- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The numbers didn't work for Lions quarterback Joey Harrington last year.
His starting halfback and only hope of a running game, James Stewart, was lost before the start of the season. First-round choice Charles Rogers missed 11 games. Injuries and bad hands had Harrington standing in the pocket throwing to receivers low on the depth chart.
"We had too many throws last year (588 in 16 games) and for a young quarterback that is too much," Lions coach Steve Mariucci said. "We had receivers who were new. I remember one game we won and heard the opponent saying, 'We got beat by a team with No. 10 and 11 on their jerseys. We dropped 58 passes. We chart these things and normally, you are going to have 25 to 28."
To counter Harrington's tough second year, Lions president Matt Millen had his best offseason, arguably the best of any team in football. The Lions improved their running game by drafting halfback Kevin Jones and signing Pro Bowl guard Damien Woody. They addressed the passing game by acquiring receivers Roy Williams and Tai Streets and tight end Stephen Alexander. Suddenly, the league's worst offense didn't feel so bad.
"I want to see how fast we can go from worst to first," Mariucci said.
Overnight, the Lions offense looks like an Olympic track team. Rogers, Jones and Williams were high school track stars with 100-yard dashes in the low 10-second range. Instead of watching teammates trudge out of the huddle, Harrington can fire a gun and let the race begin. Mariucci is even having Harrington scramble out of the pocket to test his speed even though he estimates his quarterback's 100 might be in the 14-second range.
"I'm Michael Vick," Harrington said laughing. "Even I'm running more. Joe Montana wasn't the fastest guy. You don't have to be the fastest guy in the world to gain a few yards. There just has to be the threat of the run. If people aren't expecting it, you can break a 35-yard run. The threat might open up something for me down field."
That was the problem with the Lions last year. Their offense threatened no one. Opposing defensive coordinators didn't game plan. They took naps. When you're No. 32 without weapons, opponents don't bother using exotic schemes. Once in a while, a team would put a pressure package on Harrington, but most didn't bother.
"We didn't run the football last year," Harrington said. "We'd never see eight in the box. Never, never, never. Seventy-five percent of the game, defenses would play two-deep zone. There was nothing we could do with it."
Initially, Millen and Mariucci tried to solve the problem by getting a second receiver, Williams. Then came a rare opportunity down at the bottom of the first round. Jones ran 4.6 40s during his spring workouts. His stock was dropping. The franchise that led the league with so many drops suddenly turned sure handed by trading up and getting Jones.
"Kevin is 228 pounds, he's thick, he's strong," Mariucci said. "I think he's going to have his own running style. He's not like Eddie George or Barry Sanders. He's fast enough. I think with his strength he is going to be very hard to tackle in the open field."
It was Jones' desire to be a more physical runner that cost him a chance to go in the top 10. During his early college days, he played between 205 to 215, and looked as quick as any running back. Last season, he bulked up to 225 pounds.
"There were a lot of rumors saying I was more slasher than physical," Jones said. "I put on some weight and tried to be more physical. I did it for my own good. It was more muscle than anything else that I did."
Two pounds added by the time of the scouting combine in Indianapolis cost him dearly.
"I was 227 during the combine, but I don't think it held back my speed," Jones said. "It was just a bad day for me. The next time I ran a 40, I ran a 4.38. I ran it on the same surface as I did the 4.6s. I did it twice."
No one bought those times and Jones slipped to the bottom of the first round. As fate would have it, Jones ended up with the best situation of all of the running backs. Steven Jackson, Chris Perry, Julius Jones and Tatum Bell all ended up in backup situations. Jones is clearly the starter in Detroit and one of the early favorites to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I never want to be a guy who didn't live up to the hype," Jones said.
Williams, meanwhile, has already exceeded the hype. Millen considers him one of the rare receiving talents to enter the NFL in recent years. He's big. He's fast. He's sure handed. He makes incredible catches. And unlike most top receivers, Williams stayed through his senior year and is more mature athletically and physically. In fact there is some thought in the organization that Williams might have been the second pick in the 2003 instead of Rogers had Williams left Texas early. Now, the Lions have both.
"He's just amazing," Harrington said. "There was one play this offseason where he stumbled on a dig route coming out of a break. He reached up and caught the ball behind his head, flipped it over in front of him, stopped, reversed, pivoted and took it down the sidelines. He's so fluid he makes it look natural to him."
Rogers looks as natural as he did in college, too. He's so much more confident than in his injury-cursed rookie season in which he caught only 22 passes in five games. Like Harrington, Rogers was handcuffed by the lack of a running game. He's run into easy double coverages because no opponents respected the run.
"I know my role better and I'm adjusting real well," Rogers said. "I'm not going to set any records but I'll just say we will be better than last year. We have big-play threats. We're just going to have to be patient."
Rogers and Williams are competitive enough that each will pick up their games if the others succeed. It's a type of friendly competition that will make the offense better.
The other thing nice for Harrington is the change to a younger lineup. Suddenly, Harrington is playing with peers of the same age. Last year, he started with a running back in his 30s. Guard Ray Brown was in his 40s. Now, instead of being the pupil, Harrington can be the teacher.
"We are full of young guys trying to learn from me as opposed to the other way around," Harrington said. "The tables have turned."
Instead of having half of the starting offense filled with 30 year olds, Harrington has only one older player on the unit, 31-year-old fullback Cory Schlesinger. Harrington's 25. The age of the average offensive starter is now 26. When they go three receivers inserting 27-year-old Streets, the oldest offensive starter is 28.
"I feel good about the direction we are heading," Mariucci said. "And the great part is these guys are signed for a while. The trick is how fast can we do it. A lot of it will depend on how healthy we are."
Perhaps that's the best stat of the summer. The past two seasons, the Lions opened camp with between six and a dozen players on the sidelines with injuries at the beginning of training camp. These young Lions are physically able to perform. Camp opened with a completely healthy roster. No one was standing.
"I only had five games last year to work with Charles Rogers," Harrington said. "He feels so much more comfortable this year. He looks smooth. There was a time during the offseason that he was teaching the young guys. He just has a different air about him. He knows what to do. He breaks well coming inside. He runs good out routes and on the crossing routes. His fade routes are great because he gets on a guy's toes real quick. He's impressive."
But there will be growing pains, and the season opener might set the tone of the season. The Lions have an NFL record 24 consecutive road losses. The Lions open in Chicago, a team they believe they can match for talent. Can a young offense filled with players with three or less years experience and a cloud hanging over the franchise since the start of the new millennium snap such a streak?
"You remember the learning curve we had in San Francisco with J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens," Mariucci said. "T.O. didn't start as a rookie. The third year is when he became very productive. We're not going to wait until the third year. We don't have time to wait for Roy Williams and Charles Rogers to get to their third year. We need to get it out of them right now."
In other words, these young have to grow up -- now.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
The Lions' upgrade in team speed has coach Steve Mariucci hoping to go from worst to first in offense.