(First in a three-part series)
This whole mess of a franchise is not Matt Millen’s fault.
It's not Rod Marinelli’s fault. Heck, it isn’t even entirely William Clay Ford’s fault.
In fact, the whole debacle that is the Detroit Lions football team can be squarely placed on the shoulders of Edwin J. Anderson.
Anderson, head of a Detroit business syndicate that owned the Lions, was locked in a power struggle with fellow owner D. Lyle Fife when the team was reeling from the 1963 gambling scandal that cost Alex Karras a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ford had an ownership stake in the Lions and had served as a club director and eventually gained the team presidency in 1961. When Anderson unloaded the team, the syndicate sold the Lions outright to a 38-year-old Ford for $4.5 million on Jan. 10, 1964.
And things have never been the same.
In the 15 seasons the syndicate owned the Lions from 1949-63, the team flourished by capturing three world championships and had only five losing seasons. In the 45 seasons since the Boy Blunder from the Blue Oval took over, the Lions have won one playoff game and have reached the nadir of their existence. The team, 0-11 this season, is currently mired in a franchise-worst 1-18 streak and has lost 92 of its past 123 games.
All this while the Lions celebrate their 75th season. Happy anniversary, Mr. Ford.
Surely, Ford deserves the lion’s share of credit for leading his franchise into the abyss, but let’s not forget the fateful contribution of Anderson, who made it all possible. Anderson failed to find a way to retain ownership or at least he could have found a better owner, such as Ralph C. Wilson, a Detroit-raised one-time minority owner who founded the Buffalo Bills.
But after nearly a half-century of failure of the highest order, Ford’s name stands out among the rest on a ship that oftentimes has appeared to be rudderless.
You hear it everywhere amid the grit and grime of Detroit and on the even more polluted message boards that are devoted to the team in cyberspace: "Please, please, sell the team, Mr. Ford!" Those pleas, of course, have fallen on deaf ears. Fans even have resorted to pleading with Ford to move the team so that Detroit may have a chance of landing another franchise — good luck amid Detroit’s crumbling auto-dependent economy — and the latest fan-led movement has made Los Angeles (LATaketheLions.com) a putative suitor.
To hear old-time Lions players, fans and even sportswriters who covered the team for decades tell it, the team certainly has been bad. But even when it wasn’t, the breaks were never there. The team finished second in its division four times in the 1960s, but missed the playoffs the entire decade while being caught behind the dynasty of Vince Lomardi’s Packers. When that was over, the Lions were left to play second-fiddle to the mini-dynasty of Bud Grant’s Vikings in the 1970s.
“We had the personnel to win several times but things just didn’t break our way,” linebacker Wayne Walker, who played 200 games for the Lions between 1958-72, said recently. “We were probably the second-best team in the league for 12 years and got caught between the Packers and the Vikings.”
Charlie Sanders, who played for the Lions in 1968-77 and carved out a Hall of Fame career while becoming a prototype for today’s tight ends, has served 20 years with the team in many capacities. Sanders joined Walker and 34 other former players who recently were named to the Lions’ all-time team. Sanders was asked for the highlight of his playing career and he didn’t hesitate.
It was the Thanksgiving Day game against Fred Biletnikoff and the Raiders on Nov. 26, 1970. The Lions had the talent that year, with players like Sanders, Karras, Walker, Lem Barney, Dick LeBeau, Ed Flanagan and Mel Farr. Sanders caught two touchdown passes and the Lions rallied to beat Oakland, 28-14.
It felt like the start of something big. The Lions ended the season on a five-game winning streak and finished second to Minnesota in the NFC Central at 10-4. They reached the playoffs for the first time since 1957. And then they lost to Dallas, 5-0.
“That really was a stepping stone for the organization,” Sanders said wistfully of the Thanksgiving Day game. “Unfortunately, we didn’t build on that.”
It had taken the Lions 13 years to get back to the playoffs and they would not return for another 12.