ALLEN PARK, MICH. - About two kilometres down the road from the Detroit’s spiffy practice facility, Calvin Johnson’s huge image is splattered on a billboard above a rust-encrusted bridge, urging fans to buy Lions tickets.
It truly is a symbolic sight.
After all, after decades of mediocrity, the Detroit Lions, much like Johnson’s photo, have become larger than life.
At least for the long suffering fans of this unemployment-ravaged city, anyway.
For the first time in 31 years, the Detroit Lions have started an NFL season 3-0.
Do you truly understand how long ago that really was?
Consider this. Back in 1980, when Gary Danielson, Billy Sims and Freddie Scott were leading the Lions to victories in their first three outings, Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s prime minister, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw were at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers and rock and roll legends John Lennon and John Bonham were still alive.
Now, more than three decades later, the Lions head into the Taj Mahal of the NFL, $1.5-billion US Cowboys Stadium, attempting to beat America’s Team on Sunday and, in the process, show the world that the Lions roar has indeed been restored.
“Everyone knows who the Cowboys are,” said Lions wideout Nate Burleson, who was born in Calgary. “And everyone knows the Lions are coming.
“Who would have imagined both the Bills and Lions would be 3-0 at this stage of the season?”
Burleson has a point.
Arguably the NFL’s two sad sacks of the past decade, the surprising Bills and Lions have brought about a football revival here in the Rust Belt.
In the case of Detroit, the Lions’ bandwagon is picking up some impressive passengers.
Just this week, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said the Lions are a dangerous young team, one that reminds him of his young Dallas squad that would go on to win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
That Cowboys juggernaut featured the Triplets — Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wideout Michael Irvin. This edition of the Lions has its own Triplets — quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
These are not your father’s Detroit Lions. Heck, these are not your grandfather’s Lions, either.
But not everyone is drinking Detroit’s Honolulu blue and silver Kool-Aid.
Earlier this week, former NFL wideout Cris Carter claimed Johnson was not yet an “elite” receiver. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan joined the act, claiming Johnson is not as good as Dallas wideouts Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Johnson chuckled. “We are just treating this as another game.”
That’s just the way coach Jim Schwartz wants it.
“Last year, when we were 2-10 at one point during the season, our guys were working just as hard,” Schwartz said. “If they weren’t affected by 2-10, they’re not going to be affected by 3-0.”
Those 2-10 Lions would go on to win their final four games of the season. With three more this season, they have reeled off seven consecutive victories.
Burleson gives the credit to Schwartz, saying the coach’s actions after the opening game against the Chicago Bears last season was a key to the team’s turnaround.
In that game, the Lions were stripped of an apparent game-winning touchdown when Johnson, after seemingly making the grab, put the ball on the ground in celebration. In one of the league’s sillier rules, the play was considered incomplete.
Amazingly, the Lions had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
“Coach had a legitimate reason to complain but he didn’t,” Burleson said. “Instead, he said there were no excuses and that we had to be accountable. It set the tone in the locker room.
“It helped us last week. We were losing 20-0 to the Vikings. We could have sat there at halftime claiming the refs screwed us or that the Metrodome was a difficult place to play. But we didn’t. Coach doesn’t believe in excuses and neither do we.”
Instead the Lions rallied for a 26-23 victory, the winning points coming via an overtime field goal by veteran Jason Hanson.
Having replaced Canadian Eddie Murray as the Lions kicker in 1992, Hanson has seen it all. Fans with bags over their heads. Protest rallies urging management to fire then-GM Matt Millen.
On and on it goes.
“The biggest difference now? Talent,” Hanson said.
“Suh, Matt, Calvin, it’s all around this room.
“The worst thing over the years was the indifference. People didn’t care. It was like we didn’t matter.”
They do now.
BY THE UGLY NUMBERS
To truly understand how pathetic the Lions franchise has been over the decades, check out these figures of futility.
12 - Number of years the Lions have gone without reaching the playoffs. Their previous post-season appearance came all the way back in 1999.
18 - Number of years that have elapsed since the Lions won a division title — that coming back in 1993.
19 - Number of years since the Lions actually won a playoff game. Back on Jan. 5, 1992, Erik Kramer, Herman Moore and Barry Sanders crushed Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and the Dallas Cowboys 38-6. The Cowboys would go on to win three Super Bowls in the decade. The Lions, meanwhile, have not been victorious in a post-season match since then.
