The Detroit Lions haven’t reached the playoffs in six seasons. They haven’t won a postseason game in 31. Most years, they enter the national consciousness only when they get blown out on Thanksgiving Day and fans around the country complain that they maintain a legacy stranglehold on the early holiday television window.
Last season, Detroit started 1-6. And sure, the Lions finished the season on a winning tear, but they didn't reach the playoffs and they boast almost no star players. Ask the average fan to name a Lion. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson? Much-doubted QB Jared Goff? Head coach Dan Campbell?
This isn’t the New York Jets adding Aaron Rodgers in the offseason.
And yet, as the full NFL schedule is set to be released Thursday, there is already plenty of indication that Detroit is going to be television’s unlikely, or at least non-traditional, darling.
The league has already announced that the Lions will appear in the opening night game at defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City on Thursday, Sept. 7.
It’s about as high-profile as a regular-season game gets. The opening night concept was established in 2002. The Lions, not surprisingly, have never appeared in it.
All of this comes one year after Detroit had zero regular-season games scheduled for prime time. (The Week 17 clash at Green Bay was flexed to Sunday night due to playoff implications.) Essentially, you couldn’t play a more anonymous schedule.
It was par for the course. This is the least-accomplished franchise in the NFL, just that one playoff victory in the past 65 years.
For the Lions, these are heady days, exciting days and days that they earned with the 8-2 heater the team went on to finish the 2022 season. The disastrous start was too much to overcome in the playoff chase, but by the end Detroit was one of the better teams in the NFC.
Defeating Green Bay in Lambeau and keeping the hated Packers out of the playoffs in what turned out to be Rodgers' last game there was enough. Now with Rodgers gone, the focus is on actually winning the NFC North for the first time in three decades.
So how many nationally televised games will Detroit get this season? How many late Sunday afternoons? How many Mondays?
The NFL schedule release is generally a tricked-up promotional event that represents nothing. Everyone already knows who each team will play and where they will play. The rest is sorting out the order.
Perhaps the only drama is finding out if any new teams jump into the rotation of heavy promotion that generally is reserved for the Super Bowl contenders or the insurance commercial-level star players. There is always an ebb and flow to things.
It stands to reason, for example, you’ll see more Jacksonville this year than New England. That, not long ago, would have been laughable.
The Jaguars, though, actually won a playoff game last season and boast a young, big-name quarterback in Trevor Lawrence.
And while the New York Jets are also expected to be everywhere next season, a large portion of that is the addition of Rodgers, not merely a non-playoff team on the rise.
Detroit hasn’t proven anything and it didn't add anyone of note. This is all projection for a roster that general manager Brad Holmes built like a team, not simply around one or two elite players.
There’s no doubt Hutchinson looked great as a rookie. And Goff is a bit of a name, but much of that stems from his time with the Los Angeles Rams. He’s probably most famous for being jettisoned to Detroit two seasons ago so L.A. could acquire Matthew Stafford and win the Super Bowl.
Other than that, it’s not exactly a name-brand roster. That's fine with Holmes and Campbell. Nothing else has worked through the years in Detroit. The franchise has had generational talents (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson). Maybe building out a full and balanced team will do it.
Besides, winning creates names, not the other way around.
Of course, now comes the challenge that has always plagued the Lions — winning. The spotlight is welcome. No one is shying away from the expectations. The team and fan base are energized. Can the Lions finally prove they deserve a modicum of attention?
“Look, we don’t want to take a step back,” Holmes said this offseason. “We don’t want to stay stagnant. We appreciate and are extremely proud of the success that we had last year, but we didn’t make the playoffs.”
The goal is set: division title, playoffs and maybe even more.
And no matter the history, both recent and ancient, once that schedule is released, it’s likely America will have plenty of opportunities to watch and see if it gets achieved.