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YOU DON'T really want to talk about the recent history of the Lions, do you? Jim Schwartz doesn't either. Detroit's rookie coach hasn't mentioned 0--16 or anything else about the grim season to his team. Hired in January to steer this ship out of oblivion, Schwartz has no use for negativity. Like this daunting stat: The last 10 Lions coaches, dating to Don McCafferty in 1973 and not counting interims, had losing records in Detroit.
The tragicomic reign of error by general manager Matt Millen is mercifully over. And though you would think the spirit of the fans had expired by now, it turns out they still care. For instance, at training camp one day this summer, the Lions were in pads, knocking the tar out of one another, because Schwartz, who was defensive coordinator of the Titans from 2001 to '08, believes that at its core a good team must be physically tough and mentally indomitable. A fan stood off on his own, engrossed in the scene. "I get shivers up my spine watching this," said Pete Ruokola, a 36-year-old math teacher from the Upper Peninsula who each summer drives eight hours to watch three Lions practices. "I can't tell you how different this is, and how exciting it is, to see the first-team defense go up against the first-team offense in a practice that seems like a game. I finally feel like there's hope."
Schwartz has discovered that the fans and his players share an important quality. "It's the most incredible resilience," he says. "I was staying in a hotel before my family moved here, and the Red Wings were playing Game 7 [of the conference semis]. I figure, 'What am I doing sitting in a hotel room?' I went to a sports bar. Someone recognized me, and we had a great time rooting for the Wings. We won it right at the end, and the place went absolutely crazy—more noise than you've ever heard before. One guy turns to me and says, 'Coach, when the Lions win it'll be better than this.' I got chills."
One Lion who likes what he sees is ninth-year tackle Jeff Backus. "I've been optimistic before," he says, "but there's something different about Schwartz. He's got such a clear plan, not like any rookie coach I've seen."
Schwartz is trying to change the culture, and the way his team approaches work. His moves since taking the job in January include reassigning lockers to mix offensive and defensive players and instituting a strength-and-conditioning program based on free weights, ropes and kettle bells. "It's like a medieval torture chamber in there," Schwartz says. "But we just had to get stronger." It appears to be working: Defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, for one, went from 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press last year to 43 this summer.
Schwartz and new G.M. Martin Mayhew also signed or traded for players with impressive résumés or strong playoff backgrounds, as much for their demeanor as their talent. Almost every position group has at least one new player who'll also function as a mentor: Jon Jansen (Redskins) on the offensive line, Dennis Northcutt (Jaguars) at receiver, Terrelle Smith (Cardinals) and Maurice Morris (Seahawks) in the backfield, Grady Jackson (Falcons) on the defensive line, Larry Foote (Steelers) and Julian Peterson (Seahawks) at linebacker, and Anthony Henry (Cowboys) and Phillip Buchanon (Bucs) in the secondary. So many people around the team are new—56 players and coaches in training camp—that Schwartz thinks erasing the worst season in NFL history from the team's psyche is possible. "We don't talk about it," said Foote. "We just talk about getting better today."
Schwartz knows his job isn't about this year. It's about 2010 and beyond. Far beyond, he hopes. "I met [Tigers legend] Al Kaline, and he told me he got here in the '50s and has lived here ever since," Schwartz said. "I told him I'd love to do the same thing."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: JIM SCHWARTZ