Shades of '91? Lions clawing back to the top

The collective grimace sweeping NFL analysts league-wide is the result of some rather unsavory crow, thanks to the 5-2 start propped up by the Detroit Lions thus far into the season. But as publisher Nate Caminata suggests, the team's best may be yet to come.

The collective grimace sweeping NFL analysts league-wide is the result of some rather unsavory crow, thanks to the 5-2 start propped up by the Detroit Lions thus far into the season.

Behind quarterback Jon Kitna, whom the experts lambasted for predicting 10 wins during the off-season, the Lions reside just below NFC North leader Green Bay. They still have a relatively untapped offensive arsenal, the defense leads the league in takeaways, and they have two things that they've lacked since Matt Millen took control of the franchise in 2001: confidence and momentum.

But while the honolulu blue and silver bunch hasn't exactly made everyone a believer just yet (and with 10 or more losses in the previous six years, that's understandable), it's quite possible that the team's best is still yet to come.

Yes, the upstart Detroit Lions could continue to win football games. Like, more than five.

The knock on Detroit is that they have yet to defeat a team with a winning record, and they were outscored in their two losses, 24-90. With wins over Oakland (2-5), Chicago (3-5) twice, Tampa Bay (4-4) and Minnesota (2-5), the ostensible "statement" game hasn't necessarily arrived, although last weekend's win at Chicago pushed many doubters over the fence.

But the absence of a marquee win doesn't mean the Lions haven't turned the corner. And it certainly doesn't mean they won't continue to improve.

Just ask 1991.

The Lions share a few similarities to the 1991 squad that went 12-4 behind a quick strike offense led by Erik Kramer.
Getty Images/Rick Stewart

To find another NFL team that managed to win five of its first seven games despite being outscored by opponents (156-178), you would have to hearken back to the days of Erik Kramer, Barry Sanders, Brett Perriman, Robert Clark and Willie Green; a team with an aerial assault that spread the ball to many different receivers; a team that suffered a lopsided loss early in the season, but rebounded strongly; an opportunistic defense, led by a decisive force in the middle of the defensive line.

The opponent's collective won/loss figures of that team's first five wins? 8-27. Stop me when this sounds familiar.

This year's rendition of the Detroit Lions harbors many of the same traits shared by that '91 squad, perhaps the last "dominant" Lions team. Those Lions, who didn't wear black trim, started the season with a 0-45 loss against Washington, jumped to 5-2 and finished atop the NFC Central division with a 12-4 mark.

Although they were dominated again in the NFC championship game by the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins, they have been endlessly reflected upon during Detroit's near-decade long drought.

And least we forget, that relatively young Lions squad -- which included future Hall-of-Famer Herman Moore's first baby steps -- also helped set up a competitive franchise for the next several years.

In 2007, the Lions need for improvement is obvious. They are not elite, but anyone not indoctrinated by the Cowboys fast start would be hard-pressed to find any "elite" team in a weak National Football Conference.

Simply put, Detroit has as good a chance as any to make noise in the NFC.

In last Sunday's 16-7 win over the Bears, the Lions secured the time of possession battle for the first time since a week two win over Minnesota. The improved secondary play certainly helped, intercepting Bears' quarterback Brian Griese four times, but it was also a sustained running attack that balanced Detroit's offense and allowed the defense to recoup.

That progress is something that has developed since the return of running back Kevin Jones to the starting backfield. It was slightly noticeable in the Lions win over Tampa Bay, readily apparent against the Bears, and it will only continue to grow.

Kevin Jones has both sparked and balanced Detroit's offense.
Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel

Former Texas Longhorns' coach Darrell Royal once quipped, "Three things can happen when you pass and two of 'em are bad." If you're keeping score at home, those would be incompletions and interceptions. Both stunted Detroit's offensive development in week's 1 through 4, keeping the team's explosive weaponry hostage, meanwhile forcing a young, immature defense to play at a self-destructive pace.

This is evident in the 350 yards they allow per contest, good enough for last in the conference.

The elevation of Jones to full-time, starter status has helped spur the rushing attack, keeping Detroit's offense on the field longer and its opportunistic defense fresh. They have totaled 266 yards on 32 carries in the last two games, 181 of that on the recovering foot of Jones. That is an average of nearly five yards per attempt.

Between Roy Williams, rookie Calvin Johnson and two of the better possession receivers in the league in Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald, the Lions offense hasn't even hit its stride yet as it adjusts to the concept of a two-pronged offensive attack.

And once it does, which could come as early as this Sunday's home tilt with Denver's struggling defense, the potential level of devastation that this unit could levy onto opponents could exceed offensive coordinator Mike Martz's exciting moments in St. Louis.

Defensively, the Lions have demonstrated glimpses of brilliance. Although they are certainly no powerhouse, and susceptible to accurate, hard-throwing quarterbacks, they force turnovers and have managed a league-best 13 interceptions. Those turnovers have led to 69 points, best in the NFL.

In the meantime, Detroit is simply playing with more confidence. In each of their five wins, the game was decided by fourth quarter plays, something that haunted a 3-13 Lions' team last year. Rarely have games even in early November meant something to this franchise. Now, each is critical.

The team's next eight opponents (including Green Bay twice) are a combined 34-23, a challenging schedule that will determine whether or not the Lions have finally reclaimed their past success, or if they'll fold under the pressure of the current success.

"They're getting better and better each week," said head coach Rod Marinelli earlier this week. "This team is improving, it's just not where I want them to be. I want to be better. And that's what we have a chance to do."

He's right. The crow just might be the appetizer.

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