Detroit Lions - Worst Franchise in Professional Sports

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

by Rich Savidant, OSJ Staff | Twitter: @SavMoney1point0

Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season is in the books. For the fan base of most NFL teams, Week 1 brings out optimism and hope with aspirations of a Super Bowl victory. For Detroit Lions fans, of which I am (unfortunately) one, Week 1 kicks off an annual 4-month journey filled with heartbreak and despair.

The Detroit Lions are not only the worst franchise in the NFL, they are the worst franchise in professional sports. And it isn’t even close. Let me present some basic evidence, focusing only on the Super Bowl era (1966-present):

Lack of Playoff Success

Only 4 NFL teams (Jaguars, Texans, Browns and Lions) have never played in a Super Bowl. Keep in mind, the Jaguars have only been in the league since 1995 and the Texans since 2002. The Browns have been in the league since 1966 but the franchise didn’t exist between 1996-1999; the franchise had to start anew in 2000. The Lions have failed to make the Super Bowl even once in 52 seasons.

If you are wondering why the Lions have never played in a Super Bowl, the reason may be that the franchise has only won 1 playoff game in the Super Bowl Era. That is not a typo. In 1991 the division-winning Lions beat the Cowboys 38-6 before losing 41-10 to the Redskins in the NFC Championship.


The Ford family has owned the Detroit Lions since 1961, pre-dating the Super Bowl by 6 years. William Clay Ford bought the team and his wife Martha took over the helm following his death in 2014. Having stable ownership is a precursor to success when the owner is competent (Google “New England Patriots NFL”). Having stable ownership is a precursor to failure when the owner is incompetent (Google “Ottawa Senators NHL”). By all accounts the members of the Ford family are hardworking and successful pillars of the Detroit community, with one exception: They have made consistently horrible football-related decisions for 58 consecutive years.

General Managers

If you could only use one word to summarize the history of Detroit Lions general managers, that word would be inept. Or awful. Or putrid. In 2001, William Clay Ford made what is arguably the worst decision by any owner in the history of professional sports when he hired Matt Millen as the CEO and general manager of the Detroit Lions. Millen at the time was in the broadcast booth for the NFL Network position and had zero coaching or management experience. Millen was the Lions CEO and GM for 7 full seasons and compiled a record of 31-81 over that miserable stretch. The Lions lost at least 9 games in each of these seasons. This included a road record of 0-24 during Millen’s first 3 seasons. Millen was a terrible evaluator of free agents, awful at drafting and useless at selecting head coaches. William Clay Ford punished Millen for his complete lack of ability by giving him a 5-year contract extension in 2005.

Draft History

I could write a dissertation on the Lions horrible draft record. But that would bore you and depress me. I will summarize their draft futility with this snapshot: Beginning in 2002, the Lions picked in the top 10 for 5 consecutive years and selected the following players: QB Joey Harrington (#3), WR Charles Rogers (#2), WR Roy Williams (#7), WR Mike Williams (#10) and OLB Ernie Sims (#9). All 5 players are considered draft busts. Charles Rogers is in the conversation With Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell as the biggest draft bust in NFL history.


The list of Lions head coaches is almost as abysmal as the list of general managers. It is a sad tale of misery, defeat and depression. No Lions head coach in the Super Bowl era has gone on to another head coaching gig after leaving the Lions. Wayne Fontes is the most successful Lions coach based on number of games coached and games won. Lions fans rewarded him by giving him the nickname “Big Buck” and calling for his firing every January throughout his entire tenure. 

Star Players

The Lions have had two generational talents in the Super Bowl era, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. Both were exciting game breakers. Both are or will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And both were so disgusted with the organization that they retired prematurely and walked out on the team. After a brilliant 10-year career, on the eve of training camp in 1999 Barry Sanders faxed his announcement to the Wichita Eagle and boarded a plane to London. Calvin Johnson retired in 2016 after 9 amazing  seasons. He left 4 years and tens of millions of dollars on his contract to get the hell out of Detroit.


The Lions’ QB tradition is as bleak as a Detroit winter. Present starter Matthew Stafford is the best QB in the history of the Detroit Lions, and it isn’t even close. Stafford’s individual stats are impressive. He reached 30,000 passing yards in just 109 games, the fastest any QB has gotten to 30,000 yards since the merger of the AFL and NFL. His career QB rating is a respectable 88.4, which places him between Nick Foles and Carson Palmer. And that is the problem. Stafford has a reputation of padding his stats in losses and not being able to win big games. This reputation is 100% accurate.

Finding Ways to Lose

This is the most infuriating aspect of being a Lions fan. Every season, the Lions manage to find a unique way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The following is only a sample:

· 1970 – Lions lose to the New Orleans Saints on an NFL-record 63-yard field goal by Tom Dempsey, a kicker with only half a foot. The lost knocked the Lions out of a playoff spot.

· 2002 – Lions kicker Jason Hansen is injured during a game against the Jets. Lions 310-pound DE Ndomukong Suh is brought out to kick the extra point on a touchdown, that would have given the Lions an 11-point lead. Suh hits the upright. The Jets score a TD and FG to send the game to OT. Lions lose by a field goal

· 2002 – Lions head into overtime against the Bears, knotted at 17. Lions win the coin flip and decide to take field position rather than receive the ball. The Bears march down the field and Paul Edinger kicks a 40-yard field goal into the gale force wind to seal the win.

· 2008 – In the midst of their 0-16 season, Lions are actually putting up a fight against the Vikings. QB Dan Orlovsky is deep in his zone and runs for his life from DE Jared Allen. Orlovsky forgets about the thick white line defining the field of play and scampers out of the end zone, costing the Lions 2 points. Lions end up losing 12-10.

· 2010 – Calvin Johnson makes a great catch in the end zone with 24 seconds left to take the lead against the Bears. The referee initially calls it a touchdown, but after conferring with other officials, the call is overruled on the field because Johnson dropped the ball during the celebration before he “completed the process of the catch”. The catch is ruled a drop, and the Lions lose. The NFL changed the “Process of the Catch Rule” years later.

The worst thing about the pathetic Detroit Lions franchise? They play the Chargers on Sunday and I will be home watching every painful snap.

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