Kitna, Lions confident dark days are over

The Lions are convinced they can be a winner. Now they have to convince their long-suffering fans and the rest of the league, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: July 27, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Lions are fortunate to have a man of faith leading a franchise that hasn't had a prayer for the past six years.

Quarterback Jon Kitna, father of four and a believer, went on a radio show this spring and said the Lions would win at least 10 games.

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"Anything less than 10 wins would be a disappointment," Kitna said. A nation of football followers echoed a collective, "What?" How can the quarterback of a franchise that went 24-72 over the past six years make such a bold prediction?

"We were a better team than 3-13 last year," Kitna explained. "We just had to overcome some things from the past. I don't know how many guys we lost to injuries. We lost our entire defensive line. We went through all of our running backs. We're a better team than that."

To be honest, it doesn't matter what outsiders think anymore. If the Lions believe they can win 10 games and work hard enough to do it, maybe, just maybe, they can back up Kitna's prediction.

"I'm just disappointed he conceded six games," offensive coordinator Mike Martz joked.

Lions fans have been hearing the same banter for years. Defensive tackle Cory Redding tells the story of a mailman he met in Austin, Texas, this winter. The Detroit native told Redding he had been married to the Lions for 50 years, dating back to his first Lions season in 1956.

"My week lived and died on Sunday; I either had a great week when y'all won or a bad week when y'all lost," the mailman told Redding. "I divorced y'all last year."

Redding, who almost divorced the Lions himself before signing on for seven more years a week ago, advises fans to stay away from divorce court.

"We believe in not separating from your partner 'til death do us part and this Lions team hasn't died yet," Redding said. "You've got to come back to this marriage."

The Lions do have a new attitude, and yes, it is visible on the practice field. Last year's theme was "In Rod We Trust," trying to buy into new head coach Rod Marinelli's Cover 2 defense and Marine-forged approach.

The losses mounted, but something clicked toward the end of the season. Marinelli didn't cut back his daily practice work schedule, but a group of players started working harder. Kitna stayed the course for 16 games. Wide receiver Roy Williams flourished despite double coverage. Redding, a career defensive end, took his high-motor game to defensive tackle and became one of the best interior quarterback sackers in the game.

Jon Kitna
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioJon Kitna is doing everything he can to bring positive karma to the Detroit locker room.

Even though the Lions finished 1-3 in their final four games, they played harder and even won the finale against the Cowboys. Though that dreadful Detroit drone of "wait until next year" rang out as the season concluded, the Lions roared a little bit more in offseason workouts. The organization parted with veterans Dre' Bly, Ross Verba, Marcus Bell, James Hall and receiver Mike Williams, players who -- after years of losing -- didn't buy into Marinelli's program.

"We got to the end of the Dallas game on a positive note," Redding said. "It took us all the way down to the fourth quarter to almost to the goal line for us to make that stand and end the game the way we did. That just sent chills up my spine right now just talking about it. That's something you can build on, and there wasn't any other way to have it, just to end the game in the way we did."

Entering his second season as head coach, Marinelli now has the team he wants. He pushed for the organization to keep good work-ethic players such as Redding and WR Mike Furrey. He endorsed defensive end Dewayne White, halfbacks Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett, tackle George Foster, guard Ed Mulitalo and receiver Shaun McDonald.

"A lot of times when a season is going south, guys are Christmas shopping early, practices are cut shorter," Marinelli said. "We didn't change one thing. We stayed in pads. We kept working all the way to the end. You can see in the last game, we finally put it away. We lost 10 games in the last two minutes."

The Lions were 2-9 in games decided by eight points or less. Despite Marinelli's attention to detail and harder practices, the team crumbled as most Lions teams have done.

In addition to hard work, Marinelli is big on team chemistry, which is why he pushed the organization to sign certain players. For example, he pushed hard to bring back Furrey. The receiver is all effort, and his hard work had a positive effect on Roy Williams, who had a breakout year with 82 catches for 1,310 yards. Furrey hustled his way to 98 receptions.

The move of Redding to defensive tackle -- the three technique -- could spark a great season from Shaun Rogers. He is one of the most dominating defensive tackles in football when he wants to be. The problem is the Lions have lost so often, he hasn't wanted to be as dominating. Redding, who had eight sacks and hustles on every down, is making more than Rogers. Plus, they are close friends from their days together at Texas. That's good chemistry.

Another good sign is how management listens to players. Furrey, Kitna, Williams and other offensive players tried to convince coaches and GM Matt Millen to draft Calvin Johnson. The Lions' brass did just that.

"You need that third or fourth receiver to make this offense very effective," Furrey said. "When it came to the point of the draft coming up, we went in and said, 'We need Calvin Johnson, we need Calvin Johnson.' He's going to open everything up. There will be no more double coverage. Two of us are going to be open or getting one-on-one coverage. Calvin was the guy."

Williams said he sees a lot of Randy Moss in Johnson, but the former Georgia Tech star has got the work ethic of Marvin Harrison. And all of the receivers are excited to be working in the same Martz offense run by the Rams in their Super Bowl days.

"[Johnson] is Isaac Bruce in this offense and I'm Torry Holt," Williams said.

Kitna is coming off a 4,208-yard season. Martz has many of the tools he had in St. Louis. Kitna said his teammates responded positively to his 10-win prediction with text messages and pats on the back in the locker room. They believe in his faith.

Now, it's up to the Lions to convince the rest of the league.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer