Is This the Lions' Year?

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 12:45 PM

Offseason Roundup: Detroit Lions

One of these years, the hopes for a reversal of football fortunes in Detroit won't be false and the Lions actually will amount to more than a collection of failed first-round draft picks and overmatched coaches assembled by embattled team president Matt Millen.

But is this the year when the overdue turnaround finally will begin to happen? Who knows? The Lions were a popular pick among prognosticators to be a surprise club in each of the past two seasons, and that only made the optimistic forecasters look foolish. Quarterback Joey Harrington is the lucky one. He escaped.

Millen was given yet another chance by the Ford family that owns the franchise to start over, firing Steve Mariucci as his coach late last season and hiring Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line coach Rod Marinelli during the offseason to replace him. Marinelli was widely viewed around the league as a defensive coordinator-in-waiting, not a head coach-in-waiting. But he at least brings a measure of toughness and discipline to the job, and he got an overqualified offensive coordinator when the Lions managed to hire ousted St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz at the end of a set of turbulent contract negotiations.

It took only a few conversations with the Lions' new coaching brain trust for Harrington to decide that he wanted out. He asked Millen to trade or release him, and Millen immediately made it clear that he would comply. But it wasn't easy. Harrington and his agent, David Dunn, controlled the situation because Harrington's contract contained a $4 million roster bonus due in mid-June, and no team would trade for him without him agreeing to a new deal. Harrington decided that he only wanted to play for the Miami Dolphins. He reached a tentative contract agreement with Miami, but the Lions and Dolphins initially could not agree to trade parameters.

Millen attempted to trade Harrington to the Cleveland Browns during the NFL draft, but Harrington and Dunn blocked the proposed deal by refusing to negotiate a new contract with the Browns. Millen threatened to take action through the league office, contending that Harrington, Dunn and the Dolphins had violated NFL rules by having a secret deal in place. League officials had a different view, saying that Harrington was within his rights to have a contract agreement with the Dolphins in place because the Lions had granted him permission to seek a trade.

Millen was left with little choice but to trade Harrington to the Dolphins or release him before the roster bonus was due. He finally worked out a deal that sent the quarterback that he selected with the third overall choice in the 2002 draft to Miami for a sixth-round pick next year that can become a fifth-rounder if Harrington plays enough.

Martz's offense will be run by one of the two quarterbacks that the Lions signed as free agents, Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. Both are capable players, but neither is likely to be a Pro Bowler. Whichever quarterback emerges as the starter will be surrounded by former first-round picks in tailback Kevin Jones and wide receivers Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. The Lions also added wideout Corey Bradford in free agency. The offensive line lost guard Kyle Kosier, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent. But the Lions retained tackle Jeff Backus by using their franchise-player tag on him, then signing him to a one-year contract that includes a provision that the team won't use the tag on him again next spring.

The defense got a potential playmaker in the first round of the draft when Millen passed over still-available quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler to select Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims with the ninth overall choice. Veteran linebacker Paris Lenon, a starter last season in Green Bay, was added in free agency, along with defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson and cornerback Jamar Fletcher.

The Marinelli era is off to a shaky beginning, with the Lions having lost two days of offseason workouts as a penalty for violating the league's rules governing the length and intensity of teams' offseason programs. Such violations generally are uncovered only after a club's players register complaints with the players' union, so clearly not everyone in the Lions' locker room is on board with Marinelli's program. That's an early signal that it could take some time for Marinelli to win over the locker room, a process that probably will include him getting rid of at least some of the dissenters.

It will get better in Detroit eventually. The law of averages is on the Lions' side. But whether the future is now for Millen, Marinelli and Martz -- or even any time in the next decade or so--is anyone's guess.

Around The League

The New Orleans Saints announced that they'd set a franchise record for season-ticket sales. The team indicated that it had sold 54,969 season tickets, surpassing the previous record of 53,728 set in 2003.

The capacity of the Superdome, which remains under repair after being damaged last year during and after Hurricane Katrina, will be about 65,000 when it reopens for football in the fall.

Saints officials also indicated, however, that they'd sold only 56 of 137 suites.

The Saints have returned to New Orleans after being displaced from the city last season by Katrina and splitting their home games between San Antonio, where they were based, and Baton Rouge, La . . .

Outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is scheduled to speak today at commencement ceremonies at Georgetown University, his alma mater.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company