ALLEN PARK - A season that started with such high hopes went awry so quickly. Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci said that winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time since Lions president Matt Millen came aboard was the main goal for this team.
It looked like an attainable goal.
Green Bay (10-6) had suffered serious losses to its interior line and quarterback Brett Favre was showing his age, his top receiver Javon Walker was holding out for a contract extension. Minnesota (8-8) appeared to be Detroit's main competition but had serious problems on defense and coach Mike Tice is on the hotseat.
Chicago was coming off a terrible (5-11) season and had lost quarterback Rex Grossman yet again to injury and were still breaking in second-year head coach Lovie Smith, the former Rams defensive coordinator.
There were some ominous signs early on. Lions president Matt Millen was signed to a series of five one-year contracts, quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was expected to provide serious competition to Joey Harrington, was injured in the final preseason contest against Buffalo. First round pick Mike Williams was struggling and Detroit's special teams were showing lapses.
WHEELS COME OFF QUICKLY IN WEEK TWO:
Still, Detroit started out with a bang, knocking off Green Bay in the season opener at Ford Field, but Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was not impressed. In the run up prior to Detroit's road game, Urlacher said he didn't care about Detroit's three first round draft picks at wide receiver, his belief was that if Detroit couldn't protect Harrington, it would be a long day. When asked if he felt Detroit offensive line was suspect, Urlacher replied "you said it, not me."
The Bears backed up their talk, harassing Harrington continually with 25 blitzes, disrupting the Lions offense and pounding them in an embarassing loss that exposed the Lions offensive line as suspect.
That trend continued the rest of the season. Teams continually blitzed and Detroit could not get the problem fixed. Free agent signee Rick DeMulling was sent to the bench in favor of another free agent, Kyle Kosier. Injury proned Fernando Bryant was lost to another season and the wheels began to fall off quickly.
There were hints of problems to come, Charles Rogers wasn't catching any balls and questions cropped up as to why? Questions were raised why first round picks Roy Williams and Mike Williams seemed to be taking plays off.
LOSING THE CLOSE ONES:
The Lions regrouped to play a solid game that they should have won at Tampa Bay, instead officials blew the call when Harrington's last minute touchdown throw to tight end Marcus Pollard was ruled out of bounds. Replays show Pollard's knee was in bounds and should have counted.
Detroit led all the way at home against the Carolina Panthers until an ill-fated hit by safety Kenoy Kennedy on quarterback Jake Delhomme. Delhomme was knocked out of the game, but a woozy Kennedy stayed in. Backup quarterback Chris Weinke came in and engineered the winning touchdown drive by attacking Kennedy's zone as time expired.
Detroit lost all-pro corner Dre' Bly to a broken wrist, an extremely costly injury that the team struggled to overcome. Charles Rogers was suspended for four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy - a ruling that divided the locker room, cost the team dearly as Roy Williams was lost during the suspension and put Rogers future as a Lion in doubt. The Lions file a grievance with the NFLPA and the NFL to recoup $10.1 million from receiver Charles Rogers, the Union denies the grievance, but Detroit takes it to a league arbitrator.
The Bears stamped themselves as a true contender by completing the sweep (19-10) against the Lions. Detroit fell out of first place and quickly out of contention with a string of losses that cost Joey Harrington his starting job. Harrington's miserable performance against the Minnesota Vikings (who were reeling from the notorious Love Boat incident) seemed to be the end of his Lions career.
Questions about Roy Williams character surface after he has to be talked into playing against the Vikings by Millen and Mariucci. Charles Rogers, back from suspension is a healthy scratch. Scotty Vines emerges as a NFL quality receiver.
DEAD IN THE WATER:
Detroit loses in consective order to Dallas and then a crushing loss to a mediocre Atlanta team on Thanksgiving Day in front of a nationally televised audience. Detroit was blasted as inept by the nation's media. Lions head coach Steve Mariucci is fired by Millen and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron takes over. The losses continue against Minnesota and then astonishingly to a seemingly dead Green Bay team.
FANS REBEL AGAINST CONTINUAL LOSING:
The home finale brings the "Millen Man March" - a term coined by Detroit News columnist Rob Parker- when about 2,000 fans march in protest of Millen's dismal five-year record (21-59) as GM of the team, the worst record in Lions history. A sea of orange shirt wearing fans greet the team and many of the player's express shock over the fans reaction. The Lions are humiliated by the Cincinnati Bengals who enjoy celebrating a AFC North division title in Ford Field in front of their visiting fans.
Jeff Garcia is exposed as a worn out quarterback who is all talk and no action during the stretch under Jauron where he is named the starter. Jauron turns back to Harrington who eeks out a win over the New Orleans Saints in San Antonio.
Detroit plays one of the best games of the season offensively against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale, but still lose 35-21. All three starting linebackers and two other backup linebackers watch, out with injuries.
The Bears meanwhile, under Smith - who performed a six-game turnaround from 2004 in his first season - cement themselves as the class of the division.
WHAT'S TO COME?
Millen appears firmly entrenched as president and GM. In an incredible display of poor drafting, Detroit stands poised to see two top-10 draft picks (Rogers and Harrington) out of the franchises' plans less than four years after they were selected. This year's first-round pick Mike Williams, another top-10 pick, never cracks the team's starting lineup.
They cannot rush the passer, nor can they stop the run on the edges. Detroit has some good players in skilled positions, but despite Millen's assertion, the pieces are not in place. The 5-11 record doesn't lie.
Detroit needs to shore up both lines of scrimmage and find some defensive playmakers. They need a quarterback who can play at a consistenly high level. Oh, by the way, they need a new head coach and they still haven't settled on a franchise philosophy.
In other words, it's business as usual in Detroit.