With a new coach and huge roster turnover, Lions not burdened by 0-16

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Jim Schwartz had nothing to do with 0-16. He was hired to make the Detroit Lions much better than they were in 2008.

As far as Schwartz is concerned, he has every right to distance himself from their humiliating past and focus only on the future.

That, more than anything, is what the Lions' training camp is all about. New faces. New practice routines. New attitude.

"I have never addressed last year with the players," Schwartz said. "From the time I hit the ground here, it's been about what we're doing that day, the next day, the day after that. We're trying not to look too far ahead, but also we're not looking back. I'm not blaming (the incumbent players) for what happened last year. We haven't even talked about it."

The talk is about the Lions becoming better. Not just one, two, or three wins better, but substantial improvement.

The Miami Dolphins raised the expectations of fans of all struggling NFL teams after going from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 last season. Given that it was the greatest turnaround in league history, one shouldn't expect a repeat any time soon, right?

Not so, according to Schwartz.

"It's easy (to do that) in the NFL now," he said. "The NFL gives you so many tools to turn it around. One of the things that attracted me to this jobs was the draft picks that we had but also the salary-cap room that we had."

The Lions' roster has undergone roughly a 50-percent turnover, with a good mixture of rookies and veteran newcomers.

The most notable new face belongs to quarterback Matthew Stafford, the top overall pick of the draft. His performance in camp practices and the Lions' 27-26, preseason-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons has provided a great deal of encouragement.

Although the proof will come when they begin playing games that count, for now, this does not look like the Lions of 2008.

Observation deck

» The Lions' biggest drawbacks appear to be their defensive line and secondary. New defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is going to try and manufacture a pass rush by installing an aggressive scheme that calls for plenty of blitzing. He has a strong group of linebackers in incumbent Ernie Sims and newcomers Julian Peterson and Larry Foote. But the Lions are likely to hold their breath with the uncertain picture in their secondary. For now, the best candidates they have to start at cornerback are Anthony Henry and Phillip Buchanon, a duo that isn't likely to strike fear in the collective heart of opposing quarterbacks.

» As a first-year head coach, Schwartz made a point of hiring assistant coaches with considerable experience. That's why Cunningham, with 28 years of NFL coaching experience (including two as head coach in Kansas City), is his defensive coordinator, and Scott Linehan, who has coached for eight years in the league (including three as head coach in St. Louis) is his offensive coordinator. "I'm new on the job, I'm going to be learning on the job, (so) let's not have coordinators learning on the job," Schwartz said. Of Cunningham, Schwartz added: "Gunther's one of the toughest men I've ever met and one of the meanest guys on the practice field that you're ever going to meet. Just every minute of every day is fourth-and-one to Gunther Cunningham."

» This looks like a much tougher and more physical club than the one they had last year. Former coach Rod Marinelli often boasted that he had a tough squad, but the Lions were routinely pushed around by opponents on the way to their winless season. Typical of the team's new attitude was what running back Kevin Smith had to say about seeing a fellow running back, rookie Aaron Brown, take a massive hit in Wednesday's practice from rookie safety Louis Delmas: "I just let Delmas know I would have handed it to him. He wouldn't have done me that way. Zero tolerance."

» Watching Smith run, he clearly seems invigorated by the scheme Linehan has installed. As a rookie last season, Smith was not comfortable in the offense of former coordinator Jim Colletto. He sees Linehan's approach as being far more proactive. "I think defenses dictated what we were going to do (last year)," Smith said. "We didn't really change up what we were doing. We were running a lot of heavy, outside zone. We switched it up with some inside zone, but coach Linehan ... I'm loving the playbook. I mean, he'll dial it up. He'll dial up the screens, he'll dial up the power game, counter game, zone game, so you never know what you're going to get."

Surprise, surprise

Schwartz's approach to practice is a bit different in that he places greater emphasis on situations than plays.

He wants everything that his team does to fit a given situation. The Lions even practice throwing passes out of bounds to preserve time and field position.

"I've been around some great football coaches ... (such as) a Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher," Schwartz said. "And the thing that those guys had in common was that they practiced situations. I think both of them are probably among the best in the NFL at knowing and understanding situations.

"So we don't just go and practice blindly and say, 'Hey, we're going to do team (drills) for 20 plays.' There'll be specific situations, specific down and distances, specific parts of the field, specific end-game scenarios. (On Tuesday) we were working fourth and goal from the six. A couple of days ago, we worked, 'Eight seconds left in the half, no timeouts, you need to get five yards to get in field-goal range.'"

In the preseason opener against the Falcons, they got in field-goal range late in the game and had to burn 30 seconds off the clock before spiking the ball with four seconds left in order to set up Jason Hanson's winning field goal as time expired.

Schwartz also has made a point of trying to keep the feel of practice as fresh as possible with his players.

"We haven't had one practice schedule that's been the same throughout training camp," he said. "Every one's been a little bit different. It might only be five plays of empty backfield, it might be 12 plays of blitz. When the players go out to the practice field, it's not just the same thing every time. They have to think when they're out there; it's not just physical."

