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   Whenever I attend a Linden varsity boys basketball contest, I always see Linden legend, John Cross.

 John has been keeping the Linden boys basketball scorebook for most of the 20 years I’ve worked at the paper. Almost every game I attend, I’ll say ‘hi’ to John and he’ll usually have some witty but reasonably harsh comment to jump me with.

 Sometimes it’s a complaint about having too many stories about a given school. Other times it may be because I got into the gym a little late and he’ll remind me if I came on time, I wouldn’t need to look at the scorebook. Other times it’s about how prep sports have changed over the years, usually not for the worse. No matter what it is, John will have something to bring up. It’s fine. He’s more bark than bite. This has become almost our way of saying ‘hi’ to each other. I look forward to it actually.

 Earlier this year his issue was that I’m too kind to the Lions. I argued, I always complain about the Lions, and, like him, have thought for decades as long as the Ford family still owns the team, the squad will remain the laughing stock of the NFL. But, John has a point. After the 2022 season, I mentioned how for the first time I had slight hope that this team may eventually turn the corner. Earlier this season, I also complimented the squad in a few columns, and John certainly noticed.

 And now, this column will give John even more fire. Every defense mechanism in my body wants me not to 100% completely give my soul back to the Lions unconditionally, but with each week this season it became harder and harder to keep that mental wall up. It would be easy to argue over that since November, the Lions were one of the top four teams in the entire NFL. They went from a 1-5 start to finishing 9-8 and almost qualified for the playoffs. Who wasn’t super pumped after the Lions went out and beat Green Bay at Green Bay as though their playoff hopes remained? I certainly did.

 It’s a team that keeps getting better and is building that improvement through the development of its youth. The Lions legitimately had a top three offensive line this season, and it enabled the Lions to have one of the most balanced and potent offenses in the NFL. The defense was beyond pathetic the first two months, but even it improved — and it was the young players that spearhead that progress. 

 And now as the offseason begins, there are stories that free agents are almost begging the Lions to give them a call. People want to be part of what’s going on at Ford Field. 

 And the best part is, the Lions have reason to think they will get better. The Lions are going to enjoy another draft with many early selections, and some of the dead space on the salary cap will leave this offseason. The point that players want to be part of what the Lions are building may mean that they don’t have to overbid for NFL retreads. They can be selective and hunt down some of the more appealing free agents – and maybe for the first time ever be able to get them at a reasonable salary. 

 And for years, I 100% agreed with John about this point. Nothing will ever happen for this franchise with a Ford running it. But, you know what? It seems for the first time in 50 years the Lions have a solid front office staff. The best part is it seems Sheila Hamp, the current principal owner of the Lions, is smart enough to let those people make the roster decisions.

 The Lions still haven’t really proven an overwhelming amount. Getting back to a level of competitiveness is the easy first step in any rebuild. Now, they must make the next basic steps — win a division crown, get in the playoffs and do something that they have only done once since 1958 — win a playoff game.  

 In 1991, the Lions won their division with a 12-4 record, won a playoff game, played in the NFC Championship game, and had a core of young talented players (one named Barry Sanders) that made it look like the Lions could be the team of the 1990s. Everyone was optimistic and wearing ‘thanks for restoring the roar’ shirts in the Detroit area. This team hasn’t accomplished any of the stuff the 1991 team did and it seems optimism is higher this time than back then. By the end of the decade, the Lions never came close to that 1991 season again. This time Lions’ fans are downright giddy, and this season’s team didn’t even win 10 games and make the playoffs. 

 But, hey, John, can you really be upset if Lions’ fans are overly optimistic? Come on, admit it. Even you are a little more optimistic entering the 2022 offseason than any other one maybe in your adult lifetime, right? I’m sure I’ll get my answer in a tri-county gym soon enough after he reads this column.

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