The Detroit Lions are an American football team based in Detroit, Michigan. They are members of the North Division of the National Football Conference (NFC) in the National Football League, and play their home games at Ford Field in downtown Detroit. Originally based in Portsmouth, Ohio and called the Portsmouth Spartans, the team began play in 1929 as an independent professional team, one of many such teams in the Ohio and Scioto River valleys. For the 1930 season, the Spartans formally joined the National Football League (NFL) as the other area independents folded because of the Great Depression. Despite success within the NFL, they could not survive in Portsmouth, then the NFL's smallest city. The team was purchased and moved to Detroit for the 1934 season.
The Lions have won four NFL Championships, the last in 1957, giving the club the second-longest NFL championship drought behind the Arizona Cardinals, who last won in 1947 (as the Chicago Cardinals). The Lions have yet to qualify for the Super Bowl. The team has qualified for the playoffs only nine times in the 50-plus years since winning the 1957 championship and has won only one playoff game in that span.
Early highlights as the Portsmouth Spartans include the "iron man" game against Green Bay in 1932. In that game, Spartan coach Potsy Clark refused to make even a single substitution against the defending NFL champion Packers. Portsmouth won 19-0 and used only 11 players all game.
Also as the Portsmouth Spartans, the franchise played in an unscheduled NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears in 1932. The Spartans-Bears game was played because both teams ended the regular season with the same number of victories (the Spartans finished at 6-1-4 while the Bears were 6-1-6; ties were not reckoned as part of the percentage in the NFL until 1972). Because of blizzard conditions in Chicago, the game was moved from Wrigley Field indoors to Chicago Stadium, which allowed for only an 80-yard field; some have called the contest the first arena football game. The Bears won, 9–0, and the resulting interest led to the establishment of Eastern and Western conferences and a regular championship game beginning in 1933.
Despite great success on the field, poor revenues and the Great Depression threatened the Spartans' survival. In 1934, a group led by Detroit radio executive George Richards (owner of Detroit's powerful WJR) bought the Spartans and moved them to Detroit. Richards renamed the team the Lions, as a nod to the Detroit Tigers. He also said that the lion was the monarch of the jungle, and he intended for his team to be the monarch of the NFL.
Through Richards' radio connections, the Lions were able to play a Thanksgiving Day game in their first season in Detroit, a tradition continued to this day.
Detroit enjoyed its greatest success in the 1950s. Led by quarterback Bobby Layne, they won the league championship in 1952, 1953, and 1957. They defeated the Cleveland Browns in each of those NFL Championship Games, but also lost to the Browns in the 1954 Championship Game.
In 1958, after he had led the Lions to three NFL Championships and provided Detroit nearly a decade of Hall of Fame play, the Lions traded Bobby Layne. Bobby was injured during the last championship season, and the Lions thought he was through and wanted to get what they could for him. According to legend, as he was leaving for Pittsburgh, Bobby said that Detroit "would not win for 50 years." Since this time, the Lions have not won another championship and have only a single playoff game win. Some have attributed the Lions' subsequent 49 years of futility to the "Curse of Bobby Layne."
Notably, the Lions succeeded in one of the greatest comeback victories in NFL postseason history. Trailing the San Francisco 49ers 27-7 in the 3rd quarter of the 1957 Western Conference Playoff game, Lions quarterback Tobin Rote rallied the team back with 24 unanswered points to beat the 49ers 31-27 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The following week, Rote led the Lions to a decisive win over the Browns for the 1957 title. The Lions have only one playoff win since then against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1991 season.
Minority owner Ralph Wilson split off from the team in 1959 to take an American Football League franchise; initially planning to place it in Miami, he instead placed it in Buffalo, New York, where it would become the Buffalo Bills. For the first three years of its existence, the AFL's Bills and NFL's Lions had identical blue and silver colors, possibly second-hand from old Lions equipment.
On January 7, 1961, the Lions defeated the Browns 17-16 in the first-ever Playoff Bowl matching the runners-up from the two conferences into which the NFL was divided at the time (the Lions also appeared in the game in both of the next two years pursuant to their having finished second to the Green Bay Packers in the Western Conference in all three seasons; the Playoff Bowl was abolished in 1970 when the merger of the NFL and AFL went into full effect).
In the mid-1960s, the Lions served as the backdrop for the sports literature of George Plimpton, who spent time in the Lions training camp masquerading as a player. This was the basic material for his book Paper Lion, later made into a movie.
In 1964, William Clay Ford, Sr. purchased a controlling interest in the team for $4.5 million. This began a 43-year period that continues today, during which the Lions have won just one playoff game.
Motown soul singer Marvin Gaye made plans, after the death of duet partner Tammi Terrell, to join the Lions and go into football. He gained weight and trained for his tryout in 1970, but was cut early on. He remained friends with a number of the players, particularly Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who appear as background vocalists on his 1971 classic single "What's Going On."
