In 1991, the Detroit Lions gave us a fall to remember.
Time plays a funny trick on everyone, but especially those of us older than 40. It makes key moments in our lives feel like they happened yesterday, no matter how long ago they actually occurred
For example, 1991 was 32 years ago, but it might as well have been last week. I was 10 years old, and heading into 4th grade in the fall. The Detroit Tigers were competitive in the AL East, but they couldn’t hold off the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pistons were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Bulls. And Detroit Lions fans watched with anxiety as four players started camp with contract disputes.
All-Pro tackle Lomas Brown, Barry Sanders, linebacker Mike Cofer and tackle Harvey Salem were holding out. Brown ended the lockout first, after 10 days, when he and the Lions came to a deal. Sanders held out of training camp for 33 days. It wasn’t just Lions fans who were frustrated with their players holding out. Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien held out for 10 days. He was coming into the season as the league’s lowest paid quarterback. But more on Rypien and the damn Redskins later.
The Lions were coming off a 6-10 season in 1990. While they were among the top five scoring offenses in the league, their defense was ranked near the bottom. The two coaches who played a big role in the Lions Run N’ Shoot offense, Offensive Coordinator Mouse Davis and June Jones, left. Jones took off to Atlanta and went on to a pretty successful career. When Davis left to Atlanta as well, he said that Wayne Fontes was planning to switch to a tight-end heavy offense, and gave one hell of a quote.
“Fontes said: You can stay if you want to, but that would be kinda ridiculous,” Davis said. “So I wished him well, and away we go.”
Give the ball to Barry more
The goal for Fontes was simple: Get Barry Sanders involved in the offense more. Never mind the fact that Sanders led the league in rushing in 1990, with 1,304 yards. Fontes also made it clear early on in camp that the Lions had a definite number one starting quarterback in Rodney Peete. But in those days Lions fans knew better. Whether it was an injury, or because of poor performance, they were bound to see multiple starts from a backup. Eric Hipple started 15 games in 1985, but it would be a full decade — Scott Mitchell in 1995 — before Lions fans would see one QB start every game again.
Saturday and Sunday gridiron glory
Detroit’s first game of the season was a 45-0 loss to the Redskins. But the offense quickly recovered. Peete went 6-2 as the team’s starter, but what stands out to me still was Sanders’ running. We never missed the game in our wood paneled basement as Barry was breaking ankles left and right. In his first start in Week 2 against the Packers, he only rushed for 42 yards. But then he went off for four straight 100-yard games, including two against the Colts and the Bucs in which he rushed for over 150 yards.
The Lions were 6-2 and Michigan was 6-1. As a fan of both the Lions and Wolverines, I couldn’t ask for much more. Then Peete went down for the season with an Achilles injury. I had no clue who Erik Kramer was when he stepped onto Solider Field against the Bears. It was his first NFL start since October 18, 1987.
The Lions hit a rough patch in the middle of the season, losing three out of four games. However, they were able to bounce back and win their last four games, securing a first-round bye in the playoffs. Sanders finished the season with 1,548 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, earning him the NFL rushing title and his second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
The Lions pre-Grit vibe
I will never forget the day. My mother, who was working at Detroit Metro Airport for a company that catered plane food, had her holiday party on the Sunday the Lions hosted the Cowboys. The game was on the radio in the shuttle bus where we parked, and on TV during the party. You could see Lions fans going insane at the Silverdome. Everyone at the party was glued to the screen. The whole vibe of knowing every Lions fan was watching was something I didn’t experience again until the finale against Green Bay this year.
In the NFC championship the Redskins destroyed the illusion the Lions could reach the Super Bowl. They were ready for Sanders. I was upset. I couldn’t believe the Lions lost to a team with fans wore pig masks and dressed up like jackasses. But then again, I didn’t know then how much of a powerhouse Joe Gibbs turned the Redskins into.
We all remember that season differently, but for me it was the first time I saw a Lions player in Sanders do divine things. There are other moments I witnessed as a young fan, like Isiah Thomas scoring 25 points on a bad ankle in the third quarter of Game 6 in the 1988 NBA Finals. Or Alan Trammell’s month of September in 1987, in which he hit .417/.481/.673 (47-for-113) and put the Tigers on his back en route to an AL East crowd.
Adjust the old antenna
But today, as we await the NFC and AFC championships, I reminisce. The way the Lions ended their season, the impassioned energy from fans, and seeing a foundation form in front of our eyes. It all gave me flashbacks to that 1991 season.
It’s a season that means more than just being the last time Detroit won a playoff game. No, folks, for myself, it was a time where my brothers and sister would hang out in the basement on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, bonding over sports while eating toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a cold glass of milk with Quik. No cable then, just the Red Wings and Pistons on Channel 50, the Tigers on Channel 4 and the Detroit Lions on CBS, Channel 2. Lastly, if it wasn’t Michigan football on ABC, this filled the time on Saturday afternoons.
Follow Rogelio Castillo on Twitter @rogcastbaseball