They were one of the NFL's showpiece teams of the 1950s, a runner-up in the '60s and a fading franchise in the '70s. Mention the Detroit Lions and oldtimers will rub their eyes and tell you about Bobby Layne and Gil (Wild Hoss) Mains and those mean teams they played on, and they'll bring up the great battles with the Green Bay Packers—Jerry Kramer against Alex Karras.
Since then the flame has flared a few times, but generally it has been very low. Oh, Detroit snuck into the playoffs as a wild-card team in 1970 and lost to Dallas 5-0 in one of the least memorable postseason games in history. Quick now, how many 1970 Lions can you name? After that, zero.
Last year rookie Billy Sims set hearts aflutter and the Lions jumped out quickly, but they blew it down the stretch. Now they're back. Yes, they are. After a convincing 27-10 Thanksgiving Day victory over Kansas City, Detroit is 7-6 and tied for first place in the NFC Central with Minnesota and Tampa Bay. And if you believe in the hot-team theory, you've got to like the Lions' chances. Look at it this way:
Detroit's 27-24 12-man field-goal victory over Dallas on Nov. 15 started a three-game win streak, with each victory being better than the last. The Lions' defense has allowed only two touchdowns in the last 10 quarters. Included in that stretch is a 23-7 win over Chicago in which the Lions allowed 24 yards, total, an alltime low for the Bears. They're peaking at just the right time. Their wounded are healthy, and their quarterback situation is in the best shape it has been in in years, with Gary Danielson, who dislocated his left wrist in September, back to reinforce the current top gun, Eric Hipple. Best of all, the division comes to them—the Packers in Green Bay this Sunday, then the Vikings and Bucs in the Silverdome. And though Detroit is just 1-6 on the road, it is 6-0 in the Dome.
Why such success at home? After all, the Dome is enclosed; there are no freak-weather conditions to worry about, no snowstorms. "It's strange, isn't it?" says 32-year-old Stan White, the ex-Baltimore Colt who is now the daddy of the Lions' linebacking corps. "I guess teams coming in here read about our winning at home and wonder, and then when they get here, the fans are right up close and screaming like crazy, and they think, 'Yeah, I can see why they do well here.' It must work on their minds or something."
The Lions, of course, will win the division outright if they can take their last three games. Their surge started on Monday night, Oct. 19, when they opened up a spare-parts box and Hipple popped out. He'd been around for a year. He'd been a pretty good run-and-throw quarterback at Utah State, and the Lions had drafted him in the fourth round in 1980. They were very happy with his rookie-year contribution, as a holder for Ed Murray's club record of 27 field goals. Passing? Well, you see, he didn't get to throw many—or any, actually.
On Oct. 19 the Lions were 2-4 and sinking fast. Danielson was in street clothes and Jeff Komlo was 0-2 in his two starts. Hipple got the start against the Bears. He threw the ball only 25 times (Monte Clark teams almost never pass as much as they run) but he went for distance: 336 yards, the sixth most in the club's 48-year history. He ran, he blocked on the reverses, he provided instant action. And Detroit romped, 48-17.
"When Coach Clark told me I was starting," Hipple says, "he told me, 'I don't want you to worry about anything. I don't want you thinking too much. Just go back and fire the ball, let it go.' He left the door open for me. He didn't want me to be a robot, but I guess he didn't want me to be too wild, either."
Since then Hipple has settled into the middle ranks of the NFL pass ratings. His percentage is low, 46.7%, but he'll throw the ball downfield before he'll dink it to his backs. And he can get hot, put a lot of points up quickly. Hipple also knows how to scramble. "The coaches told me to get down in a hurry when I see trouble coming, to hit the slide," he says, "but to tell you the truth, there's something a bit dishonest with that. I mean, here are all these linemen and running backs working hard, getting hit on every play. For me to just drop to the ground, well, they might lose a little respect. I'd prefer to try to duck one or two shots before I go down."
The Lions will never be a pass-happy team, not with Clark coaching. His trademark with Detroit, and before that with San Francisco, has been a solid running game and a good defense, but against Kansas City he saw the value of a quick strike. Toward the end of the second quarter Hipple hit Wide Receiver Freddie Scott with a 40-yard TD pass that made the score 17-7 in the Lions' favor, and the Chiefs had to change their approach. Until then the Chiefs had thrown only four passes, but now they had to put the ball up, and with one of their key receivers, Henry Marshall, on injured reserve, they were in over their heads.
