NFC North: Tom Kowalski

Wrap-up: Lions 38, Chargers 10

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
7:30
PM ET
A few thoughts on a momentous day and evening in Detroit:

What it means: The Detroit Lions clinched their first playoff berth since 1999 in convincing fashion, jumping on the San Diego Chargers for 24 first-half points and finishing strongly as well. The victory caps a three-year overhaul from the franchise's darkest moment, the 0-16 season in 2008, and cements the status of a new set of heroes for Detroit sports fans. For those asking, we don't yet know if the Lions will be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Turning point: The Chargers threatened to make a game of it the third quarter, recovering an onside kick moments after closing the gap to 24-7 midway through the quarter. But on third-and-goal at the 4-yard line, cornerback Chris Houston broke up a pass intended for receiver Malcom Floyd in the end zone. The Chargers were forced to kick a field goal, a clear momentum swing that they never recovered from. Kudos to Houston for his play, which also included an interception and a total of four defensed passes.

StaffordWatch: There's no other way to say it: Matthew Stafford and the entire Lions passing offense were dealing all game long. From the opening play, a 46-yard jump ball that receiver Calvin Johnson caught against double coverage, the Lions had their way with the Chargers' defense. Stafford's final numbers: 29 completions in 36 attempts for 373 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 137.6 passer rating. In his past three games, Stafford has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. Obviously, that's how you want a franchise quarterback to respond in the playoff push. In the process, he set a new Lions record for the most passing yards in a season. It now stands at 4,518 yards.

Composure: Circumstances conspired to whip the team into a frenzy, and center Dominic Raiola was among those who let his pregame emotions get the best of him. I saw Raiola's pushing and shoving before the game and wondered if we were in for another penalty-filled, out-of-control performance. But the Lions appear to have put that phase of their season behind them. They were called for only three accepted penalties, losing a total of eight yards, and kept their composure throughout the afternoon. There was a moment when I thought tight end Tony Scheffler was going to go after a Chargers player post-whistle, but he smartly held back. Coach Jim Schwartz's no-tolerance policy has worked.

Rewards: I'm sure many Lions fans were thinking Saturday of friends and loved ones who suffered through years and years of substandard, playoff-less years of football. I couldn't help but marvel at how much bad football that longtime Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski covered in his 30-plus years on the job. Kowalski passed away last August, just before this wild season kicked off. Beat writers don't root for the teams they cover, but take it from experience, covering a playoff team is a lot more interesting than the alternative.

What's next: The Lions will close out the regular season -- and turn their attention TO THE PLAYOFFS -- next Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.
I noted this on Twitter earlier Friday, but I don't want the day to end without bringing to everyone's attention the classy and generous memorial the Detroit Lions have set up for longtime beat writer Tom "Killer" Kowalski, who died Monday.

During a public celebration of Kowalski's life Friday, Lions president Tom Lewand announced the Lions will re-name their press room after Kowalski. They will set up a scholarship in Kowalski's name and will donate a portion of their concessions proceeds from their first home game, Sept. 18 against the Kansas City Chiefs, to charities that he supported.

Meanwhile, according to the Lions, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell donated $1,000 toward Kowalski's favorite charities as well.

The NFL and its teams regularly perform charitable acts, but it's worth noting the unique relationship between teams and the beat writers who cover them. Team policies and the mission of a beat writer create natural and inevitable conflict. For the Lions to take the measures they did speaks to how Kowalski transcended that struggle and earned the respect of a team that by definition would have liked him to do his job a little differently.

I know many of you were supporting an online petition to have the Lions place a commemorative decal on their helmets. But I think what they did is more appropriate. Decals are reserved for members of the team family. Beat writers are by nature outsiders, and I think Killer would be the first to tell you that.

I will say this, however: I'll be honored the next time I walk into Tom Kowalski Press Lounge.

Note: The Lions posted a photo gallery of Friday's memorial.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

As a team official noted "growing concern" from team ownership about the state's commitment to the franchise, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton suggested he would support a voter referendum on the Minnesota Vikings stadium proposal. If Dayton follows through with that plan, the project would at least be further delayed and possibly threatened altogether.

It's important to add our traditional caveat that all stadium deals are complicated, and many evoke increasingly heated rhetoric. It's part of the game. But here is where the Vikings are now: Dayton said at the Minnesota State Fair that there are many unanswered questions about the team's $1.057 billion proposal for suburban Arden Hills and that he would be "supportive" of a Ramsey County referendum. "In a case like this, people should have their own voice," Dayton said. (Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.)

Stadium supporters have often sought to circumvent referendums, believing it unlikely that that citizens will vote to increase their taxes no matter what the purpose. Indeed, Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett said a referendum could be a deal-breaker for the project. It's worth noting that baseball's Target Field was approved without referendum in Hennepin County.

