It's Rod's way in Detroit

The Lions needed someone to come in and shake things up and Rod Marinelli has done exactly that, writes John Clayton.

Updated: August 11, 2006, 3:15 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Lions story is about faith and belief. Six consecutive losing seasons zapped the faith out of the locker room. For the last four of them, teammates looked at quarterback Joey Harrington as if he were a franchise albatross. He wasn't alone.

Enter Rod Marinelli, a former Marine who has a unique ability. Marinelli is believable. He speaks about goals. At every coaching stop, he has been able to persuade his players to run through walls to win. But taking over a team that usually hits the wall and fades by Week 5 is a supreme challenge.

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The story in Detroit is "In Rod They Trust."

The country club has been closed for renovations at Allen Park. Soft veteran practices have been replaced by hitting and running. Marinelli has the Lions hitting and hitting hard. The impact carries over to the sidelines, where, believe it or not, you see smiles. The Lions are taking everything Marinelli is giving and shouting back, "Thank you, sir! May I have another?"

Quarterback Jon Kitna described his first day of Lions practices as the toughest and most physical he's experienced in 10 seasons. After that, each practice got progressively tougher, but he loves it. Others consider it a welcome change.

Marinelli sits in his office each day trying to devise ways to break the comfort level of a franchise that grew too used to losing. The Lions had an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday night at Ford Field. Marinelli decided to throw players off guard with quick substitution patterns. Guys ran on and off the field in a panic. Some teammates grumbled with others about mistakes.

"Anytime you want to change an attitude, you have to be able to communicate what you want and why you want it," Marinelli said. "You can't just say it once. You've got to say it 30 times in 30 different ways to make a point."

Marinelli's message to the team is clear. Crystal clear. He wants accountability. He wants execution. He wants physical football. Ultimately, he wants to win, which draws players and coaches together.

Camp Marinelli has been tough, and the evidence is on the sideline. Guard Damien Woody has a broken bone in his hand. Tackle Rex Tucker has a slight fracture in a leg. Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers has a shoulder separation.

Marinelli's challenge is to change the Lions' losing culture. To do that, he has to challenge them in any way possible. That's what Marinelli and coach Tony Dungy did in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were losers before Dungy got to town. Marinelli won over the defensive linemen -- particularly Warren Sapp -- and suddenly the Bucs started to win.

"The situation in Tampa was similar to here, but this is a more talented team," Marinelli said. "We used the same approach. You have to work on how you do business. You have to work on structure and fundamentals. Players have to learn to do the right things the right way every time, Every detail does matter."

Marinelli's strength so far is finding the right coaches to implement those details. Donnie Henderson got described as a wild man while whipping the Jets into a good defensive team. Mike Martz is an offensive genius, but he's also tough and demanding. Larry Beightol is a screamer who has a history of producing good offensive lines.

Fantasy take
Eric Karabell
One of fantasy's top busts last season, Kevin Jones is back again and expectations, while lower than 2005, remain high. Now he's got a quarterback. Now there's a coach who understands him. Now he's ready for stardom. And you know what, we're buying, at least a little. Don't take Jones in round one again, but late in round two makes sense. He just has to be better than last year.
-- Eric Karabell

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"My strength is trying to get to the point fast," Henderson said. "At practice, you've got to demonstrate what you are trying to get accomplished and have some success at it. Coaches know the players in this league, and the players know the coaches in the league. I heard one player quoted saying that he knew I was a really good guy even though I'm tough on the exterior."

This isn't a camp for wimps. But Marinelli isn't just challenging their bodies. He's challenging their minds. Look what he's doing on offense. Martz already has installed 400 passing plays, and the list has just started to grow. Keeping up is a tough task, and there are already casualties.

Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, two of the three first-round picks at receiver, have dropped to third string. Rogers made a run at picking up the offense and gaining Martz's favor at offseason minicamps, but he came to camp flat. Williams is still struggling with extra weight and lacks quickness going into his routes.

"This offense will have to go through adversity and then have some success with it," Martz said. "I think this team is really good. Jon Kitna is a tough guy with an accurate arm. He's a quick study."

Martz loves the talent of Roy Williams, whom he sees as one of the league's top receivers. He loves the running of halfback Kevin Jones. He likes the offensive line. He likes some of the role players at receiver.

Perhaps the biggest winner is Kitna, who replaces Harrington at quarterback. Whether it's right or wrong, Harrington became the symbol of all of the Lions' problems. Harrington wasn't much of a leader, and the younger players didn't like being around him because so many losses were on Harrington's watch.

Kitna has won over the Lions. First, he's a vocal leader. He gets the play calls out quickly, and he runs the huddle with authority. In the locker room, Kitna keeps his teammates up to speed on learning the many additions to Martz' playbook.

"I think this system didn't fit Joey," Roy Williams said. "Jon's a veteran leader, and we needed leadership on this football team. The one thing I can say between the two is the guys respect Jon more than Joey. This is a fresh offense for us, and we are learning it every day. The greatest show on turf is coming to Motown."

Kitna took only a few days in the offseason program to win them over.

"I think Jon gives us a better chance than last year," Jones said. "He's more vocal than the guy we had in the past. He's a leader on the field and off the field. He's a good guy. There was a lot of chaos last year, more than there should be. There wasn't belief. This is now."

No Lion is happier to be in Detroit than Kitna. Critics talk about the failings of the Lions, but no franchise was in worse shape than the Cincinnati Bengals when Kitna arrived in 2001. The Bengals hadn't had a winning season since 1990. Organizationally, the Bengals were archaic. Facilities were outdated. In some ways, Cincinnati wasn't up to NFL standards until Marvin Lewis persuaded the Brown family to improve the working conditions for the players.

The Lions have some of the best amenities in the NFL. The players are talented. Although he hated leaving Cincinnati, Kitna feels as though Detroit is a personal heaven to him.

"I just feel the first 10 years were all preparation for this," Kitna said. "I just have to be able to appreciate this situation. I love it here. I feel young again. I feel challenged, and I love coming to work every day. This is the best situation I've ever been involved with."

Kitna is getting rave reviews from Martz. The former Rams head coach loves quarterbacks willing to work hard and pick up things quickly. About 8 a.m. the other day, Martz delivered 25 new plays for Kitna to digest and be ready to implement for the morning practice.

So far, the Lions are accepting the challenges of the coaching staff. Will that translate into more wins? Who knows? All the Lions know is that they can sleep well at night because they are putting in better days of work.

In the meantime, Marinelli will spend his nights finding ways to shake them up. It's what they needed.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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