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The NFL's redemption stories: Why the Lions winning record is about to get blown way out of proportion

News_Dan Solomon_head shot_column mug
Austin Photo Set: News_Dan Solomon_Detroit Lions_September 2011
Courtesy of Detnews

You can set your watch by it: the football-success-as-redemption-story narrative that builds every time someone in the NFL starts winning games after dealing with a past controversy. It’s one of the dumber, but more intuitive, things that the people who love this game go in for. We look for these storylines to trace throughout the year, to find ways to extend the metaphor from there’s something amazing happening on the field to and now things have really changed! We care so much about football, those of us who do, that we always want to believe that blowing out the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football provides proof that the sins of a dogfighting past have been fully atoned for. During last year’s Super Bowl, there was actually a question over whether Ben Roethlisberger would complete his “redemption” after being accused of rape a second time by winning the big game.

Grown-ups debated that. Seriously.

Football’s good for a lot of things, but any sober analysis of it makes those redemption narratives sound as absurd as they obviously are. This year, without any major player arrests, and Plaxico Burress playing for a .500 team where he’s not in the top four receivers at this point, the individual redemption-arc stories are down and the team-based ones are up. Witness the Detroit Lions.

Detroit, after the team’s first 4-0 start since the Carter administration, is the talk of the NFL. Part of that is the mere fact that the team is winning, which is a novelty, and part of it is that we’re looking for that redemption story. And, after decades of economic devastation, Detroit seems primed to take that role.

NPR waited all of four weeks before declaring that “Like The Lions, Detroit Finally Has A Winning Season,” ignoring the fact that the team has to win at least another five games to earn the distinction of an actual “winning season” in favor of staking an early claim to the “redemption of the city of Detroit” storyline. It’s a feel-good story, for sure, which writer Sonari Glinton supports with enthusiastic anecdotes from fans of the team and long-time Detroit residents in lieu of anything factual other than some nebulous claims about Detroit automakers putting together better cars and “increased profitability.” But if the Lions are winning football games, it has to mean something more than just the fact that Matthew Stafford can chuck the ball up pretty much anywhere in the end zone and Calvin Johnson will come down with it, right?

It’s an understandable response to seeing amazing things happen on the football field: we all want to believe that one type of success for a city might inspire another kind. But it’s dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not really true, at least in any ways that you can verify, and second, what does it mean when your redemption arc goes awry?

What else do the people of Buffalo have to be excited about?

The Buffalo Bills have been his year’s other hot redemption story. They had two exciting last-minute comeback wins against the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots; their players are all unheralded or severely under-rated, with star wideout Stevie Johnson, a 7th round draft pick, catching passes from rising quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a fellow 7th-rounder who came into the NFL from Harvard, of all places. (The NFL: The only organization in the world where coming from Harvard makes you an underdog!) And, of course, Buffalo, New York, is a frigid hellhole relic of America’s industrial, rust-belt past without any reason whatsoever to provide its citizens with so much as a modicum of civic pride, except the mere fact that it has an NFL team. (For now, anyway: the team moved one home game a year to Toronto, in order to actually sell some tickets at least once a year.) The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999, and the most famous person to wear its uniform is still O.J. Simpson.

But this year, with plucky underdog Fitzpatrick leading the team to a 3-0 start, it was awfully hard not to root for the team. ESPN published a story this week set after the 2012 Super Bowl where the Bills faced down the Lions; the network’s Gregg Easterbrook asked “Are Bills, Lions Super-Bowl Bound?” in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column.

Of course, yesterday the Bills got put in their place by the decidedly bad Cincinnati Bengals, who pulled off some last-minute heroics of their own and took the game 23-20. We’ll see what happens over the course of the next week, but it sure looks like talking about how the Bills are destined for greatness is going to be less fun to proclaim now that they’ve seen their record tarnished—and at the hands of a shitty team, at that.

Because, really, it’s not about the team, it’s about what we want the team’s success to mean: if the Lions make it to 9-0, get ready for a whole torrent of “Is Detroit’s industry ready to rise again like the Lions have?”stories in the vein of Glinton’s piece for NPR. If the Bills end up 4-5 at that point in the season, meanwhile, tales of that city’s rebirth as an economic wonderland will have to be put on hold.

It’s a weird way to look at the world, whether it’s from an individual, can-Michael-Vick-atone-for-his-dogfighting-sins-by-beating-the-hell-out-of-the-Giants perspective, or from one that sees a team as a metaphor for a city. This is the sway that the NFL holds over our imaginations—but it’s awfully weird, when you think about it.

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