Herman Moore knows how hard it is to make a Super Bowl. He made NFC title game as a rookie never won again in playoffs.
If you want to know how special the Super Bowl is, don’t ask the men playing today in Houston.
Ask the ones who never got there.
Ask Herman Moore. When he was 21, he was drafted by Detroit with its first-round pick, and in his rookie year, the Lions never lost a home game. They finished 12-4. Won the NFC Central. Got a bye in the first round. And beat the Dallas Cowboys by nearly five touchdowns, 38-6, to advance to the NFC championship game.
Just like that, in his baptismal season, Moore, a future Pro Bowl receiver, was a win away from the Super Bowl.
“I thought, ‘This is a tremendous start to my career,’” he said Friday. “We had all the essential pieces. We were already going to the NFC championship. We were playing Washington, and they were getting older. I thought, ‘If we can knock these guys off, we can go the Super Bowl again and again.’
“I thought we were starting a dynasty.”
And then, as we know, the dynasty ducked. Detroit, in that NFC championship game, trailed Washington by a touchdown at halftime — and never scored again.
“We basically fell apart,” Moore said of the 41-10 loss, “in 30 minutes of football.”
Not just the game. In time, the team. Through change, attrition, poor drafting and a coaching carousel, the Lions spent the next 25 years trying to get back to where they got in Moore’s first season.
They never came close.
Window can close fast
Why are there NFL teams that you almost can’t imagine making the Super Bowl (Detroit, Cleveland, Jacksonville) and others you can’t imagine missing it for long (New England, Pittsburgh, the Giants, Green Bay)?
Moore says it begins with a mind-set.
“After my first year, I thought, ‘Well, we lost, but no doubt we’re gonna be in the Super Bowl.’ The problem was everyone else was getting better as well. Soon, our mind-set became, ‘We just need to get into the playoffs.’
“And that’s when we took a step back.”
Moore believes (and I agree) that when a team feels fortunate to make the postseason, it rarely gets beyond doing it.
“After that (NFC championship game) year, we should have always felt we were a playoff team,” Moore said. “We should have been thinking ‘How do we ensure homefield advantage?’ Versus thinking, ‘We just need to get into the dance.’
“As the team started to dismantle, instead of seeing strength, we started to think, ‘How are we gonna mask this weakness?’ That’s not good.”
It’s a subtle thing, this attitude of expectation versus acceptance. Clearly, three of the final four teams this year had that.
Green Bay “ran the table” from a 4-6 record to the doorstep of the Super Bowl — mostly because it’s had that kind of mind-set before.
Pittsburgh has eight playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins in the past dozen years, so expectations are perennially high.
And New England? New England sets the bar. Imagine losing your Mr. Everything quarterback for the first four games, and your second-most impactful player, Rob Gronkowski, halfway through the season, and barely missing a step. Many teams would have used those disruptions to explain losses, perhaps even a “next year will be better” attitude.
There never seems to be “next year” with the Patriots. It’s always Win Everything, Right Now.
Super Bowls all that matter
None of this gives Lions fans much hope. But maybe Atlanta does. The Falcons don’t fit the mold. They were within 10 yards of a Super Bowl four years ago, then went backward, fired their coach, Mike Smith, hired Dan Quinn, and within two years made it to the Big Game.
You could argue a weak division this year gave them a great record, a first-round bye and home field throughout. But they still beat two teams with better pedigrees (Seattle, Green Bay) to reach the Super Bowl and, if they win tonight, they surely would be an outlier to the championship mind-set theory.
But that’s if they win. Meanwhile, as Moore says of the Lions, “We had to convince ourselves that we belonged. That doesn’t translate into confident play. It’s like the boxer that walks into the ring and says, ‘I’m the champion. This guy has to take my title. We never had that.”
I asked Moore what he would look for in choosing a team today.
“I’d say go to a place where if you don’t make it, your job is always in jeopardy. Go where they say, ‘If we’re not wining playoff games, we failed.’ It’s greater pressure but greater rewards. Because Super Bowls are all that matter.”
Moore played 11 of his 12 NFL seasons (all but one game) with the Lions, and never won another playoff game.
I asked him, in remembering that rookie season, knowing how close he came, if it’s hard for him to watch Super Bowls. This is what he said:
“Man, it’s hard for me to even be in the same room as someone with a Super Bowl ring, knowing they have something I will never have.”
And that’s how special tonight’s game is.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.