Moral victory for Detroit Lions on Sunday? Absolutely. Only losers would argue otherwise

Detroit Free Press

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Moral victories are for losers. Which makes me a loser, I suppose, because I believe in them, at least I believe in what people mean when they use the phrase, even though I’m not sure what a moral victory is.

I know what folks mean by it. I know I’ve heard it tossed around in locker rooms and postgame news conferences for decades after a team loses a tough game. I know many folks outside the locker room, which is to say so many of you, detest the phrase because it gives excuse to losing.

To which I politely say: No. It doesn’t. At all.

Rather, it gives context to competition, to effort, to the games we love — sometimes too much — to what happens on a football field on a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. Or rather Inglewood, because incorrectly guessing a city’s geographic boundary is for losers, too.

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To which you might reply: Moral victories are a crutch for the winless.

Hey, you don’t have to be rude. I’just want to parse this phrase and figure out why it’s not OK to use it after what happened at SoFI Stadium when the Lions played solidly — at times more than solidly — gave a good team a fight to the end and lost, 28-19.

How about we let Jared Goff give it a try:

“It’s the same conversation of like ‘moral victory’ versus, like, what’s the actual record,” he began. “I think when you really watch it on Mondays and you break down the film and you see what it looks like, then you can kind of assess that and see where we’re at and I don’t know. I haven’t watched (the film yet), but I would have to believe there was a lot more, better stuff out there today than there was last week … so, yeah, you can say that’s in the right direction.”

Well, he’s right about that. The Lions took a good team to the final minute. They had a real chance to win. They did this on the road a week after losing badly to the Bengals — their worst loss of the season.

The Lions are, of course, now 0-7 after losing to Matthew Stafford and the Rams. Which means, by my math, that they have no victories at all.

It also means they need to find some way to measure their performance — especially collectively — beyond the final score. Goff understands this is tricky.

“Our league’s based on results,” he acknowledged. “And they don’t care if you’re getting better or if you’re improving or if you look better one week after another. It’s winning and losing and ultimately we need to do that.”

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Who are they?

You, naturally. He’s saying he understands your frustration and that you might not care about a “moral victory.”

On the other hand:

“We’re a lot better than our record shows. Ultimately, in this league that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. I can say that as long as I want, but until we win some games, we can’t really prove it.”

Actually, they can prove it. They can make the play or two or three that swings a game, that swings so many games in the NFL, that’s swung at least three of their games so far.

And while you can say that the Lions are only a few plays from a 3-4 record, which is a lot different from 0-7, it’s ultimately a fruitless argument. Which brings us back to the idea of moral victories.

The problem is the phrase itself. It was designed to express a subtler, more nuanced thought regarding a competition or battle. But it’s too easy to get tripped up on “victory.”

In other words: How can it still be a victory if, say, you lose on the scoreboard?

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The other problem is the phrase attempts to assign, almost subconsciously, a moral value to winning and losing. So that if, say, Goff uses it like he did Sunday then he’s upending our (narrow) value of winning and losing.

This explains the pushback against its use by weary and irritable Lions fans. Dan Campbell understands this, too.

Let’s experiment:

“Look, we are what we’re our record says we are,” Campbell said. “That’s the bottom line about this league. Now I know this, our guys come back to work. They were ready to go. They believed in the plan, they executed the plan for the most part (and) minus a couple plays … that’s what happens.”

How does that make you feel? Like he’s making excuses?

I don’t think he is. He’s just being truthful. The record tells us plenty. His team’s effort Sunday tells us plenty, too.

He isn’t shy about the limitations of this roster.

“We knew we needed to play this game a certain way,” he said. “And really, we did that. We wanted them to try to make them to play a little bit more of our game. (A) track meet was going to be hard for us. We needed to try to stick around to the fourth quarter and find a way to win it. We had an opportunity there at the end and then they got an interception.”

And yet the Lions looked better. It’s OK to say that. Whether you call it a moral victory or simply an improvement, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Campbell and this staff are building an environment and culture that should pay off as talent improves. It’s OK to say that, too.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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