Archive for Detroit Lions
Chris Spielman sat in front of his locker and fumed.
It was a potentially explosive moment. The Lions had just been demolished, 45-0, at the hands of the Washington Redskins. It was the opening week of the 1991 season and the Lions had traveled to the Nation’s Capital to take on the ‘Skins without Barry Sanders, who sat out the game due to injury.
The Lions were never in the game.
In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, Washington was driving yet again and moved the football inside the Lions’ five-yard-line. Less than a minute remained on the clock.
But instead of running another play, Washington QB Mark Rypien took a knee—a mercy knee—and the clock drained.
Rypien and the Redskins didn’t want to pile onto the Lions’ misery.
Yet that didn’t sit well with Spielman, the Lions’ fiercely competitive middle linebacker.
After the game, Spielman did a slow burn in front of reporters. He didn’t like the mercy knee, not at all.
On the field in those final seconds, Spielman screamed at the Redskins, imploring them to continue to play football. Spielman sensed that Washington coach Joe Gibbs was calling off the hogs and that wasn’t in the MLB’s DNA.
“I’ve never had any team take mercy on my team on the football field,” Spielman said after the game, his soft and low voice belying his anger and embarrassment.
Spielman, beloved in Detroit, made the locals forgive and forget that he played at Ohio State. He was Honolulu Blue collar.
The Lions season started and ended in Washington in 1991, because four months after the 45-0 blowout, the Lions met the Redskins for the NFC Championship.
Washington won again, 41-10. No mercy knees were taken.
Chris Spielman’s indignation at the Redskins not playing football until the final gun in 1991 contrasts sharply with the attitude of Dominic Raiola, the irascible center of today’s Lions.
Raiola admitted that he put a cheap shot on the New England Patriots Sunday on the game’s final knee down.
The reason for Raiola’s ire was the Pats scoring a touchdown late in the game, with the score already 27-9 in favor of New England.
So Raiola, who has a history of taking matters into his own hands, leveled a cheap shot. He dove at the knees of nose tackle Zach Moore at the game’s final snap.
“I cut him. We took a knee, so I cut the nose [tackle],” Raiola shamelessly explained after the game. “They went for six [a touchdown]. They went for a touchdown at two minutes. They could have took three knees and the game could have been over. It’s football. He wants to keep playing football, let’s play football. Not a big deal. It’s football.”
Compare Raiola’s reaction to that of Chris Spielman, who was enraged because the opponent did take a knee.
I get Raiola’s frustration. He’s in his 14th season and only once has his team made the playoffs. But he’s also part of the reason why the Lions have been mostly losers since Raiola was drafted out of Nebraska in 2001.
Raiola’s past has included giving the finger to fans, arguing with band members and other punk-like moves, of which Sunday’s was another.
You ever notice how the boorish, loudmouth boobs who do a lot of yapping usually play for losing teams?
Me thinks that Dominic Raiola protests too much.
This is the NFL, not Little League. A 35-year-old pro football veteran ought to be able to take a late touchdown that makes the score 34-9.
It wasn’t like the Patriots were trying to pile on; the Lions actually gave New England new life on the drive in question.
Moments before the touchdown, the Pats were content to kick a field goal—actually, someone should check with Raiola to make sure that was OK—but the Lions were flagged for a personal foul for slapping the helmet of the snapper.
New life, new set of downs inside the five-yard-line.
The Patriots would have looked foolish to take three knees—that’s how many they would have needed to take in order to drain the clock—that close to the goal line.
It would have looked totally ridiculous; a complete mercy job. Both teams would have been the subject of ridicule.
What were the Patriots to do?
They already kicked their field goal. But the Lions had committed yet another bonehead play to give New England a fresh set of downs.
The difference between Chris Spielman’s indignation and that of Dominic Raiola is so telling.
Spielman respected the game of football and he showed it by his actions on and off the field.
Raiola, for whatever reason, sees himself as the chief of the competition police.
The Lions weren’t champions when Spielman played in Detroit, but they made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991-95, including the last three in a row.
Raiola’s Lions haven’t done diddlysquat. Yet Raiola seems to put his cleat in his mouth time and again.
The players who yell the loudest are usually the ones who play for losing organizations. Must be an inferiority complex.
Late last week, Lions safety James Ihedigbo spouted off, saying that Patriots QB Tom Brady should be scared of the Lions defense.
As soon as I read Ihedigbo’s words, I knew they would come back to bite the Lions in the you-know-where.
“Man, look at the names, and guys we’ve got on this team. You should be intimidated by the people we’ve got on this team,” Ihedigbo said Wednesday. “We got (Ndamukong) Suh; we got guys that are beasts in this league, not even just on this team. So why should we take a backseat to anybody? Why should we?”
The Lions didn’t just take a backseat on Sunday in New England—they found themselves riding in the trunk.
These next five weeks will go a long way to determining whether Lions fans will hop on the Jim Caldwell train, for real.
I wrote a few weeks ago about discipline and how Caldwell has seemed to instill it in the Lions since taking over for Jim “Handshake” Schwartz.
But two losses later, things are starting to look like they’re fraying.
Caldwell isn’t just trying to shake off a two-game losing streak here; he’s coaching against history. He’s coaching against a mindset. He’s coaching against whatever is the opposite of a mystique.
The Lions need to win a football game right quick. Maybe the short turnaround before the Thanksgiving Day game is just what the doctor ordered.
