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Detroit Lions are rediscovering their roar

After years of losing, and three years after a winless season, the Lions are 3-0 and looking to keep things rolling.

September 30, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Detroit kicker Jason Hanson kicks off during the first half of the Lions' 26-23 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Hanson is in his 20th season with the Lions.
Detroit kicker Jason Hanson kicks off during the first half of the Lions'… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)

As the kicker for the Detroit Lions for two decades, Jason Hanson has pretty much earned his master's degree in longevity, perseverance and loyalty.

And his PhD in losing.

"I'm an expert at it: Losing is no fun," Hanson said in a phone interview this week. "It's not good. It's just really hard in sports to continually lose and still try to prepare at the highest level at whatever you do."

Thankfully for Hanson, he's speaking only from memory. This season's Lions are 3-0, tied atop the NFC North with Green Bay heading into Sunday's game at Dallas.

Three years after becoming the second modern-era NFL franchise to lose every game — and the first to go 0-16 — the Lions are finally confronted with a high-class challenge: keeping the good times rolling.

"Everybody's pumped to get off on the right foot, yet we're also tempering it with it's only three games into the season," Hanson said. "It's going to get harder, and we really haven't proven anything yet."

But he conceded: "We finally have got our feet under us for the first time in a long time."

When it comes to Lions history, no one in the locker room can rival Hanson's expertise. He's in his 20th season with the club and two weeks ago set the NFL record for the most games with one franchise at 297, passing Bruce Matthews, who played 19 seasons and 296 games with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.

"It's always been a two-way street," Hanson said of staying in Detroit. "I feel like I've indicated and wanted to stay, and they've reciprocated and wanted me to. There have been times when maybe it was a no-brainer — I was kicking great, and they were going to do whatever it took to keep me — and there were some times when I wasn't as good but they were, 'OK, we know what you can do. Come on back and let's get it right.' "

Remarkably, in a franchise that has weathered so much turmoil and change, only two kickers have opened the season for the Lions since 1980: Eddie Murray and Hanson. And keep in mind, kicker might be the most oft-swapped position on a team.

Hanson is 41, and there are a lot of players on the team who weren't out of diapers when he was drafted. Most of them are too young to remember when the Lions were actually relevant. But Hanson does. He played in the Barry Sanders era, he's been to the playoffs, he's on his eighth head coach in Jim Schwartz. And he knows what all this means to Lions fans.

"There is this huge pent-up fan base of support that we're starting to tap into," Hanson said. "That's a great thing. But the thing that we need to do as players is ride it out through the season, and the only way to do that is to keep winning."

Still, he's careful to live in the moment and appreciate how this feels. He won't soon forget the aftermath of the victory over Minnesota last Sunday, when the text messages were coming in faster than he could read them.

"Nobody uses a period," he said. "It's all exclamation points. That's when you know things are good."

Decades removed from his own NFL career, Gary Danielson is feeling the excitement. He is the last quarterback to lead the Lions to a 3-0 start, in 1980. He grew up in Detroit and was a devout Lions fan long before he became their quarterback.

By his thinking, people have largely forgotten the Lions were nipping at the heels of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, right on the tail of the Minnesota Vikings in the '70s, and consistently played the Chicago Bears tough in the '80s.

"We were one tough bridesmaid," he said.

Danielson, now a college football analyst for CBS, credits the Lions for taking the risks to improve. They used the No. 2 pick in 2007 on receiver Calvin Johnson, despite spending their top choices on washout receivers in 2003 (Charles Rogers), 2004 (Roy Williams) and 2005 (Mike Williams). They made the right choice in taking quarterback Matthew Stafford No. 1 in 2009, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh No. 2 in 2010.

"In the NFL, difference-makers is what does it," Danielson said. "They have three difference-makers in those three, and they happen to be at the most important positions on a team."

So how much stock should people put in this 3-0 start?

"I think you've got to believe your eyes," Danielson said. "You've got to believe that this is a solid football team. Health is a big thing. Look at the Colts without Peyton Manning. Green Bay's not going to win without Aaron Rodgers. You've got to keep those critical players healthy.

"But I think if the Lions keep those three guys healthy, there's enough other really good players on that team that they can stay in it the whole way. I don't see why they won't get to seven wins before they get to 10 games, and then you've pretty much got a great shot at making the playoffs."

Hanson, for one, isn't looking that far ahead.

"One of our coaches, [former defensive coordinator] Dick Jauron, said when there's no wind in your sails you've got to row," he said. "Well, we just rowed for 10 years. Rowing and rowing and rowing.

"At least it feels like there's a breeze blowing in our sails for once."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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