Talent takes backseat to desire in Lions' return to respectability

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Consecutive comebacks from 20-point deficits on the road don't happen without a team having a pretty strong will. In fact, until last week, consecutive comebacks from 20-point deficits didn't happen in the NFL, period.

Now, they do, and in Detroit of all places.

Nobody could forecast the kind of dramatics the 4-0 Lions staged against the Vikings in Week 3 and Cowboys in Week 4. But that they clawed and fought to the end, even in a seemingly impossible situation, has been the plan all along.

"You learn more about them in these situations, sure," Lions president Tom Lewand said. "But there's a reason we drafted and signed the guys we did. They're tremendously talented and high-character fighters. Whether it's drafting Calvin Johnson or Ndamukong] Suh or [Matthew Stafford, or signing guys like Nate Burleson and Kyle Vanden Bosch, we were trying to build a really strong group of guys that fight. Even guys who step in, like Bobby Carpenter, are like that.

"Everyone has a role, and they experienced that last year. Some guys weren't starting at the beginning of the year, or weren't playing at all, and had key roles in December. It showed them that all 53 can have a role to win on Sunday. You make it count on Friday afternoon, and you'll make it count Sunday in the second quarter. Sure, they're talented. But they also have a lot of fight."

The word "fight" kept coming up with Lewand. When describing his team. When describing individual players. When explaining the city.

That city, once a capital of American industry and now fallen on hard times, will get one of those games that's more likely to turn into an "event." The Lions' ancient rival from Chicago comes to town for Detroit's first Monday night game in 10 years. Based on how bad the Lions have been since the new stadium opened in 2002, it's easily the biggest Lions game in Ford Field history.

It was just three seasons ago that the Lions became the first 0-16 finisher in NFL history. Matt Millen was blown out as GM that September, and Martin Mayhew assumed the role, with his promotion to the position full-time and Lewand's promotion to team president coming shortly after that disastrous season ended. At that point, it was pretty easy to question why holdovers were in order.

"Was the losing difficult? Absolutely. No one sets out with the idea of losing," said Lewand. "It's hard to lose. It's hard to go through a season like we did. But at the same time, you learn every day, and adversity can be a fantastic teacher. So many of us learned a lot about ourselves, about each other, about what works and what doesn't. It was easier to focus on those things through adversity.

"But we said this at our first press conference -- 'Don't judge what we say. Judge what we do.' We were just trying to put a bunch of good days under our belt. That's the way to do it. You focus on working."

Owner William Clay Ford emphasized to Lewand and Mayhew that they find someone with a common philosophy to be the head coach. So Lewand and Mayhew established criteria and, after interviewing a dozen candidates and having sessions with Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in both Nashville and Detroit, it became clear. "Jim hit the bull's eye on most of, if not all, the criteria," Lewand said.

But there was another piece to Ford's approach that was key. Where he was too patient in the past with Millen and even Wayne Fontes, his willingness to allow the process the new regime was putting in place to grow was vital.

Remember, even after the 0-fer year was behind them, problems followed. Schwartz was 4-24 as head coach when the Lions hosted the Packers last Dec. 7.

"He told us to put together a plan, stick with it, and be disciplined with it," said Lewand. "A hallmark of Mr. Ford's approach is consistency, and it's subject him to criticism. But it was truly important here in our ability to be successful."

The result has been a team that's not just good now, but figures to be good for the foreseeable future. Stafford is 23, Suh is 24 and Johnson is 26. Other key pieces, like safety Louis Delmas (24), DeAndre Levy (24) and Brandon Pettigrew (26), are also young.

And they're not done growing.

"We were fortunate to win (the past two weeks)," said Lewand. "And we gotta get to the point where it's not cause for a ticker-tape parade when you win a regular-season game. We gotta win the close ones, and do it on the road, which we did. But we also have to learn from those mistakes, and find a way to put together four quarters of consistent football."

