Sixteen years ago, the Detroit Lions made history – but for all the wrong reasons.
In 2008, the organization became the first ever NFL team to go winless through a 16-game season. For one of the league’s longest-tenured franchises after playing its inaugural season in 1934, it was a brutal nadir after years of mismanagement.
While fans expressed their frustration at the team’s malaise – some even turned up at Ford Field with brown paper bags on their heads to signify their displeasure – their passion for the Lions never faltered.
And now, that passion, that support, is finally being rewarded.
With a team built in the city’s image – passionate, full-blooded and always committed – the Lions are one win away from Super Bowl LVIII after a magical, demon-banishing playoff run. The team representing the Motor City is firing on all cylinders.
Now there’s one final roadblock to navigate for the Lions to reach its first ever Super Bowl, which takes the form of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday.
From the depths of 0-16 record to being one win away from a milestone trip to Las Vegas, it’s been quite the journey for the franchise. And one person who’s epitomized the team’s recent revival is wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Drafted in 2021, St. Brown experienced the typical Lions heartbreak in his rookie campaign – during which Detroit started the season 0-10-1 before finishing 3-13-1 in head coach Dan Campbell’s first year in charge.
Since then, St. Brown has blossomed into one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers and has become the perfect microcosm of the Lions’ renaissance.
“We know what the perception is of being on the Detroit Lions,” the 24-year-old St. Brown told reporters after the franchise’s 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to the NFC Championship.
“But we feel that we have a chance to change things — not just for this year, but for years to come,” added St. Brown, who finished the game against Tampa Bay with eight catches, 77 yards and a touchdown.
Journalist Dave Birkett has seen it all with the Lions. Not only was he raised in Detroit, but he has been covering the team since 2007 apart from a one-year hiatus to turn his attention to the University of Michigan.
As a result, Birkett has had a first-row seat to the misery that’s often beset the Lions.
Amid all that misery and underachievement, the ‘Curse of Bobby Layne’ has hung over the team for more than 60 years.
According to legend, Layne – the team’s former quarterback – supposedly placed the hex on the franchise after they traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers following Detroit’s last championship victory in 1957. Layne missed the game through injury.
However, Birkett isn’t sure how many people actually put that much weight on the curse.
“The ownership trusting in the wrong people for too long, the lack of players frankly, the really good teams and quarterbacks in their division for the past three decades. But again, it was a way sort of to explain: ‘Well, this is why we haven’t done anything in six decades,’” reflected Birkett.
The team has been represented by a number legendary players – from Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson to Matthew Stafford and Charlie Sanders – but success has remained elusive. In a division dominated by the Green Bay Packers and their succession of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, the Lions had to settle for scraps.
Before this season, the team’s last playoff victory came in 1991 and as a result, the Lions became known for underachieving and suffering defeats in the most heartbreaking fashion.
That mentality changed with the arrival of Campbell.
‘We’re gonna bite a kneecap off’
A former NFL tight end who spent time with the franchise as a player, the 47-year-old Campbell knew what the city valued.
In his introductory press conference when he was hired in 2021, Campbell said the city had been “kicked, it’s been battered, it’s been bruised” in recent years, and his team was to be a source of pride for the people of Detroit.
“None of that matters, and you guys don’t want to hear it anyway. You’ve had enough of that sh*t. Here’s what I do know is that this team is going to take on the identity of this city. This city’s been down and it found a way to get up.
“It’s found a way to overcome adversity. So this team’s going to be built on we’re going to kick you in the teeth, and when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you, and when you knock us down, we’re gonna get up and on the way up, we’re gonna bite a kneecap off, alright?”
Detroit, formerly a booming city due to it being the home of the US auto industry, was hit hard by the the Great Recession of 2007.
Foreclosures and unemployment spiked, and the city’s population plunged. Five years later, the city filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history.
Sunday’s playoff game alone is projected to boost the Detroit metro economy by $52 million, according to consulting firm Anderson Economic Group.
That speech, which some mocked and others praised, came three years to the day before the Lions’ playoff victory over the Bucs.
And Birkett said Campbell’s “passion and honesty” has resonated with the Lions fans, creating a bond between the two.
“Who he is in front of the cameras is who he is in team meetings and behind closed doors,” reflected Birkett of that initial media conference. “And really that, I think, that passion of honesty is part of why players believe in him. He resonates with them and he’s not selling them a bill of goods. What he tells them, like, he believes in – and so they believe in him.”
Campbell’s debut campaign didn’t exactly go to plan, but Birkett remembers there being glimpses of green shoots.
The 2022 season also began in sub-par fashion too. But after a 1-6 start, the Lions rallied to win eight of their next 10 games, only being eliminated from the playoffs in Week 18.
More importantly, it built the foundation for this year’s success.
A final stand
January 12, 1992: the last time the Detroit Lions took to the field for an NFC Championship game.
At that time, “Black or White” by Michael Jackson was at No. 1 in the US, George HW Bush was entering his final year as US President and text messaging hadn’t yet been invented.
Campbell has been able to put his fingerprints on the Lions, molding the team in his image as they build through the draft.
Between the development of their homegrown drafted players – St. Brown, Penei Sewell, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Aidan Hutchinson and Alim McNeill have all grown significantly this year and provided key contributions, while rookies Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch have shone in their first campaigns – and the input from veterans like quarterback Jared Goff, the Lions have become the darling of the NFL season.
“They … filled the roster with players in a certain image,” Birkett said. “Guys who were counted out who maybe they believed in, who have this chip on their shoulder, who use that to sort of fuel what they want to be … Part of that is because they’ve silenced a whole lot of doubters and maybe exceeded everyone’s expectations, except probably their own.”
Birkett explains that expectations were high in the organization before the season, but perhaps even those have been exceeded.
They finished this season with a franchise record-equaling 12 wins, clinching their first division title since 1993 and their first playoff appearance since 2016. Following two home playoff wins – in an atmosphere Birkett calls the “craziest” he’s ever experienced – the Lions are one game away from a Super Bowl appearance.
The Lions’ miracle story has gripped Michigan, but also many more casual fans. Birkett says seeing the fanbase engaged in the team’s success after years of toil has been endlessly rewarding, with spectators clamoring for home and away tickets to be part of the journey.
One fan who’s been gripped by the 2023 Lions in his own unique way is Alex Chepeska. Ahead of the current campaign, the die-hard supporter had the words “Super Bowl Champs 2024” tattooed on him, six months before the big game.
“There’s a term in this area called ‘SOL’ – same old Lions – and it’s been like that for basically my entire life. But halfway through last season, things started looking a lot different,” Chepeska told CNN on Thursday.
“By the end of last season, I’d already decided on the tattoo. Seeing them on the HBO show Hard Knocks got me even more pumped… So, I did it.”
“It was (like) seeing the Beatles when they first started playing and you have to be a part of it and you have to see it and tell your friends that you were part of it and you saw it,” added Birkett.
The 49ers stand between Detroit and a trip to Las Vegas. And Birkett isn’t ruling out the team’s magical run continuing.
“I’ve seen enough Disney stories to know those are based off true stories,” Birkett said.
“And this sort of has the feel of one, like everything comes together at the right time for this beat down organization and all of a sudden they rise up when no one expects it and wins the Super Bowl, so I don’t put anything past them.”
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