Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP
Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker III brought up the most unpleasant NFL numbers possible after a nasty 44-6 loss on Sunday: “We have to fix it now, because obviously, it ain’t going to fix itself, or we’ll be 0-17,” he said after the defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles.
And there it was, for all the world to ponder: 0-17. No NFL team has gone 0-17, in large part because no NFL team has played 17 games in a regular season since 1930, when the late Frankford Yellow Jackets finished 4-13-1, and the New York Football Giants finished 13-4.
But the NFL, always sniffing more money, expanded the regular season to 17 games from 16 this year, and the 0-8 Lions, who may not be the worst NFL team but are now the only winless NFL team, are getting close enough that 0-17 is coming up in conversation.
“We’re not going to let them think like that,” Dan Campbell, their first-year coach, said Monday.
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When Campbell, the fiery former tight end and long-time NFL assistant who led the Miami Dolphins to five victories in 12 games as interim coach in 2015, took the Lions’ job in January, he drew some attention (and gasps) by promising, “When you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
The Lions have done little actual damage since, though they lost to Baltimore and Minnesota by two points each. The loss to the Ravens was particularly cruel because Justin Tucker beat Detroit with a NFL-record 66-yard field goal as time expired (the Vikings game wasn’t much better: the Lions lost that one on a last-second Greg Joseph kick).
But at least the Lions put themselves in a position to win those games. The loss to the Eagles, who had been sputtering going into the game, was so thorough and demoralizing that 0-17 came up, evoking unpleasant memories. Only two NFL teams went 0-16 in 43 years: the Cleveland Browns in 2017, and, yep, the Detroit Lions in 2008.
“For us to win, we’ve got to play damn near perfect,” said Campbell, the former Texas Aggie, “and that’s on us. We’re charged with that as coaches.”
Lions quarterback Jared Goff, the former No 1 overall draft pick who helped the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl just three years ago before a drop in production, said, grimly, “Until we change our habits and until we change who we are, nothing will change.”
Any run to an 0-for-the-season attracts rubberneckers, but the Lions are especially compelling because (a) it’s not too long since their last winless season, and (b) they are a big-market team that has been owned by the Ford family, the automakers, for nearly 60 years. They have won exactly one playoff game in that timespan. Indeed, the Lions’ Wikipedia history page has been edited to include the following: “In the current millennia (sic), the Detroit Lions record of franchise mediocrity has been solidified through the continuing incompetent ownership of the Ford family.”
This has been a superb college football season in the state, with Michigan State rallying to beat Michigan on Saturday in a battle of unbeaten top-10 rivals. Even with the Lions facing an opponent some people thought they could beat, the paid attendance at Ford Field a day later 85 miles away was 47,192, nearly 18,000 short of capacity.
“Winning solves a lot of issues, as you all know,” Campbell said.
But the Lions have not won much for decades. They have lost all eight of their playoff games since 1991, when they fell apart in the second half against Washington in the NFC championship game. That was as close as the Lions have come to the Super Bowl.
In fact, the Lions are one of just four NFL teams that have never played in a Super Bowl. And Jacksonville, Cleveland and Houston – the three others – have been around far less time than the Lions, who were established in 1928 as the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans.
The Lions won the 1935 NFL championship and three more in their glory days between 1952 and 1957, but those were football’s dark ages. Consider that a person born on 29 December 1957, the date when Detroit won their most recent NFL title, will turn 64 next month.
Campbell is the 21st Lions’ head coach since that day. He arrived with lower expectations than his immediate non-interim predecessor, Matt Patricia, a Bill Belichick disciple whose Lions won 13 of 43 games. Patricia hightailed it back to New England.
The Lions are young, and Campbell has kept his expectations in check. Still, as he said during a news conference Monday: “Look. We’re in the middle of a lot of adversity now. We knew it was going to come. But I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be 0-8.”
They won’t lose this weekend, because they have a bye, and Campbell is planning to use the time to do a little more “self-scouting,” as coaches like to call it, to look at more tape and identify the problems. A lack of effort apparently is not one of them.
“It’s a lack of focus, details, fundamentals – and sometimes, a lack of attitude, if you will,” Campbell said, referring to his team’s tendency to take a while to reach a full boil.
A Detroit Tigers’ cap pulled low on his head, Campbell was blunt but calm. When he was told what Walker had said about possibly going 0-17, Campbell pointed out that the Lions still have nine games left, including a Thanksgiving Day home game against the struggling Chicago Bears.
The New York Jets lost their first 13 games last year to stoke a lot of 0-16 chatter until, to the dismay of their fans, they won two games in a row to surpass Jacksonville, who won their opener and then lost their last 15 games. The Jaguars used the No 1 pick on Trevor Lawrence.
The Lions already have a No 1 pick at quarterback, plus three draft picks acquired in the trade that sent their talented quarterback Matt Stafford to the Rams, who are 7-1. A turnaround may take a while, maybe even into 2022, but Campbell said one is coming.
“I know we’re not the team that played yesterday,” he said Monday, even though the Lions were that very team.