Three years ago, all that would've constituted Grade-A nitpicking.

For the record, Lewand is from Detroit and has had a chance to enjoy how the city has embraced the team. But what's most important, he said, is continuing to adhere to the promise he made at a handful of town hall meetings in the area, that the Lions would "work hard and do it the right way."

"Do I feel like we've got good players? Absolutely. But I'm not getting in the prediction business on where we're going next. That's not what this has been about," Lewand said. "We've got a good group here, and it's really the same group we had in 2009. Knowing I go to work with those folks every day, and know how we're all dedicating to building a winning program is tremendously satisfying.

"But we haven't accomplished anything yet."

If the past two weeks are an indication of the fortitude of this group, though, it won't be long before they do.

This probably isn't the first place you've read about Wes Welker's ridiculous start. His 40 catches are 13 more than any other receiver has, and 616 yards outdistance the field by 86.

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Those numbers almost certainly will level off.

But there is another stat worth monitoring here that jumps out even more. Welker's yards-per-catch average now sits at 15.4, which is 4.4 yards above his career high in a full season, set in 2009. Not bad for a slot receiver. Or any receiver for that matter. And that's after he had a career-low 9.9 yards per catch in 2010, as he worked back from ACL surgery.

Would you believe the reason why is because, at 30 and with that knee surgery in the books, Welker is faster than he's ever been?

"This is the fastest I've ever seen him, no question," said Pete Bommarito, the president of Bommarito Performance, where Welker has trained since 2008. "He's faster now than he was before the ACL. ... Wes has never been slow, but he was never that fast either. One thing he wanted to focus on was speed. It's not that he got slower, but that knee has to be trained at high speed. He wanted to be able to move like he could before the surgery."

To do it, Welker committed himself in the offseason. He spent four or five hours at Bommarito some days when the workouts are only scripted for between two and three hours. He was in there five days a week, when the plan normally calls for guys to work four in the offseason.

You might remember Welker joking, "Let's do a lockout every year," in explaining that he was having a good time in the spring. The truth is, he wasn't exactly sitting on the couch with the remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other.

"I'd be hard pressed to think of an athlete that works harder that Wes," said Bommarito. "It's his meticulous attention to every conceivable detail. Training Wes is fun, he's got this dry sense of humor, and he has a good time out there. But business is business, and when he goes, he goes. There's nothing he half-asses. He does every (bleeping) thing like it's the last play of the Super Bowl."

From a technical standpoint, big parts of Welker's progress earlier in the year can be attributed to a couple factors. First, he spent the entire 2010 offseason rehabbing and hurrying to get back on the field, so it was tougher to train for football the way he could this offseason. Second, according to Bommarito, it was getting his range of motion back to a high level at top speeds, which is one of the final steps in returning from knee surgery.

Bommarito was quick to credit Welker for the work he's done in Florida at his facility and elsewhere, emphasizing there's far more to it than ramping up his physical ability. And he's also not going to pretend he saw all of this coming.

"I mean, his numbers are insane," Bommarito said. "I'm not sure we saw all this coming. Someone sent me a link that said he's on pace to break every single receiving record. How can you expect that?"

Welker's timing isn't bad, either. His contract is up after the season, and he's proving that he might just have a little more left in his tank.

Interesting week in Pittsburgh, with the injuries mounting and folks ready to declare the team over the proverbial hill. The 2-2 Steelers have a tough Tennessee team Sunday, and New England and Baltimore back-to-back in a few weeks.

The always thoughtful Troy Polamalu seems, at the very least, a little troubled with where his club is.

"We can try to write the story the best way we can, but games have still got to be played and obviously we've had a lot of adversity through the first four games," the reigning Defensive Player of the Year told me. "We'll see. Only time will really tell how we respond, because this is unlike anything we've faced before."

