The Lions Come Roaring Back

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If there were any lingering doubts that Matt Millen, the president of the Detroit Lions, had found the right coach, they should have been erased when Rod Marinelli stood in a cramped interview room at Lincoln Financial Field minutes after a lopsided loss 10 days ago to the previously winless Philadelphia Eagles.

Marinelli's team had just surrendered 56 points and had given a pitiable defensive display that would have left a Pop Warner coach red-faced. Eagles receivers were left so open that they might have had loneliness issues and would-be Lions tacklers ending up littered all over the turf after lunging at air on Philadelphia touchdown runs. Marinelli offered his matter-of-fact assessment of the game, then a reporter made the mistake of asking if the coach had been embarrassed by his team's play.

"I don't get embarrassed," Marinelli said firmly. "I don't use that word. That's your word. You keep your word. Don't use it on me. I have to correct some things. That's what I do."

If there were a set of job specs for a head coach of the Lions this century, a high embarrassment threshold would rank right up there among the top prerequisites. When the Ford family that owns the franchise lured Millen from the television broadcast booth to run the front office in 2001, the former NFL linebacker inherited a team that had gone 9-7 the previous season. The Lions promptly went 2-14 the next season and kept losing straight through last year's 3-13 record in Marinelli's first season as coach, and Detroit became the place where the careers of top 10 draft picks came to die.

But now things might be changing. The Lions will come to town for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field with a 3-1 record, having rebounded from their ugly -- but not embarrassing -- defeat in Philadelphia to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. They have a revved-up passing offense under the direction of coordinator Mike Martz, the former head coach of the St. Louis Rams, and Marinelli followed the triumph over the Bears, in which the Lions scored 34 fourth-quarter points, by saying during his news conference Monday that he's confident that his club is on its way to being one of the league's best.

"If we can start cleaning up some of the other stuff, we're going to be an elite team," Marinelli said. "We will be an elite team here."

That may be a ways off yet, but Marinelli seems to have the Lions headed in the right direction. He leaves the offense to Martz, who is doing his best to re-create the "Greatest Show on Turf" passing wizardry that he orchestrated with the Rams. Quarterback Jon Kitna leads the NFL with 1,227 passing yards, and wide receiver Roy Williams ranks third in the league with 388 receiving yards. Three Lions wideouts --Williams, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey -- have at least 20 catches. And that doesn't even include the wildly talented Calvin Johnson, the second overall selection in the draft in April, who missed the Bears game after bruising his lower back on a hard fall as he made an acrobatic leaping catch against the Eagles.

"We have our hands full this week," Redskins safety Pierson Prioleau said. "Those guys look like they're comfortable in Mike Martz's system. Kitna can deliver the ball, and they have a bunch of good receivers. Those guys are really playing well."

But the Lions have their shortcomings. Their rushing offense ranks 31st in the league. They've allowed Kitna to absorb too many hard hits; he was knocked from one game temporarily with a concussion and was sacked a combined 15 times by the Eagles and Bears. The Lions rank 29th in the league in total defense, 30th in scoring defense and 31st in passing defense.

Still, there is reason for them to hope, and that alone marks significant progress. The Fords ignored the calls of many of the team's fans for them to fire Millen, under whom the franchise had a record of 24-72 through last season. Millen used high first-round draft choices on players who didn't succeed, like quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receivers Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. He hired and fired two coaches, Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci, before turning to Marinelli, a no-nonsense Vietnam veteran and the defensive line coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 10 seasons.

Millen is doing his best to remain in the background. He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through a team spokesman that he wants the focus to remain on Marinelli and the players. Marinelli has instilled a toughness and resolve that might have been lacking under previous coaches. The players were not overly shaken by their performance in Philadelphia.

"We know what kind of team we are," cornerback Fernando Bryant said that day.

Veteran guard Damien Woody said in the somber locker room in Philadelphia, "You have to be able to take your lumps and be able to move forward."

Now the momentum could be building. The Lions are seeking their first-ever victory in Washington, where they're 0-20 all-time, and their first 4-1 beginning to a season since 1991. Marinelli seems to have a group of believers among the players in his locker room.

"We're starting to understand and believe that if we just keep playing," he said Monday, "something good is going to happen for us."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company