As a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, every football season comes with strange circumstances. My affiliation is merely by default, being born in the Detroit area, and as a result I inherited a hapless team that not only fails to deliver, but often fails to even show up. When the football season does start, there’s never passionate discussions about going all the way this year, it’s asking how bad will they embarrass us this year? How hard will this year’s top draft pick fall on his face? How many games will be blacked out on TV because the game didn’t sell out? I’ve seen more Lions games on TV living in Columbus than I ever saw growing up in Detroit.
Out of necessity, there’s an unwritten rule for Lions fans that we don’t speak of openly. Root for the team, wear the colors, but go ahead and pick another franchise that you’ll follow all the way to the Super Bowl. For me and my brother growing up, that team was the Pittsburgh Steelers. I remember the thrill every Sunday watching Terry Bradshaw hand the ball to the unstoppable Franco Harris or going long to Lynn Swann for the score, and Mean Joe Greene leading the “Steel Curtain” by terrorizing anyone who came within proximity. Together in a show of perfection they lead black and gold to victory each week, and we were pumped. After we came off that high, we turned on the Lions and crossed our fingers, hoping they would at least score a touchdown this time. Often we left disappointed.
I remember the years of Barry Sanders. From the word “go” he was the best running back we ever laid eyes on, wowing fans over the fact that yes, he did actually play for this bad team. He was the only hint of pure excellence that wore a uniform for the Lions within memory, and they actually got to go to the playoffs in the ’90s a few times thanks to him. Oh, but it was too good to be true, for he retired early because after years and years of performing for mediocrity, he left with his spirit broken and love of the game destroyed. Any good feelings of that era was erased by one sad announcement in 1998. We fans were forced to turn away with heads hung in shame, wondering how much ridicule we’d have to endure from this point forward.
I never ever believed though, after all those years of watching missed tackles, dropped throws, crappy quarterbacks, stupid penalties, loads of field goals that should have been touchdowns (the Lions have always had great kickers) and just plain bad football that it could get worse. I remember going to the games, sitting among legions of Bears, Vikings, or Packers fans at the Pontiac Silverdome, hoping for a day when I could sit among my own kind and cheer. Team CEO and general manager Matt Millen ruined all hopes. It takes a very rare talent to take a long history of mediocrity and turn it into a total unmitigated disaster. Very rare.
Let’s give the man his due:
- The overall record since Millen took over in 2001 is 31-84. Watching the Lions play all of those years, I’m wondering how they pulled off 31.
- The Lions went three years without a road victory from 2001-2003, the only team in NFL history ever to do that.
- Three first round draft picks, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and Joey Harrington not only didn’t work out, but they are no longer in football. (Harrington was recently released by the New Orleans Saints, five days after signing him.)
- Three coaches were part of this era, each with winning percentages of .156, .349, and .286 percent respectively.
- There were no division championships, although they haven’t won one of those since 1993, long before Millen did damage.
- They never had a winning season.
- They never finished higher than third.
- Playoffs? Um, no.
- Fans not only chanted “Fire Millen” at Lions games, but at Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers games as well.
- The highest scoring player in the entire era is Jason Hanson, who’s the kicker.
Is there hope for us long suffering fans since Millen is now among the unemployed? There’s still a primary culprit of all this shameful history and that’s the owner, William Clay Ford. Ever since he took over the team in 1964, the Lions have won a total of one playoff game. He gave Millen a five-year contract extension in 2005, right around the time that fans were all spewing outrage over the man having a job. He was convinced that Millen was the man for the job because he liked him, riding with hopes that Millen would eventually rise the team back to their glory years of mediocrity.
It finally took an outcry from Ford’s son, Bill Ford Jr., the team’s vice chairman, who said in a statement in to a reporter on Monday, “The fans deserve better. And if I had the authority, I would have fired the general manager.” Later, in front of a group of reporters, he repeated a similarly worded statement and answered the question over whether Millen should leave, “Uh, yes I do.” Hmm, the fans deserve better. I like that thinking. Did that actually come from someone in the Lions front office?
Bill Ford, Jr. is a Lions fan’s only hope. He was an infant when the Lions won their last championship, so hopefully when his turn comes to run this team, he’ll be able to create that special memory for himself and fans that haven’t yet had that pleasure. You know, all of us under the age of 50. After all, we aren’t getting younger.
Until then, my team of choice this year is the Indianapolis Colts. Go Peyton!