How the Detroit Lions Went from Upstart NFL Contenders to Failure on All Fronts

Bryan Hollister@too_old_4stupidAnalyst IJanuary 18, 2009

Detroit, MI—How did it all go wrong? When did it all go wrong? WHY did it all go wrong?

What did they do to deserve this?

As we all know by now, the Detroit Lions gained a new measure of infamy in 2008, going 0-16 in the regular season. Achieving this feat was such an improbability that many fans even refused to allow for it as the Lions entered their last game of the season, hoping against hope that the team they had continued to support through all the rough times would pull out a victory.

Nothing doing. The Lions lost, and the most un-sought-after record in all of sports was attained.

How ironic that the game was not only against the Packers, but it was played a Lambeau Field. Two names that were present at the lowest point in franchise history were also there at the beginning: Curly Lambeau and the Green Bay Packers.

In the Beginning...

Things weren't always this bad. In 1930 the Portsmouth Spartans, as the Lions where then known, made a somewhat inauspicious start to their NFL life, going 5-6-3 in their debut year.

However, the very next year they went 11-3, and were set to face the Green Bay Packers, coached by Curly Lambeau, in a "tentatively scheduled" championship game between the league's two top teams.

However, the game never happened. The Packers, citing rules in place at the time which allowed any team to cancel a "tentative" game at will, called the game off after beating the Chicago Bears, and the game never happened. No one reason was identified as the one that kept the Packers from playing the game.

Head Coach Potsy Clark knew different, however. In 1932, the Spartans played the Packers on Dec. 4, the same day of the previous year that the Packers had bowed out of the supposed championship matchup. Clark played the game "iron-man" style, using only 11 players the entire game, to show the world he knew why the Packers had quit—they were afraid of the Spartans.

Clark and the Spartans won the game 19-0.

That same year, the Lions faced off against the Chicago Bears in an "unofficial" championship game, which the Bears won 9-0, in the Spartans last official football game.

Financial troubles and the lure of a large market combined to end the Spartans run in Portsmouth, Ohio, and the team moved to Detroit and took on their current moniker.

The Detroit Lions, Hear them Roar?

Detroit made hay quickly in the NFL, winning the championship in the pre-Super Bowl years in 1935. What followed was 15 years of ups and downs, including the Lions first no-win season in 1942 when they went 0-11.

Then came the '50s. In 1950, the Lions acquired one Bobby Layne, and his impact was immediate. He and head coach Bo McMillin were at loggerheads as to who should call the plays; McMillin wanted total control to send all the plays in, Layne said the quarterback should have some control.

Layne prevailed, McMillin was bought out and replaced by Buddy Parker, and after two years of building, Layne led the Lions to win the NFL Championship, their first in 12 years, in 1952. He followed this up with a second championship in 1953, but was unable to pull of a three-peat in 1954 when the Lions fell to Cleveland.

Three years later the Lions were headed to another title when disaster struck. Layne broke his leg in three places and was replaced at quarterback by Tobin Rote.

The Lions went on to win the championship that year, but Layne was unable to return to form in time to compete.

The Curse

In typical "we don't really know what we are doing, but we own the team and we're going to do it anyways" fashion, the front office of the Lions decided that both quarterbacks would be used the next year, with each quarterback alternating quarters in the game.

Layne was openly critical of this, even calling out some of the coaching staff and Detroit writers at the time in a public interview.

Then came the call: Layne had been traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for another player and two draft picks. No sit down, no visit. Just a call from the new head coach.

As Layne would recall later, it was "a pretty crude way to brush him off after all those years."

That wasn't all Layne was reported to have said. Although no official records exist, Bobby was said to have cursed the Lions with poor play and failure for the next 50 years, even stating that "I'd like to win a championship for the Steelers and for myself to shove down Detroit's throat."

Layne never got that championship, but the Lions held true to the supposed curse.

Years of Despair, "The Barry Sanders Show," and, Finally, Infamy

Following Layne's departure, the Lions went 13 years without a shot at the NFL title, amassing a record of 73-76-13, managing five winning seasons and no championship appearances during that stretch. They appeared to make the turn in 1970, garnering a record of 10-4 and making their first postseason appearance in over a decade.

