‘They deserve it’: Members of 0-16 Lions on Dan Campbell, long-suffering fans and Super Bowl dreams

DETROIT -- There are two numbers Detroiters will never forget: 0 and 16.

They represent the Detroit Lions' 2008 season -- the one in which they became the first team in NFL history to play a 16-game schedule without winning a game (though the 2017 Cleveland Browns eventually joined them).

The team set a record for most losses in a season, while allowing the third-most points, the fourth-most touchdowns and the second-most rushing touchdowns in league history. Those Lions were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 11, which was tied for the earliest a team's postseason hopes had been dashed since 1990.

Five different quarterbacks threw at least one pass for Detroit -- Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton and Drew Henson -- with one of them making the most emblematic play of that miserable season.

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In a Week 6 game at the Minnesota Vikings, Orlovsky took a shotgun snap from the Lions' 1-yard line. Feeling pressure from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, he scrambled to his right and took about six steps out of the back of the end zone before realizing he had unwittingly handed Minnesota a safety.

It was a play that would live in infamy, as would the team. But there was a silver lining, though the Lions didn't know it at the time. When the current Lions visit the San Francisco 49ers for Sunday's NFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox), Dan Campbell, a veteran tight end on that 2008 team, will lead them out. Over his three years as head coach in Detroit, Campbell has taken the team from a 3-13-1 record in Year 1 to a win away from the franchise's first Super Bowl bid.

A hamstring injury limited Campbell to one game in 2008, but he has since become the face of the current Lions turnaround -- in part, he says, because of his experience as a player on that 0-fer team.

"I got hurt early. I wasn't around for the whole year, but it's one of those where you can't get out of your own way. You just continue to find ways to lose, unfortunately," Campbell said of the 2008 season.

"You're always going to learn lessons over time, no matter where you've been, the good and the bad. And some of the best lessons you learn are when things don't go right. And so, I've been fortunate to see it all," he said. "I've seen it all. Been at the lowest and I've been at the highest and you learn along the way. And that helps."

With the Lions on the verge of history, members of the 2008 team are feeling especially connected to this year's squad -- largely because of Campbell.

Here is what they told ESPN about the current Detroit team.

Things were bleak in Detroit toward the end of the winless 2008 season. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

What do you think of Dan Campbell, and what does it mean that he -- a member of the 2008 team -- is now leading the turnaround?

Jon Kitna, Lions QB: When you experience something like that, you've got one of two things you can do: You can tuck tail and run, or you can just continue to approach life head on, and that's who Dan is. He has a feeling for the city of Detroit and the organization of Detroit and what it's been through. It's one thing to see it from afar, but when you've sat in it, went through it, to where we were at halfway through the season in 2007 [at 6-2] and feeling like we had things turning in the right direction then to see it fall apart, I think that certainly has been something that helps him be more of the right guy for that job.

Calvin Johnson, Lions WR: It's just going full circle from the 0-16 team as a player on that team to being a head coach and leading your team in the whole opposite direction of where we went back then. A big part of that is Dan himself, being a player turned coach and surrounding himself with a bunch of player-coaches on his staff. ... You kind of dial in a little more when you have a player-coach, and you see that happening. You saw it when it happened last year and it kind of clicked for them halfway through the season.

Drew Henson, Lions QB: To have someone from that group to be on the other side of the one of the greatest runs in Lions history, sports sometimes have a great way of telling stories and having narratives, and I certainly think that every guy from that 2008 team is front and center, wherever they're at, cheering for these guys with a big smile on their face ... because it's been a long time coming and they deserve it.

Dan Orlovsky, Lions QB: Dan was lunch pail every day. Just a show up to work, do your absolute very best at work, work as hard as you possibly can every single day, and that stood out. I was somewhat younger, and as a young guy when you watched a pro, he was one of those guys that you watched and said "That's what it looks like. That's how a pro goes about it on a day-to-day basis." He didn't let circumstances control him or emotions control him, he was just there to work.

Rod Marinelli, Lions head coach: I'll tell you what, there's no doubt in my mind that he's going to succeed or would succeed because the type of player he was, he's the same type of coach -- exactly. Hard-nosed. Everything he had. Every day. He had a bad elbow and I mean; he was all bandaged up every day and the pride he took, winning a one-on-one in either a pass block or a route and the intensity of it. You got everything he had every second. And that team is reflecting Dan's personality.

