By Mike O’Hara
Special to WJR.com
A quarter century later, the memories and exploits of the Detroit Lions’ 1991 season sparkle like rare jewels – and are just as priceless.
No, they didn’t get a parade down Woodward Avenue and feel the waves of love and rousing cheers from adoring fans wash over them as newly crowned champions.
There was no visit to the White House and the presentation of a Honolulu blue and silver jersey to the President with his name and the No. 1 on the back.
They did not win Super Bowl XXVI and bring the Lombardi Trophy home. A loss to the bigger, stronger – and better – Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship ended their playoff run.
The last hurrah that season as winners – and it was loud enough in the Pontiac Silverdome that day that the reverberations still echo – was in a 38-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoff round one week before the finale with Washington.
But between the bookend losses to the Redskins at old RFK Stadium in Washington, the 1991 season was a thrill ride for players and fans alike.
“That team was very special,” said Eddie Murray, a Pro Bowl kicker and elder statesman on the 1991 team. “I’m someone who keeps that team close to my heart.
“To be part of that season, to make it to the NFC Championship – I’m very proud of it. It was a special year.”
It is often said that sports are the ultimate reality television show, and the 1991 season offered compelling proof.
It rolled on like a series of weekly episodes, each with its own theme – thriller, drama, comedy, hope, disappointment, athletic setback and soul-searing human tragedy from offensive lineman Mike Utley’s paralyzing injury. It was authored not by media storytellers but by a collection of athletes who were unified to achieve a single goal: winning.
The bottom line: A 12-4 win-loss record in the regular season, first place in the NFC Central Division, the playoff victory over the celebrated Cowboys and a ride-ending 41-10 loss to Washington in the NFC Championship.
The storyline: The coming together of a group of players entering their prime who navigated an improbable course charted by head coach Wayne Fontes, who laid out his vision to the Lions who were good enough to make the playoffs for the first time since 1983.
Jerry Ball, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle and team leader, recalled Fontes spelling out his plan.
“He didn’t give us an exact win-loss record,” Ball said. “But if we took care of business in the first eight games, we’d be in position to make a run in November and December and make the playoffs.
“Wayne told us, ‘At the end of the day, we’re going to be there, fellas. And they’re going to have to deal with us.’”
Indeed, the Lions would have to be dealt with, and they held a lot of aces on a roster stocked with Pro Bowl players in all three phases.
The defense had Ball at tackle, Chris Spielman at linebacker and Bennie Blades – the enforcer on the back end – at safety. The offense had Lomas Brown and Kevin Glover blocking up front, rookie Herman Moore at wide receiver coming into his own in the playoffs, and the incomparable Barry Sanders at running back.
Murray and three-time All-Pro return man Mel Gray were special-teams standouts, and a supporting cast of dependable starters and backups provided quality depth that would be needed when injuries struck.
Looking back, Sanders feels he was on a team that could have done even more.
“I couldn’t believe the team had come so far in such a short time, and when we beat Dallas in the divisional playoff, I was thinking that this team really had a chance of being one of the powerhouses in the NFC,” he said.
“Even after the loss in D.C. in the NFC Championship game, we all felt like the team had turned the corner and was going to be an elite team in the NFL.”
By no means was the ride without bumps or challenges.
There was no greater test of resilience than when Utley sustained a paralyzing neck injury in Game 11 – a 21-10 victory over the Rams at the Silverdome.
That tragic accident became a unifying force when Utley gave the now famous “thumbs up” signal as he was wheeled off the field.
“That was a huge rallying cry for us — to make the season even more special, to play hard for Mike,” said Murray.
There were other tests and challenges, starting with the 45-0 loss at Washington in the opener. The Lions rebounded, and the season rolled on like any other, with challenges and setbacks. Among them:
Bouncing back: After the Washington debacle two straight victories at home over the Packers and Dolphins got the Lions on course and launched a five-game winning streak.
Injury, QB switch: After a lopsided road loss at San Francisco ended the win streak, starting quarterback Rodney Peete went out for the season early in Game 8 against Dallas with a torn Achilles. Erik Kramer finished out the victory over the Cowboys and took over for the rest of the season.
