February 4, 2009

Advice for the Winless

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Most NFL fans enjoy the Super Bowl like the last bite of an ice cream cone; a wonderful ending to an enjoyable experience. For Detroit Lions fans like me, Sunday’s Super Bowl was more like the knockout blow after getting beaten up for most of a fight. The game served as a final, painful reminder of the Lions’ season, but at least the agony was finally over. For good measure, NBC used failed Lions’ executive Matt Millen as one its studio analysts. In case any fans forgot how abysmal the Lions season was, the architect behind the disaster served as a mustachioed reminder.
The Lions were incredibly terrible this year. Their offense was dreadful, their defense was worse, and their record was fitting: 0-16. For the first time since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule, a team lost every one of its games. I was along for the entire, agonizing, ride. Instead of allowing Sunday’s game to serve as one final stomach punch, I decided to use the game as a learning experience. What’s the difference between a discombobulated franchise like the Lions and winning teams like the Steelers and Cardinals? What distinguishes the awesome from the awesomely horrible?

1. Before the start of the game, announcer John Madden noted that in previous seasons, he often forgot that the Arizona Cardinals were in the league. First off, this proves my theory that Madden only watches the games he announces. More importantly, it pointed out a major problem with going 0-16. The Lions are usually bad, but when they go 2-14 or 3-13, they are just another forgettable, bad team. By going 0-16, the 2008 Lions were unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

2. The Steelers scored on their opening drive to take a “lead,” a concept with which the Lions are fairly unfamiliar. The Lions tried a different strategy this season; they spotted their opponents leads of 21-0, 21-0, 14-0, and 31-0 during their first four games. Next season the Lions should take a page out of the Steelers’ playbook and see what happens when they take an early lead.

3. Draft a wide receiver in the first round. Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals and Santonio Holmes of the Steelers — both former first round picks — starred in the big game. The Lions have tried this strategy with far less success. I fear they went a bit overboard by spending four first-round picks on receivers during a five-year stretch.

4. Tackle. When defenders on the Steelers or Cardinals had a chance to take down an opposing player, they usually grabbed the player and took him to the ground. It sounds simple, but far too often, when a Detroit player had a similar opportunity, he tackled nothing but air.

5. The Super Bowl was the 17th game this year that had commercials as eagerly anticipated as the actual game. The first 16 were all Lions games.

6. Allow Matt Millen to work games as a studio analyst, not as team president.

7. Avoid hiring assistant coaches who marry the daughter of the head coach. Also, avoid coaches who have navigated a Wendy’s drive-through naked. This should go without saying, but the Lions made each of those mistakes during the past three seasons.

8. According to the announcers, Pittsburgh had the toughest schedule in the NFL this year. I think that’s code for “They didn’t get to play the Lions.”

9. Draft players from The University of Michigan, a local college football powerhouse. Former Wolverine stars Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley started at linebacker for the Steelers. The Cardinals boasted five Michigan alumni. The Lions have gone all over the country seeking good players when there are some to be had right in their backyard.

10. With the game on the line, have Santonio Holmes make one of the most incredible plays in football history. This might be hard to achieve, but many said the same about going 0-16.

11. On one level, the Super Bowl was actually a pretty cool experience for me. I was rooting for the Steelers so for the first time since 2007, the NFL team I was rooting for actually won the game.

12. “This is the way football should be played,” Madden said near the end of the broadcast. I hope the Lions were taking notes.

The Lions won a league championship behind star Bobby Lane in 1957. Legend has it that when the team traded him in 1958, he declared that the team “would not win for 50 years.” The bad news is that he was right. The good news is that the 50-year curse is finally over, so there’s hope! Well, maybe not, but with better management, better coaching, better players, and better luck, the Lions could be on the fast track to their first Super Bowl.