Jon Kitna believes in the Detroit Lions.
And I believe Jon Kitna is crazy.
The Lions Kool-Aid-drinking quarterback predicted a 10-win season for Detroit in 2007...despite the fact that Motown's worst haven't totaled double-digit victories since 1995, and have logged 10 or more losses in six consecutive seasons.
Kitna must know something that everyone else in the free world doesn't. Has Matt Millen been pulling our legs all these years? Does Calvin Johnson have super powers? Is Kitna not 35 years old? Is giving up more than twice as many sacks as you collect a sign of progress?
A 10-win season in Detroit would be nothing short of miraculous.
On the plus side, the Lions do have dates with Oakland, Arizona, and Tampa Bay this year. Unfortunately, they also play the AFC West and NFC East—meaning games against Denver, San Diego, Dallas, and Philadelphia. And in their own division, Detroit must contend with the conference champion Bears, the up-and-coming Packers, and a Vikings team that swept the season series last year.
The NFL is known for rapid turnarounds, but 10-win teams do things that the Detroit Lions do not. They win games they're supposed to win. They go on winning streaks. They play well on the road and excel in close contests.
Until the Lions are able to follow suit, they'll continue their losing ways.
The team is not without talent, particularly at wide receiver. Roy Williams had a breakout season last year in Mike Martz's offense, catching a career-high 82 passes for 1310 yards and six touchdowns. Williams was impossible to stop at times, and posted big numbers against two of the best corners in the league—Nate Clements of the Bills and Terrence Newman of the Cowboys.
Williams' height and speed make him dangerous on deep balls, and allow him to go up and get anything thrown in his direction.
Johnson, meanwhile, looks to be the real deal: He's fast, strong, and tall; he has great hands; he isn't afraid to go over the middle; he's enormously effective on deep balls.
The second pick in the draft will form a scary duo with Williams on the flanks, and should excel in Martz's aerial parade.
With bigger names grabbing most of the headlines, WR Mike Furrey often gets lost in the limelight, but the former safety actually led the NFC in receptions. Detroit didn't have a dependable third receiver last year, so moving Furrey to the slot should make a big difference.
In the backfield, the Lions are hoping an offseason trade for Tatum Bell and the signing of former Michigan State star T.J. Duckett will improve a rushing attack that ranked dead last in the league last year. Former starter Kevin Jones may not be able to return from a foot injury, so Bell enters the preseason as the number-one back.
Much of the blame for Detroit's 2006 rushing woes could be pinned on the offensive line, and thankfully the team gave the unit a facelift in the offseason.
Stalwarts Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus return at center and tackle, but they'll be surrounded by a host of newcomers: OT George Foster came over from Denver with Bell in a trade for CB Dre Bly, and Detroit plucked OGs Edwin Mulitalo and Zach Piller from the Ravens and Titans, respectively.
On paper, at least, the 2007 line looks to be stronger than last year's bunch.
On the other side of the ball, Detroit's defense has never been a strength—and it appears destined to disappoint once again. The unit has a few shining stars but far more black holes.
DTs Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding are stout run stoppers who also excel at rushing the passer. Last year's first-round pick Ernie Sims led the team in tackles from his OLB spot. Young studs Paris Lenon and Boss Bailey round out a solid corps of 'backers.
Unfortunately, that's about the extent of the good news. The rest of the Detroit D leaves much to be desired.
In sum, Kitna's confidence is admirable—he obviously sees promise in a team that has offered anything but in the last decade. The wide receivers will be fun to watch, and the offense may be one of the league's best. But the Lions have proven to be perennial losers, and the road back to respectability,much less 10 wins, can be a long one.
If nothing else, the Lions should improve on their three wins from a year ago...which will give Kitna plenty of cause to project an undefeated 2008.
Projection: 7-9, 3rd NFC North
Keep your eyes on: P Nick Harris—If only they gave points for net punting average.
Take your eyes off: DE Kalimba Edwards—Sacking the QB is not this pass rusher's specialty.