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.