History of the Detroit Lions
The History of the Detroit Lions, a professional American football franchise based in Detroit, Michigan, dates back to 1929 when they played in Portsmouth, Ohio as the Portsmouth Spartans. Currently in their 89th season, they are one of the National Football League's oldest franchises.
- 1 Portsmouth Spartans (1929-1933)
- 2 The first NFL playoff game
- 3 Move to Detroit and early success (1934-1938)
- 4 Struggling (1939-1949)
- 5 Team of the 50s (1950-1958)
- 6 Adjusting to life without Bobby Layne and committing to defense (1959-1969)
- 7 Decade of failure (1970-1981)
- 8 NFC Central Division champions and Billy Sims retires (1982-1988)
- 9 Barry Sanders era (1989-1998)
- 10 Matt Millen and failed rebuild (1999-2008)
- 11 Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson (2009-2015)
- 12 Bob Quinn era (2016-present)
- 13 Notes and references
- 14 Bibliography
- 15 External links
Portsmouth Spartans (1929-1933)
|Based in||Portsmouth, Ohio|
|League||National Football League|
(as of 1930 season)
|Team history||Portsmouth Spartans (until 1934)|
Detroit Lions (1934–present)
|Team colors||Purple, Gold|
|Head coaches||Hal Griffen (1930)|
George "Potsy" Clark (1931–33)
|Home field(s)||Universal Stadium|
(now Spartan Municipal Stadium)
The Spartans were initially formed in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, drawing players from defunct independent professional and semi-pro teams in the Ohio-Kentucky-West Virginia tri-state area. They immediately made an impact by twice defeating the Ironton Tanks, a nearby independent professional team who had regularly played NFL member teams since the early 1920s with considerable success. Portsmouth residents agreed to fund the construction of Universal Stadium, a venue comparable to those in neighboring communities along the Ohio River, prompting the NFL to offer league membership in 1930. Portsmouth became the NFL's second smallest city, ahead of only Green Bay. During the team's first year in the league it compiled a record of 5–6–3 in league contests. In 1931 Dutch Clark an assistant coach at Colorado College was granted a leave of absence and joined the team for the 1931 season leading them to an 11-3 record, second in the league behind the rival Green Bay Packers.
In 1932 the Spartans played the infamous "iron man" game against the Packers. In that game, Spartan coach Potsy Clark refused to make even a single substitution against the defending NFL champions forcing the same 11 players to play all game. Portsmouth won the game 19–0 and finished the year with a 6-2-4 record same as the Chicago Bears. The tie prompted what in retrospect became known as the first NFL Playoff Game between the two. The game was originally meant to be played in Wrigley Field but due to blizzard conditions was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium which only allowed for an 80-yard field. Portsmouth lost the game 0-9 and once again fell short of the franchises first world championship, however the resulting interest led to the establishment of Eastern and Western conferences and a championship game being played every year.
At the start of the 1933 season the Lions added star runningback Ernie Caddel to the roster but despite a strong 5-1 start the team fell apart in the second half of the season finishing 1-4 for a final record of 6-5 which was only good for the second spot in the Western Conference. After the season the financially struggling Spartans were purchased by a group led by Detroit radio executive George Richards for $7,952.08 and moved to Detroit where they were renamed the Detroit Lions. Richards chose the name as a nod to the Detroit Tigers and because he said the Lion is the monarch of the jungle and he wanted his team to be the monarch of the NFL.
The first NFL playoff game
At the end of the 1932 season, the Spartans were tied for first place in the league with the Chicago Bears. That prompted what in retrospect became known as the first NFL playoff game. Blizzard conditions in Chicago meant the game was moved from Wrigley Field indoors to Chicago Stadium, which allowed for only an 80-yard field. The game was won 9-0 by the Bears, on a touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The resulting interest led to the establishment of Eastern and Western conferences and a regular championship game beginning in 1933.
Move to Detroit and early success (1934-1938)
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The Lions played their first season in Detroit in 1934 starting the season off with a 10-game win streak that included 7 shutouts, however they lost the last 3 games of the season to Green Bay and Chicago and finished in second place behind the Bears in the west, once again coming up short to their rivals. In 1935 Dutch Clark led the NFL with 55 points while Ernie Caddel led the league with 621 yards and 6.4 yards per carry as they carried the Lions to a 7-3-2 record which was first in the West and the Lions advanced to the 1935 NFL Championship Game against the New York Football Giants who were three time Eastern Conference champions and the defending NFL Champions. The game was played at 2:00 PM on December 15, 1935 in front of 15,000 fans in Detroit. The Lions won the game 26-7 to win the teams first World Championship which was also a part of Detroit's City of Champions for the 1935-1936 sports season. The Tigers won the 1935 World Series and the Detroit Red Wings also captured the 1936 Stanley Cup.
