Niyo: Browns’ woes recall futility of 0-16 Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Been there, done that. The Cleveland Browns are flirting with matching the worst season in Detroit Lions history.

There were warning signs that went unheeded, hints they all missed. And looking back on the infamy now, it’s easy to see where it all went wrong.

In fact, for Dan Orlovsky, the last man standing at quarterback for the Detroit Lions in that winless 2008 season — and maybe the best man to ask about this year’s Cleveland Browns, who at 0-15 are on the verge of joining the club — the hard part is deciding exactly when it dawned on him.

Best he can figure, it was during an early-season film session, not long after team president Matt Millen had been fired and shortly before the Lions’ starting quarterback, Jon Kitna, one of Orlovsky’s close friends, had been exiled to injured reserve.

“It was unlike any team meeting I’d ever been a part of before,” said Orlovsky, a fourth-year pro who’d never started a game prior to ’08. “It just didn’t have a professional feel to it. It turned into a finger-pointing contest, everybody blaming everybody. … And I just remember sitting back thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine this is how it’s supposed to be done.’”

Clearly, it wasn’t. But by then, the die had been cast. And nearly a decade later, what’s done is done, and can never be undone. Which is why the 34-year-old Orlovsky, recently retired after a 12-year NFL career, is on the phone from his home in suburban Philadelphia, rehashing the misery of 0-16 and offering a final warning to a Cleveland team that’s one loss away from matching the ’08 Lions’ record for futility.

“People ask me why do you talk about it?” Orlovsky said. “Well, what am I gonna do? Avoid it? Pretend it didn’t happen? No, you can’t. And to be honest, I don’t want those guys to have to go through it.”

Orlovsky’s uniquely qualified to talk about that, too, having gone through it twice. Once as a backup-turned-starter in 2008, and then again in 2011 in Indianapolis, when then-head coach Jim Caldwell named him the starter in Week 12 of a Colts team that was 0-11 on the season, having lost All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning to neck surgery.

Lions fans know the feeling. A Browns supporter hid his face a couple of weekends back as Cleveland marched closer to a winless season.

‘Hard to put into words’

“I remember getting the news and going, ‘Oh, man, I know the reality of this situation.’ I knew what the long-term effects were,” said Orlovsky, who did manage to lead the Colts to a victory a few weeks later — two wins in a row, actually — to avoid another dubious distinction.

“It’s hard to put into words what that felt like, to be honest. To go through it again and get it done and not have to do that twice, it was huge for me, personally. Because I think it reaffirmed a lot of what I thought about myself and my basic beliefs.”

And that’s the other part that’s hard to explain. How losing every game in a season — something only the ’08 Lions and 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) have done in the Super Bowl era — can affect a man’s psyche.

Orlovsky said he’s thankful not only for a second chance in Indianapolis. But also for a second stint in Detroit at the end of his career, spending three years as Matthew Stafford’s backup from 2014-16. He left as a free agent for Houston in 2009, and never expected to return.

“But people opened up to me a little more and didn’t hate me as much and I gained an even better appreciation for the fans there,” he said. “I honestly feel terrible that (0-16 season) is part of their experience. I feel bad about it, and I wish I could change it.”

But he can’t. No one can. Just as no one could have expected that 0-16 season. Sure, the Lions had lost seven of their last eight in 2007 after a 6-2 start, but the feeling was that turnovers — and the Mike Martz-led offense that completely abandoned the run — had played a big part in that. So after some offseason changes, the Lions went 4-0 in the preseason, “And I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, we’re gonna be really good,’” Orlovsky said, laughing at how naïve it sounds in hindsight.

That thought proved fleeting, of course. The Lions got walloped in Atlanta in their regular season opener, as rookie Matt Ryan tossed a 62-yard touchdown pass on the third play from scrimmage — his first NFL pass attempt — and Michael Turner tore up the Lions defense for 220 rushing yards.