I asked Polamalu to expound on that, "With this new generation of players, I don't think we've started off 2-2 before. But we are grateful, because we could very easily be 1-3. And people are able to do some things on us that we really preach on stopping, and that's the run. The first step is to get out there and practice and get better."

The Steelers actually were 1-2 in 2009 before reeling off four straight wins, but Polamalu's point remains. He doesn't want the younger guys to think that because things have worked out in the past, they naturally will again.

Veteran receiver Hines Ward delivered a similar message the other day, telling me he'll look to the young guys this week for "a little sense of urgency. We have to get this turned around. We can't just walk into stadiums and expect to beat teams based on what we did last year."

Really, it sounds like the vets are trying to deconstruct the notion that the Steelers are like a powerhouse college program that can roll out of bed and win 75 percent of its games.

We'll see in the next few weeks how well that's received. But to his credit, Polamalu did say that it's on everyone, not just the young guys and not just the old guys, to uphold the standard that's been set.

"You try to pass it down through action, but actions aren't speaking very loudly right now," Polamalu said. "But it still can happen, depending on how we handle the situation that we're in, the adversity, and how we persevere through it."

Bengals lean on young minds

As if Jay Gruden didn't have enough mountains to scale in becoming Bengals offensive coordinator this spring, he was presented with one more by his former employer in Tampa.

After he was dismissed by the Buccaneers in 2008, Gruden wasn't afforded the chance to collect cut-ups of his offense to show to his new Bengals players. So as those players were locked out, from March through July, Gruden had to invest time in rebuilding his video library.

That's just one example of how 2011 has been a year of adjustment for Gruden. He's been a head coach and player in the Arena League, and was an offensive coordinator in the UFL, but never worked above the quality control level in the NFL before this year.

But with all that's new here for Gruden, he had company. He's got rookies starting at quarterback, in Andy Dalton, and receiver, in A.J. Green, and that's actually helped in certain ways.

"It helps a little, everyone starting from scratch, and not just the rookies," Gruden said from his office Tuesday night. "It's a totally different system. The terminology is different, the numbering system. Everyone's going from Ground Zero. So it was nice -- putting it in, from the huddle to the cadence and on. It was fast for some guys, not fast enough for others."

Gruden does know there's one player, in particular, who he'll be judged on moreso than others, and that's Dalton. So far, not so bad. Dalton's numbers (868 yards, 58.1 completion percentage, 4 TDs, 4 INTs) aren't eye-popping. But the Bengals are 2-2, and the moments haven't been too big for Carson Palmer's successor.

"My expectations were high. I always expect more, because I know how accurate he is," Gruden said. "Overall, though, everyone's impressed. We're glad he's on our team. ... He's thrown some bad balls, but he bounces back. He plays well in the second half of games. He's a mentally tough kid.

"He's been thrown into the fire. He came in, and when he first got here, since Bruce (Gradkowski) and Jordan (Palmer) had to sit out the first few days (because of the lockout rules), Andy got 90 percent of the reps early in camp. Where's he at? He's a rookie quarterback with four starts. He's seen a lot. He'll see a lot more."

Gruden thinks that Dalton's experience at TCU -- "Their offense was good. ... He was under center, in shotgun, had run audibles, pass audibles" -- is paying off now. "Sometime I have to step back," the coach said, "and remember he's a rookie who's been here for two months."

As for his own transition, Gruden's working through it. He's leaned on line coach Paul Alexander, in his 18th year with the team, and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, in his ninth year in Cincinnati, and adjusted his system to work with elements those guys have presented. Gruden's also repurposed the offense, partially out of necessity with a rookie QB, to reflect the 2009 playoff team's run-first mentality.

And as for any preconceived notions about the Bengals, he swears any fears he had have been allayed.

"It's exciting here, it's fun," Gruden said. "You heard horror stories sometimes about the attitude or the atmosphere here. But we've had no issues so far. The guys practice hard and buy in, and there's none of the outrageous bickering or anything like that. It's not what you hear."

