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Joey Lafferty - LionsFans.comAt some point during the past nine months, have you ever gotten the feeling that a violent implosion of the Detroit Lions franchise was imminent? Spontaneous contraction, if you will, a means of getting the NFL that Los Angeles franchise it so desperately wants without dealing with that pesky issue of relocation.
In all honesty, the accompanying ka-boom would be unimpressive, hardly attracting notice outside the great state of Michigan. After all, the combustion would be fueled by so little substance, a franchise history so wretched only a L.A. Clipper fan might embrace it, that it required a season so insanely bad as 2001 to send this epitome-of-mediocrity into oblivion.
Not even a bravely conceived experiment whose main ingredients were Wayne Fontes and Scott Mitchell could produce a season that saw the Lions finish 2-14, second worst in the NFL. Draft day gems Andre Ware and Chuck Long? Pat Swilling for the opportunity to select Willie Roaf? The Darryl Rogers era? Mere child's play, my friends.
If ever a season filled Lions fans with a true sense of impending doom, it was 2001. Reflect, and you'll probably realize that your gut told you going INTO the Monday Night Contest with the Rams that the season was as good as done. Correct? Now grab a 2001 schedule, and you'll see that this exhibition (as it turned out to be) was only game three.
Many 0-2 starts, those Motown Maniacs have seen, but never had such a beginning filled them with so much doubt. Things were bad, certain to get worse.
So here we are, three months before the 2002 season gets under way, in the final round of free agency-madness, and according to the experts, the cloud of uncertainty still hovers confidently over the city of Detroit.
The media cut Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg a little slack for turning a 9-7 team into one of the league's worst. Gotta give time to fill the roster with "their guys." Still, Millen did very little in free agency during his first year as team president to show himself deserving of the huge contract and vote of confidence given to him by William Ford.
Look out Lions fans, say the experts, he's at it again in year two of his tenure. His free agent acquisitions leave much to be desired, they say, and his treatment of former Lions like Johnnie Morton caused a lot of head scratching amongst Millen's peers. Finally, they warn, Millen might have proven in this year's draft that his widely acclaimed 2001 draft was a fluke.
Should the question now simply be when will the implosion take place? Does fate hold nothing but tears for the Detroit faithful? Or is there, perhaps, if one looks a little more closely, peeling back the layers of psuedo-expert analysis and peering deep into the abyss, a fleeting glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?
Well, analysts and experts be damned, there are reasons for Lions fans to look forward to the upcoming season. Here, we'll see, are 10 such reason to smile:
1) The Receiving Corps: Wait, wasn't this the area where Millen really goofed? Paying big money for a number three receiver; letting go of his most dependable guy? Nearly every member of the NFL media pointed out that it was unwise to expect Az Hakim to be a number one or two receiver. Furthermore, Morton and Moore were institutions in Detroit, and letting them go would not only alienate the fans, but also rob the team of two dedicated leaders. One thing they've failed to mention is that with Crowell back on board, Az Hakim will play basically the same role for the Lions that he flourished in with the Rams. He'll not be expected to take on better corners, that being left up to newly acquired Bill Schroeder and Crowell. Then they drastically overpaid for a number three receiver, right? Not if he's the difference maker, turning two or three close losses into wins. The Lions aren't paying him $3 million/year to pull in 100 catches, but rather to give them game-breaking plays on offense and perhaps special teams. As for Morton, as reliable and likeable as he was for the Lions, he clearly lacked big play capability, inferior in this department to both Schroeder and Crowell. The Lions receiving trio might not be the most quality in the NFL, but they sure could be one of the most exciting. They are, quite possibly, the number one reason to be excited about the Lions offense in 2002.
