If you are a fan of professional football you have to be rooting—at least a little bit—for the Detroit Lions.
The NFC North team has been the NFL’s poster child for futility over the past two decades. Their last playoff appearance was in 1999. In 2008 the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16. The hiring of Matt Millen as general manager will likely go down in history as one of the worst personnel decisions in professional sports.
But there are signs that things are looking up for the Lions and for their fans.
If you’re a fan of an 0-2 team it is difficult to find reasons for optimism, but they are there to be found if you look hard enough.
When I think about Detroit’s week one loss to the Chicago Bears, a quote from Rocky II comes to mind.
The champion, Apollo Creed, wants a rematch with Rocky, against the admonitions of his most trusted advisers. When asked why he wants to fight Rocky again, Creed says, “I won, but I didn’t beat him.” For the Lions, the reverse was true: they beat the Bears, but they didn’t win.
Calvin Johnson caught a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter only to have the score nullified by a rule so egregious that the NFL Competition Committee will almost certainly address it in the offseason.
Johnson caught the ball, got both feet down in the end zone, and fell on his butt, which was also in the end zone. By any standard other than the NFL’s it was a touchdown. Many die-hard Lions fans count that game as a win.
The week two game, a thrilling 35-32 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, offers more cause for optimism, with a caveat. A team that gives up 35 points clearly has a problem on defense.
Still, there were silver linings in that particular cloud. The Lions offense showed some teeth, scoring 32 points of their own, and they may have discovered a major weapon in rookie running back Jahvid Best.
The first-year runner scored three touchdowns against the Eagles, including a 75-yard catch and run that only a handful of backs could have made. Calvin Johnson is a budding star just waiting for a consistently accurate quarterback to throw him the ball.
On defense, Ndamukong Suh pairs with fellow ex-Nebraska Cornhusker Kyle Vanden Bosch to form a fearsome defensive line. The Lions sacked Michael Vick six times in week two and Vick is easily the fastest, most elusive quarterback in the NFL. Had the Eagles heir apparent Kevin Kolb been under center, the sack total may have been doubled.
For the Lions, the road to legitimacy is riddled with potholes and speed bumps. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is out for the foreseeable future with a separated shoulder, which leaves San Francisco castoff Shaun Hill running the offense until Stafford’s return.
Their defensive backfield is pedestrian at best. And their schedule is positively brutal. This season they get the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys, and the New England Patriots, not to mention the Green Bay Packers twice.
But there is talent on this roster and the past two weeks have filled the Lions with confidence. They believe they can play with anybody and they may just be right. Hard as it may be to believe, the Detroit Lions may be a year or two away from a playoff berth.
Whether or not that happens, this much is true: teams that underestimate the Lions do so at their own risk.