Things quick unraveled from there. Bill Ford Jr. forced his father’s hand in firing Millen. Kitna, who’d clashed with offensive coordinator Jim Colletto and others, was put on injured reserve, replaced by Orlovsky, who was almost immediately ridiculed after inadvertently running out of the back of the end zone for a safety a 12-10 loss at Minnesota in his first start. A month later, an out-of-shape Daunte Culpepper started at quarterback just five days after getting signed off the street as a free agent. (In all, five different quarterbacks took regular-season snaps for the Lions in ’08.) Meanwhile, interim general manager traded away receiver Roy Williams in a blockbuster deal with the Dallas Cowboys.

At some point in all that mess, with rookies in a fog and veterans beginning to check out, Orlovsky admits, “That’s when you realized, ‘Whoa, we’re really, really bad.’”

Indeed, a season that began with the Lions’ marketing pitch of “Do you believe in now?” ended with the head coach practically speaking in tongues, telling reporters at one point, “I believe in the invisible.”

‘A funeral every single day’

Five of the Lions’ eight home games were blacked out on local TV and that was probably a good thing, since the team was outscored 292-116 at Ford Field — the worst home point differential in league history.

By the end of November, after the Lions had been embarrassed in blowout losses at home to Jacksonville and Tennessee — the Titans openly laughing at them while handing Detroit its worst-ever Thanksgiving defeat — it was obvious Rod Marinelli, in his third season as the Lions’ head coach after a decade of success as an assistant with Tampa Bay, was powerless to stop the slide.

“I went in with all my beliefs from Tampa, and none of it worked,” Marinelli told me back in 2014. “It got smashed. It just got smashed and it got smashed. But I never relented on it. I believe in it so much, what we were doing, I stayed the course.”

Once that course was set, there was no correcting it. Not with a historically awful defense coached by Marinelli’s son-in-law, Joe Barry — the Lions’ 517 points allowed were topped only by the 1981 Baltimore Colts — and a bare-bones offense led by an over-matched coordinator in Colletto, who’d never coach again in the NFL after 2008.

Quarterback Dan Orlovsky leaves Lambeau Field after the final game of the Lions’ winless 2008 season, a 31-21 loss to the Packers.

“Our playbook was probably more similar to my high school playbook than anything I saw in my NFL career,” said Orlovsky, who started seven games in ’08, including the final three. “I mean, there were times where we would go into games with 14 pass plays. And I remember wanting to add more and our coaches saying, ‘Well, if you want to put that in, you gotta take something out.’”

Still, the Lions did come close to breaking through, tied or leading in the fourth quarter of three of their final four games.

But another near-miss against the Vikings ended with center Dominic Raiola unapologetically flipping off heckling fans behind the bench at Ford Field. (“I wish I could give my address out to some fans — I’d do that — but you can’t,” he explained the next day. “I’m tired of being a doormat.”) The next week, it was Manning who trampled the Lions’ upset hopes with two late scoring drives.

And after a pathetic home finale against New Orleans — the Saints didn’t punt once in a 42-7 rout — all that was left was a last gasp at Lambeau Field, where the Lions hadn’t won since 1991. They wouldn’t in 2008, either, as Aaron Rodgers’ 71-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver in the fourth quarter sealed their fate, the rival Packers fans serenading the hapless visitors with chants of “0-16! 0-16!”

Now that same ignominy awaits the Browns, perhaps, as they head to Pittsburgh for Sunday’s game. This Cleveland team is different than the ones Orlovsky was a part of in Detroit and Indianapolis. It’s a much younger roster, part of a complete franchise reboot that’s still in the early stages. But Orlovsky knows all too well what that locker room must’ve felt like in recent weeks as the losses mounted.

“It feels like a funeral every single day,” he said. “You don’t want to look at anybody, you don’t know what to say, you can’t fake the enthusiasm. … There’s obviously far greater things that go on in people’s lives. But in that moment, it was tough to get up and go to work every day, it really was. And you could see it. It was obvious that guys were coming to work, grabbing their card, punching the clock and leaving.”

And that memory leaves Orlovsky with this message for the Browns.

“Guys in the NFL are such creatures of habit, and you get into this routine of going week to week to week,” he said. “That’s the great thing about the NFL — there’s always next week. But you have to get yourself out of that mindset and realize there is no next week. You don’t want to be walking in that locker room Sunday and thinking, ‘Could I have done something more?’ I just hope those guys have that understanding and that urgency. Because this is the last chance that you get.”

And if you fail, history won’t let you forget.