"We needed that lead," Clark says. "We had gotten a taste of what it was like to play against a Billy Sims—I'm talking about that little Joe Delaney of theirs—and we didn't like it. We had to make them throw."
That's where the pass rush came in. The Silver Rush is what they call it in Detroit, and it's another reason for liking the Lions down the stretch. Reading from left to right: Dave Pureifory, William Gay, Doug English, Bubba Baker. It's one of the NFL's finest defensive lines, also the most unsung. And it's doubly gifted; it can close down the run and also get to the quarterback. It is up among the league leaders in fines, too.
Gay got hit for $2,000 when he speared Packer Quarterback Lynn Dickey. Baker may soon pay the price for going up high on the Bears' Vince Evans two games ago. "I didn't even hit him with my helmet—my facemask was what got him," says Baker in self-defense. English will probably have to donate $500 to the Brian Piccolo cancer fund, the recipient of all league fines, because he got thrown out of the Kansas City game for trading punches with a reserve tackle, Roger Taylor.
In the old days, Lion defensive lines were known for their meanness. Weeb Ewbank tells a story about when Alan (The Horse) Ameche was a young, foolish fullback for Ewbank's Baltimore Colts and gave an interview in which he said playing in the NFL wasn't really that tough after all.
"The next team we faced was the Lions," Ewbank says, "and all day long those real mean guys on their defensive line, like Wild Hoss Mains and Darris McCord, were yelling at Ameche, 'Come this way, Horsie,' and 'Nice Horsie.' I want to tell you, they worked him over something fierce."
That was yesterday. Today, quarterbacks' helmets are wired into Pete Rozelle's office, and when one of them is touched, a buzzer goes off and dollar figures light up on the board. The Lions lead the NFC with 42 sacks, and as K.C.'s Bill Kenney and Steve Fuller learned, the NFL's fine schedule has hardly dampened their enthusiasm.
"It might make you think twice," English says. "We do have to watch our P's and Q's, but I'm glad to see we're playing just as hard as ever. People who don't know us might think we're a bunch of guys who go around beating up quarterbacks, but that's just not true. We've all been around, and we know all of them personally and they know us. They know that we're not bad guys. It's just that, well, when you're flying around out there, sometimes it's tough to put on the brakes. Monte's defensive system is geared to the all-out rush. He has his defensive linemen penetrating hard and reading on the run, which is what I love to do.
"A lot of people ask me if the year's layoff [English retired for a year in 1980 to look after his oil business] has hurt me, but I think I'm playing better now than I ever did. I got healthy again. In '79 I had to get both knees taped. They were loose toward the end of the year. Now they're fine."
The 1979 season was one the Lions would rather forget. The only good that came of it was Sims, the first pick in the draft, a result of their 2-14 record.
"Things got so bad that year it was almost funny," says Gay, who was converted to defensive left tackle after being a tight end at USC. "We'd be arguing with each other on the field. 'Hey, do you know what you're doing?' I used to hear that all the time. You'd almost have to laugh. There was a lot of despair out there."
Last year the Lions were unequipped for the early success that came their way. They won five of their first six, and then struggled home 9-7. Their theme song, Another One Bites the Dust, became a rallying cry for opponents, who rose up and crushed Detroit's playoff hopes at the end. A badly crippled offensive line didn't help, either.
"The situation's entirely different now," White says. "This year when we were losing, we were still playing well. We lost four games in the last minutes [to San Diego, Minnesota, Denver and Washington]. We felt we'd break out of it; it was just a matter of getting ourselves together. We didn't hold any players-only meetings or anything like that. We'd tried them last year and they didn't accomplish much. Everyone knows what's going to be said—'We've got to do this, we've got to do that, good things will happen if we start winning.' You know the routine.
"This team reminds me of the playoff teams I was on with the Colts, especially the '75 team. We started off 1-4, but all of a sudden we caught fire and won our last nine in a row. I've got that feeling here now. We're getting hot at exactly the right point in the season."
Around Detroit the people are working mightily to promote a Super Bowl image. At games in the Silverdome, writers in the press box are deluged with propaganda designed to convince them that holding Super Bowl XVI in the Detroit area isn't as funny an idea as one might think. They're plugging Super Bowl fashion shows, something they call a Super Crawl, a Super Ball, RENAISSANCE CITY, BORN-AGAIN METROPOLIS, proclaims a giant foldout flier.
The Lion players certainly don't mind the big buildup. It means more chances for endorsements, for speaking engagements. And if, by some strange chance, they wind up looking at Supe XVI from the inside—why, that would be O.K., too.