How Can Detroit Go Winless in Today's NFL?

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Carlos Osorio / AP

Detroit Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky during the team's loss to the New Orleans Saints on Dec. 21

There are lots of contenders for the worst part of the Detroit Lions' miserable 2008 NFL season, starting with the jokes. How do you keep a Detroit Lion out of your backyard? Put up goalposts. There are the utter on-field embarrassments: a 47-10 nationally televised loss to the Tennessee Titans on Thanksgiving, and last week's 42-7 home defeat at the hands of New Orleans, in which on one play, Saints receiver Devery Henderson caught a pass with no Lions defender in sight, then scampered across the field for another 23 yards while cowardly Lions tried like a bunch of sorry Pop Warner players to tackle him. If that's not humiliating enough, how about the fact that the Motor City's floundering auto industry is actually performing better than the Lions right now?

Or our personal favorite: it's gotten so bad that during last Sunday's game against the Saints, Ford Field fans started chanting "We want Joey" at New Orleans third-string quarterback Joey Harrington, who frustrated hoards of Lions faithful during his four-year train wreck as Detroit's starter from 2002 to 2005. Now even Detroit's former whipping boy can poke fun at his ex-team. "It's weird to think I was here in the heyday," deadpanned Harrington, who finished with a sickly 18-37 record as the Lions' quarterback. (Read TIME's top 10 sports moments of the year.)

The team's record says it all. The Lions are the first in NFL history to start a season 0-15, and by losing 31-21 in Green Bay on Sunday, they go down as the worst NFL team ever. Only the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had previously finished a year without a win, but they did it in an era when teams played 14, not 16, regular-season games. Plus, those Bucs were an expansion team in their first year of existence; the Lions have been around since the Great Depression, which for their fans hasn't really ended. In fact, the Lions, who haven't had a winning season since 2000, have just finished off the NFL's worst eight-year run since 1950. "It's pretty sad that it's come to this," said Detroit center Dominic Raiola.

Another word would be shocking. Football experts all agree that in today's "any given Sunday" NFL — in which every team seems to have a decent shot to win, and in which a salary-cap structure and a draft that gives the worst teams access to the best young talent in a young man's game, create leaguewide parity — going winless is awfully hard to do. "It's mind-boggling to me," says Troy Aikman, the Fox Sports analyst and Hall of Fame ex-quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, who lived through a nightmarish 1-15 season himself as a rookie back in 1989. Several teams have managed to put together only one victory in a season, including the 2007 Miami Dolphins and the 2000 San Diego Chargers. But failing to eke out one win in a league built on mediocrity takes a certain stunning level of ineptitude.

And more than anything, terrible management is to blame. Former president Matt Millen, a former NFL linebacker who joined the team in 2001 and was finally fired this season after a multitude of public fan protests, strung together years of failed draft picks to dig Detroit into its current hole. Although every armchair football aficionado knows that defensive- and offensive-line play wins championships (or at least a game or two), Millen repeatedly spent top draft choices on low-impact wide receivers, despite not having a good quarterback to throw them the ball. The low point: in 2003 Millen used the second overall pick on Michigan State wideout Charles Rogers, who was recently sentenced to nine months of drug counseling following an assault-and-battery arrest involving his fiancée. Among the top players Millen passed over for wide receivers: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a Super Bowl winner; five-time Pro Bowl defensive back Troy Polamalu, also a Super Bowl–winning Steeler; and San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, a three-time Pro Bowler. "If you can't evaluate talent, if you can't draft talent, nothing else matters," says Aikman. "Your team is built on a house of cards."

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