In this 3 part piece, writer Josh Hill takes a look back at what many consider to be the Lions greatest season ever. In the story of a team no one gave a second chance to, the 1991 Detroit Lions stood up against a league that counted them out and almost took the world by storm in the form of an accomplishment only NFL elites have branded their name to. This is the story of the 1991 Detroit Lions.
Part II: Withstanding the Test
The Lions exited their Week 7 bye riding high. They had ravaged all who stood in their way with the notable exception of a 45-0 first week loss to the Washington Redskins. But since that loss the Lions had won every game leading up to the bye week. There was one chink in the Lions armor: of the teams Detroit had beaten, none had a winning record. When faced with a superior challenge, the Lions had failed to score a point. But nevertheless the Lions had shown grit and a will to win, after all a win was a win for the Lions who had found them to be elusive in the past years. That grit and will was put on the front lines when Detroit headed to San Francisco in Week 8. Barry Sanders ran into a wall, rushing for just 26 yards while Rodney Peete threw for just 187 yards and threw an interception.The same couldn’t be said for the San Fransisco 49ers, who despite coming into the game just 2-4, forced Detroit to their knees as Jerry Rice and the Steve Young led 49ers powered to a 35-3 victory reminiscent of the Lions first week beating. Detroit’s defense allowed Steve Young to complete all but two passes on the afternoon, but managed to keep him at just 20 attempts. It was the under talented force of San Francisco’s ground attack that mauled the Lions. A total of four running backs, Keith Henderson, Dexter Carter, Harry Sydney and Tom Rathman combined for 188 yards and 3 touchdowns. Steve Young added 40 yards rushing of his own as the Lions tasted brutal defeat for the second time.
Determined to dust themselves off and show their true colors, the Lions faced the Dallas Cowboys back home in Detroit in Week 8. The full force of their anger at the loss to the 49ers was felt by America’s team. It was also the new chapter in an old rivalry as Rodney Peete and Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman were not new foes. Peete had played his college ball at USC, while Aikman quarterbacked for the UCLA Bruins. The two met twice during their college days with both games going to Peete and his Trojans. Aikman had since become the number one overall draft pick in 1989 and the new star in Dallas, one of the NFL’s biggest stages. But Aikman was plagued by old times as he threw two interceptions and just one touchdown despite having over 300 yards of passing. But the woes for Detroit continued on from the previous week, but in a far more devastating way. On their first drive of the game, starting quarterback Rodney Peete who had helped lead the Lions this far, suffered a season ending arm injury after completing just three passes. First year backup quarterback Erik Kramer was the new starter. Kramer, in his firstofficial year in the NFL, beat out Andre Ware for the second string job in the offseason. Kramer had unofficially debuted in the NFL during the 1987 season where he suited up as a replacement player for the Atlanta Falcons during the lockout. He then spent two seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL before landing in Detroit with the Lions. After the Lions went down 7-3 in the second quarter, the team got a jump start from an unexpected place: special teams. Fourth year Lion William White blocked a 55-yard Dallas field goal attempt and promptly returned it for a touchdown. With the Lions now up on the scoreboard, Erik Kramer put the offense’s pedal to the floor. Despite throwing just 108 yards in the game, Kramer threw two crucial touchdowns to Willie Green in the third which made it a 17-10 game, and one to Barry Sanders in the fourth to make it a 27-10 lead. The Lions put the icing on the cake with a 96 yard Ray Crockett interception return for a touchdown. Detroit stifled the Cowboys 34-10, beating them even with two Dallas receivers, Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek, going over 130 yards each. The game wasn’t a complete win however. The Lions had managed to beat the Cowboys, their first victory against a winning team, but had lost their starting quarterback in the process. The Lions were now 6-2, but were also now being led by the unproven and unpolished Erik Kramer.
Although the loss of Peete was devastating, the Lions were determined to keep their spirits high and their heads down as they barreled through their schedule. The Lions faced two tough road games, one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the meatier of the two being a showdown at Soldiers Field against the Chicago Bears. Both the Lions and Bears came entered the matchup 6-2 and tied atop the NFC Central. Chicago struck first with a field goal, but the Lions powered back to score 10 unanswered points making the halftime score 10-3. The Bears finally answered back in the third with yet another field goal but soon took over the momentum of the game scoring 13 unanswered points of their own and handing the Lions their third loss of the season and knocking them out of a first place tie. Erik Kramer threw the ball 40 times in the game, completing just 19, while Barry Sanders was held out of the endzone and to just 63 yards.
The loss hit the Lions hard as they went on to drop another game, this time to the one win Bucs on the road in Tampa. Despite having Barry Sanders rush for over 100 yards and two scores, the Lions never led. Their poor performance gave the Buccaneers just their second win of the season and dropped the Lions to 6-3. However, something clicked after their loss in Tampa for the Lions didn’t lose another game that season after their 30-21 loss to the Buccaneers. Detroit powered through the Los Angeles and Minnesota, scoring a combined 55 points in those two games before inviting the Monsters of the Midway to the Motor City for a rematch. Detroit’s Week 13 game against the Vikings went down as Barry Sanders best game of 1991. The Lions run game pounded the Vikings for 262 yards, 220 of which were Barry’s. The Lions put up 34 points on Minnesota, 24 of which were Barry’s as he scored 4 touchdowns on the day to bring his season total to14. But the Lions entered into the matchup with the Vikings with heavy hearts. On the first play of the fourth quarter in their Week 12 win over the Rams, Offensive Lineman Mike Utley went down to block and didn’t come up — or move. He was carted off the field, and would later learn he was paralyzed from the chest down due to severely injuring his sixth and seventh cerebral vertebrae. As he was being carted off the field, Mike gave an iconic thumbs up to the fans in Detroit and his shaken teammates on the sideline. This would serve as a rally cry for the Lions during the remainder of their 1991 campaign.
With Utley’s injury weighing on their hearts, the Lions faced the Bears in Week 13 hungry for more than revenge. But aside from wanting to win for Utley, the Lions were now 8-4 and a mere game behind the 9-3 Bears. A win would mean the Lions would once again be tied for first place in the NFC Central and would block a tie breaker going to the Bears. In their second matchup with Chicago, the Lions turned the tables on the Bears never trailing once and beating them 16-6. The victory erased the deficit created by the previous loss the Bears and made both teams 9-4 and tied for the NFC Central lead. It was the second of back-to-back losses for the Bears who had seen their once bright hopes of leaving the Lions behind dim. With four games remaining and the two teams tied, every game mattered.
Tomorrow: The Lions power down the home stretch of their schedule with not only a legitimate chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 1983, but a chance to win their division and earn a first round bye in the final part of Restore the Roar: The Story of the 1991 Detroit Lions.