Each NFL team plays 16 regular-season games. An average team wins 8 games per year (ties are very uncommon), but that team would be lucky to make the playoffs and probably would lose in the wild-card round. Add a couple of wins the following season, though, and now you have a 10-win team, one that might steal a division title and get a home playoff game. One more win the following season and suddenly you might be thinking playoff contender: 11 wins and you might be looking past the wild-card game to the divisional playoffs.
But that kind of improvement isn't common. Only 154 of 1605 teams have done it, less than 10%. So you'd think that if that is the expected outcome for your team, you should be happy, right?
Well, here's the problem. Football Outsiders' projection for the Lions this year is calling for that exact improvement ... leaving them with a 3-13 record. (Pick up a copy of FOA 2010 in the FO Store and see for yourself.) Sure, it's more wins than in the last two seasons combined, but 3-13 is hardly something to celebrate. Of those 154 teams, 4 of them won 0 games in Year 0: '42 Lions, '44 Steelers, '60 Cowboys, and '76 Buccaneers. Two WWII-era teams and two expansion teams. In two seasons, every one of those teams won 5 games or more, and that was before the 16-game schedule, mostly. (Ten to twelve games in the '40s, fourteen games through 1977, so the '78 Bucs did get two more shots at wins.)
So basically, if the Lions improve as projected, it will be less improvement than any other winless team has managed in two seasons. (Technically not – the wartime Cardinals were winless in '43 and '44, winning a single game in '45 – but they merged with the Steelers for the '44 season, so that doesn't exactly count. The only winless team not listed above, the '82-'84 Colts, are an exception as well because '82 was the nine-game strike season ... and the '83 Colts won seven games. They managed only four wins in '84.)
Yes, the team for which I've rooted since the early '70s was completely gutted by the worst GM in the history of professional sports, Matt Millen. He took a team that was literally a field goal away from making the playoffs and scrubbed so much talent from the roster that after two years of rebuilding, they still won't win 25% of their games. He was bad at his job on a level that defies description: very few positions offer as much public scrutiny as president/GM/what have you of a professional sports team, and fewer still draw the attention that an NFL team president garners. Millen was terrible in his first three seasons – 14-34-0 from 2000 through 2002 – and yet the Fords kept him around. 16-32-0 over the next three seasons ... and a miserable 10-38-0 in his last three (counting 2008, the year he was finally cut loose). That final three-year period is the second-worst in post-strike NFL history (starting with the '88 season), behind only the Patriots from 1990 to 1992 (9-39-0). What have they done since then? Exactly.
Here's the kicker. Excluding wartime teams, the worst three-year span in NFL history came from the 1959-1961 Washington Redskins, whose 5-30-0 mark gave them a winning percentage of .143. Sounds bad, right? But that FO projection would put the Lions at 5-43-0 ... that's .104, for those of you who made it this far. That's worse than everyone except the wartime Cardinals.
So it isn't getting better any time soon, and even if it does, well, ask the Bills how easy it is to win a Super Bowl. Even when you're (arguably) the best team in the league, one or two breaks can take that chance away, and who knows when you'll get another one?
So why do I root for the Lions? Because that's what you do. You carry the flag, season after season, knowing that there's a small possibility that someday, you'll be the one in front of the television, speechless with joy ...