Thursday, December 18, 2008

0 and how many?

It's hard to avoid the talk now. It's basically the cover story on espn.com, and it won't be long until everyone picks up the story. I mean, there can't be more than 70 or so who think the Lions stand a chance against New Orleans this week, not with one of the best passing attacks in the NFL coming to town against a banged-up secondary, and after that game, well, remember week 2? Do you really think a game outdoors in December will go any better?

Some people think it's a good thing if the Lions go 0-16. I guess they figure that this will be the last straw, and suddenly William Clay Ford Sr. will realize that for more than 40 years, he's been absolutely clueless, and the only reason he ever made the playoffs at all, other than one fluke season when they were just testing out this wild-card thing, was that the Lions were spectacularly lucky to land outstanding RBs just when the rest of the team was pretty decent. And then the right GM will get hired, and the right coach, and the right players will come to town, and so on.

Of course, 3-13 didn't do it, 2-14 didn't do it, and really, is there anything that honestly makes you think Mr. Ford understands anything about what he's done, or even if he does, that he'd do anything about it? The one thing Ford admired about Matt Millen above all else was his tenacity, that Millen would stick with a cause no matter what, no matter how quickly he demonstrated he was in over his head, no matter how badly he faltered, no matter how far out of his league he was. For most people, the unwillingness to walk away from a job so far beyond their abilities would be unthinkable. Only the most crooked or the most clueless would continue to work, and Millen is neither of those. No, it was tenacity, tenacity to a fault.

So what will 0-16 do? It will make Mr. Ford vow to redouble his efforts, because he really can find a way to make this team win, yes he can. And next season the Lions will take a QB with the #1 pick, and they will go 3-1 in exhibition games, and hope will return in August, and they will go 3-13 or 4-12, and another season will be wasted, and more talented players will leave because they cannot stand it any more. (Remember, Barry Sanders didn't retire because he was physically spent. He retired because he couldn't stand losing any more.)

I can't possibly root for that. This season is killing me. At least with 3 or 5 or 7 wins, there's some hope on Sundays, some bright spot, a possibility that the dark clouds will lift someday and that eventually I will get to see an X by Detroit in the standings, or perhaps even a Y. (Not even in 1991 did the Lions get the coveted Z, not that it would have mattered: Washington would have crushed them anywhere.) But this season has been different. Two weeks in, it was already worse than I'd pictured.

My friends talked me into going out to watch Bears-Lions, round 1 (I know some Bears fans, they're not bad people other than that), and it was so awful, they couldn't really even say anything about it ... and I knew it would be.

I don't even bother watching the games now. I watch the Red Zone channel or sometimes the Game Mix on DirecTV, and occasionally I'll flip to the Lions game, but they collapse so quickly I can't bear to watch. Thanksgiving was awful, worse than the beating inflicted by the Colts in 2004. I was thankful to miss the first three quarters. It's bad enough I don't even watch the night games much. Why bother, other than for fantasy purposes? (Somehow I'm playing for the title in one league and third place in the other, go figure.)

Some of my friends don't understand, they think it's simply pessimism. They don't know that I've seen this before, but never this bad ... all the bad seasons, none of them have been like this. Most of them have never rooted for a team this bad, and the ones who did either had history to cling to or great times in the future. The Lions have neither, not unless you're in your 60s or 70s. They don't understand what it's like to know that if everything falls just so, your team might be able to keep the game close, and that's all.

The players try so hard, and they're just getting to the point where they can actually put decent quarters together, but it only holds for so long, and honestly, how can a team with this little depth possibly survive what they've been through? The Lions have played five quarterbacks this season, and I doubt any of them would decisively win the job anywhere else. The receiving corps includes players cast off from the Colts and Seahawks, the secondary has a player who couldn't cut it in Oakland, and the linebackers, well ... they try hard.

It's been eight years since I had something to watch in December, nine years since a playoff game, seventeen years since a meaningful playoff game. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other things to root for as a Detroit fan: since the 1991 NFC Championship, the Wings won three Cups, the Pistons won one title and played for another, the Tigers played in a World Series, and heck, even the Shock have raised a few banners in the WNBA.

But I really, really like football, perhaps even more than hockey, and it's hard to explain what it's like to endure eight years of absolutely awful football with no history on which I can draw. I know Bobby Layne and Doak Walker, but they're just names; the epic battles with Jim Brown's Cleveland teams are faded history, the loss of divisional control to Green Bay older than I am.

In a best-case scenario, the Lions will manage to land a GM with possibilities, a decent coach, two quality first-round picks (thank you, Jerry Jones) ...

and they'll win three, maybe four games. And then what? Another rebuilding year? Maybe, in three years, they'll be exactly where they were before Ford allowed Millen to destroy the team: above .500 but just outside the playoffs, searching for those elusive pieces but never quite finding them ...

or maybe they will, and maybe someday Gus Johnson really will get to call that magic play, and maybe, for a change, I'll actually care about the Super Bowl.

But for now, all I know is that in ten days, the Lions will do something they'll never be able to undo. How could I possibly root for that?

It's odd, in a way, because I'm much more detached than I used to be, with sports in general and not just the Lions. It's probably a good thing. When I was younger, this might have killed me. Now, it's more like breaking up with your girlfriend because you got a job in a new city, and not finding anyone remotely interested in you while you hear through the grapevine that she's doing very well for herself, thank you. At first, you might envy her, maybe even wish something bad for her (who's her in this analogy? I don't know), but eventually, you just want to find someone decent. Not necessarily Ms. Right, not even someone with long-term potential, just someone for a nice evening or two, but it never seems to work out, and every time you get that "Oh, sorry, I can't," you lose a little more hope, and you're not sure that even your lowered expectations can be met.

The worst thing is that there will be eight months of nothing before there's even a chance to change things, and even then, well, it'll be the AFC North and the NFC West. St. Louis? Cincinnati? Cleveland? Maybe, but if you looked at the schedule this year, didn't Atlanta and San Francisco look like possibilities? How did those games turn out? And what if they don't beat those teams? Pittsburgh? Baltimore? The last-place team in the NFC East? New Orleans again?

I just wish it were over.

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