DETROIT – These are strange days in the National Football League. Three weeks into the season, there are just three undefeated teams. The defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are one of them. The other two are not exactly the usual suspects: the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions.
As impressive as the Bills’ 3-0 start has been — including a Week 1 blowout win over Kansas City, and back-to-back comeback wins against Oakland and New England — it’s the Lions turnaround that has been the most astonishing. Dating back to the final four games of last season, Detroit has won seven straight games for the first time since 1995.
“Detroit fans ‘ride or die’ with their teams no matter what for the most part,” said Demetrus Stokes, a radio host from Detroit. “The people of Detroit take pride in hard-working teams because we are hard-working people. I think that the with the city’s struggles we look at the Lions as a symbol of hope and something we can take pride in.”
The Lions are 3-0 for the first time 1980, when they started 4-0. They are generating legitimate talk of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Rookie of the Year defensive end Ndamukong Suh, and third-year quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is healthy for the first time in his career, is leading the charge.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever seen them 3-0,” said Harold Shelton, a television producer and native Detroiter. “I wasn’t even born in 1980 when they were 3-0. This team definitely has a chance to make the playoffs. However, it all relies on the arm of Stafford.”
After making the playoffs six times in the 1990s and narrowly missing the postseason in 2000, Lions owner William Clay Ford hired former NFL player and analyst Matt Millen to take over as the team’s president and general manager, hoping to change the culture of the team. What happened next was unthinkable.
Millen had no prior experience as a GM or coach and it quickly showed. His poor draft choices, bad coaching hires, and ownership apathy led to the Lions losing 121 games from 2001-2010 — the most in the NFL.
“It was one of the worst general managing jobs in the history of sports,” said Shelton said. “It completely gutted the team of any chance of being relevant. I wouldn’t wish a run of ineptitude that bad on any fan base.”
During the Millen Era, there were two 13-loss seasons, two 14-loss seasons, and, in 2008, the Lions became the only team to go winless in a 16-game season. By contrast, every other team in the NFL had at least one winning season in that span and only the Bills and Houston Texans failed to make the playoffs in that stretch along with Detroit.
Millen, who was given a 5-year contract extension after the Lions went 3-13 in 2005, was fired three games into the 2008 season. His assistant Martin Mayhew, who immediately went to the arduous task of rebuilding the team, replaced him.
Despite of all this, the city has remained strongly behind them. Except for 2008 and 2009, Lions games at Ford Field, and previously the Pontiac Silverdome, routinely sell out.
The excitement for the Lions in Detroit, and around the state of Michigan, is palpable. In good times and bad, the Lions dominate the newspapers, television stations, and sports talk radio. A Lions topic can carry six hours of radio, regardless of the time of year.
They are more popular than Detroit’s three other pro teams — the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons – as well as the two major colleges, Michigan State and Michigan. The other three pro teams have won a combined 18 championships.
The Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cups, with the last coming in 2008. The Pistons won the NBA Championship in 2004. The Tigers lost the 2006 World Series and are back in the MLB postseason for the second time in five years. Still, in Detroit, it is about the Honolulu blue and silver.
“This past decade has been rough and yet we still got an O’Brien (NBA Title), a couple of Cups and a World Series appearance,” said Terrell Austin, 28, a Detroit native now living in Atlanta. “I can think of a few cities who would trade for that. So now it’s the Lions’ turn to shine.”
The Lions’ last NFL title was in 1957, predating the Super Bowl by nine years. Their only playoff victory since then was a 38-6 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 5, 1992 in the NFC Divisional Playoff. That team, which lost the NFC Championship Game in Washington the next week, was led by Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades, Herman Moore, Erik Kramer, and Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.
“They are one of (four) teams to never appear in the Super Bowl,” Shelton said. “They’ve won one playoff game in 54 years. However, as a Detroiter, I never stopped supporting them.”
The team has been hell-bent on changing the culture of failure that has hung over them last decade, and the hard work is starting to pay off under the leadership of Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. Prior to this win streak, the Lions had won just four of their previous 44 games.
They ended a 10-game losing streak against Green Bay on Dec. 12, 2010 with a 7-3 win at Ford Field, setting off the current win streak.
The following week in Tampa, they ended an NFL-record 26-game road-losing streak (a record the Lions originally set, losing 24 straight from 2001-2003).
They won their final four games of the season, finished 6-10 and stoked optimism all over the state of Michigan. A preseason victory over the Patriots was treated more like a playoff win by the rabid Lions fans.
Along with ending the record road-losing streak – they have won four straight on the road for the first time in 49 years — the Lions are exorcising other personal demons. This past Sunday’s 26-23 overtime win over the Vikings in Minnesota was their first victory at the Metrodome since Dec. 14, 1997 and may have been the biggest Lions’ victory in a decade.
“I said it before, it’s not hope anymore,” said Lions center Dominic Raiola, one of three players who has been with the Lions since the slide began in 2001. “We’ve been through hell and back. We’ve been 0-16. Can you get worse than that? No. When we go three-and-out, it’s like, all right, let’s get back up and chop that tree down. By the end of the game we had chopped at it enough that it fell.”
The Lions trailed 20-0 at halftime, before mounting a stunning comeback led by Johnson, Stafford, and the Lions’ revamped defense. The play of the game came when Stafford frantically threw a 40-yard pass to Johnson on the fourth play of overtime.
Johnson, who finished with seven catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, made a spectacular falling-down fingertip catch over Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin at the 14-yard line. On the next play, Jason Hanson — in his 20th season in Detroit — kicked the game-winning 28-yard field goal sending the city of Detroit, and Twitter, into a frenzy.
At one point, “Lions 3-0” was the number one trending topic on Twitter. The Lions’ fan base has been in hibernation for 10 years and appears to finally be waking up.
“The Lions represent me,” said David Arlow, 50, of Southfield, Mich. “Proud, hardworking, loyal to a fault. Much like our city, (the Lions are) much maligned, mocked and trashed – in some ways by our own doing – but still proud, working harder and striving to be better.”
The Lions head to Dallas to face the Cowboys on Sunday, before returning home next week to face the Chicago Bears in the first Monday Night Football game ever at Ford Field and the Lions’ first since 2001. Tickets for that game sold out in less than an hour.
The Lions have started to renew the faith of older fans, awaken a new generation of football fans in Detroit, and allow them to think of the unthinkable.
“If the Lions ever made it to the Super Bowl, let alone won it, it would be the biggest and most anticipated game in the history of Detroit sports,” Shelton said. “Hey, if the Saints can win the Super Bowl and become relevant, then why not us?”