August 24, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions never cease to tease

Quarterback Drew Stanton appears to have solidified a third-string role behind Shaun Hill and starter Matthew Stafford. Stanton had zero touchdowns and six interceptions last season. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Allen Park -- It's breaking out again, and could be spreading. The dizziness, the labored breathing, the eye-rubbing. If the Lions aren't careful, they could even cause irrational itching and swooning.

It's called Lionitis, an uncontrollable inflammation of expectations, with plenty of known causes. Usually, it starts with the rise of a promising quarterback. It's contagious but not dangerous, and normally goes away about four weeks into the regular season. But I have to warn you: It leaves scars.

The Lions are doing it, subtly, slowly. They're raising expectations, although for a franchise that's 2-30 the past two seasons, that's not saying a ton.

But let's be fair. There are signs of something legitimate growing here, from the swift rookie runner, Jahvid Best, to the fully-in-control quarterback Matthew Stafford, to the ready-to-bust-out receiver Calvin Johnson.

Watching Detroit's 25-20 exhibition victory in Denver, I was struck by two things.

First, Best is a much more instinctive runner than I thought, not just a straight-line speed guy. He could be a difference-maker.

And second, the Lions controlled play for a while in the trenches, outgaining the Broncos, 125-31, in the first quarter.

(Now, roll up your sleeve for the inoculation.)

OK, the secondary still looks potentially brutal. And the linebackers have to be much better.

But I won't dismiss pieces of progress simply because the Lions have been so bad. This group, led by general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz, does appear to be finding players. Yes, it's easier to find players when you're drafting first or second, but it's not fool-proof, as evidenced by the efforts of the previous general manager whose name isn't spoken here anymore.

Only exhibitions

I asked Schwartz if we're allowed to think something positive really is unfolding, even if it's early.

"Yeah, you're allowed to -- I see the same things," he said. "But there's a big difference between doing them in a preseason game and in regular-season games. I like the weapons we have and the way we're deploying them."

The newest, flashiest weapon is Best, grabbed by the Lions in the first round after they traded up. His speed and change-of-direction ability can change the direction of the offense. He already has shown stirring glimpses, with 78 yards and a 5.6 average in two exhibitions.

"He's done some things in practice that have literally left guys with their mouths open," receiver Nate Burleson said. "In this league, you've seen the best of the best, so for a guy to come in and make a cut, stop on a dime, get up the field and explode off the ball, and it catches you off guard, that says a lot. The crazy part is, he hasn't really had a chance to get out in the open in a game yet. I think we're even more excited about the possibility of his highlight reel."

The possibilities are a reason Best is starting over Kevin Smith, who's returning from a knee injury. The first-string offense scored on its first four possessions in Denver, although it settled for three field goals. Stafford clearly is more sure of himself, which should make him more accurate (21 for 29, 72.4 percent), which could complete the jump from prodigy to star.

No, you're not crazy

It's not irrational to say the Lions are much improved, that the roster is markedly upgraded, that if everything goes just right, they could scratch out six to eight victories. It's not wrong to watch rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh already drawing double teams and think the Lions could knock down a few quarterbacks.

It's just wrong to think a big leap is automatic. It's also horribly wrong to overanalyze preseason games, which is precisely what I'm doing, of course.

I'll remind everyone the Lions were 4-0 in 2008 exhibitions, which didn't exactly foreshadow their 0-16 record. But this is where it's different. The quarterback then was Jon Kitna, a journeyman who could handle an offense but certainly not star in it. The top threats were receiver Roy Williams and rookie Smith, neither of whom is uniquely talented, as it turns out.

No sense going any farther with that comparison. The point is, the Lions have players that can put a little fright in opposing defenses. Best, who carries a nice mix of confidence and humility, could be fitfully frightful.

"It's a good starting point," Best said. "But I've still got a lot to work on."

Lionitis is easily cured, unfortunately. Once diagnosed, it generally takes 4-6 weeks to clear up. It would be a welcome change if the Lions allowed these inflamed expectations to grow into something larger.

Browns at Lions

Kickoff: 5 p.m. Saturday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: NFL/97.1

Records: Cleveland 1-1, Detroit 1-1

Last season: The teams also played during the exhibition season, with Cleveland rolling to a 27-10 victory at Cleveland Stadium. The loss was the only loss for Detroit during the exhibition schedule.

Exciting finish: The teams also met during the regular season. This time, a hobbled Matthew Stafford (shoulder) led the Lions to a last-second touchdown and a 38-37 victory at Ford Field. The victory was Detroit's second and final one of the season.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had 24 stops behind the line of ... (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
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