Thanksgiving In Detroit

There’s never really a moment in which this particular bit of behavior could be in context, obviously, but the robot mascot of Fox’s NFL broadcasts plays guitar sometimes. Really works out on it, in fact — Steve Vai-style runs up the fretboard, dropping to its steely knees so as to enhance the rocking out, the whole deal. Is the robot playing along with the edgeless guitar-rock gallop of the Fox NFL theme song? I don’t think so, if only because the robot — which once was restricted to participating in animated football-related activities — now just kind of does whatever. Whatever being, among other things, an awkward, dancingbaby.gif-quality rendition of Ray Lewis’s pre-game berserker choreography, or emphatically counting off with his index finger like a punt returner checking to make sure there aren’t 12 men on the field. If the robot doesn’t wear a pilgrim hat and tote a blunderbuss at some point during the Thanksgiving Day broadcast, I will owe you a Coke.

But while the Fox robot is probably possessed of some interpretable symbology — why must the football broadcast be represented by something mechanical and non-human; why is this childish bit of sci-fi corniness is there at all; fucking guitar solos — I think doing so would be a mistake. Some things can’t be taken seriously, after all, and robotized Yngwie Malmsteenery would most definitely seem to fit that category. You cannot reason with the Fox NFL robot, and you cannot reason it away. Its persistence doesn’t make sense, serves no particular interest, and adds little to the experience of watching a football game. But while so much of the persistence of what’s unpalatable and unlovely and unjust about the NFL is predicated on unstinting, unthinking fan acceptance of numerous heartbreaking atavisms as integral parts of the game, there are also absurdities that, like that stupid robot or the idiotic cackle of the pre-game shows, we can accept and ignore with relative and guiltless ease. And then there are the more embraceable inexplicabilities. This would be the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.

There are a great many reasons why the Lions should not be playing on Thanksgiving. Squeakers like Gregg Easterbrook — the wearyingly contrarian, reliably self-enamored Brookings Institute scholar and part-time anti-Semite who writes an Aspergersianly detail-bound weekly NFL column for ESPN — have groused that it gives the Lions the special advantage of a home game on an unusual day for football. Which is true enough but ignores the fact that even a home game on America’s day of tryptophanic rest still leaves the Lions with the staggering and often insurmountable disadvantage of being the Detroit Lions, and having to play football against a team that is not the Detroit Lions.

For almost all of the last decade, the Lions were both the NFL’s worst and most easily allegorized franchise. Blessed with the furious calm and avant-garde cutbacks of genius running back Barry Sanders during the 1990s — here’s a Sanders YouTube highlight reel scored, for reasons I can’t even guess at, to what I’m pretty sure is an Enya song — the Lions proved themselves content to let Sanders win the team between 7 and 10 games per season, before the inferior personnel around him conspired to bounce the team from the playoffs. Their quarterbacks were a parade of strong-armed interception machines, their defense was for the most part notional, and the coach was a personable, gravitas-free deli-owner type named Wayne Fontes. They ran an endearingly all-out run-and-shoot offense known as The Silver Stretch, and were generally pretty fun, but also generally just one brilliant running back away from mediocrity.

When Sanders retired in 1998, at the height of his powers and just one year removed from the third-best season any running back has ever had, the team collapsed into that entropic mediocrity for awhile, then got worse with the hiring of animate mustache Matt Millen as president and general manager in 2001. Over seven seasons, the former linebacker and TV commentator proved himself utterly, poignantly unqualified for the gig — a hail-fellow incompetent prone to laughably backwards draft strategy, hilariously unforeseen personnel moves, and on-the-record usage of the word faggot. When he finally stepped down in 2008, Millen’s team was on its way to the NFL’s first winless season in 32 years, and Millen was the NFL’s highest-paid GM. So, yeah: even if the Lions weren’t owned by the Ford family — the Detroit Fords: Taurus, F-150, The International Jew — it would be easy to trace the team’s collapse over that of the city’s signature industry. It’s that abject, that easily attributable to entitled laziness and cruelly poor management and inbred boys’ club intellectual backwardness. Richly deserved, then, but still hugely sad.

That winless season, the Lions lost on Thanksgiving by the score of 47–10, to the Tennessee Titans. But they played, because they always play on Thanksgiving. The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving for longer than 24 NFL teams have even been in existence, and the Lions played their first game on the holiday back in 1934. The NFL is ripe unto rotten with unexamined ritual, inexplicable legalism and incautiously canonized icons, and even less interested in altering any of this because-it-has-always-been-thus ridiculousness than is baseball. The NFL’s craven, glacial conservatism is downright Senatorial in its pompous inertia, and puts the progress-aversion of any other pro sport to shame — this is a league that is still calling for more study on the (obvious, manifestly proven) link between concussions and their savage later-life echoes and slow-walking serious rules regarding helmet-to-helmet killshots, which puts the genteel revanchism of baseball’s ongoing debate over the relative moral worthiness of statistics in perspective somewhat. A lot of things get done in the NFL because they’ve always been done, in short, and most of them suck like crazy.

