Detroit Lions Using Familiar Rebuilding Plan for Success

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Detroit Lions Using Familiar Rebuilding Plan for Success
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Calvin Johnson may have been the first building block in Detroit's return to prominence.

It was 1992. 

The Detroit Lions were coming off their first playoff win and most successful season since 1957. The 1991 team had a franchise-record 12 wins and reached the NFC Championship game for the first and only time.

Even though they were brought back to earth with a 41-10 season-ending loss in Washington, the Lions actually had optimism entering a new season. They had hope.

Flash forward 20 years later to today, and the Lions are in a very similar situation. They actually have expectations again after a 10-6 Wild Card season, and something about this team feels different than 1992.

This is a more complete team, rather than just having Barry Sanders dominate in the running game.

Detroit has multiple cornerstones of their roster set, and they have used a rare, but familiar rebuilding plan to do so.

Call it the “suck, scout and select” rebuilding plan. When you have a terrible season, you get a high draft pick, so you better find a franchise player worthy of drafting that high and then set him up for success. If you have to repeat this for a couple of years, then you can quickly build a contender.

Which NFL teams have given Detroit the blueprint? The two comparisons we will be looking at are the 1988-91 Dallas Cowboys and 1996-99 Indianapolis Colts.

 

Thanks for All the Losses, Matt Millen

When Matt Millen took over as general manager of the Detroit Lions in 2001, they immediately embarked on an abysmal run of six straight seasons with double-digit losses.

The team would win just 31 games in the more than seven full seasons Millen spent in Detroit before he was fired early in 2008.

The reward for that kind of losing is a high draft pick. A bunch of them, actually. That should make it easy to get very talented players to rebuild your team.

However, when you waste these picks on Joey Harrington (No. 3 in 2002), Charles Rogers (No. 2 in 2003), Roy Williams (No. 7 in 2004), Mike Williams (No. 10 in 2005), and Ernie Sims (No. 9 in 2006), then you can see why the team continued to lose.

The concept of hitting on a high draft pick sounds so simple, yet we have seen teams routinely blow these opportunities.

Why do you think the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders have struggled so much throughout the last two decades? They have taken numerous busts high in the draft (JaMarcus Russell, David Klingler, Akili Smith, Fabian Washington, Robert Gallery, Peter Warrick, etc.).

The NFL draft can be very rewarding, but also very dangerous for a team. You must know what you are doing, and Millen clearly did not.

 

Phase I: Get the No. 1 Wide Receiver

Detroit’s future did begin in the 2007 draft, when the Lions once again went with a wide receiver (their fourth using a top 10 pick in five years) and selected Calvin Johnson No. 2 overall from Georgia Tech.

Anyone that watched Johnson dominate in college with Reggie Ball at quarterback knew this was going to be a great wide receiver in the NFL. Even if Detroit had to pick yet another wide receiver, they could not pass up this opportunity.

Similarly, the Dallas Cowboys began their building of a dynasty with a wide receiver. After Tom Landry had two subpar seasons of seven wins in 1986-87, the Cowboys selected Michael Irvin from Miami with the No. 11 pick in the 1988 draft.

Irvin was the third receiver off the board after Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe (quite a class). With so little at receiver on Dallas’ roster, Irvin was an easy choice.

He may have only had 654 yards as a rookie and then missed 10 games in 1989, but the future was bright.

Though coming off an AFC Championship loss in 1995, the Indianapolis Colts made a key selection with wide receiver Marvin Harrison at No. 19 in the 1996 draft.

Harrison was the fourth receiver drafted after Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, and Eddie Kennison, but he was arguably the best wide receiver of the entire draft.

Harrison also was not an immediate star his first two seasons, but he was just waiting for the right quarterback to come along. That is often the case for wide receivers.

Three different drafts nearly a decade apart from the other (1988, 1996, 2007), and the teams all went with a No. 1 wide receiver in Round 1.

 

Phase II: Bring in the New Coach and Quarterback

For as great as Calvin Johnson is, he cannot do it alone. Detroit got off to a nice 6-2 start in 2007, but finished 1-8. Their bad play carried over into the following season, when they became the first team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16.

It was a fitting end to the Matt Millen era in Detroit. The ultimate losing season, because the team was so poorly put together after years of bad management.

But at 0-16, heads are going to roll, and with Millen gone for good, the team had to make two huge decisions.

First there was the obvious firing of coach Rod Marinelli, who went 10-38 (.208) in his three seasons with the team.