Kinda like the now-forgotten idea that young coaches or QBs would struggle in post-lockout 2011.

1. How the Jets deploy Darrelle Revis. For the past three years, New York has played a matchup game with him, having him lock on the opponent's best receiver most weeks. But based on the opponent, that might not be the case in Foxboro on Sunday. Last year, the Jets chose to leave Revis and Antonio Cromartie on the outside without much help, betting they could win those battles, and crowded the middle of the field with linebackers and remaining defensive backs to deal with Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. It worked. And other teams took notice. Both Bills and Dolphins players told me the key against the Patriots is to force them to throw outside the numbers. In the end, even with that focus, Buffalo and Miami struggled to handle Welker and Gronkowski. But even given that, the Jets might well look at their past success and try a strength-in-numbers approach up the middle.

2. How the Eagles play the final 30 minutes on Sunday. I think that'll tell you plenty about who they are, and where they're going as a ballclub. Cullen Jenkins told me he sensed "happiness" in the Eagles' locker room at halftime last week, with the team up 20-3. "The problem was," he continued, "at that point, we were still 1-2." You know the rest. The Eagles are 1-3 now. And they face a Bills team this week that became the first in NFL history to bounce back from 18-point deficits in consecutive weeks, before the Lions repeated the feat last weekend. Wanna build on that? Chew on this: Ryan Fitzpatrick's fourth-quarter QB rating (117.5) is nearly 40 points better than Mike Vick's (78.5). There's plenty of reason to think that this week could be a growing experience for the Eagles, so long as they can sort out their problems on the offensive line and Juan Castillo can make strides as defensive coordinator.

3. How Jay Cutler holds up. Pitting that Bears offensive line against the Lions' defensive front is a fearsome proposition. Any questions about Cutler's toughness should have dissipated by now. But the pain might not fade for a while unless Chicago gives its front five some help. Rookie tackle Gabe Carimi's status (knee) is still up in the air, and Chris Spencer will be playing with a broken hand. And if that's not enough, an already stout Lions defensive line could be adding Nick Fairley to the mix in front of what should be a festive crowd in downtown Detroit. Key for the Bears: Don't get behind, and use Matt Forte. That, and get your quarterback out of there in one piece.

4. The way Atlanta responds in a big spot. The 2-2 Falcons aren't exactly in a deep hole. But there's an acknowledgement that the team needs to be better to contend, seeing as though one of their wins came in a close one against lowly Seattle, and the other was the result of a comeback against a scattershot Philly team playing without Vick late in the game. I still think the problems are fixable. The offensive line was better last week, and the team is thrilled with what it's gotten from big-ticket acquisition Julio Jones. What's maddening for the Falcons is how fundamental play, the foundation of Mike Smith's program, has been the root of some of the problems. I think the Falcons figure it out. This would be a good week for that to happen, too, with the Packers and their all-universe quarterback in town.

Three conclusions

  1. There are no fewer than six quarterbacks on pace for 5,000 yards passing, including Tony Romo and Cam Newton. How will defenses respond? I expect more man-to-man coverage, and more exotic blitz packages, and one reason why is the fundamental failure you're now seeing in zone coverage. As one NFC exec told me this week, "Before the rules changes, if a receiver finds that hole in the zone, you hit him as hard as you can. ... Aaron Rodgers, he knows where that hole is going to be, and the receiver's gonna run his route to that hole. In the old days, you'd just destroy that receiver sitting down in that hole, and he'd have to think twice the next time. 'Do I really want to do that again?' That might slow him down a bit, and the next time he doesn't get there and it's an incomplete pass. Now? The quarterback sits back, protected by the rules, and the receiver runs without fear." Pretty fascinating stuff. That exec said because of all that a player like the once-great Steve Atwater would have a tough time finding a place today.
  1. The Seahawks are doing it the right way. And I know folks in Seattle might look at me, point to Tarvaris Jackson, and laugh. But the Jackson pickup had plenty to do with the development of others on the roster -- having a triggerman with previous knowledge of an offense, as Jackson does with ex-Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, helps everyone -- and 2011 was never going to be the Seahawks' year, anyway. GM John Schneider was smart enough to look at the team not through the prism of a 2010 division title, but with a critical eye. He knew they had a ways to go, so he stayed the course with a Ted Thompson-type, slow-build approach, and that group figured there were enough holes not to overreach for a certain position. Hence, the lack of a 2011 draft pick at quarterback (the Seahawks weren't wild about that class and were content to wait). So what you have now is a team that's constantly getting younger, that hasn't stopped competing under Carroll, and hasn't mortgaged its future based on 2010's circumstances.

