The Detroit Lions are another of the ancient franchises of the National Football League. The Lions have been around in one form or another since the Roaring Twenties. Much like the Arizona Cardinals, the Detroit Lions have been a disappointment to its fans for most of its history. Detroit has four championships in its history, though the last of these came over half a century ago.
Still, the Detroit Lions have their share of NFL traditions. The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving Day NFL game since 1934, and were the team which invented the tradition. Prior to the 1934 season, the Detroit Lions were known as the Portsmouth Spartans.
1935 Lions Championship
The Lions would win their first championship the next year, in 1935. Their leader was Dutch Clark, a quarterback out of Colorado College who would eventually become a player-coach for the Lions.
The Forties: The Lean Years
The Detroit Lions would go through a long number of losing seasons in the 1940′s, as the veterans from their 1935 championship aged. They won only 35 games in the decade, including a span from 1946 to 1949 when they won only 10 games. The team went 0-11 in 1942. Things would turn around when Bobby Layne arrived via the Chicago Bears (1948) and New York Bulldogs (1949) in 1950.
Bobby Layne was a quarterback from Highland Park, Texas, where he teamed up with Doak Walker to win championships. Bobby Layne starred at the University of Texas, where was a baseball pitcher and quarterback for the Longhorns.
Layne would lead the Lions to the three NFL titles: 1952, 1953 and 1957. Layne and the Lions would lose the title game to the Cleveland Browns in 1954. The Detroit Lions were a glamour team of the NFL in the early days of television. Their 20-year tradition of Thanksgiving Day football was picked up by the networks and continues to this day. Little did the Lions, the NFL or the television networks know the Lions would win their last title in ’57.
The 1960′s Detroit Lions
The Lions would falter in the 1960′s, becoming one of the NFL’s also-rans throughout these years. This slide would continue into the 1970′s and beyond. Still, the Lions were high profile enough that George Plimpton, when preparing to write a book about how an average guy off the street would perform in professional football, decided the Lions would be his subject.
To collect material for a book named Paper Lion, Plimpton attended the 1963 Detroit Lions Training Camp, where he pretended to be trying out for the Lions 3rd string quarterback position. Coaches knew of the ruse, though the players didn’t, at least until Plimpton’s ineptness betrayed the ploy.
Still, Plimpton would eventually get into an exhibition game, where the crowd believed he had been inserted for comedic purposes. Along the way, George Plimpton told the story of the NFL players like Dick "Night Train" Lane and Alex Karras. The book would eventually be made into a movie starring Alan Alda. Paper Lion would make George Plimpton a national celebrity when it was published in 1966.
The 1970′s Detroit Lions
The highlight of the 1970′s may have been the appearance of Marvin Gaye in the Detroit Lions training camp in 1971, when he (seriously) tried out for the team. Gaye was cut, but he would make friends with several former teammates, who would sing backup on his hit single, "What’s Going On?" The Lions’ only playoff appearance was in 1970, when the team lost a defensive struggle to a Dallas Cowboys team coached by Tom Landry and led on defense by Bob Lilly.
The next several years saw the Detroit Lions finishing in the middle fo the pack, but out of the playoff chase. The 1979 season was the year the team hit bottom, when it went 2-14 and received the 1st pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. With this pick, the Detroit Lions picked Billy Sims, the Heisman Trophy winning running back out of Oklahoma. Sims was expected to lead the team for the next decade, and it looked like this would be the case early on.
Billy Sims and the Eighties
Sims led the team to the playoffs in the 1982 and 1983 seasons. Sims highlights made the Lions one of the exciting teams to watch in the early eighties. Unfortunately, Billy Sims suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the 1984 season, which ended his promising career.
Had he played a full career, Sims might well have been a Hall of Fame player. Had he played these days, the knee injury might not have ended his career. But Sims’ career in the NFL was over, and the Lions would slide back into the bottom of the league for the remainder of the 1980′s. Only the arrival of Barry Sanders would turn around this trend.
Barry Sanders was the third overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, sandwiched behind Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich at 1 and 2 and Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders at 4 and 5. The Lions would be known as the Barry Sanders Show for much of the rest of the decade, and many people still consider Barry Sanders the greatest runner to ever play the game.
