LOS ANGELES, August 15, 2013 — Great Scott, Marty! Let’s jump into Doc Brown’s Delorean, hit 88 miles per hour to send us back in time to 1989! Cue Huey Lewis and the News, right…now! The Detroit Lions were coming off three straight seasons with ten or more losses. In 1986, the team was 5-11. In 1987, they were 4-11. Then they decided to up the ante in 1988 by going 4-12. If you’re scoring at home, that is a win-loss record of 13-34 over three years.
That, right there, is a disaster. This was not just a culture of losing in Detroit. This was a culture of melancholy. The city and the franchise were beyond depressed, and they needed something to slap them out of their proverbial funk.
Every year the NFL Draft is a crap shoot, and in 1989, the team and its fans hit the proverbial jackpot. Who was their 1st round draft pick? Why, none other than future Hall of Fame running back, Barry Sanders. Selected with the third overall pick, Sanders was also the 1988 Heisman Trophy Award winner out of Oklahoma State. Let the good times roll, right? Well, not exactly.
As fans of Detroit were celebrating Barry Sanders’s Hall of Fame career in progress, the team would suffer multiple gut-busting off and on-field problems. In 1991, offensive guard Mike Utley was paralyzed from the waist down during a play gone wrong. That same year starting offensive guard Eric Andolsek was run over in his garden by a semi-truck.
How could any team prepare itself for two traumatic events to happen? Spoiler alert: They were not prepared, and their offensive line would be a focal point of weakness for the Lions for years to come.
Player tragedies, first round draft pick busts, multiple offensive and defensive schemes came and went, and then there are the heartbreaking playoff losses. To make matters worse, coach Wayne Fontes lost his brother, Len, also the team’s defensive backs coach, to a heart attack during the 1992 season. While the Lions did make the playoffs five times from 1991 to 1997, they won just one playoff game. During Fontes’ tenure, most critics believed the Lions underachieved as a team and were critical of his coaching.
From 1989 to 1999, the Lions had in their possession the “Keyser Soze of the NFL”. Barry Sanders was the league’s most explosive, dangerous running back. He was always a threat to break off a 70-yard touchdown on plays that looked to be a 4-yard loss.
During the 1997 season, Barry broke the 2000 yard mark for rushing yards and ended the year with 2053 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Sanders put the team on his back and led them to a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record. The Lions lost that game, 20-10, to their division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay’s defense turned “The 2000 Yard Man” into a mere mortal, holding Sanders to 65 yards rushing and 43 yards receiving.
In 1999, Barry Sanders surprised the Lions and the entire league when he abruptly retired before the season started. And like that, he was gone.
The Lions’ post Barry years have been listless and the team is a depressing shell of its former self. The franchise never fully reloaded on offense. Surprisingly in 1999, the team actually secured a Wild Card berth into the playoffs without Sanders. Then, in typical Lions fashion, they quickly and quietly were eliminated 27-13 by the Washington Redskins. You cannot just replace a Hall of Fame running back out of thin air, and the Lions were back to square one.
Fans of the franchise and of Barry Sanders were conflicted. They felt he betrayed them and the team by just walking away at the peak of his career, but they also saw it from his point of view. Barry was giving his body and soul to help his team win, and management was not reciprocating.
All of these things and many, many more have brought heartache and distraught to Lions fans for the past 24 years. The “Matt Millen Era of Calamity” is for another time and place, but it happened, and it hurt badly.
Every year, fans have a glimmer of hope that their Lions can finally have a winning season, go to the playoffs and in the words of Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”
There is no turning back for the lifelong fans. They have already invested too much time, way too many tears and just too much of their essence into the Detroit Lions franchise to even fathom jumping ship to another team.
Preseason games have already started for the 2013 NFL season. The Lions have a superstar wide receiver in Calvin Johnson and a young quarterback who could be great if he can stay healthy with Matthew Stafford. Detroit’s defense, led by tackle Ndamukong Suh, is young and fearsome.
Could this be the year that fortune finally smiles upon them? In the world of professional sports, stranger things have happened, but Lions fans know differently. They will not be holding their collective breath.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.