Welcome to Detroit.

Originally posted to Substack on January 5, 2022.

The culture might actually be damn good with one of the NFL's most historically anemic franchises.

Reading through the list of starting quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions since the 1960s can make you wonder, sometimes, if the Lions are the Witness Protection Program of professional American football. In between the merger and today, the Lions have only sent two to the Pro Bowl—Greg Landry in 1971, and Matthew Stafford in 2014. In between those two are some guys that are a lot of capital-G Guys, like Gary Danielson, Eric Hipple, Chuck Long, and Jeff Komlo, and the disasters of the 1990s and 2000s. If you know journeymen quarterbacks, chances are they were at least on the Lions’ practice squad, and probably played a game for them at some point. As for the other positions on the football field, the Lions have enough players to form a Ring of Honor, but only two players on their rather respectable list of Hall of Famers played entirely in the post-merger era with Detroit for the majority of their careers, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.

The Lions post-merger are defined by a couple of really good years punctuating plains of mediocrity and gorges of some of the worst football you’ve ever seen. They opened the new era of professional American football by losing to the Cowboys in the 1970 playoffs 5-0, which had only been accomplished once before that (and once after) and never in the postseason, and hasn’t been since. It defined them for the rest of the decade and, arguably, the rest of the next 50 years. Besides flashes like the ‘83 season, the early-mid ‘90s run that featured one of the best ball-carriers to ever play the position, and the scrappy early 2010s teams that saw one of the most underrated thrower-reciever combos of the 21st century drag the Lions to 3 postseason losses in 3 attempts, chalking in Detroit to finish last in the NFC North has been a preseason formality since the division’s creation in 2002. And now, we’ve circled all the way back around.

Welcome to the 2021 Detroit Lions, the league's newest expansion team.

“Why not win the next three!?” Jared Goff told the team after their Week 15 thumping of the Arizona Cardinals, previously undefeated on the road.

As hard of an ask a 5-11-1 record was to sell to Detroit fans eager to see the Lions pick up hometown hero Aidan Hutchinson in the 2022 NFL Draft, it would’ve absolutely be a defining statement for a team that, for over two months, looked like it might be the first team to go 0-16 and 0-17.

When he was hired early in 2021, coach Dan Campbell took on a role more akin to that given to John McKay when he took over the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Matthew Stafford, the best quarterback in franchise history and the only entry the Lions can confidently submit to the list of Best Ever, would be gone a few months later, replaced with Goff, a quarterback that was, to put it charitably, not Stafford. First round choice Penei Sewell struggled mightily in training camp and the preseason. The defense had not been significantly improved upon from the previous season. It was pretty clear heading into 2021 that this season was meant to be a burner, that Lions management was willing to attempt another rebuild after the catastrophic Millen Rebuild resulted in the first 0-16 season. Campbell was given a Herculean task: win with a gutted team of rookies and whatever wasn’t sluffed off in the offseason and avoid replicating the 2008 season he himself was a part of as a player.

That did not happen.

For 11 games the Lions seemed hopelessly cursed. They almost pulled a comeback victory against the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener, falling short by 8, and had a 17-14 halftime lead over the vaunted Green Bay Packers at halftime before three unanswered Green Bay touchdowns in the second half ended that dream. Two losses came on last second field goals by the opponent, one an NFL record that bounced off the crossbar before going in. They kept pace with Stafford’s new team, the Los Angeles Rams, before ultimately losing by 9. A game against the Pittsburgh Steelers ended in a gruesome tie.

Then, the 0-10-1 Lions won a game, on a last-second touchdown from Goff to 2021 fourth round choice Amon-Ra St. Brown against the Minnesota Vikings, and the NFL world got their first serious look into the Detroit Lions locker room.

They would run through a wall for Dan Campbell.

And suddenly, the league’s worst team…didn’t look so bad compared to others. With the nightmare that was the Urban in Jacksonville Saga, the Lions didn’t look like the worst in the league, and with the howling mediocrity that is Chicago, not even the worst team in their own division. People re-evaluated their schedule, noticing all the close losses, and realized that this team was a more-than-average quarterback, a pass rush, and a true WR1 or 2 (depending on where St. Brown ends up fitting) away from winning 3 or 4 of those games, including the aforementioned tie in Pittsburgh. A loss to Denver in the Demaryius Thomas Memorial Bowl quieted some of that, but the storyline from that game was more what the win meant for Denver than the loss meant for Detroit.

And then they beat the brakes off the Arizona Cardinals, a team who had, at that point, beat everyone on the road by at least 10 points. It was 17-0 in favor of Detroit at halftime, and that was that on that. Detroit’s patchwork defense completely shut down Arizona’s potent offense, something not many teams had managed to do, at least successfully. Unless they somehow beat the Packers on the season’s last Sunday, that will be their defining moment, when they took one of the NFC’s best teams and euthanized them, the first team to do so all year. Dan Campbell’s Lions, now at 2-13-1, are the only blemish on Arizona’s Road Hogs resume.

This is a team that goes and plays their heart out every week, despite being riddled with injuries, COVID, and missing talent. They were a late interception away from nearly upsetting the Falcons, and balled out against the Seahawks despite being down multiple scores pretty much immediately. They’re motivated by the guy who said that they were gonna bite kneecaps, and I’ll be damned, they have. He’s lived up to that end of the bargain. Very few times in recent memory has a team with such a poor record fought like hell for points and respect like the 2021 Detroit Lions. Exciting things are brewing, and with careful drafting, they could maybe be Not Last in the NFC North, something they haven’t been for four seasons and counting. With shaky futures in Chicago and Minnesota on the horizon, that can seem a tantalizing possibility for one of the most desperate fandoms in sports.

Detroit and its people could sure as hell use it, and they absolutely deserve it.