Remembering a Lions beat writer who left us way too early
Three things to cover today: the death of a well-respected football chronicler, the Michael Vick contract from a different angle, and the stunning (at least to me) results of my Super Bowl prediction contest.
I'll lead off with a letter -- one of many I received -- about the death of a fine man way too soon. It's from Brett Climie, of Guilford, Conn.: "Please post your thoughts (if you knew him) of the shocking and sad passing of longtime Detroit Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski. A big fan of the Lions and resident of Connecticut, I have relied on his pull-no-punches reporting and insight since I was in junior high school. He will be sorely missed!''
Indeed he will. (Kowalski died Monday, suddenly, in his home, getting ready for another day covering the Lions ... after posting his final Lions story at 8 a.m. He was 51.) I knew Tom. A worker bee of all worker bees. He was a Lions beat writer for nearly three decades, and every time I went to Detroit or was in the Lions' locker room somewhere, he was front and center, asking the tough questions.
Deep down, he was as much an advocate for the fans who loved the Lions as any other beat man for any other team in the country. He felt their pain, though he never rooted for the Lions; that's a taboo in this business, which he respected greatly. He was forever holding the feet of every Detroit coach and GM (especially Matt Millen) to the fire, because he felt he needed to ask the tough and most basic question to all those who ran this perennially disappointing franchise: In a league where parity reigns, why has that parity never reached the state of Michigan?
You'd think that would engender all kinds of hatred from the team he covered. But I spoke with my longtime college friend, Bill Keenist, the Lions' VP of Communications, who spent hours with Kowalski and the other Lion media regulars six or seven days a week from July through the end of December for the last 30 years. And his words, dripping with emotion about Kowalski, were apt: Fair, hardworking, always there, tough, prodigious with copy.
One of the good ones is gone, and our business, and Lions fans all over the country, will miss him. Kudos to Jim Schwartz -- and to Dominic Raiola and Jason Hanson and Matthew Stafford -- for their words of tribute to Kowalski's family yesterday.
As usual, Kowalski, who wrote for the Booth Newspapers and MLive.com, was serving his fan base Sunday night, less than 12 hours before he died. He answered a question about why this team is different from that 2008 4-0 team from the preseason, and he wrote: "You can start and end with No. 9.'' Matthew Stafford. So sad Kowalski won't be around to chronicle this fascinating year of Stafford and his team. So sad that he left us way too early.
One of the most interesting conversations I had on my training-camp tour was with Michael Vick, and it had nothing to do with the Eagles' chances or his new teammates or someone called Toure'. It was about his relationship with Tyrod Taylor, the sixth-round Ravens quarterback who, like Vick, went to Virginia Tech.
Now, I was surprised but not shocked that the Eagles gave Vick a six-year, $100-million deal Monday. Surprised because he's not proven himself to be a durable quarterback who can give a team 16 games consistently; he's played a full season once in his NFL career. But I understood because they wanted Vick to feel like he was going to be the cornerstone of the franchise going forward, and this contract will allow him to play with financial peace of mind by allowing him to erase the estimate $20 million he owes a bankruptcy court in Virginia. Now, he should be able to move on with as normal a life as he can lead, without the specter of debt hanging over his head.
One reason the Eagles felt comfortable handing Vick more than $40 million guaranteed is because they've seen a more mature Vick. A good illustration of that is his relationship with Taylor. They worked out together in Virginia Beach with speed-and-agility trainer Tom Anderson on the athletic stuff, and with Vick teaching Taylor the football stuff, over the spring and summer.
The fruit of that relationship can now be seen in Baltimore. Taylor, self-assured and smart and confident, has earned the backup quarterback job with the Ravens in camp, and his long drive in the fourth quarter last Thursday -- admittedly against Redskins backups -- enabled Baltimore to defeat Washington. The thought of a sixth-rounder earning the backup quarterback position for a playoff team is quite a feat for a young player, but that's how good the Ravens feel about him.
His indoctrination started with the Vick workouts, and with Taylor telling Vick he idolized him and wanted to learn from him.
"Don't idolize me,'' Vick told Taylor. "Follow me, watch me, but brand yourself, Tyrod.''
