Saturday, July 20, 2013

There's Detroit...and Then There's the Lions



As I was thinking over what topic I should write about next, Detroit’s financial crisis or the start of the Lions’ training camp, it kind of hit me right then and there how much of a parallel history the city and the team have shared in the last six decades.  We’re only a week away from the start of training camp, which is the unofficial start to the 2013 NFL season.  This will be less than ten days after the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

If you drew a decade-by-decade comparison between the city and team, the similarities would be uncanny if not bizarrely symmetrical.  Just a brief scan reveals a city and team both in their heydays in the 1950s, followed by a protracted period of marked declines in jobs and population for the city and winning seasons for the other, a slight uptick in the 1990s, followed by a disastrous 2000s with the bottom seemingly dropping out simultaneously around 2008.

In the 1950s, the city’s population reached its peak at 1.8 million and was the 4th largest city in America.  The city’s growth was the result of the birth of the auto industry which led to the development of the modern middle class.  Having weathered the Great Depression and a sudden conversion to a war-time economy, the city became the “Arsenal of Democracy” that provided armaments for the Allied forces in World War II.  As the war concluded, the city like the rest of the country reverted back to a prewar economy, having turned into an affluent metropolis.  The apex of the city's prosperity coincided with the Lions' fortunes, who would go on to win 3 of four NFL championship games between 1952 and 1957.

Following the 1950s, Detroit and the Lions entered the next decade unaware of what was about to happen next.  The Lions traded away Bobby Layne in 1958, which as legend has it, began the infamous curse where he vowed the team wouldn't win for 50 years.  Five years later, the Lions were bought by current owner, William Clay Ford, Sr. (Interestingly enough, the day Ford bought the team was on November 22, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas).  Under his ownership, the Lions would go on to win only one playoff game, and being only one of two pre-merger teams to never make it to a Super Bowl (the other being the Cleveland Browns).

That same decade, the city experienced upheaval that marked a turning point in its existence and relationship with the suburbs.  As the city began to grow, racial tensions began to mount, culminating in the riots in the summer of 1967.  Despite having gone on for years prior, the aftermath of the riots exacerbated the white flight to the suburbs.

Both the city's and the team's fortunes continued to decline leading into the 1970s and 1980s.  The Lions had brief periods of success in between long playoff droughts.  As people were leaving the city, so did the Lions as they played their last game at Tiger Stadium in 1974 and made their way to a new home at the Silverdome in Pontiac. 

Meanwhile the auto industry began to languish against competition from Japanese automakers.  The continual loss of market share, coupled with a growing crime epidemic tainted the city's reputation for years to come.  Progress was fleeting for the city as investment slowly moved away from the city and into the suburbs and in some cases, out of state.  The city seemed to leapfrog other cities like Gary, Indiana and Washington D.C. in the number of homicides each year, but it was always Detroit that came to mind first when people thought of unsafe cities.

It wasn't until the 1990s when Detroit and the Lions saw some recovery, although it was by-and-large mediocre.  The decade was the longest period of economic expansion in the country's history, where over 20 million new jobs were created.  Although most of the growth occurred outside the city's limits, the election of Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993 was a change from the more confrontational years under Coleman Young.

The Lions managed to make the playoffs in six of the ten years, including two NFC Central Division Championships, and a playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys in January of 1992.  That victory sent them to the NFC Championship game where they were routed by the Washington Redskins, 41-10.  After posting a team best 12-4 season and winning the NFC Central, the rest of the decade was an up-and-down yo-yo of winning and losing seasons, where in most cases the Lions were finishing strong to win a Wild Card berth, only to exit the playoffs early.  They did however manage to win another NFC Central title in 1993, but in typical Lions fashion, they stumbled in the middle of the season and won three of their final four games to finish 10-6.

Then came the 2000s.  The economic expansion ended in March of 2001, the same year William Clay Ford, Sr. hired Matt Millen to be the Lions' new President and GM.  As the recession took hold, more and more manufacturing jobs began to leave the state.  Detroit, for the first time, saw its population numbers fall below 1 million.  The same year Millen was hired to run the Lions, Detroiters elected Kwame Kilpatrick as its next mayor.  What started out as a promising future, quickly turned into a nightmare for both.