After the season ended the Lions played a team of NFL All Stars in an exhibition game on January 1, 1936 and won in a 33-0 shutout. They also played 3 more exhibition games, a 67-14 win over the Westwood Clubs Los Angeles on January 13, a 42-7 win over the Los Angeles All Stars on January 20 and a 10-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers. Over the next two years Detroit finished a solid 8-4 and 7-4 but finished in 3rd in the Western Conference both years, again to the Bears and Packers. After falling one game short of the Packers in 1938 both Dutch Clark and Ernie Caddel decided to retire from professional football. Dutch Clark was later inducted into the Detroit Lions hall of fame and had his #7 retired by the club.
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In 1939, Detroit's first year without their superstar players the Lions only managed to win 6 games, a disappointing season that set the tone for the next decade. The 1940s were not a high point of the Lions history. They won a total of 35 games, for an average of 3.5 a season, including going 0–11 in 1942. The 1942 team's offense was so bad, it scored only 5 touchdowns all season and never scored more than 7 points in a single game. With the 1st overall pick in the 1943 Draft the Lions drafted Frank Sinkwich from Georgia, who won the NFL Most Valuable Player award in 1944 while leading Detroit from a 1-3-1 start to 5 wins to end the year with Detroit's first winning record since 1939. On November 7, 1943 the Lions and the New York Football Giants played to a 0–0 tie at Detroit – to date the last time an NFL game has ended with a scoreless tie.
Detroit improved on that record in 1945 finishing 7–3, 2nd in the Western Division behind the Cleveland Rams. The Lions were less successful in the latter half of the decade; in 1946 Detroit only managed 1 win all year long and in 1947 only won 3. The Lions fortunes began turning around in 1948. With the 6th overall pick in the 1948 NFL Draft the Lions drafted quarterback Y.A. Tittle however he never signed with the team instead joining the San Francisco 49ers. In the same draft, three picks before the Lions drafted Tittle, the Chicago Bears drafted Bobby Layne, who built a hall of fame career in Detroit just three years later, and later Detroit picked up tackle Les Bingaman and defensive back Don Doll who became Pro Bowlers.
Detroit only won 2 games in 1948 but kept building up their roster trading quarterback Johnny Rauch's draft rights to the New York Bulldogs in exchange for the draft rights to Doak Walker. In 1949 the Lions improved to 4-8 missing the playoffs for a 14th consecutive season.
Team of the 50s (1950-1958)
At the start of the 1950s the Lions had a roster to compete for championships but were still in need of a franchise quarterback. To solve this need traded wide receiver Bob Mann to the New York Yanks for quarterback Bobby Layne. After finishing a disappointing 6-6 in 1950 head coach Bo McMillin was fired and replaced by Buddy Parker who had previously played for the Lions in the mid 1930s including being a part of the 1935 championship team. In 1952 the Lions finished with a 9-3 record tied with the Los Angeles Rams for first in the NFL's National Conference and thus for the first time in 17 years Detroit returned to the playoffs.
In the National Conference Championship Game, the Lions defeated the Rams 31-21 in front of nearly 50,000 spectators at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, playing in rain and fog. The win also sent the Lions back to the NFL Championship Game against Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, which was the first of four championship games and five playoff games played between the two teams in a decade. Detroit won the game by a score of 17-7 to win the second title in franchise history. The next season the Lions enjoyed the greatest season in franchise history drafting future hall of fame linebacker Joe Schmidt in the 1953 NFL Draft to add to a team of 7 future hall of famers. The Lions winning 10 games and first place in the renamed Western Conference. In addition the team had 7 Pro Bowlers, 5 AP All Pros and swept the division rivals Chicago and Green Bay in four consecutive weeks. Detroit was put up against Cleveland in the 1953 NFL Championship Game in which Layne found Jim Doran for a 33-yard game-winning touchdown in the closing moments to win 17-16. In 1954, the two teams met again however this time Browns destroyed Detroit 56-10 to ruin the Lions shot at a three-peat.
Despite Detroit's success in the early 1950s, the mid 1950s looked like a falling off point for the team. The Lions only won 3 games in 1955 and finished in second place to the Chicago Bears in 1956. During the 1957 Detroit Lions pre-season Buddy Parker stunned the football world by announcing his resignation from the organization and taking the job as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite this the Lions finished 8-4 and tied with the San Francisco 49ers which set up another playoff game between the two. The game played in San Francisco became known "The Night The Walls Talked". During the game the 49ers took a 24-7 lead into halftime behind three touchdown passes from Y.A. Tittle. During halftime the 49ers, who assumed they had the game locked up, began to call their families, celebrate the win, spend their winners' shares, and book their flights for the NFL Championship Game against Cleveland. Because the walls in Kezar Stadium were so thin and the locker rooms were right next to each other the Lions could hear it.
