DETROIT – When the Detroit Lions make their first postseason appearance since 1999 tonight, it will be in a city that knows as much about struggling as Detroit does: New Orleans. The Lions, three years removed from the NFL’s first 0-16 season, will face the Saints (13-3) in a match-up of two cities dealing with very similar struggles.
“There’s going to come a time when we don’t celebrate going to the playoffs or getting into the playoffs, but that’s not going to be tonight,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said after Detroit clinched the playoff berth with a 38-10 win over the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 24. “It’s been a long time coming.”
A long time is an understatement for the Lions (10-6). This is the team’s first winning season since 2000 and their first 10-win season since 1995. They won five road games for the first time in 11 seasons, and sold out every home game for the first time in four years.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Ford Field on Christmas Eve, the Lions took a victory lap around Ford Field giving high-fives to the fans who stood by them through the last decade of futility.
“For the city of Detroit, our fan base, it’s an awesome thing,” said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. “When we walked around the stadium and slapped everybody’s hands, gave them high fives, you could just get a sense of how much it meant to them.”
The Lions are both a symbol of the city’s struggles over the past 10 years and a ray of hope. The Detroit Metro area is still ravaged by the fallen economy, dwindling population, and Detroit’s continued financial issues as it stares down potential insolvency by April.
“I think the Lions, like most of Detroit’s teams, bring a connection to the city that folks otherwise don’t have,” said Tameria Warren, a Detroit native living in South Carolina. “I can see the same scenario in New Orleans. There’s a lot of contempt for the conditions of (Detroit) and its long-surviving residents, but people embrace it when it comes to their professional teams.”
In 2008, Detroit city government was in complete upheaval, the auto bailout was being heavily debated, the school system was in the midst of being restructured, and the economy had hit rock bottom. The Lions followed suit by losing all 16 games — just the second winless season in the NFL since the 1970 merger — and became the butt of nationwide ridicule.
“We are a prideful city and state and they love the Lions, and I knew that when I got drafted here and we laid a lot of eggs,” said Lions center Dominic Raiola, who has played in Detroit since 2001. “I’ve been to the bottom, and not necessarily back on the top, but we’re playing in January and that’s new ground for us.”
The Lions, and Detroit, only need to look across the field to see an example of what happens when a football team can change the fortunes of an entire city. The Saints became “America’s Team” in 2009 during their run to a Super Bowl title, holding up the mantle for New Orleans and Louisiana as the Gulf Coast was recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
“Part of what has been fascinating as a relative newcomer to the city is the level of penetration that Saints-mania has,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University and MSNBC host. “My daughter goes to a private school. If there’s a big game coming up, or if there’s a playoff game coming up, the girls usually wear uniforms to school every day, but today it’s called ‘Dutch day’ and they’re allowed to wear black and gold.”
“So when I was dropping my daughter off to school, all-girls, kindergarten through 12th grade, all of them are going into school wearing black and gold.” Perry also noted that the radio stations in New Orleans play non-stop Saints-oriented music prior to game days.
The love affair with the Saints has helped bond the city as continues to deal with major issues. Much like Detroit, New Orleans continues to be ravaged by violent crime, public safety issues, struggling public schools, and racial segregation.
“Nothing else matters until you address the murder rate,” said Harris-Perry, who also talked about Detroit’s plight during an appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show in July 2011. “There were over 200 murders in 2011, which means we actually had more then we had in 2010, and that’s despite the fact that we have enthusiastically elected a new mayor [Mitch Landrieu].”
“Not only did things not get better, they actually got worse. The murder rate has been vastly disproportionate to young black men in this city. They are killing a generation of young black men. Nothing really matters until we aggressively address the matter of the murder rate without cutting the communities into police states.”
Jocelyne Ninneman has been apart for the slow rebuild in New Orleans since moving there in 2006 from Detroit. She sees parallels in not just the cities, but also in the teams.
“I actually came here right after Katrina,” said Ninneman, who was working as a home inspector post-Katrina before settling in the city as a public relations manager. “Trust me, New Orleans has just as bad of a rep as Detroit, and New Orleaneans get just as tired of hearing about it like Detroiters do, knowing that there is a totally different side to the city that overshadows that.”
The Saints are a huge part of the city’s culture, with their home games at the Superdome having a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere and the team’s trademark fleur de lis can be seen throughout the state. The city’s flavor and culture are on full display during Saints games.
“Part of what’s really important to know about this city is that when people love it, and they’re committed to it, it’s not fun in the way that Las Vegas is,” Harris-Perry said.
“There’s debauchery in New Orleans, but it’s not a Vegas kind of debauchery, but it’s not Disney type of fun either.
“It’s much more than that when you’re here, and when you’re living there and experiencing it. It’s profoundly authentic.”
Prior to 2006, the Saints were with the Lions amongst the NFL’s bottom feeders, suffering through countless losing seasons and only winning one playoff game in franchise history. After spending the 2005 “Katrina” season shuttling between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, the team returned to New Orleans and took off with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm.
“It’s definitely a two-way street over whether the Saints helped New Orleans, or did New Orleans help the Saints,” Ninneman said. “Certainly, the city needed what the Saints did after Katrina. On the other hand, it’s just a matter of how the city incorporates the team’s essence into everything it does.”
“Somehow, the city infuses multiple facets of its culture into whatever they do. They really look out for their own.”
The Saints defeated Detroit 31-17 on Dec. 4 at the Superdome and are heavy favorites to beat the Lions again tonight. Detroit has won just one postseason game since 1957 — a 38-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 5, 1992 — yet, the team still feels confident about their chances.
“I think there’s something to learning from past experiences,” Schwartz said. “We haven’t always played our very best, but I think we’ve learned from some of the things that have happened. I think we’re a little bit more battle-tested, a little more seasoned.
“I think that every time we’re presented with one of those situations, we’ve done a pretty good job of doing it better the second time.”
As for the two cities, Detroit and New Orleans can learn from each other in more ways than just the football field. New Orleans has been much more proactive in protecting its culture and history and improving the city, and Detroit could follow in those footsteps.
“I definitely respect New Orleans a lot,” Ninneman said. “I’ve definitely tried to fall back and not boast a bunch of opinions and try to change things here. I’ve really just been observing how they do what they do.
“Certainly they are doing a pretty darn good job. I definitely think that Detroiters could take a few cues from New Orleans in that way.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith