History Lesson: The 'Golden Years'... Onward
By: Philipp Levering (Guest Columnist)
November 27, 2010
Jim Schwartz
Since 1995, the Detroit Lions' draft selections could be considered a bit, well, up and down from year to year, along with the team's fronted talent to compliment their fresh faces. In the years of Bobby Ross (1997-2000), the talent was 'up' followed by, as everyone knows, an extended period of apathy, complacency, and, above all else, no winning as the team reaped the rewards of horrendous management in the 2000's, ultimately dooming the franchise.

That was, until Jim Schwartz took the reins. Although winning still seems to elude the Silver and Blue, the drafted talent is unarguably better as well as the ability of its entire roster. The challenge for Schwartz, though, is that he is facing one that of no other coach in our time has had to repair in Detroit, or in the entire NFL, for that matter. Despite literally having to rebuild the mess created by the most hated figurehead in Lions' history, Matt Millen, Schwartz is making considerable progress and it has stemmed from his dedication to substantially improving both sides of the ball.

WHAT WAS: Bobby Ross, often credited for the recent "Golden Years" of Detroit football (Lions 31-31 in his 'era'), inherited a team that was up-and-down, even though, when up, was considered a playoff contender. The reason Ross took the reins was simply because the preceding coach, Wayne Fontes (team 68-76 in his 'era') had 'once again' followed up a winning season with a losing one, thus creating the perception that, after early playoff exit after early playoff exit, the organization was not going 'in the right direction'.

Despite a losing season in 1996, Detroit was indeed formidable with the likes of, even in the eyes of the league as a whole, standout talent. Ross inherited a defense with a solid line, including first round draft picks Robert Porcher (26th, '92) and Luther Ellis (20th, '95), a linebacker core consisting of a future two-time All-Pro for the Lions in Stephen Boyd and a first round draft pick in Reggie Brown (17th, '96), and a defensive backfield with the Chicago Bears' three-time All-Pro safety Mark Carrier and, for what it's worth, a fan favorite in safety Ron Rice and a corner who, in one stellar 1995 season, picked six passes in Corey Raymond.

Year Record Coach Pt. Diff.
1988 4-12 Rogers, Fontes -93
1989 7-9 Fontes -52
1990 6-10 Fontes -40
*1991 12-4 Fontes 44
1992 5-11 Fontes -59
*1993 10-6 Fontes 6
*1994 9-7 Fontes 15
*1995 10-6 Fontes 100
1996 5-11 Fontes -66
*1997 9-7 Ross 73
1998 5-11 Ross -72
*1999 8-8 Ross -1
2000 9-7 Ross, Moeller 0
*Indicates Playoff Year
(Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com)

Ross believed the foundation for a decent team was there, judging by the franchise's 'consistency' in finding ways to scour winning seasons only to fade away in the playoffs. When taking the team, his first selection in the draft was geared to filling the otherwise obvious holes on the team's defense. Corner Bryant Westbrook shored up the defense in 1997 after his first-round selection (5th overall), helping make Detroit a playoff team for the fifth time in seven years.

That 1997 season was an interesting one. With Westbrook being the 'last' piece the Lions needed to be a contender for that season, the defense was solidified, leaving only the drastically unchanged offense to deliver. While the team hinged its success on the arms of the revolving door at the quarterback position, it still managed to stay relatively consistent on the offensive side of the ball even prior to that season. While it's fun to poke fun at the names that did start at QB for the Lions in the 90's, including Mitchell, Peete, Kreig, Kramer, and Gagliano, or even romanticize the talent found in Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton, or even Cory Schlesinger and David Sloan, the obvious reason the Lions had been so 'good' was because of Barry Sanders. Sanders finished the year with over 2,000 yards rushing, carrying the load, so to speak, for that offense in question. As that 9-7 team squeaked in to the playoffs on the legs of the league's leading rusher in Ross' first season, the page seemed to have turned for the franchise. Unfortunately, that season, and the momentum with it, came to a screeching halt. Reggie Brown, who had 2.5 sacks and scored two TDs for the Lions' D that year, suffered a career ending injury in the finale against the Jets. Leaving the LB hole to fill for the playoffs, the Lions had no answer for the Bucs, who went on to win 20-10.

The '98 season brought in return specialist Terry Fair in the first round and yet another underachieved season (this time by a losing record), truly demonstrating that Ross' team was not really his, but rather the product of the up-and-down formula established by Fontes and, more infamously, fueled the fire in Barry Sanders' belief that the team was still not going anywhere. Sanders would retire after that season, starting what fans feared was the end of Detroit's competitiveness in the NFC.

