The man after whom the most coveted trophy in all of professional sports is named left us with some of the best quotes in all of sports history. Vincent Lombardi’s no-nonsense style and unabashed passion for the game he loved serves as an inspirational legacy for athletes, former athletes, and fans alike. To that end, I’m offering three of Coach Lombardi’s quotes and applying them to the 2010 Detroit Lions. This article is the fourth installment.
“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory. That's the essence of it.”
There are times during a languishing season when players and fans alike need a spark: that special moment of the year that caps a great comeback or holding the opponent on the final defensive stand of a series to determine victory. You know, that one word - drama.
For the 2009 Detroit Lions, if ever such a moment stands out, it would be the moxie-filled, barn-burning comeback orchestrated by head coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and executed for victory by rookie QB Matthew Stafford.
The Lions had been beaten often and were a battered crew when they hosted the Cleveland Browns at Ford Field on Sunday, November 22, 2009. The Lions were a 1-8 football team that had been beaten by the Browns during the exhibition season, and needed to come out of the gate strong to avoid another humiliating defeat at the hands of their long-time nemesis of the 1950s. Forgotten by some and unknown by many, the Cleveland Browns were once a rival for the Detroit Lions to be mentioned in the same breath as the Green Bay Packers or the Chicago Bears.
Another historic and epic game was about to unfold to become an instant classic. Many had low expectations for the “thrill” factor leading up to the contest, and the announced paid attendance for the game was a meager 43,170 football fans. Less than one percent of the population of the greater Detroit-Windsor metroplex was interested in seeing the Lions play the Browns at Ford Field.
Rumor has it they don’t seem to have an attendance problem across the big pond to the west and then up the shore a bit and piece until you come to the land where the Bay is Green. The fans are toxic. Why else would the bay be green? The cheese has gone bad!
On a magic-filled Sunday afternoon, the pride faithful would be treated to a drive and a moment that would endear them to Matthew Stafford and make him one of Detroit’s own.
In the video link provided below, Rich Eisen, Deion Sanders, and former Lions head coach Steve Mariucci provide highlight commentary.
The next video link is a breakdown of the final plays that culminate with Stafford’s pass high on Pettigrew’s hip for the game-winning score.
A draft analyst and former player, for whom many have the utmost respect, Mike Mayock, provides commentary on the film of the final plays of the game that delivered Detroit’s most heroic and electric victory this millennia.
Stafford didn’t just get knocked to his knees; he got freight-trained. The “oooOOOO-OW” sound Matthew utters after getting smacked let’s you know immediately that he’s hurt for sure. It’s what happens after the hit that will drive folklore in the motor city headed into the 2010 season.
When Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew reached consensus that Matthew Stafford was indeed going to be their pick atop the 2009 NFL draft, Coach Schwartz talked about how football smart young Matthew was. Those football smarts were never more evident just as soon as Stafford realized that Mangini had called timeout for the Browns, and he could reenter the game.
I had no idea that Daunte Culpepper could scare the dickens out of the Browns in such frightening fashion as to elicit the untimely expenditure of a timeout by Eric the Mangenius.
It was the nature of this “unforced error” upon which Stafford was able to capitalize. He maintained his focus through intense shoulder pain and did the unthinkable when he came running back out on the field to lead his team to an unbelievable, come-from-behind victory.
The hand-in-glove application of Coach Lombardi’s quote as it applies to the final plays of the Lions victory over the Browns couldn’t be more appropriate.
Stafford’s “refuse-to-lose” attitude served to inspire his teammates to victory and propel his team to the club’s largest comeback victory of 21 points since 1957. In this moment, having been knocked to his knees, removed from the field of play, and returned to the field to throw the final pass to victory were the rungs upon which young Matthew climbed to reach glory, if only his last taste for the season.
“If you can accept losing, you can't win.”
I think it stands to reason based on the above account and video footage that Matthew Stafford and his teammates didn’t accept the thought of losing to the Cleveland Browns, even when they were down by 21 points in the first quarter of the game.
