When I walked out the door into the early morning darkness, the wind was a stinging, bitter smack to the face. After a warm and lovely holiday weekend, where most of the near-foot of accumulated snow and ice melted off, last night Winter came roaring back. A silvery sheen of frost and ice glazed over everything, including my car. After cranking the engine, I began the routine: hacking, scraping, brushing, and scouring the exterior glass--while my car desperately tried to maintain a series of small fires inside a solid metal block chilled to a temperature well below freezing. With the grueling work done, I collapsed into the driver's seat. It was then that the voice on the local sports talk radio station smacked me in the face with an even colder reality: I'm a Lions fan.
On this morning, the morning, the morning where the Lions are now officially the worst team in the history of professional football, I have never been more ashamed, despressed, dejected, and disgusted to be a Lions fan. And yet--I am suprised and pleased to discover that I am still a Lions fan. Despite the snow and wind and bitter, bitter cold, a little blue flame still dances and flickers on the ashes of what was once a roaring fire. So . . . now what?
Since literally before I can remember, I have been a Lions fan. When I four, I went as Billy Sims for Halloween, despite the fact that his knees' connective tissues had long since frayed to nothing. I cherished my little Hutch-brand Lions #20 jersey. Of course, when the Lions eventually drafted Barry Sanders, it was like the best Christmas ever in the middle of April--suddenly instead of being the guy who can't afford a new jersey, I could rep the man who I knew would be the greatest Lion of all time. In 1991, I was ten years old, I nearly broke my thumbs pointing them up for Mike Utley. When the Lions pasted the Cowboys to advance to the NFC Championship, I was delirious for a week. Even getting slaughtered by the Redskins in that championship game 42-10 couldn't entierly erase my joy. The roar, my friends, was RESTORED--and the Lions were a team to be feared!
That was--oh, my God--seventeen years ago. Being a Lions fan has been an excruiciating, tortured, squealing-brakes slide towards this freezing black nadir ever since. The Lions went from being a three-ring-QB circus act surrounding a sublime headline performer, to an explosive offensive team that lost a lot of big games but never failed to entertain, to a painfully mediocre franchise run to be profitable and not to win, to a grand experiment where a "football man" with no management or administrative experience was given the reigns to a billion-dollar organization, to Jay Leno's nightly national punchline, to this: the Run to None, 0-16, the worst of all possible seasons, the Lions branded forever as the sorriest excuse ever to pass as an NFL football team.
Head Coach Rod Marinelli: a man who I am convinced--more than any other coach since maybe Vince Lombardi--not only believes, but lives and breathes every single word he says about honesty, integrity, character, effort, and motivation--is fired. He will land somewhere as a defensive line coach, and do an outstanding job. His defensive coordinator and son-in-law Joe Barry, whom Marinelli would rather be fired with than fire, goes with him. The rest of the motley crew, including Joe Cullen, the man who drove through Wendy's drunk and naked and kept his job, Kippy Brown, the wide recievers coach-cum-"passing game coordinator", are gone--save only Jim Colletto, the offensive line coach in offensive coordinator's clothing, who's been . . . de-moted? Re-moted? to OL coach, RB coach Sam Gash, and WR coach Shawn Jefferson.
COO and interim President Tom Lewand--the man who built Ford Field--is now the permanent team President. Assistant and interim GM Martin Mayhew--a former player with a law degree--is now the permanent GM. If you discount everything they did for and with deposed CEO Matt Millen, these two have fairly compelling resumés. Mayhew had the second half of a regular season, the worst possible time of year for a GM to show his stuff, to show his stuff. In that time, he consummated a jaw-dropper of a trade that has netted the Lions the 1.17 and 3.17 for a WR who has mostly coasted on YouTube clips and a gift for gab for the last two seasons. He also signed Duante Culpepper to do one thing--keep Drew Stanton off the field--and at that he was entirely successful. He also comes with a ringing endorsement from the best in the business, Colts GM Bill Polian.
Those who were hoping that William Clay Ford, Sr. (the man I like to call Big Willie Style) would either launch a month-long campaign to hire a brilliant young personnel man from some other organization, or park a Brinks truck full of gazillions of dollars in the driveway of Scott Pioli, haven't been paying attention to how Big Willie Style rolls. Like Marinelli, the only quality WCF possesses more of than stubbornness is loyalty. Ford was never going to "clean house"; he did that when he brought in Millen and it got him this. WCF looks backwards, not forwards--and what he sees in Lewand and Mayhew are two men who have performed very well for him, and together they are going to start a search for a new coach.
So . . . now what? Literally any direction from this point forward is up. Yet it seems like after three years of "stirring the concrete", while the foundation has not been laid, the hole for it has been dug. The deadwood has been cut (or traded) from the roster, many valuable role players have been found and polished, and the team looks like exactly the team Rod Marinelli wanted to build: Fifty-three men who all work hard, love the game, fight for sixty minutes, and Pound the Rock. The problem is, they suck. For everyone who's ever said, "I'll take 53 Wes Welkers on MY team", well, behold the results! Without superlative talent at key positions, without rare combinations of size, strength, and speed up front, without at least mediocre scheming, gameplanning, and adjustments, in the NFL you are bringing a knife to a gunfight. It is an absolute testament to Marinelli's coaching ability that this team fought tooth and tail to the bitter, bitter end. So what do you need to do? Add talent. This roster is full of guys you'd LOVE to have, just one notch down on the depth chart. Leigh Bodden would make an outstanding #2 corner. Paris Lenon can back up SSLB and MLB with equal aplomb. Mike Furrey is an absolute mismatch against any nickel corner. Dewayne White would be a monster SSDE, Jeff Backus is a Pro Bowl guard, etc. etc. etc. It seems like this team simply needs to add a few frontline starters in a few key positions, and they'd be competitive. And look at this draft! The Lions will have their pick of the litter at 1.1, and still have two more picks in the following 32. Three more in the two rounds after that--that's five picks in the first three rounds! As the staggering contracts of Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and Roy Williams roll off the books, there will in fact be plenty of cap room to try and plug some holes. And yet, and yet . . . 0-16.
In a league where parity has been the watchword since the late, great Pete Rozelle took the reigns and made the NFL into the all-consuming national obsession it is today, the Detroit Lions have failed to win a single game. There is absolutely no excusing or dismissing that fact. At 0-1, it was surprising. At 0-3, it was shocking. At 0-6, it was infuriating . . . somewhere in between there and here, the mind numbed. The senses failed. The apathy set in. A fanbase that had doggedly supported their team for exactly 75 years, with the last 50 of them a nearly unbroken string of futility and mediocrity, finally began to abandon ship. The Lions have played their home games this year entombed in a hollow jewel of a stadium. The atmosphere has been that of a memorial service; fans were showing up not to cheer, but to mourn the passing of something dear to them. Some have 'written off' the Lions, some 'are done' with the Lions, many more have sworn off spending any more of their hard-earned dollars supporting Ford's folly, and a few have even decided to find "new favorite teams". I don't blame them.
But me? I'm a fan. I was born a fan, and I will die a fan. The hooting and derision of the American sports culture has set my resolve. I'm sick of getting snickers on the football-y corners of the Internet. I'm sick of getting reaction takes when I wear Lions gear around town. I've thought about starting this blog for years, but this morning I knew that today was the day. I've pulled my hood tight, I've loaded up the sled with wood, and I've got fuel and spark to spare. I'm going to reclaim my Lions pride. I'm going to fan that little blue flame into the great big bonfire it ought to be, and nobody's going to be prouder than me when thousands are once again carrying torches to rally behind this team.