Training camp: the unofficial beginning of the football season.
In Lion Land, there's typically a cloud of uncertainty (or rampant pessimism) that accompanies what is otherwise a traditionally exciting time for NFL fans.
Naturally, Detroit fans have been saddled with unfavorable expectations. Born into skepticism, and fueled by things like, well, the first winless year in modern NFL history, numerous draft busts, Matt Millen, and omnipresent analysts that usually sum up their thoughts on the Lions with a chuckle, you'll have to excuse the faithful if even their guarded hope is paper thin.
But in 2010, there's a growing sense of cautious optimism surrounding the franchise. The culprit? Quarterback Matt Stafford.
During his pre-camp press briefing on Friday, Lions coach Jim Schwartz confirmed as much. And athough he wants to avoid any expectations for his club, at least for the time being, the second-year professional head coach is fully aware the team has talent in place.
The Rise of Matthew Stafford
"The biggest improvement that we made in the off-season was at the quarterback position," said Schwartz. "Matt Stafford went through an entire off-season, he was here every single day, he was throwing on the field, working out, studying film, in the playbook, all those different things."
Last year, Stafford was drafted in April and shared repetitions with veteran Daunte Culpepper. The lack of practice hindered his developing chemistry with stud receiver Calvin Johnson, among others. He posted a respectable rookie campaign, but the team expects many more things out of the face of the franchise.
Culpepper was dropped, talent has been put in place, and Stafford is now the unquestioned leader.
"He went in (this year) as the starting quarterback, and his whole objective now is to learn and get better, not anything else," said Schwartz. "Not trying to find an apartment, not trying to find his way around the city, not trying to earn a starting job.
"He's our starting quarterback, and I think that's probably been the biggest thing in this off-season is Matt's ability to work with Calvin Johnson, his ability to go and throw with Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson, and (Dennis) Northcutt, and Derrick Williams, and our wide receivers and tight ends. Going out there and doing that on a daily basis has made a big, big improvement on where we are offensively."
Shiny New Toys
Something that crippled Detroit's offense in 2009 was its inability to find any other offensive talent capable of making defenses pay. Since Johnson was it, opposing teams simply schemed Johnson into oblivion, and Stafford was rendered optionless.
The result was ugly.
Stafford was the team's most notable improvement
according to coach Jim Schwartz.
"The difference is having other guys that can make the plays when someone wants to trip a defense up for Calvin and that's where we struggled last year," said Schwartz. We didn't make enough big plays other than (to) Calvin."
Beyond the new tools, the entire organization is confident the strong-armed, former top pick can laser guide his passes to the new investments.
"With the people we got, not just at the receiver position, not just at the tight end position, not just at the running back position, but a combination of all those definitely gives him more answers."
Your Best Offense Is A Good Defense
For the most part last year, it seemed Detroit's defense would roll over, play dead, and pray that the opposing offense would sniff, ignore, and keep moving.
When a team is consistently trailing by two or more touchdowns, it becomes pretty obvious what they'll attempt to do offensively. It defined the team's existence in 2009, while painting its rookie quarterback into a corner.
So much was broken on the defensive side of the football that it was difficult to determine where the problems began, or where they ended. So the Lions did what any franchise should do in that situation: nuke it and start over.
The defensive line will have three new starters. The linebacker position will have two. The starting defensive backfield will likely return just Louis Delmas. But team president Martin Mayhew and company didn't just Millen-spend, they snared a pass rushing specialist in vet Kyle Vanden Bosch, inked two athletic corners with enough youth to make it competitive, and spent the No. 2 overall pick on the biggest, baddest defensive tackle entering the league in probably the last decade.
The changes won't only help keep opponents off the scoreboard, but they'll help Stafford put points on it.
Vanden Bosch is expected to lead the charge.
"To quote Denny Green, '(Kyle) is what what we thought he was,'" said Schwartz. "None work harder. Same with toughness, he's a very, very tough person. Maybe some have been as tough, no one's been tougher.
"The leadership he brings you can't put a price on it. He does it vocally, he also does it by example. He's changed the work schedule of all our defensive linemen, they've all followed him. He's probably the healthiest he's been in 2 or 3 years. We're looking for big things from him."
Vanden Bosch's unit, the team hopes, will set the tone for the rest of the defense.
"The way you protect the quarterback is you don't get down 17 points in the fourth quarter," said Schwartz. "Protecting the quarterback falls into (having) more answers around him, and a better defense to be in games, and then it comes to the offensive line."
Schwartz cited inconsistent play by the offensive line, worsened by Stephen Peterman's injury at the right guard position. Peterman, who missed seven games in '09, returns healthy. The team also acquired veteran Rob Sims to fill the void at left guard.