It truly is inevitable. A Lions fan engages with fans of other teams, either in friendly banter or good old fashioned smack talk. The Lions fan hits with a stinging jab, perhaps dropping the always relevant #WeOwnTheBears hashtag, only to be met with the stand by insult for Lions fans. 0-16. Known cynically as “The Perfect Season,” the 2008 Detroit Lions season is one of loss, embarrassment, and, ultimately, the rebirth of one of the oldest and most storied franchises in NFL history.
It is nearing a decade from the start of that fateful season, so some reflection is due. Football fans, like any group of people, have short memories. The futility of the Cleveland Browns 2017 season, the second ever 0-16 in NFL history, has finally pushed some of that stigma off the Lions, but it’s worth noting that as bad as Hue Jackson’s squad was they would have beaten the 2008 Lions to a bloody pulp. This isn’t some weird pissing contest where we try to see which team was worse, just a preface for those of you who weren’t paying as close attention in 2008 (and thus not prepped for the next paragraphs) and a look at just how far the Detroit Lions have come in the first decade post Millen.
Take a step back to this point in 2008. The Lions were coming off a 7-9 season, but there was a significant amount of hype surrounding the team. The 2007 Lions ran a top 10 passing offense and had just drafted a new right tackle with hopes he could take over for the inconsistent Jeff Backus on the left in time. Head coach Rod Marinelli brought in a perfect scheme fit in Jordon Dizon, whose production and leadership in college drew comparisons to the great Chris Spielman among fans. Confidence was high enough that many predicted playoffs, or more.
The signs that things were going to go... poorly came very early. First-round pick Gosder Cherilus was arrested less than a week before the draft, while second-round pick Jordon Dizon was also arrested for drunk driving prior to the draft and didn’t inform the Lions, later holding out into training camp. Seventh-round pick Caleb Campbell happily arrived at training camp only to have the Army withdraw permission for him to pursue a football career. When the team went undefeated in the preseason, fans were given the false hope that this aged team full of washed-up veterans and terrible Matt Millen draft decisions was headed for their inevitable collapse.
Contrast this with the 2018 Lions, who picked up one of the top rated interior lineman, keeping him from being selected by several other teams who were hoping he fell just one more spot. The team’s offensive line, despite being very poor due to health and continuity issues, is projected to be a top ten unit in 2018. There are at least two fewer arrests among this rookie group, and none of them were considered the kind of a reach that Dizon was.
Gosder Cherilus was the youngest player on the Lions offensive line in 2008, and it’s fitting in hindsight that he had come into the NFL overaged at 24. Jeff Backus, the team’s long time left tackle, was already 31 while 34 year old left guard Edwin Mulitalo was in his second season with the Lions (like Cherilus, Mulitalo had also came into the NFL overaged). The line was old and lacked both the high-quality athleticism that was just becoming trendy and the power that was more prevalent in the day.
All of the Lions projected lineup for 2018 are above average to elite athletes, a far cry from the 2008 squad and the 2015 group that Martin Mayhew had built to after Millen’s departure. The group wasn’t great in 2017, mostly due to injuries and the fact that so few of the starters played together at the same time. That hasn’t stopped Pro Football Focus from predicting this unit will be one of the best in the NFL in the coming season.
Like the offensive line, the starting defensive line was similarly overaged, with their youngest starting defensive lineman at 28 years of age (Cory Redding). DeWayne White would lead the Lions in 2008 with only 6.5 sacks, though he only made it 12 games that year due to various injuries that always plagued him. Rookie Cliff Avril, a rare bright spot, was second on the team with 5.0 sacks. Only one defensive lineman, Shaun Cody, would play the full 16 games that year.
The defensive line was hardly a strength of the 2017 Lions, but Ziggy Ansah had more sacks by himself than both of the top guys from 2008. Also, four defensive lineman were active for all 16 games last season and another, Cornelius Washington, only missed a single game. The unit isn’t old at all, in fact quite the opposite even when comparing league wide, let alone to the geriatric 2008 group.
The entire defensive back group, including all reserves, would combine for only a single interception during all of the 2008 season. Two of the team’s starters, cornerback Brian Kelly and safety Daniel Bullocks, would be out of the NFL after the 2008 season, never playing a regular season game again. Kalvin Pearson, their other starting safety, was out of the NFL the following year. Leigh Bodden, after his only season with the team, would play one more year with New England and then return very briefly a couple years later. Imagine an entire secondary, gone, just like that.
The 2018 roster isn’t the best at defensive back, but it does come pre-stacked with All Pro caliber players like Darius Slay and Glover Quin. Slay had eight interceptions in 2017, twice as many than the entire 2008 roster had that year. Four other defensive backs had picks in 2017, with two of them having three. The unit is one of the youngest in the NFL despite Glover Quin hitting 32 this year. With depth like Quandre Diggs, Tavon Wilson, and Miles Killebrew, it’s difficult to imagine not just one but the entire group out of the NFL in a year.
