Young Lions showing signs of putting embarrassing past behind them
Posted: Tuesday September 28, 2004 10:55AM; Updated: Tuesday September 28, 2004 11:38AM
Lions QB Joey Harrinton has a 91.1 passer rating through three games.
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
The Detroit Lions trudged off the field and into their locker room at Ford Field as they have so many times before, with their heads bowed, their shoulders slumped and another loss in the record books. Few players peered into the smattering of fans hovering above the tunnel following their 30-13 loss to Philadelphia last Sunday. One who did, quarterback Joey Harrington, nodded reassuringly and pumped his fist twice toward the small crowd. It was his way of suggesting that life would get better for this team, that not every Sunday would be as deflating as that one.
I grew up watching the Lions so I know this scene well. I've watched quarterbacks like Gary Danielson, Eric Hipple and Scott Mitchell do the same thing as Harrington and not once did I ever think there was a reason to believe they were right. These were the Lions, after all, a team so inept that Barry Sanders quit on them, Marty Mornhinweg worked two seasons as their head coach and not one of their quarterbacks has appeared in a Pro Bowl in nearly 50 years.
But after spending time with the Lions last week, I sensed something was different about this team. It's something the most jaded fans would miss and it certainly wouldn't show up in the stat sheet following the Eagles loss. There is some optimism in Detroit now. There is a sense they can be better than what they've been in the past, which was downright awful most of the time. After years of disappointing acquisitions, boneheaded coaching decisions and poor play, the Lions are starting to look like they know what they're doing.
For one, Detroit is building a nice foundation of young, athletic players. Rookie receiver Roy Williams is a beast and if Charles Rogers could ever stay healthy for an entire season, the Lions would have a staggering 1-2 combination in their passing game. I like the potential of running back Kevin Jones and the defense actually has a few players who worry teams now, like monstrous defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. Detroit is also winning the games it's supposed to win by making key plays, such as BracyWalker's blocked punt return for a touchdown in a win over Chicago and EddieDrummond's 99-yard kickoff return the following week in a victory over Houston. The Lions have had some tough breaks -- the absence of Rogers and second-year linebacker BossBailey are especially debilitating -- but they suddenly seem capable of creating their own good fortune.
What's most apparent is that they think they actually can win games this year. I don't know if that was always the case. Even as Detroit prepared for the Eagles, head coach Steve Mariucci said his team wanted to play a championship-caliber squad in order to see how good they actually were after a 2-0 start. He certainly didn't like what he saw -- the Lions measured up to Philadelphia about as well as Earl Boykins measures up to Shaq -- but if Detroit is smart, they'll realize that most successful teams have endured rocky moments.
Five years ago the Eagles were similar to the Lions. They had a promising, highly drafted quarterback, a sharp head coach who was part of the MikeHolmgren family tree and a long history of disappointing their fans. Philly learned by playing through tough, often embarrassing moments and the Lions will have to do the same. These are the things that chronic losers start doing when they begin turning their franchises around.
It may be hard for Lions fans to comprehend but there's no reason to think this team can't be like any of the other recent success stories around the league. And I'm not even talking about teams that have vaulted from misery into the Super Bowl like New England, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Carolina. I'm referring to a squad like Cincinnati, which had new life injected into it when Marvin Lewis came to town, or one like Jacksonville, which is winning ugly and turning heads with second-year coach Jack Del Rio.
The Lions have their own energetic coach in Mariucci. He's the perfect guy for a young team because he operates with the boundless enthusiasm of a college coach. He calls his team "the program" and refers to rookies and second-year players as "freshmen" and "redshirt freshmen." Mariucci even invited the entire team to his suburban Detroit home at the end of training camp so they could get to know each other. That's the kind of move that wouldn't impress a 10-year veteran, but for a kid a couple years removed from playing in bowl games and chasing co-eds around campus, it can have an invaluable impact. "Coach is the same way in the meeting rooms, on the practice fields and in the lunch room -- he's all energy and attitude," Harrington says. "I really believe that when you get the right group of guys together, that attitude can be contagious, especially for a young team that doesn't know any better."
That's exactly what the Lions are right now -- a team that is green enough to not think that a blow-out loss should remind them that they'd won only 10 games in the previous three years. I'm not saying they're going to be in the postseason this year, but I also could see them finishing with eight victories. They're learning what it takes to succeed in this league. And if you've watched the Lions long enough, you'd know that's a major change around those parts.