'Wild West' whiteout: An oral history of Lions' last trip to Philadelphia

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions will face off against the Philadelphia Eagles this week on the eve of the fall equinox. Apparently, no one informed Mother Nature. The current forecast indicates temperatures could climb as high as 90 degrees during the game. 

That's a far cry from the last time the Lions traveled to Philadelphia, nearly six years ago. On Dec. 8, a cloudy morning gave way to a big afternoon snowstorm, resulting in one of the most memorable games in recent NFL history.

The News talked to several Lions players about their memories from that day.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford: "I just remember the forecast was for a quarter-inch, maybe a half-inch (of snow) during the game. When we were warming up, there wasn't much, then we come back up and it's a blizzard. The whole first half of the tape was non-existent."

Safety Glover Quin: "When it comes up, you start to think about the whole day. It was a 1 o'clock game, you're out there at 11 and it already looks like it's the evening. They had the lights on for the game. It looked like a Sunday night game. Then, it's amazing how quickly it happened." 

Running back Joique Bell: "I remember coming in and you could still see the grass on the field. It wasn't bad at all. We come back out as an entire team, going through our regiment, and it was like a foot of snow. How in the hell did this happen in 15 minutes? We had to all change all of our cleats. The equipment guys were working overtime. You had to change out 50 pair of cleats in like 15 minutes. Those guys were moving."

Center Dominic Raiola: "It was almost like a NASCAR tire change. You know how fast they do those things. That was what our equipment guys were like. We went to the three-quarters (inch), the longest cleats we could put in."

Joique Bell tosses away the ball after going into the end zone on a two-point conversion in the second quarter.

► During warmups, starting running back Reggie Bush suffered a calf injury. That meant Bell was going to have to unexpectedly shoulder the load. 

Bell: "We're running a pat and go (drill) and (Bush) takes off, but stops after five yards. He reached down and grabbed his calf and I went up to him and said, 'You all right?' He said, 'I think I just pulled my calf.' I said, 'What? Um, are you going to be able to play?' They take him back inside, then the whole team, we go back. I go to check on him and he couldn't go. I was like, 'OK, I'll hold it down.'

"To me, that weather, that was what I was built for. That was my type of game."

► By the time the teams kicked off, the field was covered in snow and visibility was severely limited. 

Raiola: "We always pre-designed our first play and that was a shot play to Calvin (Johnson). That ball came out and I couldn't see it, so I can't imagine what Calvin was seeing."

Stafford: "I remember thinking if I could just keep my hands dry, I'd be all right. First three plays of the game, I'm covered in snow, freezing cold.

"I remember multiple times guys throwing snow on the ball. The ref would put the ball down and guys would throw snow all over it. I think we played the whole game in shotgun."

► Both sides were playing dirty. While the Eagles tossed and kicked snow on the ball in the early going, the Lions' offensive line took advantage of the fact the officials couldn't see what was happening in the trenches. 

Raiola: "You couldn't see anybody, so it was like the Wild West out there. They had a nose tackle, Bennie Logan, man, I was grabbing his face mask. The refs couldn't see. I looked back, I couldn't see the refs and I could barely see Matthew. I'm like, 'Shoot, I'm going to get it in, right here.' We were grabbing face masks, pulling people down to the ground. It was pretty crazy."

► The Lions, the indoor team, found a comfort zone early. The defense played well, shutting the Eagles out through two quarters. While Bell rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown as the Lions took an 8-0 lead into the half. 

Stafford: "The game felt almost like it was at a jog-through pace. In the first half, you almost couldn't move fast enough to even cut."

Raiola: "It was actually easier, I think, for (the offensive line). It was hard for them to maneuver left to right. They had to come straight downhill. We knew exactly where they were going to be and how they were going to get there. It was almost like playing in sand. It was that thick and deep. For us, it was about getting to a certain point and anchoring or getting to a certain point and drive blocking. If you look at the one run play at the goal line, we were pushing those guys off the ball because they really couldn't get any momentum going."

► The Lions' lead should have been bigger, but Bell lost a fumble in the red zone early in the second quarter. 

Bell: "I had a good run and somebody came from behind, and even though I thought I had the ball nice and tight — it wasn't loose, it wasn't away from my body on film — it just happened."

Calvin Johnson is buried after a reception in the third quarter.

► The trip to the red zone had been set up by a 33-yard pass from Stafford to Johnson. It provided the game's iconic moment, when Johnson got up after the catch, his face mask completely packed with snow. 