Calvin Johnson, the great Megatron, had almost exactly 1,000 yards more that year than the next best receiver on the roster. Johnson was also the only receiver who caught more than a single touchdown on the year, catching twice as many scores (12) as the rest of the roster combined (6).
The Lions, who used to only be able to lure the oldest and washed of free agents, managed to bring in not one but two of the top free agent wide receivers in the past several years. Both Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr. topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2017 and Tate cemented himself in Lions history with his fourth consecutive season of 90 or more receptions. The addition of Kenny Golladay and retention of TJ Jones puts this unit firmly among the best in the NFL, even if they don’t get the respect they deserve.
Kevin Smith, the team’s third-round pick in 2008, was a bright spot on the offense despite a horrendous offensive line. In hindsight, we all know the injuries and ineffectiveness that would blunt that initial optimism, but at the time, it was a player many thought could be built around. No other running backs from that roster were still in the NFL the following year, though both fullbacks would find roles in the NFL (Jerome Felton, the reserve that year, would become a Pro Bowler!)
The Lions made the mistake of hiring Jim Caldwell, one of the worst rushing coaches in the NFL, so the run game has struggled for the past four seasons. Bob Quinn made the run game his focus the moment he was hired and that was no more evident than the advent of the 2018 NFL season. Frank Ragnow should finish the offensive line rebuild while Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount figure to be (if the plan works) one of the top duos this season.
The team boasted one of the best kickers in the NFL in Jason Hanson, with a competent but unremarkable punter in Nick Harris. Their return game was mostly awful, and every single player that returned a punt or kick for the Lions that year was out of the league by the end of the 2009 season.
Despite having Jason Hanson back in 2008, the Lions have a vastly superior special teams unit a decade later. Matt Prater is as solid as it comes, Sam Martin (prior to his injury) has been one of the best punters in Lions history, and the Lions nabbed rookie returner Jamal Agnew an All Pro nod. The fact that Agnew is going to play in 2018 already puts the unit ahead of their 2008 counterparts.
The team was helmed by three different starting quarterbacks in the Perfect Season, none of whom could claim to have played competently in any of their games. It was a real horror show. Famously led by Daunte Culpepper, nobody broke 57 percent completion percentage, nobody had a positive TD/INT ratio, and nobody had a passer rating over 73.0. If you squinted really hard, you could find some hope in the 17 passes of Drew Stanton (though his health never held up in any of his NFL stops).
If you really wanted an area of contrast for the winless ‘08 Lions and the team’s current roster, it’s impossible to look past the contrast here. Matthew Stafford holds every single Lions record, and hasn’t had a completion percent as low as the 2008 group since his rookie season (in 2009).
Roughly two-thirds of the 2008 Lions roster would be out of the NFL by the end of the 2009 season, with a large number of them gone after the Perfect Season ended. Of the third of the team that was able to hang in the NFL for a while longer, Calvin Johnson is obviously the most notable. It’s a bit sad that of the players who were able to still shop their NFL talent, two were fullbacks, three were backup quarterbacks, and three were specialists (Jason Hanson, Nick Harris, and Don Muhlbach).
The Perfect Season saw the Lions lose all 16 games of the regular season, the first time in NFL history a team was that pathetic all at once. It was a blemish that no team had ever faced before. Prior to 2008, the only teams that had no wins were either expansion teams (1976 Buccaneers and 1960 Cowboys) or were teams that played during a global conflict like World War II. That level of ineptitude was simply unprecedented. The question then becomes “Was it worth it?”
General manager Matt Millen was fired during the 2008 season. The Lions would go on to fire their head coach and a slew of other firings would follow. The period between the Perfect Season’s end and the 2009 draft wasn’t an exciting one for Lions fans. With Martin Mayhew, a close confident of Millen’s, taking over the reigns, there wasn’t the same level of excitement fans have become used to in the lead up to the draft. Expectations were that the team would simply screw it up again.
The choice came to down to Jason Smith, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, and Matthew Stafford. Stafford, the eventual choice, was always the top option, even if it seems like there was a bigger choice at the time. Aaron Curry was somehow the fan favorite, which seems even more bonkers now that we know how he worked out. Even if he were an All Pro player, it’s hard to imagine a worse choice in hindsight. No Matthew Stafford means no rebuild.
The Stafford Effect
Though he’s a polarizing player, it cannot be overstated just how much Stafford has meant to the Lions as an organization. Without him, the team would never have removed the stigma of being the team where careers go to die. Nearly every free agent since 2009 that the Lions have lured cites Stafford as one of the biggest reasons for their choice. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner, LeGarrette Blount. None of these signings would have happened. The Lions would have been stuck picking up aged cast offs, the Julian Petersons, Grady Jacksons, and Anthony Henrys of the world.
