My car, nominally a Pontiac Vibe but functionally a garbage scow, needed to be cleaned out. I drove to a car wash and began the process, in traditional “open up all the doors and crank the radio” fashion. Only, instead of 80s metal or 00s hip hop, I cranked Ryan Ermanni on WDFN. The host was setting the bar for the Lions—but did it in an interesting way. He not only set a minimum number of wins, seven, he specified when they must win their games: at the beginning of the year.
I flashed back to my last post about expectations for the Lions' 2010 season:
The Detroit Lions are facing a similar crossroads. After the incredible burden of 0-16, the glorious celebration when that burden was cast off, and two straight offseasons of talent addition, the Lions cannot go into this season hoping to win a single game, or even win a game or two more than last. No, the Lions have assembled a talented roster, with legitimate talent on both sides of the ball. The veterans will be expected to play as they have, and the youngsters will be expected to produce up to their potential. A 3-13 season will be a disappointment, not a thrilling sign of what's to come.
In sports, expectations are a huge part of fandom. There’s no clearer example of this than the most recent Super Bowl: New Orleans set up a massive Super Bowl parade—regardless of whether the Saints won or lost. Meanwhile, when the Colts returned to Indianapolis, they were met by a crowd of . . . eleven fans. Even if the Saints hadn’t brought home the Lombardi, they were far and away the best team NOLA had ever seen. Meanwhile, Peyton and the Colts have set the bar quite high for themselves over the past decade or so—and last season, anything but a championship felt like a disappointment.
There are generational expectations, bars set by great epochs of success, spanning many players, coaches, and executives: the Yankees, the Lakers, the Steelers. These fan bases simply assume they’ll be contending for titles year after year, and are livid when they don’t. It’s these kind of expectations that lead Michigan fans to snarl that Michigan State football will never supercede Michigan football, “no matter how many times” in a row MSU beats U of M on the field (and yes, Wolverine fans, I have heard some of you say this).
Next, there are institutional expectations, inspired by dynasties beget by one player, coach, or executive. A decade or more of perennial title contention caused the bar to be set there, temporarily. The current Colts are a perfect example of this: they were mostly irrelevant before Peyton Manning, once blessed with Peyton became perennial title contenders, and may slip back into mediocrity when he’s gone. For what it’s worth, I’d say the Red Wings are between this stage and the one above—though if they won a post-Lidstrom Cup, they’d get a promotion. Coming down off of this high can be painful. See: Cowboys fans who think the road to the Super Bowl always runs through Dallas—despite only 3 double-digit-win seasons since the onset of the Dave Campo Era a decade ago.
More fleetingly, there are annual expectations, which is as atomized as this discussion usually gets. What happened last year, what happened in the offseason, how many “wins are on the schedule,” etc. Talk right now is about what “you’d be happy with” in terms of number of wins: would five wins be acceptable? Would you be pleased with six? Is seven wins a run-naked-through-the-streets number, or would you keep your clothes on until the Lions won more games than they lost?
Ermanni touched on something I always think about when discussing expectations: the week-to-week grind of finding out what this year’s edition is really all about. Every week, fans’ idea of exactly what their team is varies wildly from week to week. We might, at the beginning of the year, say that we’d be “happy” with five wins, but when your team is 2-8 out of the gate, can you really be happy—even if they rally to a 3-3 finish? Ermanni said he just wants the Lions to be in the mix, to be relevant, deep into the season. That they have to “win ballgames”.
Really, what we're talking about here is a belief that there’s a point. That it’s worthwhile. That there’s a reason to tune in. At the tail end of 2010, there simply wasn’t. Once Matthew Stafford was shelved for the rest of the year, Lions fans knew that there was zero chance of victory, zero chance that the games would be worth while, and zero reason to watch. So, Ermanni argued, the Lions have to come out winning. Even if the end result is 6-10 or 7-9, if they’re at least not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when Thanksgiving rolls around, Lions fans will be happy.
It’s a solid point; he’s probably more right than wrong. However, one of the most interesting examples of shifting expectations was the Lions’ 2007 season. Despite horrific road losses to the Eagles and Redskins, two of the most appalling on-field forfeits I’ve ever seen, the Lions got off to a 6-2 start. Quoth Mike Furrey after a post-bye-week win over the Buccaneers:
The Lions are 4-2, media! You can kiss my ass!
The Lions kept winning, picking up two more Ws in spectacular fashion, including the last time the Lions kicked anyone’s ass, a legendary 44-7 whupping of the Broncos. I would be remiss if I did not include this clip, so I will:
. . . brings a tear to my eye every time.
Lions fans were exultant. The Lions were 6-2! The playoffs were nearly certainty. The division crown was well within reach. Fans even started speculating about playoff byes and home field advantage. Certainly, these mighty Lions could not be satisfied with a one-and-done run through the postseason! No, they [embarrassingly premature smugness redacted].
The crash back to Earth was excruciating. The Lions finished 7-9, and played some of the most God-awful football anyone has ever seen along the way. The nine-turnover, nineteen-penalty 21-31 turd at Arizona bobs up to the top of the Honolulu Blue Port-O-John liquid that marinates the worst games ever. Look at the weather: “72 degrees, no wind.” The two teams combined to lose six fumbles. How does that even happen? As Greg Eno put it over at Out of Bounds:
OK, Mike. Ready? The Lions are 7-8! You can plant one between my back pockets, too.
So, did Lions fans walk away happy? Were we pleased or content with seven wins? Absolutely not—even though, had we been offered a guaranteed 7-win season at the outset, we’d probably have taken it. I think the same applies this season: yes, we’d take seven wins; Hell, we’d be giddy! And yes, there’s no doubt, winning a few of the first several, or several of the first eight, games would go a long way towards rejuvenating the fan base. Hitting the halfway point of the season at 4-4 would do wonders for attendance, for spirit, for—yes—the blue flame. But, who among us is ready for a 1-7 finish? Who here wants to be eager to come home from church and mow the lawn because the Lions will be on? Not I.
Yes, I’d like to avoid a three- or four-game losing streak to start the season. Yes, I’d love for everyone to get amped for Lions football right out of the gate. But, saying that you want the Lions to blow all their wins up front, because winning them in the back half “doesn’t matter?” I can’t agree. The only thing crueler than another double-digit-loss season would be to get a sniff of victory, only to get our faces pushed back into the garbage.
At the car wash.