With help from Jordy Dereniak
November 22, 1963 will always be remembered for two of the biggest tragedies of the year: the assasination of President John F. Kennedy and the day William Clay Ford purchased controlling interest in the Detroit Lions. For $4.5 million back then (and roughly $40,000,000) today, Ford proved to be as savvy with his grandfather’s money as putrid as he was at running a competent NFL franchise.
The Decade of Dominance
Before William Clay Ford was involved with the team in any capacity, the Lions had a decade of Patriots-esque success in the 1950s. Taking home 3 NFL Championships and appearing in a fourth, the Detroit Lions were tied with the Cleveland Browns for the decade’s most titles. Led by coach Buddy Parker, who had a .671 win percentage with the Lions and played on their 1935 championship team, and Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, the Lions had managed to have three championship appearances in a row, winning the first two and losing the third, all against the Cleveland Browns. Yes, pro football in the 1950s was dominated by two of the most pathetic modern franchises.
Then in 1957, Parker decided to leave the Detroit Lions and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in what turned out to be an unwise move. Parker never sniffed another championship and frequently clashed with the Pittsburgh front office and players. The Lions decided to run it back with Layne one last time alongside new head coach George Wilson.
But before Parker left, he made the crucial acquisition of quarterback Tobin Rote via trade by the Green Bay Packers despite Layne still playing good football. Rote was a different animal and had an MVP-caliber season in 1956, his final year in Green Bay. Rote led the league in completions, yards and touchdowns, scoring 29 of them including 11 rushing, while the rest of the Green Bay offense scored just 5 touchdowns total. His 29 touchdowns are the most in the 12 game era.
Wilson preferred a rotation at quarterback, so Bobby Layne and Rote split time. Rote proved to be a more efficient quarterback that year, as he finished with more touchdowns, less interceptions, and a better winning record than Layne. As the Lions were approaching the end of the regular season, Layne broke his leg in the 11th game. Rote took over full time with eyes on another championship and answered the challenge.
In the Western Conference Champsionship against the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions were getting pummeled by Y.A. Tittle and the rest of the offense. Tittle threw 3 touchdowns in the first half and San Francisco led 24-7 at halftime, but the Lions refused to quit. After a fumble by the 49ers in the third quarter, Detroit would go on to score an unanswered 24 points that was led by their rushing attack.
Rote played well that game, going 16 of 30 for 214 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a win. Considering that Bobby Layne had only thrown for one touchdown total in his postseason games, and that Layne had never even passed for 200 yards in a postseason game, the Lions had gotten the best quarterback play that they could have hoped for.
Then in the NFL Championship against the Cleveland Browns, Rote and the Lions got rolling early with a 17-0 first quarter lead and never looked back. Rote ended the game 12-19 for 280 and 4 touchdowns, a statline that was nearly unheard of back then. One of those touchdowns was off of a fake field goal, back when quarterbacks were the holders. Rote caught the ball, spun right, and threw a rope for the touchdown. He also showcased his rushing ability with a 17 yard rush up the middle that put him at the 1 yard line where he then snuck it in for the score. The Lions would go on to win the title against their rival with a score of 59-14.
Entering the 1958 season, Bobby Layne and Rote split time for two final games before Layne’s old head coach, Buddy Parker of the Steelers, came calling in a trade. Rote was the new star in town and the Lions moved on by shipping Layne out. Layne was upset after the trade, allegedly cursing the Lions for the next 50 years. The Lions would never reach their 1950s heights again, and in 1963, the Lions got worse than a curse: they got William Clay Ford.
Even after Layne left and cursed the franchise, the Lions were still able to have winning seasons in three of the next five years. Then in WCF’s first year, and despite coming off of an 11-3 year for the Detroit Lions, he managed to have a losing season, something he would do in 33 out of his 51 years of ownership. He had another 3 years of finishing at .500, meaning that Lions fans only got to experience a winning season 15 times in 5 decades, or 29.4% of the time. They had two stretches of 11 years of not making the playoffs, once from 1971-1981 and another time from 2000-2010.
