DETROIT — Even before Jim Schwartz was hired by the Detroit Lions in 2009, he joked it was time for the franchise to replace Bobby Layne.
The Lions were the butt of jokes, coming off the first 0-16 season in league history, and were widely expected to take Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick back then. Detroit has regularly been a league laughingstock in large part because of a futile, decades-long search for a star quarterback since winning the 1957 NFL title and trading Layne the next year.
But no one is chuckling about the proud-again Lions anymore.
Martin Mayhew has mostly made all the right moves in his three-plus years in charge as the general manager who replaced Matt Millen. Schwartz has proved he can lead a turnaround, from the meeting room to the field. And, Stafford has shown he has the talent, moxie and leadership it takes to play his pivotal position.
Stafford led the Lions to 10 wins last season, their most since 1995, and helped them end an 11-year playoff drought.
Instead of looking back at the feat, Stafford is focus on what’s ahead, starting with Sunday’s opener at home against the St. Louis Rams, and toward helping the Lions make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since the mid-1990s.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been good on a consistent basis, back when Herman (Moore) and (Robert) Porcher and all those guys were playing,” Stafford said. “We’re trying to get back there.
“You want to win and give the city something to cheer about.”
Rams QB Sam Bradford, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead do, too.
Bradford, selected by St. Louis No. 1 overall a year after Stafford was picked, is hoping to return to his form when he was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010. The Rams won seven games that season, then endured an injury-stunted 2-win season.
That setback after seeming to step toward success sank St. Louis to the dubious distinction of having the worst winning percentage over a five-season span since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to STATS LLC, and the fourth lowest in league history.
The Rams went 15-65 over the last five years, giving them a .118 winning percentage that was lower than Tampa Bay’s .203 clip from 1983-87, Houston’s struggles just before that, along with a pair of recent skids in Detroit.
James Hall almost saw it all.
Hall played for St. Louis the last five years after losing a lot of games during the first seven years of his career with the Lions. That gives the unsigned free agent defensive end a unique perspective on what has gone wrong for both franchises.
“The similarities would have to be draft classes that had a lot of guys that didn’t pan out,” Hall said. “It’s huge for any organization to find what they need in the draft, especially with first-round picks.”
Hall likes the chances both teams have of winning in the future because of Stafford and Bradford.
“Quarterback has always been the most important position, but that’s become even more true because it has become such a pass-oriented game,” he said. “If you have a franchise quarterback, you have a better chance to win.”
Good GMs and coaches help, as well, and the Rams have two new men in those positions.
St. Louis beat out the Miami Dolphins for Fisher, who took a one-year hiatus after a 16-plus season run with the Tennessee Titans franchise in which he went to a Super Bowl and won 142 games to trail just Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan among active coaches.
Fisher and Snead have drastically reshaped their roster, hoping an influx of veterans such as standout cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Pro Bowl center Scott Wells — along with drafting Michael Brockers at defensive tackle and Janoris Jenkins at cornerback — can lead a turnaround.
“We’ve made a lot of change,” Fisher said. “We’ve got 17 rookies. I believe there are 32 or 33 new players on this team that weren’t with the Rams last year. So, you know, we’re young, but that’s not necessarily a negative. I think it’s kind of exciting.”
Fisher is not fired-up to talk too much about Schwartz, one of his protégés.
He hired the relatively unknown assistant in 1999 and promoted him two years later to defensive coordinator, a job Schwartz had until Detroit gave him his first shot to be a head coach three years ago.
“It’s about the players on the field, not about Jim and I,” Fisher said.
Two of those key players will be Finnegan matching up with all-pro Calvin Johnson, who is coming off one of the best seasons by a receiver in league history.
“Everybody wants competition, that’s why you play at the highest level like we do,” Finnegan said. “He’s a great, great model for the NFL, future Hall of Famer. You’ve got your hands full with him always and you just try to contain him. There’s not a lot he can’t do, if anything, and Stafford’s’ such an elite quarterback. As an offense, they’re one of the best.”
When the Rams had the ball last year, they were one of the worst. They should have a shot to improve if Bradford can connect with a pair of receivers, Danny Amendola and Steve Smith, trying to regain their form and strike a balance with the Steven Jackson-led running game.
Bradford, though, is the key player for the franchise’s hopes. He missed six games last season with a sprained left ankle. Fisher likes the team’s chances with him under center.
“I believe he has a chance to be an elite quarterback very, very soon in his career,” Fisher said.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.