2) Kurt Schottenheimer: Hey, didn't he flop in Washington? Yes, one could argue that Schottenheimer's defense was less than stellar during his brief stint with the Redskins. However, one shouldn't judge a coordinator based solely on his first season at the helm. The Ravens didn't immediately strike fear into the league when Marvin Lewis joined the Ravens in 1996 (that defense yielded 441 points), and Lewis is now considered by most to be the league's best. More important are the Schottenheimer-led defenses in Kansas City between 1989-2000, at many points during his tenure considered the best in the NFL. Should we not at least concede that another less-than-stellar transition year could be in the cards for Schottenheimer? For sure, but already his schemes have been embraced by members of the defense. Remember, they were openly grumbling about Tobin's wait-and-see approach as early as week 1 last season. There's no guarantee that Schottenheimer will make the Lions look anything like the Chief defenses of the '90's, but there is a good possibility that his addition will have a bigger impact than any free agent acquisition.
3) Part Deux: Unlike in the movie business, where brilliant ideas and well conceived works-of-art are generally disgraced by embarrassing second acts, NFL coaching tenures more often than not find their footing the second time around. We needn't delve deep into the history books to find supporting evidence. Bill Bellichick, 5-11 in his first season as Patriots head coach, led New England to the Super Bowl just a few months ago. The previous two Super Bowl coaches? Second year guys. Mornhinweg's fellow West Coast mastermind Andy Reid debuted at 5-11 in Philadelphia, only to go 11-5 a season later. The list goes on and on. Finding and acquiring players to fit your style takes time, and purging the roster of players favored by the previous regime (in this case, the very opposite grind-it-out Bobby Ross) is made difficult, and demands patience, as a result of the constraints of the salary cap. No longer can a team cut players who don't fit without feeling the effects economically. Cut 'em too soon, accelerate the cap hit, and you're handcuffed when other teams release players that could make your team better. As already mentioned, experts aren't too fond of what Millen is doing, but while there are still holes to fill, a definite philosophy is taking shape. As with most other NFL coaching sequels, there are many reasons to believe this one will better the original.
4) The Experts Hate Us!: John Clayton, Peter King, Chris Mortenson, etc.; pick an expert... none of them know what the hell Matt Millen is doing? Don't be alarmed, this is a good thing. If you turned on a radio during the two weeks preceding last season's Super Bowl, you probably heard (over and over, and over) John Clayton telling anybody who would listen what a mismatch we were going to witness. He knew the teams, he understood the match-ups, and there was no way the Patriots could keep the game close for more than a quarter. ESPN radio hosts openly joked about how eager Clayton seemed to tell anyone who would listen that the Rams would demolish the Patriots. Okay, perhaps it's unfair to use this shocker as an example. Fine. How often do the experts, when making pre-season predictions, do anything other than recite the previous season's standings with a few minor modifications? As we all know, that no longer works in the NFL. Sure, there is normally a team or two that becomes the favorite Cinderalla-to-be, earning the analysts "insider-for-your-eyes-only" seal of approval. Quite frankly, these teams usually flop. Wasn't it the Chiefs last season? The Buccaneers... EVERY YEAR! Just as they all had the Bears winning the Central last season. Right? The "experts" are good at getting and providing inside information, but they're no better at forecasting team chemistry and the bizarre twists and turns that make up a season than you and I. In fact, a kiss-of-death from the media elite is often a pretty good sign. Let's embrace it!
5) The Defensive Line: Even the more jaded observer is quick to smother this unit with praise. Assuming the key members remain healthy, this unit has a fine mix of youthful energy and veteran experience. Robert Porcher and Luther Ellis are both a bit past their prime, but are still among the best at what they do. Shaun Rogers should have been insulted when called "one of the better defensive rookies in the NFL" after his first season, this because he was really one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Put him on a more successful team in 2001, and Rogers is a Pro Bowler already drawing comparisons to league's best. Mix in underdeveloped but very gifted rookie Kalimba Edwards, in addition to the sturdy depth provided by Jared DeVries, James Hall, and Kelvin Pritchett, and what you have is a defensive line that will allow Kurt Schottenheimer a lot of flexibility, in addition to protecting potential inadequacies in the secondary.
