Need proof the preseason means 'squat diddly'? Look at 2008 Lions

The Lions aren't the only team to learn that a year with an undefeated preseason can take a U-turn once the games count. AP Photo/Morry Gash

They had no idea it could happen when they were going through the 2008 preseason. There were no signs that a 14-6 win over Buffalo on Aug. 28 would be their last win that season. It finished a perfect preseason for Detroit, which held every opponent to 10 points or fewer.

They thought -- thought -- they had the chance to be contenders. Instead, the 2008 Detroit Lions became the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

"We were 4-0 in the preseason," then-offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said. "But if you know enough about pro football, that didn't mean squat diddly."

With the Lions, this was obvious. After starting the 2007 season 6-2, Detroit lost 25 of its next 26 regular-season games.

Any hope that the 2008 preseason might have offered ended fast. In the season opener, the first NFL pass of Atlanta's then-rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, was a 62-yard touchdown pass. Atlanta crushed Detroit's defense. For the Lions, it served as an awakening to how little the preseason had meant.

"They scored so fast the first few times they had the ball. I mean, it went through us like there was nobody out there," Colletto said. "That game was a real shocker."

It wasn't just with the 2008 Lions that an undefeated preseason didn’t translate into regular-season success. From 2011 to 2016, 14 teams went undefeated in the preseason. Six of them made the playoffs. The other eight went a combined 45-83.

Only two of those teams, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and the 2003 Patriots won the Super Bowl. The '03 Panthers are the only other team with a perfect preseason since 2002 to make the Super Bowl.

Since 2002, 14 teams that went undefeated in the preseason made the playoffs; 16 did not. That's something the Ravens, Browns, Broncos and Seahawks -- this year's preseason unbeaten squads -- should keep in mind. An unblemished preseason hasn't been a guarantee of being at least a .500 club, either. Of the 30 teams with undefeated preseasons since 2002, 12 finished the regular season under .500.

Five ended up with a top-5 draft pick the following year. In two of those cases, it worked out long-term. In 2003, Arizona finished 4-12 and drafted future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald No. 3 overall the following season. And the Lions took QB Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009.

But the rule remains: Don't trust what you see in the preseason.

"You can't get no vibe out of preseason because of the way it's structured -- barely playing in the first game, playing a little bit the second game, playing more the third game, not playing at all the fourth game," former receiver Mike Furrey said. "Everybody does the same thing.

"I would never -- just now knowing, going through all the preseasons -- I would never base a season off the preseason."

The '08 Lions outscored their opponents 80-32 in the preseason, including beating Cleveland, 26-6, in the third game, where starters typically play the most. But two of the four games came against teams that lost more than 10 games that season (Cleveland, Cincinnati) and only one had a winning record -- the 12-4 New York Giants.

The 2008 Lions might not have gone from perfect to perfectly imperfect had it not been for injuries throughout the year. The offensive line was beat up. Placing quarterback Jon Kitna on injured reserve after he played in only four games changed some of the tenor of what had been going on. The Lions then used Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton and Daunte Culpepper, who was signed in November. Some of the 0-16 players believe that had Kitna not ended up on injured reserve, their story would have been different. Not because the Lions would have risen even to being mediocre, but simply that they would have won at least one game.

"Yeah, don't have a quarterback and then Dan out and then Daunte, oh s---, this could be really a big deal," said cornerback Travis Fisher, now a secondary coach at Central Florida. "We losing our quarterbacks, and I could just imagine if I was the offensive coordinator, and now my playbook has to shrink, in the National Football League, how smart defenses are on that.

"It got to the point where guys were stacking the box. Nobody was thinking pass."

Colletto said the playbook wasn't a big issue. Getting Culpepper comfortable with everything was. The entire situation -- combined with joining a team already halfway through a season without a win -- made things more difficult.

Despite the losing and shifting of quarterbacks, most Lions players said there was not divisiveness in the locker room -- something for which they credit then-Detroit head coach Rod Marinelli. But the losing was the dominant theme of the season: Detroit finished last in the league in total defense (404.4 yards per game) and No. 30 in total offense (268.3 yards per game).

"You're always optimistic going in," Colletto said. "But it's just, you look at the statistics at the end of the season, it shows you where you're at, and defensively we were at the bottom of the league and offensively we were a couple places higher than that.

"The next year, they change all the coaches, and it's about the same, so we weren't very good. That's all there was to it."

It's a legacy that lingers. Some players from that team choose not to think about what happened that season. Others use it intermittently in their careers. Every year, 0-16 comes up at some point.

In 2015, Fisher couldn't help but think of it over and over again. He became a rarity -- he had a winless season as an NFL player and then one as a coach in college. UCF went 0-12 in 2015 and had a midseason coaching change.

Fisher used his experience in 2008 to figure out ways to keep his UCF players -- and himself -- motivated. He had been through it before. And he went with the same attitude he had with the Lions.

"I'm like, 'Damn, man, this is the second time I've been through this in my life. What's the odds on that, man?'" Fisher said. "Like the [Conor] McGregor fight. Same odds, man. I'm like, shoot, man.

"I already knew how it goes. This thing is going to blow up, and everybody's out of here. So not putting bad film out, and I'm playing for the last name on the back of that jersey and make sure I don't put bad film out and make sure I do my best."

It's often how players approach preseason in the NFL, because in reality, that's the only thing that matters in preseason: whether a player is good enough to make a team or whether he can stick in the NFL or not.