The Lions in Winter is more than a Detroit Lions blog. It’s about more than game previews and reviews, or analysis and breakdowns, or numbers or charts or wins or losses or even my feelings about all of the above. Though much of what you read here falls into one of the above categories, part of TLiW’s mission is to write about Detroit Lions fans: the state of Lions fandom, what it means to be a Lions fan, and what it means to be a fan of anything.
Over at Cheesehead TV, the preeminent Packers blog, writer CD Angeli (formerly of Tundra Vision) wrote a post called “Packers’, Lions’ Destinies Diverge.” As the self-appointed chronicler of Lions fandom, I feel duty-bound to respond.
Angeli effectively brings to bear his memories of the Forest Gregg Era. Gregg took over the Packers in 1984, when Green Bay was coming off 12 straight years without a winning season. Gregg immediately led the Pack to their second and third consecutive 8-8 seasons, but couldn’t break the .500 barrier. In 1986 and 1987 the Pack went 4-12 and 5-9-1, respectively, ending Gregg’s run as Packers head coach.
As Angeli writes, there wasn’t much to root for during those losing seasons except the Packers’ penchant for vicious hits:
As the Packers posted just thirteen wins over the final three years of Gregg’s tenure, Charles Martin delivered the “Body Slam Heard Round Mostly Wisconsin”. Yes, with no chance to beat the Bears on the scoreboard late in 1986, Martin grabbed Punky QB Jim McMahon a full two seconds after the ball was away and threw him into the Solider Field artificial turf, separating his shoulder. It was the beginning of a new approach for the “hard-nosed Packers and their hard-nosed coach”. If you can’t beat them, beat them up.
And, I am humbled to say that, like many Packer fans at the time, I didn’t completely decry the incident. In fact, I kind of celebrated it. I mean, the Bears were cocky, right? And McMahon was a jerk, right? He kind of deserved it. You saw Martin’s face as he was ejected, and there wasn’t a look of outrage or contriteness on his face. He looked almost bemused. And so did many Packer fans, as we found ourselves face-to-face with Bear fans that week in our cubicle, our classes, or our local tavern and let them know we scored a point against them.
Angeli goes on to describe what he calls a “loser’s mentality,” getting in a cheap shot or complaining about the refs because it’s all you can do when overwhelmed by a superior opponent. He correctly notes that the Lions are a much more talented team than the mid-80s Packers, and the Lions don’t need to be dirty to gain an advantage. They can, and should, test their mettle against great teams like today’s Packers while playing clean, fair football.
Ultimately, Angeli lays blame for Detroit’s loser mentality on Lions head coach Jim Schwartz:
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” I am thankful that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson preside over a team that is thoughtful enough to protect both.
And, as the shadow of the Lions’ reputation gets longer and longer, you only need to follow it to the source…and that is the character of Jim Schwartz.
A bit of perspective: in 2008, the Lions capped off a seven-season stretch of going 31-81 by losing every single game they played.
Those 2008 Lions had the worst defense ever assembled. They surrendered over 2,700 rushing yards at an average of 5.1 yards per carry, and over 3,700 passing yards at an average of 8.29 YpA. Opposing quarterbacks had a 25:4 TD/INT ratio, and a passer rating of 110.1. As wretched as the defense was, the offense wasn't much better. The 2008 Lions not only went 0-16, they didn’t even belong on the same field as their competition.
Since then, Jim Schwartz’s Lions are 15-28. Incredibly, that’s a better winning percentage than any of his three most recent predecessors, despite the talent cupboard being completely bare when he took over. The Lions’ statistical Great Leap Forward from 2009 to 2010 was remarkable, and after 2011 there will be a similar jump. When Schwartz was hired, the Lions were the worst team in professional sports, and in Schwartz’s third season they are legitimate playoff contenders in the strongest division in football.
Jim Schwartz is the best thing to happen to the Lions since Barry Sanders—not since Barry left, mind you, but since he arrived.
