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Playoff Football Returns to Detroit for the First Time in 30 Years. Those Closest to the Lions Are Stoked—and Wary.

After three decades of heartbreak, the Lions are set to host a playoff game and have higher hopes than ever. Will this time be different?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In January 2023, Ben Johnson was days away from becoming an NFL head coach. His one season as the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator had so impressed the league that he had three coaching interviews already done: Carolina, Houston, and Indianapolis. The Asheville, North Carolina, native was scheduled to fly to Charlotte for a second, in-person interview with the Panthers.

That’s the pinnacle for a football coach: running an NFL team. But when Johnson found himself on the doorstep of the dream, he turned around. He withdrew his name from consideration for any head-coaching jobs and returned to the Lions as their offensive coordinator.

On the team’s podcast in February, Johnson explained why. He said everything you’d expect. He referenced the Lions leadership—head coach Dan Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes, owner Sheila Ford Hamp—their momentum, and their direction, the best he’d seen in his four years with the team. And then he recalled a Garth Brooks concert.

It was held at Ford Field in February 2020, when Johnson was still just one year into his Lions tenure. The place—as places usually are when Garth Brooks is performing—was rocking. Johnson recalls sitting in the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere. “And it was like … holy cow. This is what a home playoff game is gonna be like,” he said. Johnson smiled despite himself, the emotions bubbling back to the surface. “And it made me feel some type of way.”

“This is what a home playoff game is gonna be like” is a bold prediction. The Lions’ last home playoff game was on January 8, 1994, at the end of the 1993 NFL season. When Johnson returned to the Lions, committed to hearing a home playoff crowd, that home playoff game drought was the longest such streak in the league. It was so long that Ford Field itself has never felt a playoff atmosphere—the last Detroit playoff game was held in the Pontiac Silverdome.

One year later, Johnson got what he wished for. On Sunday, Lions fans will fill Ford Field for a playoff game for the first time.

For some, the conclusion of the drought brings a life of football into clarity. Consider the old guard, as Campbell called them when he brought them before the team following the division-clinching win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16: offensive linemen Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Graham Glasgow; and special teamers Tracy Walker, Romeo Okwara, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, all Lions from before Campbell became the head coach. The division win validates their years spent dwelling in the cellar. “I’m glad that I wanted to be a part of this,” Decker, the longest-tenured Lion, at eight years, told me this week. “See it through, stick it out. Take the hard route and not quit.” It was Decker, with tear-filled eyes, who broke the team down in that locker room, saying, “This has been a long f---ing time coming. And it feels f---ing good.”

These are the words of a beleaguered veteran, a sailor long at sea. But for the Lion cubs, like rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, the drought’s conclusion is merely that: the ending of the streak—a moment in time. “My perception of it just doesn’t really click, you know?” LaPorta said after the Vikings game. “I was born in 2001, so I’ve [only] been on this earth 22 years.” LaPorta, like 49 of the 53 Lions on the roster, was not alive the last time the Lions hosted a playoff game; as a rookie, this may feel good, but it has not been a long time coming.

“We don’t carry the weight of the last 30 years here. It’s the 2023 Lions, and we’re different than last year’s team and the year before and 30 years before that,” quarterback Jared Goff said in December, and he’s right. But Goff’s been to the playoffs in four of his eight seasons; he experienced a team metamorphosis in his short time with the Rams. Collectively, these Lions may not carry the weight of all 30 years, but Decker carries his eight; Ragnow, who admitted to crying more on the day the Lions won the division than on any other day in his career, carries his six years. You cannot be this bad for this long and not feel it.

Thirty years should dull the experience, but they haven’t—not for anyone I’ve talked to about the Lions. Do you remember the Thanksgiving Day game against the Texans at the end of the Matt Patricia era? It was a 41-25 shellacking that ended with a viral photo of Hamp’s head buried in her hands. Mike O’Hara remembers it. He’s been on the Lions beat since 1977, and as he walks me through decades of Lions despair like an archaeologist on a dig, more memories pop up for him. There was the five-game winning streak to start the 2011 season, culminating with a Monday night win against the visiting Chicago Bears. Belief soared. Matthew Stafford had recovered from his injury; Jim Schwartz had fixed the defense. The Lions went 5-6 down the stretch and lost in the wild-card round; two years later, they started 6-3 … and ended the season going 1-6. The Lions faithful were okey-doked again.

