Redding and other Lions are sticking with a program they believe in.
GREEN BAY (T)
at San Diego
at Green Bay
The King 500
261Tatum Bell, Running back
How does offensive coordinator Mike Martz sum up his feelings about the back the Lions got from the Broncos? "He's way better than I thought," says Martz of Bell, who has a career average of 4.9 yards per carry. In camp Bell rang up one pleasantly surprising play after another for Martz, who loves to use his backs as receivers. Says Martz, "He catches with such ease. I didn't know that about him."
The Marinelli makeover is starting to pay off, not necessarily in Super Bowl dreams but in a winning mood in the Motor City
Well, first, what's old: For the fourth time in five years the Lions used
their top draft choice on a receiver, taking Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson with
the second overall pick. But don't blame Detroit: Johnson was considered by some
scouts to be the best receiving prospect in years, and in camp he has shown
indications that he's capable of living up to that lofty billing. To give
quarterback Jon Kitna enough time to work with his new weapon -- Detroit allowed an
NFC-high 63 sacks last season -- the Lions signed behemoth free-agent guard Edwin
Mulitalo and dealt cornerback Dre' Bly to Denver for tackle George Foster (in a trade
that also brought running back Tatum Bell).
On defense, tackle Cory Redding, whose move from end produced career highs in
tackles (47) and sacks (eight), will be plugging the middle for years to come
after inking a seven-year, $49 million deal, and new defensive coordinator Joe
Barry, coach Rod Marinelli's son-in-law and the Bucs' former linebackers coach,
will bring some much-needed Tampa to Detroit's sloppy Tampa Two defense.
But most indicative of the change wrought by Vietnam vet Marinelli in just
one year is his Do-Right List, a catalog of rules transgressors that the coach
displays at team meetings. In 2006, Marinelli's first season, the list was
populated with players who were overweight, missed physical therapy or lifting,
or came late to practice or a meeting. This year Marinelli's passion for
responsibility has spread throughout the organization, and the Do-Right List was
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
Redding was at his godparents' house in Austin this offseason when the
mailman, a Detroit native, stopped by to chat. "I've been with the Lions for 50
years," the man told Redding, "but last year I divorced y'all." Redding's quick
reply was a sign of the new mood in Detroit. "You better get back inside this
marriage," Redding said. "There are some changes going on, and it's time to
recommit to this relationship."
Surprisingly, after a disastrous 3-13 season, good feeling pervades the
Lions' organization. The team is buying into Marinelli's "pound the rock" credo
(a rock is shattered one good pound at a time; a game is won one good down at a
time) and his insistence that a 3-13 season can be the forge of a winning team.
"This is my seventh year, and it's the first time guys like each other,"
says left tackle Jeff Backus, noting that there wasn't a single fight in the
first week of training camp, when tempers often flair. "In the past players
would blow up a defenseless running back, and then offensive linemen would turn
it into a vendetta. We're being smart now."
A sense that things are improving in Detroit could be seen at contract time;
instead of being driven away, players chose to stick with the club. "Cory
Redding re-signed, [wideout] Mike Furrey re-signed," says Kitna, who spent five
seasons with the Bengals before joining the Lions in '06. "That's what happened
in Cincinnati when things started to change -- guys re-signed with the team." Adds
Redding, "We've realized we have to hold each other accountable. The coaches
can't govern us. We have to."
Of course, optimism won't mean much if the defense, which was ranked 28th in
the NFL last year, doesn't improve. The play of tackle Shaun Rogers may be the
key there. If Rogers is fit and motivated -- and that's a 340-pound if -- the
seventh-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler "could rewrite the standard for his
position," says Lions president Matt Millen. "He was our best right away, so we
let him find his own way, and he can get a little apathetic. Now Rod is showing
him the way."
The play of the offensive line must improve as well. Because of injury,
Detroit started a league-high nine O-line combinations in '06. That took the
steam out of the running game, and Detroit had to pass nearly twice as often as
it ran. "We had to take risks we wouldn't normally take," says offensive
coordinator Mike Martz, and the quarterbacks suffered a punishing toll as a
result. If the upgraded line crumbles again ("It's been like that every year
I've been here," says Backus) then the Lions will purr their way to four wins.
But if it can buy some time for Kitna -- who, like Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger in
St. Louis, flourished under Martz -- then receivers Johnson, Furrey and Roy
Williams (the only one of Detroit's three other recent first-round wideouts
who's still with the team) could be the most fearsome threesome in the league.
Kitna is an accurate passer, and his NFC-high 22 interceptions will come way
down if he isn't getting laid out every few snaps. "Only nine of those
interceptions were his [fault]," Martz says.
Kitna's preseason prophesy of 10-plus wins is far too optimistic, but things
are finally turning around in Motown -- enough to coax at least a few of those
estranged fans back into the fold. -- David Epstein