0 - Number of victories the Lions posted in 2008, becoming the first team in NFL history to go 0-16 in a season.
26 - Number of consecutive road losses the Lions suffered, an NFL record. They finally broke that streak by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23-20 in overtime on Dec. 19, 2010.
FIVE WHO HELPED RESTORE THE ROAR
1. THE BUILDER: General Manager Martin Mayhew
When previous GM Matt (I led this franchise to the only 0-16 record in NFL history) Millen was understandably run out of town after the pathetic 2008 season, Mayhew was promoted to GM and quietly rebuilt this franchise into a competitive squad for years to come. “We definitely are building a team for the long term,” Mayhew told the media during training camp. “We’re not building a team to take one big shot at it.” The key has been astute drafting. Unlike the bumbling Millen, whose pathetic high picks include QB Joey Harrington, WR Charles Rogers and WR Mike Williams (all candidates for an episode of Where Are They Now), Mayhew and his staff seem to have been astute in their selections of QB Matthew Stafford, RB Jahvid Best, WR Titus Young and the best of them all, DT Ndamukong Suh. Youth has been served under the Mayhew regime. Fourteen of the 22 starters in the Lions Week 2 win over Kansas City were 26 or younger. Of all the moves Mayhew has made, however, his best one may have been the hiring of coach Jim Schwartz.
2. THE GENERAL: Head coach Jim Schwartz
When Schwartz took over the Lions in 2009, he altered more than just the defensive scheme of the team. He changed the attitude on and off the field. During his days under Jeff Fisher with the Tennessee Titans, Schwartz preached a defence predicated on a strong front seven that stuffed the run and pressured the QB. Led by Keith Bullock and Albert Haynesworth, the Titans were able to do exactly that.
Now, in Detroit, the Lions arguably have the best front four in the NFL with Suh, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley, who has yet to make his pro debut due to injury.
While there was interest in free agent DB Johnathan Joseph over the summer, the Lions opted not to get in a bidding war with Houston, feeling their emphasis on the front four could mask warts on the back end. So far, so good. But there is more to Schwartz than just Xs and Os. During practice on Friday, Schwartz launched an obscenity-laden tirade at his kick-coverage units. Not what you would expect from a coach whose team is 3-0. Then again, “mediocrity” is a word that is not in Jim Schwartz’s vocabulary.
3. THE BEAST: DT Ndamukong Suh
Fast + Strong + Relentless + Violent = Ndamukong Suh. Less than two seasons into his young career, he has become the face of the franchise, tossing QBs around like rag dolls and changing the image of this team. No longer do teams kick sand in the faces of the Detroit Lions. Now it’s Suh who does the kicking. Is he dirty? That’s up for debate. Is he intimidating? Hell yes. And, like every NFL week, he plans on being exactly that against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
“I’m going to attack him and hit him and disrupt him like I want to in any normal game,” Suh proclaimed.
QB crushers of yesteryear like Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert couldn’t have said it any better.
4. THE GOLDEN BOY: QB Matthew Stafford
Brittle? Perhaps. With just 16-plus games played in more than two seasons, health has been an issue. Talented? Very. Over those 16 starts — the equivalent of one regular season — he has tossed 28 touchdowns passes. A leader? No doubt. It might be his best quality.
If there is one moment that defines the career of the fair-haired first-overall pick of the ’09 draft, it came during his rookie season against Cleveland. With his non-throwing arm dangling due to a separated shoulder, he fought off the pain to throw the winning touchdown to Brandon Pettigrew on the game’s final play. For long-suffering Lions fans forced to watch the Joey Harringtons and Scott Mitchells of the world for decades, it was the type of gutty performance that had been absent for far too long.
5. MEGATRON: WR Calvin Johnson
When Millen selected Calvin Johnson with the Lions first-overall pick in ’08, a collective “ugh” could be heard coming from Lions Nation. It was the fourth time since 2000 that the Lions had used a first-round selection on a wideout. Charles Rogers and Mike Williams had been flops and Roy Williams, who had his moments of brilliance, did not work out in the end. Obviously the fourth time was a charm, however.
The gangly Johnson has been a dominant force. In fact, should he make two TD grabs against the Cowboys, he would become the first wideout in NFL history to have two scoring grabs in each of the first four games of an NFL season. During the summer lockout, he and Stafford worked out on a number of occasions.
“I went down to Atlanta to see him and he came up here too,” Johnson said. “We’re building chemistry.”
Judging by the numbers, it’s already there.