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Changes to the NFL over the last 100 years – What if some never happened

There have been a lot of changes to the NFL over the last 100 years. Many of these changes have shaped the NFL into the game millions of fans love to watch every week. Looking at the infographic provided to us from Betway (Check it out at the bottom of this article!) has us thinking about the many changes that have happened over the years to the Detroit Lions – or rather, what would happen if certain changes did NOT happen.

What if?

What if Tom Dempsey didn’t kick the most ridiculously amazing field goal in history? (1970)

This is only ranked #10 because, in the end, I don’t believe this game impacted the season tremendously. Nevertheless, the story is amazing. The Lions are 5-2, midway through a playoff season, facing the 1-5-1 New Orleans Saints on the road. With 11 seconds left, an Errol Mann field goal puts the Lions ahead 17-16. However, the Saints return the ensuing kickoff to the 28, then complete a pass to get out of bounds at their own 45 with two seconds left. The game is basically over. Nothing left but formalities.

That is, until Tom Dempsey – a man born with half a foot yet somehow chose field goal kicking for a profession, a man who was 22-41 his rookie year and 5-15 that season until that point, a man who apparently wasn’t told the NFL record was only 56 yards – lined up for an impossible 63-yard attempt (the uprights were on the goal line in those days). Interestingly, the holder actually moved back a yard to allow Dempsey clearance for a lower trajectory. It didn’t even matter. The Lions naturally assumed the game was over and didn’t even attempt to block it (classic Lions, right?). They just watched Dempsey connect, heard the thud of his foot pulverizing the ball, and probably stood awestruck as it sailed magnificently through the uprights. Then they retreated to the locker room, dumbfounded, as pandemonium ensued in New Orleans.

Rewriting History

Dempsey misses and the Lions win the game. The extra win doesn’t change much, however. The Lions roll on to an 11-3 record, but the Vikings won the division at 12-2. The Lions still claim the wild card, still play the Cowboys in the “Cotton Bowl”, and still lose 5-0. And, the world is robbed of this incredible story of a half-footed kicker shattering the NFL record.

What if the Lions drafted Andre Johnson instead of Charles Rogers? (2003)

In the 2003 NFL Draft, the Lions had the second overall pick and were looking to pair young quarterback Joey Harrington with a dynamic receiver to build an offense around. The choice was between Miami Hurricane phenom and Rose Bowl co-MVP Andre Johnson and hometown hero Charles Rogers of Michigan State. Of course, they chose Rogers. Rogers broke his clavicle after five games, then broke it again during the next year’s opener. He was unable to overcome this misfortune.

In his infinite wisdom, Matt Millen granted Rogers permission to go home (all the way to Saginaw) for the remainder of the season, away from his teammates and training staff. Back home with his buddies and millions of dollars, the man who consistently failed drug tests throughout college predictably decided to self-medicate. After three failed drug tests, he was suspended four games and never got his career back on track.

Rewriting History

The Lions take Johnson, who plays his seven Pro Bowl seasons in Detroit rather than Houston. Developing chemistry with an elite receiver, Joey Harrington blossoms as a quarterback and reaches the potential the Lions envisioned when they drafted him with the third overall pick. Andre Johnson alone doesn’t turn a perennial five-win team into contenders, but they’re better. Harrington is better and lasts longer. 0-16 never happens.

What if Paul Edinger missed the field goal (or Charlie Batch didn’t get hurt)? (2000)

On Christmas Eve in 2000, the Lions were fighting through their second season, post-Barry Sanders. After a loss to Miami dropped the Lions to 5-4, head coach Bobby Ross abruptly resigned, tired of the team’s lackluster effort. But the Lions didn’t collapse. Gary Moeller took over and they improved to 9-6, heading into the final game in great playoff position. All that stood in their way was the lowly Chicago Bears (4-11), and the Lions would face them at home. However, the Bears played tough and knocked Charlie Batch out of the game. Jason Hanson tied the game with a 26-yard field goal with 2 minutes left, but Chicago answered. They marched into field goal range, Paul Edinger booted a 54-yarder in the final seconds, and our season came to end.

