How bad was the Lions' offense last season? Shawn Bryson was the leading rusher with only 606 yards, and he led the team in receptions with 54. The Rams' Torry Holt caught more passes (117) than Detroit's top three wideouts combined (107). In only four games did the Lions score more than 17 points. Statistically--and in every other imaginable way--Detroit had the NFL's worst offense for what seemed to be the 57th year in a row.
Quarterback Joey Harrington, who was supposed to be a savior when Detroit selected him No. 3 overall in the 2002 draft, tried to be diplomatic about the offense's predicament one day at training camp. "In the last two years there wasn't much that could go wrong that didn't," he said. "By about Week 8 each year, we were calling guys [who were out of the league] and asking, 'Hey, you want to come and play for us?'"
Help has arrived. The Lions probably did a better job of adding offensive weapons in the off-season than any other team. In the first round of the draft they got the top-rated players on their board at wide receiver (Roy Williams of Texas, a burner with great hands) and running back (Kevin Jones, who rushed for 1,647 yards and 21 touchdowns at Virginia Tech last season). Detroit also signed two players at the top of its free-agent wish list--tight end Stephen Alexander, a strong blocker from the Chargers, and guard-center Damien Woody, who started on two Super Bowl winners with the Patriots--plus wideout Tai Streets, who caught 119 passes opposite Terrell Owens with the 49ers over the last two seasons.
The Lions believe they now have the young skill players the 25-year-old Harrington needs to make the offense work in his third season, the point at which NFL quarterbacks usually sink or swim. Receivers Williams, 22, and Charles Rogers, 23, are big, fast and physical. Jones, 22, is a physical back with breakaway speed. At 28 Alexander, who missed most of last season with a groin injury, is still young enough to be an effective blocker and catch 45 to 50 passes.
As Detroit knows firsthand, potential doesn't always translate into success in the NFL--Lions first-round picks Andre Ware, Reggie Brown and Bryant Westbrook were flops--but for a team that has won only one playoff game since 1957, there is reason for hope.
"What I'm really looking forward to is having a consistent group of guys we can build with," says Harrington. "Last year I got benched because I was forcing the ball. We weren't scoring, and I felt the pressure to make plays. But this year I really feel we're going to start building something with a group of young guys any team in the league would like to have."
In practice that afternoon Harrington wisely did not force the ball to his primary receiver on four pass plays during a long touchdown drive. Instead, he looked off the receiver and dumped the ball to a back or tight end. "We went 80 yards, didn't we?" Harrington said afterward. "And we scored. I think it's going to make me more efficient, when defenses know I'm not going to force it downfield to try to make something happen."
The Lions made no bones about what was expected from the young players. Williams and Rogers were lining up with the first unit early into camp, and Jones was splitting time with Bryson and speedy second-year back Artose Pinner. "It's not just the speed that the new guys bring," says coach Steve Mariucci. "It's the explosion. Rogers, Williams and Jones can break tackles."
Mariucci is realistic. This is a rebuilding year for his team. Maybe next year the Lions will be playoff contenders. "We're still a work in progress," he says. "The last couple of years this team has gone through the learning curve. Now, watching them, it's like they're coming out of the woods."
Sitting in his office at the team's practice facility, Mariucci pulled out a small sign that read sempre avanti. "Always forward," he said. "My dad gave it to me. It doesn't do any good to dwell on the failure of the past. Forward. I've been around Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice and Steve Young, and I saw it happen in San Francisco. I know what it takes to win. And we'll win here." --P.K.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Finally taking his conditioning and weight training seriously, defensive tackle SHAUN ROGERS arrived at camp more sculpted than soft. The Lions think the 6'4", 345-pounder could at last be the run-stopping, pass-rushing tackle they thought they had drafted in the second round in 2001. His strength and quick feet could make him a Sapp-type presence.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
The thing I like about the Lions is they have winning coaches. Steve Mariucci convinces guys they can win. I love the addition of Dick Jauron as defensive coordinator; he's one of the smartest guys in the game, and players love playing for him. Pat Morris is the best line coach in football; he could turn Jeff Backus from a good left tackle into a great one.... The jury's out on Joey Harrington, but I have a feeling he'll be good enough, especially with Roy Williams stretching the field.... Kevin Jones is going to be one of the best backs in the league for a long time. He has great field vision, is very tough and has very good speed.... Shaun Rogers could be a great rushing defensive tackle who can hold the point on the run. The question is, Will he play hard all the time?.... Dre' Bly is overrated because he can be beat deep, but he's their best corner. That tells me the rebuilding there isn't over by a long shot.... Does any team have a better kicker than Jason Hanson? He missed only one field goal last year.
"Dre' Bly is overrated because he can be beat deep, but he's their best corner."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 5-11
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Steve Mariucci; second season with Detroit (62-50 in NFL)
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
12 at Chicago
3 Open date
10 at Atlanta
17 GREEN BAY
24 at N.Y. Giants
31 at Dallas
14 at Jacksonville
21 at Minnesota
25 INDIANAPOLIS (T)
12 at Green Bay
2 at Tennessee
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .537
Games against playoff teams: 4