Okay, before we get started we have to share something with you…
While it’s widely known the Dallas Cowboys were the team of the 90’s, do you know who held a 3-1 record against them during the years 1991-1995??
When we use hyperbole in sports we always talk about a team as a sum greater than its parts. You find this to be true in all championship teams and in the near champions. When you look back its amazing how teams have seasons where all their stars have career years at the same time. Yet something happens to the psyche of a team when they come up short. All the parts are still there, things look the same, however they cant rekindle the feeling nor winning ways of that lost season. Enter the 1995 Detroit Lions
Have you ever heard of “The Curse of Bobby Layne?” He was the last quarterback to lead the Lions to the NFL championship and he did it 3 times in the Fabulous ’50s. Once he was an aging & injured player, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On his way out, the embattled future Hall of Famer quipped “The Lions won’t win for 50 years!” Well that was 1958.
Over the next 4 decades the franchise mired in mediocrity due to the fact they fell short constantly at quarterback. Only once in 1971 did the Lions have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Greg Landry since Layne’s departure. From 1957-1990 Detroit didn’t muster a single playoff win. Their teams toiled in anonymity with very few players of distinction during many of those years.
However with the ’89 NFL draft the Lions drafted Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders. The greatest running back in NFL history. With such a breathtaking runner dominating the marquee, the Lions could hand the ball off and let Sanders break ankles as he routinely rushed for 100 yard games. Great for highlights not so much for winning as Detroit began 2-9 in his rookie season. Then Sanders exploded for 28 car 145 yds and another 45 yds receiving in a 13-10 Thanksgiving Day win over Cleveland. At the time the Browns were a perennial playoff team in the middle of 3 trips to the AFC Championship Game in a 4 year period. Propelled by that performance the Lions finished 7-9 with a 5 game winning streak.
To capitalize on their remarkable runner they needed to improve on journeyman QB Bob Gagliano and improve the quality of the roster. In 1989, Rodney Peete was a rookie QB on the team yet the Lions inexplicably followed his selection by drafting another in Andre Ware the following year. Desperate to develop a quarterback they also brought in Erik Kramer in 1991. Coach Wayne Fontes never settled on a QB and played the hot hand at the time. This retarded the growth of all 3 as the Lions staggered through a 6-10 1990 and began 1991 with a 6-4 record.
Benny Blades, from The [[_]] was a defensive force
The team rallied through tragedy as they played on and dedicated the rest of the season to G Mike Utley who had been paralyzed against the Rams. Offering the same “thumbs up” as Utley gave when he was taken from the field on a gurney, the team rallied winning their last 6 to finish 12-4. Winners of the NFC Central, they hosted the Wildcard Dallas Cowboys and destroyed them 38-6.
They fell in the 1991 NFC Championship 41-10 to the eventual champion Washington Redskins. The reality was they had overachieved on emotion and were short on personnel. Aside from the incomparable Sanders, only T Lomas Brown on the offensive side of the ball, made the Pro Bowl in ’90 and ’91. The defense had 3 Pro Bowlers in SS Bennie Blades (The [[_]]), LB Chris Spielman, and NT Jerry Ball.
Over the next few years management grew increasingly frustrated with Coach Fontes inability to groom a quarterback. Especially with the emergence of Brett Favre with the division rival Packers. With the signing of DE Reggie White at the advent of Free Agency in ’92, they had become the preeminent team in the NFC Central. For good measure Favre started his playoff run as a face of the future with a ’93 wildcard win over Detroit 28-24.
Management blew up the 3 QB rotation of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, and Andre Ware by releasing them. They signed Scott Mitchell to a 3 year $11 million contract after he had admirably filled in for an injured Dan Marino in Miami. He was tall (6’6) could see over the line and seemingly make all the throws… matched with emerging wideout Herman Moore and a reliable #2 in Brett Perriman with Sanders in the mix?? They could be something. All were under 30 and hitting their prime. They had some growing pains that first year with Mitchell however veteran backup Dave Krieg had been brought in and 94 saw another wildcard birth.
Detroit showed flashes as they began slowly (again) mustering a 3-6 record precipitating management issuing an ultimatum to Coach Fontes. Anything less than the playoffs was unacceptable. The underlying tone was Fontes would be fired if they didn’t make the posteason. Rather than turn the game to Sanders as they had in years past, they kept honing their new 3 receiver approach… As for Sanders:
The ink was already drying where most sportswriters mentioned Scott Mitchell on the list of biggest free agent busts: Not so fast guys!! In their 0-3 start, Detroit scored a total of 47 points. The team emerged from the ownership ultimatum a focused group that roared back winning their final 7 games. In doing so, the Lions averaged 32 points per game and finished with the league’s #1 offense. Had they kept that scoring rate up for the whole season they could have challenged the NFL record for points. They still made NFL history though.
