The NFL regular season is still months away, but with the NFL draft behind us and organized team activities ahead, it feels a lot more like preseason than postseason.
So with that mindset, it's time to look ahead. Who won the Super Bowl last season? Who cares? Stop living in the past, there are 32 teams back in it again.
One of those teams is the Detroit Lions, and they may be more "in it" right now than they have been in more than 50 years.
The common thinking surrounding the Lions' offseason is that they haven't really improved the team—they've just broken even and maintained effectively the same team as last year's.
So how is that improvement?
Improvement doesn't always mean roster turnover. In fact, it rarely does. However, don't let me give away my entire argument on page one. Move on.
When good players on a football team get used to playing with one another, good things happen.
For starters, everyone starts playing a little bit faster. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and what their role is. That comes with extended time under the same coach, in the same scheme, but also with the same teammates.
Stephen Tulloch has a better idea of where the defensive line will create gaps, Matthew Stafford and Titus Young have a better idea of where and when to find each other, and the running backs all know where their lanes are (or at least where they're supposed to be).
Team chemistry is one of those intangible things that is impossible to measure, and so fans tend to undervalue the improvement inherent in just keeping a talented group of guys in the same system for a couple of years, but it is important.
Injuries are part of the game, and the Lions will lose some key pieces to injury again this year. That much is inevitable.
However, between the guys lost to injury and the guys hobbled by injury last year, it might seem like the Lions are bringing in a whole new draft class.
Mikel Leshoure and Jason Fox were out for the season, Nick Fairley and Jahvid Best were mostly not available and hobbled when they were, and much of the secondary (especially at the safety position) was either out or playing at 80 percent by season's end.
Now, not all of these guys will start the season fully healthy, and other players will go down as the season progresses, but it's impossible to not be enthused about the potential impact of these players' returns.
And as for the players the Lions will inevitably lose to injury, well, that's where my next point comes in.
Good NFL teams have great starters.
Great NFL teams have good reserves.
Because when injuries happen, somebody needs to step in and minimize the damage.
Ultimately, this is what a lot of the Lions' returning injured players (and much of the draft class) are going to do this year: Provide quality depth, not starters.
But that's OK. I personally feel a lot more secure with Kevin Smith as the third-string back over Maurice Morris (with all due respect to MoMo, who was at least consistent when his number was called) and Nick Fairley over Andre Fluellen.
In an league where there are more reported injuries than active players each year, sometimes your third string is as important as your first, and the Lions have quietly built a solid (prospective) 53-man roster.
Most Lions fans know that the Lions' immaturity was vastly overplayed last season.
Most Lions fans also know that despite it being slightly overblown, it was a big problem and that personal fouls (the legitimate ones—not the ticky-tack, "whoops, grazed the quarterback's ear hole" ones) gave away some otherwise completely winnable games.
It didn't help the perception thing at all that the Lions decided to have their biggest meltdowns on national television.
So head coach Jim Schwartz sends his team out on a mission to play tough, hard-nosed football, and they got a little out of hand. They cleaned things up by the end of the season, and playing tough-but-smart football should be in Schwartz's talking points in preparation for the upcoming season.
This is a young team that hopefully learned where the line was last year while trying to earn respect and should be ready to stay behind it this year.
Put simply, football is a difficult game.
It's difficult to play, difficult to learn, difficult to follow as a fan, much less one of the 22 men on the field.
This is why the rookie phenom is so rare in the NFL. There is more to learn about the game than can be taught in a single season, even for a true student of the game. Even if a rookie memorizes the playbook, it is still difficult to keep everything straight on the field. It generally takes at least two or three seasons to truly develop a comfort zone and sync physical skills with mental skills, and still more time to reach a "prime" level (depending on position).
Now look at how many of the Lions' impact players are in their first four years in the league.
That's most of them, considering the Lions started their draft-based rebuilding project about four years ago.
I want you to wrap your mind around this prospect: Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew, Nick Fairley, Sammie Hill, Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey and DeAndre Levy should all be better in 2012 than they were in 2011.
Will they all be? Most likely not. Development isn't a linear thing, and odds are somebody will regress next year.
However, the odds are even better that the Lions will see a whole lot more improvement than regression, especially since every player in that list has shown some glimmer of success already in their career.
I'm just going to come out and say this: The Madden Curse is ridiculous, and deep down, I am truly afraid of it.
However, Calvin Johnson won that cover vote fair and square, so we may as well own it now. There's no sense in waiting around for something bad to happen. If there ever has been someone to reverse the curse, it's Johnson.
So that aside, Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL, with a young elite-caliber quarterback slinging him the ball. And Johnson is in his prime now.
Even though Johnson, in a humble inversion of the usual "prima donna" receiver, actually wants the ball less next season, the Lions are still a pass-first team, and Johnson is still an unstoppable player.
Still, it's nothing but refreshing to hear an elite wide receiver talk about how he wants to do more blocking for his teammates next season. With that mindset, Johnson should think of 2011 as only the first of many of his most productive seasons.
You know what teams you don't often hear about losing their core players or firing their coaches or spending big in free agency?
Sure, they'll go in for a free agency upgrade once in a while, but their priority is getting good players on the team and keeping them there, because the key to any successful franchise is consistency.
Among other things, this is what the Lions were able to accomplish this offseason.
By pulling Stephen Tulloch and Calvin Johnson into long-term contracts, they have assured themselves the services of two lynchpins on either side of the ball, and as their salary cap situation calms down, they will continue to do this.
Now, that's not to say that nobody should ever change the roster, make trades, or sign free agents. There are positions that require upgrades on the team, and there always will be. However, you have to respect the Lions for identifying their core players, keeping them in town and building around them.
That's how the league's big boys do it.
Surely, in the NFL there are no "walkover" wins—at least not before the games are played. However, there are games where some teams are highly favored. The Lions get a bunch more of those games this year than last.
The AFC West didn't pose much of a threat to the Lions in 2011, but the NFC South, with two playoff teams and a scrappy Carolina team, was difficult.
In 2012, the Lions draw the NFC West and AFC South, and both at pretty good times. The Texans and 49ers will each be tough matchups, no question. Still, the AFC South is maybe the softest it's ever been this year, and the NFC West, while brimming with potential, doesn't look like it's comprised of more than one playoff team.
It isn't as though this is the softest schedule the Lions could possibly have had, but I bet they're happy to draw the Jaguars, Cardinals and Colts this year instead of the Saints, Raiders and Chargers.
Yes, Jim Mora. I am now talking about playoffs. In the past tense.
The Lions were in the playoffs about four months ago. Not 12 years, four months. That means the vast majority of the Lions' current roster now has at least one game of playoff experience.
That may not seem like a big deal, but there is a reason for the phrase "Act like you've been here before."
The NFL is a league in which success begets success, and the Lions have tasted success, however slight.
It's not much, but there's little question they've broken through that first wave. So in the (increasingly likely) event that the Lions find themselves back in the hunt this season, they can act like they've been there. Recently.
This isn't exactly the most academic approach I could take to this, but it holds true.
The Lions have significantly improved their win total each year since the current regime took over the team, and with nothing but talented young players on the team improving each year, there is no reason to assume that trend will not continue.
The Lions have taken huge strides each year under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew. First, it was winning just one game (2009), then winning games on the road (2010), and then posting a winning record and making the playoffs (2011).
If we look at it that way, we should expect another big step forward from the Lions this year, but what? Improving the record further? Beating elite teams? Winning the division? Winning a playoff game? Or more still?
Follow Dean on Twitter: @Dean_Holden