Lions still looking to take the next step

The Detroit Lions have never won a Super Bowl.  That fact gnaws at Lions faithful who don t-shirts with references to 1957, the year of the last Lions’ championship nearly a decade before the inaugural Super Bowl.  But the fact that the franchise hasn’t won the big one isn’t that unusual.  The Bengals, Bills, Browns, Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Panthers, Texans, Titans, and Vikings have also never won a Super Bowl.  You can include most Jets & Chiefs fans among those who have not tasted a championship as their last came following the 1968 and 1969 seasons respectively so only life-long fans in their late 50s or older can recall it.

So 40% of the league’s teams haven’t hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and 47% of the fan bases, nearly half, are oh for the duration of their fandom.  What is rarer is that the Lions have never played in the season’s final game.  That list is much shorter with only the Browns, Jaguars, and Texans joining the Lions.  Of those teams, only the Lions were in existence for all 52 Super Bowls.

What truly qualifies the fan base as long-suffering is the number of postseason wins in the Super Bowl era.  It has been well documented that the Lions have but one playoff win, a 38-6 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the 1991-92 playoffs.

Surely there are other teams that haven’t had any postseason success as well, right?  Actually, there aren’t. Here are the counts per Yahoo Sports before this year’s conference championships:

Screenshot (7)

To put that in perspective, the Lions have to quadruple their postseason win total to not be at least tied for last, unless the Texans also win one in that span in which case they would still be tied for last after quadrupling their postseason win total.

The Lions brass maintains that they are going to take the “next step” and get a Super Bowl title.  That is why they opted to move on from head coach Jim Caldwell who pretty much everyone agrees made the Lions a regular contender for the playoffs but not a contender for a title.  The reality is that the “next step” for the Lions would not be a Super Bowl title.  Rather, it would be a division title and/or a playoff victory.  A conference championship would be the step after that, and the third step would be winning it all.

The Lions appear to have made significant strides towards taking what is now their next step.  It wasn’t all that long ago that the next step was not to have a top 5 pick as they did for the majority of the 2000s.  But it does appear that there is hope for the Lions.  In every Jim Caldwell season, there can be found a razor-thin margin between what actually happened and taking the step of winning a playoff game.  Let’s examine.

2014 Season

This was definitely the closest the team actually came to a playoff win.  The Lions carried an 11-5 mark into a wildcard round matchup with the Cowboys.  The Lions led from early in the game until late in the game.

The officials picked up a pass interference flag against the Cowboys without giving an explanation after the referee had announced the penalty.  This stalled a late Lions drive and forced a punt.  The Cowboys drove down the field for the winning score on the next possession.  The NFL later said the flag should not have been picked up.

2015 Season

This was the farthest the team ended up from a playoff win under Caldwell, but it is not as far as you may think.  After starting the season with five straight losses and a 1-7 mark through the midway point of the season, the Lions rallied to end the year at 7-9.  But there are two losses that were particularly tough.

On Monday night in week 4, the Lions looked poised to steal a game in Seattle.  Trailing by three with under two minutes remaining, Calvin Johnson caught a Matthew Stafford pass and bulled his way into the end zone.  Unfortunately, Kam Chancellor punched the ball out from behind milliseconds before Megatron would have tallied the go-ahead score.  The ball was loose in the end zone and the Seahawks’ K.J. Wright batted the ball out of the end zone to get the touchback.  But batting the ball is not allowed and should have given the Lions the ball first and goal at the one.  The refs didn’t call it though, and the Seahawks held on for the win.

Then in week 13, after ending the 24-year Lambeau drought three weeks earlier, the Lions had the season sweep of the Packers locked up with the Packers having to resort to the multiple lateral play which hasn’t work since the Stanford band left the field.  But when tackling Aaron Rodgers for the win, Devin Taylor’s hand grazed Rodger’s face mask and a personal foul was called giving the Pack one more untimed down. Thanks to the 15-yard facemask call, it was close enough to attempt a Hail Mary rather than a lateral play.  Of course, it succeeded.

So in both games, we have two things that either could have easily gone the Lions’ way. A Megatron fumble inches before the goal line and uncalled batt, and a borderline facemask on a multi-lateral play followed by a Hail Mary.  At the conclusion of that season, the Packers and Seahawks both garnered wildcard berths into the playoffs at 10-6.  If Detroit had won those two games, all three would have been 9-7 and the Lions would have been the first wildcard by virtue of their 3-0 record among the tied opponents.  Who can say how they would have done in the playoffs, but they would have been going in as winners of three straight and seven of their last eight.

2016 Season

The Lions were 8-4 going into a week 14 game against the Bears.  Stafford suffered a mallet finger injury on the middle finger on his throwing hand during the game but managed to gut it out and finish the game.  The Lions did manage to hold on for the win in that game and get to 9-4.  Stafford played the rest of the season with a small splint and one-fingered glove.  His performance fell off pretty drastically.

Stafford Finger Stats

The Lions didn’t win another game after Stafford donned the splint.  They ended the season 9-7 and fell in the wildcard game at Seattle 26-6 in which Stafford had a 56% completion percentage, no TDs or picks.

2017 Season

The Lions finished 9-7 once again recording consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1994-95.  They were one play short of a playoff appearance and were about a foot short on that particular play against the Falcons in week 3.  Facing third and goal from the 1 and down 4 points with 12 seconds remaining in the game and out of timeouts, the Lions called an inside rub route to Golden Tate.  Tate caught the ball and pushed toward the end zone as the defenders pushed back.  He crossed the goal line, the officials signaled touchdown, and the stadium erupted.  However, after further review, Tate’s calf had touched the turf before the ball crossed the plane of the goal line.  At the time of the review, the clock showed 8 seconds remaining, but since the Lions had no timeouts remaining, the reversal carried with it a 10-second runoff, ending the game.  If the Lions had gained another foot on that play, it would have been them playing in the wildcard round at Los Angeles instead of the Falcons, which the Falcons won.

There are those who will say that all of this is just the SOL: “Same Old Lions,”  but that really hasn’t been the case for much of their existence.  It’s not hard to look back over Lions history and find instances where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

It is hard to look back over the Super Bowl era and find many years where the Lions were so close to breaking thru, getting some division crowns or playoff victories or the like.  It is certainly difficult to find a time where they were this close so many consecutive years.

Here’s a stat many may doubt and run a check.  The 36 victories over the past four seasons are tied with 1991-94 for the most regular season wins over any four year stretch in franchise history. The same 1991-94 stretch that included the lone Super Bowl era playoff victory and their last two division crowns.  Obviously, 36 wins in a four-year stretch is only averaging nine wins per season.

That’s not the ultimate goal. It’s worth noting that despite being the highest regular season win total, this stretch isn’t the best as far as winning percentage goes in Lions history either.  That belongs to 1951-54 when they had a 35-11-2 regular season record (they only played 12 games a year at that time) and a 3-1 playoff record which gave them two championships.

The Lions just fired head coach Jim Caldwell after tying the franchise record for regular season victories in a 4 year period– the complete duration of his stint.  He had three winning seasons in four after the franchise had one winning season in the previous thirteen.  But now we’re sniffing all around that “next step” which he did not succeed in taking despite being so close.  Matt Patricia will be expected to take it in short order.  The bar has never been higher for an incoming coach.

Follow Lion Lowdown on Twitter @LionLowdown or Boyd Williams @PatchingBirder 


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