They broke out in loud cheers and applause at first sight of him and roared even more when he acknowledged them with a nod and a wave. The greeting that Lions fans gave new coach Steve Mariucci at an open practice last month was the kind usually reserved for, well, a savior. And though he detests the mere mention of that word, Mariucci can't deny that his hiring last February has been received in Detroit with religious fervor. At Ford Field on that day in early August, the players and the coaches were stunned to find that almost 28,000 fans had come to worship.
"I'd never seen anything like it," says defensive end Robert Porcher, who, in beginning his 12th season with the Lions, is an expert on such matters in Detroit. "When our bus got close to the stadium, and there was a lot of traffic, we were like, What's going on here?"
Moochmania, that's what. In a city that has suffered through an NFL-high 27 losses over the past two years, the arrival of Michigan native Mariucci—he was born and raised in Iron City—is like a godsend. In six years as coach of the 49ers he was 57-39 and went to the playoffs four times, but he was fired last Jan. 15 because of philosophical differences with the front office. Content to sit out the year ( San Francisco owed him $2.2 million for the last year of his contract), Mariucci had planned a May vacation to Italy's Amalfi Coast with his wife, Gayle, and their four kids. "Had the flights booked, had the hotels booked, it was going to be great," he says. "And then this happened." This was the firing of Marty Mornhinweg on Jan. 27, less than a month after Lions president Matt Millen had announced that Mornhinweg would return for a third season. Of course, that was before Mariucci became available.
Mornhinweg, who had been an offensive coordinator under Mariucci in San Francisco, was a horrible fit in Detroit and lost the team with his ham-handed attempts at motivation through intimidation. In Mariucci, Millen gets the man he wanted all along, even if it did cost him $25 million over five years. "When Matt called, I told him that for me to come back, it'd have to be a special job," Mariucci says. "It was tough to leave [the Niners] the way I did, and I wasn't looking [for a job]. But the chance to come home was too much to pass up."
No-nonsense and ultraorganized, Mariucci has made an immediate impact on his players as well. "He has that credibility, having won all those years in San Francisco," says second-year quarterback Joey Harrington. "He demands focus, holds us all accountable. The guy sees everything on the field."
Unsure of himself as a rookie starter, Harrington seems far more relaxed this year and is helped by the similarities in his former and current coaches' West Coast sets. Though he was sacked only eight times in 12 starts last year, Harrington struggled with his progressions, often throwing the ball away before even looking for his third option. He had a paltry .501 completion percentage. "At this time last year my head was swimming," Harrington says. "There were times I had no idea what the play I was calling needed. It's hard to be accurate when you don't know where you're throwing. I feel better now, especially with the guys I have around me."
The passing offense, which ranked 25th in the league a year ago, is more threatening with the arrival of Michigan State wideout Charles Rogers, the second pick in the draft. Though he suffered a dislocated left ring finger during camp, the 6'2", 202-pound Rogers flashed the game-breaking speed that makes him Detroit's biggest offensive threat since Barry Sanders. The Lions are also hoping for another solid year from running back James Stewart, though they would love to get him more carries. Last season only the Rams ran the ball fewer times than Detroit did.
Even in a best-case scenario the Lions don't project as a playoff team this year. But in Mariucci they have someone to rally around. "This city's waited a long time," he says. "The fans are hungry. They deserve a winner."
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