He was replaced by first-time head coach Jim Schwartz, who spent 10 seasons in Tennessee with Jeff Fisher, and came with a defensive background.

Next was the draft. With how terrible the 2009 draft was, fortunately Detroit was first on the clock and able to draft Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Just like that, the Lions had their new coach and quarterback. They also got Stafford some help with tight end Brandon Pettigrew in the first round.

There would be many growing pains as the team went 2-14 in 2009, and Stafford missed 19 starts in his first two seasons. But no one said it would be easy.

Jimmy Johnson might have expected it to be easy when he took over as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989.

With a 52-9 record at the University of Miami and a National Championship to his credit, Johnson was filling huge shoes as new owner Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry, who was the only coach Dallas fans had known.

The Cowboys used the No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft to take UCLA’s Troy Aikman. In their first year together, the two would see the Cowboys finish 1-15, doing even worse than the 3-13 finish in 1988. Aikman was 0-11 as a starter.

At least the Cowboys picked up some other help that year, as they drafted guard Steve Wisniewski, fullback Daryl Johnston, and center Mark Stepnoski.

Jim Mora resigned from head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1996, and after a year in television, he returned to the sidelines to coach the Indianapolis Colts.

Despite never winning a playoff game, Mora was considered a good defensive coach and had taken the wretched Saints to places they never had been.

Mora also had the good fortune of getting a No. 1 pick at quarterback, and that was Tennessee’s Peyton Manning.

Though the Colts would only repeat their 3-13 record in 1998, the team was more competitive with Manning breaking several rookie passing records.

Jim Mora and Peyton Manning started together in 1998 with Indianapolis. (Conroy/AP )

Many of the great team success stories in NFL history see a coach and quarterback start at the same place together. That is what Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman did in Dallas in 1989.

Peyton may have had to wait for Tony Dungy for his most success, but brother Eli and Tom Coughlin came together for the New York Giants in 2004, and have since won two Super Bowls.

Bill Walsh/Joe Montana (San Francisco, 1979), Paul Brown/Otto Graham (Cleveland, 1946), Bill Belichick/Tom Brady (New England, 2000), Mike Holmgren/Brett Favre (Green Bay, 1992), Marv Levy/Jim Kelly (Buffalo, 1986), and Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia, 1999) are a few more examples.

Even John Madden/Ken Stabler (Oakland, 1968-69) and Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh, 1969-70) were just one year apart at the start of their careers.

Matthew Stafford and Jim Schwartz, careers joined at the hip, hope to be the next pair to join the list of successes.

 

Phase III: Completing the Triplets

This is one area where the Lions have been incomplete in comparison to Dallas and Indianapolis. However, it is not for lack of trying.

Detroit has had a lot of bad luck at the running back position, and this even goes back to Barry Sanders’ abrupt retirement in 1999.

  • Reuben Droughns was the 81st overall pick in the 2000 draft, but only played nine games (30 carries for 72 yards) for Detroit. He rushed for 3,530 yards elsewhere.
  • Kevin Jones was the 30th overall pick in the 2004 draft, but injuries limited him to 53 games in Detroit.
  • Brian Calhoun (74th overall in 2006) only carried the ball 14 times in his career.
  • Kevin Smith was the 64th overall pick in 2008, but he has only played in 13 games the last two seasons due to numerous injuries.
  • Jahvid Best (30th overall in 2010) could be the last piece of Detroit’s “triplets,” but he missed 10 games last season because of a concussion.
  • Mikel Leshoure (57th overall in 2011) missed his entire rookie season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, and is suspended for the first two games of 2012 after two marijuana-related arrests.

Maybe Best will be the guy, but right now the Lions are all about the passing game, as evident by Stafford’s 663 pass attempts in 2011. Their version of the triplets might just include Pettigrew for now.

Getting Stafford some help in the form of a legit running game or another receiver to step up in a fashion like Reggie Wayne (30th overall in 2001 draft) to help out Calvin Johnson would take this offense to another level.

Detroit also did not pull off the big trades these other teams did.

Dallas famously executed the Herschel Walker trade in 1989 with Minnesota. From that trade, Dallas eventually moved up to take running back Emmitt Smith 17th overall in the 1990 draft.

With Aikman, Irvin and Smith, the Cowboys had the best “triplets” in the NFL at the time. They carried the offense, as secondary backs and receivers had very little production. However, they did benefit from the best offensive line in the league.