3. Terrelle Pryor will eventually compete to be starting quarterback in Oakland. And maybe as soon as next year. Jason Campbell's shortcomings were apparent in Week 4 against a deficient and injury-depleted Patriots pass defense. So this isn't just about Pryor. In fact, the Raiders likely would've selected Colin Kaepernick, who landed in San Francisco, had the Nevada QB fallen to them in the second round in April. What Pryor does bring is the kind of rare skill set that Al Davis treasures. And Davis has a coach, Hue Jackson, who knows how to develop young players at the position, having been Joe Flacco's position coach in Baltimore in 2008 and '09. The exiled Ohio State Buckeye finishes his suspension this week. Before long, he could well be a factor in Oakland.

Two pieces of business

  1. Jerry Jones has had problems getting his price in selling the naming rights to his palace in Arlington. Getting another Super Bowl just might do the trick. New Meadowlands Stadium won the bid to host the big game in 2014 and since has been renamed MetLife Stadium. The Superdome, forever known by that name, is hosting in 2013, and with that date on the calendar, was recently rebranded the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Meanwhile, the Dallas front office has said the team is just fine with branding it "Cowboys Stadium." They're fine with it, that is, until someone comes along with a fat check. And my guess is Jerry makes a spirited run at Super Bowl L in 2016, which would add another carrot for prospective investors.
  1. Romo and Rodgers signed very similar contracts a year apart -- the Dallas QB got his in 2007, Green Bay's franchise QB cashed in during 2008. Romo's deal was a six-year, $67 million contract that runs through 2013; Rodgers' was for $66 million over six years, going through 2014. At the time, believe it or not, both accords were compared to one inked by then-Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. Things have changed quite a bit since. Even with his warts, Romo's contract now looks like a bargain for a franchise guy. And Rodgers' deal makes it look like the Packers are flat-out stealing an elite quarterback. The key is both were done early, just two months in each player's respective first year as a starter, giving the team leverage to bargain. Makes you wonder if a few QBs with two years left -- namely Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman -- might have willing negotiating partners this offseason. Remember, those guys' contracts expire in 2014, when the new TV deals will be done and player costs could go through the roof.

One prediction

The Tony Romo debate will rage on through the season, and for one simple reason: This is who he is.

If you take the good of No. 9, you accept the bad.

Romo is now 31. He's in the ninth NFL season, and it's been five years since he wrested the starting job in Dallas from Drew Bledsoe.

And it's not like 2011 has been abnormal. He's on pace for 28 touchdown passes -- he threw for 26, 26, and 36 in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. He's on pace for 20 picks -- higher than normal (19, 14, 9 in the three aforementioned seasons), but not by much, and that calculation includes a three-pick hiccup of a game against Detroit. His quarterback rating and completion percentage, too, are within points of his career figures.

That all adds up to more ups and downs in 2011, to be sure, and perhaps a decision to make for the Dallas brass and, in particular, Jason Garrett in the offseason.

Again, Romo will have two years left on his deal when this one is complete. What if there's a quarterback that the Cowboys, and more specifically, Garrett, like sitting there for the team in the first round in April?

At the very least, it might be time, at that point, to throw another player into the mix.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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