If you are a pro football fan but you are not from Michigan, or you do not root for one of the teams in the NFC North, it is likely the only time you look forward to watching the Detroit Lions is on Thanksgiving Day. Even then it is likely you do not look forward to watching the Lions attempt competent professional football; rather you merely look forward to football in an abstract sense and by default and tradition the Lions happen to be on your television.
In fact it is likely that soon into Detroit's annual Thanksgiving day game, you begin to regret following football in the first place, wishing instead you had a less mind numbing hobby, less mind numbing than watching the Lions being slaughtered on national TV, something like stamp collecting... or competitive macrame...
The days of such Thanksgiving regrets, however, may be numbered.
While the Lions will not be a good football team this season, they might be something they haven't been in a very long time, save in the most morbid sense of the word: that is, compelling.
We're so used to the Lions as a laughingstock, the Lions as the lovable losers... okay, maybe not lovable, but definitely losers. It's an idea stretching back a long time.
In 1963, George Plimpton, best known then as the founder and editor of the Paris Review, joined the Detroit Lions at the outset of their training camp. Plimpton didn't tag along as a casual observer. Instead he joined as a member of the roster, even if he was listed as the team's last-string quarterback.
The Lions of 1963 were in what might be generously termed a "funk." Wildly successful during the fifties, winning the league title three times for the decade, the Lions had undertaken a downward spiral since their last championship in 1957. Their demise had coincided almost eerily with pro football's meteoric rise in popularity following the 1958 league Championship Game: often called the Greatest Game Ever Played.
As a writer, Plimpton was drawn to the moments of comedy, intended and unintended, that offered respite from the sport's veneration of strict orthodoxy. He cast himself as a fish-out-of-water and the Lions as men doing a hard job, yet men driven by an impulse to play a child's game for as long as they could, no matter how violent or how cutthroat that game became. As a backdrop to this paean of fading youth was a Lions championship tradition slipping further and further into the past as the team settled into mediocrity.
The publishing of Paper Lion in 1965 - forty five years ago - kick started a sort-of second career for Plimpton as a pseudo athlete chronicling the ins and outs of professional sports. The cynical observer might note too that Paper Lion kicked off an era for the franchise as a pseudo football team specializing in handing out heartbreak to the city of Detroit and its fans.
To say the Lions have been uniformly awful for fifty seasons would be untrue. They have been bad to mediocre more often than they have been good... but even they have had their moments of near greatness.
Billy Sims was a flash across the sky, a brightly shining talent whose five short years in the early 80s pushed the Lions to two brief playoff appearances before burning out.
During the 90s the team sported a gimmicky offense that didn't play to their strengths, or more correctly strength: running back Barry Sanders, that is. Sanders was a direct descendant of Gale Sayers, among the best pure runners in the sport's history. Like Sayers, Sanders was a purveyor of his own inimitable style. That style manifested itself in a sort of ever fluid ooze, quicksilver if you will, a shimmer from his shoulders down through his hips all the way to his feet. He was just as likely to surge forward as make a spinning cut off his back heel. The diminutive Sanders carried the Lions to the playoffs five times in the 90s. They won however only one playoff game, in 1991, before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. The Lions never again came as close to the Big Game as in that loss by a score of 41-10.
Eventually, the culture of losing led Sanders to retire abruptly, a state of affairs that had him by his own admission sobbing for three months.
Where this notion of the Lions as history's doormat gains the most traction is in the decade of the Aughts: the Matt Millen years. Millen was the kind of general manager we might be if we were given the reins to our favorite teams: short-sided, unduly attached to our failures, a bit aloof from reality, and certainly in over our heads. Millen fell in love with players he drafted and signed based on intangible characteristics. Never did a clear picture emerge of the type of team Millen wanted to build. He rode into Detroit on a Harley, pledged to revive a tough-guy culture to one of the sport's original franchises, then proceeded to muck up every other personnel decision allotted to his considerable power.
In the year Millen was fired the Lions logged a historically awful 0-16. Head coach Rod Marinelli spent the latter part of the year talking to the press about long dark tunnels. He was fired at the seasonís end.