In '99, the team actually surprisingly rebounded. In the draft absent of any real RB prospects, it opted in passing on Daunte Culpepper to fill the void left by the premature retirement of Brown at LB for Chris Claiborne. Culpepper was ultimately seen as a project and unneeded, considering second round pick Charlie Batch was the quarterback of the future, much to the dismay of Lions' fans. However, Detroit finished 8-8 on the year, grasping another playoff berth without their star, Barry Sanders, giving hope for the franchise.

As we all know, the hope was unmerited, even though the Lions had been in the playoffs six times in the 90's after that last season. Another one and done playoff exit set up Ross' well-documented discontent with his players, quitting half-way through the 2000 season. Despite a 9-7 season, the Lions failed to make the playoffs, setting up the most horrendously epic turn-around in NFL history.

THE NIGHTMARE: In fear of a collapse, the Ford family wanted a new direction following the 2000 season. Their star back had retired and James Stewart posted a fraction of what Sanders did the year before. Its franchise-leading receiver was nothing but a memory as no receiver caught 1,000 yards for the new QB Batch. And, its once stellar defense was perceived to be too old and unable to perform. Enter, Matt Millen.

Eager to implement his style of team, eager to change what was not broken, Millen employed change. His idea of a team was based entirely on men with speed and he wanted a coach that was offensive-minded enough to change the dynamic of the way his already winning team performed. Millen hired Marty Mornhinweg.

Even with Porcher, Claiborne, Ellis, Shultz, Fair, and the just-drafted Shaun Rogers, the defenseless Lions followed up their 9-win season with a 2-win and 14-loss disaster of a season. No one rushed for 1,000 yards, Charlie Batch lost his job, and the Lions, shell-shocked, were an astonishing -154 in point differential. Millen preached hope for the following years as he thought the team needed to get settled in the new scheme. Jeff Backus was his first pick, his future. Dominic Raiola was his just-drafted center. Incredible potential lay ahead of the team, only needing to supplement the organization with the true star-caliber players in next-year's draft that would lead the Lions for years.

Unfortunately, for the organization and the fans alike, Matt Millen destroyed the Detroit Lions every year in April through the NFL Draft. In 2002, Detroit, while shored up on defense and on the o-line from the year before, Millen takes Joey Harrington, the then scrutinized quarterback pick out of Oregon, third overall, to turn the franchise around. Then from 2003-2005, Millen takes wide receivers (Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams) in the first round to compliment his then 'progressed' franchise QB, all while drafting speed on defense to replace his aging stars. Linebacker-type at defensive end Kalimba Edwards was drafted to replace the big and strong Porcher, the quick-stepping Shaun Cody was picked to succeed the great Ellis, defensive back-type at linebacker Boss Bailey was the future Boyd, and speedster Terrance Holt was going to sub-in for league-leader in interceptions for a safety Schultz. They were all among the first picks under this new management. Then, in realizing they weren't immediate impact players, Millen looked to fill those same positions again the following years. The offense, although among the highest paid in the league, sputtered as it too needed a sincere facelift, but instead was given no attention.

Year Record Coach Pt. Diff.
2001 2-14 Mornhinweg -154
2002 3-13 Mornhinweg -145
2003 5-11 Mariucci -109
2004 6-10 Mariucci -54
2005 5-11 Mariucci, Jauron -91
2006 3-13 Marinelli -93
2007 7-9 Marinelli -98
2008 0-16 Marinelli -249
(Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com)

Edwards, Cody, Bailey, and Holt were high-pick busts and were sought to be replaced. Repeat position selections at high draft spots for the same type of players at linebacker (Lehman, Dizon, Lewis, Sims), defensive line (Alama-Francis, Redding), and defensive backs (Smith, Wilson, Blue, Bullocks, Alexander) ensued year after year with no player emerging to aid the defense on a team that was worst in point differential from 2001-2008 (combined -993).

Meanwhile, the offense had no 'star' either, despite investing in a QB, four WRs, and four RBs in the first three rounds during the later years of his tenure. It was then too late for the Lions. The only positive came in 2007 when the Lions drafted Calvin Johnson and won a Millen era high seven wins under then second year head coach Rod Marinelli. A sign of things to come, however, was red-flagged during that season. The red-flag was that the team, now established in its draft selections and in Millen's image, had a -98 team point differential, its lowest mark since 2003, the year of arguably the second worst draft in NFL history, next to the Lions' own 2005 draft class.
See the Detroit Lions' Draft Selections since 1995

By 2008, those investments from the first three rounds on the offensive side, except for one, lone player - Calvin Johnson - no longer played for Millen's team. In 2008, Millen, now on his fourth head coach, drafts offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus in the first round, as he was hearing the screams of Lions' faithful to build from the trenches. Still, obviously, there were far too many problems with that team as the 2008 season went down as the worst in NFL history for the Lions with its epic 0-16 winless season.

