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On mediocrity and the Lions

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No one accepts mediocrity and no one aims for it.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the early 90s, a sports team was falling hard and found its fans and press turning on them. In spite of rising prospects, the team just could not advance far in the playoffs and struggled to contend seriously for the championship. Its quintessential leader was dubbed a loser who could never win a big game, and there was concern the franchise would forever be tarred by its legacy of failure and disappointment that spanned decades.

That all changed in 1997 when the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years and everyone stopped thinking of Steve Yzerman as dead weight.

This isn’t to paint the Detroit Lions’ current trajectory as that of the Red Wings, but it’s rather more indicative of how fine the line between bums and mediocrity is next to men with winning in their DNA and championships. It is, like many things in sports, driven by narrative written far after the games have been played. That’s the basic premise of sports writing, but such writing is often revisited and redefined.

When someone, maybe someone who is speaking on radio right now, discussing the Lions tells you that the franchise is accepting mediocrity by not firing Jim Caldwell or by not blowing up the whole roster for 20 draft picks or by not trading Matthew Stafford or by not shoving a baseball-sized wad of cocaine up my rectum, you must understand they are doing their best to create a narrative for a non-story. Everyone has been driven insane by the blurring line of crank and sports writer, and more often than not the push for content is often about what is the opinion of what is, or what might happen; the present makes for terrible narratives (existing as a raw nerve screaming at each touch) while the future is for peddling promises and fears.

It’s also just not true when it comes to the Lions.

Eight years ago, the Lions were winless, and surrounding that crater of a record was numerous years where wins were hard to come by. Now the Lions are tied for 11th in winning percentage over the past three seasons with Jim Caldwell at the helm. That’s not a plateau, but a step up from a more desperate time.

Team Winning percentage 2014-16
Patriots 0.792
Broncos 0.688
Steelers 0.667
Chiefs 0.667
Packers 0.667
Seahawks 0.667
Cardinals 0.646
Cowboys 0.604
Bengals 0.583
Panthers 0.583
Lions 0.563
Texans 0.563
Colts 0.563
Vikings 0.542
Falcons 0.521
Bills 0.500
Dolphins 0.500
Eagles 0.500
Ravens 0.479
Giants 0.479
Raiders 0.458
Washington 0.438
Saints 0.438
Jets 0.396
Chargers 0.375
Buccaneers 0.354
Rams 0.354
49ers 0.313
Titans 0.292
Bears 0.292
Browns 0.229
Jaguars 0.229

(credit to Jeremy Reisman for compiling this table)

Even putting aside the numbers, the narrative written so far, pending third or fourth draft, doesn’t even support the conclusion. The Lions faced a crisis after 2014 when the unparalleled defense from that year was lost in free agency and regression, and it became clear their last few draft picks hadn’t panned out. But perhaps the Lions were certainly exhibiting signs of well-rounded, eternal mediocrity when they were faced with a decision to be made whether to continue a long line of failed front office work or hire an outside face and they absolutely... Hold up, they hired Bob Quinn as the general manager.

Or take the time where they lost a once-in-a-generation receiver, where many writers picked the Lions to finish with no more than six wins and... Sorry, I nearly forgot they signed Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin to overhaul the receiver corps and ended up with nine wins and a playoff berth.

So at the heart of it all, it comes back to the fact that fans and the media and the radio people just don’t like Jim Caldwell. It comes back to three years is simply not fast enough to reload on a roster that depleted itself on defense after 2014, far less reverse football ghosts spanning decades (we don’t even need to leave the 21st century to illustrate just how far the Lions have come; just consider that the Lions weren’t even mediocre for so long).

But naturally, a coach respected by his players who has compiled a winning record—the likes of which Detroit hasn’t seen since, uh, the 50s—is mediocrity. Mars isn’t enough; go straight for Alpha Centauri. Why wait, why not do it now? What’s holding you back?

Maybe Caldwell doesn’t pan out. Wayne Fontes didn’t, and that old Nanook got eight seasons before they got to him. Reality just doesn’t move fast enough for the sports fan, and the very concept of fair competition is anathemic to the desires they wish to make manifest; the Super Bowl must be now, the Lions must be in it and anything else is unacceptable.

The line of “accepting mediocrity” is an attempt to shoehorn the discussion of the franchise back into that tired hole, the same one we keep coming back to, the old one, about the Lions. It’s not an observation or even a narrative. It’s the trauma of too much investment in a sports team’s outcome. The team itself doesn’t matter, or the fellow fans or the players; just that you have to assure yourself that when the team wins, you win.

What would non-acceptance of mediocrity look like in this scenario? The ones who talk about this never really seem to have good answers, but we can guess it’s the typical Lions id gurgling back up. Kick out the front office, kick out the coach, kick out the Fords; surely buried somewhere in the rubble will be something other than mediocrity.