But the Lions on Thanksgiving, even when the Lions — as they have in recent years — are objectively depressing in football and non-football ways, is not one of those objectionable traditions. This year’s model is actually pretty sparky, for one thing. They’ll lose on Thanksgiving, because they’re up against a Patriots team currently playing with their familiar vicious and bilious brilliance, and because Detroit will be without Matthew Stafford, a terrific and terrifically injury-prone young quarterback who suffers incredibly painful-sounding shoulder injuries with even more frequency than the average NFL quarterback; Stafford’s backup, Shaun Hill, will (somehow) play with a broken left forearm. All very bad/sad, all very Lions-y, but this team could be good as soon as next year, and are kind of fun to watch even now. That’s not been true in years past, though, and yet I’ve always loved watching the Lions on Thanksgiving.

Well, “loved” is a strong word for watching Joey Harrington lob terrified picks into the middle of the field. But I watch sports to be surprised and amazed, and despite the fact that it has been happening since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, there’s still something surprising and amazing and incongruously endearing about the ritual slaughter of the Lions each Thanksgiving. The Lions haven’t always been bad, of course, and they did get there first, but a better game — that is, one with two good teams in it, instead of the Lions and Winning Team TBD — would almost certainly draw more viewers. So there’s something bracingly bizarre about the NFL — a reliably brand-sensitive, relentlessly on-message marketing juggernaut seemingly dedicated to expunging any traces of human frailty or unpredictability from its product — continuing to run this lousy franchise out there in its holiday showcase.

In reality, the persistence of the Lions on Thanksgiving is probably just proof that the NFL’s dedication to each and every Treasured NFL Tradition outweighs its signature ice-cold avarice. Probably, but you don’t need to squint too hard to see the tradition of Thanksgiving in Detroit as something finer, sweeter, and better attuned to the spirit of this most inclusive of holidays. The Lions are a shabby guest, most years, and one that has showed up in years past reeking rudely of disinfectant-grade booze and bearing bummer-y, inedible desserts that seemed to have been plucked from the dumpster behind the Safeway. But in a league dedicated to crass corpocracy and steroidally dim power worship and the subjugation of all component oddities to Brand NFL, the fact that the Lions — the epically flubby Lions — have a standing invite to Thanksgiving is inexplicable in the best way. The NFL has always been brutal and exploitive, and it will likely remain that way — because most major business concerns kind of generally trend that way, and because there’s no compelling bottom-line reason for it not to — but it also used to be weird. But at least on Thanksgiving, the reliable presence of this humblest of guests on the doorstep is blessedly weird, and weirdly welcome.

Did you think I was going to go with “something to be thankful for” there? Because I sort of did, too. But yeah, if I may permit myself that bit of hackery now that the actual essay part of this is done: I am thankful not to have slipped behind the coin again. You still absolutely should never bet any of my picks — I surely don’t — but it’s at least nice not to be trailing the inanimate object for a second straight week.

Week 11 (and overall): David Roth: 8–6–1 (77–75–9); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 8–6–1 (77–75–9)

Thursday, Nov. 25
• New England (-7) at Detroit, 12:30 pm — DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• New Orleans (-3.5) at Dallas, 4:15 pm — DR: Dallas; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
• Cincinnati at New York Jets (-9), 8:20 pm — DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J

Sunday, Nov. 28
• Carolina at Cleveland (PICK), 1:00 pm — DR: Cleveland; ATTLCTDC: Carolina
• Jacksonville at New York Giants (-7.5), 1:00 pm — DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Philadelphia (-3) at Chicago, 1:00 pm — DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Chicago
• Pittsburgh (-6.5) at Buffalo, 1:00 pm — DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• Green Bay at Atlanta (-2.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• Tampa Bay at Baltimore (-7.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• Tennessee at Houston (PICK), 1:00 pm — DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: Tennessee
• Minnesota at Washington (-2.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Washington; ATTLCTDC: Minnesota
• Kansas City (-1) at Seattle, 4:05 pm — DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Seattle
• Miami at Oakland (PICK), 4:05 pm — DR: Oakland; ATTLCTDC: Oakland
• St. Louis at Denver (-4), 4:15 pm — DR: St. Louis; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• San Diego at Indianapolis (-3), 8:20 pm — DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego

Monday, Nov. 29
• San Francisco (-1) at Arizona, 8:30 pm — Whoops, this is your Monday Night game. Have fun, America! DR: San Francisco; ATTLCTDC: Arizona

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!

Photo by WRAY, from Flickr.