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> 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 blank.
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.