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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / The Detroit Lions: A legacy of failure

The Detroit Lions: A legacy of failure

No sign of improvement either
Publish Date: 05/29/2019
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

I grew up near Detroit all my life until just recently.  My Dad has always been a big Detroit Lions fan.  Consequently, I grew up rooting for the blue and silver.  Unfortunately for me, that meant I was not a fan of a normal team.  Most teams have had some sort of significant success in the past few decades.  Not so for the Lions.  In many instances, the Lions have had chances to make something of themselves but they would either just fall short or just suck, their very early years aside.  Between missed opportunities and bad management, the Lions have been the laughingstock of the league for over fifty years.  They have created one of the greatest legacies of failure ever known to sports, which rips the hearts out of many fans, me included.

In the beginning years of the Detroit Lions, before the Super Bowl era, they were actually quite successful.  In their first 28 years of existence, they made it to 5 championship games, winning 4 of them.  The last championship came in 1957. This is where the good part of the story ends.

After the 1957 championship, the Lions were inconsistent over the next 12 years.  The Lions came very close to making the playoffs in 1962 but despite great performances, fell just short of a playoff spot, finishing 11-3.  In 1970 the Lions would win their last five games, securing them a playoff spot.  With a great coach in Joe Schmidt who had helped them rebuild, their chances for success were high.  They also had great player talent, such as one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, Lem Barney, and the Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders.

The game against the Dallas Cowboys was cold at 35 degrees and windy.  Between great defensive play and bad quarterback play both the Cowboys and Lions offenses were unable to score any touchdowns but the Cowboys did hold a 5-0 lead in the fourth.  Detroit had one last chance to score on a final drive.  The drive came to a heartbreaking end with Bill Munson throwing an interception.  All the Lions needed to do the whole game was to score a single touchdown and they would have won.  Their lack of offense even with great players lost them the lowest scoring playoff game in NFL history.  The truly hurtful thing is that they would have had a great chance at winning a Super Bowl had they won that game.  They were one of the hottest teams in the league.

Detroit should have been able to return the next year.  The key word is should.  They started the 1971 season 4-1 and nearing the end of the season they were 7-3-1.  The Lions lost their final three games, two of which were highly competitive but they could never finish their opponents off.  They missed the playoffs because of it. What could have been home field advantage in the playoffs and an opportunity to go deep turned into another failure.

Mismanagement of the team soon followed and they would fail to make the playoffs for the next decade.  The Lions went back in 1982, however.  They had a good core coming up but they only went 4-5 and were facing a stacked Redskins team.  As a result, the wild card game was a blowout with almost no hope for the Lions throughout the whole game.  Nevertheless, the Lions had a promising team and made it to the playoffs again the next year.  Their time to shine right?  Wrong.  Lions kicker Murray had done outstanding all year.  The only thing left for him to do was punch in a 43-yard field goal and the Lions would win their first playoff game in a very long time.  Even Murray said, “The kind of kicker I am, I kick the ball straight, I don’t hook it.  When I led the ball out to the right, I knew it wasn’t going to come in.”

Nothing like getting your heart wrenched by losing on a single point to the 49ers.

More mismanagement of the organization would lead to missing post-regular season play until 1991.  But let’s back up for a second, the Lions in 1989 drafted quite possibly the greatest running back of all-time in Barry Sanders.  Returning to the 1991 divisional game, the Lions got revenge on the Cowboys by humiliating them 38-6.  With that kind of a performance many thought they were a sure-fire Super Bowl contender.  Remember the Lions old rival the Redskins?  They destroyed Detroit’s Super Bowl ambitions by incinerating them 41-10.  One game away from the Super Bowl and the Lions couldn’t even pull it off with great players like Barry Sanders.  Let’s not forget the great defensive talent such as Ray Crockett, either.  By the way, the 1991 divisional game was the last the Lions ever won a playoff game.

Well, depressing stuff, right?  We haven’t even hit the 2000’s yet.

While the Lions fiddled away for the next few years their divisional rivals, the Green Bay Packers, acquired a young QB named Brett Favre.  He was originally drafted by Atlanta but they ended up not using him much and the Packers wanted him.  In 1993 the Lions faced off against Favre.  The Lions had one of the greatest wide receivers and running backs in their history in the tandem of Herman Moore and Barry Sanders.  Despite their great success during the regular season the Lions offense failed to make a significant impact in this game.  Brett Favre embarrassed the Lions secondary by throwing for 204 yards and 3 TDs.  Green Bay had established their dominance of the division.