New Detroit head coach George Wilson stood up and said "I was going to say something, but that's what they think of you" then sat down. On the first play of the second half San Francisco running back Hugh McElhenny broke off a 71-yard run to the Detroit 9 yard line but the Lions held the 49ers to a field goal, San Francisco's last points of the day. Bobby Layne had been lost to injury three weeks prior but Lions backup Tobin Rote led Detroit to 24 unanswered points and a 31-27 come from behind win. The next week, in the NFL Championship Game, Rote threw for four touchdowns and ran in another as the Lions routed Cleveland 59-14 and claimed their third championship in six years and to date their last.
In 1958, after he had led the Lions to three NFL championship games and provided Detroit nearly a decade of Hall of Fame play, the Lions traded Bobby Layne. Bobby was injured during the last championship season, and the Lions thought he was through and wanted to get what they could for him. According to legend, as he was leaving for Pittsburgh, Bobby said that Detroit "would not win for 50 years." Since this time, the Lions have not won another championship and the franchise's subsequent years of (mostly) futility has been labelled "The Curse of Bobby Layne." Without Layne Detroit finished 4-7-1 for one of the worst title defenses in NFL history.
Adjusting to life without Bobby Layne and committing to defense (1959-1969)
A 3-8-1 season in 1959 meant the Lions closed out their most successful decade in disappointing fashion and going into the 1960s the Lions decided to go with a new rebuild this time centered around defense. Detroit started by trading defensive end Gerry Perry to the St. Louis Cardinals for cornerback Dick "Night Train" Lane. Lions hall of famer Joe Schmidt later called it "One of the greatest trades that will ever be made in any sport". This was a good move as Lane made three Pro Bowls and four All Pro selections as a Lion. Detroit also drafted star defensive tackle Roger Brown to pair with Alex Karras, Sam Williams and Darris McCord, forming one of the most fierce defensive lines in pro football history. The Lions also still had 50's stars Joe Schmidt and Yale Lary as well as cornerback Dick LeBeau who the team signed in 1959. Despite a 0-3 start in 1960 This defense helped the Lions put together a 7-2 record to end the year at 7-5 overall. Detroit finished 2nd in the Western Conference and earned a trip to the Playoff Bowl against their rivals the Cleveland Browns who finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference.
The game was played on January 7, 1961, at the Miami Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida and was the 5th (and to date last) playoff game between the teams. the Lions defeated the Browns 17–16 to win the game. In 1961 the Lions improved slightly finishing 8-5-1 and returned to the playoff bowl where they destroyed the Eagles 38-10, to win the 2nd Annual Bowl. The peak of the Lions early 60's defense came in 1962 when they put together a 11-3 record and became only the 3rd team in NFL history to never trail by more than 7 points in a game. While the Lions finished behind the Packers again, they managed to defeat the Pack on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit 26-14 in a game that became known as the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre". This was the only Green Bay loss all season as they eventually won the 1962 NFL Championship. The Lions went to the Playoff Bowl for the third year in a row, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-10.
In the mid-1960s, the Lions served as the backdrop for the sports literature of George Plimpton, who spent time in the Lions training camp masquerading as a player. This was the basic material for his book Paper Lion, later made into a movie starring Alan Alda plus a number of actual Lions players, including Alex Karras. On November 22, 1963, William Clay Ford, Sr. purchased a controlling interest in the team for $4.5 million. During Ford's ownership tenure which extended to his death in 2014, the Lions won just a single playoff game. Detroit's luck came to an end in 1963 as the team fell apart finishing 5-8-1 a betting scandal involving Alex Karras and Packers runningback Paul Hornung led to both players being suspended for the 1963 season and also played a part in the Lions collapse. The Lions improved the next year finishing 7-5-2 but missed the playoffs.
Detroit began losing it's defense when Yale Lary retired following the 1964 season, followed by Schmidt and Lane leaving following the 1965 season to retire. The Lions struggled through the mid to late 60's but used the time to rebuild their roster eventually drafting Lem Barney to replace Night Train Lane, Bob Kowalkowski and Ed Flanagan to build up the offensive line and running back Mel Farr. Despite all said players being Pro Bowlers, Detroit still needed a franchise player which they found in the 3rd round of the 1968 NFL Draft when they drafted Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders, a 7 time Pro Bowler who is considered one of the best players to ever play the position.
