ALLEN PARK, Mich. — From fired-up fans in Motor City bars to bookies in Las Vegas, the long downtrodden Detroit Lions have people believing that this could be their breakout season.
The Lions closed last season with a four-game winning streak and kicked off this year with an impressive win at Tampa Bay, ratcheting up the buzz for Sunday’s home opener against Kansas City.
“I’ve been a Lions fan for 50 years and I want to live long enough to see them win the Super Bowl — and this might be the year,” 58-year-old Rick Steciak said between sips of beer at Oakwood Grill and Lounge near team headquarters. “People are so pumped up about the Lions like they were when Barry Sanders was playing.”
Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back, suddenly retired just before training camp in 1999 and the Lions needed more than a decade to recover. Detroit’s last winning season was in 2000 and the team won fewer than one-fourth of its games from 2001-09, taking losing to an unprecedented level with the NFL’s first 0-16 season just three years ago.
Those memories are fading fast.
“I can’t wait to see what it will be like when we finally give the fans a winner,” said center Dominic Raiola, who was among former general manager Matt Millen’s first draft picks in 2001. “People have been desperate for a winner here.”
The Lions have a dynamic offense, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and a QB-hounding, run-stuffing defense built around All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. They seem to have found the right combination in the Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew to sustain success for a franchise that hasn’t pulled it off in more than a half-century.
Since winning the 1957 NFL title, Detroit has exactly one playoff victory.
“Our fans have been dying for us to be good for decades,” said kicker Jason Hanson, who will break a league record by playing his 297th game with the same team on Sunday against the Chiefs. “The buzz is back and it’s our job to keep it. Right now, it’s just talk.”
The Detroit Tigers are poised to win their first division title in 24 years, Michigan and Michigan State are undefeated, the Red Wings are getting ready to begin the NHL season and yet it is the Lions who are generating the most excitement in this sports-crazed state.
“It does speak to not only our team, but to the popularity of NFL in general, when you look at things like television ratings and we’re almost pulling a 25 rating and the Tigers in the middle of this great win streak were at a (5 rating)” Lewand said. “That just tells you the magnitude of what we’re dealing with when we’re talking about the popularity of the NFL and the enthusiasm that our fans have.”
The Lions are expected to build upon the momentum with a 2-0 record for the first time in four years. They’re favored to beat Kansas City by more than a touchdown, the largest point spread in their favor since 2000.
“It’s just feels different this year,” said 33-year-old bartender Christina Bako of Garden City. “My three little kids are even going crazy about the Lions.”
Lewand joked that he doesn’t have a “buzz-o-meter,” but there are tangible signs that illustrate the enthusiasm in addition to local TV ratings.
Detroit’s home opener and its Monday night game — its first in the regular season since 2001 — against Chicago have sold out. The other six games at Ford Field probably will be sellouts.
“We’re second in the NFL in new season ticket sales this season,” said vice president of business operations Bob Raymond. “We’re fourth overall in club seats.”
The team is selling 57 percent more merchandise at its retail store in Ford Field and online, according to Raymond, who adds that sponsorship deals and suite sales have increased over last year. Suh’s No. 90 jersey is the most popular followed by Johnson’s No. 81 and Stafford’s No. 9, according to John Wangler, regional sales manager for Reebok and adidas.
“People are fired up to wear Honolulu blue and silver again,” said Wangler, a former Michigan quarterback. “I haven’t seen anything like this in 10 to 15 years.”
Schwartz is just glad Lions fans have a reason to hope after hanging with the team during lean years — and decades.
“Well, they have persevered through a lot,” he said. “Obviously, it is a passionate fan base and it has been for a long period of time. This is a football town. Our job is to give them good football to cheer for. .. They have been dormant for a little while. One good rain and the grass is green again and that’s the way our fans are.”