Rewriting History

Edinger misses and the Lions win in OT. We clinch the #5 seed and travel to Philadelphia. Considering the Lions were pretty good on the road and had already faced much adversity, it isn’t hard to imagine playing the Eagles tough to edge out the win (assuming Batch is healthy). Of course in the next round, the Giants defeat the Lions en route to the Super Bowl (trying to be somewhat realistic here). Nevertheless, a playoff victory is enough to convince new GM Matt Millen into keeping Gary Moeller around, rather than replacing him with another newcomer (Marty Mornhinweg).

What if the Lions hired somebody (anybody!) other than Matt Millen (2001)

Matt Millen was a retired Pro Bowl linebacker providing broadcast analysis for Fox. Evidently, a very impressive analysis (perhaps the time he accidentally got high with Boomer Esiason before a broadcast) led the Fords to deem him fit to take over the Lions as CEO and GM (second-highest paid executive in the league, I might add).

He was in over his head. Millen went on to commit a veritable litany of mistakes, most famously in the draft. You would imagine a former linebacker would appreciate the value of a strong defense and offensive line, yet he continued to shoot for talented receivers that didn’t pan out (hilariously, his own son punched him upon learning he got talked into passing on DeMarcus Ware in favor of Mike Williams). He was also responsible for Joey Harrington (arguably more a victim of the team than vice versa).

Most telling is his overall record, an abysmal 31-81, including the infamous 0-16 year. Eventually, the Lions became a national laughingstock and the entire city turned on him before the Fords finally decided to let him go. Although he still appears on Fox from time to time, he is considered one of the most inept front office executives in the history of sports.

Rewriting history

Perhaps the Lions convince Bill Parcells out of his brief retirement. Perhaps they jump on Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli the year prior. Perhaps Mickey Loomis, not yet the Saints GM, could be lured to Detroit. It’s unlikely any of these guys take the job, but they can hire a sea slug and it’ll at least draft DeMarcus Ware.

What if Yancey Thigpen didn’t commit one of the most inexcusable drops ever? (1995)

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen had Christmas spirit in 1995. So much that on Christmas Eve, he single-handedly gave Green Bay the best gift imaginable: the NFC Central. In a critical game that would determine playoff seeding and the NFC Central Division, the normally sure-handed Thigpen dropped an easy touchdown in the final seconds. Despite the loss, Pittsburgh won the division, secured a bye, and went on to the Super Bowl, so Steelers fans probably don’t still hold a grudge. But Lions fans do. This egregious drop handed the NFC Central to the Packers and sent the Lions to a road wild-card game in Philadelphia, where they were trounced, 58-37.

Rewriting history

Thigpen catches the easy touchdown for the win. Detroit wins the division, earns the #3-seed, and hosts the Atlanta Falcons at the Pontiac Silverdome. Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Lions get revenge for an earlier loss and then travel to San Francisco. The 49ers come out flat (as they actually did against the Packers) and the Lions advance to the NFC Championship where they probably lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys (but who knows?). Regardless, the season is a success and positive momentum carries us into 1996.

What if Wayne Fontes wasn’t made into a scapegoat? (1997)

Despite four playoff appearances over six years, the Lions were unable to make much noise. As a result, they fired head coach Wayne Fontes. Although by most accounts he was well-liked and respected in the locker room (most notably by Barry Sanders), over his eight years Fontes accumulated a career losing record and the most losses in franchise history. Many fans deemed the star-studded Lions to be on the brink of greatness and believed Fontes was holding them back.

Rewriting history

The Lions retain Fontes for the 1997 season. With Barry Sanders at the peak of his career, the offense clicks in a familiar system. The Lions go 10-6 and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs before losing at Lambeau. Importantly, Barry Sanders continues to enjoy playing for his favorite coach.

What if the Lions drafted Randy Moss? (1998)

With a 20th pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions selected Terry Fair. The next player took: a talented but troubled receiver out of Marshall named Randy Moss. With Minnesota, Moss kicked off his illustrious career with 1,313 receiving yards, a rookie-record 17 TDs, and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, earning a spot as a Pro Bowl starter. The Vikings went 15-1 with Randy and the #1-ranked offense in football. Meanwhile, the Lions regressed to 5-11 and Barry Sanders lost his passion for the game.