Decade of failure (1970-1981)
Motown soul singer Marvin Gaye made plans, after the death of duet partner Tammi Terrell, to join the Lions and go into football. He gained weight and trained for his tryout in 1970, but was cut early on. He remained friends with a number of the players, particularly Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who appear as background vocalists on his 1971 classic single "What's Going On." With the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Lions were placed in the new NFC Central division with Minnesota, Green Bay, and Chicago. Finishing with a 10-4 record, they were the first team to qualify for the NFL's newly created wild card playoff position. However, they lost to the Cowboys 5-0 after a long, grinding defensive struggle and did not see the postseason again for the rest of the decade.
Despite the loss the 1970 Lions remain to be one of the best teams in franchise history and one of the most underrated teams in NFL history. Also in 1970, the Lions were the opponent on the day Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints kicked what was then the longest field goal in NFL history. Dempsey's 63-yard effort on the game's final play lifted the Saints to a 19-17 victory over the Lions. The record was broke in 2013 when then Broncos and current Lions kicker Matt Prater kicked a 64 yard field goal to set the new record. While playing at home against Chicago on October 24, 1971 tragedy struck when wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. He remains the only NFL player to ever die on the field. To honor his memory the team wore black armbands for the rest of the season and retired his number #85(although the number was worn by wide receiver Kevin Johnson in 2005 who asked for and received permission from Hughes family to do so. The jersey number is currently worn by tight end Brandon Barnes.
In 1972, the Lions improved to 8-5-1 and then dropped back to 6-7-1 the following year. Heart disease claimed another member of the franchise when head coach Don McCafferty died shortly before the 1974 training camp. That season saw the Lions finish at 7-7. On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1974, after over 35 years, the Lions played their final game in Tiger Stadium, where they lost to the Denver Broncos 31–27 in front of 51,157, amidst snow flurries and a 21-point Broncos 3rd quarter. The Lions moved to the newly constructed Silverdome and have played their home games indoors ever since (at Ford Field since 2002). Another 7-7 record was produced in 1975, the Lions' first year indoors and a 6-8 showing in 1976. The team finished 6-8 again in 1977, struggling the whole season with an anemic offense that only put up 183 points. More mediocrity followed in 1978 with seven wins in the newly expanded 16-game season. The bottom fell out of the Lions in 1979 with a 2-14 record.
This gave the Lions the first overall pick to draft Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims from Oklahoma. Detroit also drafted quarterback Eric Hipple in the 4th round of the draft who became the Lions starting quarterback for most of the decade. Detroit improved immediately in 1980 jumping to a 9-7 record which unfortunately wasn't good enough to qualify for the playoffs. The next year the Lions finished 8-8 again failing to qualify for the playoffs.
NFC Central Division champions and Billy Sims retires (1982-1988)
The Lions entered 1982 with hope for a possible playoff run, but after a 2-0 start a lockout canceled 7 games cutting the season to 9 games. After the lockout came to an end the Lions finished 2-5 but a 4-5 record was good enough to qualify for the playoffs becoming one of only 3 teams to qualify for the NFL Playoffs with a losing record. The other two teams are the Cleveland Browns who did so in the same year and the 2011 Seahawks who not only qualified for the playoffs but won their division with a 7-9 record. In the playoffs the Lions were routed 31-7 by the eventual champion Washington Redskins. however, with Monte Clark (who had become the Lions head coach/GM in the 1978 season) at the helm, and Billy Sims, the Lions won 9 games in 1983 to capture the NFL Central division championship and make their second consecutive playoff appearance for the first time since the 1961 & 1962 seasons.
On December 31, 1983, the Lions faced the San Francisco 49ers in a NFC Divisional Playoff game that came down to the wire. After taking a lead of 14-3 by the Joe Montana-led 49ers the Lions were able to trim the deficit to 14-9 by half-time on couple of field goals by Detroit's kicker, Eddie Murray, who made what was then a postseason record 54-yard kick in the closing seconds of the first half. On two touchdown- scoring drives, one capped by an 11-yard run and another by 3-yard run (both by Sims, who had 116 yards on 20 carries), Detroit took the lead for the first time of the day, 23–17, with 4:44 left in the game. Montana, who had been quite ineffective up to then, made one of his signature 4th quarter drives by completing 6 passes for 51 yards, the last one scoring the TD and gave the 49ers a 24-23 lead with 1:28 left. Detroit was not done, and even though Gary Danielson, who is fifth on Detroit's all-time passer list and was replacing injured current starting QB Eric Hipple, had a horrible game with 5 interceptions, he pieced together a closing drive to get the ball to the 49ers 26 yard line with 11 seconds left, where Murray who had previously made 3 of 4 field goals for the day missed for the second time from 43 yards on a kick that went just wide.