Then there’s the most damning stat: no Super Bowl appearances and only one playoff victory during the Super Bowl era.
The “They Were There” Years
The 1960s and ‘70s were largely uneventful for Lions fans, as the management led by Willliam Clay Ford made just 1 playoff appearance in his first 19 years of ownership. The Lions managed to have a handful of Hall of Famers in that timespan such as defensive end Alex Karras, cornerback Dick LeBeau, Dick “Night Train” Lane, and tight end Charlie Sanders, but it never translated to success. For as good as these defenses were, the offense was equally horrendous.
It was early in this period, 1967, that William Clay Ford hired Russ Thomas as the general manager, a position that Ford would change only 4 times throughout his life in spite of the constant losing. Thomas was close with Ford, played for the Lions in the 1940s, and was also an assistant coach during the Lions’ 1952 and 1953 Championship runs. Thomas would finally retire after the 1989 season, finishing his Lions’ career with 3 playoff appearances, no playoff wins, and a 138-175-9 record.
There was constant rotation at head coach as they had 7 different ones in Ford’s first 19 seasons. Between 1963-1979, the Detroit Lions only had 5 winning seasons but plenty of losing seasons with 10 of them. Nearly two decades of futility finally ended with a league worst 2-14 record in 1979, emphasizing an era of truly horrid football.
A Heisman Hope
With that league worst record came the number 1 pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. Billy Sims, a Heisman Trophy winner, 2x All-American, and College Football Hall of Fame member was the consensus pick, and the Lions made the right move by selecting the standout running back from Oklahoma.
Sims immediately catapulted the franchise to success by giving them their first winning season since 1972, a 9-7 record to the tune of 1,924 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. He was a modern back in an older era and a true dual threat back as evidenced by his 621 receiving yards on 51 receptions. Sims led the league in touchdowns his rookie year and looked to be the league’s next big star. Sims rushed for 1,000 yards in 3 out his first four years, and he would have in the fourth if the NFL season wasn’t shortened due to the 1982 strike. Billy Sims was taking the NFL by storm and looked like he would be one of the best running backs of the 1980s.
Sims was a stud who made the Pro Bowl for 3 straight seasons to start his career and led the Lions to back to back playoff appearances in 1982 and 1983, something the Lions had never done during the 18 years of Ford’s ownership up until that point. In the 1983 Divisional Round, Sims played his ass off by rushing for 114 yards and two touchdowns against Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers. The Lions led 23-17 with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter, but Montana had a signature comeback and took the lead 24-23 with 1:23 left in the game. The Lions responded by marching down the field and putting their kicker, Eddie Murray, in position for a 43 yard game winning kick. Murray missed, and that was the beginning of the end of that golden era.
It all came to a screeching halt in the middle of 1984. Sims was his usual dominant self and had his most efficient year yet running the ball at 5.3 yards per carry. Through 8 games he was on pace to run for more than 1,300 yards and have nearly 500 additional yards through the air. However, on October 21, 1984, Sims suffered what would be a career ending knee injury. Just as the Lions were ascending, hope was dashed. They finished the season with a 4-11-1 record and closed out the decade without another winning season. However, in 1989, the Lions were to stumble onto another college star that would help make the franchise respectable, and maybe even dominate like they did in the 1950s.
Close(ish), but Not Close Enough
The Lions had the third pick in the loaded 1989 NFL Draft and had to make the decision between two different Sanders. They went with Barry instead of Deion, and as a result they were awarded with 10 straight years of 1,000 yards rushing. Barry’s success was enough to have the Lions make the playoffs, but it wasn’t enough to accomplish much more than that. William Clay Ford failed to capitalize on Hall of Fame talent again.
In 1989, general manager Russ Thomas finally retired after 23 seasons. The reins were handed over to Chuck Schmidt, the former vice president of finance and a move that echoes the WCF’s tendency to hire from within despite putrid results.
