In the strangest year ever to emerge from the slick ad agency package that is the National Football League, the Detroit Lions are the unlikeliest team still riding the Super Bowl merry-go-round.
One of the more promising teams in the National Conference before a 57-day strike interrupted the season, the poststrike Lions have played with a death wish. They were 2-5 in their swan dive finish, and along the way were scorned by fans, excoriated by team owner William Clay Ford, who called the players and coaches a "rag-tag operation all the way around," and criticized by Coach Monte Clark for lackadaisical play.
And, one of their cocaptains, Keith Dorney, said publicly that some teammates weren't trying very hard.
But while their 4-5 record may not put them on the list of preferred guests for the Super Bowl tournament, the Lions, who play the Redskins Saturday in Washington, are in the playoffs. And that's all they care about.
"It's not how you do it or how you get there," running back Billy Sims said. "It's what you do when you get there. If you're 3-20 and in there, you get the money just like everybody else. We finally got to the party."
Going into the last regular-season game the Lions needed to beat Green Bay and get some outside help to make the playoffs for the first time since their wild-card appearance in 1970 (they lost, 5-0, to Dallas). They beat Green Bay and got the help they needed when the Los Angeles Rams blocked a field goal late in the game for a 21-20 victory over San Francisco.
"It's the first time something went right for us," linebacker Stan White said.
The Lions have endured their share of controversies over the years, and the 1982 season ranks among the top in terms of turmoil because of the strike, Sims' training camp holdout, a two-quarterback question that still was unanswered after the last series of the last game and the Lions' often lethargic play after the strike.
The normal wear and tear of football had its effect, too. The Lions replaced two starters in the offensive line, and have three new starters in the defensive secondary. Their best defensive back, cornerback James Hunter, had to retire two weeks ago because of a neck injury.
Detroit's season started with Sims refusing to report because of a dispute over his contract. Sims claimed the Lions promised to renegotiate his original three-year contract after two seasons. He reported three days before the opening game, and scored the winning touchdown that week against Chicago.
The matter of who would start at quarterback has been a touchy issue. Eric Hipple started the last 10 games of 1981 and went into this season designated as the starter. Gary Danielson, No. 1 last year until he broke a wrist, was the backup. The picture became more muddied in the first game when Clark benched Hipple and played Danielson in the fourth quarter.
Hipple was benched the next week in the first half of the Lions' victory over the Rams. He started two more games, but Danielson was No. 1 in the third game after the strike and played the rest of the way, until the last 10 minutes of Sunday's victory over Green Bay. Clark made a bold move with his offense struggling and brought in Hipple with the Lions trailing, 24-20.
With his scrambling and four-for-four passing, Hipple led the Lions to the winning touchdown and a final march that ran out the clock.
"Heck, yeah, I was happy to get in," Hipple said. "It's so much more fun to play. It was nice to hear the fans' cheers. It was good for the first couple of plays.
"You guys can have as much fun as you want with it (who starts against the Redskins)," he told reporters. "I'm staying out of it."
"Let's don't go into it," Clark said. "I don't know yet."