The Detroit Lions making the playoffs is what the NFL is all about. Three years ago, this team went winless through 17 weeks. I repeat, winless.
They were a blight on the face of the NFL record books. One of only two teams in NFL history to go a full season without a win. The Lions were the screw-up nephew in the proverbial NFL family that no one wanted to talk about. They were the college dropout who plays Modern Warfare all day while the rest of the NFL wears a suit and works for a living.
Three years later, the Lions have one of the most exciting teams in the league led by a freakishly dynamic wide receiver, a future superstar quarterback, and a defensive tackle who enjoys stomping on people with his cleats.
Contrast this with, say, the Indianapolis Colts, who back in 2009 were flirting with a perfect regular season record. Two years later, Indianapolis finished 2011 with a 2-14 record. Indy's offense, which had set offensive records for more than a decade, averaged a sleep-inducing 15 points-per-game in 2011. Two years ago, it was Detroit averaging 16 points-per-game while the Colts were thumping NFL clubs at the tune of 26 per-game.
For the 2011 regular season season: 29 points-per-game for the Lions offense, 15 for the Colts.
This is why the NFL owns the sports world. On a dime, everything can change.
The ascension of the Detroit Lions wasn't the result of five or six or 10 years of careful planning, smart drafting, bargain free agent signings, or the three words that make people like me cringe as if someone were scrapping an X-Acto knife across a chalkboard: "front office continuity."
For nearly 10 years, Lions fans had to endure the bumbling idiocy of their team's owner, William Clay Ford Sr., defending the bumbling idiocy of the team's president and C.E.O., Matt Millen. Millen got the top gig in Detroit in 2001 without any previous experience as a scout, regional scouting director, front office executive, or in the coaching ranks. Millen had been doing TV work for years as a broadcaster since his days as a player ended in 1991.
Seriously. These are the billionaires that lead our great league. Men who hire TV broadcasters to top-level team executive positions.
From 2001 to 2008, Lions fans were told to endure the decisions of Millen as team president and "de facto general manager." The words "continuity" and "rebuilding" were team euphemisms for "Shut up and deal with the losing!" It took the before-mentioned winless season of 2008, and a dedicated and determined FIRE MILLEN! campaign from passionate fans, to finally convince William Clay Ford Jr. (son of the man who hired Millen) that his dad's top team executive had about as much talent at NFL front office and roster management as Joe Buck, Marv Albert, and Greg Gumbel.
Millen was "removed" before the '08 season's quest for "perfection" was complete, leaving proud and under-appreciated head coach Rod Marinelli to live with the sigma of ultimate futility on his resume. Marinelli, a Vietnam war veteran, had to gut it out through the entire 0-16 season while Millen, the true architect, was kicked off the burning bus three weeks into it. After William Clay Ford Jr. fired him the Monday after 0-16 was consummated, Coach Marinelli moved on to do some impressive coaching in Chicago as their defensive coordinator. Chicago is 3-1 against Detroit since Marinelli took over their defense, and they haven't had a losing season.
As is often the case with many NFL teams, the process of rebuilding doesn't have to take 5-10 years. If the people in charge know what the hell they are doing, getting good in the NFL happens much, much quicker.
Detroit replaced Millen with someone who was already working in the front office, Senior Vice President Martin Mayhew. Mayhew had a law degree, was once a player, and had been working in the front office years prior to being named the general manager.
In short, unlike Millen, Mayhew was qualified.
One of Mayhew's first acts was the trading of Millen's first round draft pick in 2004 (4th overall): Roy Williams. To put it mildly, Mayhew FLEECED Cowboys owner and president Jerry Jones in the deal, nabbing a 1st, 3rd, and 6th round picks for Williams.
Williams went bust in Dallas just as he did in Detroit. Mayhew turned that 1st from Dallas into tight end Brandon Pettigrew (83 catches, 777 yards, 5 TDs in 2011 for the Lions).
Mayhew hired former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz as his new head coach. Inheriting a defense that allowed 517 points in 2008 (32 points-per-game), Schwartz continued to utilize the same, basic defensive scheme that Rod Marinelli had installed: Cover-2, Tampa-2. However, unlike what Millen did to Marinelli, Mayhew was going to use the draft, free agency, and trades to upgrade the roster for Schwartz.
First rounds picks in 2010 and 2011 were stud defensive tackles Ndamukong Sug and Nick Fairley, respectively. Later picks in those years yielded Jahvid Best, Titus Young, and Mikel Leshoure. Mayhew then conned then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels into trading superb tight end Tony Scheffler to Detroit for a 5th rounder. Mayhew used this same deal to ship Matt Millen's first round pick in 2006 (No. 9 overall, Ernie Sims) to Philadelphia. Mayhew also got McDaniels to send him corner Alphonso Smith in a separate deal.
Scheffler had 26 catches for 6 TDs in 2011. In the two years since he was dealt from Denver, Alphonso Smith has 9 picks for the Lions.
In free agency, veterans with strong knowledge of Cover-2, Tampa-2 base defense were signed, including linebacker Stephen Tulloch and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Both men worked with Schwartz in Tennessee.
Oh, and let's not forget who the Lions used their No. 1 overall pick on in 2009 on: Quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Back in '09, some were saying that the Lions should not draft Stafford. Instead, they felt Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry was better value with the first overall pick. Curry eventually went to the Seahawks at No. 4 overall, and was a bust after three seasons.
Meanwhile, Stafford just completed a 5,000 yard season.
In the end, the turnaround in Detroit wasn't a result of "rebuilding." It was getting rid of the children who eat paint that ran the organization from 2001-2008 and replacing them with adults who know how to tie their own shoelaces. Heck, their ascension might have come even quicker had Stafford not injured his shoulder in 2009 and 2010.
Last year, former Lions head coach Steve Mariucci talked about Detroit's shift as a football franchise from doormat to playoff team. Mariucci, the man Matt Millen violated the Rooney Rule to hire as head coach in 2003 only to fire him two years later, stated that the reason Detroit has gotten so good so fast is that the people now in charge finally started listening to their scouts.
Think about that for a moment.
Scouts. The people paid to evaluate talent were repeatedly being ignored by the man William Clay Ford Sr. hired in 2001 to run his team. That, right there, was why the Detroit Lions didn't make the playoffs for 13 years.
While Detroit is far from being a legit title contender (they surrendered six touchdown passes and 45 points to Green Bay's back-up quarterback Sunday in a game they had to win for favorable playoff seeding), they are finally headed in the right direction.
And, really, for the NFL and its fans, Detroit being good is, in itself, good for the league. If the Lions can become high-octane and entertaining, ANYONE can.