Bell: "I talked to (wide receiver) Nate Burleson and he said the first thing that came into his head, that's going to be a dope-ass picture."

► Early in the second half, the Lions again missed out on an opportunity to extend their lead, this time due to a potential officiating error. 

Bell: "We had a play where Stafford connected with me on a flare route. I broke a tackle on the sideline and it was going to be a 60-yard touchdown. No one was in front of me and it was off to the races. But the ref called me out of bounds. They blew the whistle. No one knew why they blew the whistle. When they said I stepped out of bounds, I said, 'What?' When we asked the ref, 'How could you even see the line?' He said, 'I couldn't see the line. That's why I had to call him out.'"

Stafford: "It wasn't even close, if I remember correctly. Joique was gone."

► Instead, the Lions punted on the possession, one of six punts by Sam Martin. 

Martin: "I caught them all with my chest The first one went through my hands. They couldn't rush, so we weren't worried about getting it blocked. I planted with my back foot and bear hugged them, and then tried to keep the punts away. The only way you screw that up is if you drop it. In that kind of weather, you just have to get it off.

"It was crazy. If the ball hit the ground, it plugged. So it was all about keeping it away from the returner. You weren't getting any bombs that day, for sure. Same with kickoffs, it was all about keeping it away from the returner, let it hit and it would stick."

Jeremy Ross runs back one of two punt returns for a touchdown, this one  in the third quarter.

► The Eagles didn't get the memo. Lions return man Jeremy Ross was unquestionably the team's star that day. His 58-yard punt return made it 14-0.

Philadelphia finally got on the board with 4:13 remaining in the third quarter, when quarterback Nick Foles connected with receiver DeSean Jackson on a 19-yard pass in the back of the end zone, a play that didn't sit well with Bell. 

Bell: "Jackson had a touchdown where we were convinced he stepped out of bounds in the back of the end zone before making the catch. We were like, 'Hold up, that's exactly what I did, but y'all called me out.'"

Glover Quin gets faked out by LeSean McCoy on his way to touchdown in the fourth quarter.

► The Eagles tied the game early in the fourth quarter on a 40-yard run by LeSean McCoy.

Despite being held in check in the first half — 51 yards on 13 carries — the Pro Bowl back found his footing the final two quarters. He finished with a career-high 217 rushing yards. 

Quin: "The first half, they were running more outside, stretch plays, and the footing just wasn't good for that. In the second half, they started running downhill and the holes were opening up. LeSean McCoy had a field day out there.

"I don't know if they adjusted better than we did, but they made a bunch more plays in the second half than we did. Defensively, we just couldn't stop the run. McCoy was running like a madman."

► The Lions managed to regain the lead, thanks to Ross' second scoring return. Following McCoy's touchdown, Ross brought the ensuing kickoff back 98 yards. 

A false start penalty against Lions left tackle Riley Reiff on the two-point conversion led to the game's only attempted kick, a comical miss by David Akers. 

Martin: "We were going for two and a penalty pushed us back, so (coach Jim) Schwartz decided to kick it. Akers was so pissed on that attempt. If you remember, his feet went over his head. He completely slipped and the ball went straight into the line."

► That missed PAT proved symbolic as the Lions collapsed down the stretch, both in the game and the season. A 57-yard touchdown run by McCoy and a successful two-point conversion put the Eagles in front for the first time.

Philadelphia wound up scoring touchdowns on five consecutive drives and won the game, 34-20. The loss dropped the Lions to 7-6 on the year, starting a four-game losing streak to end the campaign and leading to Schwartz's dismissal. 

Matthew Stafford loses the ball but is able to recover in the second quarter.

Detroit's ball security played a big role in the loss as Bell coughed up a second fumble and Stafford mishandled five snaps, including one Raiola zipped past him as the play clock was expiring. 

At the time, the Lions were trailing by one score and were deep in Eagles' territory following another big return by Ross, a 46-yard effort on a kickoff, and a 28-yard pass to Bell. 

Raiola: "I didn't have a problem with snapping. Later in the game, the play clock was at one and Matthew was looking away, that was the only issue we had with the snap counts."

► Six years later, the loss still stings for every Lions player The News talked to, but each also had fond memories of the unique experience. 

Quin: "When I think back, it was one of the craziest games in NFL history and I was part of it. Were the conditions great? Nope. But there have been plenty of games played in awful conditions. Once you're out of it, and can look back, it's like, man, that was crazy.

"I look back on it as part of history. I was able to play in it. I wish I would have been healthy, I wish we got the win, but that's all part of the story."


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers