So here they come marching into New Orleans, this previously bedraggled pro football franchise, in seek of something which has eluded them 53 of the past 54 years.
It’s funny, in a way, that the Lions will be looking for just their second playoff victory since 1957 in New Orleans, a city that has vexed them and which has been the scene of many a crime against football humanity.
The Saints are winners now, and almost annual Super Bowl contenders these days. But from their inception in 1967 to nearly the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century, the New Orleans Saints were the Los Angeles Clippers of the NFL.
The Saints were slapstick, back in the day—a laughable franchise with a beaten down quarterback named Archie Manning, and with yearly won/loss records like 3-13. In 1980, the Saints managed to go 1-15.
The Saints were the ones getting their shirts and wallets lifted, like those audience participants at a magic show. Teams came to New Orleans for some gumbo, a little fun in the French Quarter and a 27-10 victory. The city’s nickname, The Big Easy, was perfectly apt—for opponents.
The Saints were the league’s coupon to a free victory.
Yet despite the pockmarked nature of the Saints franchise, the Lions suffered perhaps their most inglorious defeat of all time in New Orleans, on November 8, 1970, when Tom Dempsey thwacked a 63-yard field goal at the final gun to lift the Saints to victory.
In keeping with the times, the dramatic—and record-setting—victory was one of just two wins the Saints had in 1970.
The Lions haven’t won much in New Orleans, and just last month, the Saints ran away with a 31-17 victory.
The Saints have shaken their losing image like a caterpillar doing its butterfly thing.
No longer do teams fly down to Louisiana for a Big Easy win.
The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, and the scoreboard rings up like a pinball machine when they get into rhythm.
The Saints are 11-point favorites in Saturday night’s Wild Card game, and the NFL rarely sees those kinds of point spreads in the playoffs.
The game could turn into a disaster for the Lions, who have precious few players on their roster who’ve stepped onto the field for an NFL playoff game.
So the Lions will use that lack of experience to their advantage, or so they’ll try.
They’ve already talked of enjoying the underdog role, and that they have nothing to lose and that all the pressure is on the Saints.
The typical things teams who run the risk of getting run out of the building say as their execution approaches.
I look at the Lions now, just three years removed from the ignominy of 0-16, and I can’t help but think of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers, the Team of the 1970s, were a wayward franchise in the 1960s, usually an also-ran and finding that football games were harder to win than a husband’s fight with his wife.
The bottoming out came in 1969, when the Steelers won on Opening Day for their bright young coach in his first season: Chuck Noll.
Then the Steelers lost their remaining 13 games.
From the ashes of 1-13, the Steelers drafted their franchise quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, in 1970. This was one year after the Steelers selected a brutally dominant defensive tackle named Joe Greene.
The Lions, just months removed from 0-16, drafted Matthew Stafford in 2009. In 2010, they added DT Ndamukong Suh.
The Steelers got better, and with defter drafting, they built a defense that became dominant, and an offense that could compete, too. By 1972, just three years from 1-13, the Steelers were in the playoffs.
The Lions are in the playoffs, just three years after 0-16. They’ve managed to do it with good drafting and smart free agent signings.
The Steelers began arming Bradshaw with weapons, adding a tough and fast runner, Franco Harris, in 1972 from nearby Penn State. They drafted a gazelle receiver in Lynn Swann in 1974.
The Steelers, via the draft, added pieces yearly. Trades were few and free agency didn’t really exist.
From the ruins of 1-13, the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s—from 1974 thru 1979.
The Steelers won a miraculous playoff game in 1972—the famous Immaculate Reception game against Oakland. From that experience, the Steelers, with all their smart and brilliant draft choices, parlayed their Super Bowl credentials.
That’s how winning, perennially successful NFL franchises are built—through the draft. It has been the blueprint of the Steelers of the ‘70s, the 49ers of the ‘80s, the Cowboys of the ‘90s.
It says here that this same blueprint will be the success of the Lions of the ‘10s.
Lions GM Martin Mayhew is a smart man who learned from a dumb guy.
Mayhew, longtime second in command under the dunderhead Matt Millen, was promoted to GM after Millen’s firing early in the 2008 season. Quickly, Mayhew proved adept at the job. It was obvious that Mayhew took everything that Millen did, and did the exact opposite.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall in meetings that Millen held with Mayhew in attendance?
I can only wonder how many of those meetings Mayhew emerged from, shaking his head.
The 1970s Steelers didn’t take the NFL by storm right away. It took a couple of playoff losses before they found their footing. You know the rest.
The Lions have no business winning a playoff game in New Orleans, of all places, on Saturday night. They are three years removed from 0-16. Their quarterback is very good, but he’s all of 23 years old.
The Saints won the Super Bowl two years ago and could darn well do it again this year.
Only a delusional optimist would think the Lions can win this game.
And they probably won’t.
The Steelers needed a miracle play to win their first playoff game of 1972. Then they stumbled, and eventually learned how to win.
The Lions will likely lose on Saturday night, blocks from the French Quarter. It will be a necessity, almost, in their learning process.
The Team of the ‘10s?
Why the hell not?