Lions safety Louis Delmas rocks out on air guitar as he celebrates a win over the Vikings on Sunday at Ford Field. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit -- Welcome to Day 1 of the most anticipated Lions offseason in a decade.
Matt Millen took over as president in 2001 to jump-start a ho-hum organization, and we all know how that worked out. Now the Lions get another chance to get it right, to continue the uptick created the final month of the season.
The Lions take a four-game winning streak into 2011 following Sunday's 20-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings before 57,013 fans at Ford Field. It is the first time the Lions (6-10) have won four games in a row since 1999. For you historians, Jack Kevorkian was still in the news. Lance Armstrong finally won his first Tour de France, a young woman named Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off in the World Cup, making a statement for sports and women's rights, and Millen was still more than a year away from leaving the television booth for the Lions front office.
A year later, a 53-yard field goal knocked the Lions out of the playoffs and rocked their world. Now they are beaming over a four-game winning streak that left them a whopping four games out of the playoff hunt.
Yet the fan base is excited. The players are excited. And even the old, stodgy people who shape the opinions of the NFL have taken notice. Here is something we can say for the first time since Barry Sanders ran roughshod at the Pontiac Silverdome:
The Lions have a future that doesn't include the words dismal and pathetic.
There has been enough time to crawl out from beneath the rubble created by Millen. The Lions' goal next season should be to play meaningful games next December and make a playoff push. Anything short of that is complete failure.
"That is expected," center Dominic Raiola said. "We should be playing for something next year. We are an up-and-coming team, and I want to go under the radar. I don't know how that is going to happen. People are going to expect big things from us, but we want to walk softly and carry a big stick."
The Lions might carry that big stick, but you can forget them flying under the radar. They are the talk of the town and they will be until the next season begins, whenever that may be. You hear terms around town like Lions Kool-Aid, Lions butter and Lions cornbread -- all gleeful terms to express fans' anticipation for greatness.
The Lions got to work on next season even before Sunday's game began. Starting linebacker Julian Peterson didn't play. He's gone because he no longer fits. Quarterback Drew Stanton is probably history if he can find a backup gig elsewhere.
Lions left tackle Jeff Backus leaned against his dressing stall talking to team president Tom Lewand, telling him how much he wanted the season to continue. Backus has the usual war wounds from an NFL season, but he wants to keep marching on.
"We are on the uphill slope," Backus said. "This team is progressing and we are playing our best football now. It is a shame we must take an eight-month break and pick things up again in August. I really believe we have gotten over the hump, and there are only going to be great things in our future."
Here is the bad news. There is no such thing as momentum between seasons, despite what players say. The front office must continue to work, players must continue to work or the feel-good feeling felt around town will be erased.
The lockout factor
Let's say you do believe in momentum between seasons. Well, here is worse news. Chances are there won't be a 2011 season, or it could be delayed because of a much-anticipated owners' lockout. Wide receiver Nate Burleson flat-out said the season won't begin in September.
So what must the Lions do to bottle some of this glow they feel today?
"The leaders must show up on that first day and set an example of what type of work ethic we are going to have next season," Burleson said. "But also we have to create reminders of what we were and what we can do. If you don't think about it, you won't have those same emotions or that same passion. We played with a certain amount of passion these last four weeks, and it is up to the leadership to remind everybody what it is once the new season comes around."
The Lions made this push without franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, who played in just three games because of a pair of injured shoulders. They made it without prized free-agent pickup Kyle Vanden Bosch. Receiver Calvin Johnson watched from the sideline Sunday, but the Lions kept marching on, and their play has ignited a community once again.
"We wanted to prove to opponents we can still shoot big bullets without big guns," Burleson said.
Now the Lions have positioned themselves for bigger moments. That is why they are the talk of the town even as a football season ends with another losing record.
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