Three Cups Deep: NFC Champion Detroit Lions To Host Second Playoff Game

>> 1.15.2024

The zero-degree chill is once again palpable through every window in my house, the furnace churning almost constantly to stave it off. A bright blue car sits frozen over in my driveway, just as one did when I started this blog fifteen years and two weeks ago.

But I'm not out in the frigid snow, hacking the ice off the driver door. I'm not wrenching the key trying to get the engine to turn over, nor listening to David "Mad Dog" DeMarco on local AM radio while the car, and my fingers, un-freeze. Because while Detroit Lions history has repeated and rhymed over and over again in the decade since I last posted, everything—everything—has changed.

I work full-time from home. I can warm my electric Ford up all toasty with a button in an app on my phone. Mad Dog retired and moved someplace sunny. And the sputtering little blue flame, the spirit of Lions fandom I swore to keep alive, is burning more brightly than it has in generations—so brightly, the whole NFL-watching world is in awe: 

In the utter, freezing bleakness of 0-16, the hiring of Jim Schwartz and drafting of Matthew Stafford gave Lions fans something to pin our hopes to. When they made the playoffs in their third season, I was already struggling to balance posting here with professional sportswriting opportunities, my full-time day job, and three small kids. By the time the wheels fell off the Schwartz regime, I was a National NFL Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

I would never hide where I got my start—and even if I wanted to, I couldn't. But blogging about being the One True Eternal Fan of one NFL team while covering the league for one of the biggest sports sites in the world wasn't just a bad look. It was fundamentally incompatible.

When you're watching and re-watching nearly every game, and writing an on-deadline reaction column for two of them, twice a seek? It's a lot harder to think your team is uniquely bad (or good). When you regularly interview active players, coaches, agents, and executives, it teaches you a whole lot about the game you didn't know. And when you spend three years co-hosting a SiriusXM show with a Hall of Fame voter who's been covering the league full-time since you were "wearing Barry Sanders pajamas," as Jason Cole more-or-less rightfully used to tease me about, you learn a whole lot about how the league works.

Talking with Lions fans felt more and more like speaking in translation, a way of thinking it took effort to adopt. Writing about the NFL full-time was my dream job, and I had it; participating in Lions fandom was starting to feel like work.

Schwartz's firing felt like a natural place to let the sun stay set on TLiW forever. I titled that last post "Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est La Même Chose": The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But things did change, and stayed changéd.

Bleacher Report got acquired by Turner Broadcasting not long after I started there. Not long after that, they started firing writers in waves. They hired in big-name talents, and built out expensive new video facilities in Manhattan. I could see the writing on the wall: B/R was pivoting away from expert analysis and written opinion towards a video-heavy, social-first, branding-and-vibes-based operation.

I went out and got cool freelance gigs at VICE Sports and FiveThirtyEight. I interviewed for the Lions beat writer position at new startup The Athletic, which turned into some great feature assignments and a couple years of podcasting. OddsShark invited me in to their stable of betting experts, and I finished in the money in the Westgate SuperContest. I did some TV and culture writing, recapping Shark Tank for The Comeback. I even interviewed for the dream-job-of-dream-jobs, a full-time NFL writer position at Sports Illustrated—and actually made it all the way to the end of the process before losing out to Jonathan Jones (who, to be clear, deserved it).

By the time B/R actually let me go, I thought I could make full-time freelancing work.

Not only couldn't I do it, I started trying at a time in media where practically no one can.

USA TODAY Sports Media Group brought me on to launch the Lions edition of their new blog network, Lions Wire. I'd always wanted to try editing a professional site, and I thought going back to day-to-day Lions coverage would be fun and rewarding.

But new Lions GM Bob Quinn seemed to be drafting for the 2016 New England Patriots, while Jim Caldwell was still trying to coach the 2010 Indianapolis Colts. Watching Matthew Stafford sacrifice his body and hamstring his game to run schemes that weren't working with less-talented players than the ones Schwartz and Martin Mayhew had drafted was painful. And trying to do great work for a media company that wanted fast work was killing me.

I was either frantically writing, or one Tweet away from having to go frantically write, basically every waking moment of the day. I was trying to recruit promising early-career writers to write for me for free, even as I spoke out more and more loudly against the devaulation of writers' labor. I had three kids, I owned a house, and all my gigs added up together were nowhere near enough money to make ends meet. It was untenable. It was unbearable.

As Jim Caldwell's iteration of the eternal Lions cycle of hope and failure came to an end, I started looking for IT work.

