In this 3 part series, 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.
As we enter the (potential) 2011 NFL season, it marks the twenty year anniversary of the 1991 Detroit Lions team that came a game away from the Super Bowl. They were nothing more than a joke to those in the NFL, posting winning records in just 19 of their 47 seasons since becoming the Detroit Lions back in 1934. In their modern NFL years they had winning records just 5 times since the AFL-NFL merger.
Detroit came into 1991 in the middle of a drought. The 80’s had brought some success including the teams first playoff appearance since 1970. It also brought the arrival of a player who would not just become the greatest Lion to ever play the game, he became the Lions. Barry David Sanders was drafted with the third pick of the 1989 NFL Draft. 1991 was his third season as a back and already he was making his mark on Detroit. Sanders had already rushed for 2774 yards and 27 touchdowns entering 1991. He was the talk of the NFL for his on-field humility and flashy playing style. But it was clear the Lions needed to click more as a unit, rather than rely solely on the flashy young Sanders to win games.
In an effort to boost the offense, Detroit spent their first roundpick on a wide receiver from Virginia: Herman Moore. The Lions hoped the 6’4” receiver could boost the offense and serve as a weapon for quarterback Rodney Peete, in his third year out of USC, as well as add a dimension to make Sanders and his game more potent.
Part I: Well That’s a Start
1991 began the way the Lions were accustomed to playing, by being blown away on national television by the Washington Redskins 45-0. Barry Sanders didn’t even play in the game, forcing the rushing duties onto Cederic Jackson who managed just 39 yards. Rodney Peete completed just 8 passes and finished th game with a mere 75 yards of passing to show for his effort. Herman Moor also went silent. Detroit had finished the year previous going 6-10 and losing to Seattle by 20 points in the final game of the season; this year looked to be off to a start that entailed the same conclusion.
But the Lions bounced right back, proving that the blowout to start the year was misleading. They scored their first points of the ’91 season at home inside the Silverdome on a 4-yard run by, who else, Barry Sanders. The score was Sanders’ first of the year and set the ball rolling for the Lions offesnse. Detroit never once trailed the Packers and sent the Cheeseheads home 0-2 while beginning a 4 game tear into their bye week that didn’t see them lose once.
The Dolphins of Miami were welcomed into the Silverdome in Week 3 and saw the Lions again strike first. But Miami battled back behind not the arm of Dan Marino, but the leg of Pete Stoyanovich. Stoyanovich tied the game at three in the first and Miami took the lead in the second when Mark Higgs scored on a run. But the will of the Lions wouldn’t allow defeat as they scored before halftime on a Rodney Peete touchdown pass and scored to take the lead in the third when Rodney Peete scored again, this time on his own. Barry Sanders didn’t have a score but continued to make his presence known, ruhing for 143 yeards in the win. The Lions had battled back in the game and the season, as they were now 2-1.
Detroit roared through the Colts on the road with Barry Sanders scoring two more touchdowns and rushing for 179 yards. Rodney Peete also showed up passing for 167 yards and completing 79% of his passes. The next week was more of the same for the Lions as the Bucs were no match for Sanders and Peete. The Buccaneers allowed 160 yards to Sanders as well as three rushing touchdowns to Detroit’s running king. 18 of the Lions 31 points were scored by Sanders who’s touchdown total was now six. Next up were the Vikings at home who put up more of a fight than the Bucs did, but were still no match for the Lions. Barry Sanders had just one touchdown but went over 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight week. But where Sanders was stopped, Rodney Peete flourished. Peete had his best game of 1991 against the Vikings in Week 6 throwing for 260 yards and two scores. The 38-24 win over the Vikings meant the Lions were heading into their bye week 5-1 and with a Bears loss the week prior, the Lions were in first place in the NFC Central. But a brutal stretch lay ahead for the Lions who had matchups out of the bye week against the 49ers, Cowboys and Bears. Up to this point the Lions had been beating vastly inferior teams but their true grit would be tested.
Monday: The Lions suffer a major blow to their great season as the schedule gets tougher and the stakes get higher in Part II of the Restore the Roar: Story of the 1991 Detroit Lions