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They were one of the NFL's showpiece teams of the 1950s, a runner-up in the '60s and a fading franchise in the '70s. Mention the Detroit Lions and oldtimers will rub their eyes and tell you about Bobby Layne and Gil (Wild Hoss) Mains and those mean teams they played on, and they'll bring up the great battles with the Green Bay Packers—Jerry Kramer against Alex Karras.
Since then the flame has flared a few times, but generally it has been very low. Oh, Detroit snuck into the playoffs as a wild-card team in 1970 and lost to Dallas 5-0 in one of the least memorable postseason games in history. Quick now, how many 1970 Lions can you name? After that, zero.
Last year rookie Billy Sims set hearts aflutter and the Lions jumped out quickly, but they blew it down the stretch. Now they're back. Yes, they are. After a convincing 27-10 Thanksgiving Day victory over Kansas City, Detroit is 7-6 and tied for first place in the NFC Central with Minnesota and Tampa Bay. And if you believe in the hot-team theory, you've got to like the Lions' chances. Look at it this way:
Detroit's 27-24 12-man field-goal victory over Dallas on Nov. 15 started a three-game win streak, with each victory being better than the last. The Lions' defense has allowed only two touchdowns in the last 10 quarters. Included in that stretch is a 23-7 win over Chicago in which the Lions allowed 24 yards, total, an alltime low for the Bears. They're peaking at just the right time. Their wounded are healthy, and their quarterback situation is in the best shape it has been in in years, with Gary Danielson, who dislocated his left wrist in September, back to reinforce the current top gun, Eric Hipple. Best of all, the division comes to them—the Packers in Green Bay this Sunday, then the Vikings and Bucs in the Silverdome. And though Detroit is just 1-6 on the road, it is 6-0 in the Dome.
Why such success at home? After all, the Dome is enclosed; there are no freak-weather conditions to worry about, no snowstorms. "It's strange, isn't it?" says 32-year-old Stan White, the ex-Baltimore Colt who is now the daddy of the Lions' linebacking corps. "I guess teams coming in here read about our winning at home and wonder, and then when they get here, the fans are right up close and screaming like crazy, and they think, 'Yeah, I can see why they do well here.' It must work on their minds or something."
The Lions, of course, will win the division outright if they can take their last three games. Their surge started on Monday night, Oct. 19, when they opened up a spare-parts box and Hipple popped out. He'd been around for a year. He'd been a pretty good run-and-throw quarterback at Utah State, and the Lions had drafted him in the fourth round in 1980. They were very happy with his rookie-year contribution, as a holder for Ed Murray's club record of 27 field goals. Passing? Well, you see, he didn't get to throw many—or any, actually.
On Oct. 19 the Lions were 2-4 and sinking fast. Danielson was in street clothes and Jeff Komlo was 0-2 in his two starts. Hipple got the start against the Bears. He threw the ball only 25 times (Monte Clark teams almost never pass as much as they run) but he went for distance: 336 yards, the sixth most in the club's 48-year history. He ran, he blocked on the reverses, he provided instant action. And Detroit romped, 48-17.
"When Coach Clark told me I was starting," Hipple says, "he told me, 'I don't want you to worry about anything. I don't want you thinking too much. Just go back and fire the ball, let it go.' He left the door open for me. He didn't want me to be a robot, but I guess he didn't want me to be too wild, either."
Since then Hipple has settled into the middle ranks of the NFL pass ratings. His percentage is low, 46.7%, but he'll throw the ball downfield before he'll dink it to his backs. And he can get hot, put a lot of points up quickly. Hipple also knows how to scramble. "The coaches told me to get down in a hurry when I see trouble coming, to hit the slide," he says, "but to tell you the truth, there's something a bit dishonest with that. I mean, here are all these linemen and running backs working hard, getting hit on every play. For me to just drop to the ground, well, they might lose a little respect. I'd prefer to try to duck one or two shots before I go down."
The Lions will never be a pass-happy team, not with Clark coaching. His trademark with Detroit, and before that with San Francisco, has been a solid running game and a good defense, but against Kansas City he saw the value of a quick strike. Toward the end of the second quarter Hipple hit Wide Receiver Freddie Scott with a 40-yard TD pass that made the score 17-7 in the Lions' favor, and the Chiefs had to change their approach. Until then the Chiefs had thrown only four passes, but now they had to put the ball up, and with one of their key receivers, Henry Marshall, on injured reserve, they were in over their heads.