Ex-Lions, from nothing to everything

Cliff Avril

NEW YORK -- The view from the Westin Hotel overlooks the Manhattan skyline, and the food is scrumptious and the beds are soft. This is what it must feel like to be a king: Everywhere the Seattle Seahawks go, there are police escorts and fawning fans hanging to their every word. Their sendoff in Seattle last weekend was a scene out of a movie, with tens of thousands of well-wishers lining the streets and overpasses during their route to the airport. They passed by boaters holding up a sign. "GO HAWKS," it said. "Everything was done first-class," said Seahawks receivers coach Kippy Brown. "It's hard to put into words."

Perhaps no one appreciates these moments more than Brown. Five years ago, Brown, along with Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon and Denver center Manny Ramirez, were in a much darker place. They were part of a Detroit Lions team that played 16 games and lost every one of them.

The odds of making a Super Bowl are long, but what those 2008 Lions did was unprecedented. No other team in the history of the NFL has gone winless since the league went to a 16-game format in 1978. It's a topic, not surprisingly, that none of them wanted to focus on this week. You play a season and you move on, Brown says.

But the fall of 2008 was hard to forget. The country was deep into a recession, and Detroit was one of the hardest-hit cities. Unemployment soared as the auto industry collapsed, and soon, many in the Lions' organization would be looking for jobs, too. It became popular for fans to hold signs at Ford Field requesting a government bailout for the Lions.

"I didn't realize how bad it was until the offseason," Avril said, "and not wanting to tell people that I played for the Lions at the time. It was crazy, but we're here at the Super Bowl [five] years later, and everything happens for a reason."

Last month, the Detroit Historical Society ran a photo on its Facebook page commemorating the five-year anniversary of Dec. 28, 2008, the day the Lions closed the season with a 31-21 loss to the Packers. In photos from that day in Green Bay, many of the players have their heads down.

"Every time we went out," Brown said, "I thought we were going to win."

Brown had started the season with a promotion to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. All his life, he'd been surrounded by successful people. He worked with Peyton Manning during his freshman year at Tennessee; he coached under Tony Dungy and Jimmy Johnson. Brown knew talent, and at the start of 2008, his receiving corps seemed promising with Roy Williams and a youngster named Calvin Johnson.

Problem was, the Lions didn't have a quarterback. They tried Jon Kitna, who was injured in Week 5, and Dan Orlovsky. They pulled Daunte Culpepper out of retirement. Orlovsky was the poor soul responsible for one of the signature plays of 2008, running out of the back of the end zone for a safety against the Vikings in a game the Lions lost by, of course, two points. Orlovsky called himself an idiot after the play.

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