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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Being a Lions fan is great--except for that down time between Drafts."

The Time: December 29, 1957.

The Place: Tiger Stadium.

The Event: The NFL Championship game.

The Score: Detroit Lions 59, Cleveland Browns 14.

When the victorious NFL Champion Lions walked off the icy turf that day, Lions fandom could not have imagined that, nearly forty-eight years later, the Lions would have 1 (one) more playoff victory to their credit.

Flash forward to December 24, 2000: the 9-6 Lions need a victory over the lowly Bears at home to secure a playoff spot. Final score, on a stunning last second field goal: Bears 23, Lions 20. It's an especially poignant memory for me because it was the last game my Lions-devoted grandfather ever saw.

The Lions clean house, appointing TV commentator and four-time Super Bowl champion Matt Millen to head the organization. The record since? 20-55. That's .267, which is not what the Tigers are looking for in a hitter, let alone a winning percentage.

Younger Lions fans (those who frequent the independent, more popular and, frankly, better of the two Detroit sports radio stations, WDFN) have developed their own lingo in the past several years, the most popular term being "cornbread." The term derives from the fare served by southern plantation masters in the slavery era. A delusional fan who, say, predicts the Lions will be in the Super Bowl, calls a draft pick unassailably brilliant, or even one who simply guarantees that Detroit will beat an equally inept team, is accused of or admits to having eaten the piping hot cornbread served by the Masters Ford. In fact, being a Lions fan at all for the past decade is an exercise cornbread eating--can't bear to leave the plantation because the food is so good.

My name is Dale Price, and I am a cornbread addict.

In my time of watching the Lions, I have seen them lose every possible way a team can lose. Why the perpetual ineptitude?

Two words: Russ Thomas (rest in peace).

Thomas was the GM of the organization from the time the Fords purchased it in 1963 to the time he retired in December 1989. Ferociously stingy, he alienated the talent the Lions managed to draft, giving the team a bad reputation it has only begun to shake over the past 15 years. Trust me--the organization has positively thrown money around since that time: the team's problems do not stem from penny-pinching. More tellingly, Thomas was a true and loyal friend to senior owner William Clay Ford, and Ford reciprocated. In fact, Ford is an admirable and likeable man by every account, and the same goes for Bill Ford, Jr. Whatever else you can say about them, they are loyal to their people and handsomely reward loyalty in turn. Throwing people under the bus is not what they do.

While admirable in and of itself, that has proved to be a problem in the bottom line NFL. It may be the organization's greatest flaw: the refusal to jettison people when they don't perform.

Which brings me to the now-unemployed Steve Mariucci: that he was fired during the season is a bit of a shocker. Perhaps--perhaps--it is a sign that ownership's patience is, after forty two years, running out. Time will tell.

Make no mistake--Mooch's firing is really unobjectionable: the hand on the tiller was too gentle, as even Mooch guy Jeff Garcia admitted during an interview. He's a nice, just folks, UP guy who was accustomed to dealing with veterans who were self-starters at SF. That's not the situation he had here, where he had to mold and develop young talent. He manifestly did not do that here, especially on the offensive side of the ball. More damagingly, he let a divided locker room develop and fester, as can be seen by Dre Bly's appalling shots at Joey Harrington yesterday on the NFL Network. Harrington deserves criticism, and even from teammates, but not on national television. Don't worry too much about Mariucci, though: I have a strong suspicion he may be coaching up the I-96 at MSU next season. It's simply a hunch, but do not be surprised at all. He's an ideal fit for the Spartans, and he has the ultimate reference in his best friend, basketball demigod Tom Izzo.

Which brings me to the final question many are asking: why not Millen, too? Isn't this the sixth year of the Five Year Plan? Well, yes, but he's secure, at least until the end of the 2006 season. There are two reasons: (1) the dogged loyalty of the Fords, and (2) he's been the best personnel guy the Lions have had since the Fords bought the team. That might not be saying much, but it's true. The Lions have gotten younger and faster, and much better on the defensive side of the ball. I could rant and rail about his multiple stupid decisions, but it's a little like complaining about the moon ruining my night sky: there's not much I can do about it. But he'd better find the right coach this time, or he will be done.

OK--should be.

Ding! Anyone for cornbread?

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