Michiganders as Pro Football Champions: A History and a Future

by K.M. Zahrt

Michiganders win! Michiganders win the pro football championship! We’re going to Disneyland!

Of course, when I write “pro football,” the Detroit Lions come to mind, and believe it or not, the Lions are no strangers to pro football championships. They’ve won four of them–in 1935, back-to-back in 1952/53, and in 1957. Unfortunately, their 1957 championship just so happened to precede what we celebrate today as the pro football championship game–the Super Bowl–by nearly a decade. The Lions are not alone in their failure to get their chance at the big dance. A total of four franchises have yet to make Super Bowl appearances: Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans. Although the Jaguars and the Texans weren’t around in the pre-Super Bowl days (prior to 1966), having become franchises in 1995 and 2002 respectively, they’ve been established long enough to expect at least one miracle run. And, the Browns, like the Lions, also own pre-Super Bowl pro football championships (4): 1950, 1954, 1955, and 1964.

If you ask a Browns historian, however, they’re going to be quick to point out that the Browns have a total of eight pro football championships, having dominated the short-lived All-America Football Conference (AAFC) for its entire existence, winning all four AAFC Championships from 1946-1949. As a consolation prize, the more formidable NFL allowed the Browns to join their league along with the AAFC’s San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts for the 1950 season. The Browns subsequently proved their legitimacy by taking their new league by storm in their first season and winning the 1950 NFL Championship as well. That would make the Browns a dynasty at the time with a “five-peat” of sorts.

Wait! Hold that thought. If the AAFC counts, than we as Michiganders have even more to boast about. The also short-lived, non-NFL, pro football organization known as the United States Football League (USFL) was active from 1983-1985. The USFL can be seen as something of a character actor in the “Elway to Marino” episode of ESPN’s melodramatic sports television series 30 for 30 (which was recently added to my list of videos recommended by Netflix–and once I turn on an episode, I just can’t stop watching, to my wife’s dismay–which was also the impetus behind this post as you may have guessed).

Led by QB Hebert Bobby, the Michigan Panthers won the 1983 USFL Championship over the Philadelphia Stars.

Led by QB Bobby Hebert, the Michigan Panthers won the 1983 USFL Championship over the Philadelphia Stars.

The mid-80s was a golden era for quarterbacking with names like John Elway and Dan Marino, but also names like Joe Montana, Boomer Esiason, and Jim Kelly. It seems weird to think that Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly began his career with two seasons as a Houston Gambler, doesn’t it? Other notable future NFLers also began their careers with the USFL, such as: Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker, Reggie White, and Steve Young. But, let’s get back to the topic at hand.

All of this is to say that, with that kind of star power, the fact that our very own Michigan Panthers–even after starting the season 1-4 in true Michigan-football fashion–were the first USFL Champions in 1983 with an overall winning record of 12-6 is something to be proud of, and they probably went to Disneyland, at least they deserved to.

Thanks to YouTube, you can relive all three hours of their championship game still today.

So, that makes five pro football championships, Michiganders, but what about our sixth? I’ll admit I have my doubts about the chances of our current Detroit Lions, even with a 6-2 record halfway though the season. Based on the weekly eyeball test I’ve been conducting, it seems to me that any mid-pack team that puts together an above-average-to-strong performance would likely have success against this years’ team, unless last second kick-as-many-field-goal-attempts-as-you-need victories are going to be the new stats to look for in predicting championship contenders. Also, as the grueling NFL season moves into the second half, and as teams either hit their stride or are plagued by injury reports, it’s hard to imagine the Lions in the former group rather than the more common latter group. However, nothing would make me happier than to be wrong.

But, hope is on the horizon, folks. In 2008, a New United States Football League has been working to re-establish itself–although it appears not as an NFL competitor this time, but more as a minor league. Perhaps our best hope for reclaiming pro football glory in the near future is for our beloved Michigan Panthers to return and save us. Go Panthers!

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One thought on “Michiganders as Pro Football Champions: A History and a Future

  1. The Lions moved to 7-2 in dramatic fashion last weekend. Arizona and former-MSU QB Drew Stanton will be a good test this weekend to find out what the Lions can do against a real test, but I’m starting to wonder if the years and years of expectations quelled by disappointments has made me skeptical to the point where I could be late to the party if this team is legit. We’ll see.

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