Worst moments in Detroit Lions history

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/215729/" data-ylk="slk:Barry Sanders">Barry Sanders</a> is unquestionably the greatest thing to ever happen to the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/det/" data-ylk="slk:Detroit Lions">Detroit Lions</a>, while Matt Millen is arguably the worst. (AP)
Barry Sanders is unquestionably the greatest thing to ever happen to the Detroit Lions, while Matt Millen is arguably the worst. (AP)

What are the best moments for each NFL franchise? Yahoo Sports provides our opinion, which you are free to disagree with (and we’re sure you will).

Lions Best Moments | All 32 Teams Best Moments | All 32 Teams Worst Moments

5. WIDE RIGHT

There’s a special type of pain involving football teams losing big games on field goals. Whether they’re makes or misses, the extra level of high drama before a kicker trots out for the boot enhances the sting of defeat.

Eddie Murray’s miss near the end of the 1983 divisional-round game against the San Francisco 49ers ranks high because of how rare it was the Detroit Lions even got into the playoffs. The game marked only the third time the Lions made the postseason since winning the NFL championship in 1957.

And here Detroit was, with an opportunity to stun the mighty 49ers and Joe Montana in Candlestick Park.

Murray had kept the Lions in striking distance with three field goals that day, including a 54-yarder. Detroit needed a fourth, as Murray lined up for a 43-yard attempt down 24-23 with 11 seconds left.

The notorious winds of San Francisco were unkind, but in a curious way – they were absent on the attempt. Murray pushed it wide right, saying he knew it was a failure almost immediately after he struck the ball.

“It’s like golf,” Murray explained postgame. “When you hook the ball, and you leave it out and it doesn’t come back in. It’s the same principle.”

The Lions wouldn’t make the playoffs again until the 1991 season.

4. TRAGEDY AT TIGER STADIUM

It is the nightmare of every NFL franchise – a player dying on the field. This happened to Lions wideout Chuck Hughes on Oct. 24, 1971, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in a game against the Chicago Bears. In a feature on Hughes’ legacy, former Yahoo Sports writer Les Carpenter described the player’s final moments at Tiger Stadium:

“He caught a 32-yard pass and was instantly hit high and low by two Bears. He crawled up and ambled back to the huddle.

“A couple of plays later Hughes ran down the field – a decoy on a pass that went to Charlie Sanders. He stopped, turned and headed toward the huddle. At the 15-yard line he locked eyes for a moment with legendary linebacker Dick Butkus, then his eyes rolled in the back of his head and he collapsed on the turf. For a moment many of the players thought he was faking an injury, a common practice in those days. But then Butkus waved wildly toward the benches.”

It was revealed that the heart attack was actually the second one he suffered that year.

Hughes wasn’t a star, which might have been why the incident didn’t rock the NFL similar to issues like CTE today. But the death lingers for the Lions as it’s the only one to have happened in the league during a game.

3. ABSOLUTE ZERO

As the general manager, Matt Millen’s parting gift to Detroit during his final season in Motown was a piping hot plate of 0-16. The Lions became the first team since the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) to finish winless in a season.

These Lions were the Bizarro World 1972 Miami Dolphins.

The architect behind the 2008 outfit didn’t get to witness first-hand the full disaster, as the Lions finally wised up and fired Millen three games into the year. But the Lions gave him a sneak peek of things to come, dropping the first three games by an average of 18 points. The season opener was especially telling, as Atlanta Falcons rookie Matt Ryan completed a 62-yard touchdown pass on the first attempt of his pro career.

There was the embarrassing 47-10 blowout loss on Thanksgiving to the Tennessee Titans, a defeat that continued the discussion of whether the league should boot the Lions from their traditional Turkey Day spot. There were respectable defeats, games that got out of hand and a few comebacks that fell short.

However, the game that best summed up this bunch was a Week 6 defeat against the Minnesota Vikings, a contest that featured quarterback Dan Orlovsky running furiously from defensive lineman Jared Allen out of bounds in his own end zone. The forever blooper resulted in a safety. The Lions would eventually lose 12-10. Yep, the margin of defeat was that safety.

Detroit would clinch infamy at Lambeau Field in the season finale, as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers broke away from a 14-14 tie in the fourth quarter to cruise to a 31-21 victory.

Behold, the greatest gift to survivor pool enthusiasts, courtesy of Matt Millen.

2. BARRY WALKS AWAY

The Chicago Bulls have their famous fax sent by Michael Jordan. The Detroit Lions have their infamous fax sent by Barry Sanders.

In a statement that was five paragraphs long, Sanders, 31 at the time, announced he was quitting on July 27, 1999. He spoke glowingly of the organization he played with for 10 seasons in a superstar career that lacked much postseason success but would’ve held its own in GOAT arguments, especially if he sported the all-time rushing crown. Sanders was 1,458 yards away from breaking Walter Payton’s career record before he sent his goodbye to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper.

“I will truly miss playing for the Lions,” Sanders’ statement read.

How much is up for debate. But the pounding he took on that concrete-like turf at the Silverdome for a losing cause and culture in Detroit was too much, even for Barry Freaking Sanders, the closest thing we’ll ever get to Jim Brown.

The reaction at first was anger, as many taunted Sanders for being a pouting player who took his ball and went home – or in his case, London – perhaps in an effort to get dealt out of town or have his contract reworked. What kind of team player doesn’t even tell his team he’s quitting and then bolts to Europe immediately afterward?

But as the years passed the realization of why became clearer, long before the general fan understood the physical damage players collectively suffered in their careers. The Lions couldn’t figure out how to field a championship team and all Sanders saw ahead were season finales like his last game, a 41-yard rushing effort on 19 carries to cap a 5-11 season.

The Lions got a decade with the greatest running back of his generation and produced one playoff win.

In a biography, Sanders summed it up nicely: “I decided they could go on without me.”

1. MATT MILLEN GETS KEYS TO FORD, WRECKS IT

What’s the soundtrack for the Matt Millen era in Detroit? Perhaps it’s a circus tune or the “Benny Hill” theme, or something more ominous like “Taps.”

First, let’s reflect on a critical on-field moment that led to Millen’s hiring. One win away from a playoff berth in the 2000 season, the Lions got booted out of the postseason picture in the regular-season finale, courtesy of a 54-yard field goal from rookie Paul Edinger of a bad Chicago Bears team. It was a typical Lions letdown, a lump of coal right before the holidays.

Something different was in order for the club’s front office. Cue up the music.

The Lions’ unconventional hiring of Millen in January of 2001 touched off a reign of futility and incompetence that’ll be hard to match in the modern NFL (although the Cleveland Browns are giving chase). The seven-plus seasons featured: Busts at high spots in the draft (hello, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams). Losing. Bad coaching hires. More losing. An embarrassing scene in which he yelled a gay slur at former Lion Johnnie Morton. And more losing.

Millen even locked up the distinction as the first GM to be fined for violating the Rooney Rule, an error that cost him $200,000, as well as the franchise’s shot at landing a leader who could’ve turned the team around.

Perhaps the boiling point of buffoonery was reached when fed-up fans took to the streets in a “Millen Man March,” where about 1,000 gathered in downtown Detroit to decry the GM before and after a game, which of course, the Lions lost.

The Lions’ overall record reached 31-84 before team owner William Clay Ford had enough and fired Millen in September of 2008. Yes, it took that long. The age of NFL parity, one that gives promise to just about every franchise, skipped the Lions.

Millen had reservations about taking the job, he told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg a few years after his firing. So much so that Millen told the team owner, “Mr. Ford, I really appreciate this, but I’m not qualified.”

Indeed.

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