New hire must change Lions losing tradition

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
5:30
PM ET
FontesDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesWayne Fontes stood out for guiding the Lions to the playoffs in 1991, '93, '94 and '95.
In the middle of this season, when the Detroit Lions were still looking like a team trending toward the playoffs instead of a coaching search, Dominic Raiola explained simply why this team would be different.

Why this team wouldn't collapse.

Raiola looked at the team Detroit had assembled and saw few familiar faces from the 0-16 team he was a part of during the 2008 season. The 13-year veteran, who has spent his entire career in Detroit, saw few remnants from the teams of Lions past, the ones that would consistently fall apart.

Yet that's exactly what happened again.

"We will bounce back," Raiola said after Detroit lost to Cincinnati on Oct. 20. "I know we will bounce back. We have a bunch of fighters in here. Look who is in this room, look at our quarterback. We have the best wide receiver in the world. We have a bunch of fighters in here."

The Lions were 4-3 then. They would win their next two games, and then win one game the rest of the season. This led to the firing of Jim Schwartz after five seasons, and yet another coaching search for the franchise.

This is the main issue for the Lions and their next coach. Team president Tom Lewand said he he believed the Lions' job was "one of the most, if not the single most, attractive head coaching opportunity" in the league during this cycle.

It might be.

But there is something else the next Detroit coach needs to understand. He will inherit a roster with perhaps more talent than any Lions team since Wayne Fontes was the coach. But Detroit is a franchise mired in losing with a culture of collapse, especially in the second halves of seasons.

The challenge facing the next coach is to change that culture.

Through the past 20 years, Detroit has had eight coaches, if you count interim coaches. The Lions have had three general managers and have changed team presidents. The only consistency has been the ownership of the Ford family, which has shown patience for coaches and general managers -- notably Matt Millen -- with minimal success.

Another constant has been a history of collapses. Collapses both similar to and worse than this year's failure, where a 6-3 start turned into a 7-9 finish and the firing of Schwartz. That after a year where a 4-4 start was followed by eight straight losses.

The majority of Schwartz's tenure was comprised of teams that didn't come close to winning records or ones that unraveled at the end of seasons.

Even during Detroit's lone playoff season this century, the Lions started 6-2 in 2011, went 4-4 down the stretch and were fortunate only one other division, the NFC South, had a team besides the division winner that was over .500 for the year.

Rod Marinelli's tenure saw one collapse in his three seasons in 2007, when the Lions started off 6-3 and crumbled to a 1-6 finish and a 7-9 record. Marinelli also authored the only winless season in modern NFL history in 2008.

Steve Mariucci's teams unraveled twice in three seasons. In 2004, Detroit started the season 4-2. It went 2-8 down the stretch to finish 6-10. The next season, the Lions started 3-3 and then plummeted to a 2-8 finish that saw Mariucci get fired midway through. Dick Jauron took over in the interim and guided the team to a 1-4 record over those final five games.

The closest Marty Mornhinweg came to a collapse was turning a 3-5 start into a 3-13 final record, but he had no success in his other seasons.

Bobby Ross only had one full collapse in his tenure from 1997 to 2000, when he retired midseason. In 1999, the Lions started 6-2 and finished 8-8. The next season, the Lions started 5-2 and went 4-5 down the stretch. But Gary Moeller replaced Ross for the final seven games, going 4-3.

The only coach with sustained success over the past 20 years was Fontes, also the last Lions coach to make the playoffs more than once. He had only one true collapse with the franchise in his tenure, the 1996 season, when Detroit started 4-2 and finished 5-11.

Fontes actually broke the mold. He once took a team that started 0-3 and led it to a 10-6 record and the playoffs in 1995. His 1994 team started 2-4 and made the playoffs at 9-7. Before that, although it doesn't fit the 20-year window, he had success and even won division titles and a playoff game.

Only three coaches in the Super Bowl era have made the playoffs with the Lions more than once -- Fontes, Ross and Monte Clark.

And in the Super Bowl era, the Lions have only won one playoff game.

Since 2000, in a league that is almost designed to be cyclical, the Lions have managed to not win a divisional title and have only one playoff appearance. Only Cleveland, with one appearance, and Buffalo, with none, are on par or worse than the Lions.

So this is what the new coach, whomever Detroit hires, will be inheriting. And this is the "culture," to use general manager Martin Mayhew's word, and level of deep history he will have to try and change.

He just needs to understand that walking in the door.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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