New season, new hope for Super Bowl-less Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Joe Schmidt remembers when people expected the Lions to contend for an NFL title each year.

The franchise won titles in 1952, 1953 — when Schmidt was a rookie — and 1957. The Lions lost in the NFL Championship game in 1954, and from 1951-57, had one losing season.

“It was a nice time,” said Schmidt, an eight-time All-Pro linebacker who played from 1953-65.

A lot has changed since then, though.

The NFL had 12 teams instead of the 32 now, and many players, including Schmidt, had to work second jobs to supplement their incomes. Detroit was a budding metropolis, too.

In the years since 1957, each Lions season has ended in varied levels of disappointment. They haven’t played in any of the 49 Super Bowls, which became the moniker for the championship in 1966, and their last playoff victory was in 1991.

Yet, each year, hope springs eternal, and entering this season, Detroit hopes it finally can erase its name from the list of four franchises that never have played in a Super Bowl — Cleveland, Jacksonville and Houston — and the longer list of those that never have won it — Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Philadelphia, San Diego and Tennessee.

Gil Brandt, a longtime personnel executive for the Cowboys who now works for, was among the people who noted the current Lions organization is different than the one led by general manager Matt Millen from 2001-08.

During that time, Brandt said it looked like the Lions didn’t have a plan — as evidenced by hiring three coaches — for how to reach their goals.

That’s changed under general manager Martin Mayhew.

Former Lions linebacker Doug Hogue experienced the first Lions playoff game in 12 seasons only to have the Saints romp to a 45-28 victory.

“I think now they have a plan and a coach (Jim Caldwell), who I think is pretty darn good, and a quarterback (Matthew Stafford), who I think is pretty good,” Brandt said. “So, I think they got the things now that they didn’t have back then that should lead them to success.”

‘One or two plays’

Brandt began working with the Cowboys when the franchise was founded in 1960. The team experienced plenty of failure, including an 0-11-1 finish in its inaugural season.

But in 1972, Dallas won Super Bowl VI after five straight seasons with postseason losses, including Super Bowl V.

Then, the Cowboys won again in 1978, giving them two titles and five Super Bowl appearances in the decade.

“Once you get there, then it seems to be easier to get back,” Brandt said.

A Super Bowl, Brandt said, lifts the community, and everyone in the organization can feel the increased support from fans. Players start working harder and showing more camaraderie, too, he said.

Charley Casserly, who works for NFL Network, started working for Washington in 1977 before being promoted to assistant general manager in 1982 and general manager in 1989.

Before winning the Super Bowl in 1982, Washington had lost its only Super Bowl appearance. But after winning, he noticed more players became celebrities, including well-known nicknames for the offensive line — The Hogs — and wide receivers — The Smurfs.

But something else changed after Super Bowl XVII.

“On the field, there’s two things you fight,” Casserly said. “One is that you become a target for other teams. You play more primetime games; people are going to play you harder, so therefore every game is going to be tougher.”

As was the case in Dallas, though, winning one wasn’t enough for those Washington teams as the franchise took the title again in 1987 and 1991.

Although players are critically important, Casserly credits coach Joe Gibbs for maintaining that success despite having three quarterbacks during those Super Bowls, none of whom is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“He had a philosophy,” Casserly said of Gibbs. “He was going to run the ball, he wanted to be physical, he wanted to attack on defense, but he could adjust to … the players he had.”

Caldwell has mentioned a similar philosophy, and as talented as the Lions were last season, a picked-up pass interference call will remain the lasting image of the season, which is a sign of how difficult it is to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“There’s just one or two plays a game that are the difference between getting there and not getting there,” Brandt said.

‘It won’t be long’

Besides some familiarity with Barry Sanders and other players, many of the current players only knew of the Lions because of their annual Thanksgiving games.

In fact, quarterback Matthew Stafford said he didn’t even know the Lions never had won a Super Bowl until he joined the franchise in 2009. And wide receiver Calvin Johnson didn’t think about the Lions history when the team selected him in 2008, and simply was excited to be drafted at all.

Wide receiver Lance Moore played college football at Toledo, so he considered the Lions his hometown team from 2001-04. But during that stretch, the Lions won two, three, five and six games. And then in 2008, Moore and his Saints teammates, defeated the Lions, 42-7, at Ford Field, handing Detroit its second-to-last loss in the NFL’s only 0-16 season.

Moore signed with the Lions this offseason, in part because he sees reasons more success could be on the horizon.

“Seeing what they’ve done around here recently and in the last year, and what we’re trying to build here this year, I think it won’t be long now before there’s a lot more of those success type stories coming out of this organization,” Moore said.

‘This place would go nuts’

And if the Lions managed to win the Super Bowl, there’s no telling just what might happen in Detroit.

“We all might get the key to the city if we go out and bring a championship back home to the city of Detroit,” defensive end Jason Jones said. “It’s good when the Pistons are good. The Red Wings are consistent; the Tigers are pretty consistent.

“But if the Lions are winning, I think city would be a whole better place.”

Larry Lee, a former Lions offensive lineman (1981-85) and front office member (1993-2000), believes the city would struggle to contain its excitement, too.