On Thanksgiving day, November 28, 1974, after over 35 years, the Lions played their final game in Tiger Stadium, where they lost to the Denver Broncos 31–27 in front of 51,157, amidst snow flurries and a 21 point Broncos 3rd quarter. The Lions have played their home games indoors ever since.
The Lions made the playoffs only once in the '70s, losing a defensive struggle to the Dallas Cowboys, 5–0, in 1970. The team went through a string of average seasons, finishing 2nd or 3rd in the division in every season from 1970 through 1978. Finally, in 1979, the team finished with a 2–14 record, and thus earned the first pick in the following draft.
In 1980, the Lions drafted running back Billy Sims with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Lions made the playoffs in 1982 and 1983, winning the division in the latter season. However, Sims suffered a career-ending knee injury in 1984, and the team would not finish with a record above .500 for the rest of the decade.
During his first season after being drafted in 1989, Barry Sanders missed the NFL rushing title by 10 yards because he chose not to go back into the game when the Lions already had the game won. According to Wayne Fontes, when he offered Sanders the chance to gain the yardage and the rushing title, Sanders declined, reportedly saying, "Coach, let's just win it (the game) and go home."
In 1991, the Lions started the season by being shut out on national television, 45–0, by the Washington Redskins. The Lions then rebounded, winning their next 4 games. They went 12–4 for the season, They won their first division title in eight years, capping the regular season with a win over the then-defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills. They were inspired late in the season by the loss of guard Mike Utley, who sustained a career-ending paralysis injury against the Los Angeles Rams on November 17, 1991. As Utley was carted off the field in that game he flashed a "thumbs up" to his teammates and the Silverdome crowd. It became a rallying symbol for the remainder of the season.
In the playoffs, the Lions got their only postseason victory since 1957, when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38–6 at the Silverdome. They lost to the Redskins in the NFC Championship Game, 41–10. This was the first time a team that had been shut out in its opener had reached the conference title round. Two teams have since matched this feat: The Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots did it in 2003.
The Lions also made the playoffs in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1999, making the 1990s one of the most successful decades in team history. In 1993, they went 10–6, first in the NFC Central Division, but lost to the Green Bay Packers. In 1994 they lost to the Packers in the playoffs again. In 1995 they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, in embarrassing fashion, 58–37 (entering the fourth quarter, they were down 51–21). In 1997, Detroit lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round. In 1999, The Lions closed out the decade reaching the playoffs for the sixth time in a ten-year span, which is a franchise record for playoff appearances during a decade. However, they lost yet again in the first round, this time to the Washington Redskins. Detroit's 1999 playoff berth also marked the second time in Bobby Ross's first three years as head coach that he led the Lions into the post season. The last Lions' head coach to accomplish that feat was Buddy Parker, in 1952–53 during his second and third seasons at the helm.
In 1997, Barry Sanders ran for 2,053 rushing yards. Sanders was one of the greatest running backs ever to play in the NFL. At the time, his career total rushing 15,269 yards was second only to Walter Payton's 16,726 yards and he joined Jim Brown as the only players among the NFL's 50 all-time rushing leaders to average 5 yards a carry, so when he retired abruptly after the 1998 season, his absence left a hole in the roster that may never be filled.
After finishing the 2000-2001 season at 9-7, and missing the playoffs by a field goal in the season's last game, Lions owner William Clay Ford, Sr. hired Matt Millen, a former player and broadcaster, as president and CEO of football operations. Millen at the time had no expierence running a football operation.
The Lions went the entire 2001 (their last season at the Silverdome), 2002 (their first season at Ford Field), and 2003 seasons without a road victory, thus becoming the only team in NFL history not to win on the road for three consecutive entire seasons. The streak, encompassing 24 games (also an NFL record) came to an end on September 12, 2004, when the Lions defeated the Bears 20–16 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Millen also received tremendous criticism for his draft failures. Three in particular stand out: quarterback Joey Harrington, chosen third overall in the 2002 draft, was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a conditional late-round draft pick after four unremarkable seasons in Detroit; wide receiver Charles Rogers, a caution on many pre-draft reports for his fragile physique, was nonetheless chosen second overall in the 2003 draft, and played sparingly in his three injury-plagued seasons before being cut before the first game of the 2006 season; Millen's sixth first-round draft pick, Mike Williams (10th overall - 2005 draft), caught just 8 passes in eight games with the team before being traded along with Josh McCown for a 4th round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Over seven seasons under Millen's leadership as team CEO, the Detroit Lions owned the NFL's worst winning percentage (31–81, .277), have never had a winning season, have never finished higher than third place in the NFC North, and have not played in any post-season games. Despite this record of total failure, Millen received a five-year contract extension at the start of the 2005 season
On December 9, 2005, one group of Lions fans, known as "The Lions Fanatics," organized an "orange out" event, which encouraged Lions fans to show up at Detroit's Ford Field clad in orange, the color of their opponent that week, the Cincinnati Bengals. That same day, Detroit sports talk radio station WDFN organized a "Millen Man March" in protest of Millen's contract extension.
