Monday, July 25, 2005

Yes, Virginia, It's True -- Lions Have A Shot In 2005

The Lions open training camp this week, which means we will have the same feelings about them as we have had in every other year that starts with "19" -- maybe THIS will be the year it all comes together so the team can reach its goal of winning....a playoff game.

I would have said Super Bowl, except for the realization that you have to start somewhere smaller as a goal when you’re talking about the Lions, a franchise that has exactly one playoff victory -- none on the road -- since 1957.

But that disclaimer being said, this year, to me, has some parallels with 1992 and 1996.

In each of those years, the Lions, I thought, were on their way to something special, finally. That lone playoff win I referenced occurred after the ’91 season, a postseason in which the team actually made it all the way to the NFC Championship game. Sure, they got thumped by the Redskins, as could have been predicted, but league records shall forever show that the Detroit Lions reached the NFL version of the Final Four in 1991-92.

Everything seemed in place for the 1992 squad to make some noise. They were, after all, mostly the same bunch that had the magical 12-4 season of the year prior, a record that may have been artificially inflated thanks to an emotional wild card called Thumbs Up for Mike Utley. But whether the Lions owed some of their 1991 success to the on-field tragedy that was guard Utley’s paralysis is circumspect. On paper, the ’92 Lions were practically the same as the ’91 version. But the 1992 Lions lost the opener in Chicago on the game’s final play, and that pretty much was a microcosm of how the entire year would go. The record? 5-11. So much for carry over from ‘91’s brilliance.

In 1996, the Lions were coming off a season in ’95 that saw all sorts of offensive records being broken -- individual and team, both for the Lions and the NFL. It was the Scott Mitchell Sold His Soul To The Devil season. Mitchell threw for over 4,000 yards and had 32 TD passes, many to the duo of Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, who combined for over 230 catches and 3,100 yards between them. After a 3-6 start and a threat from owner Bill Ford that coach Wayne Fontes would be fired unless the team made the playoffs, the Lions rattled off seven straight wins to finish the season 10-6. Momentum was growing. The Lions appeared capable of doing some damage in the playoffs. They did damage all right -- to the pride of Lions fans everywhere. They got massacred in Philly, 58-37, a playoff game in which they trailed at one point, 51-7.

Still, the hope was that despite that awful ending to a season, the ’96 Lions could use their seven straight regular season wins and 10-6 record from 1995 and build on it. Again, they were mostly the same team on paper, just as they were from 1991 to 1992. Instead, the Lions never got it going in ’96 as Mitchell came back to earth and the defense suffered some major setbacks. The result was 6-10 and the firing of Fontes, as threatened a year prior.

So now we have 2005, and when you look at this year’s Lions roster, when has it looked so young yet experienced, so talented, so promising, on both sides of the ball? Honestly -- take your Lions rose-colored glasses off for a moment and be honest with yourself. Doesn’t this year’s team seem poised to do some special things soon, if not this season? Isn’t there more speed and youth, especially at the skill positions, than you can shake a stick at? Isn’t there more athleticism and veteran leadership in the secondary than maybe since the ’91 defensive backfield of Ray Crockett, Bennie Blades, Melvin Jenkins and William White? Doesn’t the coaching situation seem to be as set as ever before?

Yet these are the Lions, and despite the fact that the correct answer to all of the above questions is "yes", I can only recall ’92 and ’96, when dreams of legitimate success went down the tube and in a hurry.

Still, Lions or no Lions, the roster of the NFL entry from Detroit is a pretty decent one, folks. Everything seems in place to make a run at a division title, at the very least. Look, I know it seems like we’ve been down this road before with the Lions -- training camp optimism and all that. And I know you may be sneering or smirking as you read this. So I guess all there is to do is for the team to wipe that sneer or smirk off your face.

Isn’t football in late July fun?

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