Schmidt actually acquired some good players during this period but it wasn’t enough and no one else was the pure era-defining star that Barry was. Linebacker Chris Spielman (who works as a Special Assistant for the Lions now) was a 4x Pro Bowler and has the fifth most combined tackles in a season with 195 in 1994. While the offensive line as a unit was bad, it had two studs in Lomas Brown, a 7x Pro Bowler, and Kevin Glover, a 4x All-Pro member. Wide receiver Herman Moore (who is underrated in the ‘90s wide receiver rankings) made 4 All-Pro teams and had a stretch from 1994-1997 where he averaged 1,362 yards and 10.5 touchdowns.
In Sanders’ 10 seasons he was able to propel the Lions to the playoffs five times, including a stretch from 1993-1995. However, they would lose in the first round all three of those playoff games, something the Lions would do in four of their five playoff trips during the Barry era.
1991 was the year of the Lions’ lone playoff win in the Super Bowl era and their first playoff win since the 1957 NFL Championship victory. The Lions crushed the Dallas Cowboys 38-6 in the Divisional Round as Erik Kramer went 29 of 38 passing for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns. Willie Green had 8 receptions for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns while Herman Moore had 6 receptions for 87 yards and 1 touchdown. The defense was swarming that day and Mel Jenkins had a 41 yard interception return for a touchdown on Troy Aikman.
The conference title game is where the Lions blew it. Washington led 17-10 at halftime but would end up winning 41-10 as the Lions had no life in the second half. Kramer threw for 249 yards and 1 touchdown to 1 interception and Barry Sanders was held to 44 yards on 11 carries. The defense gave up a 45 and 21 yard touchdown pass to help things get out of hand and the Redskins sealed it with a 32 yard interception return for a touchdown.
Holding the Lions back during Barry’s time was their inconsistent and subpar quarterback play. Scott Mitchell, Erik Kramer, Rodney Peete, and Dave Krieg were the main participants. All of them showed flashes of good play, but they were just that: flashes. Mitchell in particular pissed off some of his teammates.His play got so bad in a 1994 game that Brown purposefully missed a block so Mitchell would get hurt. Brown said Mitchell “just stunk up the place. He’s throwing interceptions, just everything.” Mitchell broke his finger and was out for the rest of the season.
In 1995 Mitchell got the full go to be the full time starter. He popped off and threw 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and looked to be the franchise quarterback the Lions’ offense desperately needed. He started the next two years but never threw more than 19 touchdowns and had at least 14 interceptions each season. By the time Mitchell was thrown out of Detroit, Sanders was just about ready to retire. The day before training camp of the 1999 season Sanders basically said “fuck it im out” via fax to a local reporter and left for good.
The Decade of Pain
In 2001, William Clay Ford made his third ever general manager decision and the unfortunate shitshow that was the Matt Millen era began. Millen was a TV analyst when hired and had literally no front office experience in his career. When Ford approached the analyst for the job, Millen responded, “Mr. Ford, I really appreciate this, but I’m not qualified.” In one of the worst stretches in NFL history, Millen’s Lions went 31-97 or won only 24.2% of their games which includes an 8-50 road record.
He was a horrible drafter, never made a notable free agent acquisition, and did everything in his power to ruin the team. While Millen was in charge for 7 full seasons, the Lions’ best record was 7-9 and they won 5 games or less in 5 of his 7 years.
Millen’s 2002 first-round selection of Joey Harrington was a complete bust and at no point in time looked like a good move. In four years with the Lions Harrington completed 54.7% of his passes and had 60 touchdown passes against 62 interceptions. Throughout Millen’s tenure, one of his glaring weaknesses was his complete incapacity to get even competent players at quarterback.
The 2003 draft showed Millen’s inability to know who the best receiver in the draft was as he passed on Andre Johnson for Michigan State product Charles Rogers, and let’s be real: the only reason that happened is because Rogers went to the local college. Rogers ended up being injury prone which led to a Vicodin addiction, and thus his time in the league was short.
The 2004 Draft saw the Lions pass on Ben Roethlisberger for another wide receiver, Roy Williams, knowing that Harrington was their current starter. It’s honestly like Millen didn’t try to do a good job. Williams had a decent career, but Harrington didn’t look like he was the answer, and when the opportunity came to Millen in ‘04 he chose not to solve the problem he created. Millen made the problem worse by keeping Harrington, who failed to pass for more than 3,100 yards in a season, and having no real answer to replace him.
