YOU DON'T reallywant to talk about the recent history of the Lions, do you? Jim Schwartzdoesn't either. Detroit's rookie coach hasn't mentioned 0--16 or anything elseabout the grim season to his team. Hired in January to steer this ship out ofoblivion, Schwartz has no use for negativity. Like this daunting stat: The last10 Lions coaches, dating to Don McCafferty in 1973 and not counting interims,had losing records in Detroit.
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2009 issue
The tragicomicreign of error by general manager Matt Millen is mercifully over. And thoughyou would think the spirit of the fans had expired by now, it turns out theystill care. For instance, at training camp one day this summer, the Lions werein pads, knocking the tar out of one another, because Schwartz, who wasdefensive coordinator of the Titans from 2001 to '08, believes that at its corea good team must be physically tough and mentally indomitable. A fan stood offon his own, engrossed in the scene. "I get shivers up my spine watchingthis," said Pete Ruokola, a 36-year-old math teacher from the UpperPeninsula who each summer drives eight hours to watch three Lions practices."I can't tell you how different this is, and how exciting it is, to see thefirst-team defense go up against the first-team offense in a practice thatseems like a game. I finally feel like there's hope."
Schwartz hasdiscovered that the fans and his players share an important quality. "It'sthe most incredible resilience," he says. "I was staying in a hotelbefore my family moved here, and the Red Wings were playing Game 7 [of theconference semis]. I figure, 'What am I doing sitting in a hotel room?' I wentto a sports bar. Someone recognized me, and we had a great time rooting for theWings. We won it right at the end, and the place went absolutely crazy—morenoise than you've ever heard before. One guy turns to me and says, 'Coach, whenthe Lions win it'll be better than this.' I got chills."
One Lion wholikes what he sees is ninth-year tackle Jeff Backus. "I've been optimisticbefore," he says, "but there's something different about Schwartz. He'sgot such a clear plan, not like any rookie coach I've seen."
Schwartz istrying to change the culture, and the way his team approaches work. His movessince taking the job in January include reassigning lockers to mix offensiveand defensive players and instituting a strength-and-conditioning program basedon free weights, ropes and kettle bells. "It's like a medieval torturechamber in there," Schwartz says. "But we just had to getstronger." It appears to be working: Defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, forone, went from 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press last year to 43 thissummer.
Schwartz and newG.M. Martin Mayhew also signed or traded for players with impressive résumés orstrong playoff backgrounds, as much for their demeanor as their talent. Almostevery position group has at least one new player who'll also function as amentor: Jon Jansen (Redskins) on the offensive line, Dennis Northcutt (Jaguars)at receiver, Terrelle Smith (Cardinals) and Maurice Morris (Seahawks) in thebackfield, Grady Jackson (Falcons) on the defensive line, Larry Foote(Steelers) and Julian Peterson (Seahawks) at linebacker, and Anthony Henry(Cowboys) and Phillip Buchanon (Bucs) in the secondary. So many people aroundthe team are new—56 players and coaches in training camp—that Schwartz thinkserasing the worst season in NFL history from the team's psyche is possible."We don't talk about it," said Foote. "We just talk about gettingbetter today."
Schwartz knowshis job isn't about this year. It's about 2010 and beyond. Far beyond, hehopes. "I met [Tigers legend] Al Kaline, and he told me he got here in the'50s and has lived here ever since," Schwartz said. "I told him I'dlove to do the same thing."
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
0--0 in NFL, first season with Lions
Fading veteranDaunte Culpepper (115 att., 60 comp., 786 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs, 63.9 rating)will likely get the early-season starts.
Rookie MLBDeAndre Levy (73 tackles, 5 sacks at Wisconsin last year) will be in for plentyof snaps.
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 0--16
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 30 > 24 > 30
DEFENSE 32 > 27 > 32
13 at New Orleans
4 at Chicago
18 at Green Bay
1 ST. LOUIS
8 at Seattle
15 at Minnesota
26 GREEN BAY (T)
6 at Cincinnati
13 at Baltimore
27 at San Francisco
NFL Rank: 21
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .467
Games against playoff teams: 5
What appeared to be a manageable slate when it cameout suddenly got a lot nastier after Chicago and Minnesota made big upgrades atquarterback. Now the Lions have to face Jay Cutler and Brett Favre twice each.Detroit might have had the Week 2 date with Minnesota circled as the game toend its winless streak; instead, the Lions will face Favre, who dominatesthem.
Matthew Stafford, Quarterback
RECENT HISTORY says there's a 50% washout rate forfirst-round rookie quarterbacks. For every Peyton Manning there's a Ryan Leaf;for every Carson Palmer there's a Kyle Boller. Will Stafford, this year's No. 1draft pick, sink or swim?
Two things stood out about Stafford during a trainingcamp practice against a live rush: While he's not overly athletic, he movesconfidently in the pocket to avoid pressure and keeps his eye on his targetsdownfield. And then there's the arm. Other than a couple of somewhat wobblyrollout throws, every pass Stafford made—short and long—on a windless morningspiraled perfectly. "I had no idea this would happen," says Stafford,the Georgia standout whom the Lions signed to a contract with $41.7 millionguaranteed, "but the NFL ball actually fits my hand better than the collegeball did. It's a little bigger, and it feels more secure."
The coaches like how the game's not too big for theirrookie quarterback. A couple of times on the practice field this summer, beforeoffensive coordinator Scott Linehan could correct a mistake, Stafford held uphis hand and said he knew what he did wrong and not to worry—it'll get fixed.There's a lot to fix in Detroit, and Stafford will get a chance, early, to playthe biggest part in the team's improvement.