My fascination with the Detroit Lions and their quest for 0-16 knows no limits. It probably says a lot about me that I did not have one-tenth the same interest level when the Patriots were on their 16-0 crusade a year ago. I guess I've always had a pretty good outsider sense of 16-0 -- why it's so hard to do, what kind of luck and determination it takes to get there, what it means.
But 0-16 -- that's a whole other thing. Anyone who watches the NFL closely realizes that there are plenty of lousy teams in this league, and there are many, many more teams that CAN BE lousy on any given week. It seems to me that to go winless in this environment takes something more than awfulness.
1. It takes an ability to descend to the occasion*.
*The Lions have played four teams with losing records and, except for their relatively game effort against Houston, they have not come even close to winning any of those:
Green Bay (5-10): Lost 45-28 San Francisco (6-9): Lost 31-13 Houston (7-8): Lost 28-21 Jacksonville (5-10): Lost 38-14
2. It takes an ability to pull off remarkable, almost mystical, feats of horridness.*
*I think the Lions loss that tops them all was against Tampa Bay; Detroit led 17-0 at the end of the first quarter. This was at home. This was against a Bucs team that had had trouble scoring point all year. Of course, the Lions were losing by halftime, and the game was way out of reach before the end of the third quarter. ... Of course falling behind 35-3 to the Tennessee Titans in the second quarter on Thanksgiving Day was one for the ages too.
3. It takes a high level of comic chaos.*
*So, in one year the Lions FINALLY fired Matt Millen as general manager, but they kept on their head coach who will probably be best remembered as the guy who got offended when someone asked him if he wished his daughter would have married a better defensive coordinator. Their most outspoken player has been their kicker, Jason Hanson, who is having a remarkable season (the guy is 8-for-8 beyond 50 yards) -- how do you go 0-16 when you have a kicker that good? Five different quarterbacks have thrown passes this year including one guy who retired (Daunte Culpepper), one guy who probably should have retired (Jon Kitna) and two guys named Drew**
**Not many people made it all the way to the end of that Thanksgiving Day game, but if you did make it you got the treat of watching Drew Henson throw two passes. Yes, THAT Drew Henson. It was wild to see him, a beautiful blast from the past, sort of like seeing Dwayne from What's Happening in a major motion picture or hearing a new The Dream Academy song on the radio. Funny thing is I mentioned this to three or four friends, and they all had the same reaction: "No, that wasn't Drew Henson, it was Drew Stanton, the kid from Michigan State." And I was like, um, no, it really was Drew Henson. But they had me so unnerved that I actually went back to the boxscore. Twice. And, of course, it WAS Drew Henson. I didn't dream it.
4. It takes a group of players who, when it comes right down to it, just want the season to end.*
*Seems to me there are two ways a really, really bad team can go. The team can suck it up at the end of the year and put together professional efforts in order to show some semblance of pride. Or they can accept their fate and try to get the heck out without getting hurt. We will see how the Lions respond in Green Bay, where it will no doubt be miserably cold and generally awful. Their 42-7 loss at home to New Orleans last week does not promise good things.
Of course, it isn't just the team that fascinates me ... it is also the fan reaction to the team. In many ways that intrigues me even more. How do fans handle a potential 0-16 season? Do you, at some point, root for bad history? Do you rage against every loss? Do you simply pretend it isn't happening? This is especially poignant in Detroit, where times are tough, and the harsh winter hits, and the Tigers just had a miserable season and time seems to have passed the Pistons by (though the Red Wings seem about as good as ever).
My good friend Michael Rosenberg, brilliant chronicler of all things Motor City for the Detroit Free Press, offers this excellent little essay on what Lions fans want:
I know quite a few Lions fans want their team to beat Green Bay and be just another 1-15 team. But based on anecdotal evidence, I can tell you that a lot of fans are rooting for the team to go 0-16 -- far more than you would find if, say, the 49ers or Raiders or Bears were 0-15. These are people who have embraced Rasheed Wallace, Dennis Rodman and Bob Probert, yet they want their football team to lose. To understand why, you have to understand the history of the franchise and its relationship with its fans.
Since William Clay Ford Sr. bought the Lions in 1964, the team has won one playoff game. That is a disappointing year for the Patriots. But it's not even the losing that drives Lions fans craziest. A lot of teams lose. It is that Ford does not seem to try. He kept the same general manager, Russ Thomas, from 1967 to 1989. He kept Wayne Fontes as coach for more than eight years. And of course, he kept Matt Millen for eight years as well.
We often say that fans here love their Lions, but the truth is that they love football, and the Lions happen to be the team that play here. Obviously, fans have great affection for a lot of the Lions' players, but they have none for the franchise. The Lions are not lovable losers; they are just losers. In 2003, when the Tigers threatened to eclipse the 1962 Mets' modern-day record for losses, most fans pulled hard for them to win games in the final week. At the time, owner Mike Ilitch was widely ridiculed for losing so many games, and the team had been bad for a decade. But most fans still had fond memories of when the Tigers were good -- and on some level, they knew Ilitch cared, because he had won so much with the Red Wings. They did not want their team to be embarrassed by losing 120 games.
This is different. Many Lions fans think it would be a nice change if their franchise is embarrassed. Some of them figured that 0-16 would shame Ford into meaningful change; I never bought that, and Ford's announcement last week that he is keeping the team president and interim general manager show he is still the same lousy owner he always was. That was never really the point, anyway. Lions fans have tried to love this team for years, but the team never loved them back. After a while, you don't expect to be loved any more. You just want the team to feel the way you have felt for all these years.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.