The ‘Lake Erie Triangle’ haven’t won a playoff game in two decades
The Bills, Lions, and Browns make up the ‘Lake Erie Triangle’. (John Kryk/QMI Agency)
If a legend lives on from the Iroquois on down, of the shallow lake they call Erie-Tejocharontiong, Gordon Lightfoot sure didn’t sing about it.
Nevertheless, two modern legends regarding Lake Erie haunt the locals to this day.
First, weather-beaten helmsmen from the smallest fishing boats to the mightiest ore carriers fear this body of water more than any other. For real.
“A breath of wind is enough to make her start doing somersaults and turning handsprings,” William Ratigan, author of Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals, wrote in 1960. “Even a line squall on treacherous Erie seems to scoop this shallowest of the Great Lakes from its muddy bottom and hurl it at the sky.”
A thousand people perished in shipwrecks in the 1840s alone.
Speaking of shipwrecks, the lake’s second modern legend involves the three NFL teams spaced about its perimeter in triangular fashion: the Detroit Lions (situated 40 km, or 25 miles, upstream on the lake’s feeder tributary, the Detroit River); the Cleveland Browns (situated on the south-central shore); and the Buffalo Bills (situated where Erie empties into the Niagara River).
Fans of these teams are haunted by nightmares of sunken playoff dreams past:
- Detroit has won one playoff game since its last NFL championship in 1957. While it has hosted two Super Bowls, it hasn’t played in one. Its signature nightmare? Head coach Monte Clark, looking up and praying for Eddie Murray to make a 43-yard field goal to beat San Francisco in the 1983 playoffs. As Clark quipped afterward: “My prayer was answered. The answer was no.”
- Cleveland hasn’t been to a Super Bowl either. Since its last NFL championship in 1964, the Browns have won 6-of-21 playoffs games -- two in the late ’60s, none in the ’70s, three in the ’80s and one in the ’90s. Its signature nightmare? You’ve heard of The Fumble and The Drive -- gutting last-minute losses to Denver in AFC championship games. But a 1981 travesty set the tone. Trailing Oakland 14-12 in the final minute of a divisional playoff game, with the ball at the Raider 12 needing just a field goal to win, Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano called for Brian Sipe to pass into the end zone. The Raiders intercepted.
- Buffalo won back-to-back AFL titles in 1964-65, but is 0-for-4 in NFL Super Bowls, famously losing four straight from 1990-93. Its signature nightmare? The first of those Super Bowl defeats. Heavily favoured to beat an overachieving New York Giants team playing without its injured star quarterback Phil Simms, the Bills still lost when kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard game-winning field goal, wide right.
The anchor chain binding these clubs today is this: the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since ’91, the Browns since ’94, the Bills since ’95. Two decades.
The Bills haven’t even reached the post-season since 1999, the longest such streak in the league. Cleveland’s playoff drought (11 seasons) is third longest. Detroit has made the playoffs once this century (a loss at New Orleans in 2011), but three years earlier it became the first and only 0-16 team the NFL has had.
That’s legendary futility. Folk-singer fodder.
Is there a “Lake Erie Triangle” at work here? A hoodoo of sorts? After all, the odds must be ridiculously low that all three nearby NFL teams could play such abysmal football for so long.
But forget the silly myths. It’s much simpler than that.
I grew up watching the Lions lose. No exaggeration. I was raised in the closest suburb to downtown Detroit -- Windsor, Ont. -- in the ’70s and early ’80s. The Lions seldom were dreadful, never good. Usually just kinda bad. A few star players to cheer for, such as tight end Charlie Sanders or running back Billy Sims, but that’s it.
As ham-and-egger talents came and left, and as new coaches were hired and soon fired, the inescapable conclusion reached by all cognitively functioning humans in that part of the world was that GM Russ Thomas was epically bad at his job. I swear I knew it before I turned 13. Every kid who followed the Lions did, let alone all the livid adults.
Thomas held that GM post from 1967-88. Twenty-two seasons. His Lions posted winning seasons in four of the first six. Then misery. From the time I started watching them at age eight until I grew up and out of the house, the Lions had two winning seasons. A pair of 9-7 records.
How could Thomas possibly have kept so integral a job, for so long, as such a failure? Answer: he was one of owner William Clay Ford’s closest friends who -- bonus! -- was an infamous tightwad at player contract time.
A sampling of Thomas’ talent-assessing acumen: in the 1983 draft he passed on quarterbacks Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tony Eason at No. 13 overall because he had faith in Eric Hipple. Thomas picked a fullback instead.
The next time someone brings up sports’ most unbreakable records, tell them a baseball player will hit in 57 consecutive games before any NFL GM is allowed to post two winning seasons in 16 years, which is how Thomas ended his reign of error.
To illustrate how things generally have gone for the Lions since, Thomas isn’t even regarded of as the worst GM in club history. Last decade’s crater digger, Matt Millen, is.
