The Lions: 1989 And 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It is interesting (to me) that the Lions go into 2009 in a sitation similar to the one they were in precisely 20 years earlier. A multiyear run near the bottom of the league. A new defensive-minded head coach replacing an old defensive-minded head coach who was clearly out of his league. A fanbase that had finally capitulated, staying away from the the team in droves. A young offensive player taken at the top of the draft who would be relied upon to lead the team from the wilderness.

I thought it would be fun to look at the differences and similarities between these two teams.


Much like the '08 Lion defense, the '88 offense was the worst in the league, and not by a little. They finished last in scoring, yards, passing yards, rushing TD, rushing y/a, passing net y/a, and 1st downs. They also finished bottom 3 in rush yards and rush atts. Much like the '08 defense's inability to get off the field, the '88 Lions offense was unable to stay on the field.

Signature play of ineptitude. The '08 Lions had Orlovsky running out of the back of the endzone for a mistaken safety. The '88 Lions had the Mayday play against the Saints, which a few of you may recall. Deep in their own end and protecting a slim lead, Jim Arnold lined up to punt on 4th down. Noting that the gunner was uncovered, Arnold called a pre-arranged audible "Mayday! Mayday", before taking the snap and passing to the uncovered gunner. The gunner apparently didn't hear or didn't understand the audible and never turned. The perfect pass by Arnold struck the gunner in the back of the head. The Saints took over on downs within the Detroit 10 yard line and quickly scored to take the lead.

Superlative kicking. The '08 Lions had veteran Jason Hanson leading the league with a 95% FG rate while setting records for long field goals, supported by very solid punting from Nick Harris. The '88 Lions had veteran Eddie Murray connecting on 95% of his field goals in his last great seasons with Pro Bowler Arnold handling the punting.

Missing quarterback. The '08 Lions played 5 quarterbacks, starting 3 of them and never settling on one. The '88 Lions played 4 quarterbacks, starting 2 of them. Both teams had the quarterback who started the year for them end the year on the IR. Both teams signed a veteran free agent mid-season who instantly became the starter. Daunte Culpepper in '08, Rusty Hilger in '88. Not surprisingly, both of them sucked.

Bad misses on skill position players. In the '80s Detroit invested first round picks on Mark "He'll Do For The Passing Game What Billy Sims Did For The Rushing Game" Nichols, Dave Lewis and Chuck Long, all significant busts. The mid '00s Lions wasted high first rounders on Harrington, Chuck Rogers and Mike Williams.


Aside from the obvious, the '89 Lions promoted their interim HC while enduring another season under Russ Thomas while the '09 Lions promoted their interim GM and went outside the organization for the HC, there were a few other distinctive differences between these two teams.

The '88 defense. As bad as the offense was on that team, Wayne Fontes had really built a quality defense. His Bend But Don't Break 3-4 finished 10th in scoring while landing in the middle of the pack in the yardage categories. Mike Cofer qualified for the Pro Bowl at OLB.

Core of quality young players. Forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but outside of Calvin Johnson there is little reason to be particularly optimistic about any players returning to the '09 team. Smith, Cherilus and Avril each have the potential to be plus players but at this point it is potential unrealized. By contrast the '89 team had a solid core of young veterans. Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover were entering their 5th seasons, Jerry Ball, Dennis Gibson and Dan Saleaumua entering their 3rd. Bennie Blades and Chris Spielman were coming off of standout rookie years and would become cornerstones of the defense. Eric Andolsek and William White were also coming off of their rookie seasons and would enter the lineup as quality pros in '89.

Barry Sanders versus Matt Stafford. I guess Calvin Johnson is the cornerstone offensive player for the Lions right now, but it is very difficult for wide receivers to have the type of impact that running backs and quarterbacks have. The very best receivers may get ten touches per game while even average running backs get twenty or more. Regardless of what Stafford becomes, the flavor of these teams will be entirely different. When a team has a player who is the best in the league and among the best of all-time the very identity of the team becomes wrapped up in that player. It is impossible to think of the Lions from that era without thinking of Barry Sanders. If Stafford is destined for greatness then the Lions of the teens will be forever entwined with Stafford, but even then it will be impossible to compare those teams with the Lions of Barry Sanders. The identities will be entirely different.

Coordinator philosophy. Two areas where these teams are going in opposite directions. The Lions are coming off of a period of offensive innovation (2008 notwithstanding) and moving to a much more traditional offensive philosophy. Likewise they are moving away from a tired fad of a defense toward a traditional set with traditional philosophies and goals. The '89 Lions installed an innovative offense that had not been seen in the NFL while running a defense that was also a bit out of the prevailing practice of the day. While teams were emulating the attacking and stifling defenses of the Bears, Eagles and Giants, the Lions opted for a gap filling defense built around Jerry Ball and funneling everything into Speilman and Gibson.

In the end, these teams are vastly different, both in the type and quality of personnel. But even so it is entertaining to consider the two teams against the single generational difference that separates them.

Ongoing discussion Here in The Den.