12 years is a long time for anything. When talking about years since a playoff appearance, 12 years becomes an eternity. It isn't the longest drought in modern sports, but it certainly may be the most humiliating. The Detroit Lions not only haven't made the playoffs in 12 years, but during that span they have also taken nearly every step to ensure fans that no light should ever peer through the cracks.
To get to the bottom of this miserable streak, we must go back to the retirement of Barry Sanders in '99. That was the first indication that we may be heading into a recession, so to speak. It wasn't until a couple of years after that until we were positive we were nosediving into a depression. Ty Detmer and Charlie Batch led the Lions to a 2-14 season in 2001. In the few years prior, Detroit hadn't necessarily had hopes to hang with the playoff teams, but fell nowhere near the futility of being a 2-14 team.
It was no coincidence that 2001 was also the season that Matt Millen took over the reigns of the franchise. Little did the fans of the time know it, but this was year one of a painful seven-year tenure.
In this time, the Lions were nothing short of the laughingstock of football. From the repeated draft blunders to the abysmal records, right down to the vocally disgruntled fan base, everything about the Detroit Lions screamed misery. Chances are, if you are a Lions fan outside of the Detroit area, you probably can count on one hand the number of hardcore fans you know that stuck with this team through the Millen era.
On September 24, 2008, Bill Ford fired Matt Millen and the Lions moved under the management of Tom Lewand, the former executive vice president of the team. What Detroit has seen since then is two extremely solid draft classes, some new uniforms, and an entirely new energy surrounding the team. If you went to a Lions game four or five years ago and also have gone to one this past year, you know exactly the energy we're talking about.
There is an actual passion for this team once again, and the fans are absolutely starving to be rewarded for their dedication. The Lions gave us a tremendous season full of exciting physical rivalries and games taken down to the wire this year. As if that wasn't enough, they dotted the i's by ending the 2010-2011 season on a four-game win streak. All of this was done without their franchise gunslinger Matthew Stafford.
The Detroit Lions now have a chance at becoming Detroit's team. To better understand this, let's take a look at how Detroit and the state of Michigan have rallied around their teams recently.
The Detroit Red Wings have been nothing short of dominant throughout the past twenty years of NHL hockey, and people still pack out The Joe every home game in support of the always-talented squads to come through there. You will have a hard time going out and about in Michigan and not seeing something in support of the Red Wings, whether it be a bumper sticker, a car flag, a house flag, or jersey. The Red Wings and their fans work off of each other: the fans with support, and the Wings by delivering Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup.
The Detroit Tigers were miserable for the first half of this past decade, but look no further than the 2006 season for proof that Detroit boasts fans second to none when it comes to rallying and support. All of the sudden, as the Tigers began heating up and becoming relevant, beautiful Comerica Park began filling up on a nightly basis.
Even though the Tigers have struggled to find the playoffs since 2006, the fans still come out in impressive numbers to watch their Tigers play. Baseball is America's pastime, and there's nothing more thrilling than watching Justin Verlander go eight strong against a division rival and Valverde closing out a win in the ninth.
Detroit sports fans were even willing to go a few miles north in the '03-'08 years. The Detroit Pistons, fueled by an unselfish, tight-knit core of players, went through a six-year stretch in which they were legitimate title contenders every single year. In 2004, they burst onto the NBA scene and delivered with an O'Brien Trophy. In that six-year span, the Palace of Auburn Hills set the franchise record for consecutive sellouts with 259. Now that is dedication.
The only team not involved in this picture is the Detroit Lions. But, as the recent squad has shown, that may not be for long. The Lions becoming NFL contenders relies almost solely on the heart and the shoulder of Matthew Stafford. Right off the bat, we know we don't have to worry about the heart.
Stafford stepped into an organization in shambles and became an instant leader of his offense. And we all remember his five-TD game against Cleveland where he re-entered the game with a dislocated shoulder to throw the game-winning pass to Pettigrew as the clock expired (The day Matthew Stafford became a man).
What will this core of Detroit Lions players deliver?
The tremendous passion that Stafford possesses for the game and for his team is unlike any young quarterback we have ever seen. The shoulder, however, must stay healthy for Stafford to make his impact for a full season with the Lions.
Football is America's sport. It's what families who don't even care about the game watch on Thanksgiving (which happens to be when the Lions play every year). It is a sport that belongs to America and demands the ultimate combination of speed, size, toughness (mental and physical), strength, endurance and athleticism.
Look at the well-known football cities in the country. Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Dallas (just to name a few) are examples of cities that explode behind their teams week in and week out. Everything in those cities is about their football team. Sure, other teams in the city gain support as well, but at the end of the day, the pride comes in the Super Bowl wins.
The same mentality applies to the city of Detroit, though in a slightly different context. Detroit is packed full of people who put their heads down and work their tails off every single day, despite the hardships of crime and oppression brought on by the recent economic downturn. A Super Bowl trophy, as unlikely as it may seem, would put those problems to shambles. Detroit would all of the sudden become the envied city it was years ago.
Detroit has the motivation and the enthusiasm to support a great football team just as well as any fanbase in the nation. There is no city in America with more dedication and work ethic amongst its people, and that's exactly what Detroit expects from its sports teams. Although tough times may be aplenty, that isn't an excuse to stop working towards success. Heck, the Pistons slogan is even "Hard at Work, Every Single Night."
The Tigers rose to their call to become competitive. The Red Wings play physical every single season to defend their dominance in holding a title, and the Pistons build their teams around the concept of hard work (not only in 2004, but also in the Bad Boys era). The time is near due for the Lions to step up and fulfill their duty to this city: deliver a Super Bowl victory.
That time is now. This call goes out to Jim Schwartz, Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and the countless other players of tremendous talent on the Lions roster. Let's put the city of Detroit back on top by delivering the ultimate token of hard work and success: a Lombardi Trophy.