The 1983 Detroit Lions were a steadily improving team with one of the star running backs in the NFL, Billy Sims. The Lions drafted Sims following a 2-14 season in 1979 and immediately went 17-15 over the next two years. They made the playoffs at 4-5 in the strike-shortened year of 1982, and in 1983 they overcame a terrible start to win a division title.
Ironically, the breakthrough year came with Sims missing four games because of injury. His 1,040 yards rushing, along with 42 catches still constituted an impressive year, but the explosive back didn’t make the Pro Bowl.
Detroit was able to get valuable help from 22-year-old fullback James Jones, who caught 46 passes, and Leonard Thompson and Jeff Chadwick marked a decent receiving crops. Ultimately, inconsistency at quarterback was a theme for the Lions all year.
Eric Hipple’s 53 percent completion rate was manageable by the norms of 1983, as were his 2,577 yards. But he didn’t generate big plays, only 6.7 yards-per-attempt and had a 12-18 TD/INT ratio. Hipple was the regular starter throughout the year, but was subjected to a hook for backup and future CBS-TV analyst Gary Danielson.
The offense ranked 15th in the NFL in points scored, leaving it to the defense to carry the load. The Lions’ D turned out to be the second-best in the league in points allowed, keyed defensive tackle Doug English and his 13 sacks. English was the team’s only Pro Bowler, though he also got some help from defensive end William Gay (no relation to the more recent Steeler defensive back), who registered 13 ½ sacks of his own.
Detroit opened the season at Tampa Bay, who was then a division rival in the old NFC Central (the Buccaneers, plus the current teams of the NFC North). It was a defensive battle, with Sims only getting 37 yards and Bucs’ running back James Wilder held to 18. The Lion defense made the big plays, with Gay going off for 5 ½ sacks, while English got a safety on another sack. Detroit won 11-0.
A home date with a decent Cleveland Browns followed, and Sims again had trouble running the ball. He only gained 54 yards, and this time Detroit turned the ball over five times. Hipple threw two interceptions, Danielson another and they lost 31-26.
Hipple got yanked the following week against the mediocre Atlanta Falcons, after digging a 17-0 hole. Danielson played halfway decent, 12/22 for 139 yards and closed to within 24-14, but the Detroit pass defense was poor all game long, and the comeback crested in a 30-14 home loss.
More of the same went down at Minnesota, with Sims out. Hipple threw five interceptions and faced another 17-0 deficit. This time he didn’t get yanked and with Mark Nichols catching five passes for 100 yards, Detroit tied the game 17-17 before losing on a fourth-quarter field goal.
A road trip to the Los Angeles Rams should have been a running back showdown, with Sims against the great Rams rookie Eric Dickerson. But Sims was again shelved, Dickerson ran for 199 yards and the Detroit season was on life support in a 21-10 loss.
The Lions finally got on the right side of one of those 17-0 starts, jumping all over Green Bay. Hipple played his best game of the year, going 21/29 for 235 yards and no interceptions. Jones and Dexter Bussey helped Detroit dominate the ground game, 171-87 and a 38-14 win ended the losing streak. Sims came back for another divisional home win over the Bears, 31-17, keyed by four sacks.
A road trip to face the Redskins, the defending Super Bowl champion and on their way to 14-2, was a lost cause from the start and the Lions trailed 28-3 by halftime and lost 39-17. But they got back on track with a win at Chicago. Sims ran for 91 yards and his counterpart, the great Walter Payton, ran for 80. The difference was Hipple’s efficiency, 12/19 for 216 yards and no mistakes, allowing Detroit to win the turnover battle four-zip and the football game decisively, 38-17.
The Monday Night stage was next, at a time when it was the only regular prime-time game each week during the NFL season. The New York Giants were a lousy opponent, on their way to a 3-12-1 season and the game was ugly. Sims got an early touchdown, gained 86 yards and made the difference in a 15-9 win. But the poor play caught up to the Lions in an inexcusable loss at the 2-14 Houston Oilers. Hipple threw three interceptions in the 27-17 loss.
With a record of 5-6 and the NFC Central a packed race, a road game against Green Bay was a must on November 20. The game was at old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers used to play three home games a year and when Detroit fell behind 20-3 it looked over.
Sims was running wild though, and he ended up gaining 189 yards on 36 carries. Detroit rallied all the way tie the game and then kicker Eddie Murray won it with a 37-yard field goal. The 23-20 win pulled the Lions into a tie with the Packers for second place, and both were just a game back of the division-leading Vikings. The Bears, at 5-7, were also in the mix as the season hit its final quarter.
The stretch drive began with the traditional Thanksgiving Day home game, facing a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was 9-3 and on their way to a division crown. Detroit shocked the entire country with a 45-3 devastation. They intercepted five passes, two of them by Bruce McNorton and Sims ran for 106 yards. By the time the holiday weekend was over, Green Bay and Minnesota had also lost and the Lions were in a two-way tie for the division lead.
Detroit’s defense put another show for a national audience in a big Monday Night battle with Minnesota. They got seven sacks, two by English. Sims rolled up 137 yards. The Lions won 13-2, giving up their only points when punter Mike Black voluntarily stepped out of the end zone for a safety late in the game.
In sole possession of first place, with a defense that had given up five points in two games against contending teams and with two sub-.500 teams left on the schedule, everything was in place for Detroit. But as any Lions fan can tell you, that’s when this franchise has a history of messing up. And that’s why happened in Cincinnati the next week. They couldn’t’ stop big Bengals’ fullback Pete Johnson, who ran for 203 yards and lost 17-9.
Detroit and Green Bay were now tied at 8-7, with fading Minnesota and rising Chicago at 7-8. The Lions had the big hole card though—they were dominant in the tiebreakers, with a 6-1 divisional record and 7-4 conference mark. They would win a tiebreaker among any combination of teams. So it was really simple—Detroit clinched the NFC Central with a win, or with a Green Bay loss.
The opponent for the finale was Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers were 2-13. But this was a Lion team that had already lost to the NFL’s other really awful team in the Oilers, and played an ugly game against Tampa in the season opener. Nothing could be taken for granted.
Detroit fans finally got a break. They were scheduled in the late afternoon time slot and in the early games, the Bears beat the Packers 23-21 on a last-second field goal. Even in a clinching celebration though, there was some bad news—Hipple was hurt and Danielson would take over for the playoffs.
The postseason format of the time was the same major league baseball uses today—three divisional winners and two wild-cards per conference. So even though Detroit was the #3 seed, they got a week off before going to face 2-seed San Francisco.
Danielson was simply awful, throwing five interceptions, four of them in the first half. Amazingly, the Lion defense did what they had been doing all year long and kept the team in the game, with help from Sims and the kicking of Eddie Murray. A playoff-record 54-yard field goal helped keep Detroit within 14-9 at half.
Sims would rush for 114 yards and two fourth quarter touchdown runs gave the Lions a 23-17 lead. Joe Montana drove the 49ers down for a touchdown with 1:23 left to put Detroit down 24-23. They rallied back, getting to the 26-yard line for one final chance for Murray. But after such a fine game, the kicker missed this one and the season was over.
The playoff loss was heartbreaking, but what happened to the franchise afterward was worse. Sims tore up his knee the following season, ending his career. In 1989, the Lions would get another top running back in Barry Sanders and start making playoff appearances soon after. But they have never found that elusive goal of even reaching the Super Bowl.