DETROIT Before the Buffalo Bills held sole possession of the longest active streak of missing the playoffs in the NFL, they shared that unwanted distinction with the Detroit Lions.
Eleven consecutive years of futility, however, ended last year after a 10-6 season that earned the Lions a trip to the wild-card round (they were beaten by New Orleans, 45-28).
"I think it was a huge relief. I wouldn't say we got to where we wanted to get, but you have to sit and kind of say we did some of it," said Lions center Dominic Raiola, who's been with the team since 2001. "Everybody else in the city was winning. We were kind of the laughingstock of the town."
Indeed, the Lions were the poster children for ineptitude during those 11 seasons. They had a .273 winning percentage (48-128 record), including the worst NFL season in history, an 0-16 campaign in 2008.
So, yes, a wild-card playoff berth matters.
"It was huge. We didn't have to be embarrassed to go anywhere," Raiola said. "It was hard to travel; it was hard to go around town, because the simple fact is we sucked. That was the bottom line, we sucked. We didn't have enough talent, we didn't have anything. We weren't that good."
That made motivation a problem.
"Everyone's paid to play all the way through the season, but if you do that enough times in a row, it's really hard to stay motivated," said kicker Jason Hanson, who's spent his entire 21-year career with the team. "Without that carrot of being competitive and getting a chance to go to the postseason out there, it's tough, so it was a big breakthrough for us. It was just a level of excitement. It makes the work that you put in seem worth it."
While the Bills' valleys have never sunk as low as they did in Detroit Buffalo had a 70-106 record (.398 winning percentage) over the same 11-year stretch the playoff drought has become a black cloud hanging over the franchise.
"Their fan base is very similar to Buffalo in terms of, it's very blue collar. The people work hard for their money. They live for Sundays. They live for the Lions," said Bills assistant special teams coach Stan Kwan, who previously spent 10 years working for Detroit, most recently six seasons from 2004-09. "During that stretch when we weren't successful, I know it was tough on us, because we're part of that community and we wanted to show well for them. It's their team. Hockey and football are kings over there."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
In rebuilding their franchise, four key components were mentioned by players. There are some notable similarities and a few differences to the rebuilding effort taking place here.
"I think the starting point is the players in the locker room. I say that humbly as the kicker," Hanson said. "But I just know that we're more talented now than we were in the past. We have some key players."
That list starts with quarterback Matthew Stafford (first overall pick in 2009) and receiver Calvin Johnson (second overall pick in 2007). Those two along with the second overall pick in 2010, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh helped put an end to a horrific stretch of wasted high draft picks. Among the whiffs: quarterback Joey Harrington (third overall, 2002) and three straight first-round receivers (Carlos Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams), none of whom achieved more than fleeting success with the Lions.
"That's kind of the blueprint of how everything started. Every year, the drafts got better," Raiola said. "There's no better way to build a franchise than around a guy like Matthew Stafford. He's a hard-working, smart, talented guy."
The Bills haven't drafted any higher than third during their drought, but similarly missed on some picks early in the last decade, including their own Mike Williams (fourth overall, 02) and Aaron Maybin (11th overall, 09) and made several other questionable personnel decisions in regards to how their first-round picks were used.
There is hope, however, for the Bills' last three first-round picks the ones made since Buddy Nix has been general manager. Rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore ('12), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (third overall, '11) and running back C.J. Spiller ('10) all will play big roles this season.
The Lions also made an important free-agent signing before the 2010 season when they brought in defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch from the Tennessee Titans. He's made 12 sacks over the last two seasons, but just as importantly brought an exemplary work ethic into the locker room.
"He really kick-started them last year, and hopefully Mario Williams will be the same way for us," Kwan said. "It's that type of a player that both organizations needed."
Martin Mayhew started his professional playing career when the Buffalo Bills drafted him in the 10th round in 1988. He never played in a game for the Bills, however, before going to the Washington Redskins. Mayhew later started at cornerback for the Redskins in their Super Bowl XXVI victory over the Bills.
Mayhew took over the Lions at their lowest possible point, following that 0-16 season. While he had worked in the team's front office since 2001, he had never been a general manager before. It was a risky move, but one that's paid big dividends. Mayhew's fingerprints are all over the Lions' biggest moves, including the hiring of coach Jim Schwartz.
"I think it starts at the top. It starts with management and our head coach," Raiola said. "He brought a different energy in. It was a clean start."
The Lions had six different head coaches during their playoff drought, including those with interim tags.
"The stability of keeping coaches and systems throughout the year and letting it grow is huge," Hanson said. "Quarterbacks get comfortable in their systems, defenses start playing instead of thinking. All that just grows on itself to make you a competitive team."
The Bills have had similar stability since Nix was hired as general manager on New Year's Eve 2009. He hired Gailey 20 days after taking over, giving the organization the leadership structure it has today.
The Lions' run to the postseason was actually sparked at the end of the 2010 season. They went 6-10 that year, but ended on a four-game winning streak.
"That was kind of like, all right, now we're going into the next season with some extra incentive,' " Raiola said. "What'd we start, 5-0 last year? I think a lot of that was carrying that momentum from the 4-0 finish to the 5-0 start."
That got the Lions' long-suffering fans on board, similar to how the buzz was around Western New York after the Bills beat the Patriots.
"[Fans] can tell the difference between a garbage team and a competitive team," Hanson said. "We always had great fans even through the lean years when we weren't winning games. Last year was different at Ford Field. The fans knew and they were behind us and they were ready to explode.
"They were just waiting for us to do our part. We started to come through last year and it was special. It was fun. It's what the NFL can be. You get 60,000 people in a stadium that are just rocking and you're playing well, that kind of stuff really can feed on itself during a season."
The Bills and Lions were the talk of the league after their 3-0 starts. But they took different paths from that point.
The Lions won their next two games to get to 5-0, then went through a rocky 2-5 stretch over the next seven weeks. They were able to stop that streak, however, by winning three of four to end the season.
This is where the similarities between the Bills and Lions differ. Buffalo's 1-8 finish to the 2011 season is certainly nothing to build on.
One thing that never seemed to waver during that poor stretch for the Bills, however, is the cohesiveness in the locker room.
Chemistry alone might not win games, but it doesn't hurt.
"That's a key component to keeping it going, because there have also been talented teams that fall apart because the locker room they're not together," Hanson said. "If there's not that vibe in the locker room of everyone's in this for each other and working hard for the same goals, at some point it's going to disintegrate and short circuit what you're trying to do."
"I can speak for our offense because I'm around them all the time. We actually hang out," Raiola said. "We get along. Every one of these guys I can sit and hang out with.
"You're talking about the best player in the league over there [pointing to Calvin Johnson] with no ego, no nothing."
That's the blueprint laid out by Detroit. Now the Bills must follow it.
"It's our job as an organization to find that way to do it. It looks like the Lions have found that," Kwan said.