Unlike Ford, who freely admitted to not knowing a damn thing about assessing football talent, his longtime counterpart down in Cleveland thought he did.
Art Modell (aka The Most Hated Clevelander Ever) was a hands-on owner of the Browns from 1961 until he upped and moved the franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
Following his second season in charge, Modell fired one of pro football’s true coaching legends -- Paul Brown, who’d only led the Browns to seven NFL titles. Observers thought Modell was crazy.
Two seasons later the Browns were NFL champs again -- thanks to Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown -- but never won another in 31 years of Modell ownership.
His Browns made the playoffs on average about every other year. But, oh, those late ’80s heartbreaks. The Drive, then The Fumble -- in back-to-back AFC championship games against Denver.
In the former, John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the Browns before Denver won in overtime; in the latter, Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbled with a minute left, inside the Denver 10, on the cusp of what would have been the tying touchdown.
After Modell relocated the franchise, angry Clevelanders compelled the NFL to insist he leave the franchise name and colours behind. No one asked for the bad luck to stay behind too, but it did when the expansion Browns began play in 1999.
There are signs of hope this season under new head coach Mike Pettine. Cleveland (6-4) can enter December with a winning record for the first time since 2007.
Ralph Wilson’s legacy to Western New York is unmistakeable. As the Bills’ only owner from 1960 until his death in March, he stubbornly kept the team in the shrinking Buffalo market. Bills fans adore him for it.
As well, reports say his posthumous philanthropy in the region will total hundreds of millions of dollars. Get cracking on that statue, Buffalo.
But, like Modell, Wilson had his hands all over key roster moves. And GM hirings. And GM firings. And coach hirings. And coach firings.
That there were far too many of them both before and after the Bill Polian/Marv Levy era is all on Wilson.
Probably Wilson’s most famous, and ill-advised, intrusion was when he ordered head coach Wade Phillips to start high-priced backup quarterback Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie, who’d only sewn up a playoff berth for the Bills with a week to go in the 1999 season.
Johnson struggled against Tennessee but helped Buffalo take a lead in the final minute. Then the Music City Miracle (or Debacle, if you prefer), when the Titans turned a trick play on the ensuing kickoff into the unlikely winning touchdown.
The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since.
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The “Lake Erie Triangle” concept is not new. It came to mind again late this week, when the Bills were forced to relocate their Sunday home game against the New York Jets to Detroit’s Ford Field, on Monday night (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
The Bills might also have to play next Sunday’s home game -- against the Browns -- somewhere else. Perhaps in Detroit again. Imagine that: Buffalo against Cleveland in Detroit. If you believe in jinxes, that’s got to be the three-way antidote.
The Bills have been forced out of their home, of course, because Orchard Park -- the south Buffalo suburb where Ralph Wilson Stadium sits -- took the brunt of historically intense lake-effect snow bands this week, which dumped up to six or seven feet (yes, FEET) of snow on the area.
Those streamers blew E/SE.
Off Lake Erie.
THE 3 BIG MATCHUPS
Drew Stanton vs. Richard Sherman
Reports this week said the Arizona QB throws mostly to his right. Well, the Seahawks station top cornerback Sherman always on the defensive left side. So he’s going to get his chances for interceptions. Stanton must be especially smart and accurate.
C.J. Anderson vs. Dolphins front-7
With Montee Ball out (groin), it’s up to Anderson to provide any semblance of a rushing attack for Denver against Miami. That’s integral, because we saw last week how Rams pass rushers had a field day beating up Peyton Manning when Denver didn’t bother trying to run anymore.
Robert Griffin III vs. the heat
The Redskins QB got heat all week -- from fans, media and his own head coach -- for having deflected blame for his awful play against Tampa Bay. The heat on Sunday comes from the 49ers defence, which has pass-rusher Aldon Smith back. All eyes will be on RG3 in this one.
Quick-hit items to whet your Week 12 appetite:
After Week 4, the Patriots offence ranked 21st in the NFL, averaging 340 total yards per game. This week they’re tied for seventh, averaging 380. It’s almost entirely because Tom Brady and the New England passing game is clicking. In the past eight weeks they’ve gone from averaging 218 passing yards per game, to 265.
The Titans rank fourth in rushing yards per game. Imagine how much better they’d be on the ground if they didn’t have to abandon that part of their attack late in games, when they almost always are trailing by multiple scores.
Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus has 10.0 sacks, tied for fourth most in the league and far and away the NFL leader among defensive tackles. Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy is next among DTs, with 6.5 sacks.
Meantime, the hottest pass rusher in the league is Philadelphia’s Connor Barwin. He has 9.5 sacks in the last six games.
Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent (0-for-2), Jacksonville’s Josh Scobee (0-for-2) and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski (1-for-3) are the only kickers in the league who haven’t made at least half of their field goals from 50-plus yards out. Narrow the goalposts already, NFL.