In 1984 during a game against the Minnesota Vikings on October 21st, Billy Sims suffered a career ending injury that eventually cost Clark his job. Sims spent two years trying to rehab his injury before retiring in 1986. The Lions brought in Darryl Rogers, considered to be an offensive guru who previously coached at the college level. However his tenure is marked with lots of disappointment. From 1985 to mid-season in 1988, he had acquired the record of 18-40 and was 2-9 in '88 before he was fired. He was replaced by interim head coach Wayne Fontes, who by the end of his coaching career, was considered one of the best coaches in team history and had the distinction of having the most wins and losses of any head coach with the Lions.
Barry Sanders era (1989-1998)
With the third overall draft pick in the 1989 draft, the Lions selected another running back, who wore number 20, Barry Sanders. He played on offense with another rookie at quarterback, Rodney Peete. This time the Lions were much improved on offense 1989, but still finished a distant third with a 7-9 record. However, the winds of change were blowing in Motown, because in 1989, Barry Sanders rushed for 1,470 yards on 280 carries, and finished second in rushing just 10 yards behind the leader, which he had an opportunity to attempt to break by going back in late in the last game. However, with the Lions up by several scores, he took a pass, a trademark of his career. He earned the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
With such a young core, including the newest offensive picks, and with previous picks on defense, the Lions acquired eventual Pro-Bowlers Bennie Blades and Chris Spielman in 1988 along with Jerry Ball in 1987, things were once again looking up for the Lions. Detroit delivers an excellent performance in 1990 led by Barry, but only finished 6-10. Sanders won the first of his four NFL rushing titles that season with 1,304 yards, beating out Buffalo's Thurman Thomas by seven yards. In 1991, the Lions started the season by being shut out on national television, 45–0, by the Washington Redskins but then rebounded, winning their next five games. They went 12–4 for the season, and won their first division title in eight years, capping the regular season with a win over the defending, and soon to be repeating, AFC Champion Buffalo Bills. They were inspired late in the season by the loss of guard Mike Utley, who sustained a career-ending paralysis injury against the Los Angeles Rams on November 17, 1991. As Utley was carted off the field in that game, he flashed a "thumbs up" to his teammates and the Silverdome crowd. It became a rallying symbol for the remainder of the season. The team also
In the playoffs, the Lions dismembered the Cowboys 38-6 for the team's first playoff win since the 1960s however, they were completely overpowered by the Redskins once again this time 41-10 in the NFC Championship. This was the first time a team that had been shut out in its opener had reached the conference title round. Two teams have since matched this feat: the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots both did it in 2003.
The Lions also made the playoffs in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1999, making the 1990s one of the most successful decades in team history. In 1993, they went 10–6, first in the NFC Central Division, but lost to the Green Bay Packers. In 1994, they lost to the Packers in the playoffs again. In 1995, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Packers in the final week of the season causing Detroit having to go onto the road to Philly. They lost to the Philadelphia Eagles and former Lion Rodney Peete, in an embarrassing fashion, 58–37 (entering the fourth quarter, they were down 51–7). In 1997, Detroit lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round. In 1999, the Lions closed out the decade reaching the playoffs for the sixth time in a ten-year span, which is a franchise record for playoff appearances during a decade. However, they lost yet again in the first round, this time to the Washington Redskins. Detroit's 1999 playoff berth also marked the second time in Bobby Ross's first three years as head coach that he led the Lions into the postseason. The last Lions head coach to accomplish that feat was Buddy Parker, in 1952–53 during his second and third seasons at the helm.
In 1997, Barry Sanders ran for 2,053 rushing yards. At the time, his career total rushing 15,269 yards was second only to Walter Payton's 16,726 yards and he joined Jim Brown as the only players among the NFL's 50 all-time rushing leaders to average 5 yards a carry, but he retired abruptly after the 1998 season. Emmitt Smith has since broken Payton's record, accumulating 18,355 career rushing yards, which bumped down Sanders to the #3 spot on the list of total career rushing yards.
Matt Millen and failed rebuild (1999-2008)
After Barry Sanders retired the Lions shockingly found their way to the 1999 NFL Playoffs with a 8-8 record before being dispatched by the Redskins 13-27 in the wild card round. The team actually improved in the 2000 season finishing at 9–7, but because of a stronger conference they missed the playoffs. Following the season the Lions hired Matt Millen a former player and broadcaster, as president and CEO. Detroit fell apart in 2001 leading many people to believe they could be the first team to go 0-16 in a season. After starting 0-13 the Lions finally managed to win a game on the December 16th by defeating the rival Minnesota Vikings. After 2 straight losses the Lions played their final game of the 2001 season on January 6th, 2002. In what was the final game played at the Pontiac Silverdome the 1-14 Lions hosted the 5-10 Cowboys. Despite there not being much hype or any playoff implications to the game, 77,512 fans came out to watch the Lions defeat the Cowboys 15-10.