The team hired Jim Schwartz from the Tennessee Titans to be the next head coach. Schwartz and management purged much of the Millen-assembled roster. The team went 2-14 last year. Just who are these Lions and why would anyone care?
To help me answer that, I contacted Michael David Smith, a writer for FanHouse and a longtime Lions fan.
"I grew up in Detroit, loved Barry Sanders as a kid, and any residual fandom stems from that," says Michael.
And despite Michael's reputation as a level-headed sportswriter, a rare quality for the field, he attempts to dissuade me from assuming that quality extends to his team.
"I've allowed myself to get excited beyond all reason about them and depressed beyond all reason about them," he says.
That said Michael's expectations for this season are measured.
"Schwartz is a smart, analytical, effective coach who has real potential to lead a team to a Super Bowl," he says. "But we have to remember, he inherited an absolutely awful team. If he goes 4-12 this season, that's progress."
The real problem of the Lions is with the defense. It's paper thin all around. Talent poor at linebacker. Too young in the secondary. Too old on the defensive line. The defense boasts two potential top flight talents: second-year safety Louis Delmas and rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Beyond those two lay a series of questions, some yet to be answered, some answered in unsatisfying fashion but asked again for the hell of it.
No, the defense isn't what might make the Lions relevant this year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions are assembling a fine collection of skill position talent, a set whose varying strengths might interlock to create, if not exactly a juggernaut, then a highlight reel machine.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson, heading into his third year is a collage of all the best aspects of all the best receiving talent out there: size like Andre Johnson, positioning like Larry Fitzgerald, speed if not exactly like Randy Moss than pretty damn close. Johnson has had his moments of grace on the field but up until now he's looked almost overwhelmed by the multitude of talents contained within him, a problem he should master this season.
Michael says, "The big thing for utilizing [the Lion's] talent is getting the ball to Calvin Johnson early and often. It seems funny to say about any wide receiver, but he's a guy you can build a team around."
Now perhaps the Lions are poised to capitalize on Johnson's prodigious gifts. Tight ends Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew portend to be a potent platoon. They both excel at threatening the short zones which should allow Johnson space in the intermediate and deep areas of coverage. Pettigrew, coming off serious injury, has the potential to be an all-around standout at the position. Scheffler in Denver the last couple seasons provided fine compliment to the talents of another physical freak, Brandon Marshall.
The true counterpoint to Johnson's scary length is rookie running back Jahvid Best and his compact explosiveness. At California-Berkeley, Best proved a big play dynamo out of the backfield and returning kicks.
"Some people watch adult videos on their computer," said Coach Schwartz earlier this year. "I go to YouTube and watch Jahvid Best highlight clips. Thatís what gets me aroused."
Of course none of this offensive ecstasy will come to pass if the Lions have yet to find a quarterback up to the job. And last year's number one overall pick in the draft, Matthew Stafford, is no sure bet.
"To me Stafford as a rookie showed that he has toughness and competitiveness and leadership and work ethic and all those other intangible things you like in a quarterback," says Michael. "What he hasn't showed is that he actually has the kind of skills as a passer that an NFL quarterback needs. I think and hope he does, but I could be wrong."
I was cool on Stafford in college. His Georgia team so ridiculously talented never seemed to play at a same high level at the same time. But Stafford did show us something last season, that he's not simply weathering the Detroit winters to cash a paycheck like fellow first pick JaMarcus Russell did in sunny California. There is this glimmer of hope, Stafford has just the kind of skill set - the big arm and big body to absorb the hits necessary to use it - that if that skill set becomes as full arsenal, well, it's just the kind that could turn Calvin Johnson into a weapon of mass defense destruction.
The best teams in pro football have a distinct identity. You who the Saints are. You know who the Colts are. You know the Ravens, the Vikings, and the Patriots. And they know who they are too.
While the Lions in 2010 most certainly will not be among the best teams and most likely will not be among the pretty good teams, they will be out to discover just who they are. And, for the first time in a long time, the answer wonít simply be a punch line. That's compelling drama any day.
[Cian is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. If you like the magazine, he suggests subscribing for free. To read more by Cian, check out his profile.]
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