Vick told Taylor that when the lockout ended he had to be ready to step into a practice huddle with the Ravens and call plays confidently. "When the lockout's over,'' Vick would say, "You've got to go in and call the plays like you know them. There's not going to be any excuses.'' Because Taylor had been exposed to the Baltimore offense from offseason exposure to Ravens veterans, he had an idea of what the offense was, and what the terminology was, and Vick told him during every workout to make sure he did his homework on the Ravens' plays. And Vick would throw basic NFL concepts at him, like how to call protections and how to recognize certain blitzes and how to be sure to go through his progressions on a pass read.
When I was in Ravens' camp, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told me: "This Tyrod Taylor could be special. He could be an incredible story. He's come in and done a good job of understanding what we do.''
Cameron told me that day, "Michael Vick's a part of that story. Wait and see.''
Said Vick: "Everything I asked him to do, he did. I'd say, 'Get in your playbook tonight,' and he'd come back the next day and I'd ask him things, and he understood. This kid I'm really rooting for because he's gone after it the right way. He really wants to be an NFL quarterback. He's really worked at it. One night I called him at camp and said, 'How's it going, little bro?' He said, 'Getting it down. Running with the twos. Going good.' ''
Running with the twos. Tyrod Taylor and his tutor have to be happy about that.
First, I was hoping
In addition, I'm going to award four prizes. The contest, in the event of a tie, called for the winner to be "the person who picks the score that is closest in total points by both teams to the score I chose.'' My total point prediction was 44. The closest is Justin Poulous, who picked a 27-20 Atlanta victory, so Justin is the champ. He wins first prize. I'll be in touch with him, and I'll figure out just what that is.
The other three winners all picked Atlanta to win by four points. I thought that should count for something. So one entrant via email reply, James Collison (31-27), and two via Twitter, @nickbowers (27-23) and @kilowatt44 (28-24). As well as the magazine cover signed, we're going to send each of those winners a blowup of their favorite SI cover, matted.
Thanks for entering. Fun little contest.
Now onto your email:
HE QUESTIONS HOW PLAYERS PRACTICE.
The way I see the players' thinking is a little different: Their bodies don't know if a hit is coming on an August practice field in training camp or on the Super Bowl field with the title on the line. A hit's a hit, and the fewer they have to deliver, the better it is for them, and for their longevity.
DEFENDING THE DOLPHINS.
You could be right. That's what's great about August in the NFL: Every team has a chance. I didn't see the Dolphins this summer, so I'm not the one best qualified to pass judgment on them. But I would say I'm very skeptical of Reggie Bush being the kind of every-down back Dolphin fans are praying he'll be. He wasn't able to do that in New Orleans. I don't see why that would change now. As for Henne, I loved him coming out of Michigan, and I still like him. But he hasn't delivered yet. We'll see if he's better in this new offense.
Scott, the NFL commissioner's discipline policy is not going to ruin the NFL. That's silly. Is it inconsistent? Yes, it seems to be at times. But Roger Goodell has suspended players who have been accused without being found guilty (Pacman Jones, for instance).
The Roethlisberger suspension was handed down, at least in part, because of two things: Roethlisberger's consistently aberrant behavior over time and because the three-month barrage of news media coverage after he was found in the company of underage college girls and accused of assaulting one of them "tarnished the shield.''
I'll just make one final point about the legions of those who defend Roethlisberger and to this day do not think he should have been suspended. It's common knowledge Roethlisberger was behaving immaturely and needed to be corralled and needed to turn around his personal life. This suspension helped him do that, from all appearances. Steeler fans should be happy someone took him by the throat and said, "Grow up.''
DEFENDING FANTASY FOOTBALL.
Reasonable, smart and interesting. Thanks for writing. I'm sure people like Kurt Warner, Arian Foster and Todd Haley would applaud you. When they get ticked off is when people approach them even after they've performed well in a victory and grouse about how their numbers were good enough (or, in the case of Haley, if they've run the ball well and he just didn't call Jamaal Charles' number enough).
ONE MORE TAKE ON THE FANTASY GAME.
If they read your letter, it'll get them to thinking about it. Thanks for the note.
GOOD CALL, JUDY.
Finally, my last and final word on the subject.
THE INSIDE SCOOP ON '
Could you possibly be talking about Bill Buckner? Thanks, Chris.