January 4, 2011
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December 23, 2010
With all the talk Sunday of the Miracle at the Meadowlands redux and of several other close games - most notably wins by the Jets and Patriots - scant attention was paid to the on-field happenings in Tampa, where the Detroit Lions ended their miserable streak of road losses. Detroit won for the first time away from the Motor City since 2007, arresting a skid of 26 consecutive defeats on the road.
A week prior to their victory on Sunday, the Lions beat the Green Bay Packers and thus halted yet another patch of futility as it was their first triumph over a division foe in 20 games - the longest such streak since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Indeed, the Lions have bordered on the nearly irrelevant for some time now.
Of course there have been many teams across all sports who have grappled with pathetic, losing histories: the Buccaneers and Saints in football, the 1960s Mets, the Clippers in the NBA, etc. And these teams' rough pasts are different from, say, the storied lineage of certain teams' genealogy like the former Boston Red Sox (who for six years now can no longer fit into any heartbreak category) or the current Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs and Red Sox have such a passionate following and there's a certain aura of warmth and love surrounding their past, present and future travails that separates them from a team like the Lions, a team that seems to never engender feelings of sympathy or fondness.
What adds a truly tragic and painful dimension to the Lions' decades-long stretch of ineptitude is the fact that they are possessors of a deeply proud and powerful history. After all, it is only when one is fully cognizant of a glorious past that the torturous realizations of "might have been" or "could've and should've" enter into the tormented equation. For as with any son or daughter from a successful family, personal misfortunes or lack of following through on potential is felt far more acutely than if one arises from humble beginnings. And so it also goes with sports teams.
During the 1950s, at the height of postwar America's industrial and cultural might - most tangibly defined by that most American of all commodities, and Detroit's proudest product, the automobile - the Lions ruled the sport. As football started to gain in popularity throughout the decade of Eisenhower the Lions, along with the Cleveland Browns, were the most prolific winners. The Lions participated in four championships games in the decade (all of them against the Browns), winning three titles.
Led by tough-as-nails quarterback Bobby Layne, whose fearless brand of play melded perfectly with the industrial brawn of Detroit, the Lions were the elite of the league. But after their third and final championship in 1957, there's been but one playoff victory for the Lions. Their sole postseason win over the last 53 years occurred in the 1991 playoffs when Barry Sanders and his teammates throttled the Dallas Cowboys, just before Jimmy Johnson's team fulfilled its dynastic potential. And though the Lions would make the playoffs six times in the 1990s, they weren't able to claim another playoff victory.
One speaks of the Curses of the Bambino or of the Billy Goat. What is not as frerquently discussed is the curse of the aforementioned Bobby Layne. The Detroit quarterback, who sadly was injured and didn't participate in the Lions' 1957 title victory, was bafflingly traded away from Detroit in 1958 and legend has it that he uttered something to the effect that the Lions won't win again "for at least 50 years."
Being that it was never recorded in newspapers at the time, it is likely a myth, a fable employed to further the description of their wretched losing ways of late. But the fact remains that the Lions have nary a championship since and have the ignominy of owning the wrong perfect record, when they went 0-16 in 2008.
Perhaps it's too much of a stretch to link the Lions' failures of the last five decades with the concurrent decline of the auto industry and manufacturing altogether. But it's hard not to find parallels. Consider that over the past 30 years not one team from a manufacturing city has won sport's biggest game (though Pittsburgh used to be known for its steel mills, the city has actually been economically revived through its tech sector for some time now).
Four teams have yet to make the Super Bowl: the Lions, Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. But since they're so new to the league, Jacksonville (1995) and Houston (2002) don't really count. Which leaves the Lions and Browns. And the two clubs have eerily similar histories. As discussed earlier, the Lions and Browns defined pro football when the sport first took a firm hold on the national consciousness. The Browns' last title was in 1964 when Jim Brown was nearing the end of his singularly brilliant career.
Yet even the Browns have come close to the Super Bowl. However lamentable (talk about could've and should've) their losses to the Denver Broncos in three AFC Championships games in the 1980s, the Browns at least gave their fans a reason to believe since the inception of the Super Bowl.
When the Saints won their first championship back in February it was nearly impossible not to be thrilled for a city that had been through such profound grief. Rightfully so, everybody jumped on the bandwagon. But now it's time that the Lions reached that promised land and gathered some sympathetic rooting momentum in the coming years. And how fitting it would be if they were to meet the Browns - a Browns-Lions Super Bowl would be the football purist's dream championship matchup.
And with the Lions having now won two in a row and also possessing the most exciting offensive weapon in the game in the person of Calvin Johnson, perhaps it's not out of the realm of reality that Detroit finally wins a Super Bowl in the not-too-distant future.