Remember that team.  The Lions got stuffed by that same team the very next year.  This time the Lions offense only scored 12 points and the legendary Barry Sanders and Herman Moore couldn’t get it done for their squad.  With talent like that it was painful to play second fiddle to the Packers.

The Lions management didn’t realize they actually needed to have a team to win playoff games instead of just a few players.  The Lions made it to the playoffs for the third year in a row.  This time they would play the Philadelphia Eagles.  Detroit’s offense actually did very well, scoring 37 points that game. Their defense, though, played like trash and the Lions would lose 58-37.

Would this would be the wakeup call for upper management?  Well no, they instead on continuing on their normal track which would lead to further problems.  The Lions would miss the playoffs the next year due to several bad losing streaks and a few star players trying to save the entire team.  They would bounce back in 97 only to get swept aside by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, another close game that ended 20-10.

The Lions couldn’t seem to catch a break and it was frustrating for coaches and players alike.  This frustration lead to missing the playoffs entirely in 1998.  Remember that Barry Sanders guy?  Possibly greatest running back of all-time and easily the best Lions player ever, he retired early, most likely because the Lions management treated him more as an asset to gets fans into home games than actually developing a long-term team around him.  He clearly saw there was no point and retired.  This killed any chance the Lions really had left for a championship and a phenomenal talent was wasted.   It is easily one of the greatest wastes of a career in all of sports.

Even without Barry Sanders the struggling Lions managed to record an 8-8 record, which was just enough to skimp into the playoffs.  The unfortunate news is that they had to play the Redskins again.  The Redskins had been an offensive powerhouse all season and considering the fact that the Lions didn’t have much of a defense, it was not a surprise to most that they ended up losing 27-13.  The Lions simply didn’t have the firepower to keep up with the Redskins that year so I don’t count this one against them too much.  Even still, any playoff loss is a hurtful one.

Over the next few years the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre owned the like Lions.  It was quite sad actually; they were 3-13 against the Green Bay Packers from 2000-2007 during which time they didn’t have a winning record against this team even one of those years.  Although these seasons were total rubbish, it helped the Lions got an incredible WR talent in Calvin Johnson.  Despite getting him they still sucked in the 2007 season.  This is really classic Ford family.  The Ford’s had owned the Lions for quite some time now and their MO seemed to be to grab a couple great players, thereby getting fans to come watch these great players and never building a supporting cast around those players.  In the end you would just have a wasted career of a great player.  This makes me particularly angry because it shows the only thing the Ford’s care about football for is the money instead of team success.

Most believed they would get better because they had Calvin Johnson. Well, the 2008 season had an unfortunate answer to that question.  The thing the Lions are probably most famous for is their legendary 0-16 season in 2008.  They were the first team to go 0-16 and their utter ineptitude showed throughout the whole season.  They became the league’s whipping boy for jokes.  Between the horrific QB play and the lack of any sort of a defense or team semblance, fans with season tickets were left with nothing at the end of the season.  If the Ford family had built up a team throughout the early 2000s the Lions could have been competing for a Super Bowl but instead went 0-16.

As a result of the 2008 season, the Lions hired a new head coach, Jim Schwartz.  His first couple years as head coach were mediocre at best but he drafted an outstanding rusher in Ndamukong Suh and in the coach’s third year he brought the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999.  Granted the Lions still lost both games against the Packers that year and their defense was still atrocious, with every playoff appearance there’s a chance.  The Lions offense actually did a decent job under the relatively new QB Matthew Stafford.  Unfortunately for Stafford, the Lions defense got walked on by Drew Brees and the Saints.  That and a controversial no fumble call by the refs killed them.  They lost this playoff game 45-28.

On a side note, it turns out that Ndamukong Suh guy is a total rage monster and consistently stomps on people for some reason.


This costed the team a crucial game against the Green Bay Packers.  It also didn’t help that the Packers got a new generational QB in Aaron Rodgers.  He is an unquestioned super star and hard for any team to beat.  But a team with a bad defense makes it even worse.  Once again, if the Lions management, the Fords, had acquired a defense that didn’t suck or stomp on people, there may have been a chance for success.

