The NFL's first 0-16 season is over. That was last year. But history still casts a shadow on the Detroit Lions, and until they finally win a game, the darkness will not truly begin to lift.
The Lions have lost 17 straight games, dating to the 2007 season finale (not to mention 23 of their past 24). If they lose the season opener Sunday at New Orleans, they will tie the 1972-73 Houston Oilers for the NFL's third-worst losing streak of all-time.
If the Lions start 0-2, they will tie two teams for the NFL's second-worst losing streak of all-time: the 1961-62 Oakland Raiders and the 1942-43 and '45 Chicago Cardinals.
If the Lions keep losing, the countdown will begin. The NFL record is 26 consecutive losses, set by the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions can't start 0-9, can they?
Detroiters can't help but wonder. The losing streak feels very real to them, inescapable. But to many of the Lions themselves, the losing streak belongs to somebody else.
The Lions have a new general manager in Martin Mayhew. They have a new coach in Jim Schwartz. And 31 members of the 53-man roster had no part in last year's debacle.
"I can't act on what happened last year," Schwartz said. "I can only act on what's going on this year. Since I made phone calls to the players when I first got this job, never once did I mention last year."
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz would rather not reflect on Detroit's past -- something both him, and over 50 percent of the roster, had nothing to do with. - getty images
"We have new schemes. We have new coaches. We have a new system of doing things. There's been a lot of changes, and I don't think we need to revisit that. The players that have come in, should Larry Foote bear the burden of what happened last year?"
No. But kicker Jason Hanson, the Lions' longest-tenured player at 18 seasons, said the burden will become the new players' quickly if things don't change.
Much has been written about the Lions starting rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford against the Saints, and much is expected of Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He can't wait to play the Saints.
"They're a good defense," Stafford said. "They're aggressive. They're going to try to get after the quarterback. It's up to us to make some plays."
But Stafford is going to have to make an extraordinary amount of plays and somehow avoid rookie mistakes if the Lions' defense can't stop the Saints' offense.
Rookie Matthew Stafford will face an aggressive Saints defense that is chomping at the bit to attack the young starting QB.
This is a matchup of last year's best offense against last year's worst defense. The Saints destroyed the Lions on Dec. 21 at Ford Field, 42-7, even though they had been eliminated from the playoffs and the Lions were trying to avoid 0-16.
This is a new group. Of the 25 members of the Lions' defense, 17 weren't part of last year's team. Of the 10 members of the Lions' secondary, nine weren't part of last year's team. The only holdover is safety Kalvin Pearson.
Still, the Lions' pass rush and secondary are suspect. If the Lions can't find a way to slow down Saints quarterback Drew Brees, they could be looking at Loss No. 18.
"Let's just put it this way: I feel a responsibility to win every Sunday," Schwartz said. "It's no more because of what happened in 2008 or 2007. I feel a responsibility to win because this is 2009."
SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 9-9-1. Saints routed Lions on Dec. 21 at Ford Field, 42-7, though they had been eliminated from the playoffs and Lions were trying to avoid winless season. Lions won three previous meetings.
- Daunte Culpepper released a statement after losing the starting quarterback job to rookie Matthew Stafford. "Coach Schwartz gave me a fair opportunity to compete for the starting job, and now the decision has been made that Matt is the best quarterback in Detroit," Culpepper wrote. "I support the decision, and I am ready to settle into my role. Matt is a great guy and a talented young quarterback. I am confident that he will lead this team to plenty of victories in Detroit for a long time to come. I look forward to helping Matt in that mission in any way that I can this year. My role as his back-up is not to be seen unless needed and not to be heard from unless required."
- The Lions will have their hands full with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. "He does a really good job of moving that team," coach Jim Schwartz said. "They didn't run the ball well last year, but they didn't have to because he was such an efficient quarterback." Schwartz pointed out the Saints have five receivers who caught more than 45 passes last year. "When that happens, it makes it hard to focus on one thing defensively," Schwartz said. "It spreads you thin, and that's the way they want it. So we're going to have to play our best team defense."
