ITV, for the next decade. If you're a pyjama-designer and you can pitch successfully to a telly executive, you've got it made. That's what I call good financial advice. Tell it to Amanda.

26 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Mike--you are truly the Jack Kerouac of sportswriters! Bravo, thanks for doing this.

30 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

"But most of us are grown men who knew the risks of becoming freelancers. Now, it's the face of Amanda, and of the thousands of barmaids and busboys and service industry types who make four times as much on an NFL Sunday as on an offseason Sunday, people for whom a hundred dollars in tips can reshape a weekly budget, people with tuition to pay or tiny mouths to feed. They need football more than I do, more than we do."

Great stuff.

31 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

A week without NFL football is a week my hometown Panthers can't lose. Yeah! Shut down the NFL!

Oh, and TRUE free agency would have Manning and Brady on the same team fighting for the starting job. Imagine the debates on Football Outsiders if that ever happened. No, wait, don't.

32 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Why would Manning and Brady be on the same team if there were "true" free agency? Not sure what you're getting at there.

And if they were on the same team, only one would start, and the other wouldn't be well-known - so no debate.

36 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

Every game I watched the Lions play (admittedly few) it seems that Shaun Hill was quarterbacking and playing rather well.

I still think we would have been the best quarterback in the NFC west last year.

38 Re: Walkthrough: On Lion Learning

I've heard of pubs, bars, and breweries, but not brewpubs. Mistake.

Amanda should learn that they're not called the regionals.

Not much of a football column here. Pajamas, potato kings, scammers, children's shows, young women who work in bars...