Sometimes coaches like short weeks. Their players get to put the last game out of their minds quickly. There is no time for feeling down in the dumps.
This isn’t just about making the playoffs. Wins and losses are crucial, but these next five weeks are also about seeing how the Lions handle success, something they have failed at miserably in the past. It’s about whether they truly have bought into Caldwell’s preaching, or if it’s all just a bunch of hooey yet again.
What Dominic Raiola did on Sunday and his shameless admission about it afterward, doesn’t help matters.
Now, there is off-the-field distraction nonsense to deal with when the Lions are fighting for their playoff lives.
If you happen to be in the Minneapolis area and see a young man curled in the fetal position, it just might be Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater, the Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback, is going to see Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Lions defensive line in his sleep. The sweat will be cold, the images will be all-too-real. It might be like that cartoon of back in the day.
“Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a quarterback anymore!”
This was Thanksgiving Day, 1962, all over again. Upstairs, Alex Karras is grinning.
The Lions made mincemeat of Bridgewater and the Vikings on Sunday. Bridgewater played the part of Green Bay’s Bart Starr and Ansah, George Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were Karras, Darris McCord, Roger Brown and Sam Williams.
The Lions’ front four spent more time in the Vikings backfield than the referee. Or at least, as much. Bridgewater was harassed more than the only girl at a fraternity party.
Every pass play the Vikings tried in their 17-3 loss to the Lions looked like a Chinese fire drill. Bridgewater would snap the football and then immediately start running around, in survival mode. He spent more time trying to find his wits about him than finding a receiver.
In the rare times when Bridgewater found a man, the pass was often dropped, or tipped into the hands of a Lions defender for an interception. Just ask Tahir Whitehead, who if this was hockey would be called “Johnny on the Spot” by Mickey Redmond.
The slaughter wasn’t limited to passing plays.
If the Vikings tried to run the football, the Lions front four was there, too, like white on rice.
With the exception of an interception the rookie threw in the end zone in which he was baited by safety Glover Quin, the Vikings didn’t sniff paydirt. Every play they ran was between the 30 yard lines, it seemed.
The words “Lions” and “dominant defense” haven’t been used in the same sentence very much since the days of the 1960s and early-1970s, when every year the defense was way ahead of the offense—which was never more evident than in the Lions’ 5-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970 playoffs.
The aforementioned Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, in which the Lions poured through the usually vaunted Packers O-line and battered Starr to the tune of 11 sacks, is legendary stuff.
“Lord, we were ready for the Packers that day,” Karras wrote in his autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry.
The motivation in ’62 was the game the Lions blew in Green Bay earlier that season—a travesty that pitted the offense against the defense for years, thanks to a horrible pass play that was called in a situation that screamed for a conservative running play.
The pass was intercepted and the Packers kicked a game-winning field goal.
So on national TV on Turkey Day, the Lions destroyed the Packers, racing to a 26-0 lead as they punished Starr for the game in Green Bay, before winning 26-14.
On Sunday, Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil was about as effective against the hard-charging Ansah as a screen door in a submarine. Ansah tossed Kalil around all day like a rag doll.
Ansah was the biggest and baddest Lion on a day when the defense surrendered yardage as begrudgingly as a mother-in-law doles out compliments. Ansah was credited with 2.5 sacks but that doesn’t begin to illustrate the disruption the second-year defensive end caused on Sunday.
The Lions allowed just 212 total yards of offense.
So let’s talk about this defense, seriously.
It’s only six weeks, but the Lions are ranked no. 1 in the NFL and they haven’t only victimized rookies.
In Week 1, the Lions made two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning look like, well, a rookie.
In Week 3, the great Aaron Rodgers, another Super Bowl champion and a likely Hall of Famer, was flummoxed. He and partner in crime Jordy Nelson were turned into a pair of juvenile delinquents.
Granted, in Weeks 4 and 6 (the Jets’ Geno Smith and Minnesota’s Bridgewater, respectively), the Lions weren’t exactly facing elite quarterbacks. But isn’t that what (gasp!) dominant defenses do? Remind the young how young they are?
On countless occasions in the past decade, the Lions have made pedestrian, even mediocre passers look like a combination of Unitas, Montana and Elway.
Not this season, so far.
You can’t pass against the Lions. You can’t run on them. You can’t even wait for a foolish personal foul or encroachment penalty.
Let’s not underestimate the Jim Caldwell factor.
The Lions’ new head coach promised that his team would clean up the penalties. He preached discipline.
And it’s working.
Few and far between have been the roughing the passer fouls and the silly jumping offsides, induced by quarterbacks using simple changes in cadence.
There have been an acceptably low number of penalties in the defensive backfield as well.
Darius Slay, the second-year cornerback, is quietly having a Pro Bowl-type year. He did a commendable job on Nelson in Week 3, a receiver who could make a career highlight reel solely based on games against the Lions. Slay is far from a “shut down” corner, but he’s also proving to be a member of the league’s upper class, and getting better every week.
That’s another strange thing to say: the Lions finding a superior cornerback in the draft. But they have, in Slay.
Here’s another breath of fresh air: the Lions don’t have to blitz anymore to pressure the passer. They can invade handily by sending just four guys.
But despite all this slap-happiness, leave it to the no-nonsense Suh to keep things in perspective.
