This Sunday, the 11-4 Detroit Lions and 11-4 Green Bay Packers will meet in Lambeau Field to decide the NFC North championship. For the Lions, this will be their biggest regular season game in over twenty years. For the Packers, this type of game – and pressure that accompanies them – is just another day at the office. Twenty-one years ago, the Lions and Packers battled down the stretch in a memorable division race in the old NFC Central (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Tampa Bay). The Lions were seeking their second division crown in three years. The Packers were seeking their first division title since 1972. At the time, they seemed like two teams on the rise. However, history would prove otherwise. As the NFL reached its playoff phase that season, the Lions and Packers would square off in back-to-back weeks. The second game coming in the NFC Wildcard Game at the Silverdome. The outcome of that game still haunts longtime Lions fans. Conversely, Packer backers often choose that game as the one that ignited a new Green Bay run of success that continues to this day. In this two part series, DrivewithJack.com Detroit Lions historian, Doug Warren, will lead you back to 1993 and chronicle how those two games set the two franchises on opposite paths for the next twenty years.
Since the Detroit Lions tragic and magical 12-4 season of 1991, the team had remained talented and competitive, but woefully inconsistent. In 1992, instead of sticking with Erik Kramer (the hero of Detroit’s 38-6 NFC playoff win over Dallas) at quarterback, Wayne Fontes decided to return to Rodney Peete and his now healed Achilles tendon. In addition, Fontes decided to scrap the Run-and-Shoot and return fully to a conventional NFL offense, promoting 1991 offensive coordinator, Dave Levy, to assistant head coach and hiring former San Diego Chargers’ head coach, Dan Henning, to run the offense.
The ensuing quarterback controversy, coupled with the abrupt change in offensive systems, became the Lions’ collective Achilles as they stumbled out of the gate with a 1-and-5 record and never recovered. The ’92 season ended mercifully at 5-11 after a eye-rolling road loss to San Francisco, 24-6, on Monday Night Football. A game that saw Detroit 1991 first-round draft choice, Andre Ware, make his first NFL start against Joe Montana, who was starting his first game since being injured in the 1990 NFC Championship game.
In 1993 however, the Lions jumped out to a 7-3 record, despite a quarterback carousel that was nauseating. Rodney Peete led the Lions to an 2-0 start that season. But after a 14-3 loss in Week 3 to New Orleans, Peete was demoted to third-string behind new starter, Andre Ware, and backup, Erik Kramer.
Was it front office meddling that led to the move? No one has ever said for sure. But when team owner, William Clay Ford Sr., called Kramer’s answering machine by mistake the day of the decision – and congratulated Andre Ware for getting the promotion to starter – it was clear that the inmate with the big checkbook was in all likelihood flexing his inept muscle in the Honolulu Blue Asylum.
“Wayne told the media I was banged up and that’s why Andre was starting,” Peete recalled in 1995. “And that wasn’t the case at all.”
And as far as the owner’s congratulatory phone message to Kramer – I mean – Andre Ware. . . .
“It was kind of the epitome of that whole year,” Peete said. “Nobody knew what was happening. Nobody knew what was going on.”
In Ware’s first start, he went 11-for-24, for 184 yards and 1 TD, as the Lions beat the Phoenix Cardinals, 26-20. But a week later, Ware went 5-of-14, for 56 yards and a pick, before Kramer replaced him in a 27-10 loss to previously winless Tampa Bay.
After the Lions’ first bye-week (the NFL gave teams two weeks off in 1993), Peete was back in the saddle, leading the Lions to four-straight wins (Seattle, L.A. Rams, Minnesota and Tampa Bay).
But after their second bye-week, Detroit crashed with a three-game losing streak (26-17 to Green Bay; 10-6 to Chicago; 13-0 to Minnesota). Rodney Peete went a combined 53-of-89, for 405 yards, 2 touchdowns and 7 interceptions during that stretch. Against the Bears and Vikings, Peete had 0 TDs and 6 INTs. The shutout by Minnesota was the first time the Lions had been held scoreless at the Silverdome since 1988.
Three straight-losses had locked the now 7-6 Lions into a three-way tie in the Central with Green Bay and Chicago. Minnesota was a game behind at 6-6.
