Last night, I was flipping through my channel guide, and I saw on ESPN2: "NFL's Greatest Games: 1993 Divisional Playoff, Green Bay at Detroit". I gasped and switched channels immediately.
Of course, I remembered this game. Despite being only twelve years old at the time, I didn't forget. I didn't forget the wierd twist of fate, where the Lions had to beat the Packers at home in Week 17 to make the playoffs at all--but then victory made them division champs, and so somehow they had the right to host the Packers in the playoffs a week later. I didn't forget how Barry played a great game in the playoffs (which he "never did", according to his detractors); indeed, he had167 yards on 27 carries. I didn't forget the gutsy quarterback play by Brett Favre and Erik Kramer, both overcoming pick-sixes to rally their team late.
What I forgot was William White, the silent leader of the defense. What I forgot was just how good Sterling Sharpe was. What I forgot was those little silver football patches on the uniforms that read "JRT". What I forgot was how infurating it was to watch Barry cheering from the bench while Derrick Moore punched it in from one yard out--how many scores were stricken from Barry's totals like that? What I forgot was that Brett Favre has always been a double-edged sword, and that we used to appreciate his incredible effort, and the great things he did, more than we hounded him for the mistakes he made while giving that effort.
What I never knew was Marc Spindler's grit and smarts (and mullet!) overcoming his lack of size. What I never knew was how solid the upfront protection was, especially when compared to today's sadsack bunch. What I thought I knew, but didn't really realize? Just how important to the offense Brett Perriman was: being able to bail out the team on third and long was absoluely critical to keeping the ball in Barry's hands, and the wolves away from the door. What I didn't know--but thrills me--is that Brett Favre is Chris Spielman's favorite football player of all time (and Chris Spielman is a student of the game for reals).
There's something magical about watching these Lions: the Big Buck himself roaming the sidelines--and looking young and vibrant! A Lions defense that could collapse the pocket, flush the QB, and NOT be burned for thirty yards! An exuberant Silverdome crowd . . . every time they cut to a kid in Lions gear, holding up a "We're #1" finger, I stopped in my tracks. When was the last time you saw that on TV? A little kid in the stands, swathed in Honolulu Blue, boasting of his Detroit Lions. Sometimes, it's hard to remember that was ever me.
Barry, of course. ESPN did a lot of editing on this film: zooming in, spot shadowing, slowing down, etc.; I don't know if they slowed down Barry's runs or what, but Barry looked slower than I remembered. The thing is, he was even more elusive. MUCH more elusive. I forgot how much of Barry's effectiveness was based on his sheer ability to not be tackled. More than once, I saw Packer defenders pull up and stand still because they figured that two teammates wrapped around Barry would bring him down . . . and it wasn't the case. Barry had a way of shimmying his shoulders, twisting his hips, or . . . or, I don't know, looking at defenders that would make them freeze, miss, whiff, grab air, even grab Barry but he would turn to smoke in their hands.
I am not sure what has made winning that elusive for the Lions. My wife, who was raised a Spartan fan but didn't pay attention to the Lions (or the NFL at all) until we'd been dating for several years, has never known anything but these Millen-era Lions. Sometimes I tell stories of 1991, of the Thumbs Up! motto, of the Lions winning seven straight games to squeak into the playoffs, of a decade of the Lions being almost awesome but never quite, and I get the feeling that she doesn't believe me. My children are growing up fast. My four-year-old daughter appreciates my love of the Lions, but for some reason she just thinks the Bucaneers are so cool. I can bury them under a mound of silver and blue Lions gear all I want--but I worry that until this team can WIN GAMES, I won't be able to share my love of this franchise with them. Who could blame them? Even my own memories are starting to betray me. I've clung so tightly to the 'good old days' of 9-7 (and they were so long ago!) that they're starting to fade, turning to smoke in my hands.
Last night I drunk deeply of the old spirit. The stupid old Silverdome turf, riding on a cushion of air and sporting two sets of hash marks. Brett Perriman snagging a TD pass one-handed when he could have gotten both paws on it. Erik Kramer and Barry Sanders leading the team down the field for an almost-but-not-quite good enough lead. The Lions defense pulling up when Brett Favre rolled left, and Sterling Sharpe all alone in the end zone 40 yards downfield. At this point, I'd love to feel the pain of an excruciating home playoff loss, just to feel anything at all.