On the same day, Vikings vice president Lester Bagley had this to say about owner Zygi Wilf's attitude toward the stadium situation, via Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com: "I am concerned. There is growing concern within our ownership, there is no doubt, about where this is headed and the fact that every year, we get to the end of the [legislative] session and there's a different reason why [it didn't get done]."

Again, much of what you just read, if you made it that far, is part of the process. But you can add the referendum issue to a series of hurdles that already exist, from a staunch anti-tax state legislature to the proposals of environmental studies that could delay the project. The Vikings' Metrodome lease expires Feb. 1, 2012.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Vikings are giving defensive end Everson Griffen some practice time at weakside linebacker, notes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. Injuries have left the Vikings with moderate depth at the position behind starter Erin Henderson.
  • Vikings center John Sullivan has been healthy all summer after struggling through calf injuries last year, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The Chester Taylor fiasco is another example of the Chicago Bears as a "dysfunctional embarrassment," writes Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Linebacker Lance Briggs' contract situation is representative of a larger issue in the Bears' locker room, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. Haugh: "Fair or not, Briggs believes he represented a growing number of teammates unhappy with the way the Bears organization deals with players. To hear some insiders other than Briggs describe morale at various times this preseason, the Bears could become the first NFL team to use the Disenfranchised Tag for players."
  • Bears running back Marion Barber's calf injury isn't considered serious, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • There is no cause for concern on Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould's uneven preseason, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
  • Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson on the release of competitor Dave Rayner, via the Detroit Free Press: "I'm glad he's gone because he was good."
  • Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on his swipe at New England Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins last Saturday, via Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News: "Do I regret it? No. But the funny thing about the whole situation is, I wasn't the one who got the 15-yard penalty for grabbing a face mask. [Mankins was penalized.] And the other funny piece about it is, I didn't know you can't help protect one of your teammates. I had a great conversation with the ref who saw everything and he said, 'Next time make sure you let me handle it. But I understand what you were doing, helping your teammate out and removing him from the situation.'"
  • The daily link from Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com would have gone here. May God rest his soul.
  • Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones hasn't seen many passes thrown his way in the preseason, notes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette wonders if the Packers could keep five tight ends on their final roster.
  • Packers receiver Greg Jennings (bruised knee) returned to practice Monday, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.

RIP Tom 'Killer' Kowalski

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
1:52
PM ET
When we started ESPN.com's NFL blog network three years ago, we were hoping to create a new template for sports writing. We wanted our coverage to be a conversation with readers rather than the lecture you so often receive from traditional print media.

I wanted you to know me and have daily direct access, even if we would never meet.

In the years since, I came to realize that one "traditional" sportswriter was already doing that and had long ago established a connection with readers that I could only dream of. Tom "Killer" Kowalski, who covered the Detroit Lions for Booth Newspapers and Mlive.com, was a big dude with a deep voice who loved being the ultimate purveyor of Lions information and insight.

More importantly, he obviously enjoyed the give-and-take that has come to define the landscape of professional sports. Whether it was in an airport bar, on the sidelines at a training camp practice or, more recently, through Twitter, Killer would talk Lions -- who he always referred to as "these guys" -- to audiences of one and up.

Kowalski's death Monday morning left countless Lions fans without a voice they had listened to, read and exchanged barbs with literally for decades. He had been on the beat for three decades and as @Lionsfan1960 noted, Killer was "the only man who could keep Lions fans sane through 0-16."

Take a stroll through Killer's Twitter feed, where you'll see he was breaking down the differences between man and zone defense during his final night on this earth. @Omnimon wrote that Killer "was always there to tell you like it was," a simple expression of all that you can hope for from a modern-day beat writer: Someone who offered an unvarnished viewpoint of a popular team in a league that has worked increasingly to limit the flow of truth, a man who would take your questions but not necessarily give you the answer you wanted.

Your Twitter response to Killer's death was awesome and overwhelming. You're hurt on a personal level, as am I, because he made you feel like you knew him, even if you've never met.

I won't pretend to have known Killer well, but I do know what my two lasting images of him will be. The first is from training camp this summer, when I took notice of the XXXL T-shirt he was wearing. On the back was a drawing of a dog, underneath which were the words: "I let the dogs out!" It perfectly illustrated Killer's unique mix of in-your-face style and self-deprecation.

The second is the final tweet Sunday night. It read: "OK fellas, here we go ... Sleep well, I'll most likely kill you in the morning...."

I laughed, thinking it was another in a long line of that brash mix. But you knew better. As @BobbyG640 and others pointed out, it was a quote from the movie "The Princess Bride."

Killer, as it turns out, had a soft spot.

I know you don't come to this blog to read about sportswriters, but what we lost Monday extends way beyond that title. An institution is gone. Fortunately, he left a path for the rest of us -- in my business and elsewhere -- to follow.

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