Friday, September 29, 2006

'95 Lions Did The 0-3 Thing And Survived, Kinda

Recently on the NFL football telecasts, perhaps you've seen a graphic about how difficult it is to start a season 0-3 and still make the playoffs. It was on display especially during games in which one of the two teams playing was 0-2. And maybe you saw an anomaly among the list of recent teams who've bucked the odds.

The Detroit Lions -- yes OUR Detroit Lions -- are one of those 0-3 teams who turned it around and qualified for the NFL postseason dance. Typical that the 2006 edition finds themselves in the same hole. But no playoffs for them, I think it's safe to say. For fear of digressing, back to the Lions team that made pseudo history.

It was 1995, and the first win came on a Monday night against the 49ers at the Silverdome. It wasn't in the bag until a field goal attempt at the gun by San Francisco fluttered wide. The Lions were that close to falling to 0-4.

But that really didn't even kick start the Lions, the Monday night win. For after nine games the record was 3-6, and after the sixth loss in Atlanta, owner Bill Ford Sr. made a declaration -- a threat, really.

The Lions would have to qualify for the playoffs, Ford told the papers, if coach Wayne Fontes was to keep his job.

The threat was highly unusual coming from the loyal-to-a-fault Ford. But he was getting cranky because the Lions were in the seventh full season of the Fontes era, and the playoff record was 1-3 and now with a 3-6 record in '95, even a playoff berth -- which had kind of become annual under Fontes -- was in dire jeopardy.

Fontes haters loved the threat. They figured there was no way he could survive. If 0-3 teams were unlikely to make the playoffs, 3-6 squads were one football cleat in the grave.

But something funny happened on the way to Fontes' funeral. The Lions ran the table, winning their last seven games and roaring into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

The '95 Lions were the team of Herman Moore and Brett Perriman at receiver, each catching over 100 passes, and the wondrous Barry Sanders carrying the football. They were led by QB Scott Mitchell, who surely must have signed off on a soul sale to the devil that summer. Mitchell threw for 32 TD passes, over 4,000 yards, and had a completion pct. near 60. The Lions offense was genuinely scary, and it carried them to their 7-0 finish.

As for how that season ended, let's not spend too much time on that. Offensive tackle Lomas Brown guaranteed a victory in the Wild Card game at Philadelphia. The Lions lost 58-37, after falling behind at one point, 51-7.

After the humiliating, embarrassing playoff loss, the Fontes haters were back out, convinced that FINALLY the Lions had done enough damage to their coach to get him dismissed.

But Ford, Threat Maker from earlier in the season, winked at the press and told them that hey, Fontes had fulfilled his end of the bargain: he made the playoffs, didn't he?

It was then that serious doubts were cast on Bill Ford as truly wanting a winner in Detroit. If making the playoffs and getting blown out was an acceptable bar, folks said, then why bother? I was one of those folks.

The next season, the Lions finished 6-10 and Fontes was shown the door.

"Fired? What do you mean fired?," Fontes joked at his defrockment, while Ford looked on nervously in front of the bemused media.

There aren't too many Fontes haters out now, because the Lions have only made the playoffs twice since he left, nearly ten years ago.

Good old days, indeed!

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