Detroit Lions: How 0-16 Season Saved Lions Franchise

James Van Etten@jbvanettenContributor IJanuary 12, 2012

Detroit Lions: How 0-16 Season Saved Lions Franchise

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    It may appear a bit counter-intuitive on the surface, but the winless 2008 season saved the Detroit Lions franchise.

    Like a degenerate gambler who must lose everything before he can begin his road to recovery, the Detroit Lions needed to go where no other NFL franchise had gone before, 0-16.

    Gone were the days of mediocre 9-7 seasons, followed-up with 7-9 disappointments. The Lions had become the laughingstock of professional football and a reoccurring punch line on late night TV.

    The fans had begun grass root campaigns to fire the general manager and held protests outside of Ford Field. There was even a website, since57.com, to remind everybody of how long it had been since the Lions were atop the NFL.

    Although this plead for change was sobering to the franchise; what came next was worse, apathy.

    Fans didn’t care. You couldn’t give away Lions’ tickets and a generation of football fans was being lost as fathers and grandfathers turned their back on the once proud organization and urged their children to choose wiser than they.

    It was like the emotional decay of a scorned lover. When the anger subsides and indifference begins, you know the end is near.

    The Lions were taking on water faster than the Titanic and needed to make wholesale changes or lose their once rabid fanbase forever. Like Andy Dufresne said, “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”

    Following is how the Lions were able to right the ship and begin the turn around of this franchise in just a few short seasons.

See Ya Millen

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    Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news, or saw the indescribable genocide happening at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

    Although nobody will ever confuse their levels of human significance, every Lions fan remembers where they were when they heard “The Mustache” got the ax.

    In seven years the Detroit Lions amassed a record of 31-97 under the leadership of Millen; a .242 winning percentage, the worst in the history of the NFL.

    Mr. Ford finally sent the master carpenter back to Pennsylvania after his son, Bill Ford Jr., forced his hand by publicly stating he would fire Millen if he had the authority.

    Subsequently, Millen slunk out of town, escaping out the back door, without so much as press conference.

    I find it mildly amusing that the man who publicly accused members of his own team of being “devout cowards,” could not stand up and face the music when his own number was finally called.

    The termination of Millen was the franchise’s phoenix moment that allowed the rebuild to begin and it started with the most improbable of leaders…

Know When to Hold 'Em

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    What?!?! Matt Millen’s understudy is the new general manager?

    Yes, William Clay Ford’s well-documented track record of head scratching loyalty was finally rewarded when the search for a new leader, to bring this franchise out of the ashes of winless perfection, ended right down the hall, in the office of Martin Mayhew.

    Martin Mayhew? Who the hell is Martin Mayhew?

    The leader of what is now perceived as one of the hottest, young football franchises in the National Football League.

    There had been speculation for years that Millen was a rogue leader and drafted with a dart, rather than the information gathered by Mayhew and his staff. The hire not only confirmed these rumors, it kept together an oppressed, yet talented, front office that finally is having its voice heard.

    Please recall; many Lions fans clamored for Scott Pioli and his Patriot pedigree, when Mr. Ford finally did what was long overdue.

    Pioli ended up in Kansas City and tracking both men's results is an embarrassment of riches for Detroit.

    Pioli’s signed former Patriots back-up QB Matt Cassel to a six-year $63 million deal; rewarding him for his performance when Tom Brady was lost for the year in New England. Hmm, reminds me of that Scott Mitchell deal.

    Additionally, his hand-picked coach Todd Haley was a bust and now Scott has been forced to try and dip back into the Patriot pixie dust with the hiring of former New England DC and Cleveland Browns cast-off Romeo Crennel.

    Martin Mayhew is a soft-spoken man who would prefer to stay out of the spotlight, but his successful leadership is forcing him to the forefront.

    Kudos to Mr. Ford for getting it right. Just like in poker, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Welcome Jim Schwartz

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    Under Millen; the Detroit Lions coaching search, along with certain episodes of Seasame Street, were sponsored by the letter M.

    Morhningweg, Mariucci and Marinelli gave the city of Detroit results no better than Big Bird, Elmo and Snufalufagus leadership if they were wearing the headsets.