- Perhaps the only edge the Lions have on Brees is surprise. They didn't show much in the exhibition season. "He doesn't know exactly what we're going to do," Schwartz said. "What we show in the preseason may or may not be what we're going to do down in the Superdome. So I think he doesn't have a good bead exactly on what we're going to do, so maybe that's a little bit of an advantage for us." Linebacker Julian Peterson said: "We've been pretty vanilla when it came to preseason, pretty much just playing Cover Two and maybe a little bit of man. But this time, we're going to pretty much give our whole package that we haven't shown."
- Peterson said Brees gets the ball out so quickly that the Lions have no chance unless they make him think. "Pump the ball," Peterson said. "That's enough time for our pass rush to get there, or for another defensive back or a linebacker to break to a ball to get a big interception or a big hit or something that causes turnovers." Peterson has been facing Brees since their college days, when Peterson was at Michigan State and Brees was at Purdue. "Personally, I haven't beat him," Peterson said. "I'm really looking forward to this. This will be a good milestone for us."
- This week's Lions might not be next week's Lions. "Your job as a coach is not to be married to any particular scheme," Schwartz said. "It's to give you the best chance to win every week, and you have to take advantage of the unique talents that you have - or lack of talents. You have to be able to cover up for those some years, and some years accentuate other things. Every year it's going to be a little different scheme, and that's just the philosophy here. We're not married to a particular scheme. We're not going to try to fit square pegs into round holes. It's going to change not just from year to year, but from week to week, how you attack an individual opponent."
- Schwartz is enjoying the uncertainty surrounding the Lions. For the moment. "There's a reason we have a shredder up in the football office," Schwartz said. "There is a reason the kitchen isn't on display at the restaurant. You want to deliver the meal. You don't want to actually be watched cooking every little part of it. It works to our advantage right now. We're in a position that people aren't 100 percent sure what they're going to see, so let's ride that out. Let's enjoy it while we have it, because it's going to disappear pretty soon." Asked about the old adage that you shouldn't watch sausage being made, Schwartz said: "In Maryland, we make something called scrapple. There's a lot of groans. I had some scrapple this summer, and I don't think I'd be eating it if I saw them make it, let's put it that way. It's everything that didn't make the cut for sausage."
- The Lions expect running back Kevin Smith to support rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford. "That's a guy that's built to carry the ball," Schwartz said. "He's instinctive. He's good in the pass game and run game. And if we're going to have success on offense, our run game's going to have to get going. It all works together, and Kevin's a big part of that."
- What did Schwartz learn about being a head coach during the exhibition season? "I get hungry on the sideline," Schwartz joked. "Sometimes I feel like I have to go to the bathroom on the sideline and there's nowhere for me to go." Seriously, though, Schwartz has more on his plate now. "As defensive coordinator, I'd run out and high-five the players as they were coming off," Schwartz said. "As head coach, I'm talking to the special teams coach, talking about what kind of punt return we're going to be in, if we're going to rush or if we're going to return, talking to Scott (Linehan) about where the ball is going to be and how aggressive we want to be on offense at that point. You don't have a lot of time to revel in success or be sad about failures. There's always something that happens next." How will Schwartz handle clock management? "We'll see when I get in that situation," Schwartz said. "That's all I can say."
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Consecutive losses for the Lions, who are one loss from tying for the third-worst losing streak of all-time and two losses from tying for the second-worst losing streak of all-time.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "And I just got here last year." -- S Kalvin Pearson, on being the only defensive back remaining from last year's Lions.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:
The biggest personnel issue the Lions have is at kicker. Jason Hanson is coming back from minor knee surgery. The Lions are optimistic he will be able to handle field goals, but he practiced kickoffs for the first time Wednesday. They might need to sign a kicker to handle kickoffs in the season opener Sunday at New Orleans.
"It definitely wasn't 100 percent," Hanson said. "But I worked through them, and now they're just going to see what happens with tomorrow and overnight. Swelling, I guess, is the big part, because then it locks it up and then it doesn't work right. But as I was hitting them, nothing went pop or bang or pow. So that's a good thing."
Though Schwartz has announced Matthew Stafford has his starting quarterback, he has decided to keep other position battles close to the vest. The most mysterious situation is in the return game, where several of players are involved. It looks like Daniel Loper will start at left guard over Manny Ramirez, though.