Having an actual paycheck, and actual health insurance, gave me the time and space to be the husband and father my family needed me to be. To focus on my badly neglected physical and mental health, playing and refereeing soccer to get in shape—and hey, it turns out naming The Lions in Winter's Monday-morning blog series "Three Cups Deep" because I needed three cups of coffee to focus enough to write should have tipped me off about the undiagnosed ADHD!

That safety and security also gave me time and space to start writing what I wanted, when I wanted to.

I wrote three non-ficition kids' books, sold to school libraries by an actual-factual New York City publisher. I wrote a YA fantasy novel, the second draft of which I'm well into revising. I got back into drumming, playing in the pit for shows all around town. I'm currently developing a podcast about old video-game magazines, and how (for better and worse) they inspired lots of writers like me. I started "Gimme Schalter," a free newsletter that has 400 subscribers—and hey, if you're reading this, you should subscribe!

I'd thought the Lions would never hire a coach who "got it" the way Schwartz did, but then they went and hired a guy, Dan Campbell, who was literally on the winless Lions roster that inspired me to start this blog.

Watching him and GM Brad Holmes team actually make great decisions on draft day and in free agency, develop young players, brilliantly manage their staff, truly dismantle a toxic culture and build a tough, smart, exciting team that's fun to root for has been incredible. And I spent two years saying 2023 would be the year we found out about Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell; the year interesting potential became a reality to be judged.

But this spring, Disney laid off many of my FiveThirtyEight colleagues and closed their entire sports operation. Part of me wanted to run out and line up some gigs; maybe some of my friends in Lions media would have me on part-time? But I realized I had an opportunity to watch and enjoy NFL games without anyone paying me to cover them for the first time in 15 years—just as Campbell's Lions were going to be the best squad to wear Honolulu Blue since I wore Barry Sanders pajamas. 

I took it.

Of course, I'd never stopped watching the Lions, cheering for them to win, and being disappointed when they lost. It's been a blast being able to try and enjoy this season as nothing more, officially, than a fan. But, as I already knew, 15 years of covering this game for money has changed me forever.

Even as I consume much of the great work being done by my former Lions-writing colleagues and peers, I'm still not really surfing the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute cycle of emotions and discourse that one-team superfans swim in. I can't un-see the game from a 30,000-foot perspective, I can't un-learn the things I know about how the league, and I can't feel Lions feelings without the compartmentalized detachment of somebody who still needs to be thought of as a respectable professional in the morning.

I've spent weeks looking around in thrilled wonder as everyone around me here in Lansing is buying and wearing new Lions gear, but I waited until my niece got me the "It's A Lock" shirt for Christmas to rock anything new myself. At the watch party I went to last night, I cheered and hollered and clapped and gripped like everyone else, but I was also looking up NextGenStats and trying to confirm I was right about second-round playoff scenarios. 

I wish I could say that I cried when Jared Goff started taking those knees—but it would be with the sincere-yet-false affect of someone placidly replying "lololol, doubled over belly-laughing, actually gasping for breath" to their friend about the really funny video they just texted.

Seeing all the fans on the TV and friends in the room with me and mutuals and strangers on my Twitter feed crying and woo-ing and living for this moved me, awed me, delighted me like nothing else. I saw the post-game interviews with Goff and Stafford and I felt feelings. I replied to congratulatory replies and DMs and texts and felt feelings.

But nine-year-old me would have cried at so many droughts having ended, so many curses and hexes and narratives being slain: 32 years since a playoff win, 30 years since a home playoff game, Super Bowl Champion Matthew Stafford coming back to the team he left, his wife Kelly again causing Lions drama online, the refs inventing incredible new ways to screw over Detroit, Jared Goff beating the team that gave up on him with the God-forsaken franchise he was "exiled" to. Maybe twenty-nine-year-old me might have cried at the relief of all those ghosts being put to rest, too.

Or maybe, twenty-nine-year-old me would have had in the back of his head the same thing I had in the back of mine: That is not the time for the big celebration. That this squad can, and should, go farther. That there are a few more milestones left to hit, and they might hit them. A few more mountains left to climb, and they might climb them.

That this is the first historic win of Dan Campbell's Lions head-coaching career, but it is by no means going to be the last.


plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

>> 12.31.2013 black and white.

Five years and one day ago, I had to go to work.

The temperature was bone-chilling, the snow and ice encrusted everything. Ten soul-searing minutes of bitter cold and grunty sweat, chipping and chipping away at the entombed, lifeless husk of my car. In the frozen darkness, I cranked and cranked the engine of my brand-new Pontiac Vibe; the cold refused to let its little Toyota heart beat.