    Mayhew bucked the trend and found a young, energetic coach when he plucked Jim Schwartz  from the Tennessee Titans coaching staff. 

    An economics graduate from Georgetown, Jim is a cerebral guy with a blue-collar background.  His penchant for statistics, combined with his demanding work ethic, creates the perfect combination for the working class city of Detroit and his results are validating.

    With a first year record of 2-14, Schwartz has continued to improve the Lions record with 6-10 and 10-6 records in the two subsequent years.

    He referred to this past season as important, not successful. The first playoff year in over a decade is not successful? That’s why this guy is perfect for this team. It’s not about returning to respectability and keeping your gig, it’s about becoming elite and competing for championships.

    Mayhew’s choice of Schwartz finally put somebody in charge of the sidelines whose mind is built for chess, as opposed to past coaches who struggled with checkers.

Finally a Franchise Quarterback

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    And a child shall lead them.

    Well, at 23 Matthew Stafford is hardly a child, but sadly it’s taken fifty years for the Lions to find a franchise quarterback to replace Bobby Layne.

    Possibly the single most important outcome from the perfectly forgettable 2008 campaign was locking up the first pick in the 2009 NFL draft and signing Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    When you are number one overall, you undoubtedly will have a tough road ahead, and becoming heir to the worst team in NFL history, Stafford was no different. As Timon sarcastically stated, "talk about your fixer upper."

    Although the first two years were full of unfulfilled potential, via injuries to the knee and throwing shoulder, from their young signal caller; the third year finally paid back dividends with over 5,000 yards passing and 41 touchdowns, both third best in the league behind Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

    Is there anybody left out there that still thinks fellow 2009 draft picks Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman can hold a candle to Magic Matt No. 9?

    The firepower displayed this season was a result of several talented offensive weapons, but make no mistake; it is Stafford who is the most important piece of the artillery.

    The NFL has evolved from a running back league into a quarterback league and the premium is on the man under center. Calvin Johnson is the best player on the 53-man roster, but he was a part of the 0-16 team; there’s only so much you can do from the wide receiver position.

    Just like Isiah Thomas and Steve Yzerman before him; Matthew Stafford from the onset of his career is burdened with the task of turning a Detroit franchise from a proverbial loser into a winner.

    Thomas kissed two Larry O’Brien trophies and Yzerman hoisted three of Lord Stanley’s Cups; although No. 9 did lead the Lions back to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, it remains to be seen if Stafford can bring Vince Lombardi’s trophy to the Lions’ Den for the first time in history.

    But what is certain is that the Lions finally have their franchise quarterback.

Blow-Up the 53-Man Roster

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    Not unlike the entrepreneurs who flip homes, the Lions roster needed an extreme makeover from its perfectly winless season.

    It started with Mayhew hustling Jerry Jones and sending underachieving Roy Williams to Dallas for a first, third and sixth round draft pick.

    Mayhew turned those picks into Brandon Pettigrew, Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown. Not the windfall everybody had hoped for, but an upgrade nonetheless as Pettigrew has developed into a top ten tight end that is second in receptions and yards for the Lions.

    Beyond that trade, in the same draft the Lions moved down in the third round and selected DeAndre Levy and grabbed an additional fourth round pick of Sammie Lee Hill.

    In the past three drafts, the Lions have had 13 draft picks in the first four rounds.  Of those 13, ten had significant contributions this season and seven were starters.  If you allow me a bit of levity and assume Mikel Leshoure will help this team in the future, that’s 11 of 13 picks contributing to a winning football team.

    Go ahead and toss in seventh round pick Willie Young who ended the season with three sacks and plenty of playing time in the defensive front-four. That’s how franchises are built, solid picks early and a couple unpolished diamonds late.

    The Lions have also brought in key veterans such as Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Tulloch, in no small part to the relationship with Schwartz, to add veteran leadership from a winning organization and help change the culture in Allen Park.

    There are only a handful of veterans that remain from that historic 2008 season and the radical transfusion of talent has been key to the turnaround.

    With a new GM and head coach, a legitimate franchise quarterback and a completely overhauled roster; the Detroit Lions are moving forward towards their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl while the remnants of the 0-16 season fade further and further into the rear view mirror.