Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reliving, Part I: 1986 - 1990

1986: The Lions had two first round picks.

With the sixth overall pick, the Lions selected Left Tackle Lomas Brown out of Florida. Dubbed, the "Great Wall of Florida," Brown was the best LT the Lions picked in the last quarter century. He spent seven years blocking for the Lions' all-time greatest Running Back, Barry Sanders. Brown went to the Pro Bowl seven times in his career. He was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre offensive line that Lions fans have complained about for years, second only to the man who always lines up behind center. His time in Detroit ended after an up-and-down 1995 campaign that saw the Lions finish the season with seven straight victories, a 10-6 record, and a guaranteed playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the NFC Wild Card. What resulted, was a 58-37 humiliation for all of us. He ended up winning a Super Bowl at the very end of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, albeit as a backup.

The second pick the Lions selected was Quarterback Chuck Long out of Iowa, taken 12th overall. Among the four quarterbacks taken in the first round between 1986 and 2009, Long was quite simply the least productive. In four years with Detroit, Long completed 330 passes off of 602 attempts, with 19 touchdowns to 28 interceptions, and a QB rating that was never higher than 55.8. He left the Lions after the 1990 season when Andre Ware and Rodney Peete were drafted, spent one season in futility with the Los Angeles Rams, and then came back to be the fourth-string QB with Detroit again, never throwing a pass in any game.

1987: At No. 7, the Lions selected DT Reggie Rogers out of the University of Washington. Rogers, by far, was the worst pick of all the 1st-rounders in the last 25 years. Extremely talented, blessed with natural physical ability, Rogers lacked the mental makeup needed to put all that talent to good work. Things came very easy to him, which is why didn't give a 100% commitment to the team. He played in only six games in 1987, due to a series of emotional problems.

In 1988, his car fatally struck another car carrying three teenagers in Pontiac, MI early one morning. It was later revealed he had a blood-alcohol content of .15. He was subsequently released by the Lions later that year, which would be the mother of all ironies, funny-if-it-weren't-true, because he broke his neck. In 1990, he was convicted of vehicular homicide and spent only sixteen months in jail. Talk about getting off easy, he later came back to the NFL in 1991 and spent two seasons with two teams, Buffalo and Tampa Bay respectively. His off-the-field habits continued to haunt him as years later he was again arrested for another DUI resulting from another hit-and-run in his hometown Tukwila, Washington, making that his fifth in the state, going all the way back to his days at the University of Washington.

1988: In 1988, the Lions selected Safety Bennie Blades with the No.3 pick. Blades had an outstanding career at the University of Miami, where he set a new NCAA single-season record for interceptions, culminating in Miami winning the National Championship in 1987. His record was later tied by another Hurricane Safety, Sean Hunter. Blades' success continued into the NFL as he was a key player in the Lions' 1991 Cinderella season, in which the Lions made it all the way to the NFC Title game, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He was known for being one of the hardest hitting safeties, in company with the likes of Denver Broncos' Steve Atwater. Blades spent nine years with the Lions before being released by Detroit in 1996. He spent one year with the Seattle Seahawks in 1997, playing with his brother Michael Blades, a Wide Receiver, before retiring.

1989: Again, with the No. 3 pick overall, the Lions selected Oklahoma State Running Back Barry Sanders, the winner of the 1988 Heisman Trophy Award. Sanders is by far, the most well-known Lion, and some have argued that he is the greatest RB of all-time. In ten years, Sanders made the Pro Bowl ten times. He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1989. He shared the NFL MVP award with Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre in 1997 after running for 2,053 yards. He led the league in rushing four times in his career. He ran for 15,269 yards and scored 99 rushing TDs.

In 1999, Sanders abruptly retired on the eve of training camp. He left a press release, faxed to a Wichita, Kansas newspaper (his hometown) that he was announcing his retirement, and left on a plane bound for London. Without warning, the Lions were left to fill a void that they have been searching to replace ever since. He was within striking distance of breaking Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton's all-time career rushing mark. Instead, he walked away, inciting controversy which still lingers on today. Sanders was nonetheless voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2004.

Sanders was known for his humility almost as much as his athleticism. He endeared himself to fans at the end of his rookie season, when only just ten yards shy of leading the league in rushing, he refused to go back into the game at the insistence of Head Coach Wayne Fontes.

1990: Well, if one Heisman winner wasn't enough, why not try and make it two-in-a-row? That's what the Lions did when they picked QB Andre Ware out of Houston with the seventh pick overall. Ware set twenty six NCAA passing records and was supposed to be the QB the Lions would use to run their Run-and-Shoot Offense, the same system he ran at the University of Houston.

Unfortunately for Ware and the Lions, college success didn't translate into NFL success. A mix of bad decisions on his part, poor planning and executing on Lions' front office part, and finally just bad timing to join the Lions doomed his career. Ware originally held out of training camp over contract issues. Once signed, Ware had too much to catch up on in training camp, and lost the starting job to Rodney Peete. Ware played backup behind Peete and Bob Gagliano, only starting one game and compiling a lukewarm statistical record of 13-of-30 passing, with one TD and two interceptions.

In 1991, the Lions had gone 12-4, winning its first playoff victory since 1957, and losing to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Title game. Coach Fontes had Rodney Peete start the season, but a season-ending injury forced Fontes to turn to another QB, Erik Kramer over Ware. Kramer led the team and created a nice QB carousel that lasted until the end of the 1993 season.

Ware was lost in the shuffle. Aside from his holdout, he had difficulty making simple pass patterns and was a better option QB. He couldn't throw a screen pass, and his short passes were thrown with the same velocity his 50-yard bombs were launched. The man definitely had an arm, but he never learned to control it.

Fontes did not believe Ware could run the offense, but allowed Ware the opportunity to show his stuff in 1992. He went 2-1 as a starter as the season was already lost for the Lions, who finished that year with a 5-11 record. The following year, he replaced Peete and went 1-1, until again being benched by Fontes. When Peete was benched a second time, Fontes opted for Kramer, who led the Lions again to a division title and a playoff birth. Ware was correct in pointing out that Fontes messed up his development. He still went 3-3 as a starter. But the confusion from the head coach doomed his chances, not that he didn't hurt himself. At one point, Fontes told the media he was starting Andre, but that "Rodney was my guy."

Ware was let go by Detroit and signed on first with the Minnesota Vikings in 1994, the Jacksonville Jaguars win 1995, and once more with the Oakland Raiders in 1999. In between that time, he spent two years in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts trying again to restart his career, but was forced to play behind the CFL legend Doug Flutie, who led the Argos to a Grey Cup in 1997.

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