> Well,first, what's old: For the fourth time in five years the Lions used their topdraft choice on a receiver, taking Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson with thesecond overall pick. But don't blame Detroit: Johnson was considered by somescouts to be the best receiving prospect in years, and in camp he has shownindications that he's capable of living up to that lofty billing. To givequarterback Jon Kitna enough time to work with his new weapon--Detroit allowedan NFC-high 63 sacks last season--the Lions signed behemoth free-agent guardEdwin Mulitalo and dealt cornerback Dre' Bly to Denver for tackle George Foster(in a trade that also brought running back Tatum Bell).
On defense,tackle Cory Redding, whose move from end produced career highs in tackles (47)and sacks (eight), will be plugging the middle for years to come after inking aseven-year, $49 million deal, and new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, coachRod Marinelli's son-in-law and the Bucs' former linebackers coach, will bringsome much-needed Tampa to Detroit's sloppy Tampa Two defense.
But mostindicative of the change wrought by Vietnam vet Marinelli in just one year ishis Do-Right List, a catalog of rules transgressors that the coach displays atteam meetings. In 2006, Marinelli's first season, the list was populated withplayers who were overweight, missed physical therapy or lifting, or came lateto practice or a meeting. This year Marinelli's passion for responsibility hasspread throughout the organization, and the Do-Right List was blank.
> Redding wasat his godparents' house in Austin this offseason when the mailman, a Detroitnative, stopped by to chat. "I've been with the Lions for 50 years,"the man told Redding, "but last year I divorced y'all." Redding's quickreply was a sign of the new mood in Detroit. "You better get back insidethis marriage," Redding said. "There are some changes going on, andit's time to recommit to this relationship."
Surprisingly,after a disastrous 3-13 season, good feeling pervades the Lions' organization.The team is buying into Marinelli's "pound the rock" credo (a rock isshattered one good pound at a time; a game is won one good down at a time) andhis insistence that a 3-13 season can be the forge of a winning team. "Thisis my seventh year, and it's the first time guys like each other," saysleft tackle Jeff Backus, noting that there wasn't a single fight in the firstweek of training camp, when tempers often flair. "In the past players wouldblow up a defenseless running back, and then offensive linemen would turn itinto a vendetta. We're being smart now."
A sense thatthings are improving in Detroit could be seen at contract time; instead ofbeing driven away, players chose to stick with the club. "Cory Reddingre-signed, [wideout] Mike Furrey re-signed," says Kitna, who spent fiveseasons with the Bengals before joining the Lions in '06. "That's whathappened in Cincinnati when things started to change--guys re-signed with theteam." Adds Redding, "We've realized we have to hold each otheraccountable. The coaches can't govern us. We have to."
Of course,optimism won't mean much if the defense, which was ranked 28th in the NFL lastyear, doesn't improve. The play of tackle Shaun Rogers may be the key there. IfRogers is fit and motivated--and that's a 340-pound if--the seventh-yearveteran and two-time Pro Bowler "could rewrite the standard for hisposition," says Lions president Matt Millen. "He was our best rightaway, so we let him find his own way, and he can get a little apathetic. NowRod is showing him the way."
The play of theoffensive line must improve as well. Because of injury, Detroit started aleague-high nine O-line combinations in '06. That took the steam out of therunning game, and Detroit had to pass nearly twice as often as it ran. "Wehad to take risks we wouldn't normally take," says offensive coordinatorMike Martz, and the quarterbacks suffered a punishing toll as a result. If theupgraded line crumbles again ("It's been like that every year I've beenhere," says Backus) then the Lions will purr their way to four wins. But ifit can buy some time for Kitna--who, like Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger in St.Louis, flourished under Martz--then receivers Johnson, Furrey and Roy Williams(the only one of Detroit's three other recent first-round wideouts who's stillwith the team) could be the most fearsome threesome in the league. Kitna is anaccurate passer, and his NFC-high 22 interceptions will come way down if heisn't getting laid out every few snaps. "Only nine of those interceptionswere his [fault]," Martz says.
Kitna's preseasonprophesy of 10-plus wins is far too optimistic, but things are finally turningaround in Motown--enough to coax at least a few of those estranged fans backinto the fold.
9 at Oakland
21 TAMPA BAY
28 at Chicago
11 at Arizona
22 GREEN BAY(T)
16 at SanDiego
30 at GreenBay
NFL rank ...T14
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ...¬†.504
Games againstplayoff teams ... 7
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE LIONS
> I've neverbeen a Jon Kitna fan. Never will be. He took too many sacks last year and toomany chances downfield. He's the type of guy who will always do something toget you beat. He predicted they'd win 10 games, but that will only happen if hedoesn't do a bunch of knuckleheaded things. . . . Wideout Calvin Johnson is asclose to a sure thing as I've seen in the draft for the past 10 years. . . . Ifthey could have added one back in the league by trade or free agency, TatumBell might have been my choice. They're a poor run-blocking team, and Bell isthe type of tackle-breaking runner who might have success there. Can he stayhealthy for 16 games, though? . . . Mark my words: [Second-year linebacker]Ernie Sims will be the next Derrick Brooks. Great athleticism, burst and aphysical tackler.
THE KING 500
How doesoffensive coordinator Mike Martz sum up his feelings about the back the Lionsgot from the Broncos? "He's way better than I thought," says Martz ofBell, who has a career 4.9 yards per carry. In camp Bell rang up one pleasantlysurprising play after another for Martz, who loves to use his backs asreceivers. Says Martz, "He catches with such ease. I didn't know that abouthim."
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COACH RODMARINELLI (3-13 in NFL), second season with Lions
TATUM BELL (NEWACQUISITION)
GEORGE FOSTER(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 1"
EDWIN MULITALO(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 5"
DEWAYNE WHITE(NEW ACQUISITION)
CB 38 0
NEW ACQUISITION*2005 Stats
> 2006 RECORD3-13 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 32/7/22 DEFENSE 21/25/28
¬†RE-SIGNO' THE TIMES Redding and other Lions are sticking with a program they believein.