Detroit Schlock City

Adam Underhill


What I’m about to write goes against every fiber of my being as a Packers fan.

Someone needs to save the Detroit Lions. Enough is enough.

Last week (September 14, 2008), I watched the Packers-Lions game on Fox. The game was mostly a laugher. Green Bay led 21-0 in the first half, relinquished that lead to fall behind 25-24 early in the fourth quarter, then scored another 24 points in rapid-fire fashion to make it a rout again. It was the Packers’ sixth win in a row over the Lions, and their third in a row at Ford Field in Detroit, where the Lions at least have a ghost of a chance of winning (Detroit has not won a road game in the home-and-away series since 1991).

For Lions fans, those who still care enough to watch with even a passing fancy, the game must have been something of a 60-minute encapsulation of this team’s odyssey of futility since the decade began. The Lions got stomped down early, showed a little heart in a mid-game rally, then quickly dashed any hope of real improvement by choking the game away. (It sounds more like a preordained storyline for a professional wrestling match.) Football fans in Detroit have grown accustomed to this type of tease—whether in a single game or a 16-game season, this ball club and its fans have been caught in an endless cycle of emotional abuse. New personnel are acquired, new coaches hired, new stadiums built, and new promises are made, but the result is always the same: a run for last place in the division and first pick in the draft.

Mercy for an opponent is not the province of the sports fan. From 1992 up until about a few years ago, when the Packers routinely annihilated the Chicago Bears, do you think I felt sorry for them or their badly-mustached, Polish-sausage-eating fans? The Bears are the Packers’ #1 rival, and spent the 80s humiliating Cheesehead nation. The payback was so sweet, we didn’t even mind having Jim McMahon on our Super Bowl championship team. Besides, as a fan, I always reminded myself: They’ll be good again. It may not seem possible now, with Peter Tom Willis at quarterback, but some day the Bears will be a good team, and they’ll delight in crushing the Packers on their way to the playoffs while we cry into our pints of Leinenkugel’s. No mercy!

I don’t get that feeling with the Detroit Lions. And, quite frankly, they don’t even scare me as underdogs capable of the occasional upset. When I look at the Packers’ schedule every year, I know that even if they field a team of blind and deaf grandmothers, they’re guaranteed to win AT LEAST two games: One when the Lions come to Lambeau, and one in Motown. Whatever team is scheduled to play Detroit on Thanksgiving always has at least one thing to be thankful for. For several years, I looked at the Lions predicament the same way as the Bears in the 90s: No mercy. It’s not the Packers’ fault the Lions suck. Besides, the NFC North (nee Central) had to deal with Barry Sanders for ten years…it’s only fair.

But it’s getting to the point where a game against the Lions isn’t just an automatic “W,” but an exercise in enabling incompetence. In the NFL, underdogs upset the undefeated, last place teams vault into first, and Super Bowl dreams abound in August for every fan – every fan, that is, except for the Lions fan. Take a look at the Lions’ regular season won-loss records since 2001:

0-2 (so far)

If you think the 7-9 mark last year represents progress, keep in mind the team started out 6-2 before stumbling to a 1-7 finish.

2001 was the year the Lions hired Matt Millen as President and CEO. The team was coming off of a winning season in 2000 (barely missing the playoffs). Since then, Detroit has won 27% of its games, with four different head coaches. Millen was no stranger to success as a player; he was an All-American defensive end at Penn State and won four Super Bowls with the Raiders and 49ers. But Millen’s post-playing career before coming to Detroit included absolutely zero front office or player development experience (he was a long time NFL TV commentator). Yet still he lingers, hiring and firing coaches, drafting and discarding top-round players, consistently putting together teams that simply don’t have the talent to win football games. Matt Millen is the short order cook who routinely burns your omelet. He’s the babysitter who drops junior on his head, says he’ll be more careful, then drops him again. He’s the gardener who drives the riding mower over your chrysanthemums, then puts it in reverse.

