Joey Lafferty - LionsFans.com
The inception of NFL free agency during the early '90's meant the dynasty would immediately go the way of hair bands, George Bush (senior, that is), and Steve Guttenberg. Variety would immediately become as much a part of the fabric of professional football as quarterback roughing penalties and excessive celebrations.
No exemption cards were handed out, meaning no team, division, or conference was immune to the roller coaster ride that would soon follow. This included the NFC Central, whose five members have all collected division crowns between the time free agency was introduced in 1993 and the 2001 season, the Central's last in existence as a result of impending realignment.
Though the Packers, Viking, Bears, Buccaneers, and Lions shared this common thread, they had little else in common over that nine year period. Each team had its own personality, experienced success by different means, peaking and perishing at different times.
The Bears finally figured things out in 2001, winning their first division title since 1990. The Bears were known during the late '90's as one of the league's poorest teams, finishing last in the division four consecutive years prior to their stunning turnaround in 2001.
The first three years of the decade were the last for local legend Mike Ditka, who completed his 11-year tenure in 1992 with just his third losing season. His demise was accompanied (and largely because of) by the exit of several superstars from the '80's, talent that would not soon be replaced during the six year stint of Dave Wannstedt.
The Packers hadn't won the NFC Central since 1972 when they edged out the Lions by one game for the Central crown in 1995, but they seemed to at least temporarily get the hang of it, again capturing the division title each of the next two seasons.
The defining moments for the Packers were their back-to-back Super Bowl runs following the '96 and '97 seasons, Green Bay finally bringing the Lombardi Trophy back home after a 28-year drought dating back to Super Bowl II.
The Vikings have no Super Bowl titles to show for their efforts during the free-agency era, but they've easily been the most consistent NFC Central member during this span. Under Dennis Green's guidance, Minnesota never fell below .500 until last season, three times winning the Central and earning wildcard playoff invitations four other times.
The Bucs, once the butt of countless NFL-related jokes, earned respect and notoriety on Tony Dungy's watch, ending a 14-year streak of losing seasons in 1997, the year they squeaked into the playoffs as a 10-6 wildcard team and two years before their much anticipated NFC Central winning season 1999.
The playoff caliber teams of the late '90's in Tampa were known for one thing: Defense. There is little question that a little balance would have resulted in more post-season success for the Bucs. Yet Tampa Bay is still a team based around a solid, but now aging, group of defensive stars.
Then, we have the Lions, who seem to be forever struggling upstream. While the Bears finally peaked in 2001, the Lions last saw ultimate Central glory in 1993, the first year of free agency. If any team in the NFC "Norris" truly personifies the era of free agency, it is the Lions, who have five times since 1993 made the playoffs, but at the same time found themselves in the division cellar three times at season's end.
Still, while the ups-and-downs experienced by devout Lions followers have certainly been enough to test their loyalty, the more defining quality of the Lions during the past decade is likely their "home grown" talent.
The Packers reached the Super Bowl on the backs of Brett Favre and Reggie White, while their return to NFL prominence can largely be attributed to the emergence of Ahman Green. Each of these players have one thing in common. Their NFL careers began in other cities.
The offensive explosion that occurred during the late '90's in Minnesota was kick started by the drafting of Randy Moss, but those teams were guided by free-agent quarterbacks Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. Furthermore, the grounding force at receiver, simultaneously rewriting the history books while playing mentor to Moss, was Chris Carter. Carter was earlier acquired from Philadelphia.
The Lions began laying the groundwork for the era under discussion during the late 1980's. A brief perusal of Detroit's drafts, combined with one's recollection of the finer franchise moments over the last decade, leaves no doubt that very little credit belongs elsewhere.
In 1988, the Lions used their first two picks to select defensive studs Bennie Blades and Chris Spielman. In 1989 they added defensive back Ray Crockett, who along with Blades and Spielman, temporarily anchored a highly respected Motown defense. Though each would eventually move on to other NFL teams, their impact far outweighed that of any "acquired" Lion defenders during the early '90's.
The '88 and '89 drafts also brought offensive linemen Eric Andolsek and Mike Utley, who both could very well have gone on to produce many Pro Bowl-worthy seasons were both careers not cut short by tragedy. Still, in their limited time, they constituted a vital component of a very good offensive line (led by two other Detroit originals, Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover, each drafted in 1985).
The aforementioned offensive line opened holes for the man who, if not for his early, unexpected retirement after the '98 season, would currently own the NFL career rushing record. While the Lions used their third and fourth rounders to select Utley and Crockett in 1989, they used their first, and the third selection overall, to acquire Barry Sanders.
Pages and pages of eloquently written prose would not do justice to Sanders' contribution to the Lions during his 10-year career, but the statistics and highlight films speak for themselves. Sanders was not only the greatest Lion ever. He is one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Over the next five years, the Lions would bolster their receiving corps first with temporary contributor Willie Green (1990, 8th round), but more significantly with Herman Moore in 1991 and Johnnie Morton in 1994. Both were taken in the first round, and both have proven worthy.
Who currently sit atop the Lions all-time career lists of most receptions and most receiving yardage? You got it. Moore and Morton. One and two. Obviously, no outsider has come close to touching what these Motor City originals have accomplished.
The drafts spanning 1991-94 also reaped standout place-kicker Jason Hanson, who has held down those duties consistently since his rookie season, in addition to sometime contributor Tracy Scroggins and safety Willie Clay. Though neither defender set the record books on fire while in Detroit (Scroggins is now retired, while Clay left the Lions via free agency), their contributions at their respective positions were, again, superior to that of any free agent acquisitions.
The Lions also pulled a potential Hall of Famer in Robert Porcher from the '92 draft, and put next to him on the defensive front Pro Bowler Luther Ellis, who they drafted in the first round in '95. Think of the Detroit defensive line since the early '90's, and these are the two names that come to mind. At some point during each of their careers, both players have been considered among the best at their respective positions.
The Lions completed an outstanding draft in '95 by adding three more future Pro Bowlers in David Sloan, Stephen Boyd, and Corey Schlesinger. The tight end, middle linebacker, and fullback positions have been manned by a variety of pla