- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Detroit was the NFL’s definition of average from 1990 to 2000. The Lions were .500 in the regular season, though they made the playoffs five times and scored their only postseason victory since 1957.

Then the bottom fell out. General manager Matt Millen and coach Marty Mornhinweg came to Detroit in 2001 and produced a two-year record of 5-27. However, Millen caught a break when San Francisco dismissed coach Steve Mariucci after the 2002 season. The Lions snapped up the Michigan native, and after a 5-11 debut, Mariucci has Detroit at 4-3 heading into Sunday’s game against visiting Washington.

“Coach does a very good job of earning the respect of his players,” third-year quarterback Joey Harrington said. “It’s a completely different attitude in the locker room now. It’s fun to be a part of this team. We know we can win.”

Mariucci said ending “the anguish” of their NFL-record 24-game road losing streak in Week1 was huge for his young Lions but conceded it’s hard to get a good read on a team that wins in Atlanta one Sunday, gets crushed at home by Green Bay the next and cruises on the road against the hot New York Giants the week after that.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mariucci said. “As the team grows up and gains some experience, plays and practices together more often, then you develop some consistency.”

Mariucci, who inherited a powerhouse in San Francisco and then endured a stint in salary cap hell before rebuilding the 49ers, is determined to construct the Lions in the “right” way with a foundation of Harrington, oft-injured Charles Rogers and fellow receiver Roy Williams, running back Kevin Jones and currently injured linebacker Boss Bailey — all taken in the first or second round of the past three drafts.

“It’s the same growing pains, play the youngsters and hopefully reap the benefits, [but the difference is that] we’re doing it because of choice,” Mariucci said. “We haven’t signed a lot of free agents for the quick fix just to get over the hump, win one season and then have to say goodbye. We’re trying to acquire free agents in their primes for the long-term. We think we’re taking full advantage of our drafts. The future is bright.”

Twelve of Detroit’s starters are new. An identical number have played only for the Lions. Six of the 10 free agents are 28 or younger. The only exceptions are defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, middle linebacker Earl Holmes and safeties Brock Marion and Bracy Walker.

“When you have a young team, you’re going to have ups and downs,” said Harrington, who has made a quantum leap in his third year with a 12-to-4 touchdown-interception ratio and a 94.5 passer rating. “But we’re dealing with them pretty well. I don’t worry about the stats so much as the 4-3 record. As much as you want to see immediate results, it’s slow, steady progress. I’m starting to get to that point where I’m feeling a little more comfortable.”

So are all the Lions even though they have the NFL’s worst offense and fourth-worst defense. They make up for those woes with the NFC’s top turnover ratio and the conference’s most efficient red-zone offense.

“We don’t beat ourselves,” Mariucci said. “Do we need to be more explosive? Absolutely. But that will happen as these kids grow up together. We want to accomplish some things that haven’t been done lately. We had an opportunity to win our fourth road game in a row last week, which hadn’t been done since 1956. If we’re going to take some steps, become a contender, a playoff team, we’ve got to do some of those things. I think we’re on track.”

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