Actually, there is a better analogy to employ for the de facto General Manager of the team in the Motor City, a team that is owned by a Ford family member. Matt Millen is the used car salesman who bilks his customers into paying for jalopies. He takes a beaten down lemon, gives it a paint job, hangs some dice in the mirror, and looks for his next mark. For eight years, he’s been selling team owner William Clay Ford on his abilities, and he’s been selling the fans on the same pigskin Edsels he annually rolls out.

For the first few years, fans were buying. They were willing to be patient with some early failures if it paid off in later success. They’re not buying any more. Sure, fans go to games, or watch them on TV—that will always happen. But the emotional and financial investment Michiganders are willing to make in Lions football is at a critical low point. It’s become less a matter of whether they’re wasting they’re time as whether they’re willing to have their intelligence insulted on a weekly basis. Losses are understandable when a team at least puts forth a solid effort. Why should anyone spend his day off—after working hard all week—watching a bunch of spoiled millionaires mail it in during a professional ballgame? Surely the gutters need cleaning.

Last Sunday’s game against Green Bay was a perfect example. The Lions had more than ample fuel for motivation. They were coming off a humiliating opening-day blowout in Atlanta, where the Falcons’ rookie quarterback Matt Ryan threw a long touchdown on his first play from scrimmage, and Atlanta gained 318 (yes, 318) rushing yards. Now came the home opener, against a hated rival, trotting out their own new quarterback (Aaron Rodgers, finally in for recently-traded legend Brett Favre), and a chance to prove themselves to hopeful fans. I’d like to say that the Lions lost in typical Lions fashion, but when you’re a perennial doormat, you find all kinds of new and unfathomable ways to lose. Thus did the Lions get blown out early, storm back to take the lead, then get blown out again, when Jon Kitna threw three rapid-fire, late-game interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) to seal it. Like abused lovers, fans were given just enough reason to stick around before taking another slap in the face.

Why do I care about the Lions? For one thing, I can’t even talk trash to my friends who are Lions fans. What am I going to say to them? “Sucks to be you”? They’re probably glad to have the three hours a week freed up. Not only that, but the Lions’ ineptitude is taking away from the credibility of the other NFC North teams, particularly the Packers. Every division title Green Bay wins might as well come with a footnote: Includes two victories over Detroit.

In their path of reckless destruction, the Lions are also leaving in their wake the ravaged careers of promising young players and coaches. Is Rod Marinelli a good coach? Could Joey Harrington have been a solid starting quarterback? Who knows? In the “ready, fire, aim” world of Matt Millen and his Lions, every wasted young talent can be turned into a scapegoat to distract fans from the fact that, like Nixon with Vietnam, this man has no real plan for victory.

As much as Millen is to blame, even more fault can be found with the team’s owner, William Clay Ford. This is because someone as incompetent as Millen should have been fired a long time ago. Ford either doesn’t have the stomach to fire Millen (as the Detroit Free Press’ Mitch Albom said this week) or he actually believes Millen is capable, despite all evidence to the contrary. In either case, clearly Ford does not feel the shame that fans feel every time his team lays an egg.

Since the Lions play in Detroit, it is tempting to paint in broad strokes and view the organization as symbolic of the overall decay of the metropolis. The city’s crime rate consistently ranks among the nation’s highest, its population has plummeted, and its mayor recently resigned in disgrace and will likely be in jail soon. And of course, the auto industry, the lettuce and tomatoes of Detroit’s salad days, has been rotting and molding for decades. But to equate a bottom-feeding football team with the overall depression infesting a city with much larger problems would be glib, at best. A Super Bowl win won’t solve any civic plagues, but if any city could use a little escapism, for a few hours on Sunday, it’s Detroit.

Unfortunately, the only escape the Lions provide is for their opponents. As for their fans, rather than be held hostage by Millen and Ford, they’ve discovered an escape of their own: Indifference. I’d like to say that it doesn’t get any worse than that, but with the Detroit Lions, it always gets worse.