Barry Sanders was known for his humility, such as his rookie season, when Sanders was 10 yards away from the rushing title. Head coach Wayne Fontes wanted to put Sanders into the game to collect the rushing title, but Sanders declined. Sanders would go on to win several rushing titles, and throughout the early and middle portions of the 1990′s, only Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith would win rushing titles.
Barry Sanders would make the Pro Bowl all ten years he played for the Lions, and would be voted NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1994 and 1997. This was in an era when passing offense was becoming a greater part of the NFL game, and Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Steve Young and Brett Favre were having their greatest statistical seasons.
In the 1991 season, Barry Sanders led the Detroit Lions to a 12-4 record, despite a 45-0 blowout loss in the opening game to the eventual World Champions, the Washington Redskins. In the playoffs, Barry Sanders torched the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round, adding one highlight touchdown run which is still played to this day. The Lions would lose the NFC Championship Game to the Washington Redskins the next week, in the only title game appearance in Barry Sanders career.
The Lions would add offense around Barry Sanders through the years, including standout receivers Herman Moore and Johnny Morton. The team made the playoffs from 1993-1995 and also in 1997, but the team had little playoff success.
One constant source of tension for the Detroit Lions in these seasons was the quarterback position, which was held by Scott Mitchell for much of this time. Though one or two solid statistical seasons by Mitchell, he often made key mistakes in big games.
Wayne Fontes also came under fire and was eventually replaced by Bobby Ross, who had led the San Diego Chargers to the Superbowl in the middle part of the decade. Bobby Ross had a military style to his coaching, which may have hastened the retirement of Barry Sanders.
Prior to the 1999 season, Barry Sanders suddenly announced his retirement. Many wondered if this wasn’t a negotiating ploy, but this talk was silenced when Sanders payed back millions of dollars in signing bonuses. The Detroit Lions would surprisingly make the playoffs in 1999, but many fans remained bitter that Barry Sanders had retired when he was still in the prime of his career. Sanders was second in all-time rushing yardage at the time, and was perhaps another season-and-a-half away from breaking the rushing record.
Enter: Matt Millen
After a 9-7 2000 season and narrowly missng the playoffs, the Lions ownership brought in Matt Millen to run the franchise as the General Manager. Millen had been a star linebacker on several Superbowl teams, and William Clay Ford Sr. seemed to believe Millen would bring a winning attitude. At the time, Matt Millen had no NFL front office experience, and had been the #2 color analyst for the NFL on Fox for several seasons. Many expected Millen to replace John Madden when he retired.
Under Matt Millen, the Lions have been a summary failure. Millen has made a number of strange front office moves, the most famous being his continual habit of drafting 1st round wide receivers. He would draft a receiver with the Lions 1st pick in the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 NFL Drafts, eliciting new jokes from draftniks every succeeding year. Two of these players, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, proved to be disastrous selections.
One selection which was not questioned at the time, but eventually proved even more disastrous, was Millen’s drafting of Joey Harrington with the 2nd overall pick in 2002. Harrington was supposed to be the franchise savior, but he proved unable to adjust to the speed of the NFL. He would leave the Lions after four disappointing seasons and continues to bounce around the NFL.
Drawing as much criticism is Millen’s continual hiring and firing of head coaches. In his years as Lions GM, Millen has hired Steve Mariucci, Marty Morningweg and Rod Marinelli. Despite Detroit fan’s continual lobbying for the Ford family to fire Matt Millen, Millen continually succeeds in laying the blame at the feet of the Lions coaches he has hired.
While he spends high draft picks on offensive skill position players, Matt Millen’s defense has suffered from neglect. Despite this, the Lions defense has sometimes been average in the Millen years, and might well have pulled the franchise out of its losing ways, had Millen added two or three high draft picks to the unit.
At this time, Matt Millen remains the Lions GM. In fact, he is the second-highest paid GM in the league, ranking only behind Bill Parcells of the Miami Dolphins. The Lions main claim-to-fame at present are receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, though QB Jon Kitna is a veteran journeyman.