Lockout comes at terrible time for Lions

BEVERLY HILLS, Mich. – The Detroit Lions had flown in from all over to gather at a suburban high school practice facility for four days of player organized workouts. This is what passes as an offseason minicamp in today’s NFL-lockout world.

Most days they went 30-plus deep, by far the largest turnout in the league and double what many teams managed to cobble together. For a franchise used to setting all kinds of unfortunate marks – like the only 0-16 campaign in history in 2008 – this was a record in which to take pride.

It also speaks to what is arguably the most frustrating circumstance of the entire labor dispute.

Kyle Vanden Bosch works out Wednesday.
(AP Photo)

All 32 franchises want back at it as soon as possible. None have it quite like the Lions, a team stuck between a miserable past and a suddenly promising future only to see its hope and hype and momentum snuffed out by a particularly ill-timed labor dispute.

“To me that’s the biggest frustration,” said defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes), who helped set up this week’s workouts here at Detroit Country Day High School. “You finish the year on a high note, you win [your last] four games and you have all this momentum and you want to carry that into the offseason. You really can carry momentum into the offseason and it gets guys excited about their training.”

The last time anyone used terms such as “high note” or “momentum” during a Lions offseason was, what, before Barry Sanders abruptly retired before the 1999 season? And while it’s undoubtedly happened before that – a spring and summer of fans, players and coaches full of speculation and anticipation – it hasn’t been often. This is a franchise after all, that has won just a single playoff game since 1957.

The last decade has been particularly bleak, the Lions averaging just 3.9 victories a season. That run includes the winless campaign, a season of perfect failure. The era is marked by endless criticism of the Matt Millen regime that made this one of the most difficult places to play – bad vibes, bad headlines and bad loss after loss.

So around here, the 6-10 record the team put together in 2010 was a sign of light. Especially because it came with obvious improvement on both sides of the ball during the second season of likeable coach Jim Schwartz. Especially because the roster is full of dynamic young talents such as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) and wide receiver Calvin Johnson(notes). Especially because April’s NFL draft produced rave reviews, not to mention man-eating defensive lineman Nick Fairley(notes), who should team with Suh and Vanden Bosch to devastating results.

“It’s going to be like watching a movie, seeing all the damage they are going to be doing up front,” safety Louis Delmas(notes) said. “I’m going to be back there laughing, basically.”

That’s the kind of joking and boasting and excitement that should hang in the air around the Lions. This is supposed to be the fun stuff, an offseason of looking forward, not of looking at legal briefs on the Internet. Schwartz, stuck in the Lions’ facility 10 miles south of here all week and prohibited from any contact with the players, is so bored he’s been tweeting about catching up on the “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

The Lions are like a real team all of a sudden; no one’s favorite to win the Super Bowl but just about everyone’s to at least contend for the playoffs. After a decade of nothing, that’s more than something.

The newspapers and talk radio are filled with promise and positivity – not stories of fan protest marches or predictions of four-win seasons that turned out to be generous.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) said he is fully healed from a shoulder injury that limited him to three games last season. The NFL gave the Lions a Monday night game for the first time since 2001. There was even some wonder about whether the Lions could be the team for HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” a thought that never occurred to anyone in the series’ history.

“I know this is the most excitement since I’ve been there,” said center Dominic Raiola(notes), a Lion for 10 lousy seasons.

And yet after all those years and all those questions, here comes the offseason a guy like Raiola has always dreamed of and there’s no football.

“It’s frustrating … just because of the excitement building around this team, for our team,” Raiola said.

The workouts were nothing special. This wasn’t Junction Boys. A few dozen players are a lot but not enough. On Thursday, Stafford had to line up as a running back for some plays – “I’m an H-Back,” he joked. They did their most serious work at gym sessions set up by Vanden Bosch.

Stafford has been derailed by injuries in his two seasons with the Lions.
(AP Photo)

This was more about team building and reminding everyone of the precious opportunity at stake when the lockout ends. Contending for a playoff spot is the norm in New England or Indianapolis. Here it’s pretty much uncharted territory.

“When [the lockout] ends, we have to hit the ground running,” Raiola said.

Every locked-out player talks about bringing football back to the fans. It’s pretty much the chief PR talking point of the players’ trade association. You get a sense the Lions believe it. They marvel at why the fans stuck around in such numbers anyway – consider 2008, when the team lost all eight of its home games by an average of 22 points. In 2008 and 2009, the Lions were outscored by 249 and 232 points, respectively. Last year the differential was cut to just seven.

“I think this city is hungry for this organization to take that next step,” Vanden Bosch said. “We can feel the fans excitement. And we want to reward them. It’s hard to stay behind a team that’s not winning games. But we have a great fan base here.”

It’s a fan base that keeps stopping them at grocery stores and restaurants to talk football, even under the cloud of a lockout.

“Every [fan’s] last word is, ‘Hey man, good luck this season … if we have a season,’ ” Stafford said.

Stafford gave a short laugh to that one. He promised the players would be back here next month; maybe with some play scripts and even more intensity.

After all, the Lions’ big season is coming eventually.

They hope.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, May 20, 2011