Rooting for the Lions
Something disconcerting kept happening as I helplessly rooted for the Detroit Lions on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks: I kept thinking it was Thanksgiving.
I know that sounds like a one-liner, but it’s 100 percent true … I kept watching the game, and seeing those blue Lions uniforms — technically, they’re something called Honolulu Blue — and thinking to myself: “I could really use some turkey and stuffing right about now.” It was a feeling that never quite went away.
And I realized that, yeah, pretty much the only times in my entire life I have watched a Detroit Lions game from start to finish have been on Thanksgiving, when there really wasn’t much of a choice.
I felt a solemn duty to put the Lions on my Pick an NFL Team schedule. Only two teams in the NFL have:
Been around since Super Bowl I.
Not played in a Super Bowl.
The first is obviously the Cleveland Browns, my former team. The second is the Detroit Lions. They are also the only two teams that have gone 0-16. They were also the two dominant teams of the 1950s, and they have both been 21st-century laughingstocks. The Browns last won a title in 1964. The Lions last won a title in 1957.
One is Beavis, the other Butthead, and it’s hard to know which one is which.
In fact, I have a friend who is a Lions fan and we have spent a fair amount of time arguing which fan base has had it worse. My argument always has been that the Browns’ history has been littered with considerably more heartache — the Drive, the Fumble, Red Right 88, the team moving out, etc.
My friend’s argument is basically, “Hey, at least the Browns have been good enough to break your heart,” and he points out that other than the 1991 conference championship (which the Lions lost 41-10 to Washington), this is a team that has never even THREATENED to win anything since 1957. The Lions’ history since that Washington blowout is spectacularly and comically awful.
1993: Wild card! (Lost to Green Bay)
1994: Wild card! (Lost to Green Bay)
1995: Wild card! (Gave up 58 points and lost to Philadelphia)
1997: Wild card! (Lost to Tampa Bay)
1999: Wild card! (Lost to Washington)
2011: Wild card! (Lost to New Orleans)
2014: Wild card! (Lost to Dallas)
2016: Wild card! (Lost to Seattle)
Yes, those are the highlights — they have made the playoff as a wild card EIGHT TIMES in the last 30 seasons, and they lost all eight wild-card games. The Browns, by contrast, have made the playoffs only three times in those same seasons, but they did at least win a couple of wild-card games. Here’s a quick scorecard:
Head coaches: Lions 12, Browns 13
Number of starting quarterbacks: Lions 27, Browns 39
Number of seasons with three or fewer wins: Lions 5, Browns 5
Times the team just left the city: Lions 0, Browns 1
Times they took the wind instead of the ball in overtime: Lions 1, Browns 0
Times they lost because a player threw his helmet: Lions 0, Browns 1
Times their quarterback voluntarily ran out of the end zone for a safety: Lions 1, Browns 0
Oh, we can do this all day. It’s a forever argument. They are both Beavis. They are both Butthead.
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So, obviously, as a retired Browns fan, I felt like I owed it to the football fates to give the Lions a try. And I suspect I couldn’t have picked a better game to do it. The Lions lost to the Seahawks 48-45. It was a Scorigami — meaning that no other NFL game had ever ended 48-45 before. So that was cool. And it was frustrating in ways that only true masters of frustration can achieve.
The Lions, you might know, have scored more points than any NFL team this year — 11 more points than the second-place Chiefs. This is, seriously, a really good offense. I didn’t fully appreciate just how good quarterback Jared Goff is; I just had never thought much about him. But he’s actually pretty terrific, way better than any Cleveland Browns quarterback in a very, very long time. I missed that feeling of seeing a quarterback drop back and have confidence that he would actually do something good.
Then the whole offense is good — this is a good offensive line, D’Andre Swift (who didn’t actually play in this one) seems to be the latest in the line of great Georgia running backs, and Amon-Ra St. Brown (who also didn’t play in this one) is pretty delightful in every way. This really is a fun team to root for offensively …
… but that defense.
