A light mist greeted my arrival to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and it continued as I made my way to the Lions' sparkling facility in nearby Allen Park. Would the Lions be practicing inside or outside, I wondered?
Second-year head coach Jim Schwartz had his team outside, in full pads for the first time this summer, and hitting and hollering in that unmistakable sound of NFL training camp. On this day -- a Tuesday -- the Lions worked out in front of team sponsors, Ford Field suite holders, and a coach from Wayne State. Dressed in green and yellow, the coach looked like a Packers' scout getting an early jump on an NFC North rival. I was told the coach was legit and not some infiltrator. Had he been from Green Bay, Schwartz might have locked him in a room with defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.
1. Matthew Stafford looks ready to take a big step in his second year in the NFL. Last summer, as a rookie, he split training camp repetitions with Daunte Culpepper and rode the usual highs and lows of a first-year pro. This summer, he is an undisputed starter, comfortable in his role as team leader. (Shaun Hill is his backup).
"Matt's in a completely different place this year," Schwartz said. "Last year, he was splitting reps, our top three receivers weren't practicing with him [due to injury], he was trying to earn a starting position, he was trying to learn the offense, he was going through his very first NFL training camp, and all of the things that go with that. Now, he's been through it. We've cleared his plate. Now, he's concentrating on football and not looking over his shoulder."
Stafford and top receiver Calvin Johnson have been working long hours since March, running extra routes and occasionally spending time together away from the facility.
"We haven't played any games yet, but not having to come in and learn a new offense and new teammates has given us a step forward," Stafford said. "[In] your first training camp, you don't know where to go, where to be."
Stafford knows now. And the Lions' offense will be better for it.
2. The Lions are building an aggressive front four that, if successful, will take pressure off the rest of the defense. That's precisely why the Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh, signed Vanden Bosch, and traded for defensive tackle Corey Williams.
One of the more interesting conversations I've ever had with a coach was with Schwartz two years ago while he was the Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator. At the time Schwartz explained how his defense, including Vanden Bosch, would try and funnel the action toward the middle of the defense and, specifically, toward Albert Haynesworth.
In Detroit, Schwartz and Vanden Bosch will attempt to mimic that mayhem and force opposing offenses toward Williams and Suh, who agreed to a contract Tuesday. Cliff Avril and Jared DeVries are competing for the Lions' starting left defensive end spot.
"Ideally, we shrink the field," Vanden Bosch said. "We send everything back inside to our tackles and linebackers."
Said Schwartz: "The philosophy brought here from Tennessee was, if you're strong up front, if you can rush with four, you don't have to blitz as much to put pressure on the quarterback. If you're good on the defensive line, you may not have to spin that safety into the box to get an eight-man front to stop the run. It all works together. If you're building a good defense, it doesn't hurt to start up front."
In an NFC North where every offense passed more than ran, the pressure that the Lions' front four creates will have a direct impact on wins and losses.
3. Optimism for improvement from last year's 2-14 season is strong both inside the locker room and out. My first taste of it came when I landed in Detroit and the Dollar Rental car agent -- a man named Bill -- hit me with a prediction for the 2010 season.
"The guys on [97.1 FM] say seven wins," Bill said of the Lions' flagship station. "I think that's about right."
Once I arrived to the Lions practice facility, the good vibes continued.
"It's the next day, the next play, the next practice, and making sure you're ready for all of it," Stafford said. "They play the games for a reason. Everybody's at 0-0 right now. Come the first Sunday, go out there and prove it and see what you can do."
Much of that vibe stems from Schwartz, who is focusing more on the process of improvement rather than expectations.
"Coaches and players are very immediate -- it's 'You need to worry about today,'" Schwartz said. "Have a good workout, get a good night's sleep, eat well at breakfast. What happens is, you do that over a long period of time, and you get better. It's the body of work. This league is about being consistent."
If opponents roll extra coverage to Johnson this season, Nate Burleson will be on the other side of the field looking to make them pay. Burleson, who caught 63 passes for 812 yards and three touchdowns in Seattle last season, will immediately help diversify Detroit's offense.
"And it's not just the receivers," Burleson said. "It's the running backs and tight ends, too. That's a really good sign. The more weapons you have, the more chances you have to win the battle."
Expect Burleson to find quick comfort in the Lions offense. Two of his three seasons in Minnesota were spent with Scott Linehan, now the Lions offensive coordinator. Burleson also spent two seasons in Minnesota opposite a dynamic and rangy receiver -- Randy Moss.
Jahvid Best first caught Schwartz's eye on game film. The Lions coach continues to like what he sees in person.
"His ability to make a play as a receiver on a screen pass and not just gain three or four yards but be able to go the distance," Schwartz said. "We've seen how that can affect a football team. Chris Johnson in Tennessee. I think [Best] is going to be a good acquisition for us."
Along with Suh, who agreed to a five-year deal that includes $40 million guaranteed, the Lions have two rookies who will make an immediate impact on Detroit's fortunes. Even though Suh played in a more read-and-react defense at Nebraska, his strength and quickness should make his transition to the pros easier.
"He's such a good athlete that he adjusted quickly," Schwartz said.
Stafford, sitting in front of his locker and tossing his cleats into the upper shelf of his stall like a basketball player shooting jump shots. The first shoe swished perfectly into the shelf. The second one did the same. Stafford turned around and gave the briefest of smiles, his competitive juices satisfied for the moment.
A couple of us in the Lions media room ordered from Jimmy John's World's Greatest Gourmet Sandwiches. Ten minutes after we placed the order, the delivery man walked in with my BLT sub. What service! Two minutes later, that sub was history. I loved every bite. Washed it down with a Diet Pepsi and hit the road to Berea, Ohio for Browns camp.
1. Dre' Bly begins his second stint as a Lions cornerback. Hopefully, it ends better than the first. In 2005, Bly blamed former Lions quarterback Joey Harrington for getting Steve Mariucci fired as head coach. The Lions traded Bly to Denver after the 2006 season. Now, at 33, Bly will be asked to provide leadership -- and interceptions -- for a young secondary.
2. As Stafford continues his maturation, expect him to lean on tight ends Tony Scheffler, acquired in a trade from Denver, and Brandon Pettigrew, who caught 30 passes with two touchdowns as a rookie last season before tearing an ACL. Pettigrew has been cleared to practice.
3. How many more kicks does 40-year-old Jason Hanson have left? Hanson, the longest-tenured Lion, had minor arthroscopic surgery on his left (non-kicking) knee this week. Rookie Aaron Pettrey from Ohio State will handle kicking duties in Hanson's absence. Hanson, who had a similar procedure on his right knee last August, is expected back before the regular season.
4. The Lions have a backup guard named Manny Ramirez, a 6-foot-3, 326-pounder from Texas Tech. Since the Los Angeles Dodgers recently removed the "Mannywood" sign from the Dodger Stadium left-field fence, might they consider shipping it to Ford Field?