This earned Detroit the 3rd Overall pick in the draft, behind the expansion team the Houston Texans. The Lions used the pick on Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington thus starting one of the worst rebuild attempts in NFL history. A bright spot of the season was signing undrafted free agent Eddie Drummond who was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro return man for the Lions in 2004. The Lions won one more game in 2002 going 3-13 and again earning the 2nd overall pick in the draft this time selecting hometown favorite Charles Rodgers as well as hiring Steve Mariucci as new head coach. The team finished 2003 with a 5-11 record. Rodgers got off to a hot start but was injured in the middle of the season and because of this the Lions drafted wide receiver Roy Williams 7th overall in the 2004 draft. Williams, Rodgers, Harrington and Millen became the four names associated with this rebuild and the failure of the Lions in the 2000s.
The Lions went the entire 2001 (their last season at the Silverdome), 2002 (their first season at Ford Field), and 2003 seasons without a road victory, thus becoming the only team in NFL history not to win on the road for three consecutive seasons. The streak, encompassing 24 games which is also an NFL record (the Cleveland Browns are currently at 22 consecutive road losses) came to an end on September 12, 2004, when the Lions defeated the Bears 20–16 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Over seven seasons under Millen's leadership as team president, the Detroit Lions owned the NFL's worst winning percentage (31–81, .277), never had a winning season, never finished higher than third place in the NFC North, and did not play in any post-season games. Millen received a five-year contract extension at the start of the 2005 season, much to the dismay of Lions fans.
Prior to the start of the 2006 NFL season the Lions traded quarterback Joey Harrington to the Miami Dolphins. The team finished 3-13 and earned the 2nd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft which they used on Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson. In 2007, the Lions began the season with a promising 6–2 record. The optimism was short-lived, however, as the team recorded only a single victory in the next eight games, for a final record of 7–9.
|Wikinews has related news: NFL: Packers defeat Lions 31–21, Lions become first team to finish season with 0-16 record|
The Matt Millen came to a brutal end in 2008. Although the Lions recorded a 4-0 record in the pre-season, they were winless during the regular season with a record of 0-16. They became the only team in NFL history (though it has since been matched by the 2017 Cleveland Browns who coincidentally also won all of their pre-season games) to lose all 16 games in a single season and thereby they won the right to the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Millen was fired mid-season and thus began a new era for the Lions.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson (2009-2015)
On January 15, 2009, the Lions hired Jim Schwartz as head coach. Schwartz spent 10 seasons with the Tennessee Titans, eight of them as defensive coordinator, helping them compile a 13–3 record and first place in the AFC South in 2008. The Lions also hired a new offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan), and a new defensive coordinator (Gunther Cunningham). In April, they adopted a redesigned team logo, which was a more aggressive-looking version of the one that had been used since 1970.
The Lions selected University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford for the #1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. The six-year contract contained $41.7 million in guaranteed money (the most guaranteed to any player in NFL history, until Sam Bradford received $50 million in guaranteed money from the St. Louis Rams a year later.) and totals $72 million.
In the first two games of 2009, the Lions lost to the eventual champion Saints and then to the Vikings. On September 27, 2009, the team broke their 19-game losing streak with a 19–14 win at Ford Field against the Washington Redskins. Losses resumed after that, which included handing the winless Rams their only victory of the season. Detroit's only other win of the season was against the Cleveland Browns, a surprise 38-37 thriller that saw Matthew Stafford throw the winning touchdown as time expired. The Lions then hosted Green Bay on their annual Thanksgiving game and lost 34-12. The remaining five games were lost, including a 48-3 annihilation in Baltimore and the team ended the year at 2-14.
In the 2010 draft, the Lions used the #2 pick to acquire DT Ndamukong Suh from the University of Nebraska. They also drafted 2010's Mr. Irrelevant (the last player in the draft), Weber State WR Tim Toone.
During a preseason match with the Browns, Suh (who had gained a reputation in college as an aggressive player) grabbed Cleveland QB Jake Delhomme by the facemask and threw him to the ground. Delhomme escaped unhurt, but Suh was fined $7,500 for the incident.