On December 24, 2006 another group of fans planned a walkout protest towards the end of the first half in the game against Chicago, to express their disgust with Millen. However, only around 100 fans participated in this protest, as the Lions fell to the Bears 26-21.
Throughout much of the 2006-2007 timeframe, Detroit fans had grown tired of Millen's time in office, and in an effort to express their desires for his exit, would chant "Fire Millen" at Lions games. There is a firemillen.com website that was started late in 2005. The real beginning was after a fan was ejected for having a "Fire Millen" sign in a December home game. The chanting originated in Ford Field, but would eventually spread throughout the city's venues. Detroit Pistons games would at times hear the chant. The chant was often heard at Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers games as well. College games in the area also helped to spread the chanting. The chanting got to the point where during a Red Wings game at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., the chant got started even though Red Wings fans made up the minority of people in the stands.
In 2007, the Lions began the season with a promising 6-2 record. The optimism was short-lived, however, as the team recorded only a single victory in the next eight games, for a final record of 7–9.
The beginning of the 2008 season was a continuation of the '07 losing slump, as the Lions were soundly defeated in their first three games. On Monday, Sept. 22, it was reported that Bill Ford Jr. "wanted him out", but that it was not his decision.. On September 24, 2008, Millen was removed from his position as team president and chief executive officer. It was unclear whether Millen was fired or whether he resigned. Fans rejoiced at the news of Millen's termination - some of which equated it to "Christmas." Though a major victory in the minds of many fans and sports writers, its hard to feel that improvements to the team will come soon. The Lions have yet to score a point in the first quarter this season, and have fallen behind by 21 points in each of their first 4 games. It is not impossible to feel that this team will challenge the NFL worst season of 0-14 by the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Aside from a brief change to maroon in 1948 instituted by then head coach Bo McMillin (influenced by his years as coach at Indiana), the Lions uniforms have basically remained the same since the team debuted in 1930. The design consists of silver helmets, silver pants, and either blue or white jerseys.
The blue Leaping Lion logo debuted in 1960 and is often affectionately referred to as "Bubbles" by Lions fans. There have also been minor changes to the uniform design throughout the years, such as changing the silver stripe patterns on the jersey sleeves, and changing the colors of the jersey numbers. White trim was added to the logo in 1970. In 1998, the team wore blue pants with their white jerseys along with grey socks but dumped that combination after the season. In 1999, the 'TV numbers' on the sleeves were moved to the shoulders.
The shade of blue used for Lions uniforms and logos is officially known as "Honolulu blue," which is supposedly inspired by the color of the waves off the coast of Hawaii. The shade was chosen by Cy Huston, the Lions first vice president and general manager, and of the choice, he said: "They had me looking at so many blues I am blue in the face," Huston said about the selection. "But anyway, it's the kind of blue, I am told, that will match with silver."
In 1994, every NFL team wore 'throwback' jerseys, and the Lions' were similar to the jerseys used during their 1935 championship season. The helmets and pants were solid silver, the jerseys Honolulu blue with silver numbers and the jersey did not have 'TV numbers' on the sleeves. The team wore solid blue socks along with black shoes. The helmets also did not have a logo as helmets were simple leather back then.
The Lions also wore '50s-style jerseys during their traditional Thanksgiving Day games from 2001 to 2004 as the NFL encouraged teams to wear throwback jerseys on Thanksgiving Day.In 2003, the team added black trim to their logo and the jerseys. The face masks on the helmet changed from blue to black with the introduction of the new color. Additionally, an alternate home field jersey which makes black the dominant color (in place of Honolulu Blue) was introduced in 2005.
For 2008, the team dropped the black alternate jerseys in favor of throwback jerseys to commemorate the franchise's 75th anniversary.
See also NFL local television blackout policy
As of the 2008 season, the flagship TV station for pre-season games is WWJ-TV, with Gus Johnson on play-by-play and Desmond Howard with color commentary. Matt Shepard and Charlie Sanders host the pre-game and halftime shows and provide sideline reports. Matt Shepard also serves as the backup play-by-play announcer. All pre-season games are broadcasted statewide on The Detroit Lions Television Network.
Regular season games are broadcasted regionally on FOX, except when the Lions play an AFC team in Detroit, in which case the game airs regionally on CBS. The Thanksgiving Classic game in Detroit is always televised nationally.
See article The Ford Lions Report