Ultimate test: Two straight losses in Games 9 and 10 made it three losses in four games and put the season on edge with a 6-4 record entering a critical Game 11 matchup at home against the Rams. The Lions would win, 21-10, but the human drama of Utley’s injury in that game would make the Lions dig deep into their reservoir of faith and fortitude.
Winning out: After the Rams game, the Lions won their last five games to go into the playoffs with a six-game winning streak and a 12-4 record.
Thumbs up, united front: How would the Lions react to Utley’s tragic injury? The answer came quickly. It cannot be overstated how Utley inspired his teammates.
“The whole ‘thumbs up’ thing started very rapidly,” said Murray. “Everybody had different ways of handling bad news. As a team, it was kind of, ‘Guys, we have something special going on here. We feel for Mike. We feel for his family.
“But we have to stay the course.’”
Moving on: With a man down, and five games to play, Utley was not forgotten. With the season in the balance, he provided the inspiration.
“The ‘91 season was really bittersweet,” Sanders said. “We had such a great season as a team, but obviously, what happened to Mike in the Rams game weighed heavily on all of us.”
The best way to stay the course was to rely on the defense and hand the ball to Sanders, and the Lions did that in their next game at Minnesota. Sanders rushed for 220 yards and all four Lions touchdowns in a 34-14 victory over the Vikings.
Kramer provided guidance with a coolness under pressure that made teammates nickname him “Brass.” And it wasn’t because he had a brass knocker on the front door of his house.
“This is where the defense said, ‘OK, guys, we have to rally around Erik,’” Murray said. “Erik brought some calmness and some steadiness.”
The victory over the Vikings answered any questions about the Lions’ focus and determination and sent them home for Game 13 against the Bears, who had a one-game lead over the Lions. The defense intercepted Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh four times, and Murray kicked three field goals in a 16-6 victory to create a first-place tie.
With three games left, the Lions beat the Jets at home and won the last two on the road at Green Bay and Buffalo in frigid conditions that revealed the roster’s depth.
Gray’s 78-yard punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter provided the winning margin against Green Bay. Against Buffalo, a touchdown on an interception return by backup defensive back Sheldon White – who later would become the Lions’ head of pro personnel and interim general manager in 2015 – helped send the game into overtime.
Murray thought it might come down to his kick, and it did. His 21-yard field goal won it.
“I thought, ‘This game is lining itself up for a game-winning kick,’” Murray said, “’and I hope I’m the one who gets a chance at it.’”
The regular season was over for the Lions, but the Bears had a Monday Night TV game at San Francisco. If the Bears won, they’d be even with the Lions at 12-4 but win the division under the tiebreaker formula. A Bears loss would make the Lions division champs.
Fontes, his players and some fans and media gathered at the Main Event restaurant in the Silverdome to watch the game. It was no contest – a 52-14 victory for the 49ers that made the Lions division winners and left the Bears in second place.
When the outcome was obvious, Fontes lit up a big cigar and celebrated.
It was on to the playoffs for the first-place Lions.
On Jan. 5, 1992, the Lions hosted the Cowboys at the Silverdome – a 38-6 Lions victory. Kramer passed for 337 yards and three touchdowns, and Sanders closed out the show – as stars are supposed to do — with a twisting 47-yard touchdown run.
It looked like Sanders ran through the Cowboys’ defense twice.
“Wow … I just saw something special,” Murray said, recalling his thoughts of that run. “He electrified that stadium with that iconic run. It kind of catapulted him into the stardom he had for himself, and why he’s in the Hall of Fame.
“It was just one of those games.”
And it was one of those seasons.
It ended the next week the same way it had begun, with a lopsided 41-10 loss to Washington. The better team won – again. Washington went on to hammer Buffalo, 37-24, in Super Bowl XXVI.
In tribute to Mike Utley, Washington’s players flashed the thumbs up sign as the final seconds of the game ticked away.
There was disappointment for the Lions that they were spectators for the Super Bowl, but no disgrace for coming up short.
The 1991 Detroit Lions were short of reaching the summit, but for their fans and themselves, it was a thrilling ride.