Green: Lions creep slowly away from Mickey Mouse status

Jerry Green
The Detroit News
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Funny stuff can happen in the smug and stodgy NFL.

On this particular Sunday, there were Lions fans dancing on the field. Some attacked the goalposts. My faded memory has retained an image of one of the delirious faithful swinging from the crossbar.

There was joy as Detroit displayed its playoff mentality.

This was plenty funny.

The Lions in their final game of the season had clinched a spot in Pete Rozelle’s Super Bowl playoffs. It was the first Sunday of January in 1983 — and the Lions had gone out and taken care of business at the Silverdome. They had defeated the Packers 27-24 to qualify.

They qualified with a 4-5 record.

Never before in the history of the august NFL had a team with a loser’s record reached the playoffs. The Lions, along with the original Cleveland Browns, made the playoffs at 4-5 that year.

Down in the Lions’ triumphant locker room – as the fans celebrated their team’s achievement – William Clay Ford snapped out one of his famous quips.

“The Mickey Mouse playoffs,” said the now-deceased distinguished franchise owner who so rarely had the joy of seeing his Detroit team reach the playoffs.

Bill Ford had a knack of putting matters into perspective.

What a shame

That NFL 1982-83 season was “Mickey Mouse” because the athletes went on strike and seven games vanished from the schedules. The playoff scheme was altered. The top eight teams in each conference were shoved into the playoffs.

Rather a shameful side move away from history.

But the great unwashed who backed the Lions regarded reaching the playoffs with a sub.-500 season worth a celebration. The Lions — following history — would, of course, lose their playoff game to Washington, 31-7.

This current Lions season, with its 1-7 start and present 4-7 record, strangely resembles the condensed season of 1982.

The Lions — after defeating the Packers and Raiders and demolishing the Eagles on Thanksgiving — have a streaker’s shot at reaching Roger Goodell’s Super Bowl 50 playoffs.

If they do — and fans make merry again — it would be another episode of Mickey Mouse playoffs.

That sort of stuff happens occasionally.

The Seahawks went busting into the playoffs after the 2010 season despite a 7-9 record.

Once in the postseason, the Seahawks won the wild-card game over the Saints, 41-31. Seattle was finally ousted in the second round by the Bears.

But making the playoffs as losers built a winning foundation for the Seahawks. They went on to play in the last two Super Bowls, beating the Broncos in 2014 and controversially losing to the Patriots last February.

Now, the revived Lions are raging with confidence and exuberant with victory. A month ago any diehard who forecast that the Lions would enter the December stretch with a three-game winning streak would have been carted away.

And any Green Bay pessimist who would have issued at the same time a prediction that Packers would lose four of five games in November would had his head jammed into cheese barrel.

So it is!

Five ziggys

And so they face each other on national television next Thursday from the Ford Field studio in a crucial match in a cockeyed season.

As much as Detroit dances right now, who among the dancers would fail to admit that the Packers are a superior football team to the Lions?

But we repeat — funny stuff can happen in the NFL.

And sometimes, the moon looks blue.

The catalyst, this time, was not an athlete on the field. It was not a coach raising the volume on his pep talks.

It was the boss of the Detroit Lions performing a profound, but simple act.

The revival of the Lions in November of 2015 is based directly on Martha Firestone Ford’s decision to start kicking butt.

A wily, tough, dignified little lady of 90 — so long a keen observer the Lions — is author of the quintuple ziggy. Five guys who started the season in positions of authority with the Lions were dumped in midseason.

Mrs. Ford does not drop the clever bon-mots that her late husband Bill did. Her critiques always have been incisive.

So there went Joe Lombardi, offensive coordinator; Jeremiah Washburn, offensive line coach; and Terry Heffernan, assistant offensive line coach in the first swoop. And then those closest to the top were lopped off: Tom Lewand, club president, and Martin Mayhew, general manager.

Funny — the gossip about the ultimate ziggy for head coach Jim Caldwell and the wisdom of trading away Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson seems to have faded away.

Hired as a one-man search committee for the Lions’ next general manager was Ernie Acorsi, an ultra-bright and ultra-savvy NFL veteran franchise constructor. Ernie, an old friend, climbed high up the ladder from a beginning as a sport journalist to general manager of three NFL clubs. He was groomed pretty well, I’d say, by Joe Paterno while working at Penn State.

There is a new sense of progress with the Lions. They seem to be building a winning foundation.

But we’ve sensed such forward movement before in the 58 years since the Lions last won a championship. Every jump ahead was followed by a lapse.

It’ll take some sort of mighty December for the Lions to squeeze ahead into the playoffs this season. But another version of the Mickey Mouse playoffs is faint possibility.

Anything is possible this season in Martha Ford’s year of the quintuple ziggy.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive columns Saturday’s at

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