Mitch Albom: Hope springs eternal for Detroit Lions after win in finale — but should it?

Detroit Free Press

It would be easy to get excited about the Detroit Lions beating the mighty Packers on Sunday, and maybe some of you feel that way.

You must be new to Detroit.

The rest of us have seen this movie too many times to be fooled by the ending. It’s like Humphrey Bogart at the finish of “Casablanca” saying, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” You feel good for a moment, until you realize he’s still not getting Ingrid Bergman back.

Sure, the Lions played hard in their season finale. Jared Goff was sharp, Amon-Ra St. Brown continued his excellent season, and the Lions defense picked off backup quarterback Jordan Love twice down the stretch to hang on to a 37-30 victory.

Which gives them a total of three wins.

In case you’ve lost count, that’s two less than last year, when they fired Matt Patricia, and the same amount as the year before (despite having an extra game this year). The Lions are going home today for the offseason, while the Packers enjoy a rest before starting as the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

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And yet, there was optimism in some corners of Lion Land Sunday, and pride from the head coach.

“I was proud of our guys,” Dan Campbell told the media. “We went out and finished on a high note. … In some regards, I did think we played some of our best football.”

Look. I’m going to say this right here. I like Dan Campbell. More importantly, it seems that everybody likes Dan Campbell. The players. The fans. The media. The announcers. Somewhere Urban Meyer is scratching his head saying, “That guy won three games and they’re cheering him — and I’m out on my rear end?”

Then again, there were many issues with Meyer that Campbell doesn’t have. Quite the opposite. Fans eat up Campbell’s bleed-on-your-sleeve approach to the game. When he tears up, you tear up with him. When he grins, dang it, you just feel better. He’s the kind of guy you’d like as your commanding officer, leading you into battle, and sure enough, despite the woeful record, Lions players beam about their head coach.

But the key words in that sentence aren’t “beam about their head coach.” They’re “despite the woeful record.”

In the end, it‘s wins — not hugs and back slaps — that let you keep your NFL job.

We’ve seen this script before

So here are some trends to keep in mind:

Teams with the lowest numbers of wins in an NFL season don’t generally fare a lot better the next year. The Cleveland Browns had one win in 2016 and zero wins in 2017. The Cincinnati Bengals had two wins in 2019 and four wins in 2020. The Jacksonville Jaguars had one win last year and three this year.

You get the point. The road to rebounding is long and tough. And despite high draft picks, you are not assured to see it rise. Sometimes, you’ll go from 3-13 to 7-9 to 0-16. It happens.

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Rod Marinelli did it right here in the Motor City.

There is this assumption that Campbell’s crew will be so much better next year, because he’s spent this year grooming their attitude, giving young guys a chance, instilling his “system.” But we’ve heard such analysis before. It’s worth noting that in the last 37 years, the Lions have had 10 different head coaches start the season, and only Marty Mornhinweg (2-14) and Jim Schwartz (2-14) began with fewer wins than Campbell.

But having pointed that out, I almost feel that I should soften the blow. Give Campbell and this group more credit, because, gosh darn it, they tried hard. They gave it their best. They came to play Sunday. Isn’t that terrific?

And then I realize that this is the hypnotic haze that hangs over Detroit’s professional football base. Do you think they’d be satisfied in Dallas, Kansas City, New England or Lambeau Field after a 3-13-1 finish? We are so conditioned to awfulness in Detroit that we ignore it in favor of the slightest glimmer of sunshine.

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When Campbell tells the media on Sunday, “There is hope”, we want to wrap that sentence in a bow. Yes. There is hope. Go get ‘em, coach.

Maybe we should snap out of that spell. Maybe we should say this city deserves greatness. Green Bay goes to the playoffs more often than LeBron goes to the hoop. When they needed to beat the Lions this year (the second week of the season) they trounced them, 35-17. Do you think they care about Sunday? They lost by a touchdown, with nothing on the line, after their clearly inferior backup quarterback couldn’t make throws to his second-tier receivers.

This wasn’t Aaron Rodgers missing Davante Adams. Those two were both powder-dry on the sidelines in the second half, smiling about their Super Bowl hopes.

And here we are thinking 3-13-1 is the start of something big.

A rough draft

And then, in the big picture, there’s the issue of the No. 1 draft pick.

Now, I’m not one who thinks a coach should tell his players to lose a game, or even play half-heartedly. You wouldn’t tell a bar band to play off-key just because no one was in the place at closing.

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The Lions are paid to try and win. And they tried and did on Sunday. But it sure is classic Lions luck to see them mount a victory against a team they can never beat when it matters, on the same day the even lowlier Jaguars had a rare upset victory to improve to 3-14, which, if the Lions had lost Sunday, would have given Detroit the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

And for those who say, “Ah, what does it matter, there’s no clear No. 1 pick anyhow”, well, 1. Don’t judge a draft in January. By April you never know who emerges from the combines turning people’s heads, and 2. You always want the No. 1 pick, if only for trade value.

Put it this way. Come April 28, when the Lions watch another team make that pick, do you really think you’ll be saying, “That’s OK. We beat Green Bay’s backups on the last game of the year! It was worth it!”

I doubt it.

How bright is the future?

Look. It’s the new year, and I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. The Lions have a few nice young players. Their offensive line could be quite good — if they ever stay healthy. And their attitude is admirable.

But they also have a massive question at quarterback, which is the fulcrum of any NFL team. Do you really gamble that Jared Goff, who is under a big contract for two more years, will take you to the playoffs? Detroit has no pass rush. The linebacking corps needs major help. And besides TJ Hockenson and the emerging St. Brown, who else is a bona fide threat when throwing the ball?

Yes this is a team that played hard. It’s also a team that got blown out by Denver, Seattle, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, and lost big in Green Bay. We saw bright spots when they dropped close ones to Baltimore, Minnesota, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta. But you know what all those teams have in common?

They all finished with losing records.

And Detroit lost to every one of them.

So yes, there was the last-second win over the Vikings, and the inexplicable blowout of the Arizona Cardinals. And there was Sunday. But you’ll forgive me and other longtime Lions watchers if we take a wait-and-see attitude on the glowing future. The Lions have a top-3 pick this April. Last time they did that, they took Jeff Okudah.

Get my drift?

Thus ends another Lions campaign. There were squeakers and cool finishes and some nice trick plays and a lot of going-for-it on fourth down. But in the end, when the final whistle blew, there were three wins, 13 losses, and a tie. In most places, that doesn’t call for a party. It shouldn’t here. We deserve better.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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