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New-look Lions determined to bury infamous 0-16 season in past

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The worst team in NFL history has designs on making the playoffs this season. Seriously.

The Detroit Lions are determined to put their infamous 0-16 season behind them, insisting they've got a new swagger and a legitimate shot to make the postseason with a revamped front office, coach and roster.

Matt Millen's mess set up Detroit for the ultimate failure last year, and the Lions are picking up the pieces in their first season without him since 2000.

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Team owner William Clay Ford finally fired Millen three games into his eighth season as team president, ending a reign that turned a mediocre franchise into one bad enough to post the NFL's worst eight-season stretch since World War II.

A day after sealing infamy with the NFL's first 0-16 season, Ford fired coach Rod Marinelli and promoted Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand to lead the front office. The much-maligned owner later gave Jim Schwartz his first chance to be a head coach.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was turned down when he offered to help Ford search for people whose decisions will shape the Lions' future.

Ford, his executives, coach and players are confident the new-look Lions will not be the same, old Lions -- the one with a lone playoff win since taking the 1957 championship.

Jason Hanson has played in Detroit long enough -- entering his franchise-record 18th season -- to experience the optimism change creates, and the disappointment of watching new faces contribute to familiar results.

The veteran kicker is convinced the latest rebuilding project will truly be unlike the previous attempts to fix the franchise.

"It seems like we always have hope this time of year, but things are really different," Hanson said. "The turnover has brought in a new coach, new front office and a lot of new players.

"All of that makes it easier to have hope."

When the Lions report Friday for training camp, along with that hope will be a lot of work to do.

Quarterback Matt Stafford, the No. 1 draft pick overall in April, will compete with Daunte Culpepper to take snaps when the season begins Sept. 13 in New Orleans.

The offensive line, a weak link on flawed teams in the past, must give Stafford or Culpepper time to throw, running back Kevin Smith room to run, and receiver Calvin Johnson an opportunity to shine.

Detroit's defense gave up an average of nearly 35 points last year and almost set a single-season record for points allowed. Some veterans and a promising rookie might end up dramatically improving the unit.

The Lions addressed each area of their defense, adding linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson, cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, along with defensive tackle Grady Jackson.

"I'm here to prove myself," said Foote, who was cut loose by the Pittsburgh Steelers after the five-year starter helped them win two Super Bowls. "I'm trying to restart my career and prove to this league what I can do. I got a fresh start in my hometown with new coaches and a lot of new players."

Second-round pick Louis Delmas appears to be the ball-hawking safety Detroit has lacked. The hard-hitting, fast-talking Delmas says he has no doubt he can make the jump from Western Michigan to the NFL.

"We don't want to win just a couple games," Delmas said. "We're going to approach every game like we're getting ready to be undefeated."

Winless to undefeated? Smith has predicted the Lions will make the playoffs.

"I like his enthusiasm," Schwartz said. "I don't want to discourage enthusiasm, but the playoffs are a long way away.

"We need to set goals on a shorter scale than further on down the line," he added. "We don't want to talk about Super Bowls or playoffs or those kinds of things, or even the opener right now."

Schwartz set the tone for his era in his first offseason meeting, telling players not to park in handicap spaces or disrespect cafeteria workers at team headquarters. To him, respect is just as important as paying attention in a meeting and working hard in practice.

"I'm not a coach who is going to say the only thing that matters is what you do Sunday between the lines," Schwartz said.

Ultimately, Stafford's smarts and right arm will determine if the franchise is going to be a winner in the years to come after going 31-97 since 2001. That's the poorest eight-season stretch since the Chicago Cardinals won just 23 percent of their games from 1936-43.

Schwartz steadfastly insists the best players who are both physically and mentally ready will start. Stafford, though, might have too much talent and be making too much money -- as much as $78 million overall -- to keep off the field for long.

"He definitely has the arm strength and the confidence," said Johnson, who also raved about Culpepper during the offseason.

Culpepper nonchalantly said his goal is to be Detroit's division-winning quarterback this season. The former Pro Bowl QB likes his chances just two years after competing with JaMarcus Russell for playing time in Oakland after Russell was the No. 1 pick overall.

"It was kind of similar," Culpepper said. "You get a lot of attention, a lot of people coming in, saying whatever.

"But it still comes down to us getting our work done and getting better every day."

That's exactly what Schwartz wants to hear -- and see -- from the Lions.

The former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator is getting a chance to lead a team for the first time after interviewing for previous openings in Miami, Atlanta and Washington. Schwartz welcomes the challenge of turning around the Lions, coming off their dubious season.

"Only through adversity are great men made," he said. "Think about the great presidents in the history of the United States, there were all presidents that served during times of great conflict or turmoil.

"Those challenges define who you are as a person. There's no way better way to define yourself as a person than to turn this thing around here."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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