Lions Celebrate First Win Since 2007
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' record for NFL futility will not be challenged in 2009 - and that's just fine with the Detroit Lions.
After becoming the first team to post a 0-16 regular season in 2008, Detroit ended its 19-game losing streak Sunday by beating the suddenly reeling Washington Redskins 19-14 at Ford Field.
Several Lions veterans left the field with tears in their eyes. Rookie safety Louis Delmas leaped into the stands and rejoiced with fans. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, who knows a thing or two about celebrations, doused first-year head coach Jim Schwartz with water in a jubilant locker room.
"I'm trying to figure out why we're so happy when we expect to win," a beaming Schwartz shouted amid the room's laughter before exhorting his team back to the field for a victory lap and celebration with the Detroit fans.
"I know that's a monkey off our back."
More than that.
"We not only got the monkey off our back, we got King Kong off," team owner William Clay Ford said. "I'm hoping this gets us over that hump and gives us a winning attitude."
Detroit (1-2) is cresting that hump with new leadership in the front office, on the sideline and under center - areas the Redskins might be addressing amid a 1-2 start that seems far more dire in the nation's capital.
The Lions' outpouring of emotion Sunday was understandable. The club's previous win came Dec. 23, 2007. Only the Buccaneers, a 1976 expansion team that started 0-26, had lost more consecutive games than the Lions, who have failed to take advantage of equalizers such as free agency and the salary cap, which were not available to those Bucs.
"It's awesome," said Lions rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose third professional start was by far his best. "The fans came out and supported us like they always do here." (More on that statement later.)
Stafford entered Sunday with a league-worst 40.5 passer rating and five interceptions, but he completed 21 of 36 passes for 241 yards. His 21-yard touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson capped a tone-setting, 99-yard drive in the first quarter that began after the Lions stuffed Clinton Portis on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
"I didn't think we'd be denied getting in the end zone, and we were," Redskins coach Jim Zorn said of his decision to go for the touchdown. "But there was no way a team could drive 99 yards on us was my thought."
He thought wrong. The Lions flipped the field, flipped the script and never trailed.
"Great for not only the guys in the locker room, but the fans, the town, everybody," said Stafford, who didn't commit a turnover. "Hopefully we can keep this thing going a little bit."
A 'W' but no local TV
Detroit's victory had to be music to the ears of Motown... largely because the game was blacked out and most of the local populace did not witness the breakthrough game.
The announced crowd was 40,896, the smallest in Ford Field's eight-season history and the worst draw for a Lions home game in two decades.
And though busting into the win column is clearly a step in the right direction, the Lions still have plenty to prove.
The Lions are 32-99 - most of it under the stewardship of former club president Matt Millen - since 2001, easily the worst record in the NFL over that span.
Millen's drafts were riddled with busts such as first-round selections Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. Linebacker Ernie Sims - a first-rounder in 2006 - is the only player drafted by Millen between 2002 and 2006 still on the roster.
But the Lions were a laughingstock long before Millen. Their last playoff appearance came in the 1999 season. Their last title came in 1957, and they've won one postseason game since.
"The fans have put up with a lot," said kicker Jason Hanson, who hasn't seen many wins since the Lions drafted him in 1992.
Detroit is accustomed to winners. The Tigers are in the hunt for their second American League pennant in four years. The Pistons have three NBA titles since 1989. And the Red Wings - who have brought the Stanley Cup home four times since 1997 - are so popular, the city's nickname is "Hockeytown."
The Lions, who now face a difficult three-week stretch - at the Chicago Bears, at home vs. the Steelers and at the Green Bay Packers - can only dream of achieving such heights.
And no matter how many marketing campaigns they devise or incentives they offer fans who are reeling more from the U.S. auto industry's demise than from the Lions' demise (some season-ticket packages are being offered for $230), Schwartz knows it will take more than an occasional "W'' to make the Lions kings of the ultra-competitive NFL jungle, much less their local pro sports hierarchy.
"Actions speak louder than words," Schwartz said at the team's annual kickoff luncheon this month. "You guys don't need a new slogan. You don't need a new billboard. That stuff doesn't last. It's doing the right thing, having a well-arranged plan, having a vision."
That vision began to crystallize after Millen's ouster.
General manager Martin Mayhew, who took over for Millen in September 2008, exported wideout Roy Williams (the team's top pick in 2004) to the Dallas Cowboys for three draft picks less than a month after he took the reins. Coach Rod Marinelli was fired after the 0-16 debacle, and Schwartz was signed to a four-year deal in January.
Then Mayhew began upgrading a roster that had few building blocks outside of third-year wideout Calvin Johnson (1,331 receiving yards and a league-best 12 touchdown catches despite constant double coverage in 2008) and promising sophomore tailback Kevin Smith, who ran for 101 yards Sunday before exiting because of a shoulder injury.
Mayhew bolstered a defense that surrendered 517 points in 2008 (second most in NFL history), trading for Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson before signing Foote, a starter on the Steelers' last two Super Bowl teams, a Detroit native and a Michigan alum.
Five starters in Sunday's game were products of the 2009 draft, the crown jewel of which was Stafford, 21, the Lions' reward for 0-16 infamy.
He is expected to succeed where Chuck Long, Andre Ware and Harrington, among others, failed. The Lions haven't had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Greg Landry in 1971.
"We've still got a long way to go, but we've got a quarterback, and that's a big piece of the puzzle," vice chairman Bill Ford said.
Disharmony in D.C.
The Redskins suddenly seem poised to overtake the Lions as the NFL team most in disarray.
Washington squeaked past the downtrodden St. Louis Rams 9-7 at home in Week 2 - the Rams now own the league's longest drought with a 13-game skid - but a caldron of simmering turmoil seems set to boil over.
"You either want it or you don't. A lot of these guys don't want it," Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Jason Campbell is in a contract year and has never had a chokehold on the quarterback's job.
The D.C. radio waves buzzed with fans unhappy with Zorn's play-calling - he's sure to be asked about the final play, when Campbell dumped the ball off rather than take a shot in the end zone for a possible game-winning touchdown from the Detroit 36 - and the coach was being peppered with questions about his job security before this loss.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the $100 million free agent acquisition, suffered a right hip injury Sunday.
Are changes on the way? Owner Dan Snyder has never shied from shake-ups, though he hasn't sacked a coach in-season since firing Norv Turner after a 7-6 start in 2000.
Campbell says a major course correction would be premature.
"People can't put this all on one person," said Campbell, who passed for 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception but did much of his damage late trailing 19-7. "And if you're finger-pointing, you're wrong."
Haynesworth seemed to think some wouldn't follow Campbell's advice. "It don't matter if Joe Gibbs was here or any all-star coach, they're still going to point fingers," he said.
But Lions fans can proudly point their fingers in the air.
For at least one day, their team was No. 1.