It’s a put up or shut up year for the Lions.

“We have to win games. We have to be productive,” said general manager Martin Mayhew. “There’s no need to talk about it. It’s time to stop talking about winning. It’s time to start winning. We are at a point where we expect to challenge for our division. That’s what most good teams expect to do. We are at that point.”

That was the message coming into camp, and although there have been minor setbacks – namely a season-ending Achilles tendon injury to rookie power back Mikel Leshoure – the Lions embark on the 2011 season with a confidence and expectation level that far exceeds recent productivity.

“We definitely have the talent and the right attitude, the right makeup of players,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. “But there are a lot of things that have to happen for this team to be a playoff team. We’re in a division where one team won the Super Bowl (Green Bay) and the other played in the NFC Championship Game (Chicago).

“We can’t just say we’re a playoff team. Right now, it’s just a realistic expectation but it’s up to us to put in the work and make it happen.”

It’s the third season under the Mayhew-Jim Schwartz regime. It is the third season playing the systems and schemes of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. In a year where a labor dispute took away teams’ offseason work, that kind of continuity is as valuable as any first round draft pick.

There is Grade A talent on both sides of the ball. Start with a healthy quarterback Matthew Stafford and All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson on offense and All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and revamped linebacker core led by middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch on defense.

“The quarterback is in his third year,” said center Dominic Raiola. “I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve got going for us. What people are forgetting, yeah, he’s older and smarter, but he’s hungry. He really feels that. He wants to put this city on his back and win and he wants to do it for a lot of people – for the guys in this locker room, for the organization, for the fans, and he wants to validate their reasons for drafting him first.

“He feels that responsibility. It’s not pressure. He just really wants to be good.”

There is ample depth at most positions. There is a workable blend of experience and youth. And there is a hunger to achieve.

This is setting up to be a bridge year for the Lions. And whether they are on the bridge from average to good, or the bridge from good to great, remains to be seen.

“I don’t even think we’ve gotten to good yet,” said wide receiver Nate Burleson. “We’re doing OK. But how many teams have been good in the preseason and mediocre later? Until we win games, we don’t know.

“Hopefully four or five games into this season our record will depict what we are showing right now, then I will talk to you and say we’re good headed to great. Right now, I wouldn’t even stamp good on us.”

Schwartz and company took over after the 0-16 season of 2008. The Lions won two games in 2009 and six last season, including the final four in a row. Momentum doesn’t carry over from year to year, but experience does, winning habits do, individual confidence gained through consistent competence does.

All of that is fueling what has been an inordinate spewing of optimism and hype from sources outside the organization, media sources like Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

“I get it,” Burleson said. “If I was on the outside looking in, I would say the same thing. But as players, we’ve got to stay humble. I think everybody on the outside looking in can respect us remaining humble rather than getting overexcited during the preseason.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re happy and we have confidence in what we have in here. But it doesn’t mean anything until we get some wins in the regular season.”

Jim Schwartz, 3rd year all with the Lions (8-24).

2010 record: 6-10 (3rd in NFC North).

2011 regular season record, 9-7 (2nd in NFC North, miss playoffs).

Copyright (C) 2011 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.


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