Was the curse broken? Had the Lions prevailed over the hoodoo?

Nope. The curse held. The Lions lost their first playoff game, and whispers of the "Bobby Layne Curse" remained in circulation.

For the rest of the '70s and '80s, the Lions hovered near the top of their division, even managing two trips to the postseason in the early '80s—going 0-2 overall—despite managing only four seasons above .500. Then, in 1989, the Lions acquired the man who would have, could have, should have, changed their fate.

And he almost pulled it off.

"He's better than I ever was."—Walter Payton

Barry Sanders entered the NFL draft in 1989 out of Oklahoma State after winning the Heisman Trophy. Immediately, the Lions, and the fans, knew he was something special.

After settling a contract dispute that kept him out of training camp, Sanders hit the gridiron and reeled off an 18-yard carry on his first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, he scored his first touchdown.

At the end of his rookie season he finished 10 yards shy of the seasonal rushing title—a title he could have easily won had he not refused to re-enter the last game of the year to get the necessary yardage—won the hearts of beleaguered Lions fans, and earned the healthy respect of his teammates and opponents.

Alas, for all his efforts, the Lions still did not make it back to the Super Bowl. They did manage to win a postseason game in 1991, their first since 1957. Bobby Layne must have rolled over in his grave though, because they lost badly to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship, falling by a score of 41-10.

End of an Era

The Lions made it back to the postseason four more times in Sanders' career, but it wasn't enough. After 10 years in the league, 10 Pro Bowl selections, one postseason win, and no championships, the "culture of losing" in Detroit finally got the better of him.

Sanders walked away from the game in 1998 within one season's effort of breaking Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. But it wasn't about the records for Sanders. He was competitive, and the Lions simply weren't.

There was no warning, no indication that he intended to leave the game he played so well. He simply faxed a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper, and one of, if not the, best running back to ever touch a football in the NFL was gone.

Said Sanders later of his decision to leave: "I sobbed for three months."

You weren't the only one, Barry.

Full Circle

Sanders' departure was followed by one of the most despairing stretches of decline in sports history. Detroit managed an 8-8 season in 1999 and a 9-7 season in 2000, but after that it was all down hill. Since 1999, draft after draft has failed to produce anything near the spark Sanders had given them.

Some were utter failures in respect to what they were supposed to offer: Aaron Gibson. Chris Claiborne. Charles Rogers. Kevin Jones. Joey Harrington. Stockar McDoogle. Mike Williams. None of these guys even came close to performing as expected.

None of the other players drafted during and after Sanders have given the Lions anything near what he did.

Then it happened. In the 50th year of "The Curse," the Lions went 0-16 for the season. Rather fittingly, their final loss came against none other than the Green Bay Packers, in a game played at Lambeau Field.

The same team that had snubbed the Lions in their first NFL season put the final nail in the coffin for the Lions, played on a field named after the man who made the call.

The final tally for the Lions in the new millennium is a heart-rending 48-106, including the winless 2008 season.

0-16. Who would have ever thought it possible?

Where To Go from Here? And Is It Finally Over?

The Lions have two choices of directions: sideways and up. New head coach Jim Schwartz publicly acknowledged the Lions' need for improvement, paying passing tribute to "The Curse" by stating, tongue-in-cheek, that it was finally time to "replace Bobby Layne."

Whether they replace him, exorcise him, find the damned voodoo doll and pull the pin out, or go to his grave site and leave an engraved letter of apology, something needs to be done. The only possible way the Lions can do any worse is if they repeat their 0-16 season and get shut out in every game.

I can't imagine Bobby was that pissed off.

Regardless of what they do and how they do it, Jim Schwartz and the Lions have a lot of work ahead of them. And they no longer have a crutch.

Fifty years is up. No more excuses. The only blame for continued losing seasons will be inept and irresponsible management, poor coaching, and pitiful play. This team will not be turned around in one season, nor will they be back at the top in two or three. But they should start climbing, and within five years need to be competitive.

The Lions have fulfilled the destiny set for them so very long ago, if you buy into that sort of thing. Now it's time for them to make their own.

It will take time, but if they can manage the feat, then "the year they hit rock bottom" can one day be remembered as "the year they turned it around."


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