Kilpatrick was the city's youngest Mayor ever elected at age 31, its first "hip hop Mayor," and a former Minority Leader in the Michigan State House of Representatives. Millen had no personnel experience, but was an engaging color commentator for Fox Network's NFL Football broadcasts.  Both were gifted communicators, but neither were suited for the jobs they took on.

Under Millen's tenure, the Lions posted a 31-84 record, and if you were like me and wanted to include the remaining thirteen games of the 2008 season after he was fired, he'd be 31-97.  That means he had a winning percentage under 25%.  While I don't blame him entirely for the first year debacle of the team going 2-14 in 2001, the hiring of a new coach every 2-3 years combined with multiple high 1st round draft busts, bad free agent signings, and an overall lack of a blueprint made him the worst GM in all of the four major sports and probably the worst ever.

Meanwhile, the Kilpatrick administration was wrought with corruption and negligence of an unprecedented scale for the city.  It seemed it was always one scandal after another.  There was the alleged Manoogian Mansion party, even though it was never proven, which led to the investigation and possible cover up of the murder of Tamara Greene.  Then came the whistle blower lawsuit by two Internal Affairs investigators from the Detroit Police Department who charged the mayor fired them for attempting to expose the story. 

There was also the Lincoln Navigator scandal.  Then came the text messaging scandal which ultimately led to Kilpatrick's resignation in 2008.   Were there more scandals?  Yes, sludge deal, tax evasion, and assaulting a police officer.  The Kilpatrick administration had so many scandals that investigators wound up uncovering even more after he left office and eventually led to his conviction earlier this year.

Kilpatrick's resignation coincided the same year with the Lions' infamous 0-16 season.  For the last seven years, Matt Millen had put together sub par teams built around the likes of Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, and Mike Williams.  Even after those spectacular failures, Ford allowed Millen to remain as GM and team President after the 2005 season.  Once again, we saw promise with the drafting of Calvin Johnson in 2007, a 6-2 start that year that fizzled into a 7-9 season, and no playoffs. 

It was after the 6-2 start that the team began to hit rock bottom.  They finished the second half with a 1-7 record, but fans were still anticipating a breakthrough 2008 season.  Our hopes were up when the Lions finished the preseason 4-0, but by Week 1, the Lions were shredded by the Atlanta Falcons and their rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan.  Speculation began after a third straight routing that Millen could be fired and the Lions could be the first team to go 0-16.  Both came true as Millen was fired later that week and the Lions eventually made history with a loss at Green Bay in Week 17.

In the years since 2008, the city's and the team's fortunes have become somewhat less intertwined.  Kilpatrick was replaced by Ken Cockrel, Jr., and then Dave Bing in 2009.  Despite the promise of Bing's new administration, the dysfunction that has plagued city politics for decades eventually got the best of him, too, even though his administration was a stark contrast to the corruption from his predecessors.  Eventually, the city's poor economic standing and mismanaged finances forced the state of Michigan to take action, leading to the appointment of an Emergency Manager and subsequent filing for bankruptcy protection.

Meanwhile, the Lions have made some breakthrough, albeit with a serious step backward last season.  In 2009, they selected Matthew Stafford as their franchise quarterback with the number one overall pick and attempted in the years since to build the team around him.  They finished his rookie season 2-14.  The next year they drafted Ndamukong Suh with the number two overall pick, and began to build a competitive team as they finished 6-10, but were closer to winning more games than previously.

By 2011, the Lions had built a playoff contender and the team finished 10-6 and earned its first Wild Card berth in twelve years.  It was also its first 10-win season since 1995.  Although they were quickly shown the door in New Orleans, Lions fans were given reasons to believe.  

Even though 2012 proved to be a colossal failure, 2013 will probably be the year the team finds its level.  This team will probably be competitive for years to come, as long as Stafford takes a major step forward in his development, and the Lions continue to find good players in the draft.

As for the city, bankruptcy may end up being the best thing that has happened to it in a long time.  Decades of mismanagement, corruption, and economic decline pushed the city to a point where it couldn't get any worse.  Just as I watched the Lions go through a painful couple of seasons after 2008, the city is going to have to endure some painful years in order to recover.

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