“(Sunday’s win) is definitely something to be proud of, but at the end of the day it’s very early in the season,” said Suh, who had two sacks. “If we’re talking Week 17 or Week 16 and we’re still at this pace, which I expect this defense to do, then we can start to be really excited about it because it’s translating to wins.”
True that. The Lions have played just six games.
But at the same time, I can’t recall a six-game stretch where the Lions have played anywhere near this good on defense in decades.
It’s not like the Lions added a boatload of new players from last year, either. They did, however, add a new defensive coordinator.
If this keeps up, Teryl Austin is going to have a statue built in his likeness in front of Ford Field, by the fans themselves.
The Lions are 4-2 and should be 5-1 if their kicker hadn’t torpedoed them. In all the wins with the exception of the Giants game, the defense has bailed out the scuffling offense.
Check for tie-dye. Are people saying “groovy”? Are the Beatles charting?
Surely this must be a time warp that we’re in.
He had just set a new National Football League record for longest field goal made, and he did it to win the game.
Tom Dempsey of the Saints, with half a right foot due to a birth deformity, blasted a 63 yard field goal to beat the Lions—naturally—in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. He obliterated the old mark by seven yards.
Dempsey. of course, was swarmed by reporters after the game at old Tulane Stadium.
One of the scribes asked Dempsey what was going through his mind as he lined up for the kick at his own 37 yard line (the goalposts were at the goal line in those days).
“I was thinking that the goal posts looked kind of small,” Dempsey said.
The funny thing about Dempsey, who was nothing more than a journeyman kicker in the NFL, was that he was hardly known for his kicking accuracy. In fact, after the Lions game in which he set the record, players from Detroit recalled seeing Dempsey in pregame practice missing kicks from all over the field.
Yet Dempsey kicked four field goals in the Saints victory, capped by the 63-yarder as time expired.
The record-setting kick exploded from Dempsey’s half-a-foot and traveled through the Nawlins’ air almost parallel to the ground, with none of the typical end-over-end trajectory—as if it had been shot out of a cannon.
The football dropped over the crossbar with perhaps a foot to spare.
Lions coaches remarked that the sound of Dempsey’s foot meeting the ball was like someone thwacking a wet mattress with a baseball bat.
You’d think that setting a new NFL record for longest field goal made would buy a guy some job security. But a year later, Dempsey was kicking for the Philadelphia Eagles and so began his meandering through the league, playing with four teams after the Saints in a career that ended in 1979.
You know what Dempsey’s rate of success in field goal attempts was in 1970, they year he kicked the 63 yarder?
He made 18 of 34 tries for a very mediocre 52.9 percent. In 1969, Dempsey was 1-for-11 in attempts 50 yards and beyond.
But with one historic swing of his leg, Tom Dempsey lives forever in the NFL record books—and in the memory of every Lions fan 50 years of age or older.
For his career, Dempsey made good on just over 61 percent of his kicks.
Yet as pedestrian as Dempsey’s career field goal percentage of success is, it’s still some 18 percent better than Nate Freese, the Lions kicker (for the moment).
Freese, the embattled rookie kicker from Boston College, has tried seven field goals so far in his NFL career. He has made just three of them for a 43 percent rate of success. He hasn’t made any beyond 40 yards, from where is is 0-for-4.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who showed restraint after Freese’s disastrous Week 2, when the rookie missed two kicks beyond 40 yards early in the game, wasn’t able to corral his frustration on Sunday, after the first half of his team’s 19-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Freese had pulled a 41 yard attempt left as time expired in the second quarter, moments after Matthew Stafford hooked up with Corey Fuller on a 52 yard bomb to put the Lions in (presumed) field goal range at the Packers’ 23 yard line.
Fox Sports’ Pam Oliver, at halftime, reported that she asked Caldwell during intermission about Freese and how to boost the youngster’s confidence.
Caldwell, who is not prone to hyperbole or emotion, didn’t mince words.
“I don’t have any sympathy,” Oliver said Caldwell told her. “This is the NFL. You have to make those kicks.”
Last week the Lions worked out three kickers with NFL experience in light of Freese’s early struggles. Yet, Caldwell decided to stay with the rookie, if only for another week.
Sadly, one of the kickers the Lions brought in was 36 year-old Rob Bironas, who died in a tragic car accident over the weekend.
After Caldwell showed confidence in Freese last week, albeit lukewarm in variety, it is hard to imagine that the Lions will stay with the kid from BC much longer, if at all.
The misses are piling up and no one’s confidence is being helped here.
Freese likely has little, and you think Caldwell would have had much, if he needed to send Freese into the game to kick a potential game-tying or game-winning three-pointer against the Packers on Sunday?
The fans lost confidence in Freese after Week 2.
It’s admirable to feel for Freese, who was a seventh round draft pick of the Lions last May. It certainly can’t be any fun being Nate Freese these days.
But coach Caldwell is right. This is the NFL. Fellow coach Jerry Glanville once said that NFL stands for Not For Long, if you don’t produce.
This is big boy football now. This isn’t college, and the only kicks that matter are the ones that you try during games—not the impressive 58 yarders you make in pregame warm-ups.
Nate Freese is probably a terrific young man. But his misses are killing the Lions and this isn’t about tiptoeing around the kicker’s feelings. It’s about winning football games.
Freese has no resume in the NFL. It’s not like he’s a 10-year veteran and the Lions can wait out what is likely a flukey slump.