After the playoff loss to the Saints Jim Schwartz led the Lions to mediocrity for the next two years mostly because the Ford family micromanaged him.  For this he was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell.  Caldwell was more of a no nonsense more serious kind of coach that the Lions seemed to need anyway so it looked like a step in the right direction.  His first season reinforced his need there in 2014 with the team being quite successful as they went 11-5 and made the playoffs.  The Lions offense was especially loaded that year with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Matthew Stafford.  The Lions were determined to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card game and get over the hump of not being able to beat NFC East teams.  The Lions came out to an early 14-point lead in the first quarter, raising the hopes of players and fans alike.  Ending the playoff win drought was needed at this point.  The Cowboys slowly but steadily came back from this deficit.  Before the game was over the refs screwed the Lions by calling a clear pass interference and then picked up the flag seemingly without an explanation.

Detroit would go on to lose the game 24-20.  I don’t think this was just the refs fault, though.  Bad clock management and choking a 14-point lead was not the ref’s fault.  It was mostly coaching.  Specifically bad play calls on both sides of the ball didn’t help one bit.

The next season was more of the typical Lions, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs.  Don’t think there wasn’t significant pain that season, too.  During that season the Lions beat the Green Bay Packers away.  They came very close to winning both games against the Packers which would have been huge because they still typically sucked against the Packers.

The Lions still didn’t have a secondary and Aaron Rodgers threw one of his most iconic hail mary’s to win the game on the last play.  If the Lions had won that game it could have sent a big signal to the rest of the division and league, showing that they could consistently beat good teams.  This was just not meant to be, a great catch but an even worse attempt at guarding it led to their defeat.



However, even with this defeat they did rebound the year and made the playoffs yet again.  It was looking on the up and up for the Lions making the playoffs several times in a short period.  Bad play calling plagued the Lions again and they were stuffed by Seattle and the Legion of Boom.  They lost that game 26-6.  Oh and let’s not forget the other controversial non-face mask call against the Lions that game.  They would have lost the game anyway but it still hurt the Lions’ chances as the Seahawks scored a touchdown on that play.  It also disheartened Calvin Johnson, who retired soon after in 2016 and just like Barry Sanders, he retired very young at only 30.  His reasons for retiring were that his body couldn’t handle football anymore so it was a little different from Barry but still, you know there’s a problem when your all-time greats are retiring early.  Perhaps if the Lions had protected him better by not using him in every possible chance, they had Johnson could’ve had a much longer and healthier career but we will never know.

Since then the Lions best performance description has been “meh”.  They went 9-7 in 2017 and missed the playoffs, resulting in Jim Caldwell getting fired and being replaced by Matt Patricia.  It apparently didn’t matter to the Lions that coaches coming out of New England and starting their own gig ended up being awful most of the time.  Regardless, he was hyped up to be a great coach and should have been what the Lions need.  Patricia then immediately lost game one to the Jets.  THE JETS!  Yes that’s right, the Lions lost a home game one to a rookie QB and the butt-fumble Jets.  They had a positive response to this though.  They beat New England and Green Bay that same season and were on their way up.  Well it doesn’t really matter if you beat those teams if you can’t beat teams like the Bills and Jets.  You have to be consistent to go far.  The ensuing season saw records like being sacked ten times in a game.  Specifically Matthew Stafford had zero protection from guys like Khalil Mack.  They finished 6-10 and Matt Patricia is looking like a big mistake at this point.

This team is a joke and furthermore, a joke that could have been avoided.  The Lions had so many chances to change and create a better legacy for themselves but by their own undoing at every turn they are where they are now, mediocre.

To help you fully understand the Lions Legacy of Failure here are some stats to reflect upon:

Number of times the Lions made the playoffs since 1957: 12

Number of times the Lions made the playoffs since their origin in 1930: 17

Super Bowl wins: 0

Super Bowl appearances: 0

Division titles since 1993: 0

Division titles since 1970: 3

Last playoff game win: 1991

Playoff game losing streak: 8

This team defines mediocre.  When people think the Detroit Lions words such as horrible, laughable and incompetent come to mind.  As a fan of this team I understand that every year will just bring more pain.  Although I am young, I often think about the fact I wasn’t even alive the last time the Lions won a playoff game.  This team is a sad mess without an end.  Minus the Browns, they are the worst team to have ever disgraced the sport of football with their foul stench of existence.  One day though they may make something of themselves.  More than likely it will be when the Ford family is gone.  I just hope it does not last as long a time as the Chicago Cubs in baseball.

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