Editor's note: What might Detroit's football fortunes be like a year from now? Seth Wickersham shares his vision.
DETROIT, Dec. 20, 2009 -- After watching Ford Field erupt in celebration, the 65,000 fans cry in joy, the players cry in joy, the new general manager and new coach and old owner cry in joy. The 2009 Detroit Lions, 0-16 a season ago, clinch the NFC North with two weeks to go in the season. It all seems so simple. So smart. So un-Lionlike.
"We just did what the '08 Dolphins did," said Josh McDaniels, the 33-year-old coach of the year shoo-in, especially after Sunday's division-securing 35-12 win over the Green Bay Packers. He's referring, of course, to the Miami Dolphins a season ago, coming off a 1-15 campaign in 2007. Somehow, the Lions have now won 10 games, tying the 1999 Rams for the best one-season turnaround in NFL history.
It seems absurd: 0-16 to division champ. And even more absurd that it's the Lions. But that's the point. The pendulum has a weird way of swinging in the NFL. The 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 2001
New England Patriots won the Super Bowl coming off losing seasons. It swings quickly, as we've learned. During the 2009 season, the Packers had their second straight post-Brett Favre slump. The Bears, old on defense, regressed. The Vikings still haven't figured out their quarterback situation. And somehow, the Lions capitalized.
As we know, the 2008 Lions were beyond listless. They were a chore to watch. Rod Marinelli, a good man who happened to be a lousy head coach, said that if the Lions went winless they'd be the worst team ever, and they proved they were. The team had no quarterback, no offensive line, no pass rush and no foundation of winning since well, hmm
Anyway, it was hard to know in January when William Clay Ford plucked Michael Lombardi out of blogging and back into an NFL front office that the move would pay off so quickly. But Lions GM Lombardi, the former
Oakland Raiders personnel executive and close friend of Bill Belichick from their Cleveland days, brought a blueprint for success. The first thing he did was hire McDaniels, who'd spent eight years learning under Belichick and was the offensive coordinator on 2007's record-setting team and 2008's gutty, scrappy version. McDaniels might be young, but eight years under Belichick is equal to 60 under Marvin Lewis. Like Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano a year earlier in Miami, the duo brought instant credibility and got the locker room's attention not by theatrics or dropping trou in front of everyone like Mike Singletary, but by wowing the players with football knowledge.
"To be honest, I haven't paid such close attention in a classroom since sex ed," said linebacker Ernie Sims, who's been selected to the 2010 Pro Bowl. "I mean, Coach McDaniels knows his stuff. What's that they say in New England? Wicked smaht? That's him."
Of course, McDaniels couldn't have accomplished this success without his quarterback. Like Miami did with Chad Pennington last year, Detroit signed a heady passer with something to prove: Matt Cassel, the free agent who left New England ticked off at the notion that he's a system quarterback. Throwing to star receiver Calvin Johnson, Cassel, playing for a cap-friendly salary, has completed 63 percent of his passes, with 28 touchdowns and only 14 picks. Tailback Kevin Smith, whose solid 2008 rookie season was lost in the abyss of losing, is averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
"I wasn't the only difference in this team," said Cassel. "You have to give the Cowboys a lot of credit for giving us all this talent."
Oh yeah, we almost forgot the one thing that went the Lions' way in 2008: trading receiver Roy Williams to the Dallas Cowboys for first-, third- and sixth-round picks. Williams has continued to underachieve, while Lombardi used the picks to shore up Detroit's offensive and defensive lines. He traded out of the top pick -- no need to lock up so much guaranteed money in a year with record underclassman turnout -- and got an extra first- and second-rounder next year. His draft class included Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith and second-day defensive tackle Nick Reed from Oregon and defensive end Phillip Hunt from Houston -- all starters.
"Last year, Detroit's linemen were softer than John Mayer," said Lombardi. "We had to make sure they were tougher than the rest." Spoken like a true Jersey guy.
Two hours after the Packers game ended, only one Lion remained in the locker room: tackle Jeff Backus, who was part of Matt Millen's inaugural season. This is the first winning season of his professional career.
"I can't believe I'm headed to the playoffs," he said. "I wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me a year ago that it was going to happen."
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.