Detroit Lions: Ghosts of Thanksgiving Classics Past

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterNovember 23, 2011

20 Sep 1998:  Quarterback Scott Mitchell #19 of the Detroit Lions looks at the game from the sidlines during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.The Vikings defeated the Lions 29-6. Mandatory Credit: Tom Pidgeon
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

“They’ll never win anything with that quarterback.” My grandfather’s steel jaw was set like a trap. His eyes were narrowed into burning slits. Bellies full of turkey and trimmings, he and I were ‘relaxing’ after dinner by—what else?—watching the Detroit Lions.

It being 1995, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus didn’t exist. Dividing yards by carries to explain why Barry Sanders is better than Emmitt Smith got you branded a pencil-necked geek playing with fake voodoo numbers. Still, my 14-year-old self refused to let that statement go unchallenged.

Unfortunately, being challenged wasn’t exactly my Grandpa’s thing.

"Well . . ." I ventured, swallowing hard. "Actually, Grandpa, Scott Mitchell’s been having an awesome year. I mean, his completion percentage is up around sixty, he’s got a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio, he’s on pace to throw for well over four thousand yards . . .”

“He’s a bum,” said my Grandpa. His eyes never wavered from the wood-cabinet-enclosed TV.

An airtight argument, to be sure. But . . . I mean, couldn’t he see? The Lions were out-gaining everyone in football! Barry Sanders! Herman Moore! I mustered my logic, and cleared my throat.

A BUM.” The matter was closed.

Of course, the Lions went on to win that game, 44-38. Mitchell completed 30 of 45 passes for 410 yards, four touchdowns, and just one pick. Barry reeled off 138 yards on 24 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown run. I was quite satisfied with myself; logic and reason and faithful fandom had won the day. These Lions and their incredible air attack were certainly on their way to greatness.

My grandfather wasn’t happy the Lions won that day, at least not visibly so. He seemed appeased. Like, at least this time, the Lions’ absence of bumbling was acceptable to him. Meanwhile, I was punch-drunk on Lions Kool-Aid.

The Lions reeled off four more consecutive victories (seven total) to make the playoffs. Mitchell and the Lions were the second-highest-scoring offense in the NFL that year. Mitchell’s 58.3% completion percentage, 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions made for the best statistical season any Lions quarterback has had in my lifetime. I thought it was the beginning of a 49ers-esque run of offensive dominance.

Unfortunately, Scott Mitchell was a bum; those Lions never won anything.

As we speak, Matthew Stafford is on pace to complete 61.3% of his passes for 4,548 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Lions are the 3rd-highest-scoring team in football. These Lions are 7-3, not 5-6, going into the hallowed Thanksgiving Day game—but unlike 1995, the 2011 Lions started hot. It’s technically possible for these Lions to win their last seven games like the ‘95 team did—but after the midseason stumbles, and with the remaining schedule, that seems like a ridiculous pipe dream.

Just how good are these Lions? We’re still not sure. Are they the team that started 5-0? The team that went 1-3 from mid-October to mid-November? Are they headed for a mediocre 9-7 finish, or an outstanding 12-4? Quarterback Matthew Stafford is not a bum—but 16 years from now, will he be remembered as the second coming of John Elway, or the second coming of Carson Palmer?

This Thanksgiving Day game will be the truest test of the Lions' mettle. The Packers are undefeated; the undisputed reigning champions of the NFL. They’re comfortably atop the NFC North division standings. Until the ultimate crucible of Lambeau Field in Week 17, the Lions will not have a better chance to prove they belong amongst the best of the NFL.

I'm thankful that chance comes during the Lions’ annual showcase game. I’m thankful they can slam the door, once and for all, on decades of futility while a nation full of doubters looks on. I’m thankful they’ll be able to put a barbed-wire fence around Ford Field and the generations of tradition the Thanksgiving game is imbued with.

Above all, I’m thankful that for the first time in my life, I’ll be there.

That’s right, I’ll be making the pilgrimage to the Thanksgiving classic. It’s on the bucket list of every true Lions fan, and I cannot be happier that I’ll be able to scratch it off my own. I’ll be there to cheer the Lions on with everything I’ve got, and give the Lions every possible advantage over the Packers—who, if history holds, will have an audible contingent of supporters there, too.

Though moral victories don’t count, and a good show in a “noble loss” would be bitterly disappointing for all these wonderful opportunities left hanging,  it wouldn’t end the Lions' season. If they take care of business against the "Vikingses" and the "Chargerses" of the world, the Lions can still make the playoffs without a ‘W’ on T-day.

But, if they can pass this test, if they can fell these giants, every Lions fan everywhere will be able to rejoice: finally, finally, the Lions have taken their place amongst the very best teams in football . . .

. . . and somewhere, my Grandpa will stand up and cheer.