The Lions began their 2010 season in Chicago, which in 2007 was the scene of their last divisional and last road win. Despite leading the Bears for most of the game, Detroit suffered a heartbreaking 19-14 loss when a touchdown pass to WR Calvin Johnson was ruled incomplete by the referees in an extremely controversial decision. Week 2 saw a close loss to the Eagles, a team Detroit had not beaten since 1986, and not at home since 1977. After this, they headed to Minnesota to take on the struggling Vikings, but were again denied a victory when Adrian Peterson pulled off an 80-yard TD run to win the game. Following this, the Lions came close to their first win in Green Bay since 1991, but in the 4th quarter Jim Schwartz decided to run the clock out instead of kicking a field goal, allowing the Packers to drive downfield and get a touchdown. The Lions finally gained their first victory of the season when the Rams returned to Ford Field in Week 5 and were buried 44-6. Following a loss to the Giants, the Lions gained another easy win over the Redskins for their second straight victory over that team. Then came five losses in a row, including a Thanksgiving match with the Patriots where the Lions blew an early lead to lose 45-24. However, Week 14 brought a considerable turn of events when the Packers arrived in Detroit and Aaron Rodgers was taken out with a concussion in the 4th quarter. Matt Flynn failed to score any TDs, and the Lions won their first divisional match since 2005. After this, the team suddenly entered a late season hot streak, ending their road losses by beating the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay and hamstringing the latter's playoff chances. Another Florida victory followed when Detroit knocked off the hapless Dolphins in Week 16 and finally returned home to beat Minnesota 20-13 and end the 2010 season 6-10. Although Matt Stafford's plays had been few due to injuries, Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill performed credibly under center, and WR Calvin Johnson also played a key part in the team's six victories. Suh lived up to his fearsome college reputation too and proved himself to not be a bust as some predicted.
Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh both underwent surgery in the offseason. Seeking to bolster their defense (ranked middle-tier in 2010), the Lions drafted DT Nick Fairley from Auburn with the #13 pick.
The Lions opened 2011 with a rematch in Tampa Bay. Despite some offensive lag in the 3rd quarter, they pulled out 27-20. After the game, Jim Schwartz was nonetheless insistent that they still needed to fix a large number of mistakes on the field. Opening at home against Kansas City in Week 2, they torched their opponent 48-3 to set a franchise record for regular season points (beating the old record of 44 from 1995). The team continued to improve in Week 3 as they climbed back from a 20-point deficit to win 26-23 and beat the Vikings in Minnesota for the first time since 1997. This game marked the Lions' first 3-0 start since 1980. Detroit nearly lost it in Dallas the next week, falling behind 27-3 after one Matt Stafford interception. But a sudden Cowboys collapse allowed them to march back and win 34-30, moving to 4-0 and becoming (along with the Packers) one of two undefeated teams left.
In Week 5, the Lions hosted Chicago for their first primetime appearance since 2005 and also the team's return to MNF after a decade-long absence. The capacity crowd (67,000; the largest to ever attend a Lions game at Ford Field) produced plenty of noise to disconcert the Bears' offense. A sloppy game with numerous penalties followed, but in the 2nd quarter Matt Stafford threw a 70-yard TD pass to Calvin Johnson. A TD run by Jahvid Best followed in the 3rd quarter, and Detroit maintained pressure the whole game on Bears QB Jay Cutler to win 24-13 and begin the season 5-0 for the first time since 1956.
The Lions took their first loss after being beaten by San Francisco 25-19, but the game was more notable for Jim Schwartz getting into an altercation with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh afterwards. After two days of deliberation, the NFL decided not to punish either coach for the scuffle. A second straight home loss followed as Detroit fell to Atlanta 23-16 after indifferent offensive performance. The following week, Detroit defeated Denver and QB Tim Tebow 45-10. The game included a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by Chris Houston. But in Week 10, the Lions failed to carry out a season sweep of the Bears as their offense fell apart on a windy day in Soldier Field, losing 37-13.
The team's wild ride through the 2011 season continued as they hosted the defending champion Packers on Thanksgiving, but the latter proved more than they could handle. Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the game after stomping on the arm of Evan Dietrich-Smith, a back-up guard assigned to block Suh, enhancing his reputation as a dirty player. This earned him a 3-game suspension as the Lions headed to New Orleans in Week 13. The game was flexed into SNF, and although they played well, discipline problems continued to mount as several costly penalties gave the Saints the win. Heading back home, the Lions next edged past a struggling Vikings team. With playoffs in sight, they went to Oakland in Week 15. At the end of a close game, Matt Stafford drove the team downfield and threw a TD pass to Calvin Johnson to tie the score. After the Raiders got the ball back, they attempted to kick a game-winning FG, but Suh blocked the attempt and the Lions headed home, beating San Diego to complete their sweep of the AFC West and securing a wild card along with the franchise's first playoff appearance in 12 years. With only seeding still in question, they went to Green Bay to take on the Packers' backup players. Victory proved elusive again as Matt Flynn threw 6 TD passes on the Lions to win. With Detroit relegated to the #6 playoff seed, they lost a rematch with the Saints in New Orleans during the wild card round.
Highlights of the season included Matt Stafford overcoming the injury problems he'd been plagued by in 2009–10, as well as the emergence of Calvin Johnson as one of the league's elite WRs.
