After years as a punchline, Lions are now legitimate contenders
As the kick that could have destroyed his season sailed east Sunday, Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola headed west. The Lions led Minnesota 16-14. If Blair Walsh’s 68-yard field-goal attempt failed, they would win their 10th game of the year. You would think this might interest Raiola, but he said later that he didn’t even watch. Nerves? Superstition? “I didn’t think he had a chance,” Raiola said. After 14 years of almost constant losing, Raiola finally expects to win.
Raiola’s optimism came from distance traveled, both for the kick (it would have been an NFL record by four yards) and for his team. The Lions, a punchline for so long that people don’t even laugh at the joke anymore, are suddenly a legitimate NFL contender. They are atop the NFC North (they currently own the tiebreaker over Green Bay), and a model of consistent effort, dominant defense and balanced offense.
Raiola always told himself this day would come. Among active players, only Tom Brady and Sebastian Janikowski have been with their teams longer, unless you count the Colts’ Reggie Wayne, who was drafted a few hours before Raiola in 2001. Yet Raiola has only played in one playoff game (a 17-point loss to New Orleans in 2012). The Lions have had losing records in 12 of his 14 seasons.
Raiola is only 6-foot-1, short for an NFL lineman. He has never made a Pro Bowl, and he dropped out of charm school at an early age. On more than one occasion, he has given the finger to spectators, and he once said he would like to invite a few fans to his house for a fistfight, but he couldn’t because they might bring guns.
Last year he got into a verbal scuffle with college tuba players, and earlier this year he irritated the New England Patriots by mauling a defensive lineman when everybody knew the Lions were taking a knee to end the game. Bill Belichick said Raiola was bitter because he has never beaten the Patriots. Raiola shrugged. You can say much worse things about him than that he has never beaten the Patriots.
But Raiola competes relentlessly, regardless of the score, the Lions’ record, or how his body feels -- he has played 219 of a possible 223 games -- and he has always embraced his surroundings. Raiola is from Hawaii, but he looks in the mirror and sees a Detroiter. He has endured a career of losing in a stadium surrounded by poverty, yet he can’t imagine playing anywhere else.
“It really has bonded me,” he said. “I really feel that way. Real Detroiters know where my heart’s at. I’d die for this city.”
Eight years ago, the Tigers played in their first World Series in 22 years. Dylan Raiola was just 1 year old, but he watched an entire game next to his father in his basement. Dominic says his children “never watched Disney; it was SportsCenter growing up,” so they know just how bad their father’s franchise has been. Sunday afternoon, after Walsh’s kick fell short, Dylan walked into the Lions locker room wearing a No. 51 Lions jersey with DADDY on the back and hugged his father.
“Did you see Green Bay lost?” Dylan asked.
Raiola said he had.
“Are you guys winning [the division] now?” he asked.
“We’re on top,” Daddy said calmly. “Yup.”
The Lions have won one playoff game since 1957. Their collective ineptitude hides individual excellence, and even competence. Kicker Jason Hanson is the third-leading scorer in NFL history, but he only attempted four playoff field goals. Adam Vinatieri, No. 4 on the scoring list, has kicked 61. For years, Raiola had to block out the failure and, as he often said, beat up the man in front of him. It is his job.
The losing has not sapped fans’ interest, but it has tested their faith. Lions fans are like people who no longer believe in heaven, but still pray on Sundays on the off chance they are wrong. This offseason only reinforced their skepticism.
The Lions hired Jim Caldwell as head coach, a seemingly reactive move; former coach Jim Schwartz was cocksure and fiery and his teams lacked discipline, so the Lions replaced him with a snooze button. Signing receiver Golden Tate away from Seattle felt like another losing-team trap: throw money at a free agent because his team won the Super Bowl. The Lions also failed to sign star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a contract extension, leading to speculation that Suh will depart as a free agent.
The whole offseason felt like a slow-motion punt. But in fact, it signaled that the organization is finally doing what is right, instead of what is popular. Tate gives the Lions a sure-handed threat when All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson draws double-teams. The Lions have long had a tendency to overrate (and overpay) their stars, but while they want to keep Suh, they are not desperate to do so.
And Caldwell has been the steady, smart leader they need. Caldwell grew up in Wisconsin, but in a sense he was raised by Detroit; his father Willie was a skilled tradesman for General Motors. Willie dreamed of building his own business, but he never quite did it. Jim was determined to seize his own chance if he got it. When he was an assistant, he kept a list of assistants he wanted to hire when he became a head coach, long before he even had an interview. Eventually, he got a job where people figured he couldn’t win (at Wake Forest) and another where he couldn’t lose (with Peyton Manning’s Colts). He may be the only coach in the NFL who must gently remind people he led a team to the Super Bowl.
Many fans remember Caldwell’s Colts tenure more for his final season (Manning was hurt and the Colts went 2-14) and for his sideline stoicism. One Internet meme features “The many faces and emotions of Jim Caldwell” and nine pictures of him wearing a blank expression. But Caldwell has a presence that does not show up on camera, and the Lions love him for his forthrightness.
“I try to be upfront and give them boundaries,” Caldwell said. “If they know their boundaries, most guys can deal with that. It’s the mood swings, the unexpected things that can create problems for you.”
Caldwell told his players when he arrived: If they are ever late, they will face the maximum allowable fine under the collective bargaining agreement. No exceptions, no negotiations, no accusations of favoritism, and no dwelling on the topic. Players respect that. In training camp, one veteran was late and placed a check on Caldwell’s desk before he even received the letter saying he had been fined.
Caldwell has transformed the Lions from a team that asks Stafford to win games with his arm to a group that puts him in position to do so. The Lions drafted Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 largely because of his ungodly arm strength and belief he can make every throw. At times, those traits made him look like a star, but they also led him to mistakes. Now he makes smarter decisions and has the lowest interception rate of his career. But when the Lions need a game-deciding play, Stafford can still provide it.
The Caldwell differences can be subtle. More players are following the dress code on the road, just because they want to please the coach, and the Lions excel at minor adjustments, like when they tightened their coverages after falling behind Minnesota, 14-0.
Last year in Green Bay, the Lions discovered during warm-ups that Johnson couldn’t play, and they folded emotionally before the opening kickoff. This year Johnson missed three games due to injury, and the Lions won all three.
The Lions wilted last December, but they seem to be getting better now, partly because Caldwell limits contact in practices to keep them fresh. His veterans love him for it. Safety James Ihedigbo, who has played for both Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh, calls Caldwell the “best coach in the NFL.” When asked why, Ihedigbo says quickly: “He treats us like men.”
If the Lions beat the Bears this week, they will clinch the second playoff berth of Raiola’s career. Even if they lose in Chicago, they can win the NFC North if they win in Green Bay next week. The only problem is that they never win in Green Bay. The last time they did was 1991, when Brett Favre was still an Atlanta Falcon.
Cornerback Darius Slay once saw the words “Lambeau Field” at the Lions facility and thought they referred to a sports car, and he said Sunday that he didn’t know anything about the Lions’ history there.
Who can fault Slay? He is only in his second year in Detroit. He isn’t supposed to know about the Lambeau losing streak, the 0-16 season in 2008, or that the Lions are the only franchise that has existed in every year of the Super Bowl era but never made the big game. For that matter, he isn’t required to know about the government’s auto bailout, the Tigers’ playoff heartbreaks or Detroit’s recent bankruptcy. Raiola was told that Slay knew nothing of the Lambeau streak. He smiled and said, “That’s good. The less these guys know, the better.”