Ownership is the biggest reason the Detroit Lions have won only one playoff game since their last championship in 1957, the year after I was born—and no, it’s the not the curse of the Guestino (not to be confused with the curse of the Bambino, thought by many Beantowners to be the reason for the Red Sox's long draught between World Championships after they traded Ruth to their archrivals, the Yankees).
William Clay Ford took over the helm in 1964 and has been the one constant ever since. Face it, the players come and go, nearly as quickly as head coaches. Ford’s firings of coaches are perfunctory, to appease an angry fan base that has supported this poor excuse for a NFL franchise for too long.
The first football team to lose 16 games in its dismal season, the axe fell on Rod Marinelli after the 2008 campaign, a new man was hired (Jim Schwartz) and a new quarterback—Matthew Stafford—was drafted. The following year, the Lions won two games. This year, at 3-10, they’re a threat to blow their chance at the first pick of the draft. Not that it’ll do them much good.
This is the team that drafted the best running back in the history of the game, Barry Sanders, and in the 10 years Barry carried the ball (and the Lions), for the Lions, the team was no closer to winning a Super Bowl.
Wayne Fontes, head coach during part of Sanders’ tenure, scrapped the run ’n’ shoot offense because “it scored too quickly and left my defense out on the field too long.” Huh. The trouble with that is that it left him with impotent offense that still left his defense on the field for too much of the clock.
A trademark of Lions head coaches is that they never go on to the head coaching job for another organization.
Marty Mornhinweg coached for the Lions from 2001-2002. Detroiters remember Mornhinweg’s strategy to defer the OT kickoff to the Bears because his defense had “held the Bears offense all day.” Except for the Bears’ last two possessions, which necessitated the OT. I can’t think of another head coach who didn’t think that taking the ball in OT was a no-brainer.
Instead, at the end of regulation, Mornhinweg put his defense, standing on the sideline doubled over sucking wind, back onto the field after they’d just given up the tying points.
Mornhinweg left town known as Moron-weg. He’s since gone on to success as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 46 years of ownership, Ford has yet to learn that an NFL team can’t be run like a car company. If it could, maybe he could’ve gone to the Feds and gotten some bailout money.
But one thing Ford does understand, which is the second reason why the Lions will never be winners: fans. That’s right, not only do fans continue to buy into the tired old rhetoric that the Lions are in another rebuilding year and that next season will be the season the Lions restore the roar in Motown, but they continue to buy tickets to watch the most pathetic brand of football played since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers broke into the NFL as an expansion team.
The Bucs, by the way, have since won a Super Bowl. Something the Lions have yet to do.
What is it about Lions fans anyway?
When the Tigers were losing 100 games a year, the seats at Comerica Park were empty. Owner Mike Illitch opened his pocketbook, hired Dave Dombrowski to be his GM, and pretty much gave him a blank check to sign marquis players as well as a bona fide big league manager in Jim Leyland. The result was the Tigers have been to the World Series once and have been a contender for the Central title the last several years.
Illitch did the same thing for the Wings back in the late 1980s—because he couldn’t give away tickets to Wings games—and the Wings have won four Stanley Cups since.
But the Lions continue to draw fans and most home games at Ford Field are televised. Fans packed Ford Field for the final game in 2008 to root their team to make history, to keep their perfect season of futility intact, and they were rewarded.
Maybe it’s because of the short NFL season that fans are more forgiving; but truly, why should Ford do anything differently than he has since he took ownership? He’s making money during the regular season and apparently he’s happy with that. His team is profitable without going to the postseason because his payroll is low.
Until the fans stop going altogether, forcing ownership to put on a better brand of football, it’ll be business as usual for the Lions.
The alternative is that Ford sells the team.
And that’s as likely to happen as the Lions making it to the Super Bowl before the end of the millennium.