Rod Marinelli, coach of the 2008 Lions, says tight end Dan Campbell was a hard-nosed player who gave his all every day. Leon Halip-US PRESSWIRE

Looking back, did you have any idea Campbell would become a coach and be good at it?

Johnson: I don't even know if Dan knew he would be a coach back then, but he's a leader of men. He led by example back then. Now, he can lead by example, he can lead with words because he's been there and done that and he's had some great examples, whether it's some players around him or coaches that he's been around, and you can see that paying off. He's surrounded himself with good company.

Mike Furrey, Lions WR: When you played with him, he was probably one of the best teammates that you could ask for because he was sincere. He helped out the younger guys and he just had a passion to do whatever he could to help the team win. And he played like that, he acted like that, and it was every day. So, it's not surprising that that locker room has bought into who he is because he's very genuine.

Orlovsky: I was never surprised that he got hired or that he climbed so quickly because of his self-accountability and the personal pride that he carried. I wasn't surprised in that regard. I wasn't surprised by the press conference [when Campbell famously talked about biting kneecaps]. This is probably not the right thing to say, but I'm just being honest: I guess my surprise with him is how well-coached they seem and how intelligent and detailed they seem.

What's the biggest difference about the organization from then to now?

Henson: They drafted really well. They know what they want to be. They've got almost all former players as coaches and their ability to have guys that have been there and done it and can relate to the players and the players can relate and trust them goes a long way.

Marinelli: I see incredible leadership from the top of the organization, and I see that leadership come down, and I think how they pick players and I know that Dan is involved in that, and they listen to him. That thing starts from the top down, and Dan's the perfect guy and perfect fit for that organization and they've done a terrific job in hiring good coaches and making it a place where guys want to stay.

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Kitna: To me, it seems like there's vertical alignment. From ownership, straight on down your roster, your coaching staff, the people that work in the building. It just feels like there's complete alignment there.

Johnson: A lot of it has to do with what [Lions general manager] Brad Holmes and Dan are bringing to the team. We've seen Brad build a Super Bowl-caliber team coming from out west, from [the Los Angeles Rams], and we know what Dan does as a player-coach. All we want is a player-coach because he gets us. He understands the struggle. So when you have somebody that understands the struggle, but at the same time, understands where Detroit has been and understands the grit that represents Detroit, that is nothing but his authentic self. He is Detroit.

Furrey: It always felt like everything was against you back then, and now it just feels like, watching the game, it feels like everything is starting to fit the right way and go the Lions' way. Ever since the hypothetical Bobby Layne Curse, it feels like it's gone the opposite direction.

What does this season mean for Lions fans?

Kitna: It's everything. We know what sports does. Sports is a unifying thing. And when cities and communities and organizations get to experience some of the things that Detroit is experiencing now, coming off the heels of what happened right down the road in Ann Arbor [with the Michigan football team winning the national championship], it's amazing."

Johnson: This is almost up there with religion. This thing is bringing folks to tears. You've got folks crying out here. And I get it. It warmed my heart to see them dudes do it just because, even though we weren't able to do it, we still bleed blue.

Henson: This is for the people in Michigan, this is for the fans of generations. They've been waiting on this and there's no better sports town in the country, if you can get on the right side of things, and I think everybody's seeing it. ... I don't think you can help but pull for the Lions because it stands for all the good in sports.

Furrey: Even back in the day in 2008, when we didn't win any games, [the fans] didn't quit. That town is legit. That town is full of a fan base that is real and deserving and I just couldn't be more happy for everybody that's been waiting for this to happen, and it's been fun to watch.

Dan Campbell's coaching success isn't a huge surprise to his former teammates. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

What do you most like about the 2023 Lions?

Jim Colletto, Lions offensive coordinator: They play so hard. They've got a great quarterback. And defensively, they play with great intensity and effort and their offense functions well. They run the ball well and you can see that the attitude of the head coach that's watching them on the sideline is [injected] into the team.

