professional football team and one of five teams in the Central Division
of the National Football Conference (NFC) of the National Football
League (NFL). Under the league’s realignment plan, which will take
affect in 2002, the Lions will move into the North Division of the NFC.
The Lions play at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and wear
uniforms of blue, silver, and white.
The Lions built a dynasty during the 1950s, capturing four Western
Division crowns and three NFL titles from 1952 through 1957. (The Super
Bowl was not played until 1967.) During this time, running back John
Henry Johnson, quarterback Bobby Layne, and running back Doak Walker—all
future Hall of Fame members—starred under coaches Buddy Parker and
George Wilson. After many disappointing seasons from the early 1960s
through the 1980s, Detroit assembled strong teams during the 1990s,
reaching the playoffs four times from 1991 to 1995 under head coach
Wayne Fontes. Star running back Barry Sanders recorded nine consecutive
1000-yard seasons from 1989 to 1997.
The Detroit Lions franchise traces its origin to the Portsmouth
Spartans, a team based in Ohio that entered the NFL in 1930. In 1932 the
Spartans played in the league’s first postseason game, losing 9-0 to the
Chicago Bears. In 1934 the club was sold to radio station owner George
Richards, who moved the team to Detroit and renamed it the Lions.
In Detroit’s first season, quarterback Dutch Clark led the team in
rushing, passing, and scoring. The Lions shut out their first 7
opponents and surrendered a record-low average of 4.5 points per game
for the season, but they failed to qualify for the playoffs. In 1935 the
Lions earned their first NFL title, shutting out 3 of 12 regular-season
opponents and soundly defeating the New York Giants in the championship
game. Ernie Caddel was the team’s top runner and pass receiver.
In 1940 future United States Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a
running back, topped the league in rushing and also led the Lions in
passing and scoring, but Detroit remained near the bottom of their
division. Two years later the franchise lost all 11 games of the 1942
season and scored only 38 points for the year.
Detroit didn’t return to the postseason until 1952, when head coach
Buddy Parker steered the team to its first of two consecutive NFL
titles. Bobby Layne, a two-time NFL yardage champion, directed a Lions
offense that also starred Doak Walker. The club’s many defensive
standouts included safety Jack Christiansen, defensive back Yale Lary,
and linebacker Joe Schmidt. Lary also ranked among the league’s finest
punters. The Lions defeated the perennial Eastern Division powerhouse
Cleveland Browns in the championship games of 1952 and 1953.
Detroit won its third league championship in 1957 under first-year head
coach George Wilson. The veteran Layne was joined on offense by John
Henry Johnson. The Lions once again defeated Cleveland in the
championship game, routing the favored Browns by 45 points.
From 1958 to 1981 Detroit reached the postseason just once, in 1970.
Many players enjoyed individual success during the period, including
defensive backs Lem Barney and Dick “Night Train” Lane, tackle (and
future actor) Alex Karras, quarterback Greg Landry, linebacker Mike
Lucci, tight end Charlie Sanders, and wide receiver Pat Studstill. In
1975 the team moved into the Silverdome, the largest air-supported domed
structure in the world.
In 1980 the Lions enjoyed their first winning season in eight years.
Powering the offense was running back Billy Sims, who was named NFL
rookie of the year. Head coach Monte Clark steered Detroit into the
playoffs in 1982 and 1983. The team’s division title in 1983 was its
first in 26 years.
Head coach Wayne Fontes took the Lions to the postseason in 1991, as
Detroit won a franchise-record 12 games and played in its first NFC
Championship Game. Fontes won the NFL coach of the year award. Detroit’s
offense in the early and mid-1990s featured Barry Sanders, who won NFC
rushing titles in 1989, 1990, 1994, 1996, and 1997. Detroit made the
playoffs in 1993, 1994, and 1995 but lost in the first round each year.
After a poor 1996 season Fontes was replaced by former San Diego
Chargers head coach Bobby Ross.
The Detroit Lions have never played in the Super Bowl.
NFL History Guide