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The 2008 Lions Mastered Tanking Before It Was Cool

How much has the meaning of 0-16 changed in 10 years?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In football years, one decade might as well be a century. Ten years ago, the wildcat ripped the league in half, Aaron Rodgers made his first start for the Packers, Brett Favre played 16 games for the Jets, the Patriots missed the playoffs, and most shocking of all, Jeff Fisher coached a team that won—you’re really not gonna believe this—13 whole games. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going. So, to better understand what’s ahead in 2018, we’re spending this week looking back on what happened 10 years before. Welcome to 2008 Week!

The 2008 Lions lost a lot more than 16 games.

Head coach Rod Marinelli lost his dignity when dealing with the media. After Detroit’s first 10 losses, Marinelli hit a reporter with an “I’m not 0-10! You’re 0-10!” which, as it turns out, was false. After the 13th loss, Marinelli said “I believe in the invisible”—a beautiful sentiment, but a bad defensive strategy, as evidenced by this video of invisible players failing to tackle then-Titans star Chris Johnson during a 47-10 loss to Tennessee. After the 14th loss, a Detroit News columnist asked the coach about his defensive coordinator and son-in-law, Joe Barry: “Do you wish your daughter would have married a better defensive coordinator?” The writer later resigned—the Lions’ only win of the year—because everybody agreed the question was wildly inappropriate. I gotta admit, though: great zing.

Center Dominic Raiola lost $7,500 after being fined for giving the middle finger to fans. He expressed no remorse for the incident that happened in a 20-16 home loss to the Vikings, telling reporters that his lone regret was that he wished he could invite fans to his house to physically fight him. Raiola’s reasoning for not doing so was he thought they might show up with guns. “Nobody plays with fists,” he lamented. “Everybody wants to play with metal.”

Quarterback Dan Orlovsky lost track of where he was on the field, famously dropping back out of the end zone in a 12-10 loss at Minnesota. It’s tragic, really—the Lions got blown out over and over again in 2008, and the one time they lost by two points, their quarterback committed an own safety. Even though he played for nine seasons after this embarrassing moment, Orlovsky lost the ability to be known for anything else; when he retired last October, the headline read: “Dan Orlovsky, Known for Taking Safety While Chased by Jared Allen, Retires.” “It’s a forever thing for me,” Orlovsky told the Detroit Free Press in December.

Detroit lost its three-hour Sunday break from one of the bleakest periods in city history. Longtime Lions writer Tom Kowalski even compared the football team unfavorably to everything else that was going on in 2008: “Politicians have been imprisoned before,” he wrote, “and there’s nothing unique about companies going belly-up in a bad economy. What the Lions accomplished … never before has been done and forever will link them in discussions of ‘worst ever.’”

And, of course, almost everyone associated with this mess eventually lost their jobs. Team president Matt Millen was fired that September. Marinelli was fired in December. Twelve of the 45 players who started a game for the 2008 Lions never played another snap in the NFL, including five (left guard Edwin Mulitalo, defensive end Jared DeVries, linebacker Ryan Nece, safety Daniel Bullocks, and cornerback Brian Kelly) who started more than half of the team’s games. The awful 2008 campaign did create some jobs, though: The Lions redesigned their logo and uniforms before the 2009 season in an effort to put 0-16 in their past forever.

In 2017 the Browns went 0-16, matching the 2008 Lions as the second NFL team to go winless during a 16-game season. Yet there were no reports of locker-room revolt; no threats of player-on-fan violence; no quips that the Browns were worse than corrupt politicians or failing industries. Instead, the team got a parade.

Sure, the Browns’ 0-16 parade wasn’t a celebration of the team, but rather of their fans’ resilience. But in a sports world that has grown increasingly comfortable with tanking, there is now genuine excitement surrounding Cleveland’s future. Heck, the 2018 Browns will appear on HBO’s Hard Knocks. If the Lions’ 0-16 season would’ve happened a decade later, some might have appreciated its Honolulu blue–and-silver lining.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions
Dan Orlovsky
Harry How/Getty Images

The biggest problem with the 2008 Lions is that they were expected to be good. After going 3-13 in Marinelli’s debut season at the helm in 2006, Detroit opened 6-2 in 2007. Those Lions collapsed down the stretch to finish 7-9, but appeared to be on an upward franchise trajectory. The team even went 4-0 during the 2008 preseason, a permanent argument against paying attention to teams’ preseason records.

Within the first few weeks of that regular season, however, it became clear that any such trajectory was gone. The Lions canned Millen following an 0-3 start. After dropping to 0-5, Detroit traded wide receiver Roy Williams for three Cowboys draft picks, including a 2009 first-rounder, and placed quarterback Jon Kitna on the injured reserve … even though Kitna said he was still physically capable of playing, and that the team was using this “injury” to provide cover for the quarterback switch they wanted to make. By dumping a star for future assets and treating the starting QB like the old man who didn’t have the plague in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Lions essentially punted on the season.

The quarterback situation is retroactively blamed for the 2008 team’s historic failure. Then-Lions assistant coach Kippy Brown recently told the Free Press that he feels to this day Detroit would’ve won at least one game if it had stuck with Kitna all season. After putting Kitna on IR, the Lions played Orlovsky, then brought Daunte Culpepper out of retirement. But the rusty Culpepper played in only five games before suffering his own season-ending injury, forcing Orlovsky back into the spotlight.

