Toothless Lions: Barry and the Golden Era

(Continued from Part I - Blame Edwin J. Anderson)

The Detroit Lions didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to embark on a golden era when they went on a stretch of reaching eight postseasons in the 1980s and ‘90s.

After missing the playoffs entirely in the 1960s and failing to score a point in their lone playoff game over a 25-year span, the Lions started humming. They qualified, with just about everyone else, for the playoffs in the strike-shortened season of 1982 despite a 4-5 record. They lost, 31-7, to Washington and CBS switched to another game permanently by the third quarter.

It didn’t matter. Coach Monte Clark had players like Billy Sims and Doug English believing. The Lions returned to the playoffs the next season and lost a squeaker to San Francisco, 24-23.

Clark lasted another season before he was replaced by Darryl Rogers, who wouldn’t last four seasons and once joked with reporters, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

The answer was a 2-9 start to Rogers’ fourth season. His 18-40 record and .310 winning percentage was the lowest in franchise history among coaches who lasted at least one full season (of course, the Lions hadn’t seen anything yet).

The person who replaced Rogers struck gold immediately — but he got a little help from a diminutive running back who outshined everyone.

Defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes was considered to not have had enough experience, polish or knowledge to be a viable head coach. Fontes took over for Rogers on an interim basis and he finished the 1988 season with a 2-3 record.

But Fontes knew how to play politics. He campaigned hard and got the job. He hired Mouse Davis and June Jones and installed the Run & Shoot offense, then he was the key proponent of drafting Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders with the third overall pick in the 1989 draft.

It didn’t click right away. The Lions started the 1989 season with five losses. But they finished with five wins and a respectable 7-9 record. More important, Sanders gave everyone a reason to believe. He chalked up 1,470 yards on 280 carries his rookie season and electrified crowds with his scat-back running style. It seemed Sanders could get out of any sort of trouble by reversing direction, which mirrored his own coach’s ability to avoid William Clay Ford’s ax.

After a lackluster 6-10 showing in 1990, Fontes and the Lions caught fire in 1991, which proved to be a watershed moment for the franchise.

Everything worked for the Lions in 1991. Sanders had his first 1,500-yard season, Ray Crockett had six interceptions, the Lions sent six players to the Pro Bowl en route to a 12-4 record, they won their first division title since 1983 and won their first playoff game in 34 years.

Even when things went horribly wrong, they still went right. In a November game against the Los Angeles Rams, guard Mike Utley was paralyzed from the chest down. The Lions used the tragedy as motivation to finish the season on a six-game winning streak.

But it all came to a screeching halt with a deflating 45-10 loss at Washington in the NFC title game at RFK Stadium. The season ended as unceremoniously as it had begun, with the Lions falling, 45-0, in the season opener at RFK Stadium.

"Wow!" exclaimed Fontes. "Did that look like a rerun or what?"

The success proved to be a double-edged sword for the Lions. It raised the standard of expectations that they could never quite reach again. Fontes took the Lions on a three-year playoff run from 1993-95. But they went one-and-out each time.

Amid this successful run, Fontes proved as elusive as his star running back. Fontes earned the nickname “Big Buck” in reference to his ability to stay out of the crosshairs so often. He put together winning streaks when the heat came and playoff runs to delay the eventual firing that resulted after a 5-11 season in 1996.

Ford fired Fontes for his inability to reach the next level — presumably a berth in the Super Bowl. Fontes took the firing graciously and retired from coaching, never truly appreciated for having become the Lions’ leader in coaching victories (67) and playoff appearances.

The firing of Fontes was fateful and revealed that Fontes not only had the talent but, maybe more important, also had the temperament for the job. Bobby Ross succeeded Fontes and took the Lions to the playoffs in 1997 and 1999. But he lost his star along the way when Sanders abruptly quit before training camp in 1999.

Some said Sanders tired of the inability to win consistently, that he couldn’t stomach the 5-11 seasons anymore. Some said he did not want to break the all-time rushing record held by Walter Payton. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. Sanders was gone and soon Ross followed.

Ross gave his now-famous sound-bite staple on Detroit radio of “you think I coach that stuff? I don't coach that stuff! I work on that stuff! I spend time on that stuff! And I'm getting all the damn heat!" after the Lions lost, 10-9, at Philadelphia in 1998. After the Lions got hammered by the Redskins, 27-13, in a 1999 NFC wild-card game, Ross was unequivocal when he said, “We took a good old-fashioned beatin' today.”

The cracks in the armor were beginning to show. The frustration was taking a physical and emotional toll on Ross. Nine games into the 2000 season, and after the Lions were outscored 53-26 in two straight losses, he resigned on Nov. 6.

Two months later, the Lions hired Matt Millen, a team president with no previous coaching or front-office experience. They started the 2001 season 0-12 and were about to embark on a historic tailspin.

Carlos Monarrez has been a staff writer and editor for the Detroit Free Press since 1999. This is his third season covering the Detroit Lions.

Part III - Matt Millen's Reign of Error

Author Archive