I really wanted to root for the Detroit Lions this year. Really, I did. They’ve been such lovable losers for so long, you wanted to see them and their fans have just a little bit of success. I mean, come on. This is over fifty years without a championship. Packer fans bemoaned going not even thirty years between Super Bowls.
Just in the period of time I’ve been watching football, the highest stature I’ve ever seen the Lions reach was the first hurdle for the Homgren Era Packers to leap past on their five-year journey to a Super Bowl. You know, like when you played Mortal Kombat, and the first opponent you faced was some elderly geezer that was just there to show you the ropes on your way to bigger and better things. That was Herman Moore and the Lions of the early 1990’s.
But I can’t support these Lions. I can’t even gleefully cherish the rivalry as I do with the Bears or even the Vikings, the “love to hate them” mentality. The actions of Ndamukong Suh on Thanksgiving, violently pushing the head down of Even Dietrich-Smith, then stomping on his arm, was far from an event in isolation. It was a climax of many cheap, dirty plays on the part of Suh and his teammates since Jim Schwartz took over as coach, and now those cumulative actions have put an ugly magnifying glass over that team.
But, it isn’t just the actions of the players…the late hits, the ripping off of helmets, the stomping on arms…that are the most damning. It is the excuse parade given by Suh, self-exoneration with every possible angle he can come up with. If I had wanted to hurt him, I would….The man upstairs knows what I did….I was just trying to keep my balance… Such overt ridiculousness has gone on for more than just this one incident, as evidenced by the report by NFLN’s Jason Canafora that even his teammates are saying the Lions organization have “enabled” Suh.
Enabling? Certainly not a stretch for an organization that allowed Matt Millen to preside over perhaps the most embarrassing regime in NFL history.
I sympathize with those good-hearted Lions and their fans who recognize that the opportunities being presented to them by an influx of talent are being wasted with cheap, dirty play that ends up hurting you more in the long run. It’s not too long ago that the Packers were in a similar situation.
By 1986, the latter part of the Forrest Gregg Era in Green Bay, expectations brought on by back-to-back 8-8 seasons in Gregg’s first two years were diminished. The great veterans of the Starr years were gone…Lynn Dickey, Paul Coffmann, John Jefferson, Johnnie Gray, and Jan Stenerud. The Packers were sinking, and the hits kept coming, on and off the field.
In Week 3, promising superstar safety Tim Lewis was lost to a neck injury that ended his career. My personal childhood idol, James Lofton, was charged with second-degree sexual assault of a woman at a Green Bay nightclub, and was summarily shipped to the Raiders after the season.
While Lofton was eventually acquitted of those charges, but the same couldn’t be said for cornerback Mossy Cade, who was convicted of two charges of sexual assault of a woman he was related to through marriage, and served 15 months in jail. How bad was it? When the Vikings tried to sign Cade after his release, the Minnesota fans had to raise a public outcry against it. Kids, this is the “Love Boat” Minnesota Vikings we’re talking about here.
And the Gregg era was legendary for some of the worst drafts in franchise history. You still want to bring up Mike Sherman’s drafts? Go take a look at the drafts from 1984-1987. The cabinet was becoming barer and barer, and the Packers were humiliated by the Super Bowl Shuffle 1985 Chicago Bears on national television, leading to further desperation on the part of Packer fans for any level of success.
And “any kind of success” could easily be the description of what happened. As the Packers posted just thirteen wins over the final three years of Gregg’s tenure, Charles Martin delivered the “Body Slam Heard Round Mostly Wisconsin”. Yes, with no chance to beat the Bears on the scoreboard late in 1986, Martin grabbed Punky QB Jim McMahon a full two seconds after the ball was away and threw him into the Solider Field artificial turf, separating his shoulder. It was the beginning of a new approach for the “hard-nosed Packers and their hard-nosed coach”. If you can’t beat them, beat them up.
And, I am humbled to say that, like many Packer fans at the time, I didn’t completely decry the incident. In fact, I kind of celebrated it. I mean, the Bears were cocky, right? And McMahon was a jerk, right? He kind of deserved it. You saw Martin’s face as he was ejected, and there wasn’t a look of outrage or contriteness on his face. He looked almost bemused. And so did many Packer fans, as we found ourselves face-to-face with Bear fans that week in our cubicle, our classes, or our local tavern and let them know we scored a point against them.
Then we discovered Ken Stills, the former Badger who was brought in to replace the loss of Tim Lewis, and the hits just kept coming. Stills had a reputation as a big hitter, but under the guidance of Forrest Gregg, those hits kept coming, often several seconds after the whistle. And so it went over the next few seasons, with the Packers often sinking down to the level of the cheap victory, the late hit, the trash talking and scuffling.
As Packers fans, mired in the midst of a twenty-year slump, we defended the Packers as much as we could. In many ways, it was our only victory when your quarterback’s efficiency rating was less than half of what Aaron Rodgers’ is today. It was the time in Packer history when Lambeau Field was barely half-full by the end of the game. It was the time in my Packer fandom when I would turn the television off in the middle of the third or fourth quarter and find something else to do, rather than subject myself to further frustration.
Seeing Matt Suhey get leveled after the whistle was our treat. Seeing Chuck Cecil wind up and deliver a running hit was our moment in the sun when we might actually see our team presented positively on ESPN that night.
Dave Duerson, the former Bear safety, summed up the Packers approach in those days succinctly.
"They have a talented club, a lot of athletes," Duerson said. "The problem is they don't play clean. When they decide to play professional football at a class level, they'll give a lot of teams trouble.
"There were a number of cheap shots. When you go in to make a tackle, you have offensive linemen coming in from behind taking shots at your knees, at your back and ribs, basically away from the play. There`s no room for that kind of play.”
