There’s a convergence among NFL teams in their slogans. Much like the crab form in nature, all football teams eventually invoke the same totems in their quest to be the most football of all. Toughness, both physical and mental. Every wants to be blue collar, every wants that Midwest Rust Belt character of grit and strength from world-weariness. Clear-eyed, forward-thinking yet rooted in tradition. All teams are different, but they all speak the same values, believing they alone embody them best.
The most important thing in the western world right now is selling a story, and the story often has to be compelling far more than it has to be genuine. The best storytellers in the world, the modern JRR Tolkiens, they no longer weave mythopoetic worlds, They’re writing fantasy, but the other kind. You know—bullshit. Snake oil has to come from somewhere, and by golly if you got an origin story you got the rube’s rubles.
Look around the world, see how one story speaks well but snakes and swindles all the like. Theranos, Enron, Bitcoin, flat earth, the Laconian state of Sparta, radio DJs, Playstation exclusives... NFL teams. It’s all out there, spin a good yarn, take the seed money, fake it ‘til you make it! Talk up the infinite glory of space and then blow up your rocket as soon as it gets a little farther each time, you need the government bucks.
The Chicago Bears have always wanted to sell that they’re tough. Waving their arms, gesticulating to 1985 and the return to glory that was always eminent. “Mental toughness” was always the favorite for second-year head coach Matt Eberflus, praising his quarterback Justin Fields and all the rest of his team—and to be clear there is a base level of toughness in anyone who decides to strap on pads and threaten their bodies in the game of American football, and that must be clear before because the rest of what I’m writing is just taking a battleaxe to a more pernicious commercial form of toughness that the Detroit Lions crushed out of the Bears on Sunday.
Popular Bears cope will tell you that the team is tanking, this season doesn’t matter and it’s all about the post-Eberflus world that is eminent. But that doesn’t matter for the present. The Bears entered Sunday determined to prove toughness, put Justin Fields back on the map and gain respect back. It’s all that’s ever won and lost on the gridiron and nobody wants to roll over and play dead. You aren’t going to get a pension doing that in this league.
And for roughly three quarters, they looked ready to do just that. The Lions have worked out a strategy to sit on teams for the past calendar year, to deny high-flying offenses their turn by taking the ball and grinding the clock to a fine powder. The Bears did just that to Detroit, with over 40 minutes time of possession. Understanding Detroit as a rhythm offense, the Bears made sure the notes fell flat.
But like all stories from all “fake it til you make it” sorts, Chicago failed to truly live what they preached. Jared Goff, who had been reduced to a wild raving lunatic throwing picks, settled in and buried the Bears defense.
The toughness Chicago had sold evaporated immediately. Where was this fortitude, this will to dominate? The Bears went three-and-out, electing two runs against a stout defense and a deep pass that meant little of nothing. Faced with victory, however fading, Eberflus reached for the shallow end of the pool, flailing and desperate. There was no conviction to end the game, but rather a simple wish to do so.
The Lions, by contrast—and to bring the focus back to the actual protagonists here—bit hard on the bullpucky for the game and had to eat their misery for most of the day. But with the game back in range after Goff’s shot to Jameson Williams, the Lions didn’t need to abandon their own ethos of toughness to try to claw back into this furball.
It’s one thing to surge in a comeback, but it’s quite another to refuse to abandon your identity and conviction and continue to run the ball in the final 80 seconds of the game. The balls on these fools! It was David Montgomery keeping it alive within the 15-yard line and Jahmyr Gibbs bringing it to the goal line so Montgomery could punch it through. There was never a hesitation that the clock would ever go against them. Why would it? I dare that clock to try.
Because this is ultimately a tale of Detroit’s toughness, and while it might be a well ballyhooed story—we don’t need to go into how often the blue collar nature of the city is not just beaten but decomposed—there’s a certain air of authenticity in the whole matter of it. The Lions won this game because they never abandoned what made this whole thing work, while the Bears changed the whole book to try to escape. Oh yeah, you can say the Lions escaped with the win, but they were the hunters in the final minutes here. Aidan Hutchinson too.
And that’s quite a funny thing to talk about authenticity in all of this. Winding back the clock, Dan Campbell’s funny ways were seen as the exact opposite. Nobody could quite get their head around the idea that you could be goofy and this damned earnest about your toughness and be real. It didn’t click, certainly not if you were one of these folks who had a certain Jungian archetype of an NFL coach in your head. It didn’t look like Campbell talking about kneecaps or diapers or roaring after a game or the red eyes he was drinking; it was Vince Lombardi and Mike Ditka and Tom Landry. Stately sorts with carved chins and growling voices expressing disapproval at the way the world was going, standing athwart history and winning ball games by their curmudgeonly toughness alone.
They fell for the story of toughness being sold more than they could believe the heterodox was tough himself.
The toughest guys in the world I’ve met don’t look like George Patton or Tom Landry, not that a face or scowl ever dictated such things. They do things that might just be off at times. They’ve got a flame built on cinders from being through things, rough things, and the licks they’ve taken don’t always fall in line with the pedigree demanded by better society. They may stumble on convictions, they may get introspective, but that’s no fault. It’s not something that always works out either, just because you have toughness doesn’t make you automatically succeed at what you’re doing. It’s a damnable life, this, and the courage to face it is so very precious. But it’s a hell of a lot better than some self-help book’s yarn or a marketing slogan.
So appreciate the meta-narrative on this Lions victory. Everyone wants to say they’re tough and blue collar and this that and the other. The Lions have the real stuff in spades.