Joe Fauria on Detroit Lions culture: Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson left knowing they'd never win

Former Detroit Lions tight end weighs in on franchise culture

Joseph Fauria of the Detroit Lions celebrates a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field on Dec. 7, 2014, in Detroit. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DETROIT - Former Detroit Lions tight end Joe Fauria spoke on the "Outta Bounds" podcast about the culture of the franchise and its long history of losing.

Fauria played 23 games for the Lions in 2013 and 2014, and caught 24 passes for 281 yards and eight touchdowns in his career. He went undrafted out of UCLA but exploded onto the scene in 2013 when he hauled in seven touchdowns on just 16 catches.

"Let me just set the record straight: big fan of the Lions," Fauria said. "Big fan of my friends still on the team. Big fan of the city. I love how much the city of Detroit loves their football and their sports. It was a really good place (to play), because I came from UCLA and there's better stuff to do in Santa Monica, in Bellaire, in Hollywood, in Brentwood, stuff like that. Not everyone came to our games and the fanhood wasn't as strong as it was in Detroit so I appreciated it."

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But it's hard to talk about the Lions without acknowledging the lack of postseason success. The franchise has just one playoff win in the last 60 years, and there have been countless double-digit loss seasons, terrible draft picks and the league's first-ever 0-16 campaign in 2008.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire," Fauria said. "If you have Barry Sanders quitting early the great sport of football because he knew he wasn't going to win and he didn't want to put his body through pain anymore, and the same darn thing happens decades later with Calvin Johnson -- come on guys."

Fauria said Sanders and Johnson were the best or among the best players to ever play at their positions, and they could have won Super Bowls if they went to different franchises. But Fauria said their connection to the city stopped them from playing elsewhere because it would have tainted their relationship with Detroit.

READ: Fauria says Stafford is good enough to lead team to Super Bowl

"Calvin goes back and forth with Detroit and Atlanta, right?" Fauria said. "Barry Sanders is always in Detroit. But imagine if they had gone to a different place and actually won a Super Bowl, which they were totally capable of because they were the best players at their respective positions. But they knew in their heart that they would never win (in Detroit)."

Sanders and Johnson both quit football in the middle of the NFL careers. Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards in 1998, his final season. Johnson caught 88 passes for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, his final season.

Fauria said it's clear the two superstars had more left in the tank, but they could no longer tolerate the losing.

"There is your answer," Fauria said. "I hate to say this because Detroit fans -- they are the best. But for crying out loud, the two best to ever play their respective positions left early because they knew they weren't going to win.

"I see them making the moves to try to make it better, and (quarterback Matthew) Stafford, man, he's one of the best quarterbacks to ever wear the uniform, but all the moving parts have got to go."

Fauria said he noticed major differences between the Lions and other NFL franchises he worked out for.

"I got to compare the organizations of the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots, and I tell you, it's a night and day accountability factor -- just responsibility and how things are run and how the ship is run from that of a Detroit Lions and the likes of a New England Patriots," Fauria said.

Does the issue start at the top with ownership?

"A head coach is only as good as his assistant coaches," Fauria said. "A president is only as good as his cabinet and who's helping him make his decisions. I think the owner is only as good as the pieces they put together and if they're having accountability for those positions and it's not just hiring your friends. It has to be business decisions, and that gets lost."

Fauria said he knows this year's team, despite an ugly 0-2 start, is working as hard as possible to win. He said the body language on the sideline isn't a sign that players don't care, but that they care so much losing hurts.

"The Lions -- they're sick of losing, too," Fauria said. "They go through this training camp and preseason and they have these hopes and these dreams ... and when you're starting off 0-2, 0-3, it's going to hurt and the body language is going to be bad. So you should almost just feel their pain more than (talking about) their bad body language on the sideline. You should be like, 'Dang, they care.'"

You can listen to the full "Outta Bounds" interview with Fauria below. WARNING: There is strong and explicit language during the interview.

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