Yet the passing game wasn’t the weak link on those Lions. After all, the offense featured Calvin Johnson, who actually led the league in receiving touchdowns with 12. (Leading the league in receiving touchdowns on an 0-16 team is honestly one of the more impressive things that any player has ever done. Megatron was incredible.) The Lions threw more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18), but their passing game wasn’t historically bad. In fact, it wasn’t even the worst passing game in the NFL that season. The Lions averaged 1.3 more yards per pass than both the Bengals and Browns, who tied for last place; the 2008 Browns threw almost twice as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (11).

The main reason those Lions went 0-16 is because they featured one of the worst defenses in the history of the league. Detroit allowed 517 points in 2008, the second-most of all time behind only the 1981 Baltimore Colts. The Lions gave up 30 points in 11 of 16 games, and ranked last in the league in both passing defense (allowing 8.8 yards per pass attempt while recording just four interceptions) and rushing defense (allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 31 touchdowns).

The Lions actually had a few chances to win games: They raced to a 17-0 lead against the Buccaneers in Week 12, and had a Hail Mary shot to beat Chicago in Week 9. But it always felt as if the 2008 team was cosmically doomed. Detroit’s first and only nationally televised game was the annual Thanksgiving Day game—the 47-10 loss to the Titans. Tennessee would’ve hit 50 if it hadn’t gone out of its way to bleed clock in the second half.

The quotes from the last few weeks of Detroit’s season are what we in the business call “the good stuff.” “Awful, embarrassing, no one played good, any bad adjective you can use, throw it in there,” Orlovsky said in December. “I wish I could wake up, and it’d be over,” running back Kevin Smith said after a 31-21 defeat to the Packers, the 16th and final loss. Technically, the season was over after that result—but everyone on the team knew the record would stick with them for a lifetime. “I’ve got to live with this,” Raiola said. “This is on my résumé.”

The players lashed out at the fans—“It should be an advantage being at home,” cornerback Leigh Bodden said that November, “but this year, it really isn’t”—and at each other. “Where we’re at now is because of six months ago,” kicker Jason Hanson said. “Decisions that were made by players in offseason work.” (Poor Hanson had a legitimately great season, hitting 21-of-22 field goal attempts and becoming the first kicker in NFL history to go 8-for-8 on field goal tries of 50 yards or more. But, 0-16.)

Yet the best quote came from ex-Lion Joey Harrington, who was booed out of town and labeled a draft bust—and then saw his Saints demolish Detroit in Week 16. “Who would’ve believed that I was here in the heyday?”

Marinelli put it most aptly: “You can’t go 0-16 and expect to keep your job.”

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers
Rod Marinelli
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hue Jackson went 0-16 and kept his job. That was the plan. The Browns head coach was assured of his job security throughout Cleveland’s dismal 2017 campaign.

Sports fans have reached an understanding that losing can be beneficial for a franchise. In basketball, the 76ers fan base was galvanized by years of over-the-top, purposeful losing. In baseball, the Astros and Cubs won the World Series only after fully bottoming out. And in the NFL, the Browns have committed to The Process more than anyone, selling out the on-field product for several seasons while assembling the most draft capital of any team in the modern era. In addition to making trades that netted oodles of assets, Cleveland’s 1-15 and 0-16 records secured the team back-to-back no. 1 draft picks, which were used on Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield.

And so, people can legitimately write things like “going winless improved [Cleveland’s] future.” Or the “Browns’ 0-16 season isn’t quite as depressing as it sounds.” Cleveland’s winless season has been successfully spun as an embarrassing but acceptable moment for a franchise attempting an extreme rebuild—rhetoric that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

And while the 2008 Lions didn’t intentionally lose all of their games, doing so absolutely marked a turning point for the franchise. It gave the team the no. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, which was used on quarterback Matthew Stafford; going on 10 years later, he’s still the franchise’s rock. In 2010, Detroit took defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at no. 2; two seasons later it went 10-6 and made the playoffs. The Lions reached the playoffs again in 2014 behind the core of Johnson, Stafford, and Suh, and again in 2016 following Johnson’s sudden retirement and Suh’s departure in free agency.

Not only was the 2017 Browns’ failure more acceptable than the 2008 Lions’ was, but the setup of the league’s salary cap structure was also more advantageous to Cleveland. Johnson, Stafford, and Suh all signed massive rookie contracts; Stafford’s gave him the most guaranteed money of any player ever. Now, rookies are tied to significantly smaller deals in spite of a larger salary cap. All three players were still on their first NFL deals when the Lions made the 2011 playoffs. If the Browns’ highly drafted players pan out, they’ll be on more team-friendly contracts that should allow Cleveland to surround them with a bevy of talent.

The 2008 Lions were a football tragedy that will never be repeated. It’s not just that they were the first group to go 0-16, and thus the most memorable. It’s that failure brings hope now. We saw the Lions as a dumpster fire, and see the Browns as a controlled burn. We believe Cleveland can be a phoenix; our memory of that Detroit team will always be ashes.