Then in 2005 Millen had a great opportunity to replace Harrington by taking Caifornia Golden Bearl’s Aaron Rodgers. That didn’t occur to Millen as he instead took another wide receiver, Mike Williams, who would end up busting while Aaron Rodgers would terrorize the Lions as the starter for division rival Green Bay. Drafting Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson second overall in 2007 was the smart and easy decision, but by this time the damage was too deep, and Millen had now drafted 4 wide receivers in the first round of the last 5 drafts.
After week three of the would-be 0-16 2008 season, the Lions fired Millen and were as bad as their record suggested. It took public pressure from Bill Ford, Jr. to his father William Clay to finally fire Millen, but it was finally over.
The Lions failed to have a 300 yard passing game in their winless season. Vegas had them as a double digit underdog 8 times. They were 30th in yards for offense, 30th in first downs gained, and 6th in interceptions thrown. Defensively they were last in yards, yards per play, last in first downs, last in rushing yards allowed, 27th in passing yards, last in net yards per pass attempt, last in rushing yards per attempt, allowed the highest quarterback rating (110.9 while second place was a distant 98.5), and last in red zone touchdown percentage. It was a shitshow all around, Lions fans finally hit the bottom, and that was supposedly the last year of Bobby Layne’s curse.
The Lions needed a top-down rebuild and instead of looking for outside sources, William Clay Ford hired Martin Mayhew, an executive who was with the team since 2001 and took over general manager duties immediately after Millen was fired. Mayhew would have this team go 47-81 under his watch or win 36.7% of his games including an 0-2 record in the playoffs.
In 2009, Mayhew’s first draft, and with the number 1 overall pick, he took quarterback Matthew Stafford to be paired with Calvin Johnson. In one of those rare spooky coincidences, Stafford actually went to the same high school as Bobby Layne and even grew up on the same street. Stafford was sent to lift us out of the curse since that had just expired.
The first two seasons of Stafford’s career were cut short by dislocated shoulder injuries. In the tenth game of his rookie year, Stafford hurt his shoulder to then lead a heroic comeback win against the Browns before he was done for the year. In year two it only took three games for Stafford to go down with a dislocated shoulder.
Then in 2011 Stafford finally stayed healthy, played the whole season and threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. The Lions made the playoffs that year as a wildcard. Despite leading 14-10 at halftime and Calvin Johnson finishing with 211 yards and 2 touchdowns, the Lions would go on to lose 45-28 to the New Orleans Saints. But the future looked bright and the Lions seemed to have solved their long standing quarterback woes.
However, head coach Jim Schwartz had other plans as in 2012 the Lions started 4-4 but finished 4-12. That would be the start of his downfall as he coached one more season before getting fired. The Lions went 7-9 in Schwartz’s final year, and Jim Caldwell would be hired as the new head coach for 2014.
Caldwell took them to the playoffs in his first year (where they blew a 17-7 halftime lead to the Dallas Cowboys and failed to score a touchdown after the first quarter) and in 2016, but both times they were a first round knockout. In 2016 they barely limped in at 9-7 after starting the season 9-4. Under Caldwell the Lions managed to be competitive in December but never in January. His first year in 2014, Caldwell appeared better than he was by taking the Lions to an 11-5 record, but after that he never reached double digit wins again.
After that 11-5 season, William Clay Ford got to go out on a high note. He died of pneumonia on March 9th, 2014 at the ripe age of 88. He passed on his ownership of the Lions to his then-88 year old wife, Martha Firestone Ford. Yes, WCF, the grandson of an automotive magnate, was married to the granddaughter of a tire magnate.
In 2015, the middle of Caldwell’s tenure, general manager Martin Mayhew was fired by Martha after a 1-7 start to the 2015 season. The Lions decided to keep Caldwell after the season, but they lost franchise icon Calvin Johnson to retirement. Tired of playing for this decrepit organization, Johnson still managed in nine seasons racked up 11,619 yards and 83 touchdown grabs on 731 receptions while making highlight catches every Sunday. However, in his career he only got to play in two playoff games despite his obvious greatness, with no significant wins in his career to show for it.
