Few players in NFL history have endured the type of on-field misery Jason Hanson has gone through in Detroit. The Lions have not had a winning record since 2000 and, in Hanson's 19 previous seasons with the franchise, have won zero playoff games.
Hanson is convinced that season No. 20 could be the one he's been waiting for.
"Talent-wise, we're just better," Hanson said. "It’s the start of a season, we’ve hardly accomplished anything. But to even have that buzz, this is what we’ve been putting in the work for."
The Lions drafted Hanson in 1992, just months after they had completed a 12-4 season -- the franchise's most regular season wins ever. The '91 campaign also brought Detroit an NFC Central title and its first playoff victory in the Super Bowl era, a 38-6 whitewash of the Cowboys in the divisional round.
Detroit hasn't won a playoff game since, going 0-5 in the postseason from 1993 to '99, despite the presence of players like Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Chris Spielman.
"I’ve had a taste of (success) in the past -- in the 90's, we had some really good teams and did great things and always fizzled out in the first round of the playoffs," Hanson said. "The Silverdome (Detroit's home field until 2001) had 80,000 fans in it. It was crazy.
"Since we moved to Ford Field, it hasn't been that way. People have been dying for it, wanting it -- they are are real excited to have a team that’s competitive and hoping that this is a team that’s going to go far."
For as long as Detroit seemed stuck in the rebuilding process, the turnaround thus far under third-year head coach Jim Schwartz has been equally as rapid.
The Lions were just 2-10 through Week 13 last season and, as a franchise, had lost 26 consecutive games on the road. Since then, the Lions have won seven straight regular season games, four of them coming away from home. If you add in this year's 4-0 preseason, Detroit's riding an 11-game win streak and has not lost since Dec. 5, 2010.
Before starting their current run, the last time the Lions had won even three straight games was in 2007, when they started 6-2 and looked headed to the playoffs. They lost seven of their final eight games that year to wind up 7-9, then posted their infamous 0-16 mark in 2008.
The silver lining out of that winless season was that it brought Detroit the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, which the Lions used to select Matthew Stafford.
That pick was the first one made by Martin Mayhew, who replaced Matt Millen as the Lions' general manager midway through the 0-16 year. Since then, Mayhew has almost completely remade Detroit's roster. In just three drafts, the Lions have landed no fewer than seven starters: Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey, outside linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, running back Jahvid Best.
"In hindsight, the rebuilding process was stagnant for a lot of years," Hanson said. "It wasn’t a gradual climb, it was more a series of misfires. Now, I think it’s really taken hold and from getting good players in here -- there’s always good players, but I think now we have that next level of talent -- and having stability with coaches and systems, we’ve gained some traction."
Hanson played a huge role in Detroit's dramatic Week 3 triumph in Minnesota. He hit four field goals (and is now 8-for-8 on the year), including a game-tying 50-yarder and the 32-yard overtime winner.
The Lions trailed 20-0 at halftime of that game, playing at the Metrodome, where they had lost 13 consecutive games. In the past, Detroit would have folded up shop and been more than content to be 2-1 heading into Week 4.
Not this year. Detroit ripped off 23 unanswered points to set the stage for Hanson's OT heroics. And, just like that, the Lions are 3-0 for the first time since 1980.
"Everybody here knows we're doing the things we want to do," Hanson said, "but the games are going to get harder. We have lots to prove."
Don't tell that to the Detroit fans, who are absolutely desperate for a winner on the gridiron.
Despite branding itself "Hockeytown," selling out 259 straight Pistons games from 2004-09 and packing Comerica Park summer after summer in support of the Tigers, Detroit is, at heart, a football town.
An estimated 1.4 million fans lined the streets of downtown Detroit in 2008 for a parade celebrating the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. What people in Michigan won't hesitate to tell you, though, is that a Lions' Super Bowl win would set new standards for revelry in the Motor City.
"For a lot of guys that have been here, all they've ever known is us not being a great football team," Hanson said. "Saying that it's 'hit home' is a good way of putting it -- it's exciting to think about being able to ride this through and come out the other side."
Turning that 3-0 start into something tangible is the next step in Detroit's journey back to football respectability. The schedule gradually gets trickier, starting with a Week 4 trip to Dallas and continuing on to a Monday Night Football appearance against Chicago in Week 5, two games vs. the Packers and matchups with Atlanta, New Orleans, Oakland and San Diego.
But for the first time since Hanson's earliest days as a Lion, none of the challenges on Detroit's schedule appear insurmountable. For the first time in a very, very long time, the Lions feel like they are a team to be reckoned with.
"The wins have come in a legitimate way," Hanson said. "Plays weren't fluky, neither were the scores or the way we won. It feels like we beat the teams. "In the most general sense, people have the belief that we're different. What that means is yet to be seen."