Nate Burleson and Stephen Tulloch were both brought into Detroit as unheralded signings, but each left their mark with their play and their dedication to the city and its fans. They weren’t here just to collect a paycheck and go home. Their promotion of the city only led to a higher profile for the team and prospective free agents. That trend continues with Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, Glover Quin and T.J. Lang, potentially Devon Kennard and Sylvester Williams.
Martin Mayhew wasn’t loved in Detroit, but his poor reputation was borne more out of how he became general manager than how well he did in that role. He was by no means a great GM, but he hired the perfect coach to captain the team out of the rough waters of the Perfect Season. Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew brought a team that couldn’t win a single game to the playoffs in only three seasons, with Stafford marshalling the team. Now, seven years later, it’s worth pointing out that the 2011 Lions weren’t even a good team. Yet Mayhew got them just enough talent and Stafford pushed them just far enough to get there.
After Schwartz’s brash personality grated just hard enough, he was cut loose and Mayhew brought in the personality polar opposite in Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was able to take a team that was now middle of the road in talent and lead them to the playoffs multiple times. Two playoff berths and three winning seasons weren’t enough, however. Martin Mayhew was fired after his team collapsed in 2015 and Caldwell was fired to seasons into the Bob Quinn era, after Quinn gave him every tool to improve the run game and he made it worse each year.
Tom Lewand, the team’s former President, took over the team after the Perfect Season in the pre-rookie wage scale era. Matthew Stafford’s got a massive contract back when you only needed to be drafted to get one, and then Detroit had to deal with Ndamukong Suh’s contract piled on top of it. Lewand, who seemed to lack the basic concept of how money works, would sign bad contract after bad contract, sending the team straight towards Capgeddon. When it hit, there was nothing the team could do than lean back and take the hit.
Somehow, despite having no cash and several bloated contracts, the team managed to navigate through that disaster and come out the other side in fair condition. If Lewand wasn’t the reason for many of the bad cap choices, it may have been more impressive how much he did to get the team out of it. Ultimately, though, it was Rod Wood who put the team in the position it is in now. No more limping from season to season wondering who among the good players on the team will be cut just to make the books work. They’re in the black and ready to open the checkbook when they need to. With Lewand gone and Wood here, the hope is only that the team will spend it wisely.
Decade in Review
Coming off back-to-back winning seasons, the team faces a new era of optimism. The team has a signal caller who hasn’t missed a game in seven straight seasons and holds every single passing record in team history. There are question marks, as there are with any team, but it isn’t at every single position like it used to be and it isn’t the most important one. A new coaching staff brings hope rather than the despondent “How are they going to manage to screw this one up?” attitude we were numb to 10 years ago.
During the rebuild, the team used the motto “Restore the Roar.” Obvious play on words aside, it became a rallying call for fans. There’s no need for it anymore, though. Anyone who has been at Ford Field when the opposing team has the ball knows that roar can be deafening. It became “Defend the Den” and the team did just that, with fans making the difference between wins and losses. They moved on to “One Pride.” Meant to symbolize unity, respect, it seems silly looking back on it. We’re Lions fans. We’ve always had pride. We’ve always been tied together as one. How could any other fan base have survived a winless season? Lions fans, who used to wear bags over their heads at home games, now travel to opposing cities to drown out their fans and destroy their home field advantage.
This team, these fans, we’ve all seen the worst it can get. The Perfect Season would have made any other team a joke. A laughing stock. Sure, it seemed like that was the Lions were for a while, but they certainly didn’t stay that way. We’ve owned our division rival Bears so hard that it’s hard to remember when the Lions didn’t have that game written as a win in sharpie. This team has been a contender almost every season.
Yet, there are goals to be met. Looking at how far this team has come from the Perfect Season to now, we can finally appreciate the distance travelled. Without a winless season, this team probably never nets its quarterback. They probably can’t bring in free agents who really want to play here. They never won their division either, but back then it wasn’t even a possibility, unlike now where they’ve come within a few key plays every year.
Talking about a playoff win used to be a good way to get a laugh at parties, but that’s not the case now. And a Super Bowl? That was a dream in 2008. It’s still a dream entering 2018, the difference now is that isn’t just a fan’s dream. It’s shared by a head coach who’s held that trophy over his head. It’s shared by a quarterback known for bringing his team back from the brink more than any other quarterback in the league. It’s shared by eager rookies and appreciated free agents. It’s only a matter of time before the Lions bring the Lombardi Trophy to Detroit, and when that day comes, we can finally have a new, unironic, perfect season.