Here’s what Detroit Lions’ other recent 1-4 starts tell us about their finish

Detroit Free Press

While the Detroit Lions’ 1-4 start to the 2022 season has featured many classic hallmarks of the “Same Old Lions” trope — including (but not limited to) questionable coaching moves, crushing turnovers returned for scores and defenses with less stopping power than a Camaro with the brakelines cut — it has been a rarity in one thing: The record.

It’s only the sixth time in the past 25 seasons that the franchise has gone 1-4 in its first five games, but the first time since 2011. (Which means that, yes, it’s possible that the past decade has been a golden — or at least gold-plated — era of Lions football.) The most frequent record? 3-2, at seven times, followed by 1-4, then 2-3 and, of course, 0-5 — each achieved five times. (The Lions have also gone 2-2-1 once and won four games or more just once — when they went 5-0 in 2011, for the first time since 1956.)

Here’s a look back at the Lions’ five previous 1-4 starts since 1998, and how they ran through the finish line:

2010: 6-10

How they got there: The bitter taste of an 0-4 start was lessened — a bit — by a 44-6 blowout of the Rams at Ford Field in Week 5. (Even the Week 4 loss to the Packers wasn’t AS bad, after the Lions — after falling behind 21-7 in the first half — kept Green Bay’s offense out of the end zone over the final two quarters.) Still, the Lions were virtually in limbo awaiting the return of second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford, who sprained his shoulder in a Week 1 loss to Chicago.

How they finished: Stafford sat out Week 6 (another loss) but returned after the Lions’ bye to lead them to win No. 2 against Washington — thanks to finding Calvin Johnson for three of his four TD passes — and some renewed optimism: “It was big,” Johnson said. “There were certain situations where I was praying and hoping he saw what I saw. And he did.” Unfortunately for Johnson and the Lions, Stafford was injured the next week in a loss to the Jets, the start of a five-game skid. The Lions finished without Stafford, but with four straight wins, all by one possession, to build momentum for 2011 — the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1999.

2009: 2-14

How they got there: Losses in the first two weeks extended the franchise’s losing streak to 19 games — including the 2007 finale and all 16 games of 2008 — but the skid finally ended in Week 3 with a win over Washington. The good times didn’t last for long, however, with a Week 4 loss to Chicago that knocked Stafford out once again, followed by a loss to the Steelers in which backup Daunte Culpepper took three straight sacks on the final possession to extinguish hope of a rally.

How they finished: After missing another loss, the magic tonic of a bye week restored Stafford … but not the Lions’ defense, as it gave up an average of 30.6 points over the franchise’s final 10 games. The only win in that stretch: A 38-37 shocker the Sunday before Thanksgiving in which Stafford (while mic’ed up for NFL Films) passed for five TDs, including the winner with no time left, at Ford Field against the Browns. But help was on the way: The 1-10 finish left the Lions with the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, which they used on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

2003: 5-11

How they got there: The Lions’ new era — they’d hired Yooper (and Tom Izzo BFF) Steve Mariucci as head coach to develop second-year QB Joey Harrington — started with a bang: Harrington only completed 17 of his 30 pass attempts (55.6%) but four went for TDs in a 42-24 home victory over the Cardinals. There were still plenty of whimpers afterward, however, as the Lions lost their next four heading into the bye week while mustering just 52 points combined.

How they finished: The offense never really clicked after the bye week, topping 24 points only in a 30-20 Week 17 victory over the playoff-bound Rams at Ford Field. That win, the Lions’ fourth after the bye and their fifth in eight home games, knocked the Lions from what would have been a five-way tie for the league’s worst record into a six-way tie for draft picks Nos. 5-10. (Your annual “what might have been”: the top four picks in the ’04 draft included likely Hall of Fame QBs Eli Manning and Philip Rivers and WR Larry Fitzgerald. Instead, the Lions landed WR Roy Williams at No. 7.)

2002: 3-13

How they got there: Year 2 of the Marty Mornhinweg era (and Year 1 of Ford Field) started just like Year 1 — with three straight losses. But Harrington brought a bit of hope in Week 4 (his second career start) with 267 yards passing and a touchdown in the Lions’ 26-21 win over the Saints. It was enough to have the Ford Field crowd chanting, “Jo-ey! Jo-ey!” But, as he would do so many times in his Lions tenure, Harrington brought things down to earth quickly, telling the Freep, “ It was … flattering,” he said with a laugh, “but maybe a little premature.” How right he was: The Lions, after their bye week, went on the road to Minnesota and gave up 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points to fall to 1-4.

How they finished: A pair of home wins sandwiched around a loss in Buffalo provided a brief flicker of hope — though the Lions went six entire quarters at Ford Field with only points from kicker Jason Hanson, culminating in a 9-7 win over the Cowboys. That snoozefest, in which rookie QBs Harrington and Chad Hutchinson combined for 312 passing yards, two touchdowns and six sacks, wound up as the Lions’ final victory of the year, thanks to an offense that cratered and an defense that was somehow even worse, allowing 28.9 points per game in an eight-game skid. A season-ending 38-36 loss to the Vikings — in which QB Mike McMahon and WR Eddie Drummond miscommunicated on a 2-point conversion in the final seconds — gave Mornhinweg some hope, as the 17th one-score game in his 32 as coach:  “I would think we’re missing two (big-play players) on defense, two on offense of those type of guys and then we’re in the mix,” he said. A full month later, the Lions decided Mornhinweg was at fault, firing him in favor of Mariucci on Jan. 28.

1998: 5-11

How they got there: After two games, coach Bobby Ross had finally seen enough from quarterback Scott Mitchell after a pick-six in OT dropped the Lions to 0-2: He benched Mitchell in favor of rookie QB Charlie Batch, a second-round pick out of Eastern Michigan. Unfortunately for the Lions, they had problems in all three phases of the game, having allowed a TD on offense, defense and special teams in both losses. They cleaned up the turnovers and special teams issues, but couldn’t get the offense going, even with Barry Sanders in the backfield; Sanders mustered just 69 and 28 yards rushing in losses to the Vikings and Bears, respectively, to send the Lions into their bye at 1-4.

How they finished: Sanders ripped off five straight games with at least 100 yards rushing after the bye — but the Lions went just 2-3. He hit the 100-yard mark just once in the final six games, however — 102 yards in a 37-22 loss to Jacksonville in Week 14 — as the Lions picked up just two more wins. Batch, meanwhile, remained the starter under center until he injured his lower back — in perhaps a metaphor for the Lions’ eternal struggles — while colliding with a defender in the Lions’ 35-13 Monday night loss to the 49ers in San Francisco. Rather than turn back to Mitchell, Ross went with journeyman backup Frank Reich, who threw for five TDs and four interceptions in the final three games of his career. Also wrapping up his career, though few knew it at the time: Sanders, who rushed 19 times for 41 yards in the season finale (a 19-10 loss to Baltimore), then retired at the start of 1999’s training camp. Then again, perhaps Sanders’ final words following the loss to the Ravens should have been a clue: “The thing that is most prevalent is disappointment,” Sanders said. “And really, just almost regret. It’s almost like you wasted a whole year of football. That’s how I feel right now.”

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