So here’s the headline on Tom Kowalski’s latest mailbag:
Those quotes express life as a Lions fan. When has our hope been real? When have the Lions truly been building something worthwhile? When has it all been a fraud? What’s the tipping point between being sure success is right around the corner, and living in a fantasyland?
History sees only the scoreboard; many insist it’s the only real metric. In this respect Jim Schwartz’s Lions have yet to eclipse Rod Marinelli’s, or Steve Mariucci’s. In fact, of the eight non-interim Lions head coaches in my lifetime, only Marty Mornhinweg and Daryl Clark failed to notch at least one 6-win season. At this point, the 2011 Lions are no different than the 2008 Lions, or the 2005 Lions, or 1998, or 1996, or . . . All rode on waves of exceeded expectations from the year before, all were full of reasons to hope, and all took a unexpected step back—or an unimaginable plunge into the abyss.
It’s hard to forget these hopes, these expectations; it’s the unexpected flipside of my role as the Flamekeeper. My constant vigil and long perspective allows me to accept harsh disappointment, internalize it, and keep cheering. Yet, when I’ve been convinced the Lions were on a forkless Yellow Brick Road to success, and they’ve failed, it’s stuck with me. These collapsed Lions teams, these unmade dynasties-in-the-making, they haunt me like ghosts.
In the NFL, success and failure balance on the edge of a knife. I’ve pointed before at October 2, 2005 as the day Mariucci’s Lions were undone. When five years of kitting the Lions’ roster together by the 49ers’ pattern unravelled:
It was Harrington’s first signature comeback drive, an efficient 81-yard march ending with a well-placed 12-yard touchdown pass—that got taken away by review. Despite the play being ruled a touchdown on the field, and the ball being in Pollard’s hands while he was in bounds, the ref overturned the call, and the Lions’ season momentum evaporated.
Obviously, Joey Harrington was not then, never became, and likely never would have become a great NFL quarterback. But flip that one bit from “0” to “1”, and instead of the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Falcons sealing Mariucci’s fate, it’d have been the first time the Lions dipped below .500. Yes, that’s right: if that touchdown doesn’t get called back, the Lions carry a .500 or better record into Thanksgiving.
Instead, it all fell apart. With fans publicly, and teammates privately, incensed with Harrington’s subpar play, Mariucci didn’t support his quarterback. Instead, he made plain his frustration with Harrington, and propped up Jeff Garcia at every opportunity. Mariucci’s failure to groom Harrington into a winner—and by extension, failure to make Millen look good—cost Mooch his job.
In an alternate universe somewhere, the Mariucci Lions worked. Charles Rogers’ collarbone held together, Roy Williams remained a terrifying big-play threat, and Mike Williams developed into a stalwart possession receiver [Ed.—Heck, that happened in this universe]. Joey Harrington became the triggerman for an offense bristling with diverse weapons. Space was opened up in the front seven for Kevin Jones to work his magic. A solid scoring defense, and exceptional special teams units, rounded out a team you could rely to win about 59.1% of its games—just as Mariucci did in San Francisco.
I loved that team. The hometown coach, the star wideout I partied with in college, cerebral, misfit quarterback I always said I’d be were I born into a 6’-4”, 240-pound body with a rocket arm. I believed that team was on its way—just as I believe this team is, too. I had more doubts in 2008 and 2005 than I have in 2011, but I knew the Lions were on the path to success. For every nice thing an analyst has said about Jim Schwartz, I can someone citing Mariucci’s track record, or claiming they’d run through a brick wall for Marinelli after interviewing him. We can wax philosophical until we’re blue in the face, and we can cite Statistical Great Leaps Forward—but if the Lions go 5-11 this season, all of the optimism this offseason will seem just as ludicrous as me claiming Mariucci was a bad call away from taking the Lions to the promised land.
Look, I know the Lions are doing it right this time. I know Jim Schwartz was an excellent hire. I know the Lions are going to make the playoffs this year. But don’t forget, Joey Harrington once knew he could play in this league . . . I and knew he was right.
“The Young Guns of The NFL.” Drew Brees, Michael Vick, and Tom Brady, all getting second billing to Joey Ballgame—it makes us shake our head now, but it made our heads spin then. Was it madness to hope the Lions were building something great? Foolishness? To borrow a phrase, audacity? Or was it something real, something true, unjustly undone by the pernicious whims of fate and a razor-thin margin for error?
I can’t mull this over without considering the reverse: what if the Lions are successful this year, and it’s not for real? What if fortune and variance smile on the Lions, and they make a deep playoff run—followed by years of mediocrity? What if this is all the prelude to another Fontes era, where tantalizing tastes of glory are chased with bitter failure, year after year after year? How cruelly will that Lions team haunt us?
As we speak of madness and fantasy worlds, let me quote the great Albus Dumbledore who said “It is our choices that define us, Harry, far more than our abilities.” It’s our choice to make of the Lions what we will. The battle between Optimists and Pessimists has raged on Lions message boards since there’s been an Internet, and it rages still. Anyone can point to any number of reasons to hope, just as anyone can point to any number of reasons to believe it “when they see it.” I choose to hope, and so that hope is real.