To start the 2016 season new general manager Bob Quinn was brought in, and he inherited Jim Caldwell for another two seasons. Quinn was hired from the Patriots to install their winning ways despite New England not having drafted a pro bowl player since 2013. After back to back 9-7 seasons and a playoff appearance, Bob Quinn claimed being a fringe playoff team “wasn’t good enough,” fired Caldwell and hired the mess that was Matt Patricia, the Patriots’ defensive coordinator and Quinn’s buddy.
Patricia was just another Belichick disciple jackass that had no idea what he was doing as he never won more than six games in a season. He tried and failed to install the “Patriot Way,” but all he did was alienate his defensive players and trade away anyone who disagreed with his methods. Those same methods led to bottom of the league defenses despite being pegged as a defensive mastermind.
9-7 wasn’t good enough, but Patricia never topped more than 6 wins in a year and had a propensity for blowing leads. Instead of taking a step back to take two steps forward, the Lions were constantly taking 3 steps back to move another 5 steps backwards. The Lions were never a playoff threat past October under Patricia, and Stafford’s prime years as a quarterback were wasted for a team that never sniffed real contention.
In June of 2020 Martha Ford decided to step down as owner and hand the billion dollar company to Sheila Ford Hamp. Involved with the team since 2014, Ford Hamp made her first major move as owner by firing Quinn and Patricia after a 2020 Thanksgiving slaughter by the Houston Texans, 25-41.
Like Mayhew and Millen before him, Quinn failed to build a roster around Matthew Stafford. Quinn did get a pretty good left tackle in Taylor Decker and got All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, but the weaponry was subpar and defenses were historically horrible. Quinn’s time was short and stained mostly by the Patricia tire fire.
After the 2020 season and the new regime was brought in, Stafford did the smart move for his career and requested a trade. He was sent to the Los Angeles Rams, and Detroit received Jared Goff and two first round picks. Stafford finished his time with the Lions with 45,109 passing yards, 282 touchdown passes, 144 interceptions, a 74-90-1 record, three playoff appearances and no playoff wins for Detroit.
Matthew Stafford gets criticized unfairly by too many as the reason the Lions didn’t win more, but he had no fucking help. He was the victim of never having great – or even good – surrounding weaponry, running games, or defenses, and it created too many situations where Stafford had only one guy to throw to and had to dig his team out of holes. That’s just not how you win football games consistently, and putting guys like Kris Durham, Eric Ebron, Nate Burleson, and Ryan Broyles around Calvin Johnson was insulting and struck fear into no one except for Lions fans. Stafford literally broke his back in 2019 from carrying the Lions.
Of the Lions’ 9 wins in 2016, 8 of them were fourth quarter comebacks that Stafford led (an NFL record). Stafford had a 100 yard rusher just 11 times in his whole career, or about once per season. He had his defense rank in the bottom half of the league in points 8 out of his 11 seasons despite Patricia and Schwartz coming from defensive backgrounds. The man had to deal with an offensive coordinator named Jim Bob Cooter for crying out loud.
Comparison With Other Franchises
The Lions are horrible in their own right, but how does Detroit compare with the other bottom feeders? The Lion finished with the worst win percentage during the 16 game era, had the most losses, and were one of two teams to lose more than 400 games. They are one of four teams to never make a Super Bowl, and they are the oldest out of those teams by far. They have the least amount of playoff wins of any team (1), tied with the expansion Browns.