“No disrespect to (the Pistons and Red Wings); they’re top teams in this city,” Lee said. “But the Lions are the crème de la crème, and I think if the Lions were to win the Super Bowl, this place would go nuts.”

Lions running back Billy Sims, who reached the playoffs twice during his career (1980-84), never enjoyed a victory. His career would be cut short midway through the 1984 season when he suffered a knee injury against the Vikings. He officially retired in 1986 with 5,106 career yards and 51 touchdowns.

‘A chance we let get by us’

Scott Conover came as close to any Lions player to reaching a Super Bowl during his rookie season in 1991. After a 12-4 finish, Detroit beat Dallas, 38-6, and reached its only NFC Championship game, in which it lost 41-10 to Washington.

An offensive lineman from 1991-96, Conover’s teams made the postseason from 1993-95, but didn’t win another playoff game. As a 23-year-old in 1991, though, he didn’t fully cherish the moment.

“At that time, it was disappointing, but as I went on in my career, it just hurt more knowing that was a chance we let get by us,” he said.

From his experience as a player and Lions coach (1967-72), Schmidt said the most important thing to winning a title is the players, and leadership within the locker room is critical, noting running back Doak Walker and quarterback Bobby Layne as guys that led during his career.

With the current Lions, he sees an organization that’s rebuilding the right way, and one that has the talent to potentially contend, particularly if rookie running back Ameer Abdullah can be as good as advertised and quarterback Matthew Stafford improves from “better than average” to great.

After leaving the Lions as a player, Lee experienced a Super Bowl with Denver, though his team lost to Washington. With perspective as a player and executive, he understands the importance of everyone being on the same page, and believes Mayhew and Caldwell can make that claim.

While Caldwell will receive the credit if the Lions win this year, Brandt was quick to note former coach Jim Schwartz played a key role in the turnaround after 0-16.

Besides the “disaster” of a team under Millen from 2001-08, Lee said he doesn’t see a common thread that explains why the Lions haven’t reached the pinnacle of the sport in 57 years.

“It certainly should have happened by now, but it hasn’t,” he said. “You strive and continue to get better, and eventually, they’ll get there. It takes everybody on the same page, and it takes some bounces your way.”

Lonely fraternity

Although there are four teams remaining that have yet to appear in a Super Bowl, the Lions and Browns having the longest history of futility.

With an NFL Championship in 1964, the Browns actually have a more recent title than the last one the Lions won in 1957.

And when the league began playing the Super Bowl after the 1966 season, the Browns were among the most consistent teams, posting winning records in all but one season from 1966-73. Yet, Cleveland couldn’t get past conference championship games, and is 0-6 with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Three of those losses were in the 1980s to the Broncos, including “The Drive” by Hall of Famer quarterback John Elway in 1986.

The Saints didn't have a winning season until 1987 but won a Super Bowl in 2010.

The Lions, meanwhile, have made one appearance in the NFC Championship, in 1991.

An expansion team in 1995, the Jaguars don’t have nearly as many close calls as the Browns, nor do the Texans, who were founded in 2002.

Jacksonville had some early success, going to the postseason each year from 1996-99 including trips to the AFC Championship game during the first and last year of that stretch. Since 1999, however, the Jaguars have two postseason appearances and haven’t had a winning season since 2007.

In 13 seasons, Houston has three winning seasons and two playoff appearances. Casserly served as the general manager for the Texans from their inception through 2006, and said the Oilers, who left for Tennessee and became the Titans, led to a natural fan base. Many of the people within the new organization, however, hadn’t worked in football, which led to struggles.

‘We’re steadily improving’

A bounce in the Saints direction — on the onside kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV — helped Moore and Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi hold the Lombardi Trophy after the 2009 season.

That bounce also hurt Caldwell’s chances of winning it when he was coach of the Colts, though he won it as an assistant three years earlier and again as a Ravens assistant in 2012.

Moore, who spent from 2005-13 with New Orleans, said fans went crazy after the Super Bowl victory in part because of how awful the team had been. An expansion team in 1967, the Saints didn’t make the playoffs or have a winning season until 1987, and fans started calling them the ‘Aints during a 1-15 finish in 1980.

The Saints Super Bowl victory was a few years after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and Moore said the championship was what the city and region deserved.

“I see similarities with this (Lions) team and the team that we had that won the Super Bowl,” Moore said. “A team that had a lot of talent, a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball in this league and nobody was really talking about us, and I think that was a pretty cool thing.”

Without Super Bowls or NFC titles, the Lions instead have banners of great players like Walker, Layne, Sanders, Charlie Sanders, Jason Hanson and Lem Barney. There’s also a placard paying tribute to late owner William Clay Ford Sr.

Stafford said he doesn’t believe the Lions woebegone streaks, including 23 straight road losses to the division-rival Packers, until the media reminds him.

Johnson said he focuses more on the task at hand than about how the current players carry the broken dreams of the franchise’s past.

“I don’t really think about it like that,” Johnson said of the history weighing on current players. “We’ve gone from 0-16 to where we are now. We’re steadily improving. It’s a heck of a task to win that Super Bowl, but obviously, that’s our goal every year.”