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Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr., 83, the grandson of Henry Ford, has only added to the hopelessness. Since Ford acquired the Lions in 1964, the team has won just a single playoff game. Millen was given an inexplicable five-year contract extension before the 2005 season, so he's still being paid for destroying the team. Ford has promised to bring Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewland, two Millen-era execs who helped assemble the '08 disaster, back for another year. The Lions' coach, Rod Marinelli, hired his son-in-law Joe Barry to be his defensive coordinator. How has that worked out? The Lions have had the NFL's worst defense since Barry took over two years ago.
"You don't have a page long enough to list all their problems," says former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who had the great pleasure of analyzing the Tennessee-Detroit game on Thanksgiving for CBS. "Their free-agent signings have been flawed, their drafts have been flawed, the organizational philosophy is flawed. As a coach said to me, 'Wow, they're small, they're not fast, and they're old.' It's unbelievable."
But you can't point the finger just at management. Detroit's players have their fair share of responsibility for the Lions' failures. Richard "Batman" Wood, a linebacker on the 1976 Buccaneers team that finished 0-14 (he used to wear Batman logos on his arm pads and socks), says he wouldn't wish the ignominy of a winless season on any other player. Still, he's angry at the Lions. "In today's game, with free agency and everything else, don't tell me you can't win one game," says Wood, who was an assistant defensive coach for the Bucs in the '90s and recently coached in the NFL's now defunct European league. "Uh-uh. That's not acceptable. C'mon."
How can a season spiral so far out of control? For one, as the losses start piling up, the locker room becomes a toxic place. "The offense starts blaming the defense," says Greg Camarillo, a wide receiver on the 2007 Miami team that flirted with infamy by starting 0-13 (his Dolphins finished 1-15, but made the playoffs this season and won the AFC East by beating the New York Jets on Sunday 24-17). "The defense starts blaming the offense. You get that 'every man for himself' feeling. In the NFL [the ultimate team game] that's the last thing you want to happen."
The losing takes its psychological toll. "The greatest job in the world is playing in the NFL for a winning team," says Aikman. "At the same time, the worst job in the world is being an NFL player on a losing team. No amount of money in the world will change that." If you're on a bad team in pro baseball or basketball, at least the frequent games can keep your mind occupied. In the NFL, the failures fester all week. During his tumultuous rookie year, Aikman stayed cooped up in his home between games. "You don't want to go to the grocery stores, you don't want to go to the restaurants, because nobody wants to be around you," says Aikman. Last season Camarillo could wander around Miami unrecognized and just hear fans rip the Fins. "I would hear discussions about how the Dolphins were just terrible, how they sucked. It made you feel that much worse."
The fallout of Detroit dropping its last game, Wood insists, is that the Lions' players will carry a scar for the rest of their lives. "It's embarrassing to me, my family, the city of Tampa, everyone involved," he says of playing for the '76 Buccaneers. "It's a glum, glum feeling, I mean, just an empty feeling." Last week Wood got a call from his brother, who said he just saw the Bucs named the worst NFL team in history on some television program. (Thanks, bro.) "How do you think that made me feel?" Wood asks. "It's hard to take."
Yes, Detroit's players may face a lifelong pall by falling to the Packers. Or they could steal a page out of Steve Spurrier's playbook and laugh about their dubious place in history. Spurrier, the head coach at the University of South Carolina, who won a national title at Florida and also coached the Washington Redskins from 2002 through 2003, was the quarterback on that winless '76 Buccaneers team. He's a bit more lighthearted about the whole experience and enjoys being remembered for something.
"Yeah, I'll tell ya what, I hope Detroit wins," he says. "We would like to keep our record, us Buc guys. If they don't win, they're going to forget about us." While members of the '72 Miami Dolphins, who finished 17-0, arrogantly sip champagne each year when the last undefeated team drops a game (as the New England Patriots did in losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl in February), Spurrier breaks open a cold beer with an assistant coach when the last "defeated" team finally gets a win. "Plus, I've gotten plenty of corny banquet jokes out of it," Spurrier says.
So in that spirit, here's one for the Lions' players. Where do you go in Detroit in case of a tornado? To Ford Field they never get a touchdown there. Yeah, it's not really that funny, is it? When you can't win one single game in today's NFL, it doesn't really feel like a laughing matter.