It was a loser’s mentality. It was a fruitless existence that runs contrary to the point of why you play the game: to win. It was as if the Packers had knowingly sacrificed the win the felt they had little chance to achieve and decided to make up for it by getting the cheap, dirty wins. And in the end, the right person was axed when Forrest Gregg was fired after the 1988 season.
I used to play flag football in the 1990’s with a bunch of my buddies from a camp we once worked at. We were pretty good, not fantastic, but enjoyed heading to the old Air it Out competitions and winning a game or two.
One day, we went to a “tournament” at a bar in Appleton. We weren’t used to playing in the sand, but once again, we just wanted to have some fun. We also didn’t realize that, of the six teams in our bracket, five were regular teams in their bar league, and they had their own “rules”.
Thus began a day of frustration. We were hampered by the sand, while the other teams were used to it. The “referee” just stood there, and made calls based on who whined the loudest. Regularly, a receiver would run directly at me, push me back three yards, make a catch, and then I’d get blocked from behind. I would look at the “ref”, and bring up the “no contact” part of the rulebook, and he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
Near the end of one of our games, I made a great catch in the back of the end zone, which brought the score to 45-6. One of the players on the other team started screaming loudly, “HE ONLY HAD ONE FOOT IN BOUNDS! HE ONLY HAD ONE FOOT IN BOUNDS!”
I looked at him and, being the nerd that actually studies the competition rules, told him that you only had to have one foot in bounds, just like high school and college. Immediately, he changed his story. “HE DIDN’T HAVE EITHER FOOT IN BOUNDS!”
I turned to the “ref”, smug in my knowledge that the obvious change in story would result in the touchdown signal. However, the “ref” looked at us blankly, waiting apparently for us to decide what the call would be. I slammed the ball down and let him take the points off the board. It had been fourth down.
On the next play, which ended up being the last play of the game, I lined up defensively against the guy who had argued my touchdown. I took a running start before the ball was hiked, and right as the play started, I crossed the line and tackled the guy hard into the sand. And I sat on him and held him down for the play, which ended up being a final touchdown anyway.
No call. We lost 51-0 and we walked off the field, with my only sense of victory not being that great touchdown catch where I deftly kept one foot in bounds, but making a clearly illegal and unsportsmanlike play. We were outmatched in sand football skills, and we weren’t going to get a call our way. So, what did I do? I went for the cheap hit.
That was all I had.
The difference between the 1987 Packers (or the 1996 “Simply En Fuego” Sand Flag Football Team) and the 2011 Detroit Lions is that the Lions have considerably more talent, and therein lies the problems with the coach. Suh is a perennial Pro Bowl talent, while Charles Martin may not have started on any other NFL team besides the Packers. The Lions’ wide receivers earn their nicknames (“Megatron”) while the old Packers receivers invented their own (you don’t remember Walter Stanley asking everyone to call him “Mr. Excitement”?). The Lions are 7-4 and still have an inside track on a wild card that would bring them their first playoff appearance since 1999.
The Lions don’t have to play dirty to win. But, at this point, they have a loser’s mentality, and slowly, they and their fans are realizing it. There’s no reason Suh needs to resort to pulling off the helmet of a helpless quarterback or stomp on a players’ arm. He is a dominant player on the field…and a really useless player sitting on the sideline after being ejected from a game.
And the problem is, it isn’t just Suh. Matt Stafford tossed Bear cornerback DJ Smith to the ground by his helmet at the end of a play. Nick Fairly got a fine for a late hit on Jay Cutler. Kyle Vanden Bosch and Rob Sims have also gotten fined for late hits and fights. And the Lions lead the division in penalties called, accepted, and yards lost.
A few weeks ago, Stafford ended a practice breakdown with “[explicative] them!”…directed at the Lions fans who he interpreted as " jumping off the bandwagon".
While the differences in talent are glaring, the similarities between Gregg and Jim Schwartz are just as poignant. Repeated questions regarding the sportsmanship and integrity of the team have been brushed away by the coach, one time casually redirecting a question about the composure of the team into a “turnover issue”. And as the permissive, “look-the-other-way” attitude of the guy at the top continues to fester, it will be negative leaders like Suh who create the environment of the team.
If you want a great read on what a positive leader is, look no further than Lori Nickel’s piece on Aaron Rodgers and his 52 ways he motivates his teammates. Note: chanting for your fans to go [explicative] themselves is not on the list.
There came a point when the Packers (and Packer fans) slowly realized the impact of the dirty play and the cheap hit. It came early in the Holmgren Era, when Gregg holdover Chuck Cecil had concussed himself out of the lineup with all of his heavily-fined helmet-first hits. The Packers had been famous under the previous regime for giving up the big pass play, often laying the blame at the feet of cornerback Jerry Holmes. As Holmgren and defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes installed a more team-oriented defense, it became obvious that Cecil had been shirking his coverage duties while trying to build up momentum for a big hit, biting on play-action and pass fakes.
I remember actually wanting to write Holmes a letter, apologizing for jumping on the bandwagon running him out of town with pitchforks and torches. He may not have been the best corner in the world anyway, but it was the choice to make the cheap hit that left him exposed and vulnerable.
And this is what the Lions are doing today: leaving themselves vulnerable. I predicted a tough game for the Packers on Thanksgiving, but the Packers, once again, demoralized the other team. While other teams have been able to mount comebacks against the Packers this season, the Lions could not. They went out with a whimper with their best defensive player sitting in the locker room.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” I am thankful that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson preside over a team that is thoughtful enough to protect both.
And, as the shadow of the Lions’ reputation gets longer and longer, you only need to follow it to the source…and that is the character of Jim Schwartz.