The 2012 season saw the Lions try to improve over their impressive 2011 season. They started 4–4, then lost their last 8 games, their longest streak since 2008, to finish 4–12. This was the last season for PK Jason Hanson, the oldest then-active player in the NFL at 42 years old, who retired after the season ended.
The 2013 season saw the team improve. By week 10, following their first win at Chicago since 2007, the team was in first place in the NFC North. In week 13, the team won their first Thanksgiving game since 2004 in a 40–10 whipping of Green Bay. However, the Lions had lost their previous two going into the game, and lost their last 4, including a heartbreaking 23–20 overtime loss in their last home game of the season to the Giants, who had nothing left to play for. The Lions were eliminated from playoff contention, and followed that by losing their last game to Minnesota in the last game ever played at the Metrodome. Overall, the Lions finished 7-9, 3rd in their division, resulting in the firing of coach Jim Schwartz on December 30.
On March 9, 2014, long-time owner William Clay Ford, Sr. died at the age of 88. On March 10 it was announced that controlling interest in the Detroit Lions would pass to Ford's widow, Martha (née Firestone) Ford.
During the 2014 season, the influence of Jim Caldwell improved the Lions drastically from the previous two seasons. Touting the league's second-best defensive unit (behind only the reigning champion Seahawks), the Lions posted an 11–5 record and qualified for the playoffs. However, the Lions suffered a controversial loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wildcard round of the playoffs.
On November 5, 2015, the Lions fired general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand, following a 1–7 start to the season. During his tenure as general manager, the Lions were 41–63, and made the playoffs twice, and lost both times in the Wild Card round. On November 19, the Lions hired Rod Wood as team president. This season marked the end of an era as Calvin Johnson retired after the season.
Bob Quinn era (2016-present)
On January 8, 2016, the Lions hired Bob Quinn as general manager. Despite not having much hope for the playoffs Detroit put together a NFL Record 8 4th quarter comebacks and won 9 games finishing with a 9-7 record which was good enough to make the playoffs as a wild card, but they were beaten by the Seattle Seahawks 26-6, increasing their playoff loss streak. The next season, Detroit had a repeat record from their last season, 9-7, but failed to make the playoffs after being defeated by the Cincinnati Bengals (who were 5-9 at the time), resulting in the firing of head coach Jim Caldwell. the day after the season ended, despite a winning record that season. Detroit then proceeded to hire then-New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach on February 5, 2018.. A big problem for the Lions in 2016 and 2017 was the run game so in an effort to fix it, the Lions signed LeGarrette Blount from the Philadelphia Eagles and drafted runningback Kerryon Johnson from Auburn.
Notes and references
- Spartan Municipal Stadium, from ballparks.com
- Spartans History from the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society
- What if the NFL had stayed in town?, a February 6, 2011 column by Bob Greene for CNN
- Yahoo! Sports December 21, 2008 Lions not only embarrassment in Detroit
- Battista, Judy (March 9, 2014). "Automaker William Clay Ford Sr. couldn't make Lions hum". NFL.com. Archived from the original on March 16, 2014. Retrieved May 9, 2014.
- Marvin Gaye once tried to make it in NFL, with help from Lem Barney, Mel Farr: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/aug/29/sports/la-sp-crowe-20100830
- "A gentle soul off the field, Barry Sanders runs up a storm for Detroit". CNN. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
- The Detroit News January 16, 2009 Lions Pick Schwartz
- Seifert, Kevin (January 22, 2013). "Big Decision: Quarterback contracts". ESPN. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
- Reid, Jason (2009-09-27). "Redskins Allow Lions to End 19-Game Losing Streak". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-09-27.
- Patra, Kevin (January 14, 2014). "Jim Caldwell hired by Detroit Lions as next coach". Detroit Lions. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- Twentyman, Tim (March 10, 2014). "Martha Ford takes over Lions ownership". Detroit Lions. Retrieved March 10, 2014.
- Twentyman, Tim (November 5, 2015). "Lions announce organizational changes". Detroit Lions. Retrieved November 5, 2015.
- "Martha Firestone Ford names Rod Wood team president". Detroit Lions. November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
- Twentyman, Tim (January 8, 2016). "Lions hire general manager". Detroit Lions. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
- "Detroit Lions fire Jim Caldwell after missing playoffs". NFL.com. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
- "Lions hire Matt Patricia as new head coach". Retrieved 2018-02-12.
- McDonough, Will (1994). 75 Seasons: The Complete Story of the National Football League. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc. ISBN 1-57036-056-1
- Peterson, Robert W. (1997). Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507607-9
- Willis, Chris (2010). The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8108-7669-9
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