The Packers waited out veteran kicker Mason Crosby last year when he was in a horrible funk. But Crosby wasn’t a rookie and he’d made several big kicks for the Packers in the past. Crosby eventually got his act together.
Kickers, as a lot, usually don’t have wide margins for error. The patience of coaches is known to wear thin for erratic performance.
It doesn’t help Freese that he’s playing in Detroit, which had two kickers—TWO—between 1980 and 2012 (Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson).
Lions fans aren’t used to thinking of their kickers the same way Tigers fans think of their closers.
The bottom line is this: does Jim Caldwell, a spiritual man, have faith that Nate Freese can make a big kick late in a close game?
If the coach doesn’t, then there’s no room for Freese on the Lions roster.
In fact, Freese may be an ex-Lion by the time you read this.
Right now, to steal from Tom Dempsey, the goalposts are looking kind of small for Freese.
And we’re not talking 63 yarders here.
It was yet another funereal post-game press conference for a Lions coach. The scene took place in Anaheim, with another sound defeat in the books.
The Lions had been manhandled by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, dropping their record to 1-4.
The coach, Monte Clark, stepped up to the podium, ready to answer the usual “What happened?” questions.
Clark gave his version of what happened, trying to explain away the bloodletting on the gridiron. But just before stepping down and heading back to the locker room, Clark added one more comment.
“See you at the cemetery,” Clark told the media.
The inference was clear. Clark wouldn’t have been surprised if his firing was impending.
Clark wasn’t alone in that feeling.
The Lions were 9-7 in 1980 but missed the playoffs, despite a 4-0 start, which prompted some players to record a bastardized version of Queen’s hit song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The Lions went 8-8 in 1981, missing the playoffs on the final Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed Detroit its only home loss of the season to swipe the Central Division crown.
The Lions made the playoffs in 1982′s strike-shortened year, despite a 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins, eventual Super Bowl champs, demolished Clark’s team, showing what they thought of a team with a losing record making the postseason.
Then came 1983′s 1-4 start, which prompted Clark, in his sixth season as Lions coach, to make his ominous remark.
Clark survived the season, and in fact, the Lions won the division with a 9-7 record. They went 8-3 after the coach’s words of resignation.
Monte Clark’s “See you at the cemetery” line is just one of many defining moments of Lions coaches that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons.
Darryl Rogers, Clark’s successor, had his moment when he gazed up at the pigeons that had landed on the Silverdome’s roof during practice, circa 1988, with the Lions foundering as usual. Some writers were nearby, within earshot.
“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” was Rogers’ iconic moment.
Wayne Fontes said “I’m the big buck” as he talked about the criticism levied his way in the early-1990s.
Bobby Ross, Fontes’ successor, in a fit of frustration and anger after a loss on the road, railed “I don’t coach that stuff!” as he agonized over yet another mistake-filled loss.
Marty Mornhinweg, the overmatched coach tabbed by rookie GM Matt Millen in 2001, said at his introductory press conference, “The bar is high.”
Twenty-seven losses in 32 games followed. Maybe Marty meant that the bar of embarrassment was high.
Steve Mariucci followed, and his introduction was over the top at Ford Field. There was a long walk to the stage and the whole thing was awash in pomp and circumstance.
“Wow,” Mooch said as he gazed at the press in 2003 as Millen and the Lions presented him as the savior.
A little more than two years later, Mariucci was fired after a cringe-inducing loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Atlanta Falcons.
Rod Marinelli, Mariucci’s successor, talked of “pounding the rock.” The Lions pounded it to the tune of a winless season in 2008.
Jim Schwartz came after Marinelli, and Schwartz was a hothead that couldn’t execute a post-game handshake without drama. His players got into trouble off the field a lot. Schwartz also gave it to the fans last year with a less-than-respectful gesture. The players, under Schwartz, took on his personality, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Before all of the above, Harry Gilmer was pelted with snowballs as he jogged off the Tiger Stadium field after what would turn out to be his final game as Lions coach, in 1966.
All iconic moments and quotes from Lions coaches, and none of them good.
Jim Caldwell, the new head coach for 2014 and beyond, doesn’t seem to have that gene.
It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.
The Lions coach seems to have his act together.
There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.
Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.
Joe Schmidt (1967-72) remains the last Lions coach to leave the franchise with a winning record in Detroit. But Schmidt had his moments of frustration, which culminated in him resigning in January 1973, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.
Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.
That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.
There doesn’t appear to be drama in the Lions’ future with Caldwell as coach. Even in this day of the NFL’s players on a string of bad behavior off the field, Caldwell exudes calm and control. You get the feeling that the ship is under a firm, experienced hand.
Again, whether that translates into wins and success remains to be seen.
The Lions are 1-0 at this writing, having summarily dismissed the considerably inferior New York Giants last Monday night.
But the Lions’ lack of discipline, a thorn in the team’s side for years, appeared to have reared its head against the Giants, with eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half.
It’s not clear what Caldwell said or did at halftime, but his team played a clean second half—zero penalties.
He even had a clean handshake after the game with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
The coach can’t make his players write, “I will not commit a holding penalty” 100 times on the chalkboard. He can’t make them stand in the corner, facing the wall. It’s not even as simple as benching a guy in favor of his backup.
But I do know that football players often take on the personality and behavior of their coach, for good or for bad.