THE BIG NUMBER
If Bucs WR Mike Evans gets this many receiving yards at Chicago, he’ll become the first rookie in NFL history to do so in four consecutive games.
THIS JUST IN
Saturday’s news updates:
As expected, the Cleveland Browns on Saturday activated receiver Josh Gordon from the exempt/commissioner-permission list.
Gordon had been suspended for the 6-4 Browns’ first 10 games for violations of the league’s drug policy. That suspension was reduced from the entire season after the NFL announced new personal-conduct penalties in October, which were retroactive.
Gordon led the league in receiving yards last year, with 1,646. He also caught nine touchdown passes. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and the lacklustre Browns passing game sure can use him.
To make room on their active roster for Gordon, the Browns waived linebacker Keith Pough.
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Denver Broncos pass rusher DeMarcus Ware was added to the team’s injury list on Saturday. He has an illness but is listed as probably to play against Miami.
Similarly, Packers cornerback Davon House has an illness and on Saturday was listed as probably to play at Minnesota.
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Saturday’s allotment of free tickets for Monday night’s relocated/rescheduled game at Detroit’s Ford Field between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets were claimed online by midday, ProFootballTalk.com reported.
A “very limited” allotment of free tickets will be available Sunday at the Lions’ box office in downtown Detroit, the report said.
The Bills had to relocate the game from Ralph Wilson Stadium because some six feet of snow fell on the area this week, and most of the area remained impassable on Friday.
THE FOUR BIG GAMES ON SUNDAY:
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-1) at Seattle Seahawks (6-4)
OK, this is the For Real game of the week. Is Arizona for real? Is its defence? Is replacement QB Drew Stanton? And we’ll find out in the next five days if stumbling Seattle is for real about returning to the playoffs. After this, their next game is at San Fran on Thursday night.
2. Detroit Lions (7-3) at New England Patriots (8-2)
The NFL’s hottest offence vs. the NFL’s stingiest defence. The Pats won’t be able to run it anywhere near as successfully as Jonas Gray did last Sunday night against Indy’s 11 couch cushions on defence. Detroit is No. 1 against the run, too. This was the time last year when the Lions folded. A win at Foxboro would be huge for them.
3. Miami Dolphins (6-4) at Denver Broncos (7-3)
One team comes in having lost two of three, the other having won four of five. Peyton Manning and the Broncos are the ones struggling, and in the first home game in a month you know they want to show the AFC they’re still as formidable as anybody.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1) at Houston Texans (5-5)
No team is more schizophrenic than the Bengals. Almost every result this year has been a head-scratcher. So we can’t be surprised, even if they beat the Texans by 30 or lose by 30. Based on the simple fact that Cinci is just not a 7-3-1 team, I’d expect J.J. Watt and his defence mates to shake up, rattle and roll Bengals QB Andy Dalton.
The team that must win, or else
Houston Texans (5-5)
For a team that entered the season on a 14-game losing streak, this isn’t a bad position to be in -- late November with a playoff pulse. Might be a faint pulse, but hey. First-year head coach Bill O’Brien has the team competitive again, and his decision to elevate Ryan Mallett to starting QB paid immediate dividends in Cleveland. Win this, and the Texans might continue surprising folks.
WEEK 12 SCHEDULE & CANADIAN TV TIMES
***1 pm EST games
Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (TSN2)
Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (CTV Winnipeg)
Detroit Lions at New England Patriots (CTV Ontario, CTV Ottawa, CTV Northern Ontario, CTV Atlantic, CTV Montreal, CTV Saskatchewan, CTV Alberta, CTV Vancouver)
Tennessee Titans at Philadelphia Eagles
***4: 05pm EST games
St. Louis Rams at San Diego Chargers
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks (TSN2, CTV Two Vancouver Island, CTV Two Alberta)
***4: 25pm EST games
Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos (CTV Two Ontario, CTV Two Atlantic)
Washington Redskins at San Francisco 49ers
***8:30 pm EST game
Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants (TSN/NBC)
***7 pm EST game
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills in Detroit (TSN4, CBS-Buffalo)
***8:30 pm EST game
Baltimore Ravens at New Orleans Saints (TSN)
(Last week of byes: Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers)
NOTE: Local American Fox and CBS affiliates carry games as well, which might be in addition to the above.
New York Jets (2-8) at Buffalo Bills (5-5), in Detroit, 7 p.m. EST
The Relocation Bowl. Buffalo beat New York 43-23 just a month ago. But unless Rex Ryan’s charges plan to turn it over six times again, expect a close game. Then again, Michael Vick usually becomes a turnover machine under intense heat, and the Bills D-line brings it.
Baltimore Ravens (6-4) at New Orleans Saints (4-6), 8:30 p.m. EST
We are not making this up. Look at these teams’ records, in the line above. Now wrap your head around this: The Ravens are tied for last in their division (AFC North), while the Saints are tied for the first in theirs (NFC South).