THE FUTURE: 2009 brought a new era of Lions football. The Ford family did a service to the football community by firing their poster child Matt Millen and the rest of its coaching staff. The problem: who would not only be able to fix the Lions' mess that Millen created after nearly a decade of boneheaded management, but also who would even want to have that challenge?

Candidates, we were told, were few and far between. But Lions' fans excitedly preach optimism for the future, as we see hope in the leadership that is in Lewan and Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. Although the track record is nearly non-existent for all of these men, I have found one glimmering piece of hope with evidence to support that our loveable losers really are finally moving in the right direction.

Wins speak volumes and, as it's been documented, the Lions have lost an NFL worst 112 games from 2001-2009, including one year under coach Schwartz. However, in 2008, the Lions' 0-16 season saw an incredible -249 points scored that year. That number is so outrageous that only an entire team makeover could 'right' that in one season. But that is just what Schwartz did.

In 2009 - his first year - Schartz's attention to detail helped make an immediate impact in Detroit. Even with -232 points that year, the Lions were still stuck with many of the players from the Millen era and, yet, the team still managed to win two games and improve its outrageously bad scoring balance while slowly weeding out those bad seeds from Millen's draft board. Schwartz has drafted a franchise quarterback who, when healthy, has proven he can win games, even in his rookie year. Between all of his defensive draft picks � Zach Follett, Sammie Lee Hill, DeAndre Levy, Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey, and Ndomukong Suh - all are integral parts of one of the most improved defenses in the league. Every team that has played them in the past two years have been cited in calling the defense either "tough", "fast", and, most notably, the "dirtiest in the NFL". Not to mention that Suh leads all rookies and all NFL defensive tackles in sacks.

His draft choices have also yielded much more. Seventh round pick, #255 overall, Dan Gronkowski yielded Alphonso Smith via trade who, prior to Thanksgiving, was one of the top corners in the league for YPG against on men he covered. Of the offensive players drafted, Brandon Pettigrew leads the league in catches for a tight end, Jahvid Best is, when healthy, recognized as truly game-breaking, and, for what it's worth, Matt Stafford's win percentage in games he finishes (.273) is better than the entire Millen era (.242).

2010 was greeted with much higher expectations. Unfortunately, injuries hurt, and through 11 games, the Lions have only two victories. As this may give doubt for the future of the Lions, one thing is extremely noticeable: they are in games. A team cannot win the games they couldn't the year before without being within one or two big mistakes. As this season is still a disappointment, the improvement is there. The Lions are only a -24 on the year, and that's with an injured QB, two injured RBs, and an absolutely awful offensive line coach with the most penalized right guard in the NFL.

Clearly, the Lions need to be better in order to turn this mess around with, ideally, W's. However, seeing the progress on a game-in and game-out basis, I feel optimistic that, at least, no facet of this team is overlooked and mistakes are being fixed by a man who is undertaking the largest project in the NFL. Sure, the season is not over and much still remains to be seen. However, what is noteworthy is that there is a foundation in Detroit now. Mayhew and company inherited a team full of basically nothing but back up players and have turned the team around in two years. -24 is an incredible improvement of epic proportions over the -232 the year before. For this alone, NFL fans should begin to give the Lions a little bit of credit.

They need a few pieces here and there and, ultimately, to stay healthy. They no longer need a complete roster overhaul. Next year, the Lions may very well score their Bryant Westbrook under a coach who has a direction in mind. They need one more linebacker, they need a safety, and, as the general consensus, probably a whole new offensive line. However, they are close. The pieces are in tact. The NFL needs to be prepared for this team once they get healthy and plug those minor holes. This offense scores points. This defense gets stops. The truth is that the future is far better off for having Schwartz there.

(February 4, Rotoworld.com) -- South Carolina TE Weslye Saunders is ineligible for April's NFL draft after his agent botched paperwork to petition for "special eligibility." He's also ineligible for the Combine. Saunders missed last season for violating team and NCAA rules. He'll try for the Supplemental Draft this summer.

*A.J. Green
WR, Georgia
*Patrick Peterson
*Nick Fairley
DT, Auburn
*Da'Quan Bowers
DE, Clemson
*Blaine Gabbert
QB, Missouri
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