Rewriting history

The Lions take a chance on Moss, who was projected as a high first-rounder but slipped due to off-field incidents. Moss transforms the offense, joining Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton to form the most dangerous receiving corps in the league. With all these weapons, plus Barry Sanders, rookie QB Charlie Batch has a breakout season. The offense explodes, the Lions go 11-5, host (and win) a playoff game, and an inspired Barry Sanders gears up for another year. Which leads us to…

What if Barry Sanders played two more years? (1999)

Just before the 1999 season, Barry Sanders shocked the world with his sudden and unexpected retirement at age 33. Over the years, there has been much speculation as to the cause. He grew tired of the losing culture. He was dismayed when management released his good friend, Pro Bowl center Kevin Glover. He certainly believed Wayne Fontes deserved another chance (and said as much in his autobiography) and was reluctant to deal with yet another new quarterback in Charlie Batch.

Rewriting history

Maybe they kept Fontes. Maybe they drafted Moss. Maybe Sanders acquired a crippling gambling addiction and can’t afford early retirement. Whatever the reason, Barry stays just a couple more years. In 1999, Barry Sanders gains the necessary 1,457 yards to establish himself as the all-time rushing leader. Instead of losing the last four games, the Lions finish the season strong and earn a first-round bye. They advance to the conference championship, where they lose to the St. Louis Rams. The following year, the Lions strengthen the defense and take the next step: the franchise’s first Super Bowl. Barry Sanders takes on Ray Lewis in one of the greatest matchups in the history of football. Barry retires on top with a rushing record that will never be eclipsed. And best of all, the Lions never hire Matt Millen.

What if Ralph Wilson outbid William Clay Ford for the team? (1963)

On November 22, 1963, the same day JFK was assassinated, William Clay Ford bought the Lions for $4.5 million (today’s value: $45 million). Over the years, Ford was known to have excellent character. His love for the team and loyalty to his employees was never in question. However, this never translated to success on the field.

In the 49 seasons until his death in 2014, the Lions had only ten playoff appearances, one playoff win, and have never made a Super Bowl. Unlike some other NFL owners like Jerry Jones and Al Davis, Ford never interfered with the team’s operations. While this could be considered a positive trait, he was ultimately responsible for numerous questionable hires over the decade. His kindness and loyalty were, in a way, his greatest weaknesses.

A perfect example was when he gave Matt Millen a five-year extension in 2005 and actually made him the second-highest paid executive in the NFL. Furthermore, he continued resisting the “Fire Millen” movement long after it had become obvious and inevitable to the entire fan base (his son Bill was really the one who finally championed Millen’s departure). He was unable to make the necessary difficult decisions to fire men he considered to be friends. He was the ultimate example of a great man, but a terrible leader.

Rewriting history

Ralph Wilson, a minority owner at the time, outbids Ford for the team. Instead of founding the Buffalo Bills, Wilson spends the next 51 years at the helm of the Detroit Lions. Success probably measures similar to Buffalo – 17 playoff appearances, 10 division championships, and four consecutive Super Bowl defeats. Come to think of it, would we really rather be the Buffalo Bills?

What if The Lions never traded Bobby Layne? (1958)

Bobby Layne is hands-down the greatest quarterback in Lions history. He led the team to back-to-back NFL Championships in 1952 and 1953 and came one game from a three-peat in 1954. Layne broke his leg during the 1957 season, and his backup Tobin Rote delivered another title. After that, the Lions traded Layne to Pittsburgh. Allegedly, an infuriated Layne declared that the Lions would not win for the next 50 years. Regardless of whether this is actually true, perhaps some element of negative karma has been at play for the past half-century.

Rewriting history

Bobby Layne plays five more seasons and completes his illustrious career as a Lion. Instead of slipping into mediocrity in the early ’60s, the Lions win three more championships and become one of the most dominant dynasties in sports. The team of minority owners rides this wave of success and William Clay Ford never buys the team. Detroit fosters a culture of winning that delivers the first Super Bowl in 1966. The Lions become a storied franchise, sustaining success as one of those teams that kids across the country dream to play for. Meanwhile, without Super Bowls, the people of Green Bay neglect football in favor of more familiar sports like curling and ice fishing. The Packers move to Los Angeles in the ’70s, and the world is a better place.


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