And in 1991, the season that ended with Detroit boasting a 12-4 record and a rousing playoff win over the Cowboys before a divisional-round defeat, Washington and New Orleans were both undefeated when the Lions started 5-1.
The last time the Lions could do what they can now -- make a serious case as the finest club in their conference, or the entire league -- was when The Jackson 5 released the songs "I Want You Back" and "ABC" with 11-year-old Michael Jackson arriving on the scene as the group's burgeoning young star lead vocalist. It also was the first year after the AFL-NFL merger, 1970.
How've they done it?
With a seismic, incredibly savvy trade and remarkable drafting, even if they didn't follow today's widely accepted rule to not pick a running back in the first round.
From the famous Matthew Stafford trade in 2021, the Lions received the following:
- QB Jared Goff
- CB Ifeatu Melifonwu (2021 third-round pick)
- WR Jameson Williams (2022 first-round pick)
- DL Josh Paschal (2022 second-round pick)
- RB Jahmyr Gibbs (2023 first-round pick)
- TE Sam LaPorta (2023 second-round pick)
- DT Brodric Martin (2023 third-round pick)
Lions GM Brad Holmes, who had spent his entire NFL career within the Rams organization dating back to 2003, had in-depth knowledge of Goff from their time in Los Angeles together. At the time of the trade, Goff's reputation had already crumbled. He felt like a necessary throw-in to replace Stafford but a quarterback who would continue his downward spiral on a team that was clearly rebuilding.
After a solid 2021 in which he completed over 67% of his throws with a reasonable 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, in 2022, Goff had his highest quarterback rating since 2018 and ended the regular season with 15 touchdowns and no picks in his final nine games, during a Lions heater in which the team went 8-2 down the stretch, flipping the script on a 2-6 start.
Goff and brilliant offensive coordinator Ben Johnson had really gelled.
Now in 2023, Goff's fourth in passer rating at 105.1. And the script wasn't only flipped within the 2022 season, when five of Detroit's first seven losses came by four points or less, when it was just not good enough to win. Now, the Lions are dominating. After the impressive one-point win in Arrowhead Stadium over the Chiefs to kick off the 2023 season, the Lions' next four victories have all been by at least 14 points.
The rest of the Goff-Stafford trade for Detroit has yielded marginal yet positive results. Melifonwu is a rock-solid safety when healthy. Same goes for Paschal at defensive tackle. LaPorta is on pace to break rookie tight end receiving records. While David Montgomery has asserted himself as the backfield's bell cow, Gibbs has been a spark plug when given the opportunity before his hamstring injury, to the tune of 4.6 yards per carry.
The rise of the Lions has been about much more than Goff and the remnants of the trade that sent him to Detroit. The Lions' drafting since Holmes took the reins of the organization has been almost clairvoyant.
To land franchise right tackle Penei Sewell, game-wrecking nose tackle Alim McNeill and likely perennial 100-catch slot wideout in Amon-Ra St. Brown in 2021 is about as good as you're going to get in a draft class without a quarterback, particularly for a first-time GM.
Even the club's second fourth-rounder after St. Brown that year, Derrick Barnes, has worked his way to a starting linebacker role. He's a useful blitzer and run-stuffer.
Holmes followed in 2022 with Aidan Hutchinson -- currently alone in second in the NFL in quarterback pressures -- ballhawking safety Kerby Joseph, and supremely efficient pass-rusher James Houston in the sixth. More franchise building blocks. Even linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez would be an upgrade at the second level for many teams.
This 2023 rookie class has seen Gibbs flash, fellow first-round Jack Campbell, while being slow-played into the defense, rock against the run, LaPorta become a middle-of-the-field monster and Brian Branch play like he was still roaming the Alabama defense as a ubiquitous presence.
While many of those youngsters are key, foundational pieces to this 5-1 Lions team, the club's staying power resides in four of five players whose additions to the roster predate the Holmes-Dan Campbell regime -- Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow and Halapoulivaati Vaitai along the people-moving offensive line. When all on the field together, it's an elite group of powerful, athletic, well-balanced veteran blockers who've seen every blitz package and size, shape and style of pass rusher.
I won't run through the rest of the Lions schedule, because the NFL has an incredible amount of parity -- as we were starkly reminded of in Week 6 -- but Detroit is constructed in a way that makes them serious Super Bowl contenders.
A smart quarterback who plays within himself and has No. 1 overall pick natural talent paired with a young, progressive play-caller. A Kevlar offensive line, a diverse group of skill-position players. A deep defensive front with a superstar pressure-creator, and a bevy of dynamic defenders on the back end.
Lions fans, feel free to party like it's 1970 or, if you're a little younger, 1991. Your team's damn good.