“They were just a bunch of guys who went out and played a game on Sunday and had nothing to do with the fans,” O’Hara recalls of the bleakest times in Detroit football—stretches of Patricia, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli. “You didn’t see kids wearing Lions jerseys.”

I expected someone to bring up the 0-16 season from 2008—but nobody has. That, from the outside looking in, should be the most embarrassing thing about being a Lions fan. Craig Gaines, the copy chief here at The Ringer and a Lansing native, doesn’t even lament it: “If you go 1-15 or 2-14, it actually sounds kind of pathetic. At least 0-16 has some sort of poetic roundness to it.” Instead, for a “nugget of [the Lions’] absolute futility,” Gaines remembers a 2002 overtime game against the Bears in which head coach Marty Mornhinweg won the toss and elected to kick the football—the Bears immediately scored, and the Lions lost.

How about the end of that 1993 wild-card game? A game-winning moon ball from Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe in the back of the end zone. That particular moment is recalled not by any source, but by the flooring specialist who was in my Grand Rapids house this week giving me an estimate on my office hardwood. He asked what I did for work, and once I told him, he was recalling that game-winning throw, watching the Devin Hester punt return touchdown in 2011 with his son.

To the outsider, these stories coalesce, blend together, a monotony of suck. Bad things happened to the bad team. “Same old Lions,” you may have muttered. But the experience in the trenches is different from the bird’s-eye view. As each blow lands, it doesn’t make the next one land any softer, nor does it lessen the memory of the past one. Hopes and beliefs are dashed against the stones, over and over and over again: 482 Lions games spread over 10,950 days of living and dying with Detroit football. It’s been rough. And that’s why everyone who’s been close to the Lions remembers a different indignity, a different embarrassment. Over 30 years, a lot has happened. Everyone remembers the blows differently.

“We’ve been kicked,” Lomas Brown, the Lions’ star left tackle from the late ’80s through the early ’90s and a current radio color commentator of the team, told me. “Think about how Lions fans have been kicked. We just got kicked Saturday by the referees [on the Dan Skipper–Taylor Decker eligibility fiasco]. We got kicked with Calvin Johnson with the catch; we got a new rule for that. … We were at Jerry’s World years ago for a playoff game, and they picked the flag up on an obvious pass interference call. … You can go back to the Seattle game when they said that we pushed a guy out of the end zone! It seems like every time we turn around, we’re being kicked.”

While Lions fans may remember the blows differently, the unifying reality is that they were kicked. Kicked so many times, in myriad ways, that they know another hit is coming—they just don’t know where from. “You do get jaded,” Brown continues. “You just kind of sit there, and you anticipate something bad is going to happen. Something bad has to happen.”

Goff may not be carrying 30 years. Detroit, as a community, is. The certainty that disappointment lurks just around the corner drags it down, and rightful optimism is robbed by that weight. I can’t get a Lions fan to admit to being excited about the team—not without a caveat or two. Gaines insists that he’ll keep the team “at arm’s length” until it actually has some postseason success; I ask O’Hara whether he thinks the team can repeat as division champs next year, and he’s quick to tell me that Minnesota was 13-4 last season. Fans love Campbell so much, dropping kneecap references like it’s 2021, but they’ve loved before and lost before, and they’re still trying to figure out how Campbell’s Lions will betray them, just like all the Lions teams before them have. Suspicion taints the enthusiasm.

The pins are aligned for the exorcism of these demons. For years, Detroit believed that Stafford would play in Ford Field’s inaugural playoff game—and they were right. They were just wrong about the jersey he’d be wearing.

Stafford is the personification of missed opportunities in Detroit. Three times Detroit went to the playoffs with Stafford at the helm; three times it was eliminated in the wild-card round. Wayne Fontes, the head coach of the ’90s Lions teams that got close to a Super Bowl appearance, said in 2017 that his team would have won “four or five” Super Bowls if it had a quarterback like Stafford. (“The only thing we were missing in the ’90s was a trigger man,” Brown tells me, in the way that only football guys from the ’90s can.)

