Haunted By Hope: The Ghosts of Lions Past

>> 7.12.2011

So here’s the headline on Tom Kowalski’s latest mailbag:

Three reasons why the Detroit Lions have 'real' hope this year

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.

Joey Harrington on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“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.

4 comments:

gmolenda July 12, 2011 at 4:53 PM  

I still have my Steve Mariucci bobblehead. I can almost believe that they really were a touchdown away from being successful. Being a Lions fan is not a miserable experience, even with all of the losing. Being a Lions fan is an exercise in optimism. Next season has always looked better.

linebusy July 12, 2011 at 7:43 PM  

Paula Pasche has been doing "3 reasons / 3 things" in multiple entries for the past week. I find it kinda creepy that Tom would pen an article in the same vein.

LionsFanROC,  July 13, 2011 at 11:59 AM  

Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but my optimism reigns eternal. For all of this teams recent downfalls and for all the times they've gotten us excited just to let us down, this one feels different.

When Marinelli was in town, I believed his "hard work pays off" style of coaching and his desire to get team guys with less size, skill, talent, etc. "I don't want Pro Bowl players, I want world champions." He sold me on it, and I bought in.

But there is this calculating, business-like approach with this group that I didn't get from the leadership of past. Millen was always more worried about hob-knobbing with people on the sidelines of games than making smart, shrewd business decisions. And while Schwartz will stick up for and is loyal to his players, he won't do it to a fault like Marinelli.

This group hasn't had to "sell" me into believing. There is tangible evidence of improvement this time around. I don't think anything can cast the Lions back into the black hole oblivion that was the 2000's. That being said, if Stafford doesn't work out we could still be looking at another perennially under performing team in the near future.

f2557a26-774a-11e0-9331-000bcdcb5194 July 13, 2011 at 1:40 PM  

I am eternally a skeptic, but I had a lot of hope for that squad. I don’t really want to start a big Harrington debate, but good or bad, guys like Harrington and Carr never had a real chance to succeed in the league. There are a few guys like Elway or Manning that would have been good no matter how bad their teams could be. The talent margin between the worst and best players at a position are so thin in most cases that success is usually determined more by work-effort and the system you play in. It may be an exercise in futility, but can you imagine Tom Brady being successful in any other system? Heck, he barely made it on his team and the circumstances that led to him seeing the field was a miracle. Mere inches separated Brady from likely getting cut that season and his now Hall of Fame career path. Charles Rodgers was probably a much better athlete than Jerry Rice coming out of college. He certainly was taller and a lot faster. One of them is the most dominant player of all time at this position and the other washed out of the league in a couple of years. I really wanted Harrington to succeed and it made me sad when he did not. It also made me sad that fans reacted so negatively that they harassed him and his family with physical violence and death threats. There was a lot of hope with that squad. There was no hope with Marinelli. He seemed over matched and under qualified to be a head coach very quickly. His worst mistake was the coaching staff that he assembled for the 0-16 debacle. There is a lot of hope with this regime though. The head coach and coordinators seem to be very adaptable and intelligent. They understand the concept of adapting to team strengths and weaknesses. They also have a massively better grasp of talent evaluation. Even if they do go 6-10 this year, I will still hope. Why? I can’t see them “pounding the rock” relentlessly in failure because they lack the foresight to adjust scheme or rosters when something just isn’t working. However, if I hear a single coach say anything about “pad level,” I might just quit watching football altogether.

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