Detroit Lions History and Trivia

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Detroit Lions Ford Field Stadium

The Detroit Lions: A History of Pride and Struggle

The Detroit Lions are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in the National Football League (NFL). They have a rich history that spans nearly a century, from their origins in Portsmouth, Ohio, to their glory days in the 1950s, to their recent struggles and hopes for a brighter future. Along the way, they have produced some of the greatest players, coaches, and moments in NFL history, as well as some of the most loyal and passionate fans.

The Portsmouth Spartans (1928-1933)

The Lions franchise was originally based in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. They were founded in 1928 as an independent professional football team, and joined the NFL in 1930. They were one of the smallest and poorest teams in the league, playing in a stadium that seated only 8,200 fans. Despite their disadvantages, they were competitive and successful, compiling a 28-16-7 record in their four seasons in the NFL. They also played in one of the most memorable games in NFL history, the 1932 NFL Playoff Game against the Chicago Bears, which was the first ever postseason game in the league. The game was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium due to a blizzard, and the Bears won 9-0 on a controversial touchdown pass by Bronko Nagurski. The game also led to several rule changes, such as the introduction of hash marks and the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

The Move to Detroit and the First Championship (1934-1938)

In 1934, the Spartans were bought by George A. Richards, a radio executive who owned WJR, a radio affiliate of NBC. He moved the team to Detroit and renamed them the Lions, hoping to emulate the success of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and to make them the “king of the NFL”. He also started the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day, which has continued ever since. The Lions made an immediate impact in their first season in Detroit, winning 10 of their first 11 games, including seven shutouts. However, they lost their last three games to the Packers and the Bears, and finished second in the Western Division behind the Bears. The next year, the Lions bounced back and won their first NFL Championship, defeating the New York Giants 26-7 in the title game. The Lions were led by their star quarterback and future Hall of Famer, Dutch Clark, who was the league’s leading scorer and MVP in 1935.

The Lean Years (1939-1951)

After their first championship, the Lions entered a period of decline and mediocrity, as they failed to make the playoffs for the next 13 seasons. They had several losing seasons and finished last in their division six times. They also had frequent changes in their coaching staff and roster, as they could not find a consistent and winning formula. Some of the notable players who played for the Lions during this era were Byron “Whizzer” White, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, Bill Dudley, who won the MVP award in 1946, and Bobby Layne, who joined the team in 1950 and became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

The Golden Age (1952-1957)

The Lions returned to glory in the 1950s, as they won three NFL Championships in six years, and became one of the dominant teams in the league. They were coached by Buddy Parker, who instilled a tough and aggressive style of play, and featured a balanced and explosive offense and a stingy and opportunistic defense. Their offense was led by Bobby Layne, who was the master of the two-minute drill and the comeback victory, and had a talented supporting cast of players such as Doak Walker, Leon Hart, Cloyce Box, and Lou Creekmur. Their defense was anchored by Joe Schmidt, who was the leader and playmaker of the unit, and had a fearsome front four of Jack Christiansen, Yale Lary, Jim David, and Jack Christiansen, who were nicknamed the “Fearsome Foursome”. The Lions won their second NFL Championship in 1952, beating the Cleveland Browns 17-7 in the title game. They repeated as champions in 1953, defeating the Browns again 17-16 in a thrilling game that was decided by a last-minute field goal by Doak Walker. The Lions reached their third consecutive championship game in 1954, but lost to the Browns 56-10 in a lopsided affair. The Lions bounced back in 1957, and won their fourth and last NFL Championship, crushing the Browns 59-14 in the title game. The Lions were the first team to win three championships in six years, and the only team to win four championships in the pre-Super Bowl era.

The Curse of Bobby Layne (1958-1990)

After their fourth championship, the Lions entered a long and painful drought of success, as they failed to win another title or even reach the Super Bowl for the next six decades. Many fans and observers attribute this misfortune to the “Curse of Bobby Layne”, which was supposedly placed by the legendary quarterback after he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. Layne was unhappy with the trade and reportedly said that the Lions would not win for another 50 years. Whether he actually said it or not, the Lions have not won a championship since then, and have endured many heartbreaking losses, controversial calls, and disappointing seasons. Some of the lowlights of this era include:

  • The 1962 Thanksgiving Day Massacre, when the Lions sacked Bart Starr 11 times, but lost to the Green Bay Packers 26-14 due to four interceptions by Layne’s replacement, Milt Plum.
  • The 1970 Playoff Game, when the Lions lost to the Dallas Cowboys 5-0 in the lowest scoring playoff game in NFL history, due to a missed field goal by Errol Mann and a controversial penalty on Alex Karras.
  • The 1971 Season, when the Lions started 10-3 and looked poised to win their division, but lost their last three games, including a 31-28 loss to the Chicago Bears in the final game, when Greg Landry fumbled the ball on the Bears’ one-yard line in the closing seconds.
  • The 1983 Season, when the Lions won their first division title since 1957, but lost to the San Francisco 49ers 24-23 in the divisional round, when Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the final minute.
  • The 1990 Season, when the Lions made the playoffs as a wild card team, but lost to the Washington Redskins 41-10 in the NFC Championship Game, their only appearance in the conference title game since 1957.

