Detroit — Looking for help, hoping for impact. That’s where we sit, fidgeting impatiently, waiting for the local sports doldrums to lift.
Oh, and they will lift. Cyclical (not cynical) history suggests it. At the moment, Boston is gobbling it all up, on the verge of boasting three reigning champions — Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins.
Be jealous, but don’t be discouraged. In fact, the last city with three professional champs at the same time was Detroit in 1935 with the Tigers, Red Wings and Lions. (Yes, ask your great-grandpa). Now, Detroit hasn’t won a championship in the four major pro sports since the Red Wings in 2008. Michigan or Michigan State hasn’t won a national title in football or basketball since the Spartans captured the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
For that to change, someone has to spark it — a player, a coach, a trade. With that in mind, I’ve identified the 25 most-consequential local sports figures, those who could make an immediate impact. There are newcomers and holdovers, representing fresh talent and new ideas. I’ve ranked them without specific criteria, from bottom to top, to ensure the maximum amount of complaining:
25. T.J. Hockenson — The Lions’ first-round tight end is a symbol of everything the Lions want to do. They want to be more physical and run-oriented. They want safer options for Matthew Stafford. They want to prove they can buck current trends and win with old-fashioned punishing football. And they wouldn’t mind if people stopped griping about Eric Ebron.
24. Casey Mize — The Tigers’ 2018 No. 1 pick is destroying hitters in the minors, providing a titillating peek at the future. The Tigers will treat their prized right-hander delicately, as they should, but it sure would stir excitement if he’s mowing down major-leaguers late in the season.
23. Matthew Boyd and Shane Greene — The Tigers’ ace lefty and near-perfect closer are having terrific seasons, but if it happens on a team going nowhere, did it actually happen? If both keep up their pace, GM Al Avila will have major chips at the trade table before July 31. That is Avila’s unpleasant dilemma with players these days — good enough to keep, or too good to keep?
22. Trey Flowers — The free-agent defensive end from New England could either confirm the “Patriot Way” will work here, or he’ll be an expensive example of the malady known as “Lionizing.” He’s only 25 and has all the right characteristics, and if he fits as well as hoped, the “Ex-Pat Way” would gain credibility.
21. Brian Lewerke — Michigan State’s senior quarterback has everything to prove after last year’s injury-riddled disaster. The Spartans have fine receivers, but question marks at running back and on the offensive line. If Lewerke regains his swagger, watch out, because Michigan State’s defense is loaded.
20. Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Darius Slay — The Lions’ top two defenders have two years left on their contracts and might be doubly motivated to land new deals. Harrison is a premier run-stuffer and Slay is a physical corner, both staples in a Matt Patricia defense. If either, or both, has a dominant year, the Lions’ defense should be top 10.
19. Tom Gores and Ed Stefanski — The Pistons’ owner and senior adviser don’t have a lot of options, which means they have the best chance to make an unexpected impact. If Gores won’t trade Andre Drummond or Blake Griffin, partly because of their contracts, then Stefanski better convince the owner to do something else big. Returning the core would be painfully, tragically humdrum.
18. Cassius Winston — The senior point guard is the main reason Michigan State is a popular No. 1 pick, as smooth and well-rounded as you’ll ever see in a college player. He could be the National Player of the Year, and if he guides the Spartans to the championship, he’ll be a legend.
17. Romeo Langford — Don’t ask me how I know. The Indiana freshman is a fitting candidate for the Pistons at No. 15 in the draft, a talented shooting guard who struggles to shoot. A thumb injury slowed him, so he might be worth the risk. Desperate for a hero, the Pistons instead could nab Kentucky shooter Tyler Herro.
16. Dylan Larkin — The Red Wings’ 22-year-old star doesn’t have the surrounding talent yet to make a big impact, but he has the stature. He’ll soon be the Wings’ captain, and the face of the franchise’s next generation, which isn’t that far off.
15. Juwan Howard — It’s unrealistic to expect an immediate on-court impact as Michigan’s head coach, not with a depleted roster after John Beilein’s departure. Recruiting should be his long-term strength, and that will take a while to reveal itself. In the meantime, Howard can show strong leadership by hiring a strong staff and inspiring the current players.
