Long before the Lions went to training camp in July, coach Steve Mariucci was busy trying to figure out what was wrong with them.
No, not like that.
The former San Francisco coach -- hired by the Lions in early February -- wasn't as concerned about their 5-27 record over the past two years as he was trying to figure out why they were so vulnerable to injuries.
He talked with the assistant coaches, the trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches and the team doctors.
Was it a lack of conditioning? Was it back training habits? Was it the field surface? Was it simply bad luck?
After all was said and done, however, Mariucci and his injury sleuths were unable to pinpoint the cause. So he just focused his attention of preparing the Lions for the 2003 season in the best way he knew how -- with an intense off-season conditioning program, the usual assortment of minicamps and, finally, three weeks of training camp.
And, still the Lions are battling injuries.
In the 23-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Lions played without eight projected starting players -- defensive end Robert Porcher, defensive tackle Luther Elliss, middle linebacker Earl Holmes, cornerback Dre' Bly, strong safety Corey Harris, guard Eric Beverly, tight end Mikhael Ricks and wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim.
The good news is that several of the players -- including Harris, Ricks and Hakim -- are coming off injuries suffered in the 2002 season and are being held back as a precaution. And several other players are nursing minor hamstring or ankle injuries that are not likely to impact the 2003 season.
The bad news, however, is that all of the injuries -- regardless of how minor or how precautionary -- are preventing the Lions from practicing and working as a team to prepare for the start of the regular season.
And, as Mariucci is obviously aware after the loss at Cincinnati, the Lions aren't good enough or talented enough to win unless they are playing at close to maximum efficiency.
"I just didn't see us block and tackle, throw and catch well enough to win a game," he said. "We've got to play up to our potential. This team needs to play as well as it can play if we're going to beat a good team, any team -- Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, whoever it is. We've got to play to our full potential.
"It will be nice to get some guys back healthy. That was one of the off-season issues we discussed as a staff -- `Let's be healthier than the Lions have been in the past. Find a way to be healthier.' We haven't done that yet, for whatever reason."
By taking the conservative approach on bringing players back from injuries -- not only the starters but also key backup players such as running back Shawn Bryson, cornerback Jimmy Wyrick and safety Lamar Campbell -- Mariucci is hoping to avoid more serious losses in the regular season.
If that approach doesn't work, it could be another long, frustrating season in Detroit.