Monday, July 28, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008 - Detroit Lions


One of the difficulties I encounter in trying to craft textual identities for various teams is that in most cases all I can bring is an outside perspective to something that is, for many people, quite subjective and personal. While I do watch some teams more than others, I’ll never understand the unique way in which most teams relate to their fans, and vice versa, the way I understand the team I root for on a weekly basis. It’s about something more than just watching the teams every week, which I get to do thanks to Direct TV and accommodating bars; it’s about watching the teams with a vested interest and feeling something directly connected to their success or failure (the desire to replicate this unique feeling probably goes a long way toward explaining the close ties of football and gambling). This is not the case for the Detroit Lions. The two friends with whom I watch football on Sundays both grew up in Michigan and are both diehard Lions fans. So I not only got to watch the team every week, but also the way in which that team’s present and past performance shaped the way its fans related to it. Having gone through that (an accurate phrasing) for two seasons now, I can confidently say the following:

I wouldn’t have the heart to really love this team.

Do you realize that Detroit has had one winning season this decade, during which they missed the playoffs? They’ve won 40 games in that time. 40. Out of 128 games. More than two thirds of the Sundays that the Lions lined up to play football, they lost. They even had a streak of three seasons where they failed to win a single road game, making certain Sundays seem even more predestined for disaster than they already were. To be fair, that happened from 2001-2003, when they only won 10 games (out of 48…ugh…), so it might be a bit of piling on to keep counting. I can’t even fathom that kind of consistent failure, and I don’t even want to try to think of what it takes to get excited for the remote prospect of seeing it turned around again and again, only to have it snatched away in either humiliating or heartbreaking fashion.

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Yet I’m not here to mock or lament that kind of hope. I’m here to justify it. Because as special as it is to be part of something great, it’s even more special to be a part of something that turns it all around. That’s why I’ve come to love Jon Kitna on the Lions.


When he tossed out the 10 win prediction last season, we all had a good laugh. Then he led the team to a 6-2 record, and we all held our breath, only to watch the Lions fade down the stretch in a strangely difficult final eight games. Of course, we all knew the flaws in that team; they can’t play defense worth a damn (the worst in the league in YPG, pass YPG, and points), their rushing offense was abysmal (second worst in the league ad 80.5 YPG), and the offensive line gave up 51 sacks and had me worried that one game we’d have to get out the sheets and shotgun and pull a Kentucky Derby style euthanasia of Jon Kitna (though given his beliefs, he’d probably insist on playing QB in a vegetative state). Still, amidst all the mockery and negativity surrounding last season, everyone seems to have missed the fact that the Lions had their best season since 2000, much of it due to Kitna throwing for over 4000 yards. Perhaps that explains why, when we all expected red-faced embarrassment from the quarterback, there was none to be found. Instead, Kitna walked away proud of what the team had accomplished. Where the culture surrounding this team has become hardened with a “hope for the best, but the worst is probably happening so let’s not get too excited” cynicism, Kitna appeared to be carrying his belief, a confidence that success for this team was right around the corner, into the offseason. Things were getting better, and they would continue to do so.

Genuine belief is crazier and more dangerous than simple optimism. It’s also infinitely more rewarding. That’s what Kitna has tried to spread to fans and teammates, because he wants them to feel what he genuinely expects to feel when things get better.

The crazier thing is this: There’s no reason why things can’t get better this year for the Lions. Put aside everything the last eight seasons have taught you and walk with me. The WR tandem of Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson remains intact, and Johnson finally started to hit an impressive stride in the second half of the season, even as everything else fell apart. The Lions finally got around to drafting an offensive lineman, and Gosder Cherilus should be able to give some stability at left tackle. Rookie RB Kevin Smith had the build to succeed at the pro level, and put up gaudy numbers in college, making him a welcome addition to a dismal ground game (the fact that losing TJ Duckett had people panicking says something). Most importantly, the team took a step backward in losing DT Shaun Rogers in order to take several steps forward in solidifying the defense by adding elite corner Leigh Bodden, in addition to picking up two potential steals in LB Jordan Dizon and DT Andre Fluellen.

Add all that up, and is it really crazy to think that things aren’t on the verge of getting much better? Sure, the team faces a buzzsaw AFC South schedule, but so does the rest of the division, and do any of those teams strike you as having a much easier time? I’m not trying to say that things are going to be easy; the Vikings look damn good, and the Packers are still a young team with tons of talent. Still, if things line up right for this team, and they catch the right breaks (slow starts from Tarvaris Jackson and Aaron Rodgers…neither of which are out of the question…), maybe this team gets lucky. Or maybe it was supposed to happen all along, like Kitna said, and really, isn’t it much more fun to think that way anyway?

PREDICTION: 8-8 (yeah, I know, but I'm not emotionally invested, so I get away with not believing)

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