— The scene: Wembley Stadium, London, the site of Super Bowl XLVII. It’s February, 2013.
It’s Media Day at the stadium, where star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, in his third season under 49ers coach Pete Carroll, is the focal point of media attention. After six record-breaking seasons in the NFL, Johnson is being compared to Niners legend Jerry Rice. Reporters from all over the world are firing questions at Johnson, who delivers polished responses to each query.
Suddenly, the feel-good flow is disturbed by a question that stops everyone within earshot:
“So, Calvin, what was it like back in ’08, when you went 0-16 with the Lions?”
There’s silence, awkward silence. Johnson glares at the questioner and sighs.
They won’t be able to outrun it, not even a player of Calvin Johnson’s stature. The Lions are 0-15, going on 0-16, a mark of mind-boggling ineptitude that will follow the players and coaches for the rest of their lives. When a team wins a Super Bowl, the players always talk about being able to walk together forever as champions. When a team becomes the first in history to finish 0-16, it’s the same deal.
The Lions became the first 0-15 team with a no-show loss last weekend to the Saints, and they’ll be shooting for the imperfect season Sunday in Green Bay, where they haven’t won since 1991.
“This is one big nightmare,” center Dominic Raiola said after the 42-7 home loss to the Saints. “You want it to end, but it hasn’t ended yet.”
The season will end, all right, but not the haunting memory of utter and complete failure. It’s hard to go winless in the parity-driven world of the NFL, which manipulates the draft and free agency in order to maintain a level playing field, but the Lions have taken it to a new low.
They’re the perfect storm, the confluence of poor talent, poor coaching, poor management and rotten luck. In terms of ability, the Lions probably aren’t the worst team in history, but they’re the team that will be remembered for being the worst. Bill Parcells always says, “You are what your record says you are,” which means the Lions are nothings. Zeroes. Oh-fers.
Unlike the 1976 Bucs, who went 0-14, the Lions can’t use the expansion-team excuse. Although they often play like it, the Lions weren’t thrown together in one off-season. No, this was a long, methodical process, orchestrated by former GM Matt Millen, who ran the team into the ground with a 31-84 record in seven-plus seasons. Mercifully, he was fired this season after an 0-3 start.
You almost feel sorry for the players, who haven’t experienced a victory in a full calendar year — last Dec. 23, to be exact. That was a 25-20 victory over the Chiefs. Imagine going a year on your job without tasting success — a year without selling a car or winning a case or breaking a story in the newspaper.
“Awful, embarrassing, we stunk,” quarterback Dan Orlovsky said after defeat No. 15. “Any bad adjective you can use, throw it in there.”
From all indications, coach Rod Marinelli has handled the adversity with poise, but he, too, will be remembered as The Coach Who Went 0-16. The stigma never fades. After resigning from the Jets at the end of a 1-15 season in 1996, Rich Kotite disappeared from public view, maintaining a Garbo-esque profile in the same city that vilified him. He never worked in football again, opting (escaping?) for the life of a private citizen.
A former safety named Lonnie Young, one of the better players on that Jets team, says he’d like to erase his picture from the team photo. He was half-joking. Or was he deadly serious?
Make no mistake, the Lions won’t be remembered as lovable losers. They aren’t the 1962 Mets or a team of that ilk. The Lions are an established franchise, and they’ve had every opportunity to make themselves respectable, but they have failed miserably in the post-Barry Sanders era. Good riddance, Mr. Millen.
The Lions need a football man like Parcells to rebuild the entire organization, as Parcells has done with the Dolphins, but ownership appears content to maintain the status quo. The other day, owner William Clay Ford said he’s planning to retain interim GM Martin Mayhew. Has Ford lost his mind? Many in Detroit would say yes. The Lions need to gut the organization and start over. There’s no other way.
Unfortunately, when the history of the 2008 season is chronicled, the Lions will be mentioned prominently. They’re one of the stories of the year, right up there with all the feel-good subplots. In the Year of the Bailout, no team in professional sports needs it more than the Lions.