Everyone had seen enough. Wayne Fontes was in the cross hairs once again. The “Big Buck” needed to act. Dan Henning’s Edsel of an offense and its driver, Rodney Peete, were both recalled.
Peete was demoted to third-string (behind Kramer and Ware) for a second and final time. Dan Henning was fired. And Dave Levy, the man who had replaced Mouse Davis as Lions’ offensive coordinator after 1990, who had been replaced by Henning at the start of the season, was returned to his old post.
“These were decisions I had to make that I think are best for this team,” Fontes said to the media once the purge was complete. “We have been struggling on offense all year. You guys all know that.
“Dave was already on John McKay’s staff when I broke in as an assistant at the University of Southern California,” Fontes said. “He was my mentor. I respected him then and I still respect him today.
“I think the players will respond to Dave,” Fontes added, “and I’m just very fortunate to have him with us in this time of need.”
With Levy and Kramer back at the controls of the now 7-5 Lions, Detroit would reignite their dormant 1991 fire.
In Week 13, versus the Phoenix Cardinals, Kramer – in his first start of the season – went 19-of-25, for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 21-14 win.
Kramer would pass for 76-of-114, for 882 yards, 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the Lions final four games. The Lions would win win three, capturing the NFC Central Division, for the second time in three seasons, with a 10-6 record.
While Dan Henning disliked input, suggestions and questions from players, Dave Levy welcomed them.
“They are a natural paring,” receiver Brett Perriman said of Levy and Kramer. “Everybody’s got a little more input with Dave Levy. But Erik makes sure in the meeting room that everything gets looked at. And I mean everything.”
“The whole offense opened up when we changed offensive coordinators,” said receiver Willie Green. “Dave Levy came in and said, ‘You do what you feel comfortable with.’ But the main thing is that he listens to the players.”
“Dave Levy has kind of opened the door to a lot of people to have some input,” said Erik Kramer. “It’s helping us feel confident about getting things done.”
The amazing thing about that 1993 surge, aside from all of the above, is that the Lions were “getting things done” without their best player. Barry Sanders had sprained his knee in the 10-6 Thanksgiving loss to Dave Wandstedt’s Chicago Bears. After the loss, the Lions’ record was 7-4. Sanders would not play for the rest of the regular season.
Instead, the Lions had to rely on Derrick Moore and Eric Lynch to carry the rushing load. Moore, originally an 8th round draft choice of Atlanta in 1992, was the Lions’ designated short-yardage runner in 1993. That season, he would run 88 times for 405 yards (4.5 avg.), catch 21 passes for another 169 yards and score 4 touchdowns. Moore had 20 carries for 107 yards and 7 catches for 54 yards against the Cardinals in the Lions’ first game without Barry.
Lynch, a native of Flat Rock, Michigan, was a 1992 undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State University. The 5′ 10”, 224 pound Lynch, was a grind-it-out, I-Formation, running back for Brian Kelly, the current Notre Dame skipper, in Allendale. In 1992, Lynch, a practice squad player, had played in just one game for the Lions. He would return the the Lions’ practice squad in 1993 and join the roster as Moore’s backup for the final four games after Sanders’ injury. In the regular season finale, with Moore out with bruised ribs, Lynch would turn in one of the most underrated, clutch performances in Detroit Lions’ history.
January 2, 1994
Green Bay 24
@ Pontiac Silverdome
The Packers finished third in the NFC Central in 1993 behind Detroit and Minnesota and were making just their third post-season appearance (1972 and 1982) since a man named Lombardi ruled Title Town, U.S.A. The Pack was in the second-year of (general manager) Ron Wolf, and (head coach) Mike Holmgren’s rebuilding project. The cornerstones of that rebuild were a young, gun-slinging quarterback, Brett Favre, and an all-world, already legendary, defensive end, Reggie White.
The Packers would draw first blood when a high throw by Kramer to Lions’ tight end, Rodney Holman, was intercepted by Green Bay linebacker, Bryce Paup.
Two plays later, Favre dumped a screen pass to halfback Edgar Bennett. Bennett rumbled 39-yards to paydirt, giving the visitors an early 7-0 advantage.
