FOX Sports Exclusive
Lions starved for relevance in NFL
ALLEN PARK, Mich.
Two days before every game, Raiola gets his hair cut by a stylist who visits team headquarters. On this particular Tuesday, he received a trim that included the shaving of three stars on the side of his head.
The aesthetic beauty of such a 'do is subjective. But there is no debating the recent ugliness of another custom Raiola is all too familiar with: Detroit's annual Thanksgiving Day game.
Not only are the Lions 1-9 on Thanskgiving since Raiola was drafted in 2001, Detroit has gotten outscored by a 258-98 margin in the past seven contests. After a decade of turkeys, it was fair to question why the Lions should have the privilege of annually hosting such a spotlight game even with Detroit's storied Thanksgiving history that includes a pregame downtown parade.
Thanks to Detroit's 7-3 start and the caliber of opponent coming to Ford Field, there's a different kind of buzz this week in the Motor City. The Lions have the chance to knock Green Bay (10-0) from the unbeaten ranks and move one giant step closer to ending an 11-season playoff drought.
"This is as big as I can remember," said Jason Hanson, Detroit's kicker since 1992 when Barry Sanders was still in his heyday. "The fact you have the undefeated Packers, the best team in the NFL, coming here is huge."
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has gone one step further by using civic pride as a motivating factor that players like Raiola have embraced.
"I think it's huge for the city of Detroit," Raiola told FOXSports.com while getting clipped in a makeshift barber's chair. "It's something they can put their stamp on, like the Lions are back."
For that to happen, the Lions must show how far they've truly come since registering the NFL's first and only 0-16 season in 2008.
While improvement from that mark was a given — especially after bumbling executive Matt Millen left the team's front office — the Lions are becoming a legitimate NFL force. They have a franchise quarterback (Matthew Stafford), wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) and defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh) who will serve as cornerstone players for years to come. A wild card berth seems likely this season even if Detroit can't make NFC North headway in two upcoming games against the Packers.
However, some of the earmarks from a decade of losing still remain. Don't forget, the 2007 Lions began the season 6-2 before falling apart. Like he told the Lions media on Tuesday, Schwartz will be the first to proclaim that despite the team's best 10-game start since 1993, "We haven't accomplished anything."
Unlike previous Detroit teams that fell behind early and couldn't recover, the Lions have shown unprecedented resiliency in overcoming deficits of 17 or more points against Dallas, Minnesota and most recently Carolina. But that luck will eventually expire if the Lions keep digging themselves a significant hole, especially against an opponent with the offensive firepower of Green Bay.
"We're definitely on the rise," Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "We've just got to learn how to start games as well as we finish. If we can do that, we'll be OK. It starts this week.
"One of our coaches here made a statement: November to us is like October in baseball. Every game from here on out is crucial. Ugly or pretty, we've got to find a way to win."
The Lions haven't earned style points with their on-field conduct. The "dirty player" label that started being attached to Suh last season now extends to the entire team.
There was a recent melee with the Chicago Bears after Stafford facemasked a defensive player during an interception return. Atlanta Falcons players claimed Suh made disparaging remarks after quarterback Matt Ryan went down injured. The berry doesn't fall far from the tree as Schwartz jawed with San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh after a postgame handshake went awry.
Another controversy developed in last month's rout of Denver when some Lions players mocked the kneeling pose sometimes struck by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow in prayer. Tulloch said he was sorry if people took his sack celebration the wrong way and that mocking Tebow's religious beliefs wasn't his intent.
Tulloch, though, isn't going to apologize for how the Lions are bullying others after having sand kicked in their faces for so long.
"Our reputation I think is kind of misleading," Tulloch said. "We just play with a (swagger). To be a good defense, you've got to have a swag about yourself."
Whether the Lions can keep their composure should things get testy against the Packers is another test Detroit must pass. Raiola admits the Lions are "a little rough around the edges, but it works for us."
"We try to take our head coach's vision of us. That's having a blue-collar attitude," Raiola said. "That's kind of what this city is about.
"I'm anxious to see this team perform Thursday. There's not going to be a lack of effort, that's for sure. It's going to be fun."
That would be a welcome return to the old tradition of Thanksgiving days in Detroit.