Postcard from camp: Lions
The Lions (1-24 in their last 25 games) are coming off an 0-16 season
The Lions roster was overhauled in the offseason, ushering in the Schwartz era
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about the new-look Lions in Allen Park, Mich. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
The Lions have trained at their year-round facility in Allen Park, Mich., since 2002, the year after they left behind Saginaw Valley State in Saginaw. Say what you will about Detroit's won-loss record, its spacious team complex is first-rate and easily accommodates the Lions' swelled roster during camp. On the Monday morning I was in camp, there was a pretty modest turnout of fans -- a couple or three hundred, maybe -- but they were rewarded with a fairly physical two-hour-plus practice session to take in.
1. I assume Daunte Culpepper has to look not only better, but considerably better than Matthew Stafford to beat out the No. 1 overall pick. But Culpepper is certainly doing his part so far to make it a tough call for Lions coaches. He's not only moving around much better than any time since his career-changing October 2005 knee injury -- 30 fewer pounds on his always-big frame has helped this year -- but also throwing the ball well and playing with a palpable sense of renewed commitment and determination. One way or another, he wants to revive an NFL career that came untracked nearly four years ago.
Watching Culpepper Monday, I was struck by the fact that exactly 10 years ago right now, he was the vaunted quarterback of the future as Minnesota's first-round pick that spring, biding his time behind veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. Now he's the veteran, trying to hold off the future in No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford. That's kind of coming full circle, wouldn't you say? When I made that observation to Culpepper, he just smiled, nodded his head and said, "I know. I've thought of that, too.'' But then he politely declined any further comment, making it clear that he wants to do most of his talking these days with his play.
2. If you catch passes for a living for the Lions, you're not having much go your way these days. Detroit was without its four top receivers Monday, thanks to various injuries, and I'm interested to see who the Lions are going to put on the field Saturday in their preseason opener at home against Atlanta. Calvin Johnson was wearing a protective cast on his jammed right thumb, and told the media he was slated to be examined again this afternoon. Free-agent addition Bryant Johnson hasn't practiced yet at camp due to that freak golf-cart accident that scraped him up pretty good, and veteran Dennis Northcutt is fighting a case of a painfully sore thumb. One of this camp's bright spots, second-year receiver John Standeford, has missed the past few days of practice with a yet undisclosed injury. Lastly, Detroit's second first-round pick, rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew, just returned to practice Sunday and remains limited with a sore thigh.
If only Matt Millen were still around to draft another first-round receiver.
3. The Lions have changed more than 50 percent of their roster since last season's regular-season opener, and obviously that doesn't even include the new coaching staff. That's a lot of new blood, and every bit of it was called for. On defense, veteran talents such as linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and cornerback/safety Anthony Henry add legitimacy to the Lions. On offense, Detroit picked up experience in acquiring offensive tackle Jon Jansen, receivers Bryant Johnson and Northcutt, as well as fullback Terrelle Smith. I think the majority of those moves were significant upgrades.
"Those guys all know the NFL, and they know that it doesn't matter what happened last year,'' Lions head coach Jim Schwartz told me. "They've been on teams that were good, and the next year struggled, and they've been on teams that struggled one year and turned it around the next. That's the thing that helps the most in this whole thing, because players know there's that opportunity here.''
New Face, New Place
As we noted, there are plenty of candidates to choose from in this category, but Foote, coming over from the Steelers after winning a pair of Super Bowl rings the past four seasons, could be as impactful as any defensive acquisition. The eighth-year veteran is only 29, and as a native of Detroit and a one-time Michigan Wolverine, he wanted to come home and become part of the solution in Detroit.
Schwartz said Foote has had a calming presence in the Lions defensive huddle and lauds his ability to read and recognize the most subtle of keys on offense. He's showing the younger Lions defenders that intelligence and experience have as much to do with success as talent, and is rapidly emerging as the team's defensive leader.
"We have a lot of veteran guys who weren't here last year, so that 0-16 is not looming,'' Foote said. "But for the players who went through it, it's always going to be with them. We've got to build every day, there's no doubt about it. But if we come out and play, what a challenge, what a reward, to be able to turn this thing around. There's a lot out there for us if we want to go get it. We've got new players here and a different mindset that enough is enough.''
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