The table below compares the Lions to franchises with some actual merit. One thing of note is that the Lions actually have a good chunk of members in the Hall of Fame. They have only 3 less than the Dallas Cowboys, who won multiple Super Bowls in the ‘70s and ‘90s.
|Detroit Lions||Pittsburgh Steelers||New England Patriots||Green Bay Packers||Baltimore Ravens||Dallas Cowboys|
|Regular season win percentage||41.6%||59.1%||56.2%||55%||56.4%||59.2%|
|Percent of seasons in playoffs||21.8%||56.4%||47.3%||45.5%||52%||60%|
|Playoff win – loss||1-12||36-25||26-20||29-21||16-11||35-28|
|Super bowl win – loss||0-0||6-2||6-5||4-1||2-0||5-5|
|No. of head coaches*||15||5||12||10||3||9|
|Hall of Fame Members**||17||26||5||27||3||20|
* Minimum 10 games to qualify as a head coach
Most embarrassing is the Lions compared to the Ravens. They’ve only been around since 1996, but have won 15 more playoff games and have less playoff losses than the Lions in the 16 game era while also winning 2 Super Bowls. They’ve had continuity at head coach with just 3 in the last 25 years, while the stumbling Lions have had 8.
Even advanced stats are able to give us a look into how shitty the Lions are. Football Outsider’s DVOA goes back to 1983 and the Lions average rank was 18.9. In only three of those seasons did the Lions have a top ten rank with the highest being 7th. EPA (Expected Points Added) goes back as far as 1999, and during that time frame the Lions finished 29th in offensive EPA/play at -0.059 while on defense they were 30th at 0.025 EPA/play allowed.
PFF has been around since 2006 and the Lions’ average overall grade was 21st. That’s despite having an all-time great in Calvin Johnson. How the fuck do you not build something competent around him? Johnson also had the Lions’ best QB ever in Matthew Stafford throwing him the ball and even around both of them the Lions still managed to fuck it all up.
A huge contributor to their woes has been their piss poor drafting. In terms of players picked in the first round since 2000, the Lions had 15 with the team less than five years. For comparison the Bengals had 8, Cardinals 14, Jets 16, and Browns 18, and the Jags 14. When an expansion team and the Jets are who you are better than, it proves how abysmal the situation was.
In terms of second-round picks, the Lions had 18 of them with the team for less than five years while the Bengals, Cardinals, and Jets all had 12, the Browns at 18, and the Jaguars at 11. Missing on that many high round picks for the Lions and seeing how that compares to other historically bad franchises helps show the drafting incompetence the team had. Only the expansion Browns were worse with their first and second-round picks.
There’s also weird voodoo surrounding the Lions that doesn’t seem to happen to other teams. To date, former Detroit Lion Chuck Hughes is the only NFL player to die during a game. He did so while jogging back to the huddle and suffering a heart attack. Don McCafferty got to coach just one year for the Lions before he suffered a heart attack in 1974. In 1991 Eric Andolosek, the starting guard, was doing yard work when a semi-truck ran off the road and killed him. Two days later, his teammate both at LSU and in Detroit, Toby Caston, was killed in a car accident. In 2010, defensive tackle Corey Smith disappeared in a boating accident, and his body was never found.
Towards the Future
Here in 2021 the Lions are starting yet another “new era” for the franchise as they bring in general manager Brad Holmes and new head coach Dan Campbell. This team’s offensive line graded 9th in pass blocking last year and 13th in run blocking according to PFF. Adding top rookie prospect Penei Sewell strengthens that unit and they should be able to run the ball while keeping new quarterback Jared Goff clean. Having ascending TJ Hockenson at tight end and D’Andre Swift at running back is nice as it gives Goff one reliable target and a good running back who can also offer his abilities as a receiver.
This defense and the skill players still need work, but with extra picks and cap space from the Stafford trade, there is a reason for optimism that normally shouldn’t be in Detroit. People will say the team needs to “restore the roar” but realistically they’ve never achieved a legitimate “roar” in the Super Bowl era. This is hopefully the beginning of what should be the team’s best chance to have a roar.
New quarterback Jared Goff will probably need to be replaced at some point with the quarterback of the future, but this team has extra draft capital it isn’t used to seeing and already has an offensive line in place with Ragnow, Decker, and one of the best left tackle prospects in years with Penei Sewell.
Just because the Lions have the pieces in place to rebuild well doesn’t mean they will, but there is reason for optimism in the Motor City about its football team that hasn’t for quite some time. Of course being owned by the Ford family is a big hurdle for success, but maybe the team is finally ready to overcome that curse.
All stats come from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.