Lions postcard (cont.)
New Face, New Place
Mike Martz. He just happens to be new in San Francisco this summer, not in Detroit. In the past, Martz was a distraction -- an ex-head coach with a loud personality, a demanding gimmick offense and a doghouse that seemed to grow exponentially. Ask around and you'll get the sense that Martz's departure was the finale of a mass house cleaning that started with Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and Joey Harrington and finished with Martz and Rogers. In Martz's absence, the offense has been simplified and balanced out. Kitna says he'll have more room to communicate and adapt with his teammates whereas last year it was always "here's the play, go execute it," he says. Also, gone are the days when Detroit ran as few as six times in one game, as they did in a momentum-crushing loss to Arizona last year. They plan to pound the rock this year with Tatum Bell (a staple in Martz's doghouse) and rookie Kevin Smith splitting reps.
Looking at the Schedule
Again, it's all about Weeks 10-17. In '07, Detroit jumped out to a 6-2 start and led the NFL with 14 INTs while feasting off questionable QBs like Josh McCown, Tarvaris Jackson and Brian Griese twice. After Week 9, when Detroit started facing one-name guys like (Eli) Manning, (Brett) Favre, (Tony) Romo and (Philip) Rivers, they fell off the map, finishing 1-7 with just three INTs down the stretch. In '08, they could very well start the season against Falcons rookie Matt Ryan in Week 1, followed by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, the 49ers' Alex Smith, Chicago's Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton, Jackson, Houston's Matt Schaub, the Skins' Jason Campbell and again against a Bears QB. The Lions should go 6-1 against that bunch.
But in November and December, they'll face the Jags' David Garrard, the Panthers' Jake Delhomme, Tampa's Jeff Garcia, Tennessee's Vince Young, Eli Manning and the Saints' Drew Brees. Thus, it will fall largely on the new defensive backfield to prevent a fallout in '08. The Lions hold a positive outlook. "Having real vocal mental leaders back there [in the backfield] will help us if we get in a situation like last year," says Raiola, one of the team's longest-standing veterans. "Now we have guys who won't settle for anything less than playing hard straight through to January, and I'd like to think we can finish strong this year." Sorry, Dominic. Even with the easy start, I see something close to 8-8 and a ninth consecutive season out of the playoffs.
Memorable Image From Camp
Like most teams, the Lions keep hitting to a bare minimum. But two rookies looking to impress bent the lines a little bit during goal-line drills on Monday, and Marinelli loved what he saw. Late in the full-pads morning practice, Kevin Smith took a short swing pass in the left flat and ran full speed into an equally fully-steamed Jordan Dizon, the linebacker from Colorado. Each player left his feet around the five-yard line and each took a clean lick without losing his footing. And then they walked away, point made. (Technically, Smith rolled off into the endzone afterward, but that's not really fair to count when wrapping up isn't allowed.) For Smith, it was evidence of the grit he's expected to bring. But it was Dizon, who's competing for the middle linebacker spot, who drew praise. "He'll jolt you," Marinelli said. "He's got that, like a boxer, that quick punch. He's got that short explosion you should look for."
Linebacker Ernie Sims also has a loose interpretation of the "no hitting" guideline. You get to do that when you lead the team with 134 tackles. On Monday, Sims' first day in camp after a week spent nursing a bruised knee, he destroyed two players crossing the middle of the field, including Tatum Bell. A day later, it was Mike Furrey on the receiving end. When Marinelli was asked whether Sims meant to have taken it easy on his first day back, he joked, "He did." Added Sims, "I got a little stress out of me."
You've got to love Devale Ellis, who's been with the Lions for two years and spent last season on the inactive list. Now he's trying to get noticed alongside guys like Williams, Calvin Johnson, Shaun McDonald and Furrey. He'll be lucky if the Lions keep all five, which means he not only has to shine (and he does), but he has to offer something extra. Last week, that meant capping off one of his spiffy catches with a 30-second Moonwalk routine, much to the crowd's delight.
Beat writers preach this all the time, but it was nice to hear from an actual player: You can't judge squat from training camp. Dwight Smith reiterated as much when one reporter asked how the defensive backfield was shaping up. He angrily snapped, "Until we get those live bullets and four quarters of football -- third-and-8 or something -- we won't know anything, man. Anybody can act like they can hit someone." It was a prime example of Smith's intense personality. He's an easily agitated player and the vocal leader Marinelli was looking for in free agency -- a drill sergeant in the huddle. But I could see this turning bad easily. Just imagine the first time Smith gets in Williams' face as he's taking the field, harping about a three-and-out.
No matter what the coaches say, I can't believe a little guy like Chuck Darby (whose listed at 6-foot) will fill the void left behind by 6-foot-4, 350-pound Shaun Rogers. Some skeptics guess that the Lions will get no more than 15-17 plays per game out of Darby at best. But from the coaches' perspectives, Darby is a step up. He fits the Tampa-2 defensive tackle mold better (smaller, quicker) and he's a Marinelli disciple. "There's a certain way [coach Marinelli] wants his guys to practice and a certain way he wants them to play," says defensive coordinator Joe Barry. "This is just a better fit for all parties." In other words, Marinelli never got through to Rogers, which is a shame. You can afford to let marginal guys like Tank Johnson leave Chicago, but Rogers is the type of rare specimen that deserves far more effort. I think they'll mightily miss him this season.
Like it or not, I'm lending my fantasy expertise here because I actually believe there's a correlation to the real game. (How can there not be? Some readers have disagreed.) Offensively, I'd take Williams over Calvin Johnson in a contract year. He may be crazy, but he's not that crazy. And he looks the part of breakout star in camp. In this new offense, I like tight end Dan Campbell as a reserve if he gets and stays healthy. In the backfield, I like -- not love -- Kevin Smith as a long-term investment, but I wouldn't count on him in Week 1. And I think Kitna's days of 20 TDs are over, especially with this new offense.
I know people love to rag on Millen. I'm familiar with his draft history. I get it. But the guy's a ramped-up riot even at 8:30 a.m., which is when the Lions often practice. As print and radio writers huddled around him early Monday morning, Millen yucked about Caddyshack and Favre ("I'm not even thinking of texting him anymore") and then lent his best Dick Stockton impression after mistaking a fan for the sportscaster. "I didn't know he was coming!" I can't think of a better way to spend the first 20 minutes of practice than at Millen's side.
My favorite part of camp remains my stroll through the players' lot. And in the Motor City, I was especially thrilled to see players buying American. In all, I counted at least a dozen Ford -- -almost all customized with chrome rims and spiffy tires, of course.