ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Lions are beginning training camp under another new coach – but for once, there’s no long rebuilding project ahead.
”If I felt that we didn’t have the talent here, I’d tell you,” said Jim Caldwell, who was hired in January to replace Jim Schwartz. ”We have a talented group. It’s our job to get those guys in position to win and win consistently.”
Caldwell spoke to reporters Sunday, which was reporting day at training camp for Detroit’s veterans. The team will practice Monday. The Lions haven’t won their division since 1993 and have only one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title – but with a core of players that includes Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, there will be plenty of urgency for this team in Caldwell’s first season as Lions coach.
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Detroit squandered a great chance to make the playoffs last year, losing six of their last seven and finishing 7-9. That collapse cost Schwartz his job, and Caldwell took over.
”This is the best chance for any of the head coaches that have come in in their first year,” said center Dominic Raiola, who is entering his 14th season with the team. ”This is the best chance to win right now.”
Linebacker Stephen Tulloch expanded on that sentiment a bit.
”This is probably the most talented team on the Detroit Lions in a long time,” he said.
The Lions had 10 straight losing seasons from 2001-10, with coaches Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Schwartz unable to turn them into consistent winners. Detroit was coming off a winless season when Schwartz took over in 2009. They reached the playoffs under him in 2011, but went 11-21 over the last two seasons.
Stafford has thrown for plenty of yards, but his mistakes have held the team back at times. Johnson remains one of the game’s most dynamic players, but although he’s still in his prime, the star receiver dealt with nagging injuries last year.
Suh is entering the final season of his contract, so it’s not clear if he’ll be with the Lions beyond 2014.
Caldwell will have a chance to contend right away with his new team, but with those expectations comes pressure.
”It’s not fair to talk about when Schwartz came in because he inherited an 0-16 team,” Raiola said. ”It was a complete overhaul, and we’ve been a part of a couple of those. But this is not a complete overhaul.”
Although the Lions have an impressive nucleus of big names, there are some trouble spots that need to be addressed. Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston are gone, and the team will have to replace those two veterans.
Detroit signed safety James Ihedigbo, but there will be pressure on some of the team’s younger cornerbacks, such as Bill Bentley and Darius Slay. The Lions also drafted cornerback Nevin Lawson in the fourth round this year.
”We’re young, but we also have some guys that have talent,” Caldwell said. ”We’re pleased where we are right now. This is the real test. This is where we’re going to really find out what we have.”
The defensive line, meanwhile, remains anchored by Suh, but defensive end Ziggy Ansah dealt with a shoulder injury last season, and his health remains an issue heading into camp. Ansah had eight sacks last season as a rookie.
”One of the things I learned early on in coaching is I coach who shows up, and instruct our staff to do the exact same thing,” Caldwell said. ”I cannot worry about how quickly the Lord allows someone to heal. I have to do our business. When he gets healthy and ready to go, he will be ready.”
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