Henning: Lions are too important to be terrible

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Teammates mob Lions running back Theo Riddick after he took the ball untouched into the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Detroit – Say you live somewhere in middle America, or along the West Coast, or in New York City, where the NFL is headquartered.

It is Thanksgiving Day. The television is on as holiday company arrives. People grab a glass of wine or a beer, or whatever, and sit down for conversation, appetizers, and, in many, many places across the land, for the backdrop of a televised football game from Detroit.

The Lions are always America's mid-day Thanksgiving football feature. And a New York-based league, like a team ensconced in Allen Park, wants this Lions club and this tradition to be something creditable, something pleasing, something that all of America can appreciate, and even more, respect.

No, it isn't because of Thanksgiving's spotlight or any particular reverence for football tradition that the sage Ernie Accorsi agreed this week to help the Lions in their hunt for a new general manager. Nor was it because of a Detroit holiday custom that NFL brass is determined this GM search by this team will be fruitful.

Rather, it's because Detroit is too important of a football asset to accept as pitiable, or somber, or frustrating, or disgusting, or whatever word has been properly applied during five decades-plus of underachievement.

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Lions fans understandably are so focused on their gang's plight and soap-opera antics they forget the NFL at-large has a heavy stake in Detroit's football product.

The Lions are an old franchise. They are a heartland team. They still carry glory, faded as it may be, from the Bobby Layne era of the 1950s.

They also happen to be the auto industry's team. That's important. Sponsorships, advertising sales, a touchstone to the United States' industrial might – this is an important economic entity and a team the league does not want languishing.

There also is a spiritual element, it seems, to the NFL and to its best and brightest football people pulling for the Lions to make it.

Accorsi is a grand master of NFL front offices. He built teams at New York, at Cleveland, at Baltimore. He will help Martha Ford and Sheila Ford, the family members who own and who are overseeing a front-office makeover, in securing a new Lions GM who can help ensure Detroit is restored, at long last, as an accomplished playoff-grade team with legitimate Super Bowl notions.

The league, after all, is built on parity, on an idea that most teams should contend for a playoff ticket and that, every so often, even if a couple of decades are missed, a Super Bowl should be reached.

And yet here are the Lions. One playoff victory in 58 years. No championship games. Not a single Super Bowl as the 50th Super Bowl is about to be played.

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The league has always been a prime practitioner of the adage that a rising tide floats all boats. It wants its teams to be elevated. It does not appreciate desolation of the kind Detroit has experienced with its NFL franchise for, incredibly, a half-century.

Accorsi signed on this week because he saw an opportunity to help Detroit reacquire an elevation natural and necessary for an authentic football town.

Other retired name-brand GMs, who did not want their names made public when The Detroit News contacted them a month ago, said the same thing, privately, and only privately because they had sensitivities to other teams and personnel.

But all made clear the vested interest astute NFL people have in giving back to the Lions a brand-name befitting their heritage and their place in the league.

It's another reason why Thursday's assault of the Eagles was, in one sense, important beyond the fact it brought the Lions a boost and a third consecutive victory.

What it confirmed is that a new GM will not walk onto a lunar landscape at Allen Park. There is enough requisite talent to at least provide bedrock for coming seasons. That will enable a sharp GM, a personnel expert with an ability to understand salary-cap nuances and all other facets of an intricate job, an unimpeded path to success.

It is the way the NFL works. It simply hasn't worked in that fashion for reasons that have everything to do with past front offices. That awareness, that pursuit, led to this week's agreement between the Lions, Accorsi, and less publicly, a league that has every reason to prefer at least an occasional winner in Detroit.