ALLEN PARK, Mich. – When Dan Orlovsky was making his decision of whether or not to return to the Detroit Lions this offseason, he called his old center, Dominic Raiola. He wanted to know was what the team was like now.
He wanted to know what he might be walking into. He had familiarity with the organization and with Detroit’s new head coach, Jim Caldwell. But he wanted to understand everything else, too. He knew what it was in 2008, when the Lions became the first 0-16 team in league history.
But how much had things changed.
“It’s a stark, stark difference from where it was,” Orlovsky said. “On an A-to-Z basis, from an in-the-locker-room standpoint to a team-meeting standpoint to an individual-meeting standpoint to a practice standpoint to an expectation-level standpoint to overall culture.
“It’s extremely different and it’s enjoyable to be a part of.”
Back in 2008, though, Orlovsky wasn’t sure if this was possible in Detroit. He knew what those Lions were as a franchise. He knew the history before 2008 – history still following Detroit this season, when the Lions finished 11-5 and qualified for the playoffs for the second time in four years as they face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
Most of Detroit’s players don’t understand the Lions’ nadir. Five do as the remnants of that 2008 team: Orlovsky, Raiola, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, snapper Don Muhlbach and defensive tackle Andre Fluellen. Three have been with the Lions throughout: Johnson, Raiola and Muhlbach. Fluellen has been cut and re-signed multiple times.
Then there’s Orlovsky, the starting quarterback for part of 2008, who chose to come back to Detroit as Matthew Stafford’s backup.
All five cringed a little bit when thinking back to 2008, what it meant and how far Detroit’s franchise had come.
“We were just trying to win a game that year,” Muhlbach said. “Oh, we’ll get the next one. Then, that Monday, oh, we’ll get the next one.
“It just, that was the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through, football-wise. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. The fact that we’ve done that makes this so much better, I guess.”
Fluellen was a rookie in the league then and that season taught him that “the NFL is really hard.”
It didn’t get much easier for a while. The shift of the franchise actually began during the 2008 season, when the Lions fired Matt Millen in September, then got rid of then-coach Rod Marinelli after the season. The winless season led the Lions to getting the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.
Raiola looked across the league during Detroit’s rebuild and noticed his teammates in 2008 weren’t in the league anymore. That’s what told him how much work had to be done to reach the point where Detroit is now.
To start that process, Detroit hired Martin Mayhew as general manager and Jim Schwartz as the head coach. The No. 1 pick was Stafford. In their first season together, the Lions went 2-14 in 2009. Then they went 6-10, 10-6, 4-12 and 7-9, leading to Schwartz’s dismissal and the hiring of Caldwell.
Early in Caldwell’s tenure, he addressed the Lions’ past bluntly in a team meeting.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to carry the burdens of the things from the past,’" Orlovsky said. “That resonated with me and I think that resonated with a lot of guys.”
Releasing the burden helped lead Detroit to this point – in the playoffs and what they hope is the cusp of being a perennial playoff contender for the first time since the early 1990s with Barry Sanders and Wayne Fontes.
And those who were around understand how far they really are from 2008 and how important it is.
“This point in time deserves its own moment, you know,” Raiola said. “I know what you mean. It has come a long way. Calvin was here, he could tell you. We were going on the field and we didn’t have much of a chance.
“But we’ve come a long way from that.”