But on this day, the Lions’ defense would make Favre look like Andre Ware.
Favre was intercepted four times. Detroit linebackers (Pat Swilling, Tracy Scroggins, George Jamison) collected three, while cornerback, “Big Play” Ray Crockett, returned his pick 46 yards to set up Lynch’s 5-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
The Packers answered with a Chris Jacke 54-yard boot for a 10-7 lead. Detroit’s Jason Hanson tied the score at 10-10 with a 37-yard FG of his own. Those points coming off a Melvin Jenkins’ fumble recovery by Green Bay punt returner, Mike Prior.
In the third period, Hanson connected from 53 yards, giving the Lions their first lead of the day, 13-10.
Green Bay responded with a 2-yard Edgar Bennett blast. Then Hanson and Jacke traded field goals, from 48 and 47 yards, respectively. Giving Green Bay the lead, 20-16, as the third quarter neared completion. . . . Cue Mel Gray.
Gray returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards. A few plays later, Kramer hit tight end Ty Hallock with a pass good for 14 yards. That set up Eric Lynch’s second NFL touchdown, a one-yarder. Lions 23, Packers 20.
On Green Bays next possession, Favre was picked off a final time, by Pat Swilling, at the Packers’ 34. The Lions’ capitalized with a 8-yard TD, from Kramer to Rodney Holman, to extend the Lions lead, 30-20. Green Bay never challenged again.
Lions’ defensive coordinator, Henry Bullough, a Green Bay player in the pre-Lombardi years, who had come of age as a defensive coordinator under Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State, before embarking on a 35-year NFL coaching career in 1970, befuddled Farve and Holmgren all day. Favre was sacked twice and harassed all day by the Lions’ pass rush. On three of his four interceptions, he was hit just as he released the ball.
On this day, Eric Lynch was the Lions’ offensive lynchpin. With 30 carries for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, he had truly made the most of his opportunity. The Silverdome rocked in appreciation.
“I’ve prepared for two years to do this,” Lynch said. “I can hear the people and the noise they are making but I can’t let anything get in the way of my chance so I try not to look around.”
For Dave Levy, who Wayne Fontes first befriended on the USC campus as staff members under the legendary John McKay in the 1960s, it was just another season at the office.
“I’m a professional assistant,” Levy said. “I’ve been an assistant all my life. I’m just glad we were able to get things on the right track in time.”
For Wayne Fontes, the Big Buck had once again escaped his pursuers.
“I don’t feel vindicated,” Fontes said. “I just feel good for my team. . . . The danger is when you win at home by ten points and think you can just show up and do it again. I think it will be more difficult the next time we play them.”
For Fontes’ players, it was another chance to stick up for their embattled leader.
“You’ve been dogging him up all year,” cried safety William White to the assembled media, many of them trying to hide the knives they had brought to skin the Big Buck’s hide. “We’ve been in first place all year and you kept saying it was a fluke. Do me a favor, don’t pick us again next week.”
Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre and the Packers lost the 1993 NFC Central crown on this day. But they’d make amends just seven days later. Holmgren’s quotes after the loss regarding his young quarterback would prove prophetic the following Sunday, in the Silverdome, in the NFC Wildcard Game.
“Favre is young and he tries to make things happen,” Holmgren said. “When he makes mistakes like that, they’re aggressive mistakes. He’ll have to learn he can’t make every play. When he does that, typically, we win. But it’s a thin line. I don’t want to take his aggressiveness away.”
Detroit 0 10 6 14 30
Green Bay 7 3 10 0 20
Green Bay – Bennett 39-yard pass from Favre (Jacke kick)
Detroit – Lynch 5-yard rush (Hanson kick)
Green Bay – FG Jacke 54
Detroit – FG Hanson 37
Detroit – FG Hanson 53
Green Bay – Bennett 2-yard rush (Jacke kick)
Detroit – FG Hanson 48 yard
Green Bay – FG Jacke 47
Detroit – Lynch 1-yard rush (Hanson kick)
Detroit – Holman 8-yard pass from Kramer (Hanson kick)