Herman Moore and Brett Perriman became the first teammates in NFL history to record over 100 receptions in the same season. Moore broke the NFL all time receptions record in a season with 123 for 1,686 yards and 14 TDs. Perriman (the [[_]]) emerged with 108 grabs for 1,488 yards and 9 touchdowns. This was the only time in league history where 2 receivers from the same team went over 1,400 yards receiving in the same season. Even 3rd receiver Johnny Morton got into the act with 44 rec. 590 yards & 8 scores.
The video already let you know Sanders ran for 1,500 yards & 11 touchdowns on just 314 carries. His 4.7 yards per carry was tops in the league. Why the remarkable turn-around?? Scott Mitchell!!
In a career year Mitchell bound all this talent together with a 4,000 yard season & a team record 32 touchdowns and should have made the Pro Bowl. The only reason he didn’t make the Pro Bowl was he was Scott Mitchell and not Troy Aikman (who did in ’95)… all about reputation:
- Scott Mitchell 346 of 583 4,338 yds 32 TDs 12 ints (2.6 TD to int. ratio)
- Troy Aikman 280 of 342 3,342 yds 16 TDs 7 ints (2.2 TD to int.ratio)
What argument could be made?? Well Aikman and the Cowboys were a running team. Wait a minute…didn’t Barry run for 1,500?? This team was flying into the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Mitchell had become the quarterback the franchise had been looking for since Bobby Layne. The curse had been lifted!! They had their eyes on those Dallas Cowboys who they believed they could beat. In 94′ they handed the back to back champion their first loss of the season 20-17 where Sanders blistered the #1 defense for 194 yards in Texas Stadium.
All they had to do was get through Philadelphia on Wildcard Weekend and they would travel to Dallas for the divisional round. There they could prove they were among the league’s elite.
With their eyes fixed on the Cowboys they forgot to close their mouth about the Eagles. In this case T Lomas Brown, who guaranteed a win in the Detroit newspapers which changed the temperament and the tone of the game. Right then “The Curse of Bobby Layne” and the ghosts of Detroit Lions past arose.
A raucous crowd awaited them in Philadelphia as the Lions were booed and taunted from the moment they got off the plane. Once inside the friendly confines of Veteran’s Stadium a fired up Philly defense attacked Scott Mitchell mercilessly. He was hit twice in the first drive and sacked by Mike Mamula. The Eagles taunted him and he disintegrated under the pressure. The cool confidence shown all season vanished as he threw 4 interceptions and was benched midway through the 3rd quarter. By then the score had swelled to 51-7 as a nationwide audience watched in disbelief.
How was this happening with an Eagle team with 1995’s 25th ranked offense?? The 4th ranked Philly defense did swarm Sanders holding him to 40 yards rushing but it was the curse. How else could you explain a team winning 58-37 after it had been outscored (318 for / 330 against) all season?? Remember when they gave up on the 3 quarterbacks and let go of Rodney Peete?? Well he just so happened to be playing for the Eagles…his 3rd team in 3 years.
In ’95 he was a backup and came in after Randall Cunningham had been benched and threw for 8 TDs v 14 interceptions. This is what plagued his Lions career. Well in this game he channeled his inner Bobby Layne and played flawless football. Going 17 of 25 for 270 yards 3 TDs and no picks. In fact with :02 left in the 1st half up 31-7, he completed a Hail Mary 43 yard pass to Rob Carpenter 38-7 at the half…ball game!!
No NFC playoff game from 1970 to this day has seen that many points…58?? Scott Mitchell the free agent savior with the #1 offense fell apart with 6 total interceptions while the QB they got rid of had a career game for the opponent?? The laughter of Bobby Layne’s ghost could be heard off in the distance.
That game was the turning point in Mitchell’s career as he never recovered. A poor ’96 where he threw for 17 TDs to 17 ints led to a 5-11 season as the offense plummeted to 20th and Head Coach Wayne Fontes was fired. Sanders rushed for 1,553 yards in 96 but they couldn’t rekindle the magic of their run the season before. The ’95 season was the statistical best as Mitchell, Herman Moore, and Brett Perriman all had the best year of their careers.
One month later they watched the Dallas Cowboys win their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years. In ’93 and ’94 they lost to Green Bay in the Wild Card just as they did to the Eagles in ’95. Each of those times they would have played Dallas in the playoffs and possibly altered football history. They had a 3-1 record over Dallas during those years and league wide respect beating them again in the playoffs was right there for the taking. However there is this curse lingering over this franchise…
By the way…still don’t believe in curses?? Guess what day present owner William Clay Ford’s bid was approved to buy the franchise?? Try November 22, 1963!! Folks I can’t make this stuff up!!
An aspect of not gaining closure on Sanders is the abandonment of the house he provided thrills in.
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