By Nathan Cheatham
This is what peak production looks like?
What group could be most Detroit Lions-esque? A head coach, known for instilling discipline in his players, gets caught driving drunk. A fiery new owner that is far more of a fan than a team leader.
A wide-receiver dying on field during a home game as Detroit attempted to rally late to defeat the Bears, stagnating the drive and stunning the fans. According to data from the Detroit Lions’ own website, this is the best football team Detroit has ever had – peak production for this team occurred during all of this.
The 1970 Detroit Lions fielded a feature running back with stats comparable to Barry Sanders, two “Hall of Fame” corners (Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau), and ranked second in the NFL in both points scored and allowed. Even Marvin Gaye had tried to join this team – they were the romantics of the franchise, fulfilling all the dreams that current fans could hope for.
They even shut out Green Bay twice, 40 to nothing during the first game of the season, and clinching the first NFL wild-card berth with a 20-0 season finale.
It’s a common conversation in Detroit Lions fandom to talk about the 1950s when the team had won their only three championships. Was this the best time to be a Lions fan because of those titles? Did our grandparents see it in the 50s, or our parents really see the greatest Lion in the 90s with Barry Sanders?
The franchise record confirms that the best 5 years to be a fan since the last NFL title was from 1969 to 1973. This was the most consistent time for the team, they hit their peak production, as they finished each season above or near .500.
If you follow the win-loss percentage over the history of the Lions franchise (not including as the Portsmouth Spartans) the team starts out strong. Starting in 1934 the Lions won almost 80% of their games during their opening season. The win percentage slips away from the team, including a 0-11 season in 1942, until the base line bottoms out in 1946 with only one win.
There is a gradual baseline curve, as the team improves through the decades. The outlying seasons are sparks of brilliance, but as their worst seasons improve the pinnacle is apparent in the late 70s. After that point, the baseline curve begins to fall until 2008 and the 16 game loss.
William Clay Ford takes control
Before this decline a few major events happened that shook up the franchise. On track to rebuild into another powerhouse team, William Clay Ford bought the franchise in 1964. Putting in motion the missteps in management that plagued the team until his death and possibly beyond, Ford stayed out of making player decisions, but hired his friends to run the team’s head office.
A long-time fan of the team, he used his new role to gain access to the players. In an article by the Detroit Free Press, Ford remembers taking groups of players to his private duck hunting cabin in Canada. He even allowed the players to pick out cars off his lot at the Ford Plant, prior to when being an NFL player meant a hefty paycheck, and Ford Motors even covered their insurance.
In 1967, former Detroit linebacker and assistant coach Joe Schmidt was hired to replace Harry Gilmer, and was tasked to instill discipline in a team rife with conflict. Schmidt later was crowned the “Greatest Lion Ever” in ’69 during the 50th anniversary of the NFL.
Schmidt was the coach the team needed at the time. He kept the players in check by establishing a curfew and trading away players who no longer wanted to be with the team. This wasn’t without a fight at times with the management installed by Ford. In an attempt to overhaul the quarterback position, Schmidt attempted a trade of Quarterback Jim Ninowski, but was blocked from doing so.
Helping the team into playoff contention in 1970, Schmidt’s Lions were the favorite to win the Super Bowl that year. The team was on an upward path, and with the right environment could have become one of the legendary teams of the NFL, but this was the Lions and their history was only beginning.
Losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the first NFL wildcard match, getting shut out and falling 5 to nothing after a defensive struggle relinquished a Cowboys’ field goal in the first quarter and a Lions’ safety in the fourth. This effectively ended their golden season, kindling a rivalry between the two teams that remains today.
The beginning of the end
Unable to bring his team back to the playoffs, Schmidt dealt with troubling circumstances that eventually led to his resignation, stating, ”coaching isn’t fun anymore.“
In ’71 after the team declined to a 7-6-1 record, wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed on field during a home game against the Bears, eventually being pronounced dead before the end of the game at Henry Ford Hospital. In front of a stunned crowd, the team could not fend off the Bears.
The final straw for Schmidt came during the next season, after Ford unleashed a tirade of criticism against the players for not making the playoffs for a second straight year. The era of this team being at peak production had ended.
Schmidt was one of the teams few coaches with a winning record, marking 43 wins, 35 losses, and seven tied. Starting his football career with the lions as a player, and ending his time in the NFL as their coach, Schmidt retired and left the business.
This may have been the best the Lions could give to their fans, giving them the most consistent home town experience since the beginning of the franchise. From ’69 to ’78 the team won over 50% of their home games, a fan was most likely to see their team win when they bought a ticket to see them at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
The data does show that we are currently seeing another upward baseline curve, almost as sharp as the one that led to the ’50s championships. Though Schmidt and his 1970 Lions are an understated, even forgotten legend, maybe our best years are still ahead of us. We are left wondering, can Bob Quinn bring this team back to peak production?