I won’t make any predictions about the Lions’ won/loss record this year.
I will, though, say that it doesn’t seem like Jim Caldwell is destined to say or do anything goofy that will become his defining moment as Lions coach.
That, in of itself, would seem to be an upgrade over coaches of the past.
The game was played the day after Christmas, a Saturday in 1970. The match still haunts the Lions franchise.
The National Football League, expanded in one season from 16 to 26 teams thanks to the merger with the American Football League, changed its playoff format for the 1970 campaign.
The league had split, like an amoeba, into two conferences with three divisions in each of the NFC and AFC. So Commissioner Pete Rozelle added a Wild Card in each conference. The Wild Cards would combine with the three divisional winners to form a Final Four in each conference.
The Lions, for all their ignominy, nonetheless have the distinction of being the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card team.
The Lions won the last five games of their 1970 schedule and finished the season 10-4, which was the best record of all the second place teams in the NFC. Hence the Wild Card berth.
A trip to Dallas awaited the Lions to play the franchise’s first post-season game in 13 years. The playoff game against the Cowboys would be contested in the old Cotton Bowl. It was December 26, 1970.
It turned out to be a bizarre, frustrating, horribly iconic afternoon in Texas. One that the franchise still hasn’t truly gotten over.
It would be the only playoff game for a host of great Lions players: Alex Karras (his final game played); Wayne Walker; Lem Barney; Charlie Sanders; and Dick LeBeau to name a few.
The Lions lost in Dallas in that playoff game of 1970 by the maddening score of 5-0, despite the Lions possessing one of the NFL’s most potent offenses that year.
Barney and Sanders are Hall of Fame Lions, and only Barry Sanders has joined them in Canton as representing Detroit since the aforementioned Lions careers’ ended in the late-1970s.
Barry Sanders, for his part, played in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957—a busting up of Dallas in 1991-92. But Barry never saw any real team success as a Lion, despite a few other playoff appearances.
Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders—three Hall of Famers whose Lions careers all lacked any semblance of team success.
It would be a total shame if Calvin Johnson followed in that trio’s misfortune.
Johnson is the next Lions Hall of Fame player. With seven seasons under his belt and his eighth about to begin on Monday against the New York Football Giants, Johnson practically already possesses the individual stats needed to be inducted into the Hall.
In seven seasons, Johnson has played in one playoff game. In that respect, his career seems to be trending just like those of Barney and the two Sanders—heavy on personal greatness and light on the team’s.
But if you ask Johnson, that trend is about to turn the other way.
“I believe this is our best chance to win a championship.”
The speaker was Johnson earlier in the week and presumably he said it to the media with a straight face.
“I honestly believe that,” Johnson added about his heady prediction regarding the 2014 Lions.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism on the eve of a new football season. After all, if you can’t look at things through rose-colored glasses when your record is 0-0, then when can you?
It’s difficult to tell, when simply reading Johnson’s remarks, whether he was trying to convince the press or himself of the Lions’ championship chances. But he did expound, apparently with conviction. And the man reverently called Megatron was heaping praise on his new head coach, Jim Caldwell.
“You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coaches’ philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coaches want us to do, and if we’re not, if something is not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us and we’re going to get better at it and he only has to tell us one time.”
That doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of success of everyone from Rick Forzano to Jim Schwartz, but there you have it.
Johnson is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above his league brethren at wide receiver. He is bound for Canton, wearing the mustard yellow blazer and giving an acceptance speech. Someday.
But it would be awfully nice if, in addition to all the personal accolades, Calvin Johnson turns out to be a Hall of Fame Detroit Lion who has more than just an impressive set of individual numbers on his resume.
Or, to put it more bluntly, it would be criminal if the Lions wasted yet another superstar career with zero team success.
It took Barney and Charlie Sanders several appearances on the ballot before they were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the Lions’ mostly losing ways contributed greatly to Lem and Charlie’s delayed inductions, given that they were each among the best of their respective positions for most of their careers.
Barry Sanders was a first-ballot inductee, but that was a no-brainer, no matter what team he played for. Think Gale Sayers and those awful Bears teams.
Now here we have Johnson, who is the Lions’ best player since Barry Sanders, and Calvin is eight years into a professional career that has seen as many winless seasons as playoff games.
But the rub is that Johnson, I believe, today plays on as good of a Lions team as Barry Sanders ever did, and there ought to be some multiple playoff appearances in the near future.
Johnson’s remarks certainly agree with my very non-expert opinion.
It all has to be proven on the field, of course. And the Lions traditionally don’t do that.
The Lions wasted the genius of Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders. They’d better not do so with Calvin Johnson, their next Hall of Famer.
He was a moon-faced behemoth of a defensive tackle out of Clemson, with a grin as wide as his generously-sized rear end. And he soon became a pawn between his head coach and his defensive coordinator.
They called William Perry “The Refrigerator” and not long after the Chicago Bears picked him in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1985 NFL Draft, the wisdom of his selection was bandied about between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
The coach and the DC didn’t get along, and since Perry was Ditka’s pick, naturally Ryan was against it.
Ryan reacted by refusing to play Perry on the Bears’ talented defensive line. Ditka responded by using Perry as an oversized fullback in short yardage situations.
