ALLEN PARK - It's that time of the year again. When 'Jingle Bells' is plugged 24/7 on local radio, soccer moms battle for the last frozen turkey, and the Detroit Lions coaching staff begins evaluating their current crop of talent.
For next year.
As the Lions prepare for their annual Thanksgiving Day contest, which more or less now serves as a national reminder that the state still fields a professional football team, the importance isn't necessarily winning, but retaining a job in 2007. Lions' head coach Rod Marinelli conceded on Monday that the playoffs aren't likely realistic, and that individual player evaluations are a go.
"I want to see who can finish the season out exactly right, putting pressure on every game and see who can do it," said Marinelli. "I don't want this thing to get into a situation where (we) relax and just play, you know? (No) 'Hey, we're young, hey we're this, we're that' - just play. And what that does is a guy will start playing pretty well, but it's phony because there's no pressure. I want to keep the pressure on everybody - coaches and players - as much and (as) heavy as I can with grading. I want to see guys with winning performances each week.
"I want to see those winning performances and who can do it. Who can do it? So, I'm going to keep the heat on these guys - heavier than if it was a playoff run right now."
Considering the potential overhaul that is likely to hammer the team in the off-season, Marinelli's agenda might just work. The common thought is that Marinelli and Co. will have their first real chance to dump former coach Steve Mariucci's leftovers, and use the off-season to collect talent that fits the system -- both in playbook and in philosophy.
Entering the year, Marinelli and his coaching staff attempted to put their stamp on the team, which included the dismissal of former No. 2 overall pick Charles Rogers. But remnants of the previous problems remain, and the poor play from the last few years has been evident on the field in '06.
"I mean, we're not winning, so that's part of it. But, there are some guys (and) their boxes might be a little bit smaller that they're playing in," explained Marinelli. "They're doing some of the things you want them to do, but it's not championship football - as I'm looking at it - there's no way. This is the pressure I'm looking for right now. There's no pressure in terms of you're battling for the divisional lead right now - I'm creating that, I am going to create that. I got to grade them as tough as I can to see who can do it."
Positions that will be under the most scrutiny include wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker and defensive back. And don't think for a moment that the team is sold on starting quarterback Jon Kitna in 2007 and beyond. In fact, every player will be placed under a microscope, and many current faces aren't likely to be around next year.
Marinelli said he's looking forward to see how the players respond to his "grade" book.
"I grade. That's how you do it," he said. "You put it up so everybody can see them and these last six, seven games count - big. I want to see who can do it because I'm trying in my own mind, in their mind, this is like playoff football. We've got to learn to play under pressure, we won't learn anything if we just (say) 'ok, guys we're going to finish this up, relax and let's just go play.' When you do that, guys will play, but when there's no consequences, it doesn't matter."
He also added that the performances, both in practice and in the remaining games, will be an indication of the squad's roster in the future.
"My goal overall is each and every game, to me, I'm weighing it as heavily as I can," he said. "It's like a playoff to perform, who can do this? I'm going to keep the pressure on them and last week I wanted to see who could go out on the road and do it. Who could go on the road and play great defense and win a game on the road and do the things we're asking you to do.
"So, that's the way to keep pressure on."
One player who is an afterthought to be departing Detroit (and possibly the league) next year is receiver Mike Williams. The former No. 10 overall pick has been inactive for the bulk of the season, and seems to be as expendable as a tackling dummy -- one with an inexcapable cap hit. In the past two practices, quarterback Josh McCown has garnered as many reps at the wide receiver position as the player formerly known as 'BMW'. When asked specifically about Williams, Marinelli generalized.
"We're just going to evaluate it as we go tomorrow and see who's up and look at the whole squad," he said. "We're just going to keep looking all the way through just to get us the best group of guys."
When asked if he felt the roster wasn't at a "championship level," the first-year head coach didn't disagree.
"Yeah, if you look at our record, you know?" he said. "But there are other things that go into it: coaching goes into it, teaching goes into it, staff goes into it, I go into it - all of that goes into it."
And front office and player management also goes into it. With a roster full of busted or unused draft picks, poor free- agent acquisitions and/or a lack of depth, the players won't be the only ones under evaluation at the Allen Park headquarters. The man who signs them will be, too.