No job is safe as Lions rebuild
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Coach Jim Schwartz came to Detroit knowing he had to make changes. The Lions haven't had a winning season since 2000 and are coming off a 0-16 season.
But how do you change the culture of losing? Three other coaches tried change and failed.
Enter Schwartz, whose coaching and scouting eyes were trained by Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher. With the Lions, Schwartz has worked on subtle changes. He altered a few things around the locker room. He moved some of the returning players' lockers. He changed weight-lifting equipment. He brought in a smashmouth style of football. More than anything else, he worked with general manager Martin Mayhew to change the roster.
Change will be constant this year with the Lions. Any available veteran on the street might find a home in Detroit. Players know it. The Lions are expected to head into 2009 with 20-30 new players. Why not? When you go 0-16, jobs aren't guaranteed.
1. Stafford stating his case: Schwartz has a decision to make about the starting quarterback, and Matthew Stafford wants to make that decision difficult. Guess what? He's succeeding. When you watch the strong-armed rookie from Georgia, you can see he has the look of a potential Week 1 starter. His arm is among the strongest in the NFL. He looks comfortable behind center, barking out signals and moving skill players in the right position. Unlike Joey Harrington, who never really won over the players, Stafford is showing the leadership needed at quarterback.
Logic says the job will go to veteran Daunte Culpepper. Schwartz is keeping an open mind as he waits to see how Stafford does in the preseason. It would make more sense to start Culpepper. The Lions have a 17-game losing streak. Starting Stafford with the Lions' tough opening schedule, which includes six playoff contenders, could drag his $72 million reputation into the losing funk. Stafford says he doesn't care. He wants to play. Stafford is the future and he wants it start now.
2. Don't count Daunte out: Culpepper isn't going to make it easy to go with Stafford. Culpepper looks great. A year ago, his phones were quiet and his frustrations built to a point that he announced his retirement. Culpepper still has plenty of football left. His weight is around 260 pounds, and he's having fun again. His approach to the season is reflected in the jersey number he chose. He's wearing No. 11, symbolic of being one of the 11 guys on the team trying to help the Lions win. His arm is strong. His leadership hasn't changed. He storms around the locker room keeping players loose and motivated.
Schwartz couldn't be happier. He has two strong-armed quarterbacks to pick between. Because Culpepper is lighter, he is moving well on rollouts. He was heavier last year because he had retired and spent most of his time playing with his children. The Lions signed him and he tried to get himself back into shape during the season. He started five games on one of the worst teams in NFL history. It's pretty obvious how much work he's put into the offseason. Culpepper is back.
3. Defensive plans and schemes: Schwartz brought the defensive-linemen scheme that has worked so well for the Titans, and it makes me wonder why more teams don't use it. The plan is for the ends to line up in what is called a "nine technique" outside of the offensive tackle. The defensive tackles eat up space on the inside trying to penetrate and disrupt the blocking scheme. Schwartz says the principle is similar to the 3-4 scheme even though four players start on the defensive line. The ends force the plays to the middle of the field. If the defensive linemen can penetrate or occupy blockers, the linebackers roam free to make plays.
The key is getting bigger defensive linemen. Grady Jackson is playing the nose, and it's hard to find players bigger than him, even though he has lost 30 pounds (and now weighs 340). Obviously, having a dominating tackle such as Albert Haynesworth -- as Schwartz had in Tennessee -- makes life easier. It's pretty clear the Lions don't have a Haynesworth. Fourth-round choice Sammie Hill is an interesting 329-pound wide body who will fit into the defensive tackle rotation, and Schwartz will rotate linemen to keep them fresh.
4. Injuries piling up -- as usual: What the Lions should consider is having a medical center sponsor team headquarters. Every time I see the Lions in camp, they are loaded with injuries. They had around 10 on the sidelines Monday, which isn't an uncommon number two weeks into training camp. Schwartz has a fair but physical camp, but it just seems the Lions have been snakebitten with injuries for years. Some of that might be because they've always maintained a veteran roster, loaded with older players who tend to get banged up in camp.
Defensive end Jared DeVries blew out an Achilles and is lost for the season. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson had a cast on his right hand to protect a sprained thumb. That injury is considered minor, but if anything happens to Johnson, the Lions' passing offense would be in serious trouble. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is just getting back to work after missing some time with an injury. Just once, I'd like to see a Lions training camp with healthy Lions.
5. Unheralded Smith in vital role: The least-publicized asset on the Lions is running back Kevin Smith. He's like Matt Forte in Chicago -- a talented, quiet runner who slips under the radar. What's great about Smith and Forte is that they appreciate the game and work hard at their craft. Smith rushed for 976 yards and caught 39 passes as a rookie in 2008.
Because Schwartz knows the importance of the running game from his days in Tennessee, the Lions plan to run the ball a lot.
Smith is smart. A year ago, he focused on getting heavier to handle the rigors of being a workhorse back. He played at 217 pounds. During the offseason, he realized the weight was holding him back. So he has trimmed down to 208 pounds and is quicker. An interesting backup to watch is sixth-round pick Aaron Brown, a fast 205-pounder. He could help out on sweeps and some screens.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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