14. Christopher Ilitch — As president and CEO of the Tigers and Red Wings, his influence will have to grow when both clubs emerge from laborious rebuilds. At some point, Ilitch must provide a boost with ramped-up spending, because the Steve Yzerman buzz won’t last forever.
13. Steve Yzerman — By latest estimates, the Red Wing GM’s grace period is scheduled to expire in 2037. (OK, actually 2022). Yzerman is stepping into an ideal situation, with a long transition already underway and a decent young foundation left by Ken Holland. He’s limited in how much he can do quickly, but if he can use his first-round pick — or in trade or free agency — to land a top defenseman, everything gets kick-started.
12. Kerryon Johnson — The second-year back can be a star, in production and personality, and the Lions’ best runner since Barry Sanders. (Blasphemy unintended). The Lions will be careful with his workload, but if he comes close to his 5.4 yards-per-carry average as a rookie, it’s a completely different offense.
11. Shea Patterson — If not for the wild acclaim upon his arrival, Michigan’s senior quarterback might be viewed far more favorably. His numbers — 22 TDs, seven interceptions — are very good. The offense’s struggles in big games mostly are tied to the running attack, but Patterson’s mobility in a revamped scheme should make him more of a difference-maker.
10. Matthew Stafford — Entering his 11th season, Stafford would be higher on the list except we’re no longer waiting for him to single-handedly lead the Lions. His biggest impact might come from not having the biggest impact every single game anymore. The running game and defense matter at least as much if not more, finally, hopefully.
9. Tom Izzo — The Spartans will be a consensus preseason No. 1, and this is Izzo’s latest best chance to win a second national championship. With Xavier Tillman a blossoming big man and Joshua Langford returning from injury, Michigan State basketball is the local team closest to a confetti shower.
8. Bob Quinn — The Lions’ GM is in his fourth year, and with a 24-24 record, the pressure grows. Since we’re past the draft and the bulk of free agency, Quinn’s impact the rest of the calendar year will be in the margins, filling out the roster, making potentially tough contract calls on Harrison and Slay.
7. Brad Salem — Mark Dantonio shuffled his deck, cut the cards, and Salem came up as the new offensive coordinator. His task: Loosen an offense that ranked 116th nationally. Salem has to find a way to be unpredictable under a head coach prone to predictability.
6. Mark Dantonio — This is the year Dantonio must show loyalty isn’t the same as inflexibility. The Spartans are 20-18 the past three seasons and he shook up his staff without firing anyone. Same faces in new places sometimes work, and the defense is good enough to buy time, but another 7-6 season would be troubling. You’re advised to doubt him at your own risk.
5. Jim Harbaugh — Harbaugh hasn’t had the landscape-altering impact expected four years ago, but judged in a no-hype vacuum, he’s restored the Michigan brand in almost every area except one. Yeah, the Buckeye problem, 0-4. Against Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame and in bowl games, Harbaugh is 3-10. Against everyone else, he’s 35-4. The next step beckons, and he seems legitimately determined to modernize the offense.
4. Darrell Bevell — The Lions’ new offensive coordinator might be the most scrutinized name here. He says he wants Stafford to do things “he hasn’t done before,” which should include not doing it all. Bevell’s run-oriented philosophy theoretically will take pressure off Stafford, who must prove he’s smart enough (and willing enough) to adjust.
3. Josh Gattis — Yet another new offensive coordinator, and Michigan’s hire from Alabama brings the standard promise of impact. As always, we shall see. Harbaugh has professed freedom for Gattis, who plans to run a more dynamic attack —#SpeedinSpace — and has the receivers to do it. The Wolverines have a top-10 team, but they can’t just count on their defense because it lost plenty.
2. Al Avila — The Tigers’ GM has the most thankless job with the lowest chance of short-term success. Fans have been patient, but in the next month or so, he’ll likely have at least three big decisions – what to do with Boyd, Greene and Nicholas Castellanos. All three could be traded, and Avila needs to fleece some desperate contender.
1. Matt Patricia — Is it too early to call this a defining season for the Lions’ second-year head coach? Never too early! Some of his early changes were clumsy and players resisted, and 6-10 was the result. But Patricia is a bright guy who knows how to put together a defense. He’ll make an impact this season, one way or another. Trust me, someone on this list will make an impact, I swear.