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A Look Back at the 1983 Detroit Lions: Comeback Champions

Publish Date: 08/16/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The Story of a Season

The 1983 Detroit Lions were an ascendant team led by running back Billy Sims, one of the premier runners in the NFL. Following a 2-14 campaign in 1979, Billy was drafted as part of their turnaround plan, going 17-15 over his two years drafted with them making the playoffs at 4-5 during a strike-shortened year in 1982; later that same year, they rallied from an initial poor performance to capture a division title win in 1983.

Ironically, Sims had his breakthrough year despite missing four games due to injury. Still, his impressive year included 1,040 yards rushing and 42 receptions — an accomplishment worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, but that eluded Sims this time.

Detroit received significant assistance from 22-year-old fullback James Jones, who caught 46 passes; Leonard Thompson and Jeff Chadwick both produced decent receiving numbers throughout the season; however, Detroit struggled with quarterback inconsistency throughout 1983.

Eric Hipple had an acceptable 53% completion rate in 1983 and 2,577 yards under his belt; he didn’t produce big plays – only 6.7 yards-per-attempt on average and 12-18 touchdown-interception ratio; nonetheless, he remained as the starter all season until Gary Danielson, later known for his analysis on CBS-TV, took over his position and replaced Hipple in a pinch.

The Lions were 15th in points scored during this 1983 season, placing greater responsibility on their defense to perform. Their unit proved second-best overall in points allowed and was led by Doug English’s 13 sacks as one key element; English earned himself Pro Bowl recognition; however, he received help from William Gay who amassed 13 1/2 sacks himself. The defensive line was a force on this team and the main reason they would win a divisional title.

Detroit opened their season against Tampa Bay, then in the old NFC Central division. It was an intense defensive battle in which Sims gained only 37 yards while Bucs’ running back James Wilder was held to 18. Detroit’s defense made critical plays like Gay recording 5 1/2 sacks, English earning one, and recording a safety. They triumphed 11-0. If you think that was an ugly and odd score, the rest of the 1983 season would prove to be an ugly up-and-down season.

Sims struggled again, running the ball against a strong Cleveland Browns defense, only gaining 54 yards. Detroit turned the ball over five times during this game – Hipple throwing two interceptions while Danielson one. Detroit ultimately fell by a score of 31-26.

Hipple was eventually benched against Atlanta Falcons after falling into an early 17-0 hole. Danielson played decently enough, going 12/22 for 139 yards to close to within 24-14. Unfortunately, Detroit’s pass defense proved ineffective all game long; as such, Danielson’s comeback ended up as a 30-14 home loss.

The Lions would lose a close one in Minnesota on a field goal.

Sims was supposed to take on Eric Dickerson of Los Angeles Rams as part of an anticipated runner showdown, yet was left on the sidelines as Dickerson ran for 199 yards against them, ultimately endangering their season and leading them to a 21-10.

The Lions finally turned things around against Green Bay with a 17-0 start, scoring a 38-14 win against their division rival. Hipple played his best game of the year, completing 21/29 passes for 235 yards without committing an interception. At the same time, Jones and Dexter Bussey contributed 171 rushing yards between them for an end-of-losing streak victory of 38-14. Sims returned for another divisional home win against Chicago Bears 31-17, which featured his four sacks.

At first glance, their road trip against the Redskins — reigning Super Bowl champions on their way to 14-2 — proved unsuccessful, and they trailed 28-3 by halftime and eventually lost 39-17. But they got back on track by beating Chicago. Sims ran for 91 yards, while Payton contributed 80. Hipple’s efficiency as a 12/19 passer allowed Detroit to win both turnover battles four-zip and decisively a 38-17 victory.

Monday Night Football was then, which at that point in time was the only regular prime-time game each week during an NFL season. Facing off against an unconvincing opponent such as the New York Giants, who were heading towards a 3-12-1 campaign, made for an ugly contest, but Sims made his impact felt in a 15-9 win, before losing at 2-14 Houston Oilers where Hipple threw three interceptions in 27-17 loss. That loss made it look unlikely that the Lions would end up being a playoff team.