All this drama played out during the Bears’ 15-1 season, which culminated in a blowout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
About mid-season, Ryan relented once he realized how talented Perry was, despite his extreme girth (Fridge weighed over 375 pounds).
Perry still carried the football on occasion and even caught a pass, but he was a defensive tackle by trade—and he proved to be a pretty good one.
Perry might have been great, but continuous battles with the scale torpedoed him and limited his career to good status.
Perry played 10 years in the NFL but he could have been so much more.
Fast forward to 2014. Another talented defensive tackle is finding that fast food and doughnuts are proving to be more challenging than offensive guards.
But it could be that it’s not just calories that are bedeviling Nick Fairley.
Fairley, the Lions’ DT who was the team’s first round pick in 2011, was supposed to be, by now, forming a ridiculous tandem with Ndamukong Suh on the defensive interior front for Detroit.
The two slabs of beef were supposed to make it damn near impossible for opponents to run against the Lions between the tackles. And as a bonus, the pass rush from the inside was to be terrifying.
After Fairley’s first three years in the league, the expectations have far exceeded reality.
Suh, for the most part, has (ahem) carried his weight.
Fairley has turned out to be one of the Lions’ most enigmatic players in memory, and considering the perplexing sorts who have worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, that’s saying a lot.
It’s easy to look at Fairley’s spotty production and blame it on his weight. After all, the next time the Lions are flagged for too many men on the field on defense, two of them might be Fairley.
But as William Perry proved, you can play at a high level even when the scales are begging you to get off.
The trouble with Nick Fairley isn’t just what goes on between his hips. It’s what happens between his ears.
The Lions have tried to challenge Fairley to get better. So far the results have been sketchy at best.
They declined the option on the fifth year of his rookie contract, making this season a make-or-break year of sorts for Fairley.
The Lions demoted Fairley this training camp to second string.
Things have gotten so desperate that even Suh, not exactly known as a player who exhibits model behavior himself off the field, tried to motivate Fairley recently by declaring the Auburn grad more talented than Suh, a three-time Pro Bowler.
Nothing has really worked.
Fairley sank on the depth chart because he deserved it—not just as a way to light a fire under his big butt.
MLive.com reported that Fairley has isolated himself from teammates and his practice efforts leave a lot to be desired.
“I don’t know where his head’s at. I wish I knew,” d-line cohort C.J. Mosley was quoted by NFL.com last week.
“If I knew, man, I’d grab his head and bring it back to where it’s supposed to be. I just don’t know.”
I once wrote that Shaun Rogers, aka “Big Baby,” another supremely talented defensive tackle who played for the Lions in the mid-to-late 2000s, could have owned Detroit.
Rogers was big but he played big. He was an unmovable force at times and when he rambled some 50-plus yards for a touchdown after a fumble recovery against Denver in 2007, the Ford Field crowd roared. The score was a punctuation mark to a 44-7 Lions victory—and a 6-2 record.
But after that game, Rogers didn’t want to talk to the media. He didn’t seize his moment, which I found odd and disturbing.
Maybe Rogers knew something that we didn’t, because after that win, the Lions lost 24 of their next 25 games.
Regardless, Shaun Rogers played big but only when the spirit moved him, which wasn’t nearly often enough to achieve greatness.
Refrigerator Perry survived 10 NFL seasons and while he probably didn’t realize his potential, his effort was never questioned—especially at the buffet.
Nick Fairley is four years into a pro football career that has been pocked with head scratching, eye rolling and frustrated sighs—from fans, teammates and coaches alike.
So far, no one has been able to push the right buttons.
This may be it for Fairley—his last stab at the NFL in anything more than benchwarming capacity. There’s a new coach, who seems to be more than willing to give Fairley the benefit of the doubt and who has almost gone out of his way to toss no. 98 a bone of praise that is quite possibly undeserving. Fairley, it seems, has a clean slate with Jim Caldwell.
But will it be enough?
Fairley showed up to camp weighing in at 305 pounds, but last week it was reported that the scales actually were tipping past 315.
“My eating habits have got in the way in the past two weeks,” Fairley told reporters as he tried to explain his pedestrian performances in practice and in the first two preseason games.
I don’t think the Lions should be worried about Fairley’s eating habits.
They should be worried about his thinking habits.
The scales that measure those are on the football field—if Fairley can ever get on it.
Twenty years ago, Scott Mitchell was the NFL’s biggest winner. Two decades later, he’s trying to be the Biggest Loser.
Lions fans no doubt snickered upon the news this week that former quarterback Mitchell was going to be among the contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” which is a competition show—in this case, to see who can lose the most weight.
And Mitchell has a lot to lose.
Mitchell, it was announced, checks in these days at 366 pounds. He is now as big as the behemoths assigned to protect him on the offensive line back in the day.
It’s fitting that Mitchell has a lot to lose, because never did an NFL quarterback gain as much as Mitchell did from someone else’s Achilles heel injury.
I have often wondered if Mitchell sends Dan Marino a Christmas card every year. Or maybe a check would be more appropriate.
In 1994, Mitchell was a free agent. He parlayed an injury to Marino’s Achilles in 1993 into big bucks with the Lions.
I remember watching the game where Miami’s Marino went down. It was in Cleveland. The play was innocuous. Marino, who was never much of a scrambler, got some happy feet in the pocket during a pass rush and in a freak way, landed funny on his Achilles.
He heard that dreadful “pop” sound and went down like a sack of doorknobs.