The Barry Sanders Era (1991-1998)

The Lions had a brief resurgence in the 1990s, thanks to the presence of one of the greatest running backs of all time, Barry Sanders. Sanders was drafted by the Lions in 1989, and quickly established himself as a superstar and a fan favorite. He was known for his electrifying runs, elusive moves, and humble personality. He won the MVP award in 1997, when he rushed for 2,053 yards, the second highest total in NFL history. He also won four rushing titles, made 10 Pro Bowls, and broke many records, including the most consecutive seasons with 1,000 rushing yards (10), the most seasons with 1,500 rushing yards (5), and the most 100-yard rushing games (46). He retired in 1999, after 10 seasons, with 15,269 rushing yards, the third highest total in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, and is widely regarded as one of the best players ever to play the game.

With Sanders as their main weapon, the Lions made the playoffs five times in the 1990s, but failed to advance past the divisional round. They had their best season in 1991, when they won their division with a 12-4 record, and beat the Dallas Cowboys 38-6 in the wild card round, their only playoff win since 1957. However, they lost to the Washington Redskins 41-10 in the NFC Championship Game, their only appearance in the conference title game since 1957. They also made the playoffs in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997, but lost in the wild card round each time, to the Green Bay Packers (twice), the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.

The Millennium Drought (1999-2010)

After Sanders’ retirement, the Lions entered another period of decline and futility, as they failed to make the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, the longest drought in franchise history. They also had several losing seasons and finished last in their division eight times. They also had frequent changes in their coaching staff and front office, as they could not find a stable and successful leadership. Some of the notable players who played for the Lions during this era were Charlie Batch, James Stewart, Herman Moore, Jason Hanson, Shaun Rogers, Dre’ Bly, Roy Williams, and Calvin Johnson.

The Lions reached their lowest point in 2008, when they became the first team in NFL history to finish a season with a 0-16 record. They were outscored by their opponents by 249 points, the second worst point differential in NFL history. They also set several records for futility, such as:

  • The most consecutive losses in a single season (16)
  • The most consecutive road losses (26)
  • The most consecutive losses to a single opponent (19 to the Green Bay Packers)
  • The worst winning percentage in a decade (.232)
The Lions also had several controversial and questionable decisions, such as drafting wide receivers in the first round for three consecutive years (2003-2005), hiring Matt Millen as the team president and general manager (2001-2008), and firing head coach Steve Mariucci after a 4-7 start in 2005.

The Calvin Johnson Era (2011-2015)

The Lions finally ended their playoff drought in 2011, thanks to the emergence of one of the greatest wide receivers of all time, Calvin Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the Lions in 2007, and quickly became a dominant force and a fan favorite. He was known for his incredible size, speed, strength, and hands, and his ability to make spectacular catches in traffic and double coverage. He set several records, including the most receiving yards in a single season (1,964 in 2012), the most consecutive games with 100 receiving yards (8 in 2012), and the most 200-yard receiving games in a career (6). He retired in 2016, after nine seasons, with 11,619 receiving yards and 83 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021, and is widely regarded as one of the best players ever to play the game.

With Johnson as their main weapon, the Lions made the playoffs three times in the 2010s, but failed to win a playoff game. They had their best season in 2014, when they won their division with an 11-5 record, and had one of the best defenses in the league. However, they lost to the Dallas Cowboys 24-20 in the wild card round, in a controversial game that featured a reversed pass interference call against the Lions. They also made the playoffs in 2011 and 2016, but lost in the wild card round to the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks, respectively.

The Present and the Future (2016-Present)

Until the 2023 season, the Lions had not made the playoffs since 2016, and had four consecutive losing seasons. They have also had several changes in their coaching staff and front office, as they have tried to find a new direction and culture for the team. Some of the notable players who have played for the Lions in recent years are Matthew Stafford, Darius Slay, Kenny Golladay, and T.J. Hockenson.

The Lions are now reaping the rewards of their rebuilding: they have hired a new head coach, Dan Campbell, and a new general manager, Brad Holmes, in 2021. They have also traded their longtime quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to the Los Angeles Rams, and acquired Jared Goff, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick in return. They have also drafted Penei Sewell, a highly rated offensive tackle, with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Lions are hoping to improve their roster and performance, and to end their long and painful championship drought.

Trivia and Fun Facts

  • The Lions are one of four teams that have never played in the Super Bowl, along with the Cleveland Browns, the Houston Texans, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
  • The Lions have the longest active championship drought in the NFL, as they have not won a title since 1957, 64 years ago.
  • Until their 24-23 playoff victory over the LA Rams on Jan. 14, 2024, the Lions had the second longest active playoff win drought in the NFL, as they had not won a playoff game since 1991, 30 years ago.
  • The Lions have the most Hall of Famers among teams that have never won a Super Bowl, with 21. The only teams with more Hall of Famers are the Chicago Bears (30), the Green Bay Packers (27), and the Pittsburgh Steelers (24), who have all won multiple Super Bowls.
  • The Lions have retired seven jersey numbers in their history: 7 (Dutch Clark), 20 (Barry Sanders), 22 (Bobby Layne), 37 (Doak Walker), 56 (Joe Schmidt), 85 (Chuck Hughes), and 88 (Charlie Sanders).
  • The Lions have a live mascot, a blue lion named Roary, who entertains the fans at home games and events. They also have a costumed mascot, a lion named Theo “Spike” Spight, who wears a Lions jersey and helmet.
  • The Lions have a fight song, called “Gridiron Heroes”, which was written in 1931 by then-owner George A. Richards and lyricist Jerry Neville. The song is played after every Lions touchdown and victory, and is sung by the fans and players. The song has the following lyrics:
    Forward down the field, A charging team that will not yield. And when the Blue and Silver wave, Stand and cheer the brave. Rah, Rah, Rah. Go hard, win the game. With honor you will keep your fame. Down the field and gain, A Lions victory!