Rookie report

» Stafford has looked outstanding at camp. The former Georgia star doesn't look like a rookie at all. He has a strong, accurate arm. He rarely hesitates before making throws; the ball comes out his hand extremely fast. Stafford showed veteran-like composure when, after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown against Atlanta, he came right back to lead an 80-yard scoring drive that ended with his 25-yard touchdown throw to Derrick Williams. He showed patience and toughness on the play, choosing not to force a throw when he saw his primary target was covered and taking a hit after releasing the pass. Stafford has a commanding presence to which his teammates clearly respond. He has all of the ingredients that one would expect in an NFL starting quarterback, but there seems to be a sentiment among some of the Lions' decision-makers that there is no need to rush him onto the field this year because the club likely faces a difficult transition that his performance, even if exceptional, wouldn't do a whole lot to minimize and that could also take too much of a physical and mental toll on him.

» Although Delmas, a second-round pick from Western Michigan, has missed most of camp with a knee injury, he has made a strong impression with his physical play and has locked down a starting spot. He's fast and shows good instincts. His hit on Brown instantly became one of the Lions' biggest highlights of the summer.

» Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions' other first-round pick, suffered a thigh injury on the second day of camp and hasn't practiced since. The former Oklahoma State standout blocked well and showed good hands during offseason workouts and at the start of camp. He has what it takes to be a major difference-maker, but it's hard to make a difference when you're not on the field.

» Brown, a sixth-round pick from TCU, is exceptionally fast. He'll be used as a running back and a slot receiver. He has made his share of assignment mistakes, although, with his speed, the Lions will find a role for him, even if it's returning kicks.

» Tight end Dan Gronkowski, a seventh-round pick from Maryland, has shown some flashes. He catches the ball extremely well and does a nice job of blocking. Injuries to Pettigrew and other tight ends have provided him with practice time he otherwise likely wouldn't have received, and he has taken full advantage of it. As the second-to-last pick of the draft, Gronkowski is a long shot to make the roster, but multiple Lions observers believe that if he is released, he is likely to get snatched up by another club because of how difficult it is to find reliable tight ends.

Lasting image

When a quarterback is guaranteed to receive $41 million before ever throwing an NFL pass, it's natural to wonder about what he has left to drive him to perform at a high level.

But spend a little time around Stafford, and it's clear that the kid's connection with football goes well beyond his bank account.

"The things that people don't know about him are how much he loves the game and how smart he is and how comfortable with being a quarterback he is," Schwartz said.

Stafford shows no signs of drudgery while going through drills or exercises. He acts like a 21-year-old who enjoys what he's doing and is serious about doing it as well as he possibly can.

"NFL training camp's a grind," Stafford said. "For everybody to come out and to bring energy every day has been one of the biggest things for our team that we've been trying to do. Sometimes that's tough. You're going to have those days when you get out of bed slow, but I feel like I've battled through that really well. And you can tell when the pace isn't there at practice, you've got to be the one as a quarterback to, as (quarterbacks) coach (Jeff) Horton says, 'You've got to pull the teeth. You've got to get guys going. You've got to make them get up to your speed and make sure we set the pace.'"

And you get the notion that, despite his youth, he gets it. He understands who he's playing for, a point Schwartz wanted to drive home to Stafford and his fellow rookies when he had them make an unannounced visit to the assembly line at the Ford plant.

"It was awesome," Stafford said. "The people over there at Ford are the life and blood of this city. It's tough right now and everybody around here knows it, so anything that we can do for them to help them (life their spirits) is something that we're willing to do and love doing. They say this is a hockey town, and you've got the Red Wings, but there were a bunch of Lions fans there, so I was excited about that. Hopefully, we can just give them a winner, something to cheer for."

Say what?

"That's a great, salt-and-pepper mix. Pepper (Culpepper), he's feisty. He's going to get out there and throw that ball and if he can't, he's going to run you over. With Stafford, he's going to get out there, he's going to talk smack and he's going to throw that ball and he's going to zoom it in at you. We've got two great quarterbacks, and I can't wait to see what they're going to do." -- Rookie safety Louis Delmas.

Extra points

» Unfortunately for Schwartz and the rest of this year's Lions, whatever the team does well in the preseason will be viewed with even higher-than-normal degree of skepticism because of what happened last year. In 2008, the Lions went 4-0 in games that didn't count and 0-15 in games that did.

» Having dropped about 30 pounds, the 262-pound Culpepper is showing greater mobility and no signs of the major reconstructive knee surgery that once jeopardized his career. His passing arm might not be particularly accurate, but it can still deliver like a cannon. He also is benefitting from being reunited with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who also was his offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Through streamlining, Linehan has made the scheme more manageable for Culpepper, who seems to have cut down on errant throws.

» Kalvin Pearson starts at safety opposite Delmas, but at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he's relatively small and tends to wear down as the season progresses. Recently acquired free agent Marquand Manuel, who is 6-0 and 213 pounds, is probably going to end up with the job.

» Kicker Jason Hanson shouldn't be out long after undergoing what Schwartz described as minor knee surgery. To take his place temporarily, the Lions re-signed Swayze Waters, whom they cut early in camp.

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