Angeli’s use of Lincoln’s shadow metaphor is particularly apt; before Thanksgiving most of Ndamukong Suh’s “dirty” reputation was built upon a shadow. Suh “ripped Andy Dalton’s helmet off,” though it actually popped off in the midst of a legal sack because Dalton didn’t fasten it. Suh “horse collared” Marion Barber, though Suh legally grabbed Barber’s hair only. Suh “forearm shivered” Jay Cutler, though Suh just pushed one flat hand into Cutler’s back.
Perception, though, sometimes becomes reality. In the PR-minded NFL, any negative publicity is reacted against with a knee-jerk gavel and mob-justice sentence. Suh has been branded a “dirty player,” and the Lions a “dirty team,” so officials are cautioned to watch them more closely. Minor Lions infractions draw flags, and major Lions infractions become talking points for talk radio. The Packers are “winners” who play “the right way,” so their minor infractions are overlooked and their major infractions are lauded as hard-nosed play—Charles Woodson, j’accuse.
By Angeli’s definition, Evan Dietrich-Smith has a loser’s mentality. Faced with a far superior opponent—Suh—Dietrich-Smith did what he had to do to stay competitive: he cheated. He clutched, he grabbed, he flailed, he did everything he could to keep Suh from killing Aaron Rodgers. On the down before the incident, Dietrich-Smith and center Scott Wells resorted to attempting to tackle Suh, both wrapping both arms around Suh’s chest and hanging on for dear life.
I’m not supposed to complain about this. That’s the loser’s mentality, right? The Packers blatantly cheated to hold off Ndamukong Suh, sure, but that stuff happens all the time in football, right? If Suh’s really so great, he should just overcome it, right? Unfortunately, yes: no matter how dirty the other guy plays, no matter how many obvious penalties go uncalled, no matter how many flags are getting thrown at the Lions’ offensive line for much lesser fouls, Ndamukong Suh is—and I am—expected to keep a stiff upper lip.
This is the funny thing about being a fan—a true fan, a diehard fan, a supporter in the world’s parlance. You wrap yourself up in your team, allow their identity to become part of yours. You feel a kinship with the team and players. When you brand yourself a fan, your team’s successes and failures reflect back on you—both inwardly, in your emotions, and outwardly, in how other people treat you.
When what your team does clashes irrevocably with who you are as a person, it's an awful feeling. It’s the feeling I got sitting in the stands, watching Suh nuke the Lions’ chances of pulling off the biggest Lions win since 1991. It’s the feeling I got when I got home and had to explain the incident to my kids. It’s what makes people call in to sports talk radio and shout “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!” They’re saying, “I can’t accept being a fan of this team anymore, if this team is stands for [fill in the blank].”
After the incident, I lashed out on Twitter, and got dozens of Packer fans filling my feed with comments along the lines of “ha ha, losers weepers.” It was like a flood of 140-character versions of C.D. Angeli’s piece. What could I do? What could I say? I was impotent in my frustration and rage. I am not a dirty person. My favorite players shouldn’t be dirty players. My favorite team shouldn’t be a dirty team. It’s unacceptable.
If I go on a rampage like Suh, I’ll face a backlash of scorn and ridicule like he did. If I say nothing, I have to hear a bunch of crap from Packers fans who are no more righteous in their offended sensibilities than Evan Deitrich-Smith is in his.
Ultimately, this is fandom's great illusion. I am not Ndamukong Suh, and C.D. Angeli is not Evan Dietrich-Smith. I am not a loser because the Lions lost, and he is not a winner because the Packers won. I have no more business being indignant about the terrible officiating than he has lecturing Lions fans about “character.”
What Ndamukong Suh did WAS unacceptable. It has no place in the game. He deserved the penalty, deserved to be ejected, deserves a big fat fine, and deserved to be suspended for two games without pay. I completely denounce his attack on Dietrich-Smith, and pray he never does anything like it ever again.
But . . . I am a Lions fan. It’s part of my identity. If I can brand myself with the colors of 0-16, I can brand myself with the colors of Ndamukong Suh, for good or bad—and believe me, even with this incident, Suh has done much, much, much more good in his life than bad. I am hurt, ashamed, and disappointed—but I choose to continue to accept Suh and these Lions as my team. Their destiny on the field is my destiny as a fan, and I will support them to it, come what may.
What else am I supposed to do—root for the Packers?