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Opinion: What will it take for Lions to overcome history of heartbreaking losses?

·6 min read
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  • Detroit Lions
    Detroit Lions
  • Dan Campbell
    American football player and coach

This column began on Nov. 8, 1970. I was 10 years old, increasingly interested in my local NFL team, the Detroit Lions. Heck, I even considered myself a Lions fan back then as I watched on a small black-and-white TV.

Yet that was the day I learned something about Lions heartbreak.

With two seconds left, New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey trotted out to attempt a 63-yard field goal at Tulane Stadium that would be the longest in NFL history.

Of course, Dempsey nailed it. It didn’t matter that a birth defect left him with a deformed foot. It was enough of a foot to make the swift kick that sent the Lions spinning with one of the most shocking defeats in the team’s inglorious history.

Unfortunately, that list of painful Lions setbacks has grown to epic proportions, with another item added last Sunday when Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph booted a 54-yard field goal as time expired to thwart a Lions rally. Yes, that’s the same Joseph who missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired to seal a Week 2 loss at Arizona.

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And yes, those were the same Lions who lost two weeks earlier to Baltimore on another field goal that set the NFL’s record as time expired — Justin Tucker’s 66-yarder ... which seemed a lot like Tucker’s 61-yarder that beat Detroit in 2013.

Personally, it’s a blessing that I grew out of Lions fandom. Quickly. And for good. Once you go black on the Lions, you never go back. Besides, there’s no cheering in the press box.

But I know a lot of Lions fans, people who have stuck with their team through thick and way more thin.

Maybe Detroit (0-5) will notch its first victory of the season on Sunday at Ford Field against the Bengals.

As one fan put it to me, "The coach cried. They’ve gotta win."

Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) brings down Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) for a sack during last Sunday's game.
Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) brings down Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) for a sack during last Sunday's game.

He was referring to first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell, who fought back tears during his postgame news conference last Sunday. Now, I’m not sure how tears represent an omen for winning, but something’s got to give.

Campbell blew into town making waves when he harrumphed about breaking the kneecaps of opponents. And now there are tears.

It looks like Campbell has been "Lionized."

It’s also striking that Campbell, a former tight end, was a member (briefly) of the 2008 Detroit team that went 0-16. Not the best omen.

Really, it is as though this franchise is still stung by the "Bobby Layne Curse." Local lore has it that the rambunctious quarterback was so angry he was traded after leading the team to the NFL championship in 1957 that he declared the Lions wouldn’t win another championship "for 50 years."

Well, if that’s what Layne said, he was right about that. Shoot, it’s been 63 years. Soon to be 64.

Meanwhile, Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season — the NFL’s longest drought without a postseason victory.

If it’s not a curse, so be it. But there have been so many weird ways the Lions have lost that it makes you wonder. No team loses in incredible fashion quite like the Lions.

There was the time in 2002 when they won the coin toss in overtime against Chicago, only to have then-coach Marty Mornhinweg opt to "take the wind" and kick off. Sure, it was blustery. But it didn’t stop the Bears from marching through the wind for the winning score.

They also lost at Chicago when Calvin Johnson’s apparent winning TD was ruled incomplete when he quickly left the football on the turf to celebrate. It was such a break that the NFL changed it rule the next offseason, giving us the "Calvin Johnson Rule."

Megatron was involved in another controversial loss, at Seattle on a Monday night, when officials ruled it a touchback (and Seahawks ball) rather than calling a penalty on K.J. Wright for batting the ball out of bounds after Kam Chancellor punched the ball loose from Johnson just shy of the goal line.

The Lions lost on an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary. Back in 1970, a few weeks after the Dempsey kick, they lost 5-0 at Dallas — the lowest-scoring playoff game in NFL history — in a game in which they didn’t commit a single penalty ... but were stonewalled at the end by a Cowboys goal-line stand. Like the Lions current coach, I think I teared up with that one.

Then there was the time they lost when Golden Tate's apparent game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left against the Falcons was ruled as not, then officials executed the "10-second run-off" rule. Game over.

Some teams have history lessons that can debate the greatest victories. For the Lions, it’s an NFL version of the Misery Index.

It’s no wonder that after the latest loss, safety Tracy Walker said, "I just want to change the culture about here."

Walker is in his fourth season in Detroit, and it must be tough.

Yet it might be even harder to swallow for the paying customer. One thing is for sure: It takes a strong heart to hang with the Lions. Here’s to the diehards in the Motor City, home of the "Lion-Hearted."

Did you notice?

Quick question: Which NFL tight end has scored the most touchdowns this season?

If you guessed Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Rob Gronkowski or Mark Andrews, you’d be quite wrong.

It’s Dawson Knox, the third-year Buffalo tight end who has five TDs and heads into Monday night’s tilt at Tennessee with a streak of four consecutive games with a score.

Knox, who posted his first career 100-yard game on Sunday night at Kansas City, this season has matched his total TDs from his first two seasons.

A third-round pick out of Ole Miss in 2019, Knox attributes his breakout to better chemistry with star quarterback Josh Allen and the development that comes with experience.

That’s undoubtedly part of the equation. Yet after Knox dropped 10 passes as a rookie and with the tight end position fingered as a weak spot for a Super Bowl contender, Bills left tackle Dion Dawson points to another factor for Knox’s progress.

"I think he took it personally," Dawson said, mindful of the criticism and motivation.

Quick slant

Geno Smith will make his first start in nearly four years on Sunday night at Pittsburgh when he fills in for injured Seahawks dynamo Russell Wilson. Smith described his backup role behind the durable Wilson as a "test of patience." And he can’t say he saw this coming. Because of the finger surgery that will sideline him for several weeks, Wilson’s NFL-long streak of 165 consecutive starts, including playoffs, is snapped as he’s started each game since Week 1 of his rookie season in 2012. Thus, Smith becomes the first quarterback besides Wilson to start a game for the Seahawks since ... Tarvaris Jackson.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Detroit Lions heartbreak: What will it take to overcome the history?