No matter what happens on Sunday, the Detroit Lions have made history by losing their first 15 games this season. Things don't look good for week 17 either. They play at the Green Bay Packers; they haven't won there in 17 years. 0-16 would be a truly historic level of awfulness—it's a wonder they didn't find a way to lose during their bye week—and it deserves some examination.
Like most NFL teams that lose more than 14 games in a season, the Lions disaster didn't happen overnight. This was a long time coming. The Lions have not had a winning season since going 9-7 in 2000. The team's record since then is 31-96, or put another way, for the last eight seasons, the Lions have averaged 4-12. During those eight seasons 28 of the other 31 NFL teams have gone to the playoffs. One of the three, the Arizona Cardinals, have clinched a playoff berth for this January; the other two, the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Texans (who started play in 2002) look like contenders for next season. The Lions look like they are determined to become the brand name for inept losing in sports.
I meet sports fans from Michigan all the time. They're delighted to talk about the Red Wings, eager to discuss the Pistons, happy to dissect the Tigers. Bring up the Lions and their faces fall; many just change the subject to politics, the weather, anything but the Lions. Some just wave their arms in front of their face and walk away.
It's for good reason. This year's Lions are the final chapter in the reign of Matt Millen, one of the most incompetent team executives in the history of pro sports. Millen was fired during the season after seven plus seasons during which the club went 31-84.
Millen was a superb linebacker for twelve seasons in the NFL, but his tenure should make it abundantly clear that standout athletes tend to make for very poor team executives. The skill sets are completely different. Great athletes are in the habit of taking long odds—say one chance of success in ten—and succeeding anyway. As an executive you want to put the odds in your favor as much as possible. It's no accident that most of the best team executives are front office veterans, not veteran players.
Millen's draft record makes for better Saturday Night Live fodder than Sarah Palin. He took one wide receiver after another with the Lions annual high first round draft pick. Now I'm all for the idea that having a big, fast, athletic wideout is a cornerstone of a good offense, but there are other needs. For instance, these receivers need a quarterback to throw them the ball, an offensive line to keep that quarterback upright, a running back or two to keep the defense honest, and oh yeah, a defense so that the offense isn't always facing a 21-0 deficit. The Lions have allowed 32 points a game this year.
The Lions started this season with Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson as their wide receivers. Those two probably ranked among the top five receiver duos in the league. It certainly didn't amount to much in the win column, and Williams was dealt to Dallas at midseason. The trade with Dallas could amount to one of the great recent fleecings in the NFL. The Lions in return received the Cowboys first, third and fifth round draft picks for Williams. With a bounty of draft picks to build on, a good team executive would have the Lions back in playoff contention in not time flat. Just look at what Bill Parcells has accomplished with the Miami Dolphins. The 'fins went 1-15 last season yet this year they enter week 17 with 10 wins and a chance to go to the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons went 4-12 in a year filled with turmoil from start to finish, yet they will coast through the final week of the season, their playoff spot already assured.
Unfortunately the Lions stand a better chance of getting bailout money from the government than they do of turning this situation around quickly. The owner of the team, William Clay Ford, announced he's leaning toward retaining the services of all the other key decision-makers and coaches on the Lions. This is mind boggling. People get paid in the NFL to win. The Lions front office and coaching staff have shown no sign that they know how to accomplish it. Ford clearly isn't comfortable with the pace that executive decisions need to be made in pro sports, and worse, he's not comfortable hiring someone with experience to make those decisions for him.
If the Lions merely copy the moves made last season and draft a top offensive lineman with their #1 overall pick, then they will be moving in the right direction. In the last three seasons Lions quarterbacks have been sacked 163 times. Still, without inspired leadership to cleanse the organization of the stench of losing and establish a firm new direction, the best that Lions fans can hope for is what I like to call the Houston Oiler effect. The Oilers, the football team now called the Tennessee Titans, stunk in the early '80s, but they had one top draft choice after another and by the late '80s, the roster was so talent laden that they couldn't help but win. The teams were usually one and done in the playoffs, but it beat the drudgery from earlier in the decade.
This may be giving the Lions front office too much credit. They are the minions of Matt Millen. Maybe they will just take the best wide receiver available. Change has come to many aspects of this country, but it may be skipping the Detroit Lions.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.