Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in. The Motor City Kitties come to town to face the Vikings this week, only they're not the Motor City Kitties anymore. They're the Detroit Freaking Lions, and they're here to tell you the days of Jon Kitna, Joey Harrington, and Dan Orlovsky are OVAH. Their fans are breathing fire, and you know what, I can't say that I blame them. If there's any fan base in the NFL that deserves to be a little chippy, it's them.
The Lions have a talented core of young players, good coaching, and are favored to beat the Vikes at the Metrodome...something that's never happened. Favored to win or actually win in the Metrodome, just to be clear.
So what's been the cause of the turn around, and how are the Lions handling this newfound success? Well, to get those answers, we asked Sean Yuille of the fantastic Lions SB Nation blog Pride of Detroit, and he was kind enough to provide us with the answers.
Pride of Detroit has posted their questions to me on their site, and you can check them out right here.
DN: For almost my entire life, with the exception of a few years in the Wayne Fontes/Bobby Ross eras, Detroit has been the also ran of the NFC Central/North. You've had years and years of high round draft picks that never worked out, until the last few drafts. Who or what has been the key component that has turned around your talent evaluation process?
Pride of Detroit: Without a doubt it has been Martin Mayhew. He was named the interim general manager after Matt Millen was fired, and he permanently took over the job after the 0-16 season in 2008. Immediately he put together a plan to rebuild the coaching staff by hiring Jim Schwartz as the head coach, Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator and Gunther Cunningham as the defensive coordinator. He also put together a plan to infuse the team with talent, and he has overhauled the roster in only three years by drafting very well, adding a few important free agents and acquiring a lot of talent via trades. He has been very creative, especially with the trades, and it appears his hard work is paying off.
POD: I think it will always be a concern, even if he does make it through the season without any injuries. Perhaps at some point it won't be necessary for fans to hold their breath every time he is hit, but it's just an automatic reaction after watching him not get back up from hits several times in his first two seasons. The Lions have a good enough backup in Shaun Hill (and third-stringer in Drew Stanton) that they could survive if Stafford were to go down, but the reason fans hold their breath so much is because Stafford is becoming an elite quarterback. He is the difference between the Lions offense being great rather than just good. The Lions showed last year they can win games without Stafford, but for this team to compete in the NFC North and compete for a playoff spot, Stafford needs to stay healthy.
POD: The best part about the Lions offense is that Stafford has so many options. There are weapons galore at receiver with Johnson, Nate Burleson and rookie Titus Young, and at running back you have a playmaker in Jahvid Best. The Lions also have two very talented tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. There is a lot of talent at the skill positions, and I think it will be important for Minnesota to focus on stopping Burleson, a former Viking. He leads the Lions in receiving with 12 caches for 153 yards and he has shown the ability to stretch the field as a receiver and make plays on reverses. With defenses focusing so much on Johnson, Burleson has seen his side of the field open up quite a bit, and so far this season he has made defenses pay for leaving him a little bit too open.
POD: While the Lions are very young, they have a strong veteran presence with guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Jason Hanson. These guys have been around for a number years and are leaders in the locker room. Obviously guys like Backus and Raiola haven't experienced a whole lot of success on the field (and Hanson hasn't since Barry Sanders retired), but I think they will make sure the younger players stay grounded, although I'm not sure that will be a problem anyway since guys like Stafford and Ndamukong Suh have quickly become leaders. They have handled the hype surrounding the Lions for the last few months very well, and although they haven't been in the league for long, they act like veterans.
POD: A number of fans over the years have decided to forget about the Lions and cheer for other teams, especially because Matt Millen managed to keep his job for as long as he did. I really can't fault those who jumped off the bandwagon, but I and many others never really considered it. Is it much easier to root for a franchise that wins on a regular basis? Of course it is. But even during the lowest of times when the Lions went 0-16 there was a belief that at some point things will get turned around. Now we are finally starting to see that happen, and if the Lions do in fact make a playoff run or at the very least put together a successful season, the payoff for all of the losing we watched will be very sweet.
This sort of reminds me of what the Detroit Tigers did in 2006. A number of people jumped off the bandwagon after the Tigers dealt with so many struggles, especially when they went 43-119 in 2003. The fans who stuck with their team were rewarded with a trip to the World Series in 2006, and it made all of the years of watching losing teams more than worth it since the joy of watching the Tigers win was so amazing.
After the Tigers had such a great season in 2006 the bandwagon certainly filled up, and I will admit that at times dealing with bandwagon fans can be quite frustrating. Already we are starting to see something similar with the Lions and all they have done is win two games to open the season. If they continue winning there's no doubt the bandwagon will fill up even more than it already has. At times it is tough to deal with bandwagon fans, but if the Lions do start making regular playoff appearances or perhaps even compete for Super Bowl titles, the fans who were there before the winning started will have the satisfaction of enjoying the success more than any bandwagoner. The true fans stuck around through it all, and now hopefully they are on the verge of being rewarded for their dedication to the Lions.