Dallas defined the "triplets" with Aikman, Irvin and Smith. (Source: Know Your Dallas Cowboys)

After an improvement to 7-9 in 1990, the Cowboys would finish 11-5 in 1991 and beat Chicago in the playoffs. Interestingly enough, it was Detroit that knocked Dallas out that year.

The Colts would pull off an interesting trade in 1999. They sent Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for second and fifth-round picks. With many expecting them to take Ricky Williams with the No. 4 pick, general manager Bill Polian made the right move and picked Miami’s Edgerrin James instead.

Even Jimmy Johnson, then in Miami, was offering a first-round pick for Faulk. But instead, the Colts went with the younger back, and if not for a knee injury in 2001, it would have looked like a great decision. Faulk won a Super Bowl and league MVP award with the Rams.

But with James carrying the load out of the backfield, the Colts reintroduced the triplets to the NFL. Manning to Harrison became one of the league’s most prolific combinations.

The team immediately jumped to a 13-3 record in 1999, and went on to make the playoffs in 11 of the 12 seasons from 1999-2010.

 

Phase IV: Build the Supporting Cast

For Detroit to annually contend for the Super Bowl, they will have to build up their supporting cast to help their best players.

The Cowboys also got players like Darren Woodson and Alvin Harper with the draft picks they acquired from the Walker trade.

They were able to move up to get the No. 1 pick in 1991, taking defensive tackle Russell Maryland. They also got the infamous Leon Lett in the seventh round that year.

In just a few years, Dallas built arguably the most talented roster in football, but it was driven on offense by Aikman, Irvin and Smith.

Not many teams can really compete with the talent level of the early 90’s Cowboys, so the Lions will more likely resemble the Colts if they can: a team that is built around their quarterback and offense, and has just a few big names on defense.

Indianapolis did not really take off until Reggie Wayne grew into a great receiver and made Manning’s passing attack much harder to defend.

Detroit drafted Oklahoma’s very productive Ryan Broyles this year, but after his ACL injury, it is unlikely he will do anything this season.

Dwight Freeney (No. 11 in 2002 draft) has been the face of the Colts’ defense for years, and you can certainly say Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 in 2010) has filled that role for the Lions. Louis Delmas may be able to have a Bob Sanders-esque impact, but hopefully with more health luck.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Jim Schwartz still has more talent to find and coach up.

If Nick Fairley ever wises up off the field, he could create that defensive tackle duo that causes nightmares for offenses in the way Freeney and Robert Mathis do on the edges in Indianapolis.

Dallas and Indianapolis did not win anything big until they filled out a more complete roster.

Detroit is not there yet, but they have the talent to be a consistent playoff team, and with the right couple of additions, they should be competing for much more than that in the near future.

Getting a solid foundation was the first and most important step. That is something that has eluded this franchise since the late 1950s.

 

Applying This Strategy to Other Sports

We have seen this type of rebuilding strategy recently work to perfection in the NHL.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a great run of success behind the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the 1990s. But starting in 2001-02, they had a four-year collapse where they never won more than 28 games in any season.

What was their reward? They seized the opportunities to draft goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (No. 1 in 2003), and centers Evgeni Malkin (No. 2 in 2004), Sidney Crosby (No. 1 in 2005), and Jordan Staal (No. 2 in 2006).

Just like that, the team became Stanley Cup contenders and won it all in 2009.

No matter the sport, finding elite players at the most important positions and a confident head coach can go a long way in making a team a serious contender.

 

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!

The 1992 Lions followed up their great season with a disappointing 5-11 finish.

Detroit has since lost six consecutive Wild Card games. Their seven-game playoff losing streak ties Kansas City for the postseason record. The Lions have just one playoff win in the last 54 seasons.

But that is the past. Detroit has their best wide receiver in team history with Calvin Johnson, and Stafford is their best quarterback since Bobby Layne.

If you believe in superstitions, consider that Stafford also happens to be from the same high school as Layne, and was drafted right after Layne’s famous 50-year curse of losing on the Lions ended.

While many will focus on the team’s off-field issues this year, the fact is those players had very little to do with the Lions’ 2011 success.

If they continue to “act the fool”, then they will have nothing to do with the Lions’ future success either. No team, and certainly not the commissioner, will continue to put up with that behavior.

Rebuild. Restore (the roar). Reconsider the Lions.

Finding some other key contributors to go along with their core will be very important, but for a change, the Lions have a foundation built on elite talent at multiple positions.

Detroit may never come close to the success of those old Dallas and Indianapolis teams, but to even be in the conversation for having that type of chance is a huge step up in class for the franchise.

 

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