On November 20, Detroit faced Green Bay on the road as part of a tight NFC Central race. Played at Milwaukee County Stadium – where Green Bay used to play three home games each year – Detroit trailed 20-3 after just nine minutes and looked doomed.

Sims was on fire, gaining 189 yards on 36 carries for Detroit. They tied it at 20-20 before kicker Eddie Murray won it with a 37-yard field goal. Their 23-20 win tied them with the Packers for second place and only one game back ofΒ  the division-leading Vikings; Bears at 5-7 were also still very much in contention heading into their final quarter of games.

At home on Thanksgiving Day, Detroit stunned a tough Pittsburgh Steelers squad that was 9-3 and racing toward division victory with an unexpected 45-3 thrashing, featuring two interceptions by Bruce McNorton and Sims running for 106 yards en route to an overwhelming win- giving Detroit two-way tie for first place with their division-leading rivals Green Bay and Minnesota respectively.

Detroit’s defense put on another spectacular show for national audiences in Monday Night’s showdown against Minnesota, posting seven sacks, including two from English. Sims recorded 137 yards as Detroit won 13-2 and only surrendered points when punter Mike Black voluntarily left his end zone for a safety late in the game.

Detroit had all of the ingredients in place – sole possession of first place with an impressive defense that had allowed only five points against contending teams and two sub-.Five hundred opponents are on its schedule. Yet, as any Lions fan knows all too well, when everything seems perfect – that is usually when their franchise falters. And that was precisely what happened against Cincinnati: their defense failed to contain fullback Pete Johnson of Cincinnati running for 203 yards to lead to their 17-9 defeat.

Detroit and Green Bay had settled into a tie at 8-7, with Minnesota and Chicago trading places at 7-8 each. Detroit held one advantage, though–they were dominant in tiebreakers with 6-1 divisional and 7-4 conference records to their name–meaning they would win any tiebreaker between any combination of teams, meaning Detroit could clinch the NFC Central by either winning outright or Green Bay losing.

Video: Throwback Thursday: 1983 vs Tampa Bay

Throwback Thursday: 1983 vs Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay was The opponent for the finale, and they entered with a 2-13 record, but this Lion team had already suffered two crushing losses to Houston and played poorly against Tampa in its opener, so nothing could be taken for granted.

Detroit fans were finally treated to some respite. Detroit was scheduled in the late afternoon time slot, and early games saw Chicago beat Green Bay 23-21 on a last-second field goal from Bears’ kicker Cody Parkey. Unfortunately, though, during a victory celebration, there was bad news; Hipple had been injured, and Danielson would take over for playoffs.

At that time, the NFL utilized the same postseason format: three division winners and two wildcards per conference. As Detroit was only the #3 seed, they received a week off before traveling to San Francisco to face their 2-seed counterparts.

Danielson was dismal, throwing five interceptions – four in the first half alone! Yet Detroit’s defense did their usual stellar job of keeping their opponents within striking distance, thanks to Sims and Eddie Murray’s kicks – including a playoff-record 54-yard field goal from Murray that kept Detroit within 14-9 at half time.

Video: 1983 Lions

1983 Lions

Sims would rush for 114 yards and score two fourth-quarter touchdown runs to give Detroit a 23-17 advantage in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Joe Montana drove in a touchdown for San Francisco in the final minute to cut their lead down 24-23, although they rallied and got back down to the 26-yard line for one more attempt before their season ended. Unfortunately, their kicker also missed this one, which meant an early exit.

After such a devastating playoff defeat, what followed was even worse: Sims tore his knee in 1988, ending his career. By 1989, however, the Lions would acquire another top running back, Barry Sanders. Soon after that, they began appearing in playoff games regularly – though without ever reaching Super Bowl victory itself.


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