6) Infusion of Winning Tradition: However much Lions fans came to love and adore the likes of Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton, Barry Sanders, Stephen Boyd and Ron Rice, and no matter how happy they are to still have longtime Lions Robert Porcher and Luther Ellis, there's no denying that these are players with very, very little experience with success in the NFL. Does this mean they accept mediocrity, that they don't mind bowing out in round one of the playoffs? Certainly not, but once a player gets a taste of year-in and year-out success, it makes losing that much more difficult to take. After a while, Porcher and Ellis are likely just as overcome with that "here we go again" feeling that the fans get when things start going wrong. It's a matter of human nature... not being one of the best becomes palatable. Schroeder, Az Hakim, and Corey Harris all have Super Bowl experience. Brian Walker is accustomed to playing for a perennial defensive powerhouse. Joey Harrington helped make Oregon a national contender, and fourth-quarter comebacks became the norm with Harrington leading the troops. It might make very little difference, or it might make all the difference in the world. The Lions have lacked a vocal team leader for quite sometime on both sides of the ball, something Matt Millen has pointed out on more than one occasion. Could this offseason have landed the Lions a guiding voice or two?
7) Improved Quarterback Situation: Marty Mornhinweg entered his inaugural head coaching season with the anti-West Coast prototype quarterback leading the way. This year, he has the strong armed, athletic second year player Mike McMahon (the first quarterback brought in by the new regime) in addition to everyone's draft day favorite Joey Harrington. Regardless of which signal-caller wins the job in training camp, you've got to think that Mornhinweg will be much more comfortable than he was at this time a year ago. No question, this is a young duo, one bound to make many mistakes while enduring the inevitable growing pains. Still, even during McMahon's limited playing time in 2001, it became crystal clear just how important it is to have a quarterback that fits the system. Now the Lions have two, and both possess much potential.
8) Ford Field: I know, I know, you're expecting me to say, "Hey, even if the games stink, at least the fans will be watching from within a state-of-the-art new stadium!" While actually true, my point here is actually more team related (after all, aren't wins the ultimate object of your desire?). Face it, today's athlete is pampered from the time he's identified as a prospect with potential. Nice facilities become expected by the best of the best (which are the ones who ultimately make it to the NFL), and when said expectations aren't met, the glum atmosphere (such as those in Pontiac) can often bring things down. It shouldn't, but these are the facts. Players talk about it all the time, and anyone who reads player interviews has seen it time and again. For example, though still playing in dreadful Veterans Stadium, Eagles players like Donovan McNabb attribute much credit for their turnaround to their new training and rehab centers. Beyond the improved conditions and surroundings relative to the Silverdome, the Lions now have far better training facilities. Jared DeVries recently said that the University of Iowa facilities put those in Pontiac to shame. Now the Lions train and recover in perhaps the best facilities in the league. Every little bit helps.
9) The Schedule: While the term last place schedule no longer applies in the newly realigned, eight division NFL, there's no denying that the Lions have a good opportunity to get a respectable start under their belts in 2002, crucial if they're going to compete when the new talent begins to gel later on in the season. Winning a September game in Miami is all but unheard of, to be fair, but home games against the Packers and Saints are certainly winnable. Did I mention that the other opening month match-up has the Lions in Carolina, that team that somehow managed to finagle the number one pick right from under Detroit's nose? Furthermore, playing the Vikings twice is now more an opportunity than a "have-to" than any time in recent years, while games against the Bills and Cowboys, reason to cringe during the '90's, give further hope for a couple more notches in the win column. Arizona, Atlanta... the over-the-hill Vinny-led Jets? Bring 'em on.
10) It Can't Get Much Worse: Take into account the above noted schedule, the fact that the Lions are presently 0-0, and ask yourself: "What's not to smile about?" Okay, I'm sure you could reel off a laundry list of potential land mines lurking out in the meadows, but one shouldn't cast away the 2002 season like experts would have each and every Lions fan do. There are reasons to smile. Embrace them. Repeat them to yourself when you go to sleep at night. The question isn't when will the implosion occur?, as no implosion has to happen at all. This is the 21st century, and in the modern day National Football League, last place teams become first place teams, young quarterbacks come out of nowhere to win Super Bowls, and coaches formerly on the hot seat become local heroes. Get ready for the upcoming season Lions fans... it can't be much worse than the last one!