Furrey: You see a team. You see a bunch of guys that are unselfish. They're working their rear ends off. They have a high passion for playing the game. They execute at a high level. They make huge plays in big moments, on both sides of the ball, and they play with that grit that I know that came from one person and Danny has instilled that.

Marinelli: They fight. I think they play like Dan played. They are tough. On defense they fly around. They have a good attitude, hustle, well-coached, all of those things. On offense, they run the ball with toughness, and he's got the QB [Jared Goff] that everybody would love. That guy's a terrific leader and a terrific player. So, it fits. Everything just kind of fits."

Johnson: What I like most about this squad is that, yeah, you have a couple stars on this team, but I feel like honestly we might have had more stars back on the team when I played, but you have some guys who have been around the league and you have some solid veterans. And what excites me most is that you're starting to see some of these players that people might not have known about, start to emerge and make plays.

The play of QB Jared Goff earned high praise from the 2008 Lions. Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Is this the greatest Lions team of the Super Bowl era?

Johnson: There were stars on some of the other teams, like Barry [Sanders], and we had stars on our teams with Matthew [Stafford], myself and you can keep going on and on, but as far as just a team, what we're seeing, the energy that we feel ... Hey, I'll tell you this, the conversations that I be having with all the guys that come back and that I played with, we just be thinking about, "Dog, if we were on this team, you know how good we would be?" Yeah, we had some talent, but it's like with this coach, with this staff, with that culture.

Kitna: They've got a chance to do something that nobody's ever done. So, yeah.

Furrey: That would be hard to debate trying to put somebody else in that picture with what they've put together with that whole offensive line and that defensive line. That front, those linebackers, the duo that they have in the backfield right now with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs and their wideouts and Amon-Ra St. Brown. And then obviously Goff playing at a high level. I don't know if Detroit has ever really seen the culmination of all those pieces put together, playing the way they're playing at the same time. Obviously, there's been a lot of talent with Barry Sanders and Herman Moore and Calvin Johnson and a lot of talent there, but the collective of all those guys, it would be hard to compare anybody to that.

Colletto: It's got to be right up there. This day and age of the talent they have in the NFL and what they've accomplished and the record they've accomplished, it's got to be right at the top.

Did you ever think Detroit would be this good?

Kitna: I did. Because I saw the investment of the ownership, and it takes a lot to get everybody aligned and they've done that. They got the right guy. He was tough-minded enough to be 0-10-1 and still believe in what he knows to be true, and he got the right guy to go along with him with [GM] Brad Holmes, so it's fantastic.

Furrey: To be honest with you, I did. It's because there's something up there in Detroit that's special. And it's a huge sports town and they've got great facilities and what the Ford family represents. You always felt like you had a chance to be a team like this and for some reason, one way or the other, the football gods, it just wasn't meant to be. Now, they are and it's long overdue. I think everyone that's played in that organization knows what they've been through and what the organization has been through and the potential that they've had at times, and now to see all of this happen, I'm very proud to be a veteran of the Detroit Lions.

Calvin Johnson, star of the 2008 Lions, chats up the 2023 receivers group during training camp. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

After having suffered through the 0-16 season, do you have any advice for this team?

Marinelli: Do what you do. Just continue to do what you do and it's good enough. And listen to your coach. That's what they've created in that city.

Kitna: Listen to your coach, man. Listen to your coach.

Johnson: Live in the moment. Enjoy this moment. Don't overlook the moment. ... I only got to go to the playoffs twice, and you hear about guys talking about how they made it to the Super Bowl as a rookie and then they didn't touch [it] again for the rest of their career. So just live in the moment and don't overlook it because this is huge.

Furrey: Enjoy the moment but don't miss it either. They got there because of their execution, their preparation and the goals that they've had. They've achieved everything they've set out to, and they did it the right way, so I wouldn't change one bit. They've played in big games from Week 1. I would not change anything. It's another game. It's another big game. And just continue to do what you're doing.

Henson: You're carrying the torch for every squad that came before you. We're in the history books for that year [2008] and they've got an opportunity to change the narrative of the whole franchise and I think they've done that to a point. And if they can finish it off, they would be obviously the greatest team in history, but one that's remembered for generations.


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