The Demise of the Detroit Lions Started with the AFL
An inability to sign draft picks triggered a decades-long downward spiral
You could make the case the Detroit Lions were the NFL’s Team of the Decade in the 1950s, reaching four championship games and winning three of them.
Detroit had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Bobby Layne and six other players from that championship era with busts in Canton. Linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Jack Christensen from that era were both named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team.
That team was loaded…but who knew the last championship the franchise would win would come in 1957? Only the Cardinals have gone longer without capturing an NFL championship than the Lions. The Cardinals won their title in 1947 in Chicago and have since called both St. Louis and Phoenix home.
But at least the Cardinals have a played in a Super Bowl. There have been 56 Super Bowls now and the Lions remain one of only four franchises that has never played in that game. They are joined by another 1950s power, Cleveland Browns, plus two expansion teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans.
Detroit’s NFC North rivals Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota have all gone to multi Super Bowls. The Packers have played in five of them and taken home four Lombardi Trophies, The Bears have played two, winning once, and the Vikings reached four Super Bowls without a victory. All have beaten the Lions regularly over the years.
But Detroit’s worst losses of this championship drought came off the field. They came at the hands of the AFL from 1960-66 during the war between the two leagues. Both teams held drafts during that seven-year window and competed to sign those rookies. That stretch accelerated the demise of the Detroit franchise as the great players from the championship era were departing the roster without replenishment.
In both 1962 and 1964, the Lions lost their two top draft picks to the AFL. Overall, Detroit lost three first-round draft picks, two seconds and three thirds to the AFL. Two of Detroit’s AFL misses became Pro Football Hall of Famers – safety Johnny Robinson and wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Robinson was a first-round pick in 1960 and Biletnikoff a third-rounder in 1965.
Robinson was one of four Detroit draft picks who went on to earn spots in the all-time AFL team, joining defensive tackles Houston Antwine and Tom Sestak and end Gerry Philbin. Antwine and Philbin were third-round draft picks and Sestak a 16th rounder.
But the biggest miss came at quarterback when Detroit’s first-round pick in 1962, John Hadl, elected to sign with the San Diego Chargers. It’s a quarterback’s game and, looking for their next Bobby Layne, the Lions spent the 10th overall pick of that 1962 draft on Hadl. He went on to play 16 seasons, passing for 33,503 yards and 244 touchdowns — none of them for the Lions.
Hadl was named the NFL MVP by United Press International in 1973 and went to six Pro Bowls. From 1958 through 2014 – a span of 56 years — the Lions sent only one quarterback to a single Pro Bowl, Greg Landry in 1971. Little wonder that after winning the 1957 championship, the Lions went 32 years without winning another playoff game. A 1991 playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys stands as Detroit’s only post-season victory since that last championship season. That’s 63 years now and counting, folks.
Robinson and Sestak went to seven AFL all-star games each. Hadl, Antwine and Biletnikoff went to six apiece and defensive end Earl Faison five. Like Hadl, Faison chose the Chargers over the Lions. Jim Norton, Detroit’s seventh round pick in 1960, opted for the Houston Oilers and went on to intercept 45 passes and go to three AFL all-star games.
Philbin and safety Tom Janik went to two all-star games apiece. Philbin was a third-round pick by the Lions in 1964 and Janik a seventh-rounder in 1962. Philbin started for the New York Jets in the third Super Bowl and another Lions’ draft pick, Jim Kearney, started alongside Robinson at safety for the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth Super Bowl. The AFL won both games.
The AFL was the big winner of the 1960s war between the two leagues, spending its way into a merger with the bigger, older NFL in 1967. But the Lions were among the biggest losers for their unwillingness to spend the necessary money to keep their draft picks away from the AFL. A losing culture developed and, as a franchise, Detroit still hasn’t recovered.