Finally, the engine turned over, and the radio blurted sports talk Lions angry.

When I got to work I signed up at, sliced open a vein, and bled onto the keyboard:

On this morning, the morning, the morning where the Lions are now officially the worst team in the history of professional football, I have never been more ashamed, despressed, dejected, and disgusted to be a Lions fan. And yet—I am suprised and pleased to discover that I am still a Lions fan. Despite the snow and wind and bitter, bitter cold, a little blue flame still dances and flickers on the ashes of what was once a roaring fire. So . . . now what?

"What" turned out to be the five most incredible years of my life. I saw my children grow from toddlers and infants to 'tweens and elementary-schoolers. My soul-searching became an unpaid part-time job, a hobby that consumed my lunch breaks and post-bedtime hours. My wife became my editor, counselor and career coach. My friends became my sounding boards, and tech consultants. Anyone who shared cider with all of us around the little blue flame became a comrade-in-arms.

The Lions in Winter became everything I'd wanted it to be, more quickly and more grandly than I'd ever dreamed possible. From the coaching search, to the draft, to The Watchtower and Three Cups Deep, to—of course—the Fireside Chats, the crowd that gathered around the blue bonfire swelled and cheered and roared and drank and high-fived and basked in the glory as the Lions went from 0-16 to 10-6 and the playoffs in just three seasons.

When Jim Schwartz assembled his Fellowship, there was cause for excitement and cause for concern. I was particularly revolted by the Linehan hire. When he actually started coaching his team, though, I immediately knew he was the perfect coach for the Lions at the perfect time.

Jim Schwartz embraced the City of Detroit in a way I didn't think possible. "We plan on being in Detroit for a while," Schwartz told Terry Foster. "When my kids grow up, I want them to tell people they are from Detroit." Whoever the Lions hire next won't say that.

Schwartz took his three top rookies—Matthew Stafford,  Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas—to the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant for a two-hour meet-and-greet with workers.

"The other day, Dominic Raiola talked about how he fell in love with the city," Schwartz told Foster. "He said how much he loves the people and I thought it was important for these guys to experience the same feel and things like that. We did not want cameras there because we thought it would have ruined the whole dynamic of it." Whoever the Lions hire next won't do that.

Schwartz snuck into bars during the hockey playoffs to get a feel for the Detroit sports fans. I can't find the story now, but I remember that while celebrating a particularly big Red Wings victory, a fan turned to Schwartz and said "When the Lions win, it'll be better than this." Whoever the Lions hire next won't understand this.

Here is a thing Schwartz said during his first training camp:

"It's hard to be angry at me, so I generally don't get that that. I don't know the best way to put it ... they're guardedly optimistic. I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much. and not become as, you know, I don’t know a good way to put it, but not become as  . . . fanatical a fan.  Is that redundant?  “Fanatical a fan”?  But the one thing is, they keep stepping up.  They’re true football fans in this city; they’re excited about it.  Everywhere I go, I get positive, positive feelings from the fans here.”

Whoever the Lions hire next sure as hell won't say that. Is it any wonder that I ordered up a double of Lions Kool-Aid just before the 2011 season?

The Lions' next coach is also not likely to give a game ball to the fans, which Schwartz did after the greatest night of Lions fandom in living memory. He led the Lions to respectability, he led them to the playoffs, and he led Lions fans everywhere to rekindle their love of the team. At the season-ticket holder town hall meeting prior to the 2012 season, I walked out convinced that the Lions had one of the best decision-making groups in the NFL. I knew Jim Schwartz was the right coach for the Detroit Lions.

Then, of course, came 4-12, and a well-deserved reputation for on- and off-field misbehavior. Schwartz, like the rest of us, utterly lacked solutions to the sudden problems. In one offseason, the Lions went from lovable winners to unlovable losers; even the strongest among us had our faith tested.

Though there were perfectly good explanations for everything and nothing was ever quite anyone's fault, nothing quite got fixed either.

From Titus Young's mental health issues to Jahvid Best's medically forced hiatus, everything that had been coming together quickly fell apart. There was little beauty or joy in anything, and the ironclad assurance we had that Schwartz knew what he was doing and Stafford was en route to being the greatest Lions quarterback of all time.

...okay, that's a low enough bar for Stafford to jump over that he's nearly already there at the age of 25, but Schwartz's brilliance became know-it-all-ness, and then insufferable arrogance as he not only refused to fix the problems on the field, but acknowledge they even existed.

