Published December 21, 2011
They've never had an opportunity quite like this.
If the Lions beat San Diego at home Saturday, they will make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season. Backus and Raiola were drafted by Detroit in 2001 and have spent their entire careers with the team. Together, they've endured an almost unthinkable stretch of futility, misery and ridicule. They are now one victory away from celebrating a postseason berth just three seasons after going 0-16.
"You think of the last 10 years, what we've gone through — what this organization and what the city and the fans have gone through — to be able to get to the playoffs, to have a successful season, it's huge," Backus said. "People have been waiting a long time. I've been waiting my whole career to do it."
Backus was drafted in the first round out of Michigan, Raiola a round later from Nebraska. Since leaving those storied college programs, they've persevered through loss after loss in the NFL.
Backus has started all 174 games of his career. The Lions have won 48 of them.
Raiola has been right there alongside him. At first glance, the two don't seem much alike. Raiola, a center, is quick to speak his mind, always good for a sound bite after a game. Backus, a tackle, is more reserved.
"It's like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito — 'Twins' — like two totally different people," Raiola said. "We're close and we're totally different at the same time. I know what I'm going to get out of him every day. He knows what he's going to get out of me every day."
The Lions have been able to depend on both of them for 11 seasons. Backus and Raiola never bailed on the franchise, never left to play for a team with a rosier outlook. Their reward is a moment like Saturday, when Detroit's success-starved football fans will fill Ford Field hoping to watch the Lions reach the postseason for the first time since they lost at Washington as a wild card in January 2000.
Kicker Jason Hanson played in that game. He's been with the Lions even longer than Backus and Raiola.
Hanson was drafted by Detroit in 1992, right after the Lions played in the NFC championship game. Detroit made the playoffs in five of Hanson's first eight seasons before the team's current dry spell.
"We went to the bottom, and we're fighting our way to be back to being a good team, and hoping to be a really good team," Hanson said.
It's been a long, long climb back.
After that playoff loss to the Redskins, Detroit went 9-7 but missed the postseason the following season. Then the bottom fell out. Starting in 2001, when Backus and Raiola were rookies, the Lions lost at least 10 games in nine of the next 10 seasons, including their winless campaign of 2008. Detroit actually started 6-2 in 2007, but even that season ended with a losing record at 7-9.
"Every year, you come into camp, and guys are working hard, and expectations are high," Hanson said. "And then by the middle of the season — except for maybe once — you're already like, 'We might be all but mathematically eliminated.'"
Detroit started this season 5-0 before a rough stretch that left the Lions in the thick of a tough race for a wild card spot. In its last two games, Detroit held off Minnesota, then rallied to beat Oakland.
Now the Lions (9-5) face the surging Chargers (7-7), who have won three straight to boost their own playoff hopes.
"This is what every professional football player plays for, and I've never gotten a chance to do it," Raiola said. "We're a playoff-caliber team and so are they, and this is going to be tough."
On the verge of a major milestone in their rebuilding process, the Lions are trying to keep an even keel. Earlier this season, they hosted a Monday night game — another rarity — so this team is becoming just a bit used to the spotlight.
"We know the history, and we know that guys like Dom and Jeff have been part of a lot of tough years, so we're thrilled for them," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "The key is that they are excited about where we are, but they aren't satisfied. They want to finish this off."
If Detroit does win Saturday, maybe then Backus and Raiola will have a chance to reflect a little more and put this season in perspective. For now, the Lions have an important game to prepare for — in late December.
In a way, that says it all.
"I'm proud to be a Detroit Lion," Backus said. "I take a lot of pride in what we do here and the emphasis we've had on trying to get it turned around, and things are starting to pay off. We've just got to finish it out the right way."