Football Ain't Beanbag (or Chess, for that Matter)

Paperless Lion: Football Ain't Beanbag (or Chess, for that Matter). LionsFans.com columnist Frank Bunker folds together the unlikely combination of Detroit Lions football and Chess. The result? An analogy that only Frank can explain, but as always, one that will make you ponder.

Nice game last Sunday, almost. The Detroit Lions returned the favor for their first victory last season by losing 31-24 to Minnesota, giving the Vikings their own first victory of the 2002 campaign.

Nice. How appropriate. How touching. How sickening, considering the Lions' loss came two weeks and one bye after beating the Saints for their own first and only victory of the season. Faithful Lions Fans who've waited 45 years for their team to turn the corner were disappointed, once again.

Before everybody gets too weepy, let's remember there's more to the story and there's a lesson to be learned. Unfortunately, the lesson isn't all that pleasant to hear. What can be seen of the story, though, is most interesting.

As they applied their favorite Astroturf shoes on the Lions Fans hopes, the Vikings helped point out some problems in the running game and the pass rush. Our purple friends also spotlighted parts of the solution, specifically in the play of the quarterback, defensive backs, and pass blockers.

This latest detour on the road to respectability represents an opportunity to ask directions or at least gauge where they're going. Should they so partake, the Lions will discover — or realize they were reminded by Drunk Lions Fan a long time ago — how far they must go.

Meanwhile DLF and Lions Fans everywhere await the next Bus or Rocket to get the team where it needs to be. Oh well. We can always try looking at the bright side of things, as coyote12, Atticus3, and long-winded writers like me might say.

Hmmmm. Do you think I'm now going to spring the standard "Give M&M some time" line? Sure, but allow me to add that once they find all the right pieces it's "Lookout, Twin Cities!"

SO, WHUHAPPUNN?

In the meantime, I don't agree with everything GM Matt Millen and HC Marty Mornhinweg do. And I certainly don't understand everything they say. But, for Rodney's sake will someone please tell me why the Lions never seem to keep two running backs in the backfield on passing downs?

Besides buying some time, the guy who doesn't block can go out as a safety valve. And if everybody's got to stay in to block, so what? It's great! The more, the merrier!

Happily imagine what kind of pain Cory Schlesinger, can cause, say, to a safety? He does it all the time on the short passes he turns into first downs.

Use the wide-out on a screen. Az-Zahir Hakim could conjure some real magic with some big blockers, Schlesinger and Dominic Raiola, to name a couple capable of absolutely leveling opposing linebacking corps.

And if all else fails, at the least a solid blocking foundation for the passing game could open up the box for James Stewart on run downs. The team can give him and the Offensive Linemen a chance.

Nah, it ain't gonna happen. No matter what armchair QBs like me can scheme or daydream, no one is going to pay attention.

No matter. It isn't a lack of plays that is the problem. It's the lack of playmakers. And, for the current campaign, that shortage seems to be a problem that is "non-correctible."

SHOW ME THE PIECES

Like politics, football ain't beanbag. The Game also isn't a chess game, but it comes close in many ways.

Besides the losing part, Lions Fans who've played chess also might recognize how a Tight End resembles the Knight. The horseman can jump over and around the battle line to clobber the opponent when it's least expected. "Pass up the middle? Big play all day." To Mikhael Ricks, add: "All alone in the flat. How nice is that?"

On defense, it's a different story. At first, everyone, especially along the Defensive Line, looks like a pawn because of how they line up and the way they swarm to the ball carrier.

Like in life and combat, appearances can be deceiving. Should they survive the perilous journey across the board, defenders, like pawns, can be transformed into the most powerful piece on the field.

Same transformation can be said to hold for certain defensive players. They all can turn into something as powerful as a quarterback and determine the outcome of a game. Which player and which position to undergo metamorphosis to shine as a star depends on the team. The Bears have Brian Urlacher. The Buccaneers have Warren Sapp. The Lions have Chris Cash.

And while that's not how they develop, a Pro Bowl Defensive End or Defensive Tackle can cause damage to the Game's capital piece, in football, the Quarterback.

Back on Offense, a Wide Receiver may be a Bishop. Able to run from one end of the board to the other, he can strike anywhere from any direction, at any time. A Running Back may be like a Rook. Absolute mastery of the board is his, when helped by the pawns to clear some running lanes. When right, both can take the ball the distance of the field.

Similarly on offense for the Offensive Line. Again, they just like pawns as they stand on the board in a row. In fact, they couldn't be farther from "cannon fodder." And in chess — like when a rookie Offensive or Defensive Lineman matures into a seasoned vet — when the pawn has passed the perils of crossing the board, it can become the most powerful piece on the board.

CAPITAL PAWNS

On Special Teams, Desmond Howard and the other return men deserve mention as being automatically more than pawns, they are special pieces of the puzzle because of their value in determining the game's outcome. And Lions Fans considering the relative merit of keeping a long snapper might also be happy to see Brad Banta making more plays and tackles, lifting his share of the load.

Some of the other brave souls who've made the squad because of their special teams play, however, have started to show their age. Think of the missed tackles and incorrect angles defending returns. Until they invent some Official NFL Football Viagra, these guys better get on the hump and start making some plays.

John Madden talked about blitz-weary quarterbacks during the Seattle-San Francisco game Monday night. The former coach and TV analyst observed, "When a quarterback sees the rush, he can't play anymore." Bummer, the QB is the most powerful piece on the board.

Lions Fans who've watched their quarterbacks play over the past few decades appreciate the observation better than most. They might also be forgiven for being overly concerned than most about something Madden didn't add. Lions Fans fear that the Lions QB looking downfield to find the open receiver may not see Julius Peppers approaching from his blindside. Not checkmate, but close.

So, to keep our QB in the right frame of mind and physically able to perform requires what looks like another row of pawns. And no way are these expendable pieces, an effective Offensive Lineman is difficult to find. Their specialized skills make them rare and their impact is as big as any on the team, making them valuable pieces on the board.

Consider Lions Left Tackle Jeff Backus. In only his second year, he's held his own against the NFL's best, for the most part. The guy's good and he's only going to get better. Why? He's a great athlete, a scholar, and one dedicated football player who plays to protect the most powerful piece on the board, his friend, the Quarterback.

KING ME

Unlike the chessboard, Lions Fans know players are non-interchangeable. Each is unique. There is only one Barry Sanders, and the team hasn't been the same since somebody made a dumb move. We'll know or hear of only one Bobby Layne.

That said, please allow me to close the chess analogy by describing two more participants. One is the biggest player on the board, Marty "The King" Mornhinweg. The other is the player responsible for moving all the pieces, Matt "The Visible Hand" Millen. And, are these two making the right moves?

Seems M&M have done well in selecting game pieces so far, landing a few pawns with the power to turn into something special. They've found the starting QB in Cosmo Joe, an LT and a DT with Pro Bowl potential, and a pair of corners and maybe a few others who can play at an even higher level.

Who knows what will happen, though. Give Millen and Mornhinweg some time and they probably will find all the right pieces, er, players. Here's hoping this year's crop includes help at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, guard, cornerback, tight end, etc. etc.

The Lions construction project may take a couple of years, less time than it took to build Ford Field. The question becomes will the Fords remain patient? Lions Fans, too, continue to await the arrival of The Day. Unfortunately, for now, nothing serious can be done to add more pieces until the 2003 NFL Draft. As of this writing, that's 192 days away.

Until then, there's a lot of football — and chess — to be played. And won! Who knows? The pieces currently on the board may surprise us.


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