There’s a high school coach down in Texas who has a four-step process for a program turnaround.
This guy took over a school that was always known to have talent — it’s boys track team has won six straight state titles — but never could translate it to the football field. Last year, in the coach’s second year, the team went to the state championship game, losing after a wrong call helped swing the game.
The players are important he said, but they evolve into winners. First they need to gain victories of any sort. Then they need to win a close game.
Then they need a close loss to a good team. It’s required. The team needs to show itself that it’s good enough to play with those types of teams and they need to lose to remember what it feels like.
Only then can a team win a close game against a good team and only then can the team consider itself a legitimate contender.
It’s not that different in the NFL. There are just a few more steps. Five years since the Lions hit absolute zero, they’ve taken a few.
At the end of 2010 this new core learned how to win, taking four straight at the end of the season and winning five in a row to start 2011. Along the way they learned they could win close games, and do it against good teams: a 7-3 win over eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay in 2010, a 23-20 OT win over Tampa Bay (who went 10-6) a couple weeks later, a 20-point comeback against division rival Minnesota and a 24-point comeback against Dallas in consecutive weeks in 2011.
Step three was the loss to New Orleans in the playoffs: A close loss — remember, that game was 24-21 heading into the 4th quarter — on the road at the highest level of intensity simultaneously showed that the Lions they could they could hang with the NFL’s best and that there a long path ahead. The game was a checkpoint, one both the Lions and their fans would remember.
Sunday is a chance at the next checkpoint: Breaking the 22-game road losing streak to the Packers.
The Lions have lost in the playoffs (1994) and lost to a backup quarterback (Matt Flynn in 2011). They’ve lost by as much as 28 and as little as two (2010). They’ve lost 14 of the 22 games were decided by 10 points or less and lost the last three by a total margin of 13 points.
The only thing left to do is win.
If this is the year, this is the game.
From a division standpoint, a win drops the Packers two games back (in the loss column) and has a good chance of giving the Lions a one-game lead due to the Bears playing the Saints.
From a history standpoint, no other win will prove that the franchise has exorcised it’s past than a win on Sunday. It’s the last regular season barrier to proving that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz and Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and hell, even Nick Fairley have something going here, something that isn’t the Liedowns or the S.O.L. Same Old Lions.
From a potential playoff standpoint, when Lions find a team that can win at Lambeau Field they’ll have found a team that can win in the playoffs.
One step always leads to the next.
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