Stafford’s long but ultimately fruitless tenure with the Lions began just as star wide receiver Calvin Johnson was hitting his peak, but Johnson’s career would come to an end when he was just 30 and finish just as fruitless as Stafford’s. This, of course, was long after legendary running back Barry Sanders’s long and fruitless tenure with the Lions had ended. Just as you can measure those 30 years in heartbreaking moments, you can measure them in the star players who should have made memorable playoff runs.

The Lions’ lone playoff win since 1957 (you know, the year humanity launched Sputnik and invented Bubble Wrap) came in 1992, against the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions won 38-6, their victory punctuated by a 47-yard Sanders run in which half of the Cowboys defense had him dead to rights. That’s how stars are supposed to be remembered—by postseason sensations. Not by all the seasons they went without a chance to create them.

Accordingly, Stafford’s remembrance in Detroit is analogous to how the fans interfaced with the team for all those years. He’s remembered for his endurance, his long-suffering. O’Hara recalls the final weeks of the Stafford era, when everyone knew his time with Detroit was coming to an end: “Somebody asked Stafford why he continued to play, and he said, ‘Because I’m the quarterback of the Detroit Lions. And it was Sunday.’”

Stafford gave that quote following a big Week 15 loss, in a dead season, while dealing with injury. “I’ve got a bunch of teammates out there that work their ass off. … I feel like I owe it to those guys. I owe it to the game. I owe it to this organization—everybody.”

If you didn’t have a name with it, you could swear it was a young Dan Campbell talking.

In Stafford, Lions fans saw themselves. None of the failures stopped Stafford from stepping back up to the plate, strapping his pads on, and taking another hit; nor did it stop them from schlepping through downtown, filling the seats of Ford Field, and taking another (more metaphorical) hit. When Stafford left for Los Angeles three seasons ago, they were cheering him on his way out. Now he’ll be back at Ford Field for the first time since, and Lions fans will have a chance to cheer him on his way back in.

“I think they’ll boo the s--- out of him,” Decker says, then considers, “in a kind of lovingly way.”

Whether it cheers or boos him when he runs out of the tunnel, the Ford Field crowd will boo him for all 60 minutes of the game. The fans know how a playoff win for Detroit would feel—the second win of the past 67 years—and they’ll do their part to achieve it. But a win over the Rams wouldn’t just be a playoff win: It would be a win over that previous era of Lions football that is embodied by Stafford. With that playoff win—and with, perhaps, another (and even, perhaps, more on top of that)—the kicks of the past 30 years will start to fade. Not gone, not forgotten, and not entirely healed. But no longer raw. These Lions really won’t be the Lions of last year and the 30 years before, as Goff promised. Not just because they won in the postseason, but because of the particular teams they beat and the bugbear those teams represented.

Since all the Lions fans are thinking it, I’ll just say it: Or they’ll lose to the Rams, and their 32-year streak without a playoff win—the longest active streak in the league—will continue. They will be 0-10 in their past 10 playoff games; their nine-loss streak is already an NFL record. Things will stay exactly as they’ve always been in Detroit.

But believe. Just believe, for one second. Do it as a thought exercise or as a joke. Believe that these Lions are different. They already are—they are the lone Lions teams to win the division since 1993. They’re capable of breaking streaks, of reversing destiny. Why would they stop now? Believe that Goff is different, matured, hardened by the postseason losses he’s suffered. Believe that Decker and Ragnow are different, galvanized by that first morsel of success they’ve long been waiting to taste. Believe that LaPorta and Jahmyr Gibbs and Brian Branch and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams and Aidan Hutchinson are different, because they are; they’ve never been here before. They are new, fresh, hungry, opportunistic. The old Lions were the nail; these are the hammer. The old Lions were on the road; these are at home.

Playoff football comes to Detroit on Sunday for the first time in a long time. Last week, I asked Ben Johnson what it felt like to know that he got exactly what he wanted: a home playoff environment in Ford Field. He smiled despite himself again as anticipation inched closer to reality. “I’m fired up,” he said. “I’m fired up.”