Anyone who watched that last-second Detroit loss to Buffalo on Sunday and said, as we’re programmed to do around here, "Same old Lions," hasn’t been paying attention.
Granted, this team has found some unique ways to consistently lose over the last half-century or so. But this one? With injuries mounting, the offense bordering on inept, and the defense playing, as we’ve seen occasionally over the generations, like an elite NFL unit?
This game was there for the kicking.
For more than 30 years — from 1980, when the Lions drafted a Canadian kicker out of Tulane University, until 2012, when Jason Hanson retired as the third-highest scoring player in NFL history — that was a game Detroit wins.
On any given Sunday, Eddie (Money) Murray or Hanson make all three of those kicks Alex Henery missed the other day — and Dan Carpenter would never have gotten a chance to kick that 58-yarder that cost the Lions a win in the closing seconds.
We’ve been spoiled.
Now, after witnessing the wreckage of two failed kickers barely a month into the season, we’re learning about what it’s like for so many other NFL teams with less-than-middling kicking. It’s maddening in the extreme.
Especially because, until lately, we didn’t know how good we’ve had it since Murray burst on the scene and made a league-leading 27 field goals, hit 35 of 36 PATs and was named all everything — First Team All-NFL — by both major wire services and Pro Football Weekly. He ended his rookie season in the Pro Bowl, where he was named the game’s MVP.
Born in Nova Scotia and raised not far from Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman near Vancouver, British Columbia, Murray made a healthy 75.1 percent (244 of 325) of his field-goal attempts over 12 seasons for the Lions.
And then it got even better.
The Lions spent a second-round pick (56th overall) for an All-America kicker out of Washington State, and Hanson went on to a career that earned him myriad NFL records. I once asked Hanson early in his tenure in Detroit what he might be doing with his life had football not turned out so well for him.
"I’d probably be working my way through med school," he said.
Why not? In pre-med studies in college, he earned nearly perfect grades.
As a kicker on a notoriously bad football team, Hanson wasn’t perfect, but he was just what the doctor ordered. Because his team had such a difficult time scoring touchdowns in many of his years in Detroit, Hanson had plenty of opportunity to kick field goals — and win his team games with his big leg.
In 335 career NFL games, all with the Lions, he made a whopping 82.4 percent of his field goals (495 of 601). Of those, 17 were game-winners — eight in regulation, nine in overtime. He finished his NFL career with more field goals of 50-plus yards than anyone in league history.
We were spoiled.
Which made it that much worse when the Lions, knowing they needed a kicker badly, drafted the best one available last spring. Nate Freese attempted 20 field goals in 13 games at Boston College last year and made all 20. His longest was 52 yards.
So when the Lions trotted him out this year wearing Murray’s old No. 3, fans were optimistic. Freese immediately became the darling of fantasy-leaguers. And who could blame them? He didn’t miss.
Of course, Freese made up for that quickly in Detroit. His career with the Lions lasted three games, and he was replaced by Henery, whose time in Detroit fell a game short of that after missing field goals of 44, 47 and 50 yards on Sunday. All chip shots for Hanson and Murray.
The Lions are 1-8 in field-goal attempts of 40-plus yards. As a result, they’re 3-2 instead of sitting atop the NFC North comfortably alone at 4-1.
We didn’t realize how good we had it for so long until Hanson retired. We took superior kicking for granted in a town desperate for even modestly competitive NFL football.