(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)
Much has been made, especially this week, of the Lions’ failure to win in Wisconsin since 1991. The pundits have rued the day the Pack traded for QB Brett Favre in 1992, which just so happened to coincide with the streak. Even Lions kicker Jason Hanson is wondering if the streak somehow has to do with him — since Hanson was a rookie in ’92 and has experienced every single loss on the road to the Packers.
But you don’t hear nearly as much about a gift the Packers presented the Lions with in 1989 — one that gave Lions fans just about the only reason to get excited about their team for the ten seasons spanning 1989 to 1998.
It was April, 1989. The NFL Draft. Barry Sanders was the jitterbug running back from Oklahoma State who also returned kicks and who was coming out of college a couple years early to try his hand at pro football. The Lions had just committed to the Run-n-Shoot offense — that scheme that involved four pass receivers running around the field at all times, and one lone running back. The change came about because the previous year, in explaining why he finally fired coach Darryl Rogers, Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. said, “We’re losing and we’re boring.”
So the Lions decided that if they were going to lose, they were going to be as exciting as possible in doing so. They had the Shoot part covered — at least in terms of quantity. But they needed the Run component.
Enter the Packers’ generosity.
As dazzling as Sanders was, as seemingly unlimited his potential seemed, the Packers had their eyes on a hulk of an offensive tackle, right in the Lions’ backyard, in East Lansing.
Tony Mandarich was the biggest thing — literally — to come out of Michigan State University in years. He was considered the best OL prospect to come down the pike in recent memory. The Packers had fantasies of Mandarich anchoring the left side of their line for at least the next ten years. They could always pick up a running back later.
So the Pack, with the no. 1 overall pick, snatched Mandarich off the board. The Lions heaved a sigh of relief.
Barry Sanders became a Lion, thanks to the Packers’ misguided selection of Mandarich, who would soon be derailed by a steroids scandal and gross under performance. The Packers got one of the biggest draft busts in history. The Lions got a Hall of Famer.
I remember being ecstatic when the Packers picked Mandarich. My opinion was the 180 degree opposite of Green Bay’s: when a talent like Sanders comes down the pike, you take him. You can always pick an offensive lineman later.
Sanders held out through training camp and the exhibition season that rookie year, haggling over his contract. Don’t forget that this was still the Russ Thomas Era. Thomas, the Lions’ GM, wouldn’t retire until the end of ’89. And he was still in charge of contract negotiations, a big reason why Sanders didn’t get signed until just a couple days before the season opener. Then, with virtually no practice, having not played in a football game in about nine months, Sanders simply took his first NFL carry for 19 yards. A legend was underway.
Of course, the Packers had the last laugh. Three years after the Mandarich miss, Favre came to Green Bay, from the Atlanta Falcons. What soon followed were playoff appearances, conference championship games, and eventually two Super Bowls, including a win in SB XXXI. Oh, and those 17 straight wins over the Lions at home.
It’ll be 20 years, believe it or not, come next April when the Lions have the no. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, since the Packers overlooked Barry Sanders and took Tony Mandarich. After a potential 0-16 season, heaven help us if the Lions repeat the Packers’ mistake of that ’89 Draft.