Even as this season, the Lions' rivals all but sent them an engraved invitation to a  twenty-years-in-the-making NFC North championship, Schwartz refused to address anything that was going wrong. Possession after possession, game after game, the Lions kept blowing chances and missing opportunities. Schwartz's bizarre, delusional insistence that 20 teams would switch positions with them after they blew their last chance at clinching a playoff berth was hard to swallow.

I still thought that Schwartz should be given one more chance, right up until halftime of the game against the Giants. When the Lions had one, last, final, last chance to salvage the playoffs, facing a subpar team with nothing to play for, and sleepwalked their way to a 13-3 halftime deficit, that tore it.

The players would no longer listen to Schwartz, or play for Schwartz. He was no longer the right coach.
Now the search for a coach begins again, and many have asked me for my thoughts on who the Lions should hire. The short answer, "the right coach," isn't satisfying, so here's the long version.

Head coaches come in all different sizes, shapes, colors and kinds. Everyone wants the "hot" candidate, the brilliant schematic innovator making guacamole out of guano as a coordinator or college coach. But that guy—a Kevin Sumlin—is in short supply after a run on them last season, and that "hot" candidate isn't always the right guy.

There's a lot more to being a coach than being a rockstar at the whiteboard; just ask Charlie Weis and Mike Leach about how a "decided schematic advantage" trumps everything else. Just as in any other profession, coaching talent is not the same as coaching ability; some of the best head coaches in the NFL excel at things other than Xs and Os.

Head coaches are part of a franchise's senior management; they're executives who set the tone and direction of a franchise, guide the lower-level managers in tactics and strategy, interface with public and community relations staff and run a lot of meetings. Not to mention work dieticians, strength and conditioning coaches, facilities and maintenance folks...
Sometimes, being good at those things is more important to the success of a football team than wowing a packed coaching conference with your brilliant new playbook wrinkles.

Jim Schwartz was the right coach; the right coach at the right time. He was smart and firey, innovative and inspirational, built a base of talent around philosophies designed to dominate the next ten years of football and reconnected the soul of the franchise to the soul of its fans. He just couldn't handle all the other stuff.

Now, the Lions need a coach who can lead a championship-ready roster to a championship... ideally, one who's done it before.
I've said multiple times that the Lions should pursue Brian Billick. He's not "hot," he's not "sexy" and he's not a brilliant schematic innovator. He is a brilliant, well-spoken football mind with championship credibility and tons of experience. He's broadcast a lot of Lions games, and you can almost hear him salivating over the chance to work with that kind of talent.

Yes, he's a "retread," but if you take a look around at today's NFL, you'll see many of the most successful coaches are on their second or third stop. Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, John Fox... sometimes, it seems, you can't be a great NFL coach without having failed at it.

Sure, there's a lightning-in-a-bottle college guy like Chip Kelly, and "hot" coordinators like Sean Payton, that have been just as successful. But those guys went to places with perfect talent for their system (and not accidentally). The Lions have offensive talent that should be able to execute darn near any system... what they need help with is the preparation, focus and discipline required to execute.

I'll always be sad that Schwartz wasn't the coach to take the Lions to the Super Bowl, just as I'll always be sad that Steve Mariucci couldn't bring the Lions back to respectability. Ironically, Schwartz succeeded where Mariucci failed, and Mariucci's skill set might be perfect for leading these Lions to the Promised Land.

Now, I have to go to work. My job, thanks in part to the success of this blog, which was due in part to the success of Jim Schwartz, is to write about football for a living. I do my job in the warmth of my house, in my padded leather chair, even in toasty flannel pants if I feel like it. The real ice outside has never fallen more thickly or harshly, though, and Winter in the Lions-y sense hasn't been this cold in a long, long time. I may have to bust out the To Whom it May Concern series, and the "the coaching search" tag again.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fortunately, thanks to the the work Jim Schwartz has done, and the work of everyone who reads this blog, the blue flame of Lions fandom still burns brightly. People still proudly wear Lions gear, still happily sell out games, and still tweet support and kind words to all of their favorite players.

Lions fans answered Schwartz's challenge, and the Lions organization met our expectations in return. Now, though, expectations of the fans, front office and owners are much higher, and Schwartz is a victim of his own success. Maybe when it's his turn to be a "retread," he'll finally finish what he started.


Fireside Chat: Post-Fiasco Meltdown/Breakdown

>> 12.23.2013

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