In the video, after Stafford is on the ground rolling in pain, Dom Raiola comes over quickly to tell Matthew that a flag had been thrown, keeping the drive alive. Of course, Stafford had to come off the field for one play after the injury, and was laying flat on his back surrounded by the Detroit staff of trainers when he heard the timeout called. That announcement was like a shot of adrenaline for Matthew, and he popped to his feet, eluded the trainers, and said to his coach, “… I can throw!”
I can throw. I can do this. I can win. I can lead my teammates to victory if you put this game in my hands, coach. Really, I can do it. We can do it if you let my try. I promise you coach.
That’s what was really said without saying it at all. It was known and understood by Stafford and Schwartz, and “it was on”.
At no time did the leadership or the players take their eyes off the prize. They did not accept the thought of losing. Their will to win would not be extinguished for 60 minutes of play and then some. On the afternoon of November 22, 2009, Lions fans got to witness the size of the fight in the dog left in their team. On that day, it was enough.
Are two wins in a season enough to suggest that the Lions already have accepted losing and can’t win anyhow? Would the winless season of 2008 confirm the validity of Coach Lombardi’s quote? Does the 2-30 record over the past two seasons further impune the Lions as having accepted losing and being a team that can’t win?
Have the players become “Lionized”?
Despite the record of the past, I believe that this group of Lions is different and that losing will soon be a thing of the past once Schwartz has a full complement of arrows in the quiver.
“Once you agree upon the price you and your family must pay for success, it enables you to ignore the minor hurts, the opponent's pressure, and the temporary failures.”
Now, in the video, there is no question that Matthew Stafford displayed the guts and determination it takes to literally will yourself and your team to victory (of course, with a little help from his frienemy, the Mangenius).
Stafford instantly agreed in his mind the price that must be paid in order to exact victory over his opponent, a Browns team that was shaken and on the ropes. It would take a kid with a heart the size of Texas to pull off such a feat. It would take a rookie QB to be slicker than a Georgia peach. It would require a gunslinger’s mentality to find an open Cowboy in the end zone to drive the final stake into the chest of the visiting Cleveland Browns.
And it was done. What a thrill.
In another vein, I look at the three most-tenured Lions, Jared DeVries, Jeff Backus, and Dominic Raiola, and find players who have paid the price and endured far more than temporary failures, yet still believe in the future of this franchise. After these three men, there is a complete draft void from 2002-2006 that has left none of the former selections to contribute to this team going into the 2010 season.
Jeff Backus has started every game for the Lions since his first-round selection in 2001, and Lions center Dom Raiola has been an every-Sunday player as well. It took DeVries years and years before eventually becoming a starter. DeVries was cut and then resigned during the offseason, and his tenacity to recover after injury is a tremendous credit to his character.
Those who would be champions understand the sacrifice associated with achieving something meaningful. Matthew Stafford’s display of guts and determination are qualities that will endear him to the hard-working, blue-collar fans of the Detroit Lions.
Stafford’s display of courage under extreme adversity during the final moments of the November 22, 2009 contest at Ford Field is the type of leadership that Lions fans want so desperately to see out of their quarterback. Lions fans wish to forget the performances of Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, and Chuck Long, and embrace a young Texan who would dare to lead the Lions to their first Super Bowl championship and first NFL Championship since 1957.
If Stafford’s play against the Browns last season is any indication of the moxie he will display going forward, I believe Lions fans will have more than plenty for which to cheer. Exactly when that will come to fruition, nobody knows, but for those who have followed this franchise in earnest for their entire lifetime, a winning team cannot come fast enough. Until then, Lions fans will undoubtedly continue to support their team through thick and thin.
I think this team has agreed upon the price that must be paid and they are working diligently toward putting a much better overall product on the football field. In time, they will move the failures from constant to temporary, and it is then when winning will become a habit.