The date was October 10, 1993.
Mitchell was 25 years old at the time, a fourth round draft pick in 1990 out of Utah. In his first three seasons as a Dolphin, Mitchell threw eight NFL passes, completing two.
Now he was called upon to replace the greatest QB in Dolphins history and one of the best to ever play the position in NFL history.
The Dolphins had a bye week after Marino’s injury, which put him out for the rest of the season. In a panic, the Dolphins signed 39 year-old Steve DeBerg as insurance.
But DeBerg didn’t know the Dolphins’ offense. Mitchell did. Three seasons plus five games holding a clipboard teaches you something, I suppose.
Mitchell won his first start, a 41-27 win over the dreadful (at the time) Indianapolis Colts. Mitchell completed 12 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.
The next week, Mitchell was much better, against a much better opponent.
Going up against the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Montana, Mitchell went 22-for-33 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. The Dolphins won, 30-10 to improve to 6-1 on the season.
Then, a loss to the New York Jets. Mitchell was 23/44 for 297 yards with a TD and an interception. A dose of reality struck.
The following week, Mitchell was bad before an injury put him out of the game. Miami coach Don Shula turned to DeBerg as the Dolphins season was teetering.
DeBerg went 2-2 as the starter before he relinquished the job back to Mitchell, who was now healed.
The Dolphins’ 7-2 start spiraled into a 9-7 finish, which put them out of the playoffs.
But it was Mitchell’s personal performance in relief of Marino that made him a hot commodity as the 1994 free agent season beckoned, despite the team’s decline toward the end of the season.
His numbers as Marino’s replacement weren’t gaudy but they weren’t bad, either: 133/233 (57.1); 1,773 yards; 12 TD; 8 interceptions. His record was 3-4.
It wasn’t Johnny Unitas stuff, but the Lions, as usual, were desperate for a quarterback.
They had tried a triumvirate of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware in 1993, and even though the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, that three-headed monster wasn’t going to be the answer at the game’s most important position.
So the Lions gave Mitchell’s agent a ring in early 1994.
If Mitchell was good enough for Shula to make do with, then who were the Lions to question?
Mitchell signed a fat contract with Detroit. The Lions finally found their quarterback!
There was a lot to like about Scott Mitchell in 1994. He was 6-foot-6. He was agile. He had learned the position at the feet of Marino and Shula, two Hall of Famers. And he had been pressed into action in 1993 and while the results weren’t overwhelming, nor were they atrocious.
Mitchell struggled to start the 1994 season before he went down with an injury about halfway through the season. The injury was well-timed, because the fans were well on their way to dismembering Mitchell on sports talk radio and around the water cooler—and at the Silverdome.
He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, which in the era of rules designed to punish defensive backs, was shockingly bad.
Veteran Dave Krieg took over for Mitchell and led the Lions to the playoffs. But Krieg split as a free agent after the season.
Mitchell, healed, set records for the Lions in 1995 in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. The Lions made the playoffs for the third year in a row, with three different starting quarterbacks, which is just like them.
But under the postseason spotlight in Philadelphia, Mitchell laid one of the biggest eggs of any quarterback in league playoff history.
Mitchell was 13/29 with a TD and four interceptions—all in the first half, after which the Eagles led the Lions, 38-7. One of the four picks was returned for a touchdown.
Two years later, the Lions made the playoffs again and Mitchell pulled another infamous postseason stunt.
In Tampa, running a sneak play, the players all got up from the turf accept for one: Scott Mitchell.
Mitchell was down and he stayed down for several minutes. It was a stinking sneak play but Mitchell acted like he had been shot.
He was carted off the field on a stretcher. The Lions lost.
Whatever doubts Lions fans—and teammates—had about Mitchell’s durability and, frankly, courage, were confirmed on the field at Tampa in that playoff game.
Two games into the 1998 season, after throwing a pick-six in overtime at home against Cincinnati, Mitchell was demoted to being rookie Charlie Batch’s backup.
Three years later, Mitchell was out of the league.
He coached some high school football at his alma mater (2008-2012) before resigning to spend more time at his software business.
Now he’s 366 pounds and wants to be the Biggest Loser.
Mitchell turned his good fortune due to Marino’s injury into two bad (for the Lions) contracts—his original one signed in 1994 and an extension a couple years later. Marino’s popped Achilles made Scott Mitchell millions.
According to Mitchell’s bio on “The Biggest Loser” website, the former QB suffers from sleep apnea and high blood pressure. He blames poor diet choices and a busy lifestyle for the startling weight gain.
Mitchell’s era at quarterback is one of many dark spots in Lions history. But his father died earlier this year from obesity-related issues and if there’s anytime to root for Scott Mitchell to lose, it’s now.
The irony is that, 20 years ago, when he came to Detroit, Mitchell had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.
The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.
In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.
Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.
But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.
Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.
Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.
The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.
While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.
But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.
The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.
It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.
Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.
Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.
The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.
Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.
“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.
“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.
“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”
The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.
The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.
But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.
Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.
Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.
Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.
Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.
But that’s all ancient history now, right?
Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.
He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.
I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.
It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.
“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.
The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.
The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.
During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”
The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.
There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.
The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.
But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.
Chemistry is the worst word in sports.
It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.
Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.
Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.
It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.
Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.
This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.
The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.
Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.
So why can’t we just let him play football?
There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.
Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?
You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.
Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.
There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.
Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.
At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.
Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.
Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.
Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.
Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.
The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.
I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.
I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.
Now, back to Suh.
The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.
They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.
So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.
He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.
He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.
But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.
Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.
He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.
The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.
There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.
He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.
Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.
But that’s OK.
One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.
Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.
Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?
Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?
If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.
I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.
The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.
Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.
Starting on Thursday, May 8 and continuing throughout the weekend, Las Vegas will have nothing on the Big Apple.
With apologies to “Guys and Dolls,” 32 high rollers will gather and hold the world’s second oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.
It’s time for another NFL Draft.
The interviews are over. The combine is history. The Wonderlic scores are in. The mock drafts are (mercifully) shoved aside.
It’s time to roll the dice.
Entire futures of franchises are at stake. Coaches’ fates are in the hands of the players whose names will be read by the Commissioner. Fans are on the edge of their seats.
Luck, be a lady.
The terrific irony of all the preparation, speculation, mock drafts and scuttlebutt over which player will go to which team is…that all of it really doesn’t matter.
You can’t count cards at the NFL Draft. The house usually wins. Things often don’t go as planned.
Luck can be a blessing or a curse.
The NFL Draft is full of cases of “What if?”
The Lions, like so many teams, know that as well as anybody.
In 1960 a group of eight men called themselves The Foolish Club.
They were the original owners of the teams of the American Football League. They would challenge the mighty NFL, both on the field and in the courts. It didn’t take long before the AFL began challenging the NFL on draft day.
Four players who would become stars in the new league—in some cases, Pro Football Hall of Fame members—could have been Detroit Lions.
Should have been, really.
The Lions didn’t draft poorly in the ‘60s—they just didn’t have the best of luck, or the deepest of pockets.
The decade’s drafts would eventually bring star players such as Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney and Greg Landry to Detroit. But there could have been so much more.
The fledgling AFL screwed up the Lions’ plans.
It started in 1960—the AFL’s first year in existence.
Johnny Robinson was a gem of a player from Louisiana State University. He played in the backfield on both sides of the football—a stupendous defender in the secondary and a nifty ball carrier as a halfback on offense.
So heralded was Robinson in college that the Lions snapped him up as the third overall pick of the 1960 Draft.
But the Foolish Club liked Robinson, too. The Dallas Texans drafted Robinson as well.
The Lions of the established NFL and the Texans of the Foolish Club engaged in one of the first bidding wars between the two leagues.
The Foolish Club won. Robinson went to the Texans, who would become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Johnny Robinson played for the Texans/Chiefs for 12 years. He made nine All-Pro teams. He intercepted 57 passes as a safety in the AFL and NFL. Such was his impact that when Robinson intercepted a pass, the Chiefs’ record was 35-1-1.
Robinson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a member of the AFL’s All-Time team. He is considered by many to be one of the top five defensive backs in pro football history.
And the Lions lost him to the Foolish Club, in the AFL’s maiden year.
John Hadl was a multi-dimensional player from Kansas who played halfback and quarterback—and with such aplomb that the school named him as its Player of the Century.
Hadl was an All-American quarterback in his senior year of 1961, and in the 1962 draft the Lions took him with the 10th overall pick.
The San Diego Chargers of the Foolish Club picked Hadl, too.
The Lions had a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon at quarterback throughout the 1960s. A rifle-armed guy like John Hadl would have looked very nice in a Honolulu Blue jersey.
But Hadl, like Johnny Robinson two years earlier, snubbed the Lions and signed with the Chargers, who were coached by pass-happy Sid Gillman.
John Hadl would play 16 years of pro football and throw for over 33,000 yards, almost 27,000 of those coming with Gillman and the Chargers.
How would the Lions’ fortunes have changed with Hadl as their QB?
In 1964, there was a towering, quick defensive end from the University of Buffalo named Gerry Philbin. At Buffalo, Philbin earned all sorts of honors, including Little All America.
The Lions selected Philbin in the third round of the 1964 draft.
But once again, the Foolish Club fouled things up.
Philbin was also drafted by the New York Jets, a team just a hop, skip and a jump from Philbin’s home town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Philbin signed with the Jets, again leaving the Lions holding the bag.
Gerry Philbin became a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team and recorded 15 sacks for the 1968 Jets, winners of Super Bowl III.
And he did it all while not playing for the Lions.
The Lions kept drafting well but signing poorly.
It happened to them again the year after drafting Philbin.
Fred Biletnikoff was a sure-handed receiver out of Florida State—the school’s first consensus All-American.
The Lions could have used a playmaking receiver in 1965, with their plodding offense, led by unspectacular quarterbacks not named John Hadl.
Inspired by Biletnikoff’s college greatness at catching passes, the Lions selected him in the third round of the 1965 draft.
So did the Oakland Raiders of the AFL.
Naturally, Biletnikoff spurned the Lions and signed with Al Davis and the Raiders.
They named an award for Biletnikoff in 1994. It goes to the best receiver in college football. Biletnikoff was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 after a stellar, 14-year career with the Raiders.
What might the Lions have been in the 1960s and ‘70s, if Johnny Robinson, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Fred Biletnikoff hadn’t spurned them?
The Lions crapped out on all four of these AFL stars. Their stingy ways scared them all off. The house won.
It’s all ancient history now, but isn’t it the unalienable right of the Lions fan to ask “What if?”