The past couple seasons have provided the most long-term excitement surrounding the Detroit Lions since the early days of the Barry Sanders era — or so they say, as I was just four years old when Sanders led the 1991 Lions to the franchise’s last appearance in the NFC championship game.
Much of this excitement is justified, as the Lions have steadily improved on the field under Jim Schwartz while Martin Mayhew has amassed an impressive core of young talent. The names Stafford, Suh, Johnson, Best, and Fairley evoke dreams of a Lions dynasty, the richly-deserved payoff for a fanbase that has suffered like few others while steadfastly supporting their team through thick and (mostly) thin.
There are, however, 31 other NFL franchises, each at different stages in their development, but as we have learned with teams like the Saints, Patriots, Rams, and Buccaneers, all capable of finding that Super Bowl-winning formula with a few deft personnel moves, or a franchise-altering coaching hire, or simply by getting a little bit lucky (hello, Tom Brady, sixth-round draft pick).
So while we witness the growth of this team and dream of a Lions championship, we do so in concordance with every other NFL franchise. I’ll do some very simple math here in order to provide my perspective as I write this. There are 32 NFL teams, up from 24 when the NFL merged with the AFL in 1966, and a far greater number than the 13 teams in operation when the Lions last won an NFL title in 1957. The Lions represent one (1) of those teams. While it’s been a while since I’ve worked with fractions (I was a history major for a reason), I believe that means, in any given season, an NFL team has a 1/32 chance of winning the Super Bowl; or, in other words, a team is expected to win a Super Bowl every 32 years.
There is, of course, an obvious problem with this: Some teams — like the Cowboys and Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers of the ’80s, the Cowboys of the ’90s, and the Patriots of the aughts — are run better than others, winning more than their fair share of titles. Others — like the pre-’90s Bucs, the post-’80s Bengals, and, yes, the post-’50s Lions (boy, that hurts to type) — make up for this discrepancy by, well, not winning. The NFL may pride itself on its supposed parity, but I’ve always found that odd, given that each decade in the league’s history features one or two dominant franchises gobbling up multiple titles while leaving just a few scraps behind for the rest.
I guess my point is this: While there is no shame in getting excited for your team, especially when they appear poised to rise from perennial doormat to legitimate contender, it’s always good to temper those expectations with a healthy dose of reality. Yes, this team is loaded with young talent, and by developing that talent and filling a few needs the Lions could turn into the new Saints, or even the next Patriots. HOWEVER, we still don’t know if Matt Stafford can make it through an NFL season healthy. Nick Fairley has yet to play an NFL down. William Clay Ford may find the fountain of youth, share his secret with Matt Millen, and run this team into the ground in perpetuity. You never know.
I’m not saying to give up the dream — the reason I keep coming back every fall Sunday to watch the Lions is because somewhere inside me I just know Detroit will take home a Super Bowl title, and I want to watch every step of the way there. But I hold no delusions about knowing when this mythical title will occur — just ask an old-time Red Sox fan who watched them come oh-so-close in ’75 and ’86, only to have to wait until 2004 for the ultimate payoff. Instead, appreciate the process and the excitement this team has already brought to the fans and the city of Detroit. A Super Bowl will come, eventually, but for now it’s about enjoying those first steps out of the cellar (remember, this is still a six-win team) and into the realm of relevance.