Ugh, that defense.
A week ago, Katie and I tried on the Chicago Bears, and tried to imagine ourselves rooting for a team that never has a good quarterback but always seems to have a good running game and a good defense. While in my mind, the Lions and Bears have always blended into a Wizard of Oz blur of “mediocre NFC North teams in hardy cities,” they are actually becoming kind of opposites. The last two quarterbacks for the Lions — Goff and Matthew Stafford — would have been the best Bears quarterbacks since Sid Luckman. The Lions offense has been periodically exciting …
…. but that defense.
Ugh that defense.
The Lions have given up four more touchdowns than any team in the NFL. But, then, they finished 31st in points allowed last year, and dead last in points allowed the year before that, and from 2007 to 2009 they were dead last in points allowed three seasons in a row, and this century they have finished bottom-six in points allowed 10 times and once finished in the top 10 in defense. They’re pretty much always a dreadful defense.
This defense is particularly awful. The Seahawks came into this game with Geno Smith as their quarterback and a striking inability to run the ball. The Lions made Geno Smith look like Peyton Manning (23 for 30 for 320 yards and two touchdowns), and made Rashaad Penny look like Jim Brown (17 carries, 151 yards, 2 touchdowns). I’m sure I’ve seen worse defensive performances, but none come immediately to mind.
As I continue along this speed-dating season and ponder what team to select as my new favorite, I think about a lot of things. I think about the NFL places I’ve lived — Kansas City, Cincinnati, Charlotte — and my connection to those places.
I think about those NFL teams that I’ve always just liked — Buffalo and San Diego in particular, though obviously there is no more San Diego — and wonder if I’m ready to take the next step in the relationship.
I think about the weather — I honestly don’t think I could be a passionate fan of a warm-weather team. I need some snow. I need some mud. I like Chicago Bears weather.
And I think about finding a team that fulfills my lifelong connection to losing. And as I watched the Lions and futilely cheered for them to stop the Seahawks just one time, I realized that’s pretty much our only connection. I will say that it did feel familiar rooting for a team that everybody knew would lose. I know all the words to that song.
But here’s the thing: It wasn’t the losing that drew me to the Cleveland Browns. I hated the losing. I died a little with every crushing defeat. No, I was born into the Browns, and the losing was the inedible appetizer that came free with the meal.
I guess what I’m saying is: Losing isn’t enough. I’m not interested in just taking on the pain of watching Amani Oruwariye commit penalties. Oruwariye committed six penalties in coverage against the Vikings in Week 3 — SIX PENALTIES, I thought it was a misstatement when I first heard it. “I’m not going to change who I am,” he said after the game. Well, on Sunday against Seattle, he committed only one penalty; he seemed to prefer letting receivers run by him.
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I do want to say, though, that I like that coach Dan Campbell. I appreciate a coach who always looks like he’s just about to turn into the Hulk. One thing that was often frustrating as a Browns fan was how calm their coaches would be while the team was doing titanically stupid things.
“We’re going to go learn from this one and get back to work on Monday and work on fixing the mistakes we made and one thing I can assure you is that the effort on this team is top-notch and these guys are going to give their all each and every week and it’s my job to put them in the best position to win and we didn’t do that today but we’re going to learn from this one and get back to work on Monday and work on fixing the mistakes we made and one thing I can assure you is that the effort on this team is top-notch and …”
But Dan Campbell — he doesn’t even have to say anything, you can just see the agony on his face. I’m pretty sure he aged 12 years in the fourth quarter alone. I’ve heard that some people call him “The Dude,” because he looks quite a bit like the younger Lebowski and that pretty much nails it — the Lions make Dan Campbell look like someone just urinated on his rug.
“We lack confidence, I can tell you that,” he said. “We lack a LOT of confidence.”
You could tell that the word “confidence” carried a lot of weight there.