Funny enough, a story in there fits right along with my new series:
"Road to 0-16: How to become Historically Bad."
Part One: 1991 - 2000 The Glory Years or Rut to Ruin?
Those that do not study the past are doomed to repeat it. The piece talks about the Lions' playoff appearances in the 1990's, and how since the writer missed the Millen years entirely, this will be like the rebuilding that should have happened in the 2000's. Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself...
The listing of playoff appearances is impressive indeed!
1991 - NFC Title Game
One and Done in: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999. And who can forget missing in 2000 by a bears FG?
In fact, lets look at the record of the Lions in the 1990's (from DetroitLions.com):
Playoff appearances are in Bold
1990 Wayne Fontes 6-10-0 3rd NFC Central
1991 Wayne Fontes 12-4-0 1st NFC Central
1992 Wayne Fontes 5-11-0 5th NFC Central
1993 Wayne Fontes 10-6-0 1st NFC Central
1994 Wayne Fontes 9-7-0 3rd NFC Central
1995 Wayne Fontes 10-6-0 2nd NFC Central
1996 Wayne Fontes 5-11-0 5th NFC Central
1997 Bobby Ross 9-7-0 3rd NFC Central
1998 Bobby Ross 5-11-0 4th NFC Central
1999 Bobby Ross 8-8-0 3rd NFC Central
2000 Bobby Ross** 9-7-0 4th NFC Central
There was legitimate reason the NFC Central was the "Black and Blue" division. The Lions, Packers, Vikings, and Bucs were all playoff teams in the 1990's and highly feared. How long since a 10-6 record in a 5 team division earned 2nd place for the Lions??
Now lets go back in time to the 1990 - 1996 seasons. Wayne Fontes consistently had the Lions in the playoffs. Of course, this wasn't because the Lions were exceedingly well coached (although Lions fans would later, of course, look back lovingly on these sweet contending years...)
The Lions were known for their great drafts in this time period, and indeed had a stacked team with great talent on both offense and defense. The Silver Rush. Barry Sanders.
So what happened? They "underachieved". The Lions never were able to capture that magical "playoff run" and, like Marino, Barry ended his career ringless -- though at least Marino had a shot in the big game.
In 1996, fed up by an inability to win in the playoffs, the Lions fired Fontes and brought in Bobby Ross. Ross, who fell out of favor with the Chargers just two years after leading the Chargers to the SuperBowl, was just the man to motivate the team into more postseason glory. Or was he?
Actually, in his 3 1/2 years, Ross achieved roughly the same level of achievement that Fontes did - having one good year, followed by a down season, then sneaking into the playoffs again.
If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Both the SanDiego Chargers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have followed this exact same path in recent years, although they are at different points.
The Chargers are the Lions of the 2000's. They fired Marty Schottenheimer because he could get them to the playoffs, but couldn't win. They hired Marty in the first place because the talent on the Chargers was (and still does) underachieve -- especially in the playoffs.
The window for the chargers is closing in on them as LT ages... if they stay on their current path, in another 3 or 4 years at most you will be looking at an owner seeing an aging roster and a need to move on. The one thing they have going for them is that AJ Smith is still drafting well -- and good drafting typically leads to an average team at worst.
The Tampa Bay similarity is even more profound, and ironic given the "Tampa North" moniker in the Rod Marinelli years.
Tampa Bay brought in John Gruden to replace Tony Dungy because, although Dungy got them to the playoffs, he couldn't "win the big one". (Since disproven with the Colts) The divergence here is that Gruden won the big one his first year, while Fontes missed out by losing the championship game and the Ross hiring wasn't as fortunate for the Lions. However, fate was not looking kindly to Gruden in the long run.
After his Superbowl win, Tampa has been mixing playoff appearances with down years. Faced with poor drafting and an aging roster (are we back in Detroit in 2001 anyone?), ownership decided to cut bait and hired a first time head coach and first time GM to blow it all up and "start over right."
(Since we know the future, lets pray for the sake of Bucs fans the 2010's go better for them than the 2000's went for the Lions... though based on their moves thus far they are following the blueprint Millen laid out...)
Getting back to the Lions, one thing that had defined the Fontes years was great talent. The Lions had it. They drafted well for the most part -- and even though they underachieved on the whole, the Lions had the depth and talent to field a fearsome team on an annual basis. They were never far off middle of the road at worst.
That changed, however, with the Bobby Ross years. While we tend to overlook it, he drafted almost as badly (if not as badly) as Matt Millen. Ross had control over personnel, and tended to make Millenesque picks for a player rather than sticking with his board. (It usually came back to bite the Lions.)
With 4 bad drafts in a row, and the rest of the players retiring, leaving in FA, or slowing down due to age a roster that had been stacked was starting on a bit of a decline. HOWEVER -- my thought is, and always has been, that a GM who drafted well could have used the veterans on the roster as a bridge (it was still a 9-7 team in 2000 who just missed the playoffs!) and built the Lions back up very quickly with smart drafting again.
After all, the 1990's Lions proved beyond doubt that great drafting could make for an average team on a consistent basis, irregardless of other factors.
The front office staff was still mostly in place from the Fontes years to be able to move back to the "old style" of drafting the Lions employed (look at the Steelers from 2002 - 2009 for how that type of drafting works, since the Lions' personnel in essence ended up there).
For me, the first steps to 0-16 were taken in the 1990's -- fed up by "almost getting there" the Fords decided to try something totally new rather than bring someone in to improve from where they were at (again). The belief of perpetual mediocrity -- the team that often got in to the club, but never brought anyone home -- had been firmly entrenched over a decade. This build up of frustration pent out of years of missing "by a FG" is what set the entry for 0-16.
Indeed, it was the very rut of frustrated mediocrity created in the 1990's that led to the search for a shovel, a rope, or anything to get out for good. Unfortunately, their shovel and rope were in the form of Matt Millen -- the focus of the next step on "The Road to 0-16" -